Derrida’s Obituary, or, Is Literary Theory Too Abstruse?

(x-posted to The Valve)

REPORTER: How do you answer the charge that you’re a fascist?
REPORTER: Your band, Joy Division, named after a group of women recruited by the SS for the purpose of breeding perfect Aryans. Isn’t
that sick.
WILSON: Have you never heard of situationism, or postmodernism? Do you know nothing about the free play of signs and signifiers?

-24 Hour Party People

One time after class I actually went up to the TA and asked him what postmodernism was. “Nobody really knows the answer to that,” he said. I think he’s teaching at Princeton now.
A friend, to me, five days ago

Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Philosopher, Dies at 74
-The New York Times, 10/10/2004

When I was in my second year of graduate studies at Irvine, Jacques Derrida died. The New York Times chose to summarize him as an “abstruse” philosopher, prompting many people at UCI and elsewhere to sign a petition of protest. Given Derrida’s immense philosophical legacy, as well as his devoted efforts as our teacher and colleague at Irvine, it seemed offensively callous to sum him up in such a dismissive way.

I did not sign the petition. I thought it a fair assessment, though one that sits poorly on the day after a man’s death. The Times could have used many other words — radical, groundbreaking, influential — that would have been kinder and just as apt. Yet as long as Derrida continues to be read, he will continue to be a puzzling and frustrating read, albeit a dazzling and seductive one for certain types of readers. That quality in his work leads us to a question that never seems far from the surface in discussions of literary theory and criticism: what are we to make of the last fifty years in criticism? Can it be summed up? Can it be comprehended fully? Must we refrain from “calling out” Derrida on the thicket of his prose?

In the comments following my post on Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, Valve contributor Rohan Maitzen asked the following:

There’s a lot of lit-blogging (and reviewing, and publishing) that goes on that disregards or is even openly disdainful of the conventions, contributions, or (dare I say) rigor of academic literary scholarship and criticism. But refuting (or complicating, or qualifying) literary judgments or interpretations is (or is it?) a different kind of game than ‘refuting specific factual inaccuracies’–though factual inaccuracies may sometimes be involved. Maybe these discussions, because they don’t have the same public stakes (not to mention audience) as “political scholarship” like Goldberg’s, should just be left alone–but then, do we professional lit-crit types not think there are better and worse (more or less responsible and legitimate) ways to do our kind of thing as well? Do we have any responsibility to get in the game, then?

Bill Benzon, also of the Valve, responded:

That’s a very good set of questions, Rohan. Has there been any attempt to present the results of academic literary criticism and scholarship to the general public? Sure, Harold Bloom has written about Shakespeare and about the Western canon, but he wasn’t presenting a popular synthesis of scholarship; he was presenting Bloom on those topics. Marjorie Garber has published a big fat book on Shakespeare that’s pretty general in nature, but based on a wide range of scholarship. But that’s one author, albeit, a central one.

Just around the corner from here I have a post presenting J. Hillis Miller’s reflections on how the profession has changed in 50 years. Has anyone attempted to lay out what we’ve learned about literature in the past 50 years? For surely we have learned a lot. And it would take more than one or three books and a dozen magazine articles to set that before the public. And, of course, there’s considerable contention within the profession about what we’ve learned. But that’s OK.

The discussion continued apace for a while; in response to a later comment by Bill, I wrote:

The problem here is language about language (e.g. literature). If somebody dumbs down Heisenberg and quantum mechanics enough for me, sure, I can see that the observer cannot be separated from the observed, and I can worry over the death of Schrodinger’s cat. But what I can’t do is important work in the field of quantum mechanics. Whereas that seems to be exactly the desire with synopses of literary criticism and theory: to reduce things down to inarguable truisms or clichés, and then to believe that’s actually preparation for reading in depth.

Bill answered: “If this is so, then reading ‘in depth’ has no value to anyone but the critics who do it. Might as well be Stanley Fish. BTW, language about language is built-in to language; Jakobson called it the metalingual function. Literary critics didn’t invent it in the 1960s.” As the discussion continued, tomemos wrote in to suggest that a primer on literary studies

would amplify our cultural misunderstanding of what the humanities are supposed to produce: when are we going to roll up our sleeves and get something done?  Bill talks about a book that would “present the results of academic literary criticism,” but obviously literary criticism does not have “results” in the scientific sense, and so a book that pretended that it does would not just be dumbing down the ideas of the field; it would be a complete distortion of the field itself.

Tomemos raises important questions. What is the nature of the field of literary criticism, given that it does not make “progress” in the same way the sciences do? Why do we consider summaries or popularizing explanations of theory and criticism to be inherently distortive?  Why is there so much demand for less technical, summary accounts of theory? The demand goes well beyond immediately affected graduates and undergraduates working on deadline.

I believe that most of the people who want a layman’s guide to thinkers like Jacques Derrida or Slavoj Zizek feel a mixture of intellectual curiosity and the anxiety of the outsider. Regardless of how much education they have had in English, they feel they are not up to speed with literary and philosophical terminology, and so have different requirements from “specialists” in the field. This is a model borrowed above all from the sciences: layman’s guides to astrophysics (A Brief History of Time), quantum mechanics, and evolutionary science (Stephen Jay Gould) have all sold quite well, and satisfy, in some measure, our desire to be able to explain the universe. To this we might add a secondary list that goes beyond text, covering everything from filmed explanations of game theory (A Beautiful Mind) to the various evocative, but inaccurate, models of the atom that children encounter in primary school.

