Monstrosity of the Unnameable
Illustration by Bob AulWe are all Derrideans now—sort of.
The proof is last year's election. No one knows who "really" won. The truth of that election is one muddy mise en abyme. Analyze the thing all you want—and we keep analyzing: The Miami Herald's recent "recount," despite the outrageously pacifying way it was headlined in the mainstream press, predictably rendered results that were utterly ambiguous—but the more you analyze, the clearer it becomes that the winner has become unrecoverably lost in the discursive noise surrounding the election. The "facts" of the case—the ballots and how they were punched or marked—aren't facts. They've become occasions for interpretation, and the more they are interpreted (not just by counters manhandling chad-sensitive ballots, but also by lawyers and the media manhandling an increasingly confused electorate), the further we get from any centered sense of what "really happened."
The more we want to know the truth, the less available truth becomes.
And in the end, it makes perfect sense to say that in the election of 2000, there is no there there. There was no election. There are only interpretations of the election.
Our acceptance of this peculiar interpretation of the election makes us followers —sort of—of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, a visiting professor at UC Irvine and the subject of a film screening on that campus this Tuesday.
Now, Americans usually express an enthusiastic "belief" in the truth and goodness of democracy. Democracy depends on the will of the people, which depends on a process whereby the will of the people can be accurately ascertained, which depends on fair elections, which depends on ballots whose meaning we can read objectively. If you can't read ballots—and if you can't come up with standards to read them that aren't utterly tainted by embarrassingly obvious partisan prejudices—you don't have democracy. The 2000 election deconstructed American democracy. (The March 26 Nation magazine cover story goes into this at length, incidentally, though it unaccountably lays the heap of the blame on Republicans.)
What I find interesting in all this is that, except for a few days in late November and early December when a genuine panic seemed to set in that essentially said, "Oh, fuck, this thing is out of control, we really have no idea who won, and Clarence Thomas is going to be one of the nine people in the whole country who's going to end this mess!"—except for that momentary freakout, Americans more or less went anti-foundationalist and said, "So what if we don't know? What are we going to do? Sit around and jaw about this forever? Just pick a guy, and let's get on with this thing."
The Derridean part of this—the part of the American psyche open to deconstruction—is the surrender to indeterminacy on a level of mass public awareness so undeniable that it almost suggests a Heisenbergian sea change in the way Americans think about truth (i.e., it depends on who's looking and gets changed by the looking). (It was Derrida who, in his first major address to an American audience, in 1966, appended the following epigraph from Montaigne: "We need to interpret interpretations more than to interpret things.")
Of course, the non-Derridean part of this—the "let's stop jawing about this and just pick a guy" part—suggests a cynicism about politics, a capitulation to panic and a re-embrace of the very authorities we're cynical about (even, for Christ's sake, Clarence Thomas) that makes it clear, to me at least, why Derrida is still so vital a presence on the American intellectual scene and why some of the bravest and most idealistic of our college students still cling to him as to an oracle.
Since 1986, Derrida has taught part of each year at the University of California, Irvine. Why he chooses to spend such a big chunk of his remaining years in Irvine I have no idea—maybe because Irvine is the antithesis of the "history" his thought is so much about trying to escape—but it's not hard to figure out why he likes America ("La deconstruction—c'est l'Amerique!" he has been known to joke). For one thing, America isn't France, where his star has been falling since the 1970s. The French philosophical tradition, since Sartre, has been ruthlessly engag, its cool rationality inextricably linked with hot political calls to action, and from the beginning, Derrida has been uncomfortable with radical politics. He never joined the French Communist party, was cool toward the events in Paris in May 1968 and never got caught up in the hysterical enthusiasm of French intellectuals for Mao. Michel Foucault became the glamour boy of French intellectuals, and since then, others have risen—Ernesto Laclau, Pierre Bourdieu and others—who have made Derrida irrelevant for many in his home country.
But the U.S. expects its intellectuals to be politically marginal, and if Derrida has taught us anything, it's that there's more freedom—or at least more free play—around the margins. Here, he can pursue the essentially Nietzschean project that he announced way back in his groundbreaking 1966 essay, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences." That project, to which he has remained remarkably true in the 35 years since, has been to try to turn his eyes, trained on the "monstrosity" of the "unnameable"—that is, the often horrifying experience of nihilism that comes from thinking without the calming certainty of a center.
That the style he has created to do just that can be almost unbearably circumspect and comically self-conscious is a matter of infinite frustration to his readers and Derrida alike. (Derrida, unlike Marx, Freud and Sartre, has never been interested in speaking to the masses.) Still, he soldiers on in language's dense thicket, producing more than 30 books and literally hundreds of articles, infuriatingly picky in his patient deconstruction of, well, everything, and as reliable a check on the swagger of the Western rational tradition as we're likely to get.
Lately, Derrida's work has gotten more overtly political—his work in the 1990s includes Specters of Marxand The Politics of Friendship—and he actually seems to defend rather than deconstruct such vital ideas as justice and democracy. Whether that constitutes a "turn" in his thought is something for the experts to argue about, but I find the conclusion to The Politics of Friendship, with its wistful tone about the promise of democracy, romantic and American in the best sense. "For democracy remains to come; this is its essence in so far as it remains: not only will it remain indefinitely perfectible, hence always insufficient and future, but, belonging to the time of the promise, it will always remain, in each of its future times, to come: even when there is democracy, it never exists."
I hear Thomas Jefferson in this, as well as Walt Whitman, William James, Martin Luther King Jr., the Thomas Pynchon of Mason & Dixon. Good company Derrida's keeping. Makes me glad he's here, keeping the company good.
Jacques Derrida and filmmaker Safaa Fathy host a screening and discussion ofD'Ailleurs, Derrida, at UCI Student Center, Monarch Bay Room B, Campus & W. Peltason drs., Irvine, (949) 824-4658. Tues., 6:30 p.m. Open seating; Early arrival is encouraged. Parking available in UCI parking structure 4. Free.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Orange County art and theater scene.