13 August 2007

A Narcissism of Small differences

This interview with Derrida annoyed me more than it probably should, which I find to be a common experience with Derrida and Derrideans. So, might as well post about what I don't like. (as it so happens, I ended up merely making disjointed remarks; this seems to me to be quite fitting.)

What does it matter when philosophy started, or what is or is not philosophy, or if philosophy nowadays is or is not the same sort of thing (or a similar sort of thing) as Plato did, or as Heraclitus did? I'd write this off as one of the stupid questions interviewers ask when they don't know the subject, but Heidegger really did seem to think that ancient Greek history was Very Important for philosophy nowadays (indeed, for life & thought themselves nowadays), and Derrida seems to join in with the "We Must Seriously Engage The Platonic Dialogues If We Are To Think Today" silliness. As if history of philosophy just is philosophy, as if "participating in the tradition" meant writing commentaries rather than just doing things which are more or less like what previous folks have done. Heidegger seems to have some weird volkische ideas backing his intuitions about how important the history of thought is, what relation serious thought has to have to its history etc., but I'm not sure why Derrida hangs on to anything of the sort. Greek puns aren't going to help you make progress in understanding anything except what Greek words sound like other Greek words. Do they really blather about "love of wisdom" every year in French philosophy departments? I can see doing it once at the start of an undergrad course (like how many dull speeches begin with "Webster's Dictionary defines this as..."), but every year? What's the point in developing cleverer and cleverer answers to a question like that? What benefit could come from asking the question repeatedly, except the development of cleverness in answering it?

"This love means an affirmative desire towards the Other - to respect the Other, to pay attention to the Other, not to destroy the otherness of the Other" -- here I detect a move that I encountered a fair bit as an undergrad, the shift from "respect for another" to "respect for the Other". I suspect that those who want to develop a "Christian ethics" are particularly vulnerable to this sort of sliding. The problem is that in everyday respect, love, attention there is not anything particularly radical: I comport myself with you in a way that we both find agreeable, I try to look out for your best interests (even, sometimes, when they diverge from my own), I listen to what you have to say and try to not fool myself into thinking you're happy when you aren't etc. In the first place, there's not a need for a "theory of friendship" or a "definition of love"; that sort of understanding is quite useless if what one cares about is love, friendship etc. Nor is anything in this made clearer by talking of "the otherness of the Other" or "the absolute Other" or "irreducible Otherness" or "violence towards the Other". The fact that an everyday practice is going on does not mean that there is some sort of metaphysical whotsits backing it, influencing it, controlling it, guiding it, and so there is not necessarily a demand for a counter-theory in a similar register as that imagined theory (even a counter-theory which is supposed to be "antitheoretical" or "subversive" or "antimetaphysical").
Theologians often want to go from talk about love between people, friendship, respect to love of God, worship, religion as if they were merely continuing the conversation, but this sort of move is a change of topic -- metabasis eis allos genos is the Greek, I believe.

There's a problem from the other direction too, I think: denying that "the absolutely Other" is intelligible is taken to be akin to hating friendship and love and peace and happiness, when really all that is meant is that "otherness" isn't something that makes sense when you push it very far. Red is one color, green is another; sand is different from glass; red and green are both colors; sand and glass have roughly the same chemical makeup; but it makes no sense to ask whether red is the same as or different from glass, or whether "the true is more or less identical to the good." Roughly put: "the other X" or "another X" is intelligible for most values of X, but not for an X with no value. And in all of this "unintelligible" is meant in the only sense it ever has: It makes as much sense as "fserra2trfer342 r4j34jq4neu2 4jh43ujhu4hi34". It is not that the "absolutely Other" merely escapes understanding, or that understanding fails to comprehend it, but that there is mere babble in all talk of this sort. There is no there there.

(I take this to be a broadly Hegelian point, and I think Heidegger and Derrida are both explicitly setting their faces against Hegel in defending some such bogeyman as "the Other." The only hint I've been able to find for why they might do this is because Hegel is associated with totalitarianism, or some octopus-like behemoth named Liberal Capitalism, or The System Which Must Assimilate All Comers, or some such silliness; or else he's just not holding out the promise of the poetic Rhineland soil which is supposed to save us all, nor is he a messianic figure. So then attacking Hegel's muted spinozism is supposed to be of a piece with opposing various bad political movements. As if it was the Logic, and not Hegel's knowledge of economics and liberal political thought, that was motivating the Rechtsphilosophie.)

(if there is anything to the Heideggerian/Derridean defense of the capital-O "Other" that isn't just politics in disguise, then I suspect that it's just the Myth of the Given and/or the Scheme/Content dualism again. Which would, again, be places where the right move is Hegelian -- in this case, Hegel in the guise of Sellars and Davidson, both of whom say nice things about Kant while espousing positions that are more Hegel than Kant.)

"When you address the Other, even if it is to oppose the Other, you make a sort of promise - that is, to address the Other as Other, not to reduce the otherness of the Other, and to take into account the singularity of the Other. That's an irreducible affirmation, its the original ethics if you want." It seems that to "address the Other as something other than Other" is simply to not address the Other at all. In which case "as Other" is only pleonasm, and does not actually rule out anything. The same with "not to reduce the otherness of the Other" -- if one could reduce the "otherness of the Other" then it would of course be intelligible that one might not do this, or even shouldn't do this, or in fact never do do this. But here the idea seems to be that inevitably the "otherness of the Other" is not reduced. In which case it's no accomplishment when there isn't a reduction; nothing happens thereby. If something was supposed to be, or claimed to be, "reducing the otherness of the Other" then this simply shows that words are being used oddly -- there is not a claim to be "reducing the otherness of the Other" or an accusation that this has in fact happened, but merely a homonymous phrase.

From the interviewer, a description which Derrida does not reject: "To many of your readers, one of the important consequences of reading your works is the realization that criticism from an "outside" position is no longer possible, that one is always working with inherited language, and because one inherits language, one inevitably works within a shared framework." Here there is a very salutary point combined with a very confused one: The "outside" position is not no longer possible, but was never a position at all. Nor is it something that might become possible, or one that (so to speak) God might take up. To have something in view means to have a point from which to view things; the point of view does not occlude, but is that which makes vision possible. (One cannot see everything from every point, but this merely means that one must move around to see more things; one must experiment to deepen one's understanding. But the goal is not a viewpoint which encompasses everything, but merely a multitude of viewpoints which allow one to carry out the tasks which one takes to be desirable at various points. There is no limit to what one might be seeking after, but "Everything!" is not an intelligible answer to such a question.) Thus there is no sense to worrying about the fact that one is always working with a "shared framework"; an idiomatic framework would not intelligibly do the work of a framework, since what is in view is our only world and not some private objects, nor does a framework distort or shape anything, but puts a viewer in direct contact with the objects & events, the things & happenings, which fill our lives. Derrida seems to half-see this: He wants to put the point as being that the framework doesn't always have these nefarious effects, because it's constitutionally defective (as are all frameworks). "When you inherit a language, it does not mean you are totally in it or you are passively programmed by it. To inherit means to be able to, of course, appropriate this language, to transform it, to select something. Heritage is not something you are given as a whole. It is something that calls for interpretations, selections, reactions, response and responsibility. When you take your responsibility as an heir, you are not simply subjected to the heritage, you are not called to simply conserve or keep this heritage as it is, intact. You have to make it live and survive, and that is a process - a selective and interpretive process.... I would even say that in order to make something new happen, you have to inherit, you have to be inside the language, inside the tradition. You would not be able to transform or displace anything without in some way being inside the tradition, without understanding the language." I can't make up my mind if this is a very good & correct thing to say, or if it is deeply confused. "Heritage is not something you are given as a whole" seems to me to be a very bad way to put things, since it suggests that there is a whole, but it is simply not given, when I would much prefer to say that what one gains in learning a language, in working in a tradition, just is this ability to do what needs doing, to understand things, to have one's eyes opened to the world, to become able to make one's own mark on things. I suspect that Derrida's desire to say bad things about "conservatism" and "reactionaries" motivates some of this; there must be a way to describe those who do cling to "dead tradition" as doing something bad. I suspect, though, that the difference between "reactionaries" and "progressives" (or "revolutionaries") is not a difference in kind, but a difference in taste: One doesn't like the reactionaries, but one feels a regard for the other group. Both, it seems to me, are taking up elements from the tradition and bringing it forward; trying to maintain an oppressive old code is still to do something in the present, and is not literally dwelling in the past. This is not to say that "reactionaries" are really a sort of progressive, or that they betray their own reactionary nature, but that the demarcation was never a fit one to start with; it didn't carve reality up at the joints, but just hacked at things gracelessly.

Jaroslav Pelikan distinguished between "tradition" and "traditionalism" thusly: Tradition is the living faith of the dead, while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. This is a nice picture for playing up the important of tradition (which is more noticeable in theology, Pelikan's home discipline, but the point has broader application). I like the line a good bit. But it is, again, striking out against reactionary forces at the expense of being entirely truthful: the "dead faith" of the reactionaries is of course a faith still, though it be an infernal sort of faith, and so "dead" here means not "not alive" but rather "bad." To call something a "dead faith" is to denigrate it. This is of course not to end up with a futile relativism, since insofar as we agree that something should be denigrated (perhaps while we actually denigrate it), then there is no room for us to have skeptical doubts about whether or not our denigration is in the right or not. So "N is denigrating X" can only seem like a skeptical rendering of "X is bad" (in N's mouth) so long as I really am undecided about my own views on X; "N and I are denigrating X" does not leave open the question, neither for N nor for me, whether or not X is up to snuff. The question may of course be broached and earnestly engaged with, but only against a background of notions which are not currently being held open to question.

"So I think there are inventive forms of respecting the tradition, and there are reactive or non-inventive forms. But I would not say that in order to invent something new, or to make something new happen, you have to betray the tradition or to forget the tradition." The only way I can make sense of this is if "inventive" means "good inventive." I don't know how a reactionary response is supposed to be non-inventive, given that it is a response.

To end on a happy note, I very much liked this bit: "If you expect an answer in the form of a "yes or no", I would say no. But if you give me more time, I would be more hesitant." If only he could hesitate before he said "no" as well!

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