In 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. 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.” 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. 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.”
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.” 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.
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,” 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.