When Jacques Derrida died in 2004 I noticed in an obituary that his real name was Jackie. He is therefore an early example of someone being given an American-sounding name to sound cool, a proletarian habit that is still going strong here in France. There was nothing intellectual about his family background in Algeria, and as a child he wanted to be a footballer. I thought this was a funny story, and I mentioned it to a few random French people I met over the next few days. Their reaction surprised me. Who? Jackie who? His destiny was indeed American. It is not that he was unknown in France: in academic circles he was a major figure. But he didn’t have the exotic star power he would acquire in America. They had Johnny Hallyday for that.
Derrida is currently enjoying a new vogue as a kind of demon king in the theology of the movement led by such people as Jonathan Haidt, Jordan Peterson, and Camille Paglia against the irrationalism that has swept through the humanities in the English-speaking world, with Peterson describing Derrida as the “chief villain” in the story. Peterson weaves Derrida’s deconstructionist theories into his account of the development of post-modernist, neo-Marxist dogma, giving summaries of Derrida’s theoretical writings and suggesting that his minions have put these ideas into execution, the result being the mountain of unreadable and incomprehensible books about “discourse” and “theory” that have replaced rationalistic studies of literature, history, sociology, and politics: and more generally, the collapse of normal standards of logic in these fields.
There is, however, a strong piece of evidence against this claim. His French readers obviously understood Derrida better than those reading him in translation; his position in academic life in France was not that of an exciting outsider, but of someone who had risen through the system in a conventional manner, chiefly through studying at the École Normale Supérieure and then teaching philosophy at the Sorbonne. He did have a parallel career in American institutions, starting with a grant to spend a year at Harvard in the fifties, but he published prolifically in France, and his position as an establishment figure meant that his books were read and discussed throughout the system. So the question is this: Why has the same intellectual disaster not happened in France? If it is really Derrida’s system of thought that is the acid eating into the girders of the palace of reason, why didn’t the French part of the building collapse first?
Instead, French philosophy has continued sedately on its established course. Derrida has been forgotten, in fact, replaced by fresh professors, just as conventional in their academic careers. The general style is sometimes more excitable than what you might normally expect in Princeton or Oxford, and the remit of a “philosophe” is wider than what might be expected of an academic philosopher in the English-speaking world. Camille Paglia, say, might be considered a “philosophe”: somebody who speaks and writes philosophically about general cultural issues. But to make it as a professor you need to concentrate on the established canon, and for Derrida this meant initially the dense but rewarding work of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. And once he started to establish his personal voice and style, it was with arguments about Saussure’s structuralism, which had been debated since the 1890s.
In a way, it is true that Derrida is the key figure in the transformation of the universities of the English-speaking world into ideological training camps for the soldiers of unreason, but the story has a different kind of plot and explanation. It is not, in the end, his fault. He is like a Greek tragic hero, first raised up by the gods and then dashed down again by the unstoppable forces of circumstance. He always said that his supposed followers didn’t understand his ideas, and that deconstruction, for instance, was not what they had understood it to be. What philosophical guru has not felt something similar? His doom has been to gain a wide following among people who cannot understand his theories, and don’t really even try to do so, while his real ideas slip gradually away into obscurity. But we should start by looking at the transformation of the Anglosphere universities with a wider lens.
The first pattern we see repeated is that the fish rots from the head. Students and staff at community colleges or provincial technical universities may feel they would like to be influential or important, but the system does not work like that. The ruthlessly competitive system of professional advancement, added to the financial imbalances that keep the grand universities and graduate schools on top, mean that all power is concentrated at the top of the pyramid. An individual or small group acting there can transmit their views downward relatively easily: the system is set up for that. An example might be the rapid and universal acceptance of Edward Said’s Orientalism as the New Testament of a generation of undergraduates in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Another “outsider” in cultural terms, by 1978, when Orientalism was published, apart from his lifelong base at Columbia, Said had also held senior positions at Stanford and Harvard.
