Who Was Jacques Derrida?: An Intellectual Biography

Will be out soon from Yale University Press. David Mikics is someone I don’t know, but a brief look at a copy of this yesterday does not inspire confidence. At several points, Mikics takes Derrida to task, well, for being a philosopher. Read it, I’m not kidding. For example, Derrida famously asks a series of questions in Philosophy in Time of Terror (an interview, by the way) about what makes an event evental. Must it conform to some essence if it is to be an event? The implicit answer is, no, though Mikics says Derrida doesn’t answer the questions, leaving them inponderable. But as anyone who has thought about the “event” knows, he’s asking the precisely right questions. But Mikics suggests then that this, added with Derrida asking another series of questions about the meaning of “terrorism,” namely about where we put the line between terrorism and non-terrorism, somehow suggests that by not giving to charities, Mikics would be guilty of terrorism.

There are a lot of good Derrida critics (you might be one!). But there is a heavy load of anti-intellectualism in a lot of them, suggesting that because Derrida doesn’t cop to common sensical notions of the event or of terrorism, he’s somehow not an ethical thinker (p. 229). It may appear, I think, emotionless in the wake of the events of 9/11, but isn’t that a philosophers job to ask questions? To ask the classic question “what is X?” Yes, ultimately here he is trying to upset easy distinctions between continuous history and the event, between terrorism and non-terrorism, but that’s not a bug; it’s a feature. This is what philosophers do. We ask questions. We try to answer them in some way (what is an answer is also a big question), but the worst thing one could have done after 9/11 is accept all that the U.S. government had to say about what counted as an event and what counted as terror.

Celebrity Communists and the Implacable Other

John Paul Ennis steps in on the question of what function Zizek and Badiou play given their new prevalence on various BBC shows, etc., which John Gray had written about a few days ago. (See his post for the links.)

I want to push back hard against all of this, despite how much I may approve of some of the points Ennis makes. There is certainly a bit of daylight between Badiou, Zizek, and me. But the fact that they have become known is proof of nothing. First, it’s considered “hypocrisy.” (Engaging the system they critique or something.) Or it’s considered that by the very fact that they appear on these shows that somehow they must be “safe” for the dominant ideology. Thus we have Gray’s assertion that they are a “distraction.”

This treats ideology (or whatever your favorite deus ex machina is) as all powerful, as an Evil Genius à la Descartes, who knows all, sees all, and acts out perfectly what it wants. One sees this a bit, I think, in the concluding sections of Adrian Johnston’s book on Political Transformation, though it’s interesting that in the first half of the book, he’s right that we should not treat ideology as a “One-all.” In this view, if Badiou is on a TV show relatively few people watch, ideology must want him there. If Zizek speaks to Google execs, ideology must have put him there to show how imbricated his view of subjectivity is to the “google” model of capitalism. Perhaps it’s easier in a sense to admit defeat when we envision an implacable enemy of the left: it says why bother since nothing will come of it anyway. But the problem, I think, with some of Zizek’s writings on ideology and Badiou’s writings on “statist” thinking (it’s a giveaway, by the way, that he still utilizes such a model for power in society, to the exclusion of others) is that they often (not always) depict ideology as the One All in given set or world. But this is where Johnston’s iteration of Derrida’s “autoimmunity” in the first half of Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations is exactly right and bears repeating time and again. This shouldn’t lead to false hope (is there another kind?), but it shouldn’t lead to the weirdly repetitious (and tedious) renditions of “Communists are having fun” critiques. Johnston writes:

…Badiou and Zizek are justified in their shared conviction that the statist big Other [here, I hesitate with each rendition of power as "statist," though I know how it is not merely the "state," but it's still too homogeneous a form of power] is, despite masquerading as a monolithic apparatus of entrenched and integrated forces and factors, fundamentally delicate and vulnerable. Its own sprawling complexity—in Badiouian terms, the overdetermined intertwining of a teeming multitude of situations or worlds composing the components of a state’s domain escapes the coding and controlling powers of any state system—makes it inevitable [I would say "possible," given the inevitable problems of such a teleology] that internally generated bugs, conflicts, loopholes, and short circuits will be immanently generated [everything in Johnston's sprawling work comes down to the import of these last two words] within and between the very components of the statist Other (this being an aspect of what Derrida has in mind as regards the notion of “autoimmunity” disorders). … [This] lends political interventions a margin of incalculability. (p. 53)

Harman fishing

So I’ve decided to go back through Prince of Networks prepping for next semester’s course. This will be a good chance to catalogue Harman’s use of metaphors. How many analogies to pillaging? Eunuchs? The mating of disparate animals?

And are all of these borrowed from his experiences as a grad student at DePaul?

Book Publishing

Matty Yglesias writes:

The other day, John Holbo wrote:

I hereby declare – for the benefit of anyone at Oxford UP who might be reading – that I was going to require my (probably 50-or-so) students next semester to buy your serviceable little paperback volumes: Woolhouse’s The Empiricists and Cottingham’s The Rationalists. I assigned them when I last taught History of Modern Philosophy, a few years back; and it worked out fine. But now that I see they cost $45 each, for a lousy sub-200 page, 7” x 5” paperback and pretty cheap paper. What’s that about? Do I really want my students to hate me? (Do I want to hate myself?) I am quite sure they were not this pricey a few years back. There is such a thing as charging too much, given that these books are not actually so good that they cause one’s head to explode with insight into the history of modern philosophy. So I am going to put these particular books on reserve in the library, and recommend them to my students as resources, but I am re-doing my syllabus in protest at absurd pricing. So there. Oxford UP has lost a course adoption – the holy grail of textbook publishing. Let that be a lesson to you.

I find myself perennially baffled by the business model of academic publishing. Universities are non-commercial institutions that take substantial quantities of philanthropic and government funds to subsidize the production of scholarship but then turn around and try to manage the dissemination of scholarship on a quasi-commercial basis.

The rise of digital technology makes it possible to disseminate ideas for almost no money. That’s something that’s created big problems for a lot of commercial institutions, but it’s been a boon for most non-commercial ones—all kinds of DC think tanks and advocacy organizations, for example, have much broader reach thanks to our ability to cheaply distribute ideas around the world over the internet. But academic publishing seems oddly resistant to this trend. But almost every major university in the world seems to be expending funds on activities that have less social value than nearly-free distribution (public domain books on kindle seem to usually cost about $2) of the results of their scholarship would have. And on a selfish basis, I assume that the kind of people inclined to write books about the history of early modern philosophy are more interested in finding an audience for their work than in making a quick buck—that doesn’t seem like a profit-maximizing sort of field of endeavor.

Looking for God

Just did a search under “God” in Youtube, hoping to find an old You Tube series that depicted God as an office Mensch. Alas, I didn’t find it. (Anyone remember what I’m talking about? There was a great episode on why he doesn’t answer prayers—since it would only lead to more prayers and more paperwork…) So, I search Youtube for God. First result: T.J. Hooker, the 80s Will Shatner t.v. series. What else would it be?

Too much?

I wrote this tonight. We’ll see if this sticks in once I’m off the Vicadin. Here, I’m taking up the oft-found “transcendent event” as Other:

To use another analogy borrowed from the messianism one finds often on the contemporary Continental scene, perhaps the point is less to think the event in terms of the purity of a virgin birth transcending a fallen past than to think the event as that which is a bastard thing, a return of a strange admixture of the past that nevertheless immanentally provides for change, however impure it may be. In this way, I’ll be led less to the “evental discipline” called upon by Badiou than a certain promiscuity that political strategy, if it is free of structural determinism, must engender. We must risk prostituting ourselves to the dominant ideology, or we risk nothing.

