I have always found other people’s writing about Derrida to be terrifically boring; I have rarely found a writer on Derrida who has Derrida’s strange energy, and it is that energy which carries us through some of his massive lecture courses. People have misunderstood Derrida’s motives and the reason behind his writing; they misunderstand his work and make him seem boring; others (hostile, conservative critics) make him seem demonic. Conservatives hate him. They too don’t get it, neither his admirers nor his detractors. Let us try to set things straight on both sides.
Jordan Peterson and the lecture: Identity Politics and the Marxist Lie of White Privilege
In the past year or so I have become familiar with some conservative thinkers who give their ideas to the world on the internet. For the first time in centuries, the spoken word is of equal value in the transmission of ideas as the written word. These thinkers and commentator are not vloggers, or whatever, but people whose conservative ideas are expressed in lectures, interviews, and TV debates, which are subsequently put on YouTube, where they ‘go viral’, with typically millions of views. These speakers are trained academics and journalists constituting what you might think of as a fight back against the pretty overwhelming take over of the University, the law, the professions, and the media in the USA and the UK also, by the extreme Left. The reaction to corona virus this year is a typical act by the Left, and is emblematic of their intention to destroy everything traditional, manly, commonsensical, and good.
And so there is a natural reaction growing against this actual destruction of our land. It is a fightback against decades of intensifying de-humanisation of our country, so that we have lost something like a sense of reality, any link to the past, or to the future. The Left, very openly since 1997, have entered onto a stage of overt and intense destruction of our culture and way of life.
My intention here is to speak simply of the view which such ‘fighting’ spirits of the conservatism have of Jacques Derrida. It is important to do so because, while Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray, Christopher Hitchens, the late Roger Scruton, and their like, may be doing the right thing by expressing their defence of ‘the way things used to be’ and the way they should remain, their use of Derrida as an example of what they consider to be the threat is wrong.
In addition, their superficial attitude toward Derrida also points to a superficiality in their approach in general. That is, there is a yet higher Conservatism – which is not expressed by them – and, Derrida may possibly represent it. If nothing else, I would wish that Peterson and also Scruton, had not found in Derrida something harmful.
As it happens, I corresponded with Scruton when I released my biography of Derrida; he expressed himself in private to me with a more visceral hatred of Derrida than I had expected. But he did so in the form of a literary work, a comic sketch. Later, I sent him my short novel to do with my service in Iraq, and he again replied. He asked me to see a work in progress he was writing about Iraq. My impression was that he wrote to many correspondents, and was continually making up works for print or not. He also dismissed Heidegger when I sent him that work of mine. I shall have more to say of what this means, to me and in general.
Now, in a recent and admirable lecture, ‘Identity Politics and the Marxist Lie of White Privilege’, Peterson outlines his view of the threat we are under from the Left, the threat of the destruction of the Western way of life in these basic terms: that the West is worth keeping as it is, and that a form of Marxism is its internal enemy, represented in the academic work of feminists, racialized thinking, and queer theory, anti-colonial thinkers, and such like people. They have put aside their historic (and mostly hypocritical) support for the working class, and taken up new causes. Marxists aim to destroy the current order of things, he says. They aim to create the New Man.Their purpose is not to establish justice or rights for blacks, or women, or the like; these things are a subterfuge. Rather, they simply want to destroy patriarchy, hierarchies, and what they call ‘power’. Because power is everywhere, then its elimination means the destruction of the West. And this is actually their highest goal.
While we might think they seek fairness for the poor, or for the marginalised, these Marxists, currently in control of the arts, education, the law, and to a large extent of politics in Britain, simply want destruction, because they have a pure hatred of the existing order of things. The underlying cause of this irrational desire is quite normal: it is envy and simple desire to break things up, and to force the majority of the people to become a new kind of human being. The new kind of human being is will have no race, property, religion, history, or sex, and will be controlled entirely by the state. This is something which is happening in Britain, and it is dangerous. There are destructors in charge of our cultural life, we are in no doubt.
Peterson, and Scruton, and perhaps Murray adduce Jacques Derrida as one of the most prominent destructor intellectuals.
As his biographer, I owe Derrida some defence here, in a case which, to my mind at least, is an example of misjudgement and injustice.
Peterson is right for the most part, and he has been very concise and helpful when he points out that the Marxist Left currently in the ascendant in Britain and the West in general, and in actual control of the law of the land since 1997, views every matter of politics, law, and even literature and truth as expressions of the underlying metaphysical reality: Power. Seeing every human act as an example of oppression and power, the new Marxists have found the lever to undermine everything. They approach reality as if only in terms of its being ‘power’ and power structures does it have any meaning. Now, the prominent French writer on this theme was not Derrida, but Michel Foucault – with whom Derrida was on permanent bad terms. I myself have not been able to read much of Michel Foucault; his work has always seemed to me to be tedious and superficial; its value to others no doubt derives from its usefulness in the work of destruction. I.e., it is neither literature or philosophy, but political activism.
