Must We Burn Derrida?

by Mark Gullick (April 2013)


In 1951, Simone de Beauvoir published an essay entitled Faut il Brûler Sade?, or Must We Burn Sade?, in which she attempted to extract something from the texts of the notorious Marquis other than violent pornography. Roland Barthes would go on to attempt the same exercise, as would another French writer who, in our ideologically divided age, arouses as much horror in certain quarters as Sade did more generally in his own times; Jacques Derrida. But perhaps here is a heretic we must absolve at the stake.

Derrida is classed, among other things, as a post-modernist, and post-modernism and all its works represent a favoured target of what might be termed the cultural right. Daniel J. Flynn finds Derrida at the head of ‘a gang of literary critics that exhorts connoisseurs of the written word to read into texts any meaning desired, regardless of the author’s intent’. Stephen Hicks charges that ‘Derrida deconstructs language and turns it into a vehicle of aesthetic play’. Melanie Phillips accuses the French-Algerian-born philosophy professor of writing ‘that texts had no meaning – and [writing] so in a text’. Meaninglessness, deconstruction, aesthetic play; the charge against Derrida is that he lends his voice to the cultural relativism which is doing very real damage to the West. But must we really burn Derrida before we have read him?

I once had a conversation with a musician I admired, and told him I thought his singer’s lyrics showed an interest in Nietzsche. ‘Yes,’ the guitarist replied. ‘I think he once read part of the introduction to a Penguin copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra’. Similarly, contemporary right-wing politico-cultural commentators betray every sign of having read a little about Derrida without the tiresome exertion of opening the original texts.

Derrida, notoriously, came up with the dread pastime which gets so many among our cultural commentariat into such a frenzy; deconstruction. The very word is guaranteed to excite the cultural left, with its echoes of the destruction and dismantling of a despised old order, whether that order actually exists or not. To the right, deconstruction reeks of the barricades, of tinkering with the past and the reduction of cherished concepts to a uniform and egalitarian nullity. Journalists, of course, adore the phrase. How much more arch to write about ‘deconstructing’ a film or book or artwork rather than simply enjoying or disliking it and attempting to understand why. Deconstruction; what a whiff of Gallic brimstone the word exudes.

Derrida himself, to the enragement of critics suckled on the milk of the Enlightenment, resisted rigid definitions of his own creation, although this is not, as it were, unreasonable. Augustine’s comment comes to mind, that we understand time perfectly until someone asks us to explain it. Deconstruction certainly seeks to lessen certainty in the realm of the philosophical, and might be seen as having parallels with the judicial process – after the event – of declaring a conviction unsafe. But it is difficult to programmatise a methodology when it is used to assess writers as different as Edmund Husserl, Philippe Sollers and Paul Valéry. Thus, whatever deconstruction is or might be, the idea that Derrida’s readings of the Western canon lead straight to the Montessori play-room of cultural relativism is as facile as believing that Einstein’s theories of relativity are the reason my torch is broken.

The first misunderstanding of Derrida’s work is to claim him as a critical theorist and not a philosopher. Critical theory, of course, is what people do when they find themselves all thumbs with philosophy. Far simpler to hold forth on the semiotics of the soap opera once you reach the grim realisation that 600 pages of Spinoza is a lot trickier than your primers had you believe. Derrida was not a critical theorist; he was as rigorous a philosopher as the late 20th century saw.

The word ‘philosophy’ comes from ancient Greek roots which mean, approximately, a love of wisdom. This is the sense in which Plato or Seneca would have used their respective terms, when the age of the professional philosopher was still far away. In our own age, now that philosophy has become Taylorised into tenured specialities, the love affair is definitely over. Derrida shows, however, through his dense and highly organised readings of selected texts, enormous pleasure in revisiting the past, in reading philosophy in terms of its history. Philosophy, on the other hand, has become another set of Wikipedia entries, useful to spice up an otherwise dull op-ed piece or first novel.