Johnston’s Book on Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations

I’m writing an essay in the next day or so, with a deadline to have it done before the holiday. The surgery early this week gave me the chance to finish up the book, albeit while taking Vicadin (especially during the Badiou sections). It’s good, and it’s one of those great, contemporary reads where I spend quite a bit of time writing in the margins. I have some questions, but overall I think I’m lucky to be coming up in an era where a certain type of precise philosophical analysis is prized over poetic invention. I can think of quite a few others in my generation or thereabouts that fit this description. I’ll probably post here some extra thought I have that won’t work for footnotes or fit into the text. One thing immediately:

Johnston mirrors a shared critique among Hallward, Srnicek, and a few others on a lack of a coherent account of the pre-evental in Badiou. I’m not a defender of Badiou, so I would appreciate someone steering me correctly on this one, but it seems to me that this critique is based on a thinking of pre / present / post “statist” time that Badiou himself critiques. In other words, if Badiou provides an account of a disciplined “fidelity” to the event after the event, this does not mean simply what we should take to be literally “after” the event, like gearing up to be faithful to the event of the French Revolution (that bourgeois affair!) on July 15, 1789, the day after the storming of the Bastille. No, the point is to think a step out of time such that one is faithful to the event that one could then, by discipline, redeem in the past. This strikes me as quite a different claim, and one not amenable to Johnston’s critique. In other words, I think ultimately this is about right in terms of its emphasis on the “pre-evental” (in fact, I would have argued such this past weekend at the Sartre Society had I been able to go), but since Badiou is rethinking the temporality of political transformation we can’t fault him for not considering how to bring about the event. Rather, he’s saying, stop putting off the event to the future, to the “to-come.” Bring it about not just now, but in fact make it have happened, by disciplining oneself to bring about the revolt from events that have already occurred. I think Johnston accounts for this in his own way, but by the end of the book, even though he stipulates exactly this kind of temporality, he says it’s missing Badiou. I’m not sure.

But what if I agree?

Harman writes about dogmatists:

Here’s a good litmus test for deciding whether you are too dogmatic or not… How many people do you admire despite disagreeing with them completely? A good, healthy mind will have a long list of such figures.

But will a good, healthy mind have a long list of figures that one likes despite “agreeing with them completely”? I don’t know who would qualify under this mode, but I should say that when I’m reading someone and I’m agreeing, I tend to find the work more simplistic that it probably really is (after all, I get it) and then I start trying to find room for disagreement. In the end, I think this is one way that I try out various positions that I adhere to, even those that I adhere to implicitly. So I wonder how many people have a list of figures with whom they “agree”—completely or not.

Philosophy Quizzes

Like many of you, I came back to my email this week after undergoing surgery to find the Philosophical Survey. I keep get implored to do it, as if somehow that a certain quantity of people would make this a good sample set. (What is the set supposed to be: American and British working philosophers? Tenure track and tenured philosophers? Is this going to be set off against non-tenured and non-tenure track philosophers?) Here, I take it, are the questions. I love the simple yes or no style of this. How many papers can be written simply on the false choices below? I was going to post some cool, snarky answers but I’m not feeling up to it…

A priori knowledge: yes or no?
Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?
Aesthetic value: objective or subjective?
Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no?
Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?
Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?
God: theism or atheism?
External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?
Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism?
Knowledge claims: contextualism, relativism, or invariantism?
Laws of nature: Humean or non-Humean?
Logic: classical or non-classical?
Mental content: internalism or externalism?
Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism?
Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism?
Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism?
Moral motivation: internalism or externalism?
Moral judgment: cognitivism or non-cognitivism?
Newcomb’s problem: one box or two boxes?
Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics?
Perceptual experience: disjunctivism, qualia theory, representationalism, or sense-datum theory?
Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view?
Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism?
Proper names: Fregean or Millian?
Science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism?
Teletransporter (new matter): survival or death?
Time: A-theory or B-theory?
Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?): switch or don’t switch?
Truth: correspondence, deflationary, or epistemic?
Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible?