Is Derrida a philosopher? (Part II)

WARNING. This post is long. It concludes that Derrida is not ridiculous and that some of his work is not crap. If you believe a priori that no argument with that conclusion can be sound, skip this. Read something else.
Usage would have it that both Diogenes and David Lewis are philosophers. That already implies a job description of Mississippian breadth. Some people have proposed that we can and should use only a nominal definition: a philosopher is whoever has been called one. But sometimes we want or need to decide who is worth hiring, worth reading, worth citing. It won’t help then merely to know who has been called a philosopher. That list will almost certainly include people you’d reject out of hand. Even apart from practice, you may treat the term as having honorific or value-conferring connotations: only some people who are called philosophers actually deserve the title; bestowing it on those who don’t degrades it, & must be resisted. In either case, reasoned decisions require reasoned distinctions.
All that is elementary. Now to cases. Brian Leiter contrasts Habermas and Derrida on the basis of extracts from interviews in which each of them responds to questions about terrorism and about the World Trade Center attacks in particular (↓1).
Although I have my reservations about Habermas as a philosopher, there is no question that he is an important public intellectual and critic, especially in Europe […]. And the integrity of Habermas on this score, and the ridiculousness of Derrida, comes out very nicely in this interview.
Leiter then reproduces the “pertinent extracts”, which were sent to him by someone else. I’ll get to them shortly. The interview with Derrida took place five weeks after the event, and was “revised in French” by Derrida. When it was revised is not clear from the information online. The Chicago publication came out in the spring of 2003.
Habermas’s reply (↓2) exhibits “integrity” in keeping with his status. Derrida’s is “ridiculous”. That is the contrast we have before us. We are supposed to be able to discern the differences simply by inspecting the two quotations.
I ought to preface what follows by saying that my sole concern is to show that Derrida’s answer is serious, that there is an argument, and that in it he exhibits, among other qualities, integrity. In short: it is not bullshit. I leave Habermas out of the discussion, except to quote a few sentences for the sake of comparison. Here, then, is the passage quoted by Leiter. It is a bit less than half of the online extract.
Borradori: September 11 [le 11 septembre] gave us the impression of being a major event, one of the most important historical events we will witness in our lifetime, especially for those of us who never lived through a world war. Do you agree?
Derrida: Le 11 septembre, as you say, or, since we have agreed to speak two languages, “September 11.” We will have to return later to this question of language. As well as to this act of naming: a date and nothing more. When you say “September 11” you are already citing, are you not? You are inviting me to speak here by recalling, as if in quotation marks, a date or a dating that has taken over our public space and our private lives for five weeks now. Something fait date, I would say in a French idiom, something marks a date, a date in history; that is always what’s most striking, the very impact of what is at least felt, in an apparently immediate way, to be an event that truly marks, that truly makes its mark, a singular and, as they say here, “unprecedented” event. I say “apparently immediate” because this “feeling” is actually less spontaneous than it appears: it is to a large extent conditioned, constituted, if not actually constructed, circulated at any rate through the media by means of a prodigious techno-socio-political machine. “To mark a date in history” presupposes, in any case, that “something” comes or happens for the first and last time, “something” that we do not yet really know how to identify, determine, recognize, or analyze but that should remain from here on in unforgettable: an ineffaceable event in the shared archive of a universal calendar, that is, a supposedly universal calendar, for these are—and I want to insist on this at the outset—only suppositions and presuppositions. Unrefined and dogmatic, or else carefully considered, organized, calculated, strategic—or all of these at once. For the index pointing toward this date, the bare act, the minimal deictic, the minimalist aim of this dating, also marks something else. Namely, the fact that we perhaps have no concept and no meaning available to us to name in any other way this “thing” that has just happened, this supposed “event.” An act of “international terrorism,” for example, and we will return to this, is anything but a rigorous concept that would help us grasp the singularity of what we will be trying to discuss. “Something” took place, we have the feeling of not having seen it coming, and certain consequences undeniably follow upon the “thing.” But this very thing, the place and meaning of this “event,” remains ineffable, like an intuition without concept, like a unicity with no generality on the horizon or with no horizon at all, out of range for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation, a conjuring poem, a journalistic litany or rhetorical refrain that admits to not knowing what it’s talking about. We do not in fact know what we are saying or naming in this way: September 11, le 11 septembre, September 11. The brevity of the appellation (September 11, 9/11) stems not only from an economic or rhetorical necessity. The telegram of this metonymy—a name, a number—points out the unqualifiable by recognizing that we do not recognize or even cognize that we do not yet know how to qualify, that we do not know what we are talking about.
