I may have had a lot of critical things to say about Daniel Smith’s interpretations of Deleuze, but his writings have had some beneficial effects on me. They’re solidly written, thought-provoking interpretive essays, for one. But in one specific case, his writing made me smile: he was able to articulate, better than I could be bothered, why I can’t stand Jacques Derrida.
Derrida is probably the single biggest villain of Western philosophy in the last hundred years aside from Heidegger. Most of the usual reasons for this lie in his popular reputation, the reputation that he has among people who have never and would never read him. He’s probably most responsible for the destructive schism of analytic and continental philosophy that arose in the generation of academic philosophers currently in their 40s and 50s. I consider the pivotal historical event to be his fight with John Searle over the conceptual legacy of J. L. Austin and the philosophy of ordinary language.
But Derrida’s public image as an obscurantist charlatan is common among many philosophers I’ve met, particularly in the United States. And they use it to dismiss and marginalize anyone who says they find value in anything but the most dry and disciplinary analytic philosophy.
However, this is an important reason for my distaste for Derrida, along with my distaste for the actual obscurantism that infested his style of writing at his popular peak in the 1970s. I find his writing style in the 1960s, and the late 1980s to the end of his life, sometimes difficult but mostly illuminating. Yet there remains an underlying idea throughout his work that has always bugged me, and made me wonder if he could really have any true successors.
Derrida has plenty of successors in terms of people using his deconstructive method, particularly in literary and cultural studies, to identify hidden currents and presumptions of fictional media. But this kind of deconstruction is a defanged version, a pretentious way to describe close reading in the context of particular political perspectives. Smith identifies, in his essay on why Derrida and Deleuze are actually incredibly different despite both using the word ‘difference’ in a pivotal philosophical role, the more profound element of Derrida’s philosophical destructiveness.
Smith analyzes Derrida as a negative theologian, but about metaphysics, philosophy, and truth. Derrida considers philosophy to be a closed system, a tradition that has already exhausted all its possibilities once he arrived to contribute. Having exhausted all possibilities makes it impossible to move on from philosophy, because being able to create something new from the wreck of the old is itself a possibility of the old. So there’s nothing left to do but examine the corpse.
This coroner’s exam of the tradition of philosophy has the goal of discovering the truth that metaphysics found itself unable to say, which Derrida calls différance. When Deleuze talks about difference, he develops an elaborate account of what it’s all about. But Derrida’s différance has no positive content, because it is unsayable. It’s the truth that only appears in traces, in terms of its effects when different positive contents are brought into tension and conflict with each other.
This unsayable is all that really matters; any attempt to speak positively, to understand a phenomenon of thought, existence, or life actively is inadequate to the truth of reality. The only part of existence that matters philosophically is what escapes our ability to understand it, and even escapes reality’s ability to express it. Smith’s central example, which brilliantly illustrates what a terrible quietism lies behind this allegedly profound thought, is Derrida’s account of justice. For Derrida, justice is an unknowable infinity that we aim at whenever we design a system of laws or build a protest movement. But true justice is always other than the real or what can be real. We aim toward the truth, but reality is inevitably inadequate to it by its very nature.
If you’ll allow me a moment of Derridean obscurantism: What in the flying fuck can philosophical thought (or political thought and action) do with an idea like that? It generates in response an attitude of constant inadequacy in every sense. There is nothing to gain by advocating for more justice in the world when you know that every attempt will remain infinitely distant from true justice. There’s nothing to gain by helping others, being kind, creating remarkable art, or even being a swindler. If the goal remains infinitely transcendent, ineffably distant from you no matter what you do, then action of any kind becomes worthless.
Derrida can have no philosophical successors because he makes everything that can be said and understood irrelevant to what is true, and the true ineffable and unspeakable. If nothing that can be said is worth saying, you may as well shut up.