How Dare They

Let’s take a look at a letter from Judith Butler to the New York Times on that UC Irvine site to apotheosise Derrida. The letter is quite short, but full of matter. Dense with significance. Significance oozes out of every word.

Jonathan Kandell’s vitriolic and disparaging obituary of Jacques Derrida takes the occasion of this accomplished philosopher’s death to re-wage a culture war that has surely passed its time.

A culture war. That’s significant. That implies that the only reason to say anything critical about Derrida or his reputation and standing, is that one is a cultural warrior, i.e. a right-winger. That doesn’t happen to be true; it’s not even close to true; saying it is merely a rhetorical way of grabbing some kind of moral high ground and of pretending that any criticism of Derrida is necessarily political rather than intellectual. Off to a good start, right in the first sentence.

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.

The ‘most internationally renowned European intellectual during these times’? One, no he wasn’t, and two, what does that even mean anyway? What the hell does ‘renowned’ mean? And why on earth are literary ‘theorists’ always so eager to boast about how famous they are? Why are they so obsessed with celebrity and putative ‘superstars’? Why do they try to impress and cow their critics with ridiculous announcements of their notoriety? Okay, and apart from that – precision of thought is not considered to be Derrida’s strong suit, and even if it were – would that have made him ‘renowned’? Does it make everyone who can do it renowned? Butler sounds as if she thinks Derrida was the only precise thinker around (or perhaps merely in Europe). She really ought to read a little more widely. And that goes triple for the last phrase. Why would a constant effort to reflect on moral and political responsibility make anyone renowned? Lots of people do that. They don’t get renowned as a result. Butler seems to be claiming that Derrida and his acolytes (like her, for instance) have some kind of monopoly on precision of thought and reflection on morals and politics. That’s just a little presumptuous, I think.

Why would the NY Times want to join ranks with American reactionary anti-intellectualism precisely at a time when critical thinking is most urgently required?

And there it is again. Same thing. Criticism of or disagreement with Derrida equals anti-intellectualism, despite the many many intellectuals who in fact disagree with and criticise his work. And Derrida equals critical thinking, so criticism and disagreement with him is some sort of harm to critical thinking. It’s the airless, parochial, blind arrogance of that kind of thing that amazes. The way literary ‘theorists’ seriously think they and their heroes were the first to raise questions that people have been raising ever since Socrates. The way they try to monopolize and the way they try to claim credit for everything. And the outrageous way they try to rule criticism and disagreement out of court. The way they try to declare it not just wrong or inaccurate but illegitimate, blasphemous, lèse majesté. But hey, Butler is a ‘superstar,’ so I really have no business criticising her.

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