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Jacques DerridaIn response to an earlier post on The Imaginative Conservative, a valued colleague asked me if I would clarify how I understand the relationship between my attraction to so-called “postmodern” thinkers, like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, and my conservative “orientation,” as I earlier put it. What I offer here is one gesture in the direction of such clarification.

I am not the only supposedly conservative person around who urges other conservatives to consider the work of these authors carefully, rather than dismissing them as relativists, nihilists, or whatever is one’s favorite term of summary condemnation. But I understand the real substance of the question to hinge upon an implicit divide, not just between those who would urge reading them and those who dismiss them, but more between those who see them as a crucial contemporary contrasting perspective to conservative thought on the one hand, and on the other hand, those who find them closer than is usually assumed to conservative assumptions. I am indeed currently lingering in the latter camp, and it is perhaps less clear whether or not I have very many companions around that campfire.

An initial aside: It is notable that my reading of these figures as conservatively inclined in some important sense IS in fact shared by a fair number of their critics who identify in various ways with ostensibly “left” political inclinations. Thinkers who remain (at least apparently, and perhaps to varying degrees) avowedly Marxist have especially distrusted much of what is associated with the term ‘deconstruction,’ an established example being Jürgen Habermas, and perhaps the most recent prominent example being Slavoj Žižek.

I have elsewhere provided a few hints regarding the connection I see between Michel Foucault’s ethos of inquiry and the conservative intellectual tradition.[1] In order here to make a brief attempt (an experiment, Versuch) at addressing the question more directly, I will focus for the moment only on Jacques Derrida, often seen as theoretically (if perhaps not in life-choices) the more “wild and crazy guy” of the two, borrowing Dan Aykroyd and Steve Martin’s old SNL phrase.

My focus, in particular, is on the fact that Derrida himself admitted (in his own words, spoken in English at a “roundtable” at Villanova University) to being “a very conservative person.”[2] Is he kidding? He can’t be serious! He’s being “ironic,” as always, right? In my experience reading his work, even if Derrida is in fact “kidding” or “being ironic,” he is still as serious as can be.

My impression that Derrida was indeed a conservative person, as he claimed that day at Villanova, is reinforced rather than undermined by my reading of his biography by Benoit Peeters.[3] This is hardly what one would expect, I admit, given that so much of Derrida’s story is inextricably intertwined with the theorizing, the causes, and the actions of the European political left. But readers familiar with the stream of intellectual conservatism embodied by Russell Kirk should, I would expect, be rather less surprised than others at this point. They should be less surprised, at least, if they pay attention to Derrida’s lifelong antipathy to the partisan, to the all-or-nothing impulses that Kirk identifies with the term ideology. This, it seems to me, was a huge part of Derrida’s meaning when he famously said, in another interview, “I have always had trouble vibrating in unison.”[4]

But how could one take seriously the claim that the father of “deconstruction” could in any sense be a conservative? Rest assured that I have no intention of denying or minimizing the fact that Derrida always considered himself “a man of the left” (an oft-quoted self-description). And of course, I will freely admit to some rhetorical orneriness in casting this whole discussion as if simply to identify Derrida as a conservative. But it is not only orneriness. I believe that Derrida’s claim to be “a very conservative person,” whatever ironic flavor it might have, is also meant quite seriously. It expresses an emphatic stance against ideology in Kirk’s sense. Considered in its context, the statement is clearly an affirmation of the necessity of institutions, and arguably a clear affirmation of the necessity of tradition. “I try to dismantle not institutions but some structures in given institutions which are too rigid or are dogmatic or which work as an obstacle to future research.”[5] Commenting on his energetic activity over the years in support of the teaching of philosophy in France (even at a level equivalent to high school in North America), he says:

…I emphasized the necessity of discipline, of something specifically philosophical, that we should not dissolve philosophy into other disciplines, that we need at the same time interdisciplinarity, crossing the borders, establishing new themes, new problems, new ways, new approaches to new problems, all the while teaching the history of philosophy, the techniques, professional rigor, what one calls discipline. I do not think we need to choose between the two. We should have philosophers trained as philosophers, as rigorously as possible, and at the same time audacious philosophers who cross the borders and discover new connections, new fields, not only interdisciplinary researches but themes that are not even interdisciplinary.[6]

To anyone who has not carefully followed Derrida’s own responses to critics over the years, this may sound very strange. Does not “deconstruction” amount to the undermining and wholesale rejection of the Western philosophical tradition? No, in Derrida’s usage it does not! As if Derrida’s own frequent denials of this caricature are not enough support, Peeters’ book provides further warrant in its account of his life (and in a very traditional biographical format).

