Thursday, October 14, 2004

Open Letter to the New York Times

The following is the text of a letter sent to the obituaries and public editors of that paper, which I continue to correct and expand:

I read the obituary for Jacques Derrida printed in The New York Times ["Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74", October 10, 2004] with deep distress. In it I recognize few of his institutional or formal accomplishments and nothing of his brilliance or what I know from scholarship of a person who was otherwise a stranger to me. Not only is Derrida, the man, no longer among us, but the obituary preserves nothing of his memory beyond the bureaucratic record of a birth, scattered details of teaching appointments and degrees, and a death. I don't therefore hold this article to be in any meaningful sense "his" obituary, even if it bears traces of events in which he was involved.

Many faults are virtual replays of previous defective coverage. These recurrences amount not simply to insufficient research by Jonathan Kandell but are as well symptomatic of failures of the paper's editorial process to identify and record previous and current flawed reporting or provide space within this publication to discuss such erring in, particularly by allowing extended contributions for those outside the paper to engage the particular facts of coverage with conventions of presentation subject to a great deal more negotiation than imposition. Other faults recall that there are a number of academics who, claiming expertise, wish to establish their good name by manipulating the press to sully Derrida's. They mischaracterize his work, most often couching their claims in the name of so many good causes. It would not suffice to name these people, whose behaviour is itself symptomatic, to right the matters at hand, even if it is at times necessary to do so and to insist upon specifying errors of scholarship in scholarly fashion. There are further trifling arguments about Derrida’s style and power as a writer and value as a philosopher that are not attributed to anyone in particular and deserve to be discarded. As Nabokov said: "When someone questions my art, I ignore them. When someone questions my scholarship, I reach for my dictionary." Derrida answered with great patience on these issues on so many occasions while he lived. Reading his work, one finds these charges amply rebutted, so much of what follows is citation of his work demonstrating that pains were taken to answer these questions, including those founded in false accusations. One must, however, expend the energy to read his work to determine for oneself if these answers are compelling.

As for basic journalistic failings, some of the most painful passages reiterate discredited charges about Derrida's relationship with Nazism and anti-Semitism via flawed references to Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man. Among the most grave is that "Mr. Derrida, a Jew, was understood by some people to be condoning Mr. de Man's anti-Semitism". Whose understanding is this? Is it an understanding at all? Insofar as it demonstrates understanding, its parsing is rather calculated neither to attribute this characterization to no party, who might in turn be liable for it. I draw attention to this not simply because I think the claim can easily be shown to be patently false but because no responsibility is taken for it.

Indeed, this charge cannot be substantiated, even if it can be understood. I can recall intemperately and irresponsibly wielding such damning mis-associations and mischaracterizations when first introduced to writings by de Man and Derrida to refuse any engagement with their work, even the barest reading. The difficulties faced in their texts were daunting to say the least, and such claims, based more on mis-contextualization of their work than understanding of its content, gave an excuse to pass off as principal. This was in the first instance, a loss of benefit for me, which also demonstrated a further inability to read and diagnose myself. I should hate to see this allergy, at once damaging to self and other, repeated with even less exertion on the part of the reader and passed along as an advisory not to reader Derrida, de Man, or Heidegger in the first place. Derrida often characterized deconstruction as on the side of a justice which itself resisted deconstruction absolutely, observing that any decision worthy of the name was impossible, in that was in excess of the order of calculation even as it demanded passage such calculation to this decision, in that it could not be accounted for in advance and could not be said to satisfy utterly one's responsibilities in its face, retrospectively or prospectively. The resultant concepts of responsibility, futurity, event, and so many others, however affirmative, can also seem terrifying, vertiginous. The implicit definition of deconstruction quoted in the article (that it "begins in the experience of the impossible") should be understood in this sense.

I read so many of his most disparaging critics, so many of whom have sought their vindication in the press, as those who believe that they can turn away from this model of responsibility, starting with the responsibility to read him, denouncing him in the name of "ethics", "humanity", "antifascism", "the Enlightenment", "Western civilization", and the like to their credit. Some distil this into saying that he is difficult. Some who don't set out to disparage him claim that he is at bottom simply in favour of this or that good cause, conventionally understood. I don't believe all the motives of those who have spoken dire ill of him in the press are reducible just to this, but whether intended malice or not, I believe any criticism which seeks to dismiss or belittle his work partakes of this strategy, whose inevitable result is not to understand his work.

