February 20, 2004

I saw the "sign"...

The long and the short of it is this: Jacques Derrida has fallen on hard times. The right ridicules him, the sensible left eyes him with unease, and the rest file him firmly under "jibber-jabber." The fault lies partly with Jacques himself: it was he and not any bitter conspirator who put forth the embarrassing Philosophy in the Time of Terror (“Something terrible took place on September 11th, and in the end we don’t know what”), or this inexcusable joke. But setting those—this is charity—gaffes aside, what has the man done to merit such abuse?

The answer is context. The man deserves context, and he receives very little. By themselves, passages from Derrida look and sound pretty stupid:

Following a strange figure of discourse, one first must ask whether the word or signifier "communication" communicates a determined content, an identifiable meaning, a describable value. But in order to articulate and to propose this question, I already had to anticipate the meaning of the word communication: I have had to predetermine communication as the vehicle, transport, or site of passage of a meaning, and of a meaning that is one.
Worse, summaries of his work sound even more dreadful. When I say, “Derrida believes that the meaning of all utterances is undecidable,” what else can you do but roll your eyes? This has nothing to do with paucity of paraphrase: the quote above is accurate enough. The plain fact is that Derrida’s ‘main point’ is dull, dull, dull.

But that’s also not entirely fair. Philosophers aren’t always meant to stand alone; nor can they always be expected to offer insta-brilliance in short, isolated passages. Some certainly do: Lucretius, Herzen, Nietzsche. But what about the rest? The importance of Schiller, for instance, has nothing to do with what he wrote in itself, but in how his work fit into a larger framework of Romantic thought and writing. Open any random volume of Schiller, and you are apt to turn bitter at the sheer, sheer imbecility of it all. But study him through the eyes of Coleridge, and you begin to see how everything fits together, how thoughts here nudge thoughts there, how inspiration leads to inspiration, and so on.

So it is, I’m beginning to realize, with Derrida. His big doff idea—that a structure and system of signs cannot ever be fully self-enclosed—begins to look a little more reasonable when we see what might be done with it. Here is media critic David Morley, whose writing is reprehensible, but instructive all the same:

[The TV message] is a complex sign, in which a preferred reading has been inscribed, but which retains the potential, if decoded in a manner different from the way in which it has been encoded, of communicating a different meaning.
Er… he means that sometimes we can hack through media bullshit and whatnot. It’s obvious, yes, and yet I wonder if media criticism would have become at once so sophisticated and so obvious had it not been for gallantly verbose critics like Morley. And in turn, Morley might not have been Morley had there not been Derrida, telling us to poke through the 'coding' of signs, giving us muddy and recondite means to achieve what is now obvious.

(Granted, that’s just one example; but I’ll assume for now that others exist.)

That said, there is no real excuse for Derrida to be so, er, Derridean in his writing. The difficulty, the goofiness, the ‘mua-ha-ha’ behind each phrase seems to serve only one purpose: brainwashing. When an undergrad takes the time to struggle through Derrida’s writing, he/she needs of course to justify all that tiresome labor, and so declares the work brilliant. I should know: I was once so suckered, spending weeks ecstatic over 'the master.' But eh...

Many are the joys
Of youth; but oh! what happiness to live
When every hour brings palpable access
To knowledge, when all knowledge is delight,
And sorrow is not there.

-- Brad Plumer 5:57 PM || ||