I was once reprimanded and shamed in front of a university graduate seminar for the crime of alluding to a book I clearly had not read. The wonderful and much-missed Gillian Rose, then of Sussex University, knew exactly what I was up to, and rightly pulled me up on it. I never did it again. Now, there are many critics whose references to Derrida’s work reek of someone who has read someone who has read something about deconstruction. If these tourists were to engage with the original texts and concepts, and given that they had either escaped or outgrown the modern western education system, they might make some important discoveries.

First and foremost, Derrida does not easily lend his philosophical viewpoint to the contemporary left, with its misanthropic wrecking crew, its West-hating gang of what Roger Scruton might call oikophobes. There certainly is a post-modern cabal of writers whose idiocy fits the prevailing ethno-masochism of the Western political class, the universities, the media, and the public sector nomenklatura. Think of Luce Irigaray and her silly pronouncements (‘E=mc² is a sexed equation’), Foucault’s petulant misanthropy or the sheer science fiction of Baudrillard’s claim that the first Gulf war took place in a non-Euclidean space. This misguided band has involved itself in a self-appointed task of dismissal and dismantling, destruction and deconstruction, which appeals to the cultural left’s belief that there is an establishment whose walls must be stormed just as Parisian students stormed police barricades in 1968. But Derrida stands apart from this intellectual sandpit. Danger: philosopher at work.

Secondly, Derrida’s work is immensely complex, specialist philosophy. To reduce it to smart-arse formulae may be in keeping with the Brian Cox school of snack-size science, but it is difficult to believe that local authority commissars, trades union agitators, diversity officers and liberal-left journalists set aside their lunch breaks to plough cackling through Derrida’s Plato’s Pharmacy or Note on a Note from Being and Time before returning to their Gramscian long march through the institutions.

Thirdly, there is in Derrida’s work no prevailing atmosphere of laissez faire frivolity in which any text can be made to mean anything at all. There is certainly destabilisation and the removal of the surety of foundation with regard to philosophy, but those gestures have been made many times over many centuries, not least by Socrates during his amiable chats in the Athenian square. But, as for the inquisitorial charge that texts can be made to mean anything the reader wants them to mean, Derrida states often that the fundamental concepts of philosophy, although not as unshakeable as their authors believed, could not have been otherwise than they are.

Fourth, an academic interest in the left does not a leftist make. That Derrida wrote an essay entitled Specters of Marx, and made some personal statements showing at least an interest in Marxism, seems to provide an unrealistic amount of ammunition for the some critics to use against Derrida. But what of it? Even if Derrida was the most rabid of Marxists in his personal life, it still would not do to disapprove of all his works because he was of that affiliation. Martin Heidegger – another whipping boy for the cultural right – was demonstrably and for a crucial part of his academic career a card-carrying Nazi. But even as I abhor Nazism – an uncontroversial caveat for all but the most egg-bound and monomaniacal skinhead –  had Heidegger been a front-line member of the SS for his entire working life, had he invented Zyklon-B, it would not, for me, sour a single word of Being and Time.

Finally, Derrida is a philosopher and philosophy is just philosophy. It has never built a bridge, discovered a vaccine or sailed an ocean, which is all as it should be. Genuine philosophers are much like the scholarly community of the fictional city of Castalia in Herman Hesse’s novel The Glass Bead Game, endlessly indulging their esoteric pastime without any meaningful contact with the ordinary people outside the city walls. Philosophy is at its best when it summons up the ghost of the 19th-century mathematician Henry John Stephen Smith, who is reputed to have toasted to ‘pure mathematics; may it never be of any use to anyone.’ The reader of philosophy aside, that is. With regard to philosophy as love of wisdom, and to paraphrase a saying concerning Las Vegas, what happens in Castalia stays in Castalia.

And so the modern rightist commentariat would do well to heed the childish voice which changed the life of Saint Augustine when he was still plain Augustine of Hippo; take up the book and read. The message to the cultural right is simple; if you haven’t read Derrida, keep quiet about him. Or, to quote Wittgenstein out of context and out of place; that whereof we cannot speak, we must remain silent.


Mark Gullick has a PhD in philosophy and lives and works in London, England.


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