Let’s take Derrida’s points in order.
  • People use the phrase ‘September 11’ as a kind of shorthand for the events that occurred on that date in 2001. They do so as if it were entirely natural, as if we all understood what we do in employing phrases or names in this way (↓2a).
  • Some events are immediately felt to “make a mark”—to be unprecedented and therefore to divide history into a before and after. The events of September 11th are among such events.
  • That feeling is “less spontaneous than it appears”. It is largely conditioned, even created; at any rate, it is enormously reinforced by the media and the powers that control the media (↓3).
  • Why do we treat some events (but not others) in the manner described in (2)? The presupposition is that something has happened that we cannot yet handle in the usual ways (e.g., by placing it into a historical narrative, or classifying it with similar events); there is also a presupposition that the event has a universal significance. Those presuppositions may be mistaken. They should at least be subjected to scrutiny. Some of the people who make them do so unreflectively; others introduce or promote them as part of a calculated strategy (↓4).
  • The very fact that the indexical phrase “September 11th”, without any descriptive addition, is used to refer to the event suggests that indeed there is something about the event that language (e.g., phrases like “international terrorism”) is not (yet) equipped to handle. (Derrida agrees that the event seems in some respects singular.) In that sense “we do not know we are saying or naming” when we speak of September 11th.
  • The name functions, moreover, as a kind of “ritual incantation”, as if in at least having a name for the event we were in some way managing it, even though we do not understand it (↓5).
  • The brevity of the phrase “September 11th”, the use of a date to name an event (which is the “metonymy” here), is not merely a matter of convenience, not merely a rhetorical figure. It indicates a recognition that we do not recognize (i.e., we cannot classify) or cognize (subsume under a concept) what has happened or what September 11th is (↓6).
I hope the reader will agree that
  • What is being expressed here is a view—a view about the significance of using the name “September 11th” to refer to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It is not poetic rhapsody or free association.
  • The view is not so implausible or in some other way so defective as to be “ridiculous”.
What remains, then, to justify calling it “ridiculous” or “bullshit” must be some other gross failing. Identifying bullshit is not an exact science. I assume that “dressing up trite thoughts so as to make them seem profound” will count.
For Derrida it would be trite, and unphilosophical, simply to use the designation “September 11th” without reflecting on the presuppositions that make it seem proper, even compelling, to name the event thus and not some other way. He makes some of those presuppositions explicit. Principal among them is that the event eludes or seems to elude classification; it is, or is said to be, singular, and that singularity is the basis for marking a “cæsura”, as Habermas calls it, on that date (↓7).
Is that trite? Millions of people began using “September 11th” or “9/11”. Very few thought to ask why it seemed right to do so. That the event was singular—that nothing like it had happened before (at least to “us”)—was a commonplace, and was invoked to argue for the curtailing of rights under the Patriot Act. How many people (at least in the US) thought to question that commonplace? How many wondered whether in naming the event by its date, we were treating it as singular, hence as unknowable (if to know something is to bring it under a concept, and thus to regard it as potentially one of many of the same sort, potentially repeatable)? Even if some of what Derrida says is mistaken, it isn’t trite.
I’ll suppose that some part of what Derrida is saying does not strike you as obvious. What remains is the “dressing up”. “The point is plausible and not trite”, I hear Contrapomposus (or Contrapomposa) conceding, “but why put it in such overblown, rebarbative language?” The question seems to be one of efficiency. Contrapomposus laboriously decodes a page of Grammatology only to find that the message wasn't worth the effort, and is justifiably incensed. Philosophers who are wrong we can stomach. After all, to judge from the literature, most philosophers think that most other philosophers are wrong. Those who, whether wrong or right, waste our time, who con us, get the bile flowing.
Difficulty is relative to all sorts of things. So is the value of the message. I spent the better part of a summer reading Husserl’s works on logic, and decided it wasn’t worth going further with them. Serious though the issues were, and however diligent Husserl’s treatment of them, the work didn’t reach my threshold. I don’t regret having read Husserl; now I know what I’m not missing. The reputation & influence of Husserl suggests to me that I may be wrong. But I’m not yet moved to give him another chance. (The Crisis, on the other hand, I found illuminating and helpful; I’d like to study it further.)
I suppose we all have a kind of threshold for the ratio between difficulty and the percceived value of what we get in overcoming it. What rises above that threshold we read, what falls below we set aside (or hurl at the wall—a matter of temperament, that). If, when you read Derrida, your threshold isn’t reached, stop. Why torture yourself? (But don’t hurl the book at the wall. You’ll diminish its resale value.)
