Mar 18, 2010

Derrida and ethical force

The first sophisticated critique I read of Derrida and deconstruction was Andrew McKenna's. He argues that Derrida has a "preoccupation with formal structures," and that deconstruction, ultimately, is "flashy sterility." That is to say, it lacks ethical force. Or that the ethical efforts being made are all so focused on language and writing processes -- technicalities! -- that humans are ignored. At first this critique seemed strange to me, this is not how I read Derrida, but now I see it's a pretty common critique. Deconstruction is rejected for being apolitical, ahistorical, and a-ethical, which is to say, entirely technical. It is parasitic and, if not nihilistic, then too passive in the face of real crises. This is the way Cristoph Reinfant explains the need for post colonialism, feminist theory, new historicism, etc., and why he thinks deconstruction finally fails.

The critique of endless impracticality is, interestingly, undercut by another critique, a kind of common one that works more as an insinutation, a sly sleight, than an actually argument. Derrida, it is said, was more popular in America than he was in Europe or his native France. This is, of course, a historical fact, but we're meant to take it as meanning something specific, adding our own extrapolation, specifically that Derrida was only really exciting to those who really weren't good at theory. It was only the Yanks, the practical, hands-on, Yanks, whose only really important national philosophical acheivement was, after all pragmatism, who were dazzled by Derrida (the con man, the sham seller, the abaradabara distraction). Those who know theory, the argument implies, who were more theoretical, weren't taken in.

Leaving aside the debatable cultural claims and forgetting the stupid, archy snobbish anti-Americanism of the above, the contradiction between the two arguments is intesting. Deconstruction, we're told, is too impractical, and also only accepted by people who are too practical to know it's impractical.

There is, too, in both of these claims, arguments within arguments about reception. Where exactly is one supposed to find ethical force? If it's lacking, who brought in that lack? If one really is practically reading an impractical philosophy, isn't that called a correction? And doesn't that show that the text can, in fact, have ethical force, depending on how it's read? That is, if Derrida can be read as ultimately ethical and, indeed, actionable, or he can be read as impractical and basically a matrabatory farce, then isn't it incumbant upon us, isn't the way we read it, actually, going to say more about us than it says about Derrida?