The logic of this performance of outsiderness

Justin E. H. Smith on the higher bullshit:

Derrida means nothing without his Parisian institutional setting, but once that setting comes into focus, he continues to mean nothing, though now in a different way: he means nothing, individually, because the tricks he was encouraged to perform that so dazzled the crowds at Johns Hopkins and Irvine were taught to many others just like him, who would all of course insist on their own uniqueness, would claim they were always outsiders to the true French intellectual elite, but only because you cannot enter the tightest nucleus of this elite if you do not claim to be an outsider to it, all the while, all of them, yielding up only minor variations on the same recipes.

The logic of this performance of outsiderness is the same as in many genres of popular music, where the whole delicate game is to appear to maintain your street cred as a bad boy who disdains the major record labels and the award shows, all the while clamouring for such distinctions.

I like that because it describes so much of what passes for lefty politics right now, especially the union of ferocious policing and punishment with proud displays of awesome rad woke specialness.

Better for some, then, to go far away, where the rules of the game are not so transparent, where you’ve got no Bourdieu hounding you and exposing your every move as really nothing more than the species-specific behaviour of Homo academicus francogallicus. Like top chefs who travel far to ply their trade, Derrida found that the crowds at his distant destinations could not make any distinction between what was inspired in his words, and what was inherited, what was the product of a singular mind, and what the generic template of an earlier acculturation. The most conventional dishes will get French chefs raving reviews if they go and open a restaurant, perhaps calling it ‘Ooh-La-La’, in a strip mall in Orange County (an example drawn from my true memory of a suburban California childhood). That is the whole secret of Derrida’s decades-long mystification of the Anglophone world.

It helps a lot that Americans are so far away and so very provincial. It apparently never occurred to the smitten-by-Derrida even to ask how his colleagues saw him, let alone to suspect that he was nowhere near as groundbreaking as his Anglophone reputation made him seem.

It is, moreover, nothing short of the highest species of farce that the likes of Ronell were permitted for so long to use university offices as their deconstructionist romper rooms, to develop their tiny cults of personality and have their imagined French romances, only because administrators, unable to understand what the lit professors were talking about, assumed that it was just very difficult and profound philosophy, and saw that whatever it was all about was economically useful for the cultivation of institutional prestige.

While it lasted.

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