Part of why I call the discussion here an “attempt” (Versuch) is because I do not intend to produce a decisive argument in this brief space. Rather, it is intended more as a call to my conservative friends to reconsider a philosopher whom they may see as an enemy. The following “prods” that I offer in conclusion will still trade a bit on ornery rhetorical gestures as opposed to detailed argument:

First prod: “Deconstruction” as Derrida develops the idea is something that happens in texts when we try too stubbornly and too carelessly to read them as closed and finalized. It is not a technique or a method applied to a text from without, and it certainly is not a refutation or a simple logical undermining of a text. Derrida first used the word ‘deconstruction’ in passing, almost as an afterthought, and it became central for him (early on, at least) mostly in reacting to readers who took it to be central.

Second prod: Derrida is usually understood as having a good many substantive “theories,” or philosophical positions that he argues for. In most cases, he is not formulating his own theories so much as he is thinking through unexamined assumptions and implications of positions widely accepted by others. This is especially the case when he is said to have his own “theory of language” according to which authorial intent is denied any importance, or words do not really have meaning.

Third prod: Derrida does NOT believe that only texts exist, or that there is nothing but language, or that we are somehow stuck in subjectivism since we can never escape language. All that is required to understand that this is NOT the meaning of the sound-byte, “there is nothing outside the text,”[7] is a careful perusal of the immediate context of this infamous quote. What one finds in that context, in fact, is an insistence that the more transgressive, “deconstructive” reading of a text that Derrida is considering can only take place with a more traditional reading, what he calls “doubling commentary,” as an “indispensable guardrail.” On the same page as the infamous “nothing outside the text” statement, he writes:

To recognize and respect all [of doubling commentary’s] classical exigencies is not easy and requires all the instruments of traditional criticism. Without this recognition and this respect, critical production would risk developing in any direction at all and authorize itself to say almost anything. But this indispensable guardrail has always only protected, it has never opened, a reading.[8]

Derrida’s distinction between protecting a reading and opening a reading strikes me as resonating deeply with the repeated insistence by Kirk and other conservatives that the stability of tradition involves not changeless stasis (this would be the death of tradition) but dynamic critical continuity.

Fourth prod: If I were to choose one other philosopher in the Western tradition as the figure of which Derrida most reminds me, it would be Socrates. (I’m guessing this might be the most controversial of my suggestions, but I do mean it very seriously.) Recall that Derrida has insisted that there are some things which are not deconstructible, and that one of them is justice! The Socrates portrayed in the early Platonic dialogues is, from what I can see, no more a friend of definitional or argumentative finality or closure than is Derrida. But, some will object, Socrates’ inquiries assume the possibility of finality, a telos of inquiry that would bring closure. I am not absolutely convinced that this is accurate in the case of Socrates; nor am I absolutely convinced that it is NOT so in the case of Derrida, in some sense. Put another way, Derridean irony does not strike me as more vicious or nihilistic than Socratic irony.

I’ll leave it at four prods for now.[9] I certainly don’t expect what I write here to change (or to make up) your mind regarding Derrida. But I do hope that, if you have relegated Derrida to the lower levels of the inferno populated by paradigmatic non-conservatives such as John Dewey, you might at least be provoked into openness to actually reading his texts. Yes, most of them are very difficult, but usually no more so than those of many major Western philosophers throughout its history. Yes, some of them (by no means all!) have a deliberate opacity, or a structure deliberately designed to discourage the linear process we might normally tend to think of as reading. I do not mean to imply that I would defend every one of his texts with equal enthusiasm. But how few are the authors of whom one would NOT say this?

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Notes:

1. See chapter 1 of Peter C. Blum, For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2013).
2. John D. Caputo, ed., Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida (Fordham University Press, 1997) [hereafter Deconstruction], p. 8, my emphasis.
3. Benoit Peeters, Derrida: A Biography (Polity Press, 2012).
4. Jacques Derrida, Points. . .  Interviews, 1974-94, ed. E. Weber, tr. P. Kamuf (Stanford University Press, 1995), p. 348 (quoted in Deconstruction, p. 106).
5. Deconstruction, p. 8.
6. Deconstruction, p. 7.
7. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Corrected Edition, tr. G. Spivak (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997 [orig. 1974]), p. 158.
8. Ibid.
9. I engage in several different ways with Derrida’s writings in For a Church to Come, in ways that I believe support the “prods” that I offer here.  I also generally recommend John D. Caputo’s accessible and engaging work in defense of Derrida as a philosopher within, not opposed to, the Western tradition.

