Friday, April 18, 2014

Always Already Derrida: Berfrois Interviews David Mikics

December 15, 2010Print This Post         

by Russell Bennetts

David Mikics is a professor at the University of Houston and writes on Renaissance literature,  twentieth century poetry and fiction, continental philosophy, and literary theory. His published works are on ideas which range from pathos and subjectivity in Spenser and Milton to individualism in Emerson and Nietzsche.

His current book, Who Was Jacques Derrida? provides a summary and evaluation of Derrida’s career together with portraits of some of his major precursors, including Sartre, Husserl, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, and J.L. Austin.

Berfrois

How relevant does Jacques Derrida remain today?

Mikics

For better or worse, Derrida continues to be a dominant figure in the academic humanities. There’s a steady stream of books about and by him (during his life Derrida published about seventy books; there have been at least a half-dozen more since he died, six years ago). Most of the books about Derrida take him as gospel truth, claiming that he uncovered, for the first time, an essential truth about life and the world. Derrida wrote brilliantly about so many central thinkers of the Western tradition: Plato, Freud, Nietzsche, Heidegger and many more. In Who Was Jacques Derrida? I offer vignettes of these philosophers, giving my own sense of their work, along with an account of what Derrida did with them. Often, Derrida gave a partial or misleading account of his philosophical influences, but he always did so in an interesting way. The struggle between him and his great predecessors is dazzling to watch. I try to present these encounters in a lively and readable way, for readers who may not have the time or stamina to wend their way through Derrida’s many books, which can be tough going at times.

Berfrois

Early on in ‘Who Was Jacques Derrida?’ you state that “Derrida’s denial of psychology also denies biography.” When considered alongside his famous assertion that “there is no outside-the-text,” would you admit to there being a certain irony in your decision to produce an intellectual biography of the philosopher?

Mikics

Sure, there’s an irony there. Derrida’s life is so fascinating: he was the Jewish Algerian outsider who grew up during Vichy, the poor kid from the sticks who finally made it to the nerve center of intellectual life, Paris and the École Normale Supérieure. He was a lifelong rebel who first battled Sartre and the Marxist ideology that dominated the ENS in the Fifties, then fought against the sway of Lévi-Strauss’s structuralism, and later on reacted with finely stated ambivalence to the student rebellions of the Sixties. Even after he became the head of a powerful academic movement that influenced everything from architecture to literature to fashion, he continued to stir up trouble. He was an iconoclast, first to last, and sometimes a self-contradictory one. At Yeshiva University, he declared that the meat industry was a Holocaust—but he was an ardent meat-eater himself. He boldly defended bigamy, and fathered a son outside his marriage. Yet he insisted that the real life of any individual is utterly private, a cryptic, mysterious thing that must remain inaccessible. He cherished, to the point of sentimentality, the privacy of the individual.  When uncomfortable facts surfaced about Derrida’s dear friend Paul de Man–after de Man’s death, it was discovered that he wrote pro-Nazi articles for a Belgian newspaper during World War II—Derrida argued heatedly that no one could possibly know what was going on with de Man at the time: one should not judge him, but rather respect his privacy. This is what I call Derrida’s resistance to psychology: a respect for the unknowable individual. Yet, even as he shielded de Man in this way, Derrida fantasized openly about de Man’s life during the war: perhaps de Man was a heroic resister, torn apart by an inward struggle over what was happening in Europe. In the de Man case, we see the revenge of psychology: Derrida couldn’t avoid imagining the inner life of his dead friend. So his desire to avoid psychology doesn’t work. We must admit our desire to imagine the lives of others; their lives do tell us what we need to know. In the case of Derrida himself, the life doesn’t explain the thought, but it provides a necessary framing for it. We need to see who he was in order to understand his thinking.

Berfrois

How did your own time at Yale determine your feelings towards the legacy of Derrida?

Mikics

I loved being at Yale in the Eighties. There was a tremendous sense of intellectual ferment, of discovering a new world. The new world was arriving, of course, from Paris, and it brought a challenge to all previous ways of thinking. Suddenly, everything you knew—about reading, and maybe about life—was wrong. But we also felt some nervousness about this new wave’s cultlike ramifications. And some people, notably Stanley Cavell (at Harvard, but also in the Eighties), had a very engaged and persuasive argument with Derrida, one that took him in earnest and asked him real questions.

Berfrois

What has been the reaction of deconstructionists to the publication of your book?

