Tuesday 10 August 2010

Derrida et al.

The Derrida debate:

For some obscure and possibly pathological reason this debate recalls to my mind a cliché often found in car adverts:

"It's all the car you'll ever need..."

Is deconstruction "all the [philosophy] you'll ever need"? Can anyone make that claim of any philosophical position or any one thinker? If so that pretty much precludes the claim to be a philosopher. Yet a great many people (and I am not necessarily including anyone in this debate in this generalisation) seem to think that deconstruction is 'all the car you'll ever need' and that we should pretty much just stop looking for anything else. The only legitimate task ahead is to iron out the creases in the theory and get on with 'destroying in slow motion', as Latour likes to say. (For anyone who thinks this is an invalid generalisation I know a notable professor of political theory who has said pretty much exactly this to me in the past; I have no reason to believe that it is an isolated belief -- in fact I expect the contrary.)

It is an odd sort of 'end of history' movement and it cropped up around the same time that Francis Fukuyama revived that tired old Hegelian trope (and for probably very similar reasons). Fukuyama declared the end of history for geopolitics; Derrida, if you believe the hype, declared it for philosophy and literary and social theory alike. Strident rightists and confused leftists have this in common. I think this says a lot.

I have nothing against Derrida, only against Derrideans. He was a first rate philosopher but a limited one. If he can be said to be a great philosopher that greatness surely comes from an unsurpassed and probably unsurpassable attention to detail and a close concentration on a handful of very particular problems. For this he should be celebrated.

He is not, however, all the car I will ever need; nor is his work all that useful for what I am interested in right now. The problem is that his work has achieved such a hegemony that I have to prove that he is not relevant to my work than the other way around. The burden of proof with regard to his ir/relevance is on me, as far as far as past supervisors and many of my peers are concerned. This too says a lot, I think.