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Derrida and Jelinek - click opera
February 2010
 
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Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 10:49 am
Derrida and Jelinek



Two major events in the world's intellectual landscape this week -- Elfriede Jelinek's Nobel Prize for Literature and the death of Jacques Derrida -- have meant a lot to me. I've read Jelinek's 'The Piano Teacher' (the prize is great news for her British publisher, Serpent's Tail) and even wrote a song-sketch in the early 90s called 'Wonderful, Wonderful Times' after her 1990 novel of the same title (it's about her nation's participation in the crimes of the Third Reich). For me personally, what's important about Jelinek is her political engagement, her bloodhound-keen nose for cant, and her elliptical, stubborn prose style. I see her as a direct descendent of Brecht, but also a colleague of spiky, desurgent, intractable Austrians like Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke. Her drama is more direct and political than her novels -- she's written a play attacking the current Iraq war, Bambiland. (To see the Brechtian influence, check out these pictures of the production of her play 'Stecken, Stab und Stangl' at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg. Her website has a lot of polemical writings and production photos.)

Derrida's death made the front page of the New York Times. It will certainly get the front page of tomorrow's Liberation, which provided far and away the best coverage of Jelinek's Nobel Prize, including an interview with her french translator entitled 'An almost unbearable darkness'.

The British coverage of both these events has been much more superficial, focusing on incidentals rather than the actual concerns of their work. Jelinek is seen as a feminist by BBC World Service (a propaganda station which tends to use human rights as a stick to beat muslim, communist and developing nations with) and, between the lines, her prize is presented as a token 'gesture to women writers' on the part of a guilty Stockholm. The Observer article reporting Derrida's death was even worse. Instead of giving an account of deconstruction, it told us that Derrida had invented post-modernism (untrue: the term was first used by architectural writers like Charles Jencks and Robert Venturi), and, instead of giving any kind of account of Derrida's ideas, told us funny stories; how Derrida had found a rabbit stew described on a menu as 'deconstructed', how his big ambition had been to be a professional soccer player, how twenty philosophers had tried to veto his honorary degree at Cambridge.

This reaction is, I have to say, typically British. Anecdote is empirical, and therefore 'trustworthy' in a culture which distrusts big ideas, and especially French ones. But anecdote is also part of the glitzy, superficial world of celebrities and surface which the anglo-saxon world mostly calls 'culture' these days. In a kind of anorexic-bulemic cycle, periodic self-criticism for these tendencies does nothing to stop them. In the same Observer which reports Derrida's death, David Aaronovitch reviews Frank Furedi's book 'Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?' in an article headlined 'The Thinking Classes: Too Clever By Half?' You can actually see stasis and the status quo returning in the space of the article: Aaronovitch tells us that Furedi (a Marxist) thinks education has suffered from being too inclusionary, then calls Furedi exclusionary. Back to where we started! Aaronovitch, writing in a Sunday paper, quotes Furedi telling us that intellectual life in Britain has a 'Sunday supplement feel', then accuses Furedi of being 'an example of what he himself decries. His list of publications reads like a Sunday supplement flat-plan.' Back to where we started again!

There's been a series of articles in the London Review of Books recently by Perry Anderson describing the fall of France as an intellectual avatar -- Aaronovitch mentions it in his article, speaking of 'a France that now produces zip. Or, in Anderson's opinion - in the shapes of Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq - worse than zip.' Well, France only produces zip if you look in the wrong places. I refer to, and disagree with, Anderson's thesis in an article on the Paris music scene I've written for the November issue of Index magazine. France may be losing its generation of philosophical giants (only Levi-Strauss, Virilio and Baudrillard now remain of a generation which included Barthes, Lacan, Foucault, Aron, Braudel, Debord, Deleuze, Lyotard, Bourdieu and Derrida) but in music and fine art it's currently very strong. What's more, French coverage of literature, cinema, philosophy and other cultural stuff is, as Jelinek and Derrida show, far ahead of anything British journalists seem able to manage.

Since my brother is one of Britain's leading writers on deconstruction, I thought I'd try and correct the poor reporting of Derrida's ideas by reproducing a passage from 'Difference', Mark Currie's book in Routledge's series 'The New Critical Idiom' (2004). Giving an account of the shift from structuralism to post-structuralism, Mark describes 'the liberation of difference from opposition':

'To oversimplify the case for a moment, it could be said that the binary opposition was for people who could only count to two. For example, the idea that the meaning of the word 'day' inhered entirely in its relation to the word 'night' was somewhat reductive because it excluded consideration of the many gradations between night and day, excluded the difficult relations on the margin between them, such as dawn and dusk.'

I'd add -- and I might be confused here -- another complication to the binary opposition that Mark leaves out: that the opposite of a word can change with context. The opposite is not fixed. 'Day' can be, according to context, the opposite of other semantic units than 'night'. What about 'week' (as in 'Some are paid by the day, some by the week'), or what about 'never' (as in 'He'll be famous one day.' 'No, never.')?

Mark continues: 'In Derrida's work, and in that of many cultural and literary critics who followed his ideas, there is always a sense that an opposition is no innocent structural relation but a power relation, in which one term dominates another. Even in the case of an opposition as apparently rooted in nature as night/day, there is a hierarchy which ascribes privilege, priority and positive value to one term at the expense of the other. Indeed the very idea of otherness comes to signify this power relation, this secondary and derivative position that one sign acquires in relation to another... Poststructuralist approaches to the binary opposition produce a kind of critique that unmasks power relations, that seeks to oppose hierarchy, that refuses to isolate the sign from the discourse in which it operates, or for that matter that refuses to isolate the opposition from the more general discursive context in which its associative and suggestive potential is formed. If we take these two developments together, the liberation of difference from opposition on one hand, and a kind of critique that exposes hierarchy as it operates in discourse, we have a useful preliminary account of the characteristics of what came to be known, in the 1970s, as deconstruction.'

'In Positions (1981), Derrida describes deconstruction's approach to binary opposition as having three phases. The first phase is the exposure of a hierarchy, of the assumed superiority of one term over the other; the second phase is the reversal of that hierarchy, that is, the promotion of the secondary and derivative term to the position of superiority for strategic reasons; and the third phase is the reinscription of that opposition, which involves the disruption or reconfiguration of the difference between the two terms.'

Mark's account of Derrida points out something the British obituaries haven't -- his subtle but persistent political engagement, something he shares with Jelinek. I leave you with a Quicktime movie of Derrida talking on the subject of politics and friendship at the University of Sussex (in English):

Jacques Derrida on Politics and Friendship (Size: 47MB, duration: 80 mins.)

If you want to load the video directly into Quicktime and play it bigger, the direct path to the .mov file is here. It's worth watching to the end if only for the Question and Answer session in which Derrida quips 'We won't change the world before two o'clock!'

46CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 02:09 am (UTC)

I saw the documentary Derrida. It was very phony. The director seemed to think she/he was very fucking clever (almost a philosopher) in the way she did her camera set-ups (via mirrors when talking narcissism, give me a fucking break). It was a terrible documentary.

Bye,
Bush Speech Writer.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 02:11 am (UTC)

Me and my brother went to see that at the ICA, but it was sold out!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 02:58 am (UTC)

Also, to be glitzy and superficial for a moment, I'd just like to say that Elfriede Jelinek has fucking cool style for a 57 year-old. (Not that style has anything to do with age, of course.) Here she is, photographed three days ago in her Vienna apartment:



You just know that she's going to spend her million Nobel euros well.


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33mhz
33mhz
The Queen of Overdub Kisses
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 04:29 am (UTC)

I'd add -- and I might be confused here -- another complication to the binary opposition that Mark leaves out: that the opposite of a word can change with context. The opposite is not fixed. 'Day' can be, according to context, the opposite of other semantic units than 'night'. What about 'week' (as in 'Some are paid by the day, some by the week'), or what about 'never' (as in 'He'll be famous one day.' 'No, never.')?

My gut tells me that your insight belongs more to semiotics than deconstruction because it's an example of the arbitrary relation of signifier to signified. One can imagine a language where 'day' meaning the daylight hours and 'day' meaning a period of 24 hrs are represented by different sets of sounds.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 04:49 am (UTC)

Well, this is a subject more complicated than I can do justice to here. But suffice to say that Derrida put semiology (as we call 'semiotics' here in Europe) right at the centre of deconstruction by taking precisely Saussure's model of the signifier and the signified as an example of a binary with dominant and secondary terms (in this example the primacy Saussure gives to speech over writing) in his book 'Of Grammatology'. He tries to show the basic instability of binaries -- the problem inherent in the notion of 'difference' -- by showing that Saussure's argument depends on a reversed hierarchy, for he can explain the primacy of spoken language only with reference to written language. It is the pointing out of this problem with difference that Derrida calls differance.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 04:48 am (UTC)
False philosophy

Many people appear to believe that the "Truth" must be difficult to understand. Philosophy is for "brainy people", is it not? Many philosophers therefore spend their lives first making - and then avoiding to explain - obscure theories. The more difficult a theory is to understand, the closer it is supposed to be to the truth. The advantage of this behaviour is that it helps to hide the falsity and emptiness of a philosophy that actually does nothing to improve the state of mankind.

The people who seem most able to identify truth are children or those who are child-like in their thinking. Why should the Truth have been made difficult for all people to understand? To believe so is to believe that its author does not want us to understand(!) Simple people can understand the Truth because they are simple in their thinking. Complicated people cannot understand simplicity and are therefore lost in complexity. As a result, they are desparate for someone to help them find a way out and are easily duped by false philosophy.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 04:57 am (UTC)
Re: False philosophy

the falsity and emptiness of a philosophy that actually does nothing to improve the state of mankind

If philosophy was just about helping people all philosophers would be working in soup kitchens. Surely the job is all about thinking things over?


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 04:54 am (UTC)
Day not opposite of night?

I would not like a car with a deconsructivist battery. Plus on one side and some other "opposite" symbol on the other, maybe a circle since its unity is opposite if the divergence of the cross? Might make an interesting argument but it does not get you vey far, does it? Intellectual masturbation.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 05:00 am (UTC)
Re: Day not opposite of night?

The human brain is the most complex thing in the universe and language is, arguably, its most complex creation. The way a car battery works, with positive and negative charge -- or even the way a computer works, with zeroes and ones -- is not going to be a good model for describing how language works. If you want to think about how you think, do you go to a mechanic?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 07:03 am (UTC)

By the way, Jelinek's Bambiland is worth reading, a rant against the continuing war and the media. It contains a lot of withering scorn, some startling imagery, and the rhythms of late Beckett. (It's good to read aloud. It flows even as it rages.) There are parallels with the Crimp text I'm working on now with the Hochschule students. Crimp's disgust is focused on the Yugoslavian war, Jelinek's on Iraq.


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typographitext
typographitext
krmmnn
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 08:10 am (UTC)

At this point, I'm tired of people using the death of Derrida as an opportunity to whine about how "philosophy is hard, obscure."

Good post, Nick. Thank you.


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zotz
zotz
Graham Clark
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 08:23 am (UTC)

To be fair, that Observer article isn't an obituary. And it got about ten column inches on the front page, including headline and photograph.

I'm not even sure the Observer prints obituaries, in fact - the Guardian usually has them all during the week.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 08:39 am (UTC)

You're right, it's a news story, not an obituary. But even as a news story it's completely inadequate. The gaffe about Derrida inventing postmodernism, the waffle about restaurant menus and football, the lack of any account of Derrida's ideas just makes writer Martin 'Bright' look, well, not very.


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piratehead
piratehead
Good bye
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 09:51 am (UTC)

There seem to be some points of correspondence between this post and your Hofstedt discussion. Perhaps an aversion to uncertainty underlies so much of the reflexive hostility toward Derrida and deconstruction.

I very much enjoyed your brother's lucid exposition of deconstruction. I think the most common error people make about deconstruction is seeing it as a system or a systematic method, when it is neither. People also forget about the 'third phase', the 're-inscription', which keeps deconstruction from being exclusively destructive of the possibility of comprehension.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 10:06 am (UTC)

Perhaps an aversion to uncertainty underlies so much of the reflexive hostility toward Derrida and deconstruction.

That's very much the thrust of this attack on Derrida by the right wing National Review. Writer Mark Goldblatt says:

'Deconstruction carries a distinct political advantage for the intellectual Left. When words no longer retain their common sense meanings, then any statement of truth becomes suspect. (Is Mark my first name?) What could be handier, if you can't make a reasonable case for what you believe, than a theory which seems to undermine reason itself and thereby relativizes all knowledge? Thus, for example, if you're a multiculturalist, you can argue — against historical evidence — that Greek philosophy is derived from sub-Saharan Africa; or if you're a feminist, you can argue — against biological evidence — that gender is entirely socially constructed; or if you're a Marxist, you can argue — against experiential evidence — that socialism is compatible with individual rights.'

This is of course a misleading argument. Deconstruction is not a way of turning water into whatever wine you want it to be, but a way of looking into how language generates meaning, and what power relationships exist in it. At the bottom of the article there's a telling little biographical tidbit:

'Mark Goldblatt's satire of black hip-hop culture, Africa Speaks, has just been released in paperback.'

Well, it's just as well he's descredited those who 'take up word play to show how every previous critic's own political agenda lurks behind what he perceived as the plain meaning of the text.' Otherwise that harmless satire -- pure empirical common sense, by the sound of it -- might look like it had a political agenda behind it.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 05:15 pm (UTC)
Derrida video

Thanks for the video. Is this guy insane?


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andypop
andypop
rigid codes of hierarchical binarism
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 05:24 pm (UTC)

I've no time for Aaronovitch and don't trust Furedi.

Anyway, thanks, this was useful. I've just started a gender MA and will be diving head first into post-structuralism, not an area I've been particular familiar with before. I do like this approach where everything is interrogated, nothing taken for granted, exhausting as it may well turn out to be.


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(Anonymous)
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 08:52 pm (UTC)

Guardian obituary better...


http://books.guardian.co.uk/obituaries/story/0,11617,1324460,00.html


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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand

imomus
imomus
imomus
Sun, Oct. 10th, 2004 11:48 pm (UTC)

The leader in The Guardian is not so hot, though. 'For many,' it says, 'Derrida personified the worst type of "French fraud", in the manner of Jean-François Lyotard and Michel Foucault, impenetrable theorists who spouted nonsense.'

Foucault's writing is a model of impeccable clarity. He made a lot of sense and was easy to follow. He's just the wrong example of the kind of 'theorist' they're trying to evoke. Lacan, maybe...


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Oct. 11th, 2004 12:08 am (UTC)

http://www.krd1.com/quicktime/bush_sign.mov


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anarchivist
anarchivist
FLO$$ ICON
Mon, Oct. 11th, 2004 07:49 am (UTC)

i didn't hear about derrida's passing until sunday, when i read your livejournal entry and saw a bulletin from the faux-derrida profile on friendster. i spent a good part of yesterday thinking about him and other sorts of related things, and finally felt a sense of creative guidance while mulling it all over listening to william basinski. i mention it a little in my recent entry, and i'm still steeping in my own juices trying to make sense of where i'm trying to go.


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