Derrida answered thus to objections of difficulty: "These things are difficult, I admit; their formulation can be disconcerting, But would there be so many problems and misunderstandings without this complexity and without these paradoxes? One shouldn't complicate things for the pleasure of complicating, but one should also never simplify or pretend to be sure of such simplicity when there is none. If things were simple, word would have gotten round, as you say in English. There you have one of my mottos, one quite appropriate for what I take to be the spirit of "enlightenment" granted our time. Those who wish to simplify at all costs and who raise a hue and cry about obscurity because they do not recognize the obscurity of their good old Aufklaerung are in my eyes dangerous dogmatists and tedious obscurantists. No less dangerous (for instance, in politics) as those who wish to purify at all costs." ("Afterword: Toward an Ethic of Discussion", in Limited, Inc., p 119) As for ill words spoke of him with great authority, this paper has given place to such exercises on more than a few occasion, even as it has the means to hold them to account and come to a new understanding of what news might be. It would be unfair to denounce this paper as incapable of that (for there are stories, like that by Mitchell Stevens, which are signs of progress), for one is never absolved of the burden of understanding.

The obituary erroneously calls de Man's writing for Le Soir "pro-Nazi" (that for Het Vlaamsche Land of the same period is not referenced at all, even as it is also a cause for concern). This continues a record of mischaracterizing and mis-contextualizing these writings: Derrida quoted the reclaimed Le Soir characterizing previous New York Times coverage of de Man's wartime journalism as "far from a model of journalistic rigor" in misreporting the status of that paper during the German occupation, even as he offered further explicit corrections and criticism which moreover are also valid for the obituary generally ["Like the Sound of the Sea Deep Within a Shell", in Responses: On Paul de Man's Wartime Journalism, p. 158]. As for his characterization of de Man: the selection of material provided to Derrida on which he commented included what he judged to be no pro-Nazi material and one further judged as anti-Semitic. There were nothing like excuses made for this anti-Semitism, even as he refused to partake of any characterizations that would reiterate its errors: "Through the indelible wound, one must still analyze and seek to understand. Any concession would betray, beside a complacent indulgence and lack of rigor, an infinitely culpable thoughtlessness with regard to past, present, or future victims of discourses that at least resembled this one." [ibid, p. 146] Derrida went on to say that he found no indication of fascist or anti-Semite tendency in the man that he knew since 1966, that that man nevertheless bore a responsibility and agony from it, that traces of this agony can and must be read in de Man's later work, that de Man did try to keep it secret (he never told Derrida of it), and that nothing of this took away from his "friendship and admiration for Paul de Man". He did not, however, consider the matter closed and walk away. Derrida insisted on a continuing need to read de Man, to understand him anew in light of this history, and did so himself.

Just as confounding as the distortions of de Man's journalism is the criticism attributed to Mark Lilla implying that Derrida ought to have apologized on de Man's behalf: "deconstruction means you never have to say you're sorry", a comment (the citation of Louis Menand offered with Lilla's remark provides neither support nor the "full account" Lilla attributes to it) which can be rejected on its face: what responsibility did Derrida bear that would require him to apologize for a friend's writings decades before they met, which itself admits of no ready conjunction with later work of a sort that might in turn implicate Derrida after the fact? (Derrida did, however, express his wounded feelings and his disappointment, perhaps one sense of "saying you're sorry".) As far as such things go, let us turn to a source of regret that might yet be mended: more than a decade and a half after this paper raised a flawed hue and cry over Paul de Man's journalism, this paper hasn't understood the stakes or laid out the facts. Let's be precise, then, in specifying this then as a failure to autocritique what was in the first instance journalism, however literary or scholarly, displaced onto indictments of several distinct bodies of scholarship and the lives of academics responsible for them. One staggering result is that journalists don't appear to be aware that replies were made.

If understanding is to be achieved one cannot engage in damning and derogatory gestures with less precision (and I do deplore that this has happened). On first reading this obituary, which was unfortunately the way I learned of Derrida's death, I recognized immediately that this article allowed me to defer grieving him, sublimating grief into righteous indignation and anger. I recognize this in some of the letters I have read. Just as those of us who admired him and his work need time to grieve, so the Times needs to make the time to understand a series of events in which it has participated of no small consequence for its understanding of itself. Errors in reporting past and present need to be identified corrections issue no matter how much space this might occupy or time it might require.

As to the “expertise” provided and authority exercised by various academics, neither the existence of this phenomenon nor its deployment in the obituary is exculpatory of some of the obituary's journalism, even if it mitigates it. Derrida remarked: "In spite of its discouraging effect, I have begun to get used to journalistic presentations of deconstruction and to the even more discouraging fact that the responsibility for them belongs most often not with professional journalists, but with professors whose training ought to require at least some attempt at reading. This time, finding as always its foothold in aggressivity, simplism has produced the most unbelievably stupid statements. Some might smile with disabused indulgence at the highly transparent gesticulations of those who leap at the chance the exploit without delay an opportunity they think is propitious; at last, still without reading the texts, to take some cheap revenge on a 'theory' that is all the more threatening to institutions and individuals because, visibly, they do not understand anything about it." [ibid, p. 114]