Note also that both while Roger Scruton did work for dissident Czechs in the aftermath of the Soviet takeover of that country in the 1960s, because he disliked Marxist socialism, so also did Derrida. Derrida, in fact, expressed himself many times in terms of disliking Marxism; he did not get involved in the events of 1968 in France; and, he had nothing to say about any kind of future communist / Marxist future. These bland statements hide something else: that Derrida was not concerned with any concrete present day situation, or any concrete future kind of state. His writing, as far as I have always understood it, is an unfathomable and radical individualism along more or less ‘religious’ lines. It’s an extreme individualism cut loose of any particular state of affairs in politics, or even any particular state of affairs in present day ideas. He did not take part in protests, riots, destructive acts of vengeance either in thought or action. His most political activity took place in the 1990s, when he campaigned for philosophy and the history of philosophy to be taught in French state schools..
In addition, and most strikingly, it should be noted that in the early-1990s, a vast number of academics committed themselves to having Derrida denied an honorary degree from Cambridge. Now, given that it is the academic world which has polluted and undermined the West in recent years, and expressed itself as the vanguard of the destruction which is taking place, I cannot see anything but a comic irony when Derrida is now held up by the Conservative movement as something like the cutting edge of university thinking. While he did have many isolated helpers in the academic world, he was generally not welcome amongst them.
Back then, the academics from Cambridge and many other universities, condemned his work as obscure; they did not condemn it for any kind of Marxism or leftism. They found his work obscure because, in my view, it was too radically individualistic, and too subtle. I myself have never found anything wilfully obscure in his work, and nothing which contradicts reason. What those academics found so offensive in his work was his lack of common-sense; or, in other words, that his work had no application to materialistic concrete problems. I think that it is fair that the common sense school of thought detested him. We could debate, but it would not take much to establish, that those academics who hated Derrida back then were mostly of the socialist, materialist, and Marxist stamp; and that this was why they hated him, because where does a subtle and religious spirit, a writing of extreme humility regarding any claim to truth, and a writing which undoes any claim to have before us a metaphysics of power, any Marxism – where does such writing and thinking find its place in an institution primed to destroy the West? This is the proper reason why he was denied his honorary degree. It is also why it is not right to put up his image alongside the principles of Marxist destruction of the conservative world.
Now, Peterson particularly brings to our attention some points which seem to be well-aimed at Derrida, when thinking about present day problems. The New Marxists notoriously have a notion of non-binary situations regarding sexuality; and they question whether anything is true, because facts are things which Westerners hold dear, so that facts must be wrong. Derrida also questioned any classical opposites, any binary opposition between two choices; he did fundamentally and over a lifetime, question the notion that anything can be said to have completely and utterly happened at some point in time, and whether it could be said that any statement was true, questioning the idea of truth itself.
But this was so on the basis that, because every event is bound up with the human mind, and with an individual and unique life experience; because every thought derives from the absolutely unique consciousness of a temporally limited and endangered experience of being. Derrida intended to find the limits of the truth, and to pursue honesty. And that is what he achieved. He did so with the same sense of being incapable of ever expressing anything fully that the Christian, when properly informed about himself, will never be able to get to the bottom of his sinfulness. I mean: a human being is a mobile point stretched between his own temporal identity on the one hand, and on the other his complete identity in the eternal aspect, and, in between these two, God. Because this is so of the human subject, then everything will always be questionable for the philosopher and thinker.
My own work on Derrida had a few reviews among academic critics. All of them were negative; the review by Peggy Kamuf (a feminist, and Derrida’s translator) said of it that it was the worst piece of writing on Derrida to be published that year. Submitted as a PhD thesis, I was told to rewrite the whole thing by a British Derrida scholar, or to fail the PhD. This I then did. The examiner, and the reviewers, took most offence at my aligning Derrida with the conservative element in modern thinking – and I still defend Derrida and my thesis along those lines. To me, Derrida was uncomfortably close to the national socialists Heidegger, and Paul de Man; his chief interest was in reading the extreme examples of individual (if atheistic) thinking in Nietzsche, Bataille, and Jean Genet (with whom he corresponded). His thinking continually but never quite entered into the area of praying in public.
To what extent it matters, I don’t know, but I have this anecdote. In my first year at university, I took out and read all of the essays in a work called something like ’50 Contemporary Thinkers’. I had no interest in any of them until, toward the end, I read Derrida’s lecture / essay ‘Structure Sign and Play’. I tried to read the other essays in that massive book after that essay, but could not. I had found what I was looking for. As far as I was concerned then, this author called on Nietzsche, undermined a prominent Leftist structuralist, and insisted, as the burden of his essay, that thinking should not be tied down to a metaphysics, structure, or ‘discourse’ of power. Rather, each person and thinker must look into the future and into himself, both of them forever still to be born, and essentially unknowable; and that, looking to this depth inside and also outside, and taking up the correct attitude of mind, in absolute honesty, he would discover something like Grace. He continued to write in this way, I found, across his whole life. He was never openly religious, and, I confess, I moved on from his ideas after a year or so of intense study; I wrote my biography of him with no real interest. I found more stimulation in Heidegger’s more muscular, but still blind groping after prayer and God, to be more interesting.
If the majority of Derrida’s readers misunderstood him, and think of him as a post-modernist Marxist, then that is their lookout. I do not see him like this. And a multitude can follow one another in error and to evil. Derrida did not do much to disabuse them of their misreading. Today, he is still thought of as involved in ‘destruction’, ‘deconstruction’ and the like cognates. I suppose Peterson and the like think of him as an easy and quick reference for the enemy.
Derrida’s humility when facing the truth: that we do not even have a proper name, any complete understanding of truth, history, God, power, etc., is essentially a religious stance. He was Jewish, of course. We can with some profit put him beside Bob Dylan in this respect. The outsider who is given great fame and influence, but remains in secrecy and in a relationship with a God who has sent no sign.
What Derrida brought to philosophy was what Heidegger kind of did: the act of prayer. Now, Scruton, Peterson, Murray, and Hitchens all profess a limited respect for Christianity. In his ‘The Strange Death of Europe’, Murray points approvingly at the French novelist Michel Houellebecq, and the idea that only a true Christianity will save Europe from gradual but inevitable death.
The limited respect for Christianity was not something Derrida had, particularly. But the attitude that, before God, everything becomes questionable, is certainly there.
I suggest that the effort to shore up the ruins of the West by nodding toward Christianity is not enough. That the silence of prayer to God is the complete contrary to Marxist thinking; and that, the true and effective opposition to Marxism is in religious thinking – in Derrida’s thinking. At least, and I am no great reader of Derrida anymore, Derrida is not the poster-boy image of ‘the enemy’. I do not even advise the new conservatives to read Derrida (which I suspect they have not done much, on either side of this debate), but I propose that Derrida is: the intrusion of true religious stance within Western thinking, and that this is where the defence against our final ruin in gradual destruction will be found. Not, that is to say, in Derrida, but in what he pointed to and failed to articulate: the individual’s relationship to God and to the Church.
I wish to make a few points about what it feels like, and what you learn from actually reading Derrida’s works, and then to conclude by making a note about how Derrida’s legacy can in fact be profitably used by those people who recognise the necessity of a conservative attitude toward our society.
Derrida was essentially a university teacher; most of his work consists of his lecturing classes on texts of historical philosophy. He did not make comments on current affairs, and definitely never set out a set of concrete proposals. His style, and the way he expresses himself indicate a vulnerability to doubt, and a very acute awareness of something like ‘original sin’: that is, that everything eventually fails without the blessing of the absolutely other, or the divine. His painful truthfulness about how the works that he loved, by Hegel, Nietzsche, Kant, or Heidegger, could never have a total grasp of the reality of existence is the key to his work. He claims, somewhere, and you can easily believe it, that he never undertook a work of philosophy in order to defeat any ‘enemy’, but only out of a profound love and interest in the thing he was ‘deconstructing’. And the result of the deconstruction is always to insert the absolutely humble silence of the individual before what I take to be inner meditative stillness. And this possibility of philosophy failing before the realities of prayer was always there: he made this discovery, or, he in his own personality was the first of any philosopher to both understand a metaphysics completely, to appreciate its greatness, and then to disclose why it was not capable of explaining everything to us – because you can and you must see a glimpse beyond it all of the real reality, spirituality, so to speak.
Standing before Heidegger’s mountain range of the great philosophies, climbing those mountains with a sense of guilt and happiness, and recognising at the end that there is no absolute truth at the summit, and that truth and reality are concepts which are ruined – and importantly – that they always were inadequate – this is the deconstructive act. In no way should any fundamentalist Marxist movement find anything like support from Derrida, it is clear to me.
For instance, in a reading of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, his favourite work of literature, he mentions that Leopold Bloom at some level, or at parts of the book, understands himself as a female man; and this was Joyce’s intention: Bloom is an everyman, or a total human being. The distinction between man and woman can be overcome in this way. It is not only possible, but it is right, to be able to imagine oneself as both man and woman, by virtue of the imagination, and with the excellent outcome that sympathy with others is possible. But, at no point would Derrida have said, or wished it to come about that there should be legal and political restructuring of France or the UK, so that this possibility becomes something like an imposed set of legislation on how there is a third gender, or how all men must recognise their inner women. This kind of thing is revolting, and as Peterson has said, something like this nightmare irrationality of the inner human being has actually been materialised by the Canadian parliament in recent times. Leopold Bloom’s inherent sympathy for all people, and his almost growing a pair of breasts in his own imagination, which is shared by most people, should never be rationalised into the obviously absurd externalising and making public of the same sentiment into a legal threat in the public sphere.
