Saturday, October 23, 2004

Open Letter to the Economist

The Economist obituary on Jacques Derrida is a case study in mediocre and sloppy journalism. Front to back, the article misstates basic facts about his life and then proceeds to gross mischaracterization of a defamatory and grossly prejudicial nature. The article gives no evidence of reading Derrida's work, relying heavily on hostile second- and third-hand journalistic accounts. These accounts should be read, but one cannot rely on these to provide an adequate critcism, let alone a sufficient account of a major scholar's work. This obituary's attempts at an authoritative account is predicated on this assumption and in the process gives itself over to so many faults it attributes to Derrida to the point of its own fatality. Such a death was not Derrida's. I thought the New York Times printed a hatchet job of a story, whose failings I have noted (see, but the Economist surely has waited a great deal longer to publish an obituary that is of an even lower calibre, which is subject to virtually every challenge made to the New York Times coverage and a few more yet for heaping indefensible abuse at every opportunity while referencing even less research into what he wrote.

Where to start? Paul de Man did not write for Le Soir from 1938-1940 but from 1940-1942 (this was since corrected in response to this letter). The quotation from the letter to the Sunday Times given as a "famous example" of Derrida's writing ("logical phallusies") is apocryphal at best and may in fact be a fabrication -- what a humourous parody of postmodernism! What kind of "open-minded readers" are we talking about who are making their judgments on his work based on the assertions of an editorial letter which Derrida could reasonably characterize as: "dogmatic, uncomprehending, ignorant, with no evidence of having read me, in every sentence a misreading or an untruth"? The Times of London obituary assents to this assessment, noting, "These two incidents highlighted the unfortunate tendency among some to criticise Derrida, without ever having read his works. This is ironic inasmuch as all of Derrida’s life and work, regardless of subject, has been devoted to careful, diligent, patient acts of reading." ("Jacques Derrida", Times, October 11, 2004) This reader concludes that the Economist completely neglected its research after being taken in by the absurd and arrogant assertion of authority made in the letter to that paper: "In the eyes of philosophers, and certainly among those working in leading departments of philosophy throughout the world, M. Derrida's work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour." (Barry Smith, et al, "Letter to the Editor", Sunday Times, May 9, 1992) What criteria would be necessary to justify such claims, particularly on the back of such sloppy scholarship as the inclusion of an uncite-able, uncited quote? Whatever the professional abilities of the signatories, what is most clear to this reader is that they did not understand Derrida's work but refused to leave it at that.

There is absolutely no justification in characterizing Derrida as trying to "exonerate" de Man or Heidegger from the former's wartime journalism or the latter's affiliation with the Nazi party. His insistence, rather, was that one could not reasonably judge the entirety of the work of either based on these facts taken alone. Heidegger's Nazi past was not suddenly revealed by the 1987 Farías book any more than it was hidden before -- the New York Review of Books article by Mark Lilla containing the misplaced remark about apologies which the Economist insisted on reprinting says as much (my comments on this are in my previously referenced blog on the Kandall obit printed by the New York Times), and one can cite much earlier writings indicating that Heidegger's silence on the Shoah was previously reproached in Derrida's critique of Heidegger (e.g. "Restitutions of the Truth in Pointing", from The Truth in Painting). If one wishes to contrast the "undisciplined nihilism" of his imitators from a nihilism that would be proper to Derrida, whose deconstructive labours might "easily" be shown to have "somehow succeeded in undermining, or even in refuting, the notion of objective truth", one sets out a path of intellectual contortion and vicious distortion. The first expense is the coherence of the obiturary: I should like to know how it is possible to accomplish such things through work that is described in the same article as having neither arguments or views. There were reasons that Derrida was most readily accepted in literature departments, having as much to do with his traditionalism as his radicalism, just as there were reasons that Derrida would neither simply accept Marxism, feminism, or postcolonialism as the axiomatics for they've been so often taken nor renounce these causes for lack of sympathy or fail to address them in a respectful and sympathetic manner he thought most proper to deconstruction.

Derrida in no way conceded to any derogation of his work, let alone have "admitted" what you have imputed to him. His responses on these matters are direct and have been available in English translation for more than a decade. One must cite at least: "Afterword: Toward an Ethic of Discussion" in Limited, Inc., "Honoris Causaue: This is also Extremely Funny", "The Work of Intellectuals in the Press: (The Bad Example: How the New York Review of Books and Company Do Business)", and "Heidegger, the Philosophers' Hell" in Points..., "Like the Sound of the Sea Deep Within a Shell" in Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism (Thomas Keenan, et al, eds.), or Of Spirit. I see absolutely no indication that the author of the article made any effort to read this selection of pieces which address virtually every false charge which has been stupidly repeated in the press or otherwise to familiarize himself with Derrida’s work. Judging from the combination of weak research and dogmatic evident in the obituary, one has to wonder if the remark that "a critique of his work is impossible" is true with an unrecognized irony in the case of this paper.

Thus far the Economist has been willing to make some trivial revisions to the story as they are made aware that they have basic facts wrong. If on further reflection the Economist does not wish to retract their characterization of Derrida's work, I think the publication of an alternate obituary written by someone with some familiarity with Derrida's work is in order so that its readers might yet be informed or even given reason to believe that there is something to be gained in reading his work, however difficult that is.

"A severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress" finds the Economist rather in the obstructionist side of this story at this moment. God help the Economist turn this around yet.

Bayard Bell

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