There is nothing perverse or bad about this. In an ideal world, the best person in a particular field will be rewarded with a chair at a top institution, and will then educate colleagues and students, so that his or her views will naturally cascade down the pyramid. In mathematics or biology or medicine, this all looks very correct and natural, and one can see the origin of the system in the mediaeval institutions of learned authority that created the university system, with Christian or Islamic theology being studied and led by the most learned, and everyone else just doing what they were told. What it means today, however, is that each successive wave of nonsensicality has not bubbled up from below but been imposed from the topmost turrets of the ivory tower: the voices of the oppressed ringing out from luxurious colleges with sushi bars and swimming pools and fees calculated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A controversial aspect of Said’s academic success is that he paired it with pro-Palestinian activism so closely that it almost appeared that there was no dividing line: so that anyone opposed to the 19th-century colonialism of his book must therefore necessarily support the PLO and Black September. And this introduces the second pattern: the propensity for an academic movement to become a political or ideological movement. This, more than anything, is what has undone us.
The original sin, though, is not Marxism or Post-Modernism: it is Feminism.
It all seemed such fun. Women’s Lib! Who could oppose it? What reason was there for anyone to oppose it? Women wanted equal access to professions dominated by men, and hey presto! They got it! Sexual freedom? No problemo. There was genuine and heart-felt support for the women’s movement throughout the developed world. In a previous generation, Portugal’s dictator Salazar had decreed that women didn’t need anything more than primary education, as their function was to bear children and look after the house, but women’s liberation was a cornerstone of the new world of the sixties. An entirely legitimate political and social movement.
It also seemed entirely appropriate, then, to found university courses and institutes to reflect this important development in society. The first of the infamous “studies” programmes was in fact the equally questionable “business studies”, founded with good intentions but rapidly evolving into little more than the church of greed, but the Great Awakening of all these essentially anti-academic activities was pioneered by “women’s studies”. Maybe the naming convention is a quiet recognition that something other than the pursuit of truth is going on. We are not playing your game. We have our own studies now. Who could foretell what a monster had been created?
The initial problem with women’s studies, as with business studies, actually, is that there was no literature to speak of. What were they supposed to study? Business studies courses decided that they didn’t need books, developing a “case studies” approach mirrored in those courses that proliferate today when students do “modules” about soap operas or pop music. The feminists did stick with books, but there weren’t many there. Simone de Beauvoir, basically. One becomes a woman. A bit of Virginia Woolf maybe. New books were urgently needed, with new authors and new ideas.
What would be the common core of this new body of scholarship? It was obvious from the beginning that it would stand on two legs: explaining the oppression of women, and explaining the evil of men. But they didn’t need to worry too much about quality. Quantity was the thing. Business Studies has produced nothing in the way of a lasting academic literature since the foundation of Harvard Business School in 1908, but the field has no problem in generating mountains of paper every year without any apparent need for intellectual underpinning. This inherent intellectual weakness is what makes these activities inherently anti-academic. The rejection of the intellectual standards established since the symposia of Ancient Greece has become steadily more marked, until we reach today’s tactics of simply refusing to allow contrary opinions to be stated in the first place.
The transformation from Women’s Liberation to Women’s Studies took place in the mid-1970s, and this was also the period of the rise of Foucault and Derrida in the English-speaking academy. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before drawing all this together, we need to consider the image of the French in America at that time.
France was sexy. France was cool. And France had a kind of sophistication that bourgeois America swooned over. Still does, actually.
In the post-war decades French philosophy meant Existentialism, and it looked like a great antidote to Eisenhower’s conformist America and the anti-communist paranoia of the day. It was hip, it was exciting, it was a little bit dangerous, and it was incomprehensible. The leading man, Jean-Paul Sartre, was an actual Marxist, and produced plays and novels for those who could not get through the doorstep-sized Being and Nothingness. But although he was a familiar figure through translated works and photographs in magazines, he did not speak English—indeed it was a deliberate policy of his not to learn it—and so it was an arm’s length and one-way love affair. He was more interested in the USSR than the USA anyway. No, the man who paved the way for Foucault and Derrida as a live-action model of a French intellectual was the Swiss film-maker Jean-Luc Godard, who looked fabulous on black and white television and provided just what the doctor ordered for progressive intellectuals. He was part of a movement, the Nouvelle Vague or New Wave, he wore black clothes and cool shades, and above all he spoke deliciously broken English that conjured up smoke-filled Left Bank bistros. In 1959, by a mixture of luck and judgement that remains mysterious to this day, he had produced a landmark of world cinema, À Bout De Souffle or Breathless, with a screen couple to rival Bogart and Bacall: Jean-Paul Belmondo playing himself and the divine Jean Seberg, who was to be hounded to death by the FBI for her political views.
