Monday, October 11

The NYTimes Buries Derrida in Countertruth

Question: Why, only days after his death, has the NYTimes whipped up confusion and heaped vicious insult upon one of the most lucid, courageous, and generous thinkers of the last 50 years?
Today's obituary in the NYTimes for Jacques Derrida, written by Jonathan Kandell, aggressively crumples this important thinker into a paper wad of all that is detested (and wildly misunderstood) by the academic intelligentsia in America and flings it with rage into a gaping grave of intellectual history. It pummels and spits upon Derrida with a ferocity that one normally reserves for one's most threatening — living and real — enemies. I will speculate why such a vicious thing as this could have appeared in a publication of this size and importance but, first, I note that friends and colleagues of Derrida have responded to Kandell's insensate diatribe with a co-signed letter to the editor which begins as follows:

Jonathan Kandell's obituary article on Jacques Derrida, published in the NYTimes of October 10th, is as mean-spirited as it is uninformed. To characterize Derrida, one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, as an "Abstruse Theorist" who is "notoriously difficult," is to employ criteria, such as simplicity or transparency, which would disqualify virtually all the significant thinkers of the past century, including Einstein, Wittgenstein, and Heisenberg. Worse, with scarcely concealed xenophobia, Derrida's work, and deconstruction generally, are described as yet another of those "fashionable, slippery philosophies that emerged from France after World War II," which "many Americans, in particular," felt were "undermining many of the traditional standards of classical education" as well as encouraging "divisive political causes."

In fact, Derrida's writing has been focused on the major works of the Western Tradition, from Plato, Aristotle, and the Bible to Shakespeare, Kant, and the Declaration of Independence — none of which he ever suggested we should discard as the products of "dead white men," as Mr. Kandell implies. As for political causes, Derrida was a tireless critic of apartheid and racism in all its forms.

While he asserts without further evidence that "literary critics" under the baneful influence of deconstruction allegedly "broke texts into isolated passages and phrases to find hidden meanings," Mr. Kandell himself does precisely this when he quotes several isolated statements without ever trying to indicate their possible context. They then are designated as "typical of Mr. Derrida's murky explanations of his philosophy." (One of the quotes he attributes to Derrida, "O my friend, there is no friend," is in fact from Aristotle!). In short, this text confirms one of the few sensible quotes it contains: "Many otherwise unmalicious people have in fact been guilty of wishing for deconstruction's demise-if only to relieve themselves of the burden of trying to understand it." Whether Mr. Kendall's article is "unmalicious" we will leave to others to decide. There can be no question, however, that his article does everything it can to "relieve" readers "of the burden of trying to understand" Jacques Derrida and deconstruction, by announcing the demise of both.

(Sam Weber, Northwestern; Ken Reinhard, UCLA)

Over 300 signers have joined in this letter of protest. The letter can be consulted and signed here.
I can only speculate and wonder, aghast, what led the NYTimes to launch such an attack on Derrida. Perhaps there is a history of confrontation that goes beyond the obvious contentiousness that has always marked the competing Anglo-American and Continental traditions of philosophy. Derrida was consistently submitted to dismissive caricature in the NYTimes and once, in a gesture that was rare for him, Derrida, to illustrate a larger point, discussed one of these incidents in a paper he gave called "History of the Lie: Prolegomena" (in Futures: Of Jacques Derrida, Ed. Richard Rand, Stanford U Press, 2001, 65-98). My speculation is that today's rancorous obituary both continues the tradition of treating intellectuals and Derrida, in particular, with smug brutishness and may even serve as pay back for Derrida's having responded to this particular instance of abuse in the NYTimes. In the paper, Derrida recounts how Tony Judt, a professor at New York University, published an article in the NYTimes entitled, "French War Stories," in which the author advances a number of laughably false claims concerning Derrida, Sartre, and Foucault, claiming that they are all Marxists and that they have all been "curiously silent" about Vichy France's responsibility in crimes of WWII. Aside from feeling indignant at the obviously false nature of the claims, Derrida expresses dismay at the fact that the partial retraction by the NYTimes of the article's scurrilous assertions, which came on the heels of a letter to the editor submitted by Kevin Anderson, an associate professor of sociology at N. Illinois University, was destined, as all such follow-up letters are, to obscurity. In expressing his dismay, Derrida describes what can be called, without exaggeration, the plague of the modern media state. Those attentive to political matters in the U.S. will immediately recognize in these words the guiding principle of George Bush's chief advisor and publicity guru, Karl Rove:

"Such letters are always printed in an unobtrusive and sometimes unlocatable place, whereas the effect of truth, or rather of countertruth, of the first article "properly speaking" remains ineffaceable for millions of readers..." (85)
The philosophical questions which the recounting of this incident allows Derrida to raise include the following:

"Exactly what is it a matter of here? Incompetence? Lack of lucidity or analytic acuity? Good faith ignorance? Accidental error? Twilight bad faith falling somewhere between the lie and thoughtlessness? Compulsion and the logic of the unconscious? An outright false witness, perjury, lie? These categories are no doubt irreducible to each other, but what is one to think of the very frequent situations in which, in fact, in truth, they contaminate one another and no longer lend themselves to a rigorous delimitation? And what if this contagion marked the very space of so many public discourses, notably in the media?" (83-84)
Again, Derrida's comments burn with relevance for the economically televised political environment of the United States. How is one ever to describe such a speech act as that in which George Bush, when asked in a "Townhall debate" about his environmental "record," says that, "I guess you'd say I'm a good steward of the land"? Into which of the many categories of error and deception that Derrida lists above should this incredible statement be included? And how could the massive effects of countertruth that it radiates throughout the land ever be stemmed or reversed?

As if Derrida's reflections on the lie did not already resonate strongly enough with our current media-controlled political environment and, in particular, the stubbornly duplicitous handling of the Iraq take-over by the Bush Administration, consider this further line of questioning, which shows that Derrida was not trying simply to score a point against his detractor:

"No doubt, one ought to keep a sense of proportion. But how to calculate proportion when the capitalistico-techno-mediatic power of an international newspaper can produce effects of truth or countertruth worldwide, which are sometimes tenacious and ineffaceable, concerning the most serious subjects in the history of humanity, going far beyond the modest persons implicated in the recent example I have just given?" (86)
The notion of countertruth, as Derrida conceives it here, is irreducible to that of the lie. Thus, Derrida underscores that,

" speaking of the countertruth [contre-vérité] of his article, I never said that Professor Judt lied. Everything that is false cannot be imputed to a lie. The lie is not an error. Plato and Augustine both insisted on this. If the concept of the lie has some resistant specificity, it must be rigorously distinguished from the error, from ignorance, from prejudgment, from faulty reasoning, from failure in the realm of knowledge, and even... from failure in the realm of action, practice, or technique.... In order to lie, in the strict and classical sense of this concept, one must know what the truth is and distort it intentionally." (85-86)
Consequently, the notion of countertruth:

"does not belong to the category of self-deception that Hannah Arendt talks about. It is not reducible to any of the categories bequeathed to us by traditional thinking about the lie, from Plato and Augustine up to Kant and even up to Arendt, despite all the differences that separate all these thinkers from each other." (87)
Perhaps this is nothing more than an irony, as one says, but no thinker more than Derrida has established the framework in which to question the mediatic techno-performativity in which falsehoods spread and, consequently, blot out truth with increasing rapidity and decisiveness. Case in point: the New York Times' most recent foray into countertruth production, which is called an "obituary."

The Judt article, Derrida wrote,

"is not the first time that newspapers bearing the name of New York in their title have said whatever they please and lied outright about me, sometimes for months at a time and over several issues." (84)
It is outrageous that the NYTimes has capitalized on the passing of this remarkable thinker by burying his name and reputation with what will certainly prove to have been massive effects of countertruth. I myself write on Derrida and can readily imagine that my writings will be received with increasing coldness and prejudicial stupidity.

In this time of xenophobic, imperialist presumptions running amok throughout the United States' jingoistic, corporate press, it is conceivable that Kendall's motivations, which the NYTimes gives full reign to by publishing his piece, concern, as well, a certain "pay back" to the French for their having been "disloyal" by not joining the unjustified assault on Iraq — as if, of all of his personal achievements and insights, Derrida's most enduring legacy were simply that, in being French, he represents a French "world-view," a quirky, Continental fashion in language, or un-American political configuration. (Even this simplistic assumption about his identity is something that Derrida, the Algerian-born Jew, had political, historical, and cultural reasons for disputing.) The motivation is conceivable, indeed, and for that reason alone, stands as a truly sad commentary on the state of the NYTimes, if not on the nation's Fourth Estate in general.