There’s an irony in all this – or maybe it’s two or three ironies. Steven Poole said yesterday in a comment on his post at Unspeak:

In exciting news, the cudgels of anti-anti-anti-intellectualism or whatever have been taken up by Ophelia Benson, scourge of what she is pleased to call “fashionable nonsense”, who takes me, mystifyingly, to be saying It is forbidden to criticize Zizek. Oh well. I suppose she was not sufficiently delighted with my review of her recent book.

Mystifyingly? But what else can ‘the opinion journalist Johann Hari does not suffer from such uncertainty, and has taken it upon himself to denounce Slavoj Zizek in an article for the New Statesman’ mean? If it doesn’t mean that, what is the point of such tendentious language? (From someone who has written a book about, I take it, tendentious language! There’s one of the ironies.) But that’s not the main irony; the main irony is related to the last sentence. Disregard the resort (as with Johann Hari) to an unwarranted and of course ill-mannered speculation about motivation, in order to consider the substance. In fact I quite liked his review of Why Truth Matters, and I was ‘sufficiently delighted’ with it. (And I didn’t need a fanciful motivation for commenting on his substance-free invective-heavy post on Hari’s article; I simply thought it was bad, and bad in an interesting and noteworthy way; that’s motivation enough.) It wasn’t entirely accurate though. It wasn’t so inaccurate that I decided to wait almost a year and then comment on a blog post of his by way of revenge, but it did contain an inaccuracy. It’s this:

Sadly, the authors also follow a modern tradition of lumping Jacques Derrida in with a bunch of his inferiors and slapping him around too, without showing persuasively that they have actually read much of the man’s work.

The inaccurate part is that we didn’t slap Derrida around, we slapped around some of his fans, which is a different thing. And where the irony comes in is that what we slapped his fans around for is for doing exactly what Poole did in this post: treating criticism of the hero as in some way illegitimate, and doing it not by offering evidence that the hero is better than the critic thinks, but by dragging in irrelevancies. In fact one irony here is that he ought to be right: that ought to be why I wrote the comment on his post yesterday, because it does tie up neatly with the mistake he made in his review of WTM: he was wrong about what we said, and he had made the same kind of mistake we were criticizing, himself. Very very neat. But in fact that’s not why. I remembered he’d written a review, and that it was favourable in parts, but I didn’t remember the details. If anything I felt more benevolent than not, because the review was more good than not. But that’s not the point: the point is that he apparently missed the point of what we said about Derrida’s fans, and that that makes sense because he argues the same way himself. Interesting.

If you’re curious about which fans of Derrida we slapped around, you can revisit this – it’s Judith Butler’s letter to the New York Times protesting against ‘Jonathan Kandell’s vitriolic and disparaging obituary’ of him. I’ve commented on it before here, but it was years ago – before we wrote WTM. Oh look – she cites ‘reactionary anti-intellectualism’ too. There’s even more irony than I thought. Well there you go: criticism of Derrida and Zizek is impermissible and ‘reactionary anti-intellectualism.’ Why? Well, according to Butler at any rate, it has to do with fame. Derrida is too damn famous to be criticized by some mere reporter (cf. Poole’s scornful repetition of ‘the opinion journalist Johann Hari’).

If Derrida’s contributions to philosophy, literary criticism, the theory of painting, communications, ethics, and politics made him into the most internationally renowned European intellectual during these times, it is because of the precision of his thought, the way his thinking always took a brilliant and unanticipated turn, and because of the constant effort to reflect on moral and political responsibility.

Uh huh. And if his contributions didn’t make him into the most internationally renowned European intellectual during these times, what is that because of? Who knows. But the inconsequentiality of the argument and the air of high dudgeon in the whole letter are, shall we say, not unfamiliar. That’s the irony.

12 Responses to “Ironies”