Eagleton on Derrida

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Mon Oct 18 2004 - 00:10:26 EDT


Anders, did you see this?
rb

Don't deride Derrida

Academics are wrong to rubbish the philosopher

Terry Eagleton
Friday October 15, 2004
The Guardian

English philistinism continues to flourish, not least when the words
"French philosopher" are uttered. This week in the Guardian our
home-grown intelligentsia gave a set of bemused, bone-headed
responses to the death of Jacques Derrida. Either they hadn't read
him, or they believed his work was to do with words not meaning what
you think they do. Or it was just a pile of garbage.

In line with this judicious assessment, Derrida - one of the most
eminent postwar French thinkers - was turned down for an honorary
degree at Cambridge University. The man was regarded by the stuffed
shirts as a subversive nihilist who believed that words could mean
anything you liked, that truth was a fiction, and that there was
nothing in the world but writing. In their eyes, he was a dangerous
mixture of anarchist, poet and jester.

But the dons who voted him down were the kind of scrupulous academics
who had almost certainly not read his books. They knew he was
radical, enigmatic, French, photogenic and wildly popular with
students. The university had the good sense to reverse its decision
later; but many academics regard him as a man out to destroy
philosophy, thus depriving some of them of a living.

In fact, Derrida rejoiced in the pantheon of philosophy from Plato to
Heidegger. Deconstruction, the philosophical method he promoted,
means not destroying ideas, but pushing them to the point where they
begin to come apart and expose their latent contradictions. It meant
reading against the grain of supposedly self-evident truths, rather
than taking them for granted. English senior common rooms are full of
self-righteous blather about thinkers like Derrida being more
interested in abstract theories than in close reading. In fact, he
read works of art and philosophy with a stunning originality and
intricacy beyond that of most of his critics.

This was never for Derrida a purely academic pursuit. His first great
works appeared in Paris on the eve of the political explosion of May
1968, at a time when he was close to, but critical of, the French
Communist party. Since the party had cravenly supported the French
repression of Algeria, and since Derrida was an Algerian Jewish
colonial, his oblique relations to official Marxism were
understandable.

But he remained a staunch member of the political left. He aimed to
prise open classical leftist ideas such as Marxism to the marginal,
the aberrant; in this sense his project had affinities with the work
of Raymond Williams, EP Thompson, Stuart Hall and the 1970s feminists
in Britain. A vital part of the heritage of May '68 has been
extinguished.

Derrida once remarked that he wanted to "write like a woman". He was
one of a lineage of anti-philosophers, from Kierkegaard to
Wittgenstein, who invented a new style of philosophical writing. He
understood that official thought turns on rigorously exclusive
oppositions: inside/outside, man/woman, good/evil. He loosened up
such paranoid antitheses by the flair and brio of his writing, and in
doing so spoke up for the voiceless, from whose ranks he had emerged.

 Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory at Manchester University


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