Still there remains the question of style. What is the added value in Derrida’s having put his view as he did? If you think the paraphrase above is not only adequate but easier to understand, then haven’t I shown that Derrida’s own way of putting it is inefficient? Let’s see.
“To mark a date in history” presupposes, in any case, that “something” comes or happens for the first and last time, “something” that we do not yet really know how to identify, determine, recognize, or analyze but that should remain from here on in unforgettable: an ineffaceable event in the shared archive of a universal calendar, that is, a supposedly universal calendar, for these are—and I want to insist on this at the outset—only suppositions and presuppositions.
It’s a complicated sentence, for sure. But not syntactically deviant. ‘From here on in unforgettable’ is unfortunate. But it is only clumsy (and probably doesn’t reflect any clumsiness in Derrrida’s French), not ungrammatical or ambiguous. Are there any unexplained terms of art? It doesn’t seem so; ‘universal’ is being used as in ‘universal history’, a familiar enough notion to anyone who has read Kant or Hegel. Derrida has his technical terms, but this isn’t one of them. How about redundancies? Derrida could perhaps have reduced ‘identify, determine, recognize, or analyse’ to fewer terms. But I would bet that if asked, he could have justified each of them as a distinct and necessary part of “knowing what something is”. The same goes for “suppositions and presuppositions”.
The ridiculousness and crappiness of this sentence elude me. But perhaps those are emergent properties, detectible not in sentences but only in whole discourses.
I include below passages from Habermas and Derrida (the latter not quoted by Leiter) in which the topic (the significance of September 11th) is similar. I must admit that it is quite beyond my powers to discern integrity in one but not the other. Is asking on what basis we judge an event to be “major” frivolous, while saying that the magnitude of the event can be judged only in retrospect by “effective history” (the phrase is Hegel’s) is not?
If the September 11 terror attack is supposed to constitute a caesura in world history, as many think, then it must be able to stand comparison to other events of world historical impact. For that matter, the comparison is not to be drawn with Pearl Harbor but rather with the aftermath of August 1914. The outbreak of World War I signaled the end of a peaceful and, in retrospect, somewhat unsuspecting era, unleashing an age of warfare, totalitarian oppression, mechanistic barbarism and bureaucratic mass murder. At the time, there was something like a widespread foreboding. Only in retrospect will we be able to understand if the symbolically suffused collapse of the capitalistic citadels in lower Manhattan implies a break of that type or if this catastrophe merely confirms, in an inhuman and dramatic way, a long known vulnerability of our complex civilization. If an event is not as unambiguously important as the French Revolution once was—not long after that event Kant had spoken about a "historical sign" that pointed toward a "moral tendency of humankind"—only "effective history" can adjudicate its magnitude in retrospect.
To produce a “major event,” it is, sad to say, not enough, and this has been true for some time now, to cause the deaths of some four thousand people, and especially “civilians,” in just a few seconds by means of so-called advanced technology. Many examples could be given from the world wars […] but also from after these wars, examples of quasi-instantaneous mass murders that were not recorded, interpreted, felt, and presented as “major events.” They did not give the “impression,” at least not to everyone, of being unforgettable catastrophes.
We must thus ask why this is the case and distinguish between two “impressions.” On the one hand, compassion for the victims and indignation over the killings; our sadness and condemnation should be without limits, unconditional, unimpeachable; they are responding to an undeniable “event,” beyond all simulacra and all possible virtualization; they respond with what might be called the heart and they go straight to the heart of the event. On the other hand, the interpreted, interpretative, informed impression, the conditional evaluation that makes us believe that this is a “major event.” Belief, the phenomenon of credit and of accreditation, constitutes an essential dimension of the evaluation, of the dating, indeed, of the compulsive inflation of which we’ve been speaking.
(↑1) The interviews, conducted by Giovanna Borradori not long after September 11th, were translated and published by Chicago under the title Philosophy in a time of terror. The passages quoted by Leiter can be found here.
(↑2) Borradori’s question to Habermas is: “Do you consider what we now tend to call ‘September 11’ an unprecedented event, one that radically alters the way we see ourselves?”