Mikics

There have been many enthusiastic reviews, especially in the UK, but the only response from a deconstructionist that I know of has been a review by Nick Cohen in the TLS. He didn’t actually argue with any of the points I make in the book; I was disappointed by his failure to address my argument. He did fault me for saying that Derrida had distorted the thinking of earlier philosophers. According to Cohen, Derrida could not possibly have gotten anything wrong, because his theories prove that there are only readings, not distortions or mistakes. It wasn’t clear to me whether Cohen was saying that Derrida never makes a mistake, or that Derrida proves that no one ever makes a mistake. If the latter, then intellectual life becomes pretty much impossible, since everything everyone says is true. If the former, then Derrida becomes a sacred figure exempt from all criticism. I’m not interested in treating Derrida, or anyone else, as a sacred figure. I think he deserves much more: a serious response.

Berfrois

Are there any areas of academia that Derrida’s work is yet to significantly impact upon? If so, do you see his influence in this subject area growing in the future?

Mikics

There are some areas of the humanities, like history and political thought, that have been resistant to Derrida. I think that’s because these disciplines require a strenuous attention to local facts (history) or to competing intellectual models (political thought). Historians have to be empiricists; Derrida rejected such loyalty to fact. Political theorists ask about the best way of ordering the city or the state; this demands value judgments of the kind that Derrida refused to trade in. In the areas that Derrida has already colonized, especially literary study, he now competes with Žižek, whose madcap sensibility and shocking, flippant assertions appeal to many, and the more sober Agamben. And Derrida’s great posthumous rival is still the grim and insistent Foucault, who makes war on the imagination in a way that Derrida never did.

Berfrois

How did Derrida’s Jewish roots and upbringing in Algeria influence his thought?

Mikics

Derrida once said that nothing meant more to him than being a Jew—although, he added, being a Jew meant so little to him. The ambivalence is telling. Derrida had a fraught relation to religious ritual (he remembered with disgust that, in the Algeria of his youth, members of the synagogue would pay for the privilege of carrying the Torah). Like Freud, he refused to have his sons circumcised. Yet he wrote obsessively about Jewish topics, and his strongest intellectual influence in his later work was the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas. Lévinas embodied ethics and responsibility, the demand to be one’s brother’s keeper and to love one’s neighbor. These were crucial values for Derrida, and they consorted strangely with his aggressive skepticism about knowledge and truth. I think that, in the end, Derrida believed with Lévinas that ethics, the command to care for our fellow human being, is simply revelation; it cannot be philosophically demonstrated, and so it is immune to skepticism. This idea is profoundly Jewish. Derrida may not have trusted in the covenant—I can’t tell whether he did or not—but he was a Jew who saw the primal fact of ethics disclosed in the Torah and the prophets, rather than in Plato or Heidegger.

Berfrois

Derrida introduced you as a teenager to skepticism. Your book suggests you are now somewhat sceptical of some of Derrida’s work. What were his most pressing flaws? You mention his “fondness for apocalyptic drama”?

Mikics

There’s an intriguing drama in Derrida’s work: he takes skepticism as far as it can go, so that we can’t even trust our own thoughts or statements. There’s no anchor for experience, anywhere; everything shifts and rocks. And yet—here’s the drama—Derrida is intensely dissatisfied with such skepticism. He wants, he needs, something more. In the late Sixties, he finds that something in apocalyptic assertions about the monstrous revelations brought by “writing,” which for him becomes a kind of Nietzschean superman. Derrida was arguing against the easy revolutionary stance of the youth culture: instead of being already, nakedly liberated, he said, we are “always already” entangled in webs of writing, thought, commentary. But his high-pitched tone suggests that he wanted to compete with the revolutionaries, to fire the big, sublime guns at the barricades of Western metaphysics. This didn’t really work. Derrida needed something else to really go beyond skepticism, and he found it in the ethics that Lévinas gave him.

Berfrois

It is a great shame that Derrida was not alive to witness both the financial crisis and reactions to it. He would surely have been enthralled to have heard Alan Greenspan’s admission concerning his free-market  ideology that “Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.”

Mikics

Yes, I can imagine Derrida’s chuckle and his busy commentary on the financial crisis. That said, I don’t find him a particularly persuasive analyst of social, much less economic, phenomena. His late book on Marxism is one of his weakest: he fails to deal with the Cold War and the collapse, and remaking, of the Warsaw pact countries. This is an astonishing omission from a book on Marx written in the Nineties. It testifies to Derrida’s wish to remain at the level of pure thought, of  “a certain Marxism,” rather than the actual Marxism that had devastated the twentieth century.

Berfrois

Why do judgements of Derrida always seem to be determined by the political persuasion of the opinionator?

Mikics

I don’t think that’s true, although it’s probably the case that there are few conservative acolytes of Derrida. I’m a political liberal, and my own opinion of Derrida is that I want to have a conversation with him, since we are so close on some things and so far apart on others. I think that Cavell’s politics are similar, and that he has a similar response to Derrida. I’ve read condemnations of Derrida, and of  “theory” in general, from both the Right and the Left. My point in Who Was Jacques Derrida? is neither to condemn nor to endorse, but to understand—and to see more deeply into Derrida’s world and his tradition.

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