The movie was powered by the same French impulse of worship of America that had named Derrida “Jackie”: an incompetent and inaccurate version of an American gangster film. Godard, a New Wave critic for Cahiers du Cinéma, had never made a feature film, and the producer, Georges de Beauregard, was not pleased with the result. Apart from its shortcomings of plot, dialogue and action, it was too long. So while the details are disputed, the legend relates that Godard cut bits out of the completed film at random without looking to see what he was doing until it was at the length stipulated in the contract. The result was the famous “jump cut” which is now studied in film schools all over the world.
Godard, elegantly unshaven and chain-smoking, and some other black-clad intellectual artists like the Left Bank femme fatale singer Juliette Gréco, “the muse of existentialism”, provided the perfect image of a kind of sophisticated European cultural superiority, and Godard soon realized that what the art-house public liked about his work was its incomprehensibility. He embarked on a career of making deliberately senseless films, using such methods as working without a script, or not telling the actors what the film was about.
So it was established in the American imagination that French intellectualism was based on a special kind of high-class incomprehensibility. It is a great mistake to think that this is how the French see it. Godard was an outlier. Sartre, Foucault, and Derrida are certainly obscure and difficult, but anyone declaring it their aim to be impossible to understand would be drummed out of the Academy. In a work entitled “On the Universality of the French Language”, Antoine Rivaroli wrote in 1784 “Ce qui n’est pas clair n’est pas français:” That which is not clear is not French. Indeed, he explains, it must be English, Italian, Greek, or Latin, as French is the ideal vehicle for the clarity of thought that has only arisen in France.
Since the Enlightenment, the French have seen themselves as Cartesians, and Paris, the City of Light, as an island of sanity and rationality in a world of chaos. This still applies to modern and post-modern authors. Foucault in particular, though difficult, is completely rationalistic in his approach, his focus being history rather than philosophy. The problem of translation of such difficult texts, plus the cultural gulf that still separated the Old World and the New, created the illusion of deliberate incomprehensibility, although artistic elements like Godard’s cinema and the mystifying novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet certainly helped. But we need to consider where that cultural need for incomprehensibility came from. Why was America so hungry for it? What made it appear so admirable? The answer, strangely enough, comes from poetry.
The idea that poetry should be incomprehensible, a kind of word music without a meaning you could express in prose, is so deeply embedded in our culture now that we have lost sight of the fact that it is only in the English-speaking world that this development took place, and chiefly in America. It seems to have become a core American literary value. There had been nonsense verses before, from Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, but this was nonsense that still made sense. The Owl and the Pussycat were conventional lovers in a way. By the 1960s, William Burroughs was using cut-ups, and the aim of the whole enterprise was to find meaning in the meaningless. But he did not take the credit for it as something new: it was an American tradition that had started in the 1920s, and he cited T.S. Eliot and John Dos Passos as his precursors.
The bridge to the new order was provided by the Imagists, a group of mainly American poets operating from London in the early 20th century. Poetry had been considered for centuries as a more refined method of communication than prose, well suited for long narratives and spiritual meditations. Indeed, it is older than prose as far as long texts are concerned, with Homeric epic poetry and Indian religious texts dating from pre-literate times. The imagists—Ezra Pound perhaps the best poet among them—rejected this whole long tradition in favour of short, crisp images, expressed not in metrical verse, the soul of poetry, but in the irregular and often ungrammatical lines of what is now established as “free verse”, taking Japanese haiku and Chinese calligraphic poetry rather than Latin versification as an ideal.
It was a transitional phase. Paradoxically, the attempt at condensed, direct imagery often had the opposite of its intended effect. A lot of Pound’s work is so allusive that it cannot be understood without footnotes or some kind of exegesis: and the free verse was also disorientating. After the crucibles of two world wars, what emerged from all this alchemy was beat poetry, and much of it sounded like a new American Dada. Sticking it to the Man by defying him with a rain of hep cat words and images that didn’t exactly make sense and certainly weren’t going to make sense in Squaresville. Ulysses had been published in Paris by the American Sylvia Beach in 1922, and by the nineteen fifties had gone from highbrow obscurity to required reading for beatniks. And while it is Sartre that rules the roost in Paris, now Derrida appears at last as a bit player in the story: his study trip to Harvard in 1956, ostensibly to read Husserl on microfiche, being mainly spent reading Ulysses. So now he was ready for America: and soon America would be ready for him.