In calling these to mind I am reminded of an astonishing poster a former roommate once had up in our bathroom. It was a thorough rendering of certain reactions among subatomic particles, all of which looked like billiard balls or tinker toys. At the bottom of the poster was written: “Notice: These drawings represent an artist’s conception of physical processes. They are not exact and have no meaningful scale.” In other words, the entire poster was little more than a fantasy. Although some correspondence exists between what the poster shows and what specialists in particle physics say to each other, the real goal of the poster is to use drawings to get us to take on faith something that cannot really be pictured. The same goes for most other layman’s guides to science: a great deal is affirmed rather than proved, and inexact analogies make the work intelligible, even though all of them have to be accompanied by weasel words. It is exactly this hidden cost of simplification that has lent credence to the claims that evolution is something students are expected to “take on faith,” and thus is no different from creationism. Fortunately, whether or not you believe in a particular scientific theory, it still applies in the real world — it works — so it doesn’t matter, in your day-to-day life, just how detailed your picture of certain invisible processes really is. My understanding of the machinery in my computer is full of gaps and guesswork; nonetheless, I am perfectly comfortable using the computer to write this post.

It just so happens that this very idea comes from a joke Slavoj Zizek likes to tell when he talks about ideology. A college professor has a rabbit’s foot on his door, and so a student asks him whether he really believes that the rabbit’s foot will bring good luck. That’s the amazing thing about it, says the college professor, whether you believe in it or not, it works. This is Zizek’s definition of our attitude towards something like the “free market”: we talk about it as though it was an imperfect human creation of which we are highly skeptical, but we act as though it were an immutable law of nature. Thus ideology is not like a computer: it’s not something you can use without fully understanding it. If you don’t understand it, it uses you.

Another way of putting this is that scientific summaries are indexical — they point at a functioning system not significantly altered by the summary itself — whereas philosophical or literary summaries are performative, and do alter what they describe because they are forced to re-create it in a certain way.

To imagine a series of good layman’s guides to the most influential literary theory and philosophy of the last fifty years is ironic because it establishes precisely the sort of top-down hierarchies that most of these writers detested, because they associated such hierarchies with the worst features of oppressive governments, colonialism, and capitalism. Relatively few such books require technical skills that would be very difficult to acquire outside of a course; the only one who comes immediately to mind is Hegel, who long pre-dates the 20th Century, and who wrote one book (The Science of Logic) that’s a little easier to read if you know calculus. Thus they are quite different from books that have to gloss over difficult equations. Most of the technical terms in modern works of literary theory and philosophy are invented and defined within those works themselves: you can track down the moment Michel Foucault coins the “episteme,” for example, and read it for yourself.

As a result of the simplifications that already exist in our culture, plenty of people already try to “cash out” thinkers like Michel Foucault or Jean Baudrillard by taking their pronouncements on faith, with predictably bad results. But perhaps even worse are the people who see executive summaries of philosophy as an opportunity to pick and choose, since you can easily refute a statement stripped of all its complexity and elaboration. How many times have we heard postmodern “meaninglessness” effortlessly refuted? Or Plato’s theory that all men act according to their notion of the good? Or Freud’s theory of Oedipal sexuality? How many people have confidently sent Nietzsche and his misguided “nihilism” running for the hills? When you summarize these texts, you completely destroy their power as works of provocation, and they turn into echoes of what people already believe or reject. One of the secret engines of the desire to “get” postmodernism in one sentence is the deep unpopularity of Marxist thought, which was the very air that 20th Century theorists breathed: in reducing them, we try to pry them free of their origins in conversations about Marx.

Naturally, there are writers who are simply labored, bad stylists with good ideas. We might put Jacques Lacan into this category, or Jean-Paul Sartre during the height of his Heideggerian phase. But the response to a very accessible writer like Zizek has been, at least in America, so identical that it becomes necessary to ask whether anyone is even trying to determine who is abstruse and who is not. Very well, one might answer, but what about the democratic principle? Isn’t it the responsibility of the intellectual, when she implicates all people in her text, to write in a way all people can understand?

I will end by answering this question in three ways. First, it behooves us to remember the sad case of Albert Camus, who wrote utterly transparent prose, and whose reward was that everyone thinks they understand him, though few actually do. Perhaps no 20th Century thinker has been so unfairly pigeonholed: we see Camus as a charming sort of teenage bohemian error, something lots of people adopt and then outgrow. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Second, our idea of democracy has changed for the worse since Jefferson’s time. His idea that a populace must be competent to govern was founded upon a highly idealistic belief in education. That is what reading literature, criticism, and theory is really about: the difficult, sometimes even frustrating process of educating oneself, and striving to learn the grammar of the present day well enough to influence it. Writers in the humanities are not putting into text an untranslatable technical skill, unlike Stephen Hawking. Their writing is accessible to anyone who takes the trouble to access it, a labor built into the very meaning of the text. Whenever I have taught Foucault to undergraduates, I have seen them go through, as I did, the same process of trying to make Foucault “fit” somewhere familiar before they are willing to tackle his radical ideas. Nor is this process of educating oneself ever over: a “specialist” in literary theory does not necessarily have an easier time with a new writer than anybody else. In its era, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was considered a pamphlet, and one accessible to virtually the whole of the literate population. It is not exactly to our credit that we might want him to be summarized for us now.

Finally, the overlapping universes of literature, philosophy, and literary theory meet in a garden of forking paths. This is particularly true of literary criticism, as opposed to literary theory, since literary readings are mainly interesting to people who enjoy the works or period in question. The greatest failure of that unkind obituary for Derrida was that it failed to see how intimate and personal his writings were, how their supposed opacity was often a result of Derrida’s insistence on writing for those people whose preoccupations were similar to his own, turning his back on that enforced universality which, so often, represents an attempt to make ideas work like money: good for all debts, accepted everywhere, transmutable into anything the occasion demands. We make our own way into the conversation about the world, and into the vast literary and philosophical library to which we are heir, and none of it is ours until we cease timidly surveying it, and choose, rashly, somewhere to begin.