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15 replies to this post
  1. Fascinating! I suppose that if Derrida uses honest enquiry and distrusts ideology that gets him at least partway through the door, and if his belief in immutable Justice extends to other Permanent Things that edges him further in. Where he may fail the entry test could be Obedience; an important virtue (that must be balanced against others with some comparison and scrutiny). Without it, what is to save us from the egotistical perils of “Defecated Reason” against which Dr Kirk warns us wisely?

  2. Wise words (as usual) from Mr. Masty! Indeed, the key word in your response is ‘balance,’ is it not? How easy it has been for some acolytes of deconstruction (perhaps sometimes including Derrida himself?) to answer with a too-eager “YES!” the question: “Shall we simply transgress, then, that the justice to come may abound?” And I suspect that this works no better here than in the case of grace. But does an imaginative conservative understand that there is potentially as much of a foul odor to stagnant pools within a tradition (though they may be saturated with obedience) as to Defecated Reason? Are we perhaps reconsidering here the tension (sometimes, at least, another word for balance) between priestly and prophetic?

    • Indeed, Dr Blum, indeed! I suppose that in the first instance, what I called Obedience begins with some modicum of outward-looking respect and inward-looking humility. Some modernists lack the latter; some traditionalists the former, and Kirk, as I see it, neither.

  3. First…with regards to Socrates, I applaud this sentence: “But, some will object, Socrates’ inquiries assume the possibility of finality, a telos of inquiry that would bring closure. I am not absolutely convinced that this is accurate in the case of Socrates…”, Basically, I think Nietzsche has the better non-naive reading of Socrates: He never gives us anything, all he does is tear down. So huzzah on that!

    And perhaps a thought on Derrida. If he shows us that words are unstable in their meanings (and of course texts as well), isn’t that something that we know and isn’t that the starting point of the entire conservative enterprise? We have to create and re-create (and continually infuse) important things with meaning, daily in an ideal world…but certainly generationally if we are not to lose the whole thing? How many times have we read here (correctly) that it is easiest to destroy, harder to create and hardest of all to preserve? Perhaps Derrida is showing us just how difficult (and how important) it is to preserve? Because if we do not do so, actively and consciously, then we will lose. Perhaps he doesn’t believe it is possible to preserve…but so what? What’s to stop us from creatively re-reading his texts in this way? In any event, I have had the Peeters bio in my shopping cart at Amazon for some time…generally I don’t buy early print hardbacks and pay full freight. But maybe I’ll take the plunge now.

    Great review…conversation must be continued!!

    • By way of somewhat contradicting my previous post…I would add that I recently stumbled onto The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics by Mark Lilla. This book is pretty well mandatory. It is very very good. It does have a chapter on Derrida though I must say that while I found it informative, I found it less convicting than the others. The chapter on Heidegger/Jaspers/Arendt is exceptional.

      Even after reading Lilla, I am still inclined to think of Derrida as harmless, possibly beneficial for the reasons articulated in the original article here. But, as already stated, conversation to be continued…

      • Thanks, Mark. I would not claim that Derrida is “harmless.” Of course, I’m skeptical regarding whether anything is guaranteed to be “harmless.” BTW, if anyone asks me what I think the most immediately accessible and compelling text is that is actually by Derrida himself, my most frequent answer is his essay “On Forgiveness” in Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (Routledge, 2001).

        • Thank you, I will look that essay up! (And you are surely correct: “harmless” is a high bar that nothing can really claim…it all comes down to the heart of the one that wields the ideas as to whether it plays out harmfully or not….).

  4. “Significant speech is a lasso thrown into the air, lucky if it catches some living thing by a leg or a horn….

    “In practice the ambiguities of language are neutralized by looseness and good sense in the interpretation of it; but a philosopher leads himself into foolish difficulties and more foolish dogmas if he assumes that words have fixed meanings to which single facts in nature must correspond. He ought, therefore, to use language more freely than the public rather than more strictly, since he professes to have a clearer view of things.”

    –George Santayana, “Some Meanings of the Word ‘Is’,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 21, No. 14 (7-3-1924), pp. 365-377

  5. Pete,

    I’m going to respond to the argument you’ve presented as you’ve presented it and accept your claim/experiment of Derrida as conservative. In other words, I’m not going to fight over the intellectual provenance of Derrida. I kind of like thinking of him as a conservative.

    I think you’ve framed all of this appropriately and have experimented fruitfully. From the way you’ve framed things, it would be impossible for Derrida not to be conservative. If one of the fundamental principles of deconstruction is basic idea of “differance,” then I’d argue, like you, that deconstruction is conservative at its very foundation; for if “differance” is a play on the French “differer,” the no-man’s/everyman’s land between “to differ” and “to defer,” then there must be something against which something differs and towards which it defers (this is the “guardrail” of which you speak). In short, if I understand most of your experiment here, I think your overall point about Derrida’s “conservatism” is that it tends towards conversation. So whereas many knee-jerk reactions to Derrida will point only to language and Derrida’s emphasis on the spoken word (le dit), your experiment leads me to believe that we will probably find his “conservatism” in conversation itself (le dire). This is obviously late Derridean thinking, but I think it’s where his early philosophy led him: from philosophy to ethics and then from ethics to justice (which is just another way to ethics).

