Interpretation

The task of interpretation is a thankless one, as Mikhail Emelianov points out in his recent post about Derrida. (He ought to have mentioned that we generally study the dead and they are rarely very boisterous in their gratitude.) Dr. J, a Derridean, but no mere derridalogist, responds positively. The story goes something like this: those who study original thinkers often forgo their own original thoughts in the process, choosing repetition, cataloging, and apology over creative, productive, and critical intellectual work.

I don’t quite buy it. For one thing, this precise problem is at the heart of Derrida’s work: very nearly his entire professional life was devoted to supporting Heidegger’s attempt to collapse the distinction between the craft of philosophy and the craft of the history of philosophy. That said, I think Emelianov is right to ask “Who cares?” in response to such hand-waving at Derrida’s authorship, as if his very mention of a problem marked it irretrievably as his property. Perhaps a greater concern is that Emelianov leaves unspecified what he thinks the really good kind of thinking actually is. Constructing arguments sui generis, I suppose, but with regards to what? Judged by what critera? Yes, Derrida was interested in the relationship between reading philosophy, writing about philosophy, and doing philosophy. But no matter what he had to say on the matter, the real problem is that interpretation is in fact the heart of philosophical practice: interpretation of texts, problems, and arguments; interpretation of Being, being and the difference between them; interpretation of God, gods, and no gods; interpretation of the Other, others, and the other others; interpretation of the natural world, the social world, and the interaction between those; interpretation of freedom, power, and justice. In short, philosophy is the practice of making sense of the world we share, not because Derrida or Plato said so, but because that is what philosophers do or ought to do. They ought to do it because it needs doing and they seem to have a talent for it, because interpretation is better than innovation insofar as it preserves a relationship with truth and falsehood, fittingness and absurdity, whereas innovation and originality praises the new for its own sake. Moreover, this broad notion of interpretation is what we celebrate in the various thinkers to whom we grant ‘original’ status: their capacity to ‘get it right,’ where ‘it’ can be almost anything worth getting, and frequently we hadn’t thought we needed it until they suggested an interpretation whereby it can be gotten. As such, philosophy is hermeneutics, and studying texts is a pretty good way to get started on the path to philosophy-as-hermeneutics, even as it threatens to bog some philosophers down in specialization and repetition, like ants or factory workers.

Are there too many people studying the small portion of the world inscribed by Derrida and translated by his admirers? Certainly! Derrida burst onto the scene just as the American academy was expanding rapidly. Suddenly, for all sorts of institutional reasons, there was great demand for talented scholarship, great rewards to be reaped by those granted star academic status, and perhaps a little confusion and some French jargon helped to boost a few very excellent scholars ahead of their otherwise equally excellent competitors. As a result, some French names became sources of authority in CVs (and this is not only true for French names.) However unbalanced these historical contingencies may have made the faculty, there ought probably to be some Derrideans, people well-versed in the tradition of phenomenology after Husserl, the ontological turn in Heidegger, and the strong hermeneutic tradition in France and Germany. Derrida is about as worthwhile a read as Gadamer or Ricouer, and hopefully no one would deny that they are worth reading.

So let’s go back to the original story. Here’s how I prefer to tell it: those who study original thinkers often use the objects of their study as a springboard or provocation to their own original thinking. In other cases, the ‘assistant professors’ (in the pejorative Kierkegaardian sense) among us may be hiding a lack of talent under their banal recapitualations, or they may be suffering from forces beyond their control that repress the expression of original thoughts which they nonetheless have, and sometimes even mistakenly attribute to their heroