Sunday, October 10, 2004

Derrida is dead!

Thanks to Ryan's blog, I now know: The evil gnome is dead.

When you name-drop, you do it to improve your own status. I've dropped Jacques Derrida's name before, but I know full well that his name accords me no aura of prestige, no juju or mojo. There is no "Lengthen your penis five inches by chanting Derrida's name!" spam mail in my email inbox, or in anyone else's.

For those of you not willing to go through my archives, the story is this: while a grad student at the Catholic University of America in 1999, I decided to attend a colloquium at Villanova University titled "Religion and Postmodernism." Derrida was the keynote speaker the first evening. The next day, during a break between presentations, I managed to catch Derrida for a few seconds and spoke with him in French. My main purpose was to get his autograph-- on a styrofoam cup-- for my buddy Dr. Steve, who was (at least at the time) an admirer of Derrida's thought and work. Derrida gave me an amused look and gamely signed the cup. I sat the rest of the colloquium (Derrida had to leave a day early; his wife was sick), then gave the cup to Steve.

I'm no fan of Derrida's thought and work, nor do I much like the whole postmodernist movement, of which he was arguably one of the high priests. But having met Derrida in 1999, I can say he was perfectly fine in person: humorous, self-deprecating, and yes, he gave the impression he was playing a huge trick on us all. Contrary to what I wrote in one of my posts, I don't really want to whack his nuts now that he's dead. Derrida the man isn't a problem; it's Derrida the movement that worries me.

Ryan's blog linked to Brian Leiter, who wrote the following "tribute" for Derrida:

Alas, he is being referred to as a philosopher.

I am, needless to say, with the vast majority of philosophers in thinking Derrida's work of a philosophical nature was badly confused and pernicious in its influence, and in the substantial minority within that group who formed that opinion after actually reading his work. His preposterously stupid writings on Nietzsche were, of course, a particular source of annoyance. And even his more apparently scholarly work on, e.g., Husserl turns out to be rather poor, as J. Claude Evans showed more than a dozen years ago. Like the Straussians, Derrida and his followers tend to be willfully bad readers of texts. Fortunately, their influence has already faded from the scene in both North America and Europe.

If only this were so. Hard-core analytical philosophers probably deal very little with Derrida, but the influence of PoMo thought is shot through much of Western humanities academe (I encountered loads of PoMo during a course in scriptural hermeneutics), and as I think I noted before, it's finding fertile ground here in Korea. God help us.

RIP, you little gnome.

EPILOGUE: A styrofoam cup with Jacques Derrida's caterpillar-shaped signature sits atop the crown of a small plastic skeleton on Dr. Steve's desk. Or it used to: Dr. Steve moved recently, so I don't know whether the cup and skeleton are still together. Three prostrations to the skeleton today! When you finish paying your respects, read Dr. Steve's stellar summary of postmodernism here. It's the best online summary I've seen, very clear and accessible-- perhaps clearer and more accessible than postmodernism itself!


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