That is, he writes to the individual in his vast communication with a nameless and eternal God, and shows that there are no limits to a person by virtue of gender. Before God we are neither male or female. That modern Canada or Britain makes this into some kind of Stalinist clamp-down on any expressions of male identity would have disgusted Derrida: this kind of legal homogeneity was exactly what he had suffered in his life, being a Jew, a foreigner, and the eternal outsider. He absolutely insisted that he escaped this kind of legalism, and it is what in part made him so sensitive to the need to ‘deconstruct’ things.
In summary, his question it seems to me, was: how do you import into the texts and history of philosophy, because this is in fact the centre of philosophy, that confessional openness to God? How to be as truthful in philosophy as we are when facing God? Derrida does not put it in this form. Rather, he approaches God in a circumambulent way, via a detour through him self. He approaches, in the following extended quotation, his own self with the careful reverence and purity, and attentiveness to fault and error which are the sine qua non of the meditative and prayerful attitude.
Thus (from an interview conducted in 1991 in Le magazine litteraire, published as “A ‘Madness’ Must Watch Over Thinking, in Points…, 1995, Stanford University Press, pages 339-40), Derrida contests the facts that he was at some point in time born, and also that he has a particular identity. It is possible to imagine a conservative, worried about Marxism and the destruction of all order (I am one of those worried about Marxism and destruction), it is possible to imagine someone like me (or Peterson), alarmed immediately that Derrida has contested the fact that a person has a birth, and an identity. However, .. let us remember that this is entirely traditional, more traditional than conservatism; here is simply an affirmation of what is at ground zero of the West: that before God, in our most absolute self, we have a ‘rebirth’, that we must be baptised and chrismated, and take charge of the moment of our birth, and are continually looking for regeneration. And, we also give up our commonplace identity, when we become Christian; and we also do so at every time in which we pray. And this has been symbolised in our taking on a new name when we are reborn, and a new identity.
It is my belief that all of Derrida’s work has this conventional and deep religious echo inside it. It is the most intensely honest philosophical kind of writing; and has nothing in common with the materialism and campaigning of modern Leftist/Marxist work.
Interviewer: Let us imagine your future biographer. One may suppose he will write, in a lazy repetition of the public record: Jacques Derrida was born July 15, 1930, in El Biar, near Algiers. It is up to you perhaps to oppose this biological birth with your true birth, the one that would proceed from that private or public event in which you really became yourself.
Derrida: For starters, that’s a bit too much. You go so far as to say: ‘it is up to you’ to say when you are born. No, if there is anything that cannot be ‘up to me,’ then this is it, whether we’re talking about what you call ‘biological birth’ transferred to the objectivity of the public record, or ‘true birth.’ ‘I was born’: this is one of the most singular expressions I know, especially in its French grammatical form. If the interview form lent itself to it, I would prefer, instead of answering you directly, to begin an interminable analysis of the phrase ‘je, je suis, je suis ne’ in which the tense is not given. Anxiety will never be dispelled on this subject , for the event that is thereby designated can herald itself in me only in the future: ‘I am (not yet) born,’ but the future ha the form of a past which I will never have witnessed and which for this reason remains always premised – and moreover also multiple. Who ever said that one was born just once? But how can one deny that through all the different promised births, it is a single and same time, the unique time, that insists and that is repeated forever? This is a little what is being recounted in Circumfession. ‘I am not yet born’ because the moment that decided my nameable identity was taken away from me. Everything is arranged so that it be this way, this is what is called culture. Thus, through so many different relays, one can only try to recapture this theft or this institution which was able to, which had to take place more than once. But however iterable and divisible it remains, the ‘only once’ resists.
Interviewer: Do you mean to say that you do not want to have any identity?
Derrida: On the contrary, I do, like everyone else. But by turning around this imposible thin, and which no doubt I also resist, the ‘I’ constitutes the very form of resistance. Each time this identity announces itself, each time a belonging circumscribes me, if I may put it this way, someone or something cries: Look out for the trap, you’re caught. Take off, get free, disengage yourself. Your engagement is elsewhere. Not very original, is it?
Interviewer: Is the work you do aimed at refinding this identity?
Derrida: No doubt, but the gesture that tries to take hold of me, the acting of refinding, as part of the gesture itself distances itself again from the thing it is trying to grasp. […]
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