There is coverage from this paper cited from this paper to support hostile characterizations that is not overtly aggressive towards Derrida's work or person, even if there were clearly elements in these articles that leave them open to the charge that they took insufficient precaution against such appropriation. It is, however, Kandell, who has signed his name to this article and it is Kandell who offers negative remarks on Derrida's work without recourse to others' authority or even contrary to his cited sources (for surely one benefit of Mark Lilla's article would be the observation that the Farías book was "superficial" and "contained no revelations"; surely Mitchell Stevens remarks that people have wished the death of deconstruction even as deconstruction survives), making characterizations of his work based on titles of books and a philistine reading of a single sentence (this certainly deserves to be called plainly stupid, stupid in an obvious and uninteresting way), and annexing his work to a film by Woody Allen, whose use of the term deconstruction Derrida has explicitly rejected, even as he has expressed his general admiration of Allen's work. The article from which Kandell draws Derrida's reluctance to define deconstruction quotes Derrida calling Allen's use of the word "vulgarization". Whatever the weaknesses of the materials Kandell draws upon, one finds Kandell stepping beyond what his cited references reasonably allow in making his strongest and most prejudicial claims.

So it is as well with the characterization offered of Derrida's patrimony from Heidegger, which is also patently false and defamatory, particularly in the claim that Derrida failed to condemn Heidegger’s “fascist ideas”. Derrida offered book-length critiques of Heidegger's allegiances and objections to Nazism in Of Spirit and Psyché, Inventions de l'Autre, but his critique of Heidegger dates from his earliest publications and works through these elements of Heidegger's thought. Derrida was explicit in an interview with the press: "Is there anything here to cause a scandal? No, except in the places where too little interest is taken in other, more rigorous and more difficult work. I am thinking of the work of those who, especially in France, know the majority of these 'facts' and these 'texts', who condemn unequivocally both Heidegger's Nazism and his silence after the war, but who are also seeking to think beyond conventional and customary schemas, and precisely to understand. Understand what? Well, that which ensures or does not ensure an immediate passage ... between the Nazi engagement, in whatever form, and what is most essential, acute, and sometimes most difficult in a work that continues and will continue to give cause for thinking." ["Heidegger, the Philosophers' Hell", in Points..., p. 182] While Derrida names Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe in particular, as well as Maurice Blanchot, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Emanuel Levinas, this description also goes just as well for his work on Heidegger. Let us note further the connection drawn between this scandal and its audience. While this may seem a cheap shot at the press, it need not be so. There remains a need for a journalism, however marginal, to report on news that moves at a different pace, whose subject matter is not accessible to so many accepted conventions of the profession, who would be able to discern some other than a scandal in carrying a story on deconstruction and Heidegger. Such a thing would truly make news!

One further set of factual defects must be noted. Kandell's reference to the letter written in opposition to Cambridge's award of an honorary degree fails to note that that non-placet campaign failed in scholarly fundamentals, citing in quotation marks the phrase "logical phallusies" and imputing it to Derrida, who challenged this as found nowhere in his work and further characterized the campaign as "dogmatic, uncomprehending, ignorant, with no evidence of having read me, in every sentence a misreading or an untruth" ["Honoris Causae: 'This is also extremely funny'", Points..., p. 401]. How else than as hopelessly and blindly hypocritical can one read the letter to the Times (London) which claimed that: "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, May 9, 1992), for what is standard of clarity and rigour set by such a facile claim? (And speaking of previous flawed Times coverage: Dinitia Smith's article incorrectly states that that letter had signatories from Cambridge, as Derrida elsewhere noted.)

So many of these controversies and a few more, all of which were controversies in the press, are referenced in a series of commentaries in response to coverage with which one must count this obituary. As well as the piece just referenced and the essay on de Man, see: "The Work of Intellectuals and the Press: (The Bad Example: How the New York Review of Books and Company Do Business)" in Points.... I should note that, when I first began reading Derrida more than ten years ago, all of the aforementioned texts were available to me in English, and I was able to find them with trivial research skills as I read them with so many of the press articles (not just the Times) in my efforts to come to terms with charges I had carelessly bandied about. There is no possible excuse for a professional journalist to fail to review these materials, particularly given how long they've been in circulation, nor is there a reasonable justification for filtering the materials that have been referenced for their most negative content, if one has any wish to understand Derrida's work rather. Having made some progress in reading him with his subject, one might like to begin (rather than conclude) in judging that Kandell's account of Derrida shares the quality Derrida ascribed the de Man and Heidegger "controversies" in his Times interview with Dinitia Smith: "vicious," even as it is part of a series of such accounts that need to be approached as the larger phenomenon which Derrida recognized.

