Deconstruction, Responsibility, and Greek-Europeans

Thanks Casey--I have a sneaking suspicion that when it comes to books, we have divergent tastes. When it comes to teaching, we share quite a lot. Like my last post, this started as a comment and grew into a long one.

The early/late Derrida question is quite the question--whether his entire opus is oriented toward ethics or whether this marks a significant turn in the later works. Personally, I think he was always concerned with ethics--but early in this career he was more interested in destruction (because that high tower had grown so high and presented itself as impervious to critique) and later in his career much more interested in construction (since he had pretty much succeeded with objective #1). Its also important to remember that the anthologized stuff in America primarily deals with literature and language, and tends to pass over elements of the early work invested in metaphysics. To simplify, Derrida's career can be read as a tension between Heidegger's poetics and Levinas's ethics--he starts closer to the former and ends closer to the latter.

In Learning to Live Finally, his last interview before his death, Derrida shares a very candid and lucid (wait, Derrida, lucid--yes!) depiction of deconstruction. Its pretty long, but here we go:

Deconstruction in general is an undertaking that many have considered, and rightly so, to be a gesture of suspicion with regard to all Eurocentrism. When more recently I have had occasion to say "we Europeans" is is something quite different and is always related to a particular set of circumstances: everything that can be deconstructed in the European tradition does not negate the possibility--and precisely because of what has happened in Europe, because of the Enlightenment, because of the shrinking of this little continent and the enormous guilt that pervades its culture (totalitarianism, Nazism, fascism, genocides, Shoah, colonization and decolonization, etc.)--that today, in the geopolitical situation in which we find ourselves, Europe, an other Europe but with the same memory might (this is in any case my wish) band together against both the politics of American hegemony (in the configuration of Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfield and so on) and an Arab-Islamic theocratism without Enlightenment and without political future (though let's not minimize contradictions, the processes underway, and the heterogeneities within these two groups, and let us join forces with those who resist from within these two blocs). Europe finds itself under the injunction to assume a new responsibility. (40-41)

Derrida locates this new responsibility in Kant's original "hesitant" Enlightenment--this is something one of my graduate students, Adam Breckenridge, pointed out in my Contemporary Rhetorics seminar--that Kant's original work was suspicious of meta-narratives much more than many postmodern theorists have been (and thus, postmodern theory, very much against some wills, transformed into its own monolith resistant to critique through its presumed attention to foundations... have I heard this line before? It is possible to be a bad anti-foundationalist--bad in this sense would not only indicate a sole commitment to destruciton, but also a lack of self-reflexivity).

Speaking toward a Kantian inspired geo-cosmopolitanism (one dedicated to the planet and not the nation as polis), Derrida writes:

What I call "deconstruction," even when it is directed toward something from Europe, is European; it is a product of Europe, a relation of Europe to itself as an experience of radical alterity. Since the time of the Enlightenment, Europe has undertaken a perpetual self-critique, and in this perfectible heritage there is a chance for a future. At least I would like to hope so, and that is what feeds my indignation when I hear people definitively condemning Europe as if it were but the scene of its crimes. (44-45)

There is a small strain of optimism here that recalls for me Kant's conclusion to "What is Enlightenment?": "If only they refrain from inventing artifices to keep themselves in it, men will gradually raise themselves from barbarism." Notice Kant doesn't say "reach Enlightenment." He's aiming low. Given humanity's track record, that's probably high enough.

Finally, I should address all this talk of Europe--I hear it ring with an echo of "Greece"; we are all still European (to what extent is debatable) just as we are still Greek, still Roman. Not all of us, for sure. And we are more than just Greek, just Roman. But these are the times (more than even places) from which our values were drawn, the heart of our cultural, political, and legal landscape. Those veins still pump. There resonances heard in the walls of our institutions.

But I am especially rooted in Europe (never mind that I was born in bred in Plymouth, MA--the self-proclaimed birthplace of America proud to have help kill the Red Coats). I have mentioned, from time to time, that the Holocaust remains the single event that motivated my entry into scholarship. Everything I have written lies in its shadow. It haunts me with questions: why, how, when? It is this last question in particular that haunts me--when might it return. We know that genocide has surfaced in other places in the 20th century. I find it impossible to think such hatred. It is the face of the other for me-I cannot totalize it, understand it, come to terms with it. I quake thinking about it. And so I do the only thing I know how to do. I read. I think. I write. I question. I teach. I wait. I listen.


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I really like it; I've never liked Derrida so much. And thanks for adding those last couple of paragraphs addressing your Euro-philia. I think that's always been a big hurdle for me to understanding your drift: I see a rich history of American thought that began with (say) Emerson, or even Unitarian theology, and that has been neglected only since academia wrongly turned its back on the Kerouac/Ginsberg crew when that crew tried to become the Tim-Leary/Alan Watts/Sri Aurobindo crew. That's the real under-hum of "American" thought, and it's always been as present, as subversive, and as identifiable as French thought.

So I only dislike Derrida (now) as an American. To me, taking up the French way, you're like that John Walker Lindh guy who joined the Taliban -- and I hope you'll be able to hear that I mean that in the most positive way! I think it's fascinating when people abandon their own culture and choose another one. It reaffirms the possibility of choice and agency, if nothing else.

One or two or ten here and there reaffirm choice. A whole American academy becoming Francofied is more unexpected, less comfortable. Of course: not everything need be filtered through academia: "real" American thought is as strong as ever -- arrives at "Burning Man" every year on schedule, or in comments at obscure blogs, or on C-Span from time to time.

But anyway: I hear you clear.

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So you're probably cheering for the Europeans in the Ryder Cup, huh? Traitor.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

I've always found American transcendentalism to be a watered down, unsophisticated, and obnoxiously Idealist compared to the continental stuff. Plus, I find myself drawn to the issues that drive European philosophy/theory--especially after Freud. But my undergraduate education and MA degree both focused on 18th century literature/Enlightenment. Of course, my PhD focuses on taking that literature apart.

When it comes to the Ryder Cup, I root for Tiger Woods. Period.

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That seems reasonable--eminently reasonable. No heart to it, but precisely reasonable.