Out on Their Ears


by Justin E. H. Smith

Derrida tells us, over and over, that différance is ‘neither a word nor a concept’. This is, however, not true. The first time Derrida used that collocation of letters, it was, indeed, not a word, but only a misspelling. But around the third or fourth time he used it, it had become a word. All that it takes for a vocable or an inscription to become a word, after all, is a place in a language game. By now it is a very familiar word indeed. Any literary theorist who confused différance with différence would be out on his ear, just like a theology student in the fifth century who confused homoousion and homoiousion.
— Richard Rorty, “Deconstruction and Circumvention” (1984)

In the five years since I moved to Paris as an American philosopher working within the French system, my disdain for what Americans know as ‘French theory’, and particularly for the American reception of it, has only deepened. Sometimes I find it burdensome to be pursuing my work so close to the belly of this noisome beast (my campus of the University of Paris lies on the city’s southeastern border, while the belly, properly anatomically speaking, is two RER stops to the west (its external gonads are up in St. Denis)), but for the most part I am happy to process this unanticipated twist in my career as one of my life’s animating ironies, and to milk this irony for insights that I would not be able to come by if I were either geographically far away from this intellectual culture, or a fawning convert to it.

Other than an isolated sentence here or there, I’ve never read Derrida, and never will. But then again there are countless other former students of the École Normale Supérieure, who spent their later lives riffing in various ways on the texts and authors they learned about at school, but who didn’t stumble, like Chance the Gardener, into some absurd American fame they could neither control nor understand, and I’ll never read them either. Does any American academic think there’s a serious gap in our reading if we haven’t tackled, say, Jean Hyppolite? Of course not.

Derrida means nothing without his Parisian institutional setting, but once that setting comes into focus, he continues to mean nothing, though now in a different way: he means nothing, individually, because the tricks he was encouraged to perform that so dazzled the crowds at Johns Hopkins and Irvine were taught to many others just like him, who would all of course insist on their own uniqueness, would claim they were always outsiders to the true French intellectual elite, but only because you cannot enter the tightest nucleus of this elite if you do not claim to be an outsider to it, all the while, all of them, yielding up only minor variations on the same recipes.

The logic of this performance of outsiderness is the same as in many genres of popular music, where the whole delicate game is to appear to maintain your street cred as a bad boy who disdains the major record labels and the award shows, all the while clamouring for such distinctions. The peculiarity of the Parisian intelligentsia is that it combines the bad boy ethos of punk or hip hop with an institutional upbringing comparable to Juilliard: you don’t come off the streets and get institutionalised at the moment of your discovery by the record agents and the big money people; rather, the institution is your ‘streets’; it is both where you get rigorously socialised into certain professional norms that are identical for everyone, and where you learn that part of mastering these norms involves pretending that you are a product of no institution.

Better for some, then, to go far away, where the rules of the game are not so transparent, where you’ve got no Bourdieu hounding you and exposing your every move as really nothing more than the species-specific behaviour of Homo academicus francogallicus. Like top chefs who travel far to ply their trade, Derrida found that the crowds at his distant destinations could not make any distinction between what was inspired in his words, and what was inherited, what was the product of a singular mind, and what the generic template of an earlier acculturation. The most conventional dishes will get French chefs raving reviews if they go and open a restaurant, perhaps calling it ‘Ooh-La-La’, in a strip mall in Orange County (an example drawn from my true memory of a suburban California childhood). That is the whole secret of Derrida’s decades-long mystification of the Anglophone world.

The American right and the ‘classical liberals’ continue to denounce the ‘postmodernism’ of the academic left, as if it were still 1984, as if nothing ever changes. They have not detected the massive upswell in the past few years of what is in crucial respects the exact opposite of postmodernism. Graduate students in the humanities are not deconstructing anything anymore, and are in no doubt about the existence or accessibility of certain basic truths. They are defending the truth of their moral world view, against the falsehood of the world view of their enemies. The dividing line is generational, and nowhere has it been more visible than in the recent revolution of comp-lit graduate students against their elders and ostensible mentors, Butler and Žižek and the others, who for their part, in the wake of the Ronell-Reitman sublimatedly-sexual harassment scandal, insisted in various ways that the human heart is a dark forest, and sometimes the real truth is hard to come by. However wary I am of the stark black-and-white moral realism of the grad students who rose up against Ronell, I am at least happy to see her New York branch of Derrida’s horrible chain finally closing down. I would however wish that the focus were on the food, on the fact that it is no good, while the young people’s principal complaint seems to be that the place is not, as it were, up to code.

The millennial revolutionary guard has, by now, mostly through the social media that still confuse the elders, seized symbolic power, and institutional power cannot be far behind (I am thinking for example of Andrea Long Chu, a lucid young mind who simultaneously fascinates and horrifies me, and to whom, I am certain, the future belongs). It is, again, definitely not postmodernism that they are enforcing. Perhaps, soon enough, if the new guard does not place an outright ban on these materials, it will be possible to go back and read Derrida (though I will not be the one doing this) in the only way any scholar should ever read anyone: as a product of his time and place. I certainly think this is scholarship worth doing; it is something like what I am doing right now in my research on the intellectual context of the University of Halle in the 1730s, discovering all sorts of obscure figures who expressed ideas very much like those of their contemporaries, and who together give a picture of what it would have been like to have inhabited that context. I would never even think of worshipping or fawning over any of them. Late-20th-century Parisian mandarins deserve exactly the same level and kind of interest. It is in fact all any mortal human author ever deserves.

It is, moreover, nothing short of the highest species of farce that the likes of Ronell were permitted for so long to use university offices as their deconstructionist romper rooms, to develop their tiny cults of personality and have their imagined French romances, only because administrators, unable to understand what the lit professors were talking about, assumed that it was just very difficult and profound philosophy, and saw that whatever it was all about was economically useful for the cultivation of institutional prestige.

If I were Ronell, I know what I would be thinking right now: Well, it was fun while it lasted, and it’s amazing we were able to drag it out for so long.

Piece originally published at