Just as I hope that this paper might have the benefits of these reflections, I might yet hope to see reference made to accomplishments which previously received press coverage; his advocacy for French educational reform through GREPH (French acronym for the Group for Research into Philosophical Teaching) and activism against the so-called "Haby reform", efforts in the convocations of the Estates General of Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, his foundation and service as first president of the International College of Philosophy (a position to which his peers unanimously elected him), or receipt of the 1964 Prix Jean-Cavaillès, the 1988 Nietzsche Prize, the 2001 Adorno-Preis, or so many other honorary degrees. As for the accomplishments called into question with the statement that he “could be an indifferent student”, a few further observations should be made. The baccalaureate and the entrance exams for ENS and the oral examination for the agrégation de philosophie (which I assume Kandell is talking about when he makes reference to Derrida failing a final oral exam at ENS) have very high failure rates. It can't be said that Jean-Paul Satre was a brilliant philosopher because he finished at the top of his class at ENS or that Foucault was a great thinker because he obtained his agrégé on first attempt (but failed his first attempts at ENS entrance or got an average result on his philosophy baccalaureate), any more than one can say that it detracts from Einstein's accomplishment that he spent years of his life as a patent clerk.

Need one go on to point out that the phrase "Oh my friends, there is no friend...", quoted as an "enigmatic pronouncement" by Derrida, was in fact a citation from Aristotle? With so little attention paid to the details presented in support of broad characterizations, what merit might one then expect of characterizations for no which no support is offered? And having just spoken of Aristotle, one should observe that so little of what Kandell reports in this article stands up to scrutiny that one might pare its truth down to resemble Heidegger's biography of that philosopher: Derrida was born, he philosophized, and he died. This certainly would be less prejudicial to Derrida's memory and more consistent with his sensibilities and work than what has been published.

Speaking of prejudice, sensibility, and consistency, let us then remark on a remarkable contradiction. Now that Derrida is, sadly, a "dead white male", Kandell's accounts of Derrida and deconstruction accords with his citation of Malcom Bradbury as writing by "entirely the wrong people for entirely the wrong reasons" in a resounding irony. So it is with Kandell: he has not read Derrida or his critics, he has not read his research, and he has not read his own article. No words of faint praise can be offered in mitigation of this. This obituary should at least on this basis just provided be retracted and public apology offered. Journalism, however, would hardly be satisfied with such a minimal account. On that basis, a new obituary should be commissioned, for a great deal remains at stake for journalism here.

So many who have wished to defend Derrida's name have called him "one of the greatest thinkers of our times" or "one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century". In assessing such descriptions of Heidegger amidst fierce criticism of Derrida's work, his late friend Jean-François Lyotard found the latter qualifications of period ungenerous applied to Heidegger's thinking: Heidegger's ought to be counted with the greatest. I would insist that the same applies to Derrida. Much as Lyotard argued that the greatness of Heidegger's thought was not incompatible with his membership in the Nazi party, so let not these words of praise be used to guard Derrida's thought against salient criticism. Derrida's willingness to inherit from Heidegger's thought and that of so many others required an unprecedented vigilance in accumulating what he never denied was an incalculable debt to the thinking, the literature, the languages, and the cultures of the West. His contribution was to make that tradition ever more available to the understanding not just in its greatest insights but its most appalling errors; one ought not be surprised that there is nothing simple about his work. Even as he argued that philosophy is learning to die (for it certainly does not simply tell us how to live), he did not believe philosophy dead or facing demise any more imminent than has been the case at least since Socrates received his last sentence. For that matter, Derrida insisted that philosophy would not allow itself to be confined to a Western tradition of "dead white men" or European languages and cultures in which it originated, that its ambition was greater than its roots, was in fact one of deracination, and its power sufficient to grow beyond its cradle.

The last century challenged philosophy mightily, and Derrida devoted his life to sustaining and furthering it. It was not a profession from which he retired or retreated; he died a philosopher. He would not allow himself to be so memorialized with any further suggestion that great thinking should pass with him. Let us then mourn the passing of the man, even as we commit ourselves to the survival of his memory and the uncounted works he signed.

Bayard G. Bell


Commodore Luke Perry said...

This is a marvelous piece in memory of a truly important philosopher. Thanks.

Ignatius Polyester said...

I have never read anything by Derrida. I cannot comment on him or his writings.

But wading thru the incredibly convoluted and torturous prose of this letter has made me realize that, if you are one of his defendants, he can only make less sense than you do.

Buffer G. Overflow said...

Ignatius forgot to say that he found my writing turgid. One is quick to note the utter indefensibility of the claim that Derrida "can only make less sense" than I (wonderful symmetry between that and the "cannot comment"), evidence that brevity itself is no measure of either intellectual validity or rhetorical power, except perhaps to show how short the path to fatal contradiction can run.

Immanuel Can't said...


Stan Collins said...

Thanks for the reminder! I find your writing turgid.

locoloca said...

Great posts about Open Letter to the New York Times. Your blog is full of interesting thoughts. Keep up the good work, Buffer G. Overflow.

new york city board of education