(↑2a) Derrida undoubtedly has in mind other phrases used in the same way, like “Pearl Harbor”, which was often mentioned in the immediate aftermath of the event. Jean-François Lyotard had already written on the “names of history” in Le différend (1983). —It can’t be that examining the language used to talk about something is itself ridiculous. You might think that as a way of reflecting on September 11th in particular it is perverse or inadequate. But it can hardly be called unphilosophical. Later in the interview Derrida addresses the question:
I believe always in the necessity of being attentive first of all to this phenomenon of language, naming, and dating, to this repetition compulsion (at once rhetorical, magical, and poetic). To what this compulsion signifies, translates, or betrays. Not in order to isolate ourselves in language, as people in too much of a rush would like us to believe, but on the contrary, in order to try to understand what is going on precisely beyond language and what is pushing us to repeat endlessly and without knowing what we are talking about, precisely there where language and the concept come up against their limits: “September 11, September 11, le 11 septembre, 9/11.”
Not a new idea, certainly: that to avoid being mesmerized or enslaved by our ways of speaking, we ought to examine them. To that old idea Derrida adds the observation that people feel compelled to repeat the name (& other signifiers of the event, like the videos that were replayed so many times the first few days—one network, as I remember, incorporated video of the crash even into their event-logo, so that it could be seen before & after every commercial break. He suggests also that
(↑3) I don’t think there’s anything obscure in the last two points. Derrida wants to be careful in the way he puts them; he wants both to make a conceptual point about the treatment of certain events and to link that with the concrete act of marking a date (on a calendar, a memorial). He holds also that the treatment (up to that point) of the attacks on & the destruction of the World Trade Center, which were very soon (as I remember, even on the day itself) referred to by their date, rests not only on immediate responses but on decisions which reflect the interests of those who make them. Notice that he explains what he means be “apparently immediate”. He may be mistaken in deciding which of his words require explanation, but he is certainly aware of the distinction and of the obligation to explain those words whose meaning might not be readily apparent.
(↑4) The Bush administration used September 11th as a pretext for a global war on terrorism; the attack on the World Trade Center was treated as an event that justified [and still justifies! — December 2011] US intervention anywhere, sometimes on the grounds that the US is undertaking the defense not only of itself but of humanity. In those parts of the world that have long had to deal with political violence, both the presupposition that the attack was a singular event and that it was an attack on humanity at large were regarded with some bemusement. Sometimes (but not on September 11th) people here in the US regard the tendency of New Yorkers to treat New York happenings as of national interest with a similar bemusement.
(↑5) Derrida alludes very quickly to Kant (“an intuition without concept”), to phenomenological or hermeneutic notions of “horizon”, and to magical or religious notions on the efficacy of names. Those are the tools one might bring to the task of understanding the “names of history”; whether they will be adequate we don’t know.
(↑6) Metonymy is the use of an attribute of a thing to denote the thing itself. Any attribute will work (as in the example, familiar if you’ve read anything on reference, of using “the ham sandwich” to refer to the person who has ordered the sandwich). One reason Derrida mentions it is to emphasize that nothing essential about the event is signified in naming it “September 11th”. Only a numerologist or an astrologist would ascribe significance to the number ‘11’. On the other hand, the familiarity of the phrase “nine one one”, and the appropriateness of using that three-digit sequence to name a disaster certainly helped in making it seem suitable.
(↑7) Derrida puts the words “event” and “thing” in quotation marks; he also speaks of the “supposed ‘event’”. Quotation marks set around otherwise unremarkable words like ‘thing’ are warnings: unreflective use of this word may engage you in questionable presuppositions. You might think that using them here (in a context where profound questions about the History of Being are not the immediate topic) is overly fussy. Perhaps so. But for Derrida, questions of that sort are always on the horizon. There are no merely practical, merely local questions.
The word ‘supposed’ is not intended to deny the reality of the destruction and suffering that occurred on September 11th (see the last quotation from Derrida in this entry: the event is “undeniable”, “all simulacra and all possible virtualization”). It goes, rather, with the quotation marks: we suppose that we can speak of September 11th as an event. But have we, to borrow a phrase from Kant, the “right” to use that word? Do we understand the conditions of possibility of its use? Some analytic philosophers are or were suspicious of words like “meaning” and “intention”. They demand warrant in the form, for example, of a reduction of those terms to terms they regard as unproblematic—behavioral, say, or at least extensional. Were they stylistically of the Derridean persuasion, they might very well put those terms in quotation marks. Derrida would subject humdrum phrases like “major event” to scrutiny. The project, if not the manner in which it is carried out, ought to be familiar (see, for example, Raymond Williams’ Keywords or Toulmin & Janik’s discussion of Karl Kraus in Wittgenstein’s Vienna).

LinkOctober 17, 2004 in Current Affairs · Society