A man's death from pancreatic cancer at the age of seventy-four will not change any of this nor resolve old disputes. Death is not a metaphor, although there certainly exists a powerful rhetoric of death and nothing calls up rhetorical excess like death.
And yet I want to mourn Derrida in a way that I've never felt about public figures or writers. I want to make hyperbolic claims about the end of an era: the last great generation of intellectuals, Derrida and Edward Said in the last year. They are passing. We couldn't grasp them when they lived. Will we even bother now they're dead? That's a selfish fear behind an odd sentiment. Does complexity matter? And to whom? Especially now when we prefer certainty, loyalty, iterability, and information (preferably the kind that confirms what we know already), when Bernard Lewis and Bernard Henri Levy are the house intellectuals of choice? How good those two must feel to know that they've at least lived long enough to see their ideological enemies buried.
Only an American would pair Said and Derrida as representatives of a hope for the future of thinking and education that was always more than just fashionable theory, although fashion itself is a decayed form of hope. The fashion for theory and the words "Orientalism" and "Deconstruction" was as much a result of intelligent, angry and alienated Americans fastening on to a promise without quite grasping the training and the commitment to lonely thinking through a fixed tradition required to make it a reality. Despite its rapid politicization, "theory" in America or la pensée 68 in France, was not going to change the world (if by world we mean government). Theory, however, could and did change individual lives.
Briefly, it redeemed difficulty and especially a discomfort some people felt intuitively about subject and object, language and self. Those people who felt they stood on shaky foundations suddenly had a home for their native anti-foundationalism. They too could become theorists. Think of it as a job creation program for all intellectual nerds, outcasts and misfits, people whose kind of intelligence meant that they weren't even comfortable around most other intelligent people. The betrayal by the American system of higher education of those who'd enrolled enthusiastically in these job placement programs is a sad but minor footnote to the history of the 1990s. I don't mean the dwindling number of jobs for French, German, and philosophy PhDs or the corporatization of the University, although that's part of it. The betrayal began before, when those who showed glimmers of interest in theory were led to think that their curiosity would be nurtured into knowledge by a series of occasional course offerings and visiting instructors who rarely stayed long enough to ground a program. Instead of finding themselves in an academy, however, these students found themselves in the agora, fighting for money, time, attention, and space against better organized guilds. Theory did not, in itself, corrupt the young. The siege mentality surrounding theorists and theory did.
Posted by Robin Varghese at 11:16 AM Permalink