    A couple of quick thoughts/things that strike me in your essay:
    The reason Marxists find him disagreeable (or perhaps simply banal) is because his “politics” is basically founded upon mutual respect, a clear avoidance of us-versus-them identity politics (no socialism, democracy, communism, etc., since all of these are products of logocentrism to begin with), even at the nationalist level (this probably has to do with the fact that he grew up Jewish in French Algeria). But this would include bourgeois and proletariat (or investor class and production, to use more contemporary global terms). And for the Marxist, these aren’t abstractions and language games; these are real, and the very ground upon which the justice which is to come is to come. In other words, you’re right: Derrida isn’t socially radical enough; he will not immanentize the eschaton (it is always only to come). He can deconstruct Marxism convincingly, unveiling its reliance on tired, old Western metaphysics, but then what? The justice to come? I offer this not as my own critique but to buttress your observation that Marxists just kind of shrugged their shoulders at him.

    The connection to Socrates, though maybe scandalous to some readers, is precisely how Derrida saw his work. As far as I can tell, and I’ve not spent much time with Derrida, he essentially equates “justice” with deconstruction as a project (and then frames both in religious terms). From Spectres of Marx:
    “What remains irreducible to any deconstruction, what remains as undeconstructible as the possibility itself of deconstruction, is, perhaps, a certain experience of the emancipatory promise; it is perhaps even the formality of a structural messianism, a messianism without religion, even a messianic without messianism, an idea of justice–which we distinguish from law or right and even from human rights–and an idea of democracy–which we distinguish from its current concept and from its determined predicates today.” If there is this “infinite idea of justice,” as Derrida says, and that we must wait for it, that it is to come, then this seems to me to be yet another instantiation (if not THE instantiation) of “difference,” deferral, of waiting. Derrida, of course, confirms this for us when he says that “deconstruction is justice.” Maybe it’s Derrida simply being playful, but he strikes a very Socratic note. For Socrates, since philosophy was that discipline which could see things for what they are and therefore could judge rightly and truly, philosophy was therefore most closely linked to justice itself. Derrida, again, maybe playfully, makes the same move with deconstruction.

    Thanks for the essay, Pete. It’s a fun read.

  6. I would say that Derrida adheres to a very classical, albeit idiosyncratic, understanding of obedience, humility and respect in terms of his readings of Kant. One of the major issues of misreading Derrida is that many thinkers believe that Derrida assumes something like agency and free will in cases where he does not. As a result, the idea of a freely willed deconstruction is often deployed in the name of Derrida when he tries to stay the course of understanding deconstruction as that which is not willed, motivated, enacted or acted upon. While the language that Derrida authors is a language many readers take to be narcissistic, disobedient and without humility, I would argue that, on the contrary, Derrida tries to get in touch with the largest number of ways we come to understand the world and that Derrida never condones the freely willed refusal to identify with others, a refusal which marks a very liberal notion, a notion of resentment, and thus a devastating notion paving the way to violent, unjust individualism. In other words, Derrida is on his best behavior, I’d say. He never gives up when it comes to preserving and conserving knowledge without prejudice.

  7. Dr. Blum –
    As a UChicago grad student (and 2010 Hillsdale College alum), I find this fascinating, and have been searching quite in vain for thoughtful “Conservative” commentary on anyone writing after Dewey. (I’m being a bit facetious, but there does seem to be a dearth of constructive response.) Hillsdale left me at a bit of a loss in dealing with “postmodern” texts. Certainly, I have a rather visceral reaction against Derrida. But at the same time, I’ve developed an interest in Conservatism and the Frankfurt School, both of which seem to respond in curiously similar ways to the ‘crisis of modernity’. I’m oddly attracted to dialectical thought, both because of its indeterminate method, and because (in practice) it rejects vapid culture, the instrumental use of humans, etc. Only wish I had taken a course with you in undergrad! Great thoughts – Marion Gabl

    • Marion, many thanks for your affirmation! Your intuition regarding similarities between conservatism and the Frankfurt School is not at all far-fetched, and you are not alone in entertaining it. I’m afraid even the most rigorous of college programs comes nowhere near a thoroughgoing replacement of the visceral with the thoughtful, be it Hillsdale’s or any other’s. But we have, I hope, given you a good start on that lifelong pilgrimage.

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