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There is a good deal of footage of Derrida speaking English on YouTube, and while he spoke with a strong accent, his English was OK, though far from native. Much better than Godard’s, anyway. He had taught English to Algerian schoolchildren in lieu of military service, and was comfortable speaking the language. This meant that when it came along he could use his attractive accent to feed his growing notoriety in America and around the world with interviews, TV appearances, round tables, and the other mechanisms of what we now call the celebrity of a public intellectual. For crucially, Derrida was not just the author of foreign books: he was a live act, walking and talking and appearing on television. He had a different look to Godard, an unkempt jet-set philosopher with a cloud of white hair; but looking at the English-language material that survives, you will see that there is practically none of his increasingly dense philosophy included. That is because this was produced entirely in French, and his professional output in France was at a different level to this easy-going side-line stuff. His public persona is misleading as a guide to his thought.
Even in French, he was mostly a fairly ordinary conversationalist. You didn’t need any special training to understand him, even when he was speaking in a general way about his theories or other intellectual topics. But his formal output was quite different: his books, and, almost the same thing, the written lectures he prepared for the exposition of his theories. This difference is explained by his theories. Traditional linguistics explains speech as primary, and writing as essentially the record of speech. Derrida insisted on the primacy of writing, and as far as philosophy is concerned he maintained that there was a higher kind of writing, called “archi- écriture”, rather uncomfortably given as “arche-writing” in English. I suppose that the verbal execution of his formal texts was supposed to instantiate this phenomenon. At all events, it was clear that he had developed quite a different register of French to express or illustrate these ideas.
A peculiarity of Derrida in translation is therefore that you still need to have a good grasp of French to understand the English versions. This is not true of every single work, as he had a wide range, and wrote on political and ethical issues in his more accessible informal manner: but his main work, the work you think of when you read his name, is a rich French grand cru, an assemblage of phenomenology and language theory, relying so heavily on the analysis and idiosyncratic re-interpretation of French words and expressions that non-French-speakers are bound to struggle, and expressed in a refined and abstruse philosophical style that leaves many French people scratching their heads and left many English-speaking philosophers in a state of shock. Added to this is the fact that it is placed within a French-language philosophical tradition which requires some effort to assimilate; and there is also the issue that the translations of Derrida are of varied quality, with the early ones in particular produced by keen followers who did not necessarily have the linguistic skills required for the job.
I heard him lecture twice, once in English and once in French. This was in the early 1990s when he was at the peak of his powers. With dozens of books to his name, there was plenty of material available by then, so he could expect his university audiences to be prepared. He came to Prague in March of 1992 to deliver a big lecture at Charles University, where I was now employed, having fallen in with a gang of dissidents who had taken over the University’s Institute of Marxism-Leninism. On paper Derrida’s visit looked super cool. The most famous living philosopher come to talk in Václav Havel’s city in the afterglow of the Velvet Revolution. Expectations were high.
Also, to warm up, and for a fee of course, he gave a few lectures in George Soros’ new Central European University, but to summer school American students whose parents were presumably paying through the nose for this privilege. I sat in on one of these, and it was surprising. There was no Sturm und Drang, no fiery brilliance, no Husserl or Wittgenstein. He seemed very comfortable with his talk, as if this was something he had been doing for many years. It was a basic introduction to French culture: quietly explaining in simple sentences about Baudelaire and Victor Hugo, Flaubert and Napoleon. The nineteen-year-old college kids seemed surprised too, many of them probably hearing about all of this for the first time, and they were mildly interested. It was certainly a change from the mainstream radical feminism that they were getting from their American professors.
But when it came to the big set-piece lecture in a large auditorium there was a small problem. The organizers had been dealing with Derrida in English, and had assumed that this lecture, too, one hour long, would also be in English. But no. He had a lecture he had already delivered in Paris, and it was in French. It had to be.
Derrida’s serious professional output, his actual theoretical work on philosophy and the theory of literature and language, relies on making some fine distinctions. For instance, he talks about the difference between two words for “the future”: le futur and l’avenir. Since these are both unambiguously translated as “the future” in English, a lengthy verbal exposition of the difference between them would not really work in translation. In a book, one can just about handle this with footnotes and some fancy and unnatural locutions (lowering the bar considerably, but still really depending on the readers knowing French), but reading it out loud without visual aids of some kind and to a non-French-speaking audience is not on if you want anybody to understand what you are talking about. A better-known example of the same kind of thing is Derrida’s most famous single word, différance: which at first looks like English “difference”: but English “difference” is spelt différence in French. The reason for this invention of Derrida is that the French verb différer has two meanings: to differ and to defer or delay. These are separate words in English, but in French it is one word. However, as in English, différence with an e refers only to the sense “to differ”. So différance spelt with an a is meant to combine the senses of difference and deferral. Derrida wrote hundreds of pages about this, but it is literally impossible to translate this term accurately, as differ and defer are not the same word in English and there is no obvious reason to combine them. English-speakng philosophical commentators tend to go for constructions with “defer”, to capture the idea of meaning being endlessly deferred, arising in the space between the signification of words, but it is an inaccuracy, as Derrida only invented the new term because he wanted to have it both ways. If we were starting again, I would suggest “displacement” as combining the two senses in one term.
Although he had lectured in leading American universities since the 1960s, eventually taking up visiting teaching positions, a look through the catalogues of his papers held in the archives of those universities shows that all his lectures were in French. One or two have an additional item called “English version”. I would guess that this might be from a published translation by someone else, possibly given out as a handout. As far as I know he wrote nothing in English, and from the beginning his American lectures were in fact lectures he had written and already delivered in Paris: a clever way of recycling his work.
This was the case of his 1992 Prague lecture, the title now lost in the mists of time. When he arrived and revealed that it was to be given in French, the organizers had to find a solution, and they got four clever Russians from the Central European University who spoke French and English, gave them one quarter of the text each, and told them to get on with it. In the lecture hall the following morning, these same Russians, exhausted but triumphant after working all night, arrived just in time with hundreds of photocopies, enough for every person in the hall. It was an impressive achievement. Derrida looked on impassively as the thick stapled translations were distributed, and when everyone had quietened down, he began.
Now translating Derrida at all is a tall order, but the audience was mostly made up of students from the recently-collapsed USSR and the liberated satellites, and although they had all been told that Derrida was the most famous philosopher in the world, they had never come across anything like this. As I speak French, I was following the translation with a critical eye. It was impressive that they had managed it, but I could see that unless you had some kind of prior understanding, it was impossible to make sense of it. Then we arrived at the changing of the guard, and it was apparent that the clever Russians had not had time to collate their translations together. Inevitably, each had chosen different translations for key terms. At the end of each page there was a noise like a wave breaking as everybody turned the page together: but people began turning back, thinking they must have turned over two pages by mistake; or looking at their friend to see if it was the same for them. After the half-hour mark, a lot of people had given up, having lost their place in the translation, or just admitting defeat. When the lecture ended at last there was hardly anybody in the room who could have told you even approximately what it had been about. Nobody knew what to do. The moderator asked if anyone had any questions, and in a tense silence I raised my hand. They pointed to me, so I stood up to wait for the microphone: and everyone else collectively decided to seize the moment and scarper. The translations fell like snow and the big hall emptied in seconds: leaving just Derrida and me facing each other across a sea of abandoned paper.
I had talked to him the day before at the CEU and he seemed a friendly, straightforward man with ordinary enough interests—he played snooker every day, apparently—but with the peculiar schizophrenia of someone used to speaking in a second language. I didn’t see him after the lecture. I suppose he flew back to Paris. My question and his answer were not recorded.
I couldn’t help wondering if this is what he did at American universities, and the answer is: Yes and No. When he started visiting American universities to lecture, none of his books had been translated into English, so the lectures were delivered in French to experts in Continental Philosophy. The first one was “La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines,” [Structure, sign, and play in the discourse of the human sciences], delivered at Johns Hopkins in 1966. This post-structuralist text was something new and exciting for America. He was a big hit, and was soon being invited to repeat the performance at other top-tier universities. In 1975 he started teaching at Yale, and as his reputation and celebrity status grew, he was faced with a new problem. Undergraduates, graduates and staff started coming along to the lectures to bathe in his glory, and many of them not only had no philosophical knowledge or interests: they didn’t have a word of French. They would rush up afterwards to congratulate him in English and tell him how wonderful it was to hear him speak.
By now, though, through the popular-if-approximate translations, he had acquired American followers, and his considerable impact on a generation of thinkers began. In fact, he was paired with Foucault in people’s imagination. He had originally made contact with departments of comparative literature, for it was only there that people could be found with sufficiently good French to understand his lectures. The best secondary literature comes from those same people, and careful readings of his works and ideas are available. But a more characteristic example of the effect of Derrida on American intellectual life comes from Judith Butler, whose famous idea that “gender is performance” is said to be informed by her reading of Derrida, in particular his notions of iterability and citationality, ways of characterizing the “speech acts” familiar from British (J. L. Austin) and American (Searle) philosophy of language of the 1950s and 1960s. The speech act is also called a performative utterance, and special examples from the literature are a judge pronouncing sentence, or actors performing their lines in a way which is inauthentic at some level. Butler’s big idea was that the same kind of “performativity” applies to gender, with drag for example demonstrating the same kind of inauthentic message as an actor’s lines. Butler speaks French, enough to read, anyway, so on the face of it this looks like solid international philosophical exchange. Derrida reads J. L. Austin, and with his background in structuralist/post-structuralist ideas enriches concepts which are also current in the United States, where a leading feminist philosopher takes them up… But we can question to what extent Derrida’s most famous American disciple really understands or knows much about his philosophy apart from this one adapted idea.
Butler is famous for a style of writing which cannot be understood, and this has served her well. But in 2016 she was pinned down on Derrida specifically when she was asked to write an Introduction for the 40th anniversary special edition of the Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s English translation of De la Grammatologie. This more than any other text established the term “deconstruction” in the English -speaking world, linking it forever with Derrida. But Butler’s introduction, while slipping away into incomprehensibility when possible, nevertheless raises the question of how much of the book she has understood (one could even wonder if she has actually read it), as she makes basic errors about key concepts. A lengthy review in the Los Angeles Review of Books by Geoffrey Bennington, Professor of Modern French Thought at Emory University, a leading Derrida scholar, describes Butler’s Introduction as “riddled with vagueness, inaccuracies, misunderstandings and plain errors […] Luckily for such new readers, perhaps, the Introduction is very hard to follow.”
Readers may find the whole review, with a fairly damning catalogue of basic mistakes, online, but one thing that is quite extraordinary is that Butler does not seem to know what structuralism is. The starting point of De la grammatologie is an analysis of Saussure, whose importance in French thought can hardly be exaggerated: a kind of French (well, Swiss) Chomsky in his day for his importance both in linguistics, influencing Roman Jakobson and the Prague School in particular, and in the human sciences as the French call them: Marcel Mauss and Claude Lévi-Strauss having developed foundational ideas on structuralist anthropology in classic works, while semiotics, too, is mainly a development of Saussure’s linguistics. Butler demonstrates no knowledge of the basic concepts of structuralism, but seems instead to think that it is Saussure who invented Grammatology. This is passing strange. Why was she chosen to write this foreword if she doesn’t understand the book it presents? It is because she is America’s leading post-structuralist philosopher, apparently.
This is not a slur or empty accusation. In the new foreword for the 1999 re-edition of Gender Trouble, the book that made her reputation, she uses the words “post-structuralist” and “post-structuralism” seven times, and explicitly acknowledges Derrida as the source for her exciting concept of performativity. But as her own idea of structuralism is essentially a naïve one, derived from a superficial reading of Lévi-Strauss, whose anthropology cannot be understood without knowledge of its basis in the tradition leading back to Saussure, what she has perhaps unwittingly created is the monster of naïve post-structuralism, which now seems to be the dominant form of this belief in American academic circles, outside the narrow group of experts in Continental Philosophy who actually know what they are talking about. If you don’t know what structuralism is, you might naively think it is a general belief in structure, and similarly, if you don’t know what post-structuralism is, you might naively think it is a movement that rejects all structure in argument, favouring instead the kind of free-form riffing that the movement has in fact produced. This is a devastating standard to adopt.
One of Butler’s many awards is First Prize in the 1998 bad writing contest of the journal Philosophy and Literature. Professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at UC Berkeley at the time, her winning passage is about a “structuralist” account of capital. To be fair to her, it is rather a philistine impulse to award such prizes in the first place: her all-but-incomprehensible writing style is obviously a career choice and not just incompetence. Is the principle of this kind of American post-structuralism just to hijack individual words or phrases that you like the sound of?
When it comes to Derrida, however, she knows which side her bread is buttered. She wrote an obituary in the London Review of Books when he died in 2004. “Jacques Derrida was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century.” This obituary also makes some approximate use of structuralist jargon, and explains “différance” by saying that this is how Derrida spelt “difference”, and claiming that it characterizes “the relation of sexual difference”, which is another odd reading. This term, however, had already been picked out by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Derrida’s first translator, as having some special meaning in relation to sexuality, which I confess I do not understand, and it has become a popular buzz-word of feminist discourse, but cut entirely free from its original conceptual moorings. Michelle Boulous Walker of the University of Queensland rather magnificently makes the claim that différance represents “labial logic” which “confounds oppositional thinking” as “the singularity of the labia is always double, never one.” Odd scraps of Derrida’s writings have thus been used by Judith Butler to construct her labyrinthine queer theory, and via the impressive-sounding strategic essentialism, are powering the hot issue of cultural appropriation. It is hard to believe that he would really have gone along with all this, but who knows?
When he was invited to teach at the University of California, Irvine, from 1987, Derrida made an epoch-making decision. He would, for the first time, lecture in English. Not, that is, for his light-weight appearances in support of a human rights issue or to accept an award: his actual formal philosophical essays from Paris. His archi-écriture. His books were now appearing in English editions, but this was new work and not yet translated. So what he began to do was to look at the French text and improvise an English translation on the spot. This opened up his public enormously. The problem was what is always the problem with translation. Understanding the source language is usually fairly straightforward, as long as you know the subject matter. It is having sufficient mastery of the target language to express yourself well enough to get the point across that is difficult. Vladimir Nabokov, one of the rare authors who achieved excellence of style in two languages—his native Russian and English—was also a translator, and produced some famous if impractical guidelines for translation, published in the New Republic in 1941. One of his principles was that the translator should have equally perfect knowledge of the two languages. Good advice: and advice to which Derrida should have given some more thought.
The sad truth is that his English, while good, was just not good enough for this very demanding task, and in particular not good enough to explain to monoglot Americans his terminology and its derivation. After all, as later and more precise translations show, even the best professional translators couldn’t really manage it. There is an example of this on record, at the beginning of Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman’s 2002 documentary Derrida: although actually he is performing the much less demanding task of speaking in French and adding little explanations of individual words in English. It is the example already given of le futur versus l’avenir. At l’avenir he pauses and drops in “to come” in English as an explanation. If you know French, you can see what he means. You could break down the word l’avenir to l’à venir in a certain sense, but to give this in English as “to come” is very misleading. “What is to come” would be better: or Wittgenstein fans might prefer “That which is to come”. Suggesting that it is the infinitive of the verb “come” is ridiculous. So even with the simplest terminological points, Derrida slips up. The inevitable result of applying this system to long texts is that his elegant French periods were turned into a hopeless word salad, comprehensible only to the lecturer himself.
This, I contend, is how Derrida ruined academia. His books and his formal thought have faded away into a specialized area of study that looks increasingly historical. Maybe in time there will be a foundation and a library and Derrida Studies will become a thing. But his lectures played another role. Derrida was one of those public intellectuals who create an atmosphere around them. Just being around them allows you to breathe some of it. You could call this their informal influence. Television magnifies it; the internet does so even more effectively. We can all think of examples. These Californian lectures were meant to be the ne plus ultra of contemporary philosophy, attended by the cream of America’s intelligentsia. People would introduce him by comparing him to Kant and Heidegger. Butler goes for Socrates. And here was the paragon’s mighty thought: an hour of long and incomprehensible paragraphs, grammatically incoherent but stuffed with meaty little phrases and bright shiny neologisms: a new kind of souped-up beat poetry. And evidently, as the 1980s wound down, the same thing that occurred to Butler and Spivak occurred to his spellbound listeners, one after another. Hey! I could do that!
And so they did. The University of California Irvine’s Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies was founded in 1975 and has a specialization in Cultural Theory. As they themselves say: “our focus on theory links us to traditions of the Humanities and distinguishes us from programs that see themselves as disdainful of theory as an allegedly ‘masculinist’ or elitist enterprise. We believe, instead, that theoretical issues should be the lifeblood of an excellent program in Gender & Sexuality Studies, and that the distinction between praxis and theory is epistemologically untenable. Theories of agency, subjectivity, governmentality are key to our teaching and research.”
We all know what this “theory” means nowadays. Like “discourse”, it is a more polite name for the Derrida word salad, originally introduced in good faith in imperfect printed translations from the late 1970s, and then magisterially demonstrated in live performance ten years later and throughout the 1990s. It is the theory of everything and nothing: the theory that can never be refuted because it cannot be understood—unconscious random mistranslations turned into a model for literary and intellectual style. Feminism was a particularly good match for the word salad treatment because the feminist project at universities was not rationalistic or scientific, specifically rejecting any kind of counter-argument or criticism from the start. The only thing that mattered was the invocation and repetition of key terms to act as badges of allegiance to the feminist project: patriarchy, rape culture, whatever it might be; but built on some simple theoretical point. Gender is performance. The patriarchy is a rape culture. Labial logic. By adopting a non-rationalist approach, the only thing that mattered was assertion, and this nouvelle vague approach was excellent news for the tenured professionals now installed in women’s studies departments. It spread like wildfire. Black studies, Colonial studies, Queer studies, Fat studies… Anything with studies in it, and soon anything with gender or justice too. What was rewarded was the most extreme assertion, though to show that you were serious about pretending it all meant something, you had to decorate it with hundreds of pages of verbiage that amounts to ersatz mistranslation. Derrida’s complicated writings are a goldmine for serviceable terminology.
The chaotic, mistranslated text is the gold standard, the unreachable summit of wisdom. William Burroughs deserves some of the credit. Judith Butler has built a career on it, and to analyse it precisely, it is a reconstruction of the atmosphere of Derrida’s texts but without going to all the trouble of matching their density of content and ideas. Academic publishers are happy to go along with this imposture. Spivak, whose writing is also unreadable, took the atmospheric approach too, but directed mainly towards colonial studies and subaltern theory. But it has suddenly backfired in the universities. The radical feminists who were able to reward each other with tenured positions through ever more extreme man-hating dressed up like this for publication in each other’s journals had found that their victory was complete as far as female students were concerned, with mandatory indoctrination classes, so next they tried various stratagems to pull male students in too, aiming at 100% control of the general population. Men’s Studies? Might backfire. Getting men to declare themselves as feminists? Easy enough but with spotty results. Gender studies? Yes! That seemed to hit the spot: a tried and tested formula which by sleight of hand would rope men into the feminist agenda with compulsory classes and what is now a familiar range of measures, at no cost beyond having to tolerate some grateful and docile men in the staff room, mouthing your slogans back at you. But no-one could have foreseen the next divine intervention in the unfolding tragedy: the transgender activism which seemingly came from nowhere and to which no answer had been prepared or could be imagined. And so it came to pass that the senior echelon of salad makers were suddenly re-classified as TERFS. Citadel after citadel of feminist theory and discourse is falling to the men in lipstick. The meaninglessness of claims of labial logic and gender performativity has become a weakness rather than a weapon, as they have no means of resisting equally meaningless claims from the gender crowd. Trans women are women! The same mechanism explains the triumph of the social justice gangsters over older and less adventurous purveyors of Theory. And they all have the industrious and well-meaning Jackie Derrida to thank for it.
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I asked my friend Blaise Bachofen, a professor of philosophy in Paris and expert on Rousseau, if he could recommend someone for me to talk to about Derrida’s image in France today. “‘Not only do I not know any Derrideans in my own circle, even among people I do not know I cannot think of a single one. I am certain they are an extinct species.”
We had talked about Derrida and Husserl, actually, a few weeks ago, in the Jingshan park across the road from the back gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing. We both needed a breather after a long trudge around the huge site, and Blaise was more or less openly contemptuous about Derrida. It’s partly professional jealousy. I know how hard he has to work to get published, and he goes on about how something Derrida wrote on the back of an envelope would appear a few weeks later in a luxurious edition from a prestigious publishing house. It is true. Second-hand bookshops are well supplied with Derridean discourse. One example had obviously really got his goat. “I found one pamphlet in a bookshop,” he said, “about sans-papiers. You know, people without papers. Refugees. Well, at some point there was a fashion for talking about the paperless office. You remember. With computers. Le bureau sans papiers. And suddenly I realized that he was trying to argue that they were the same thing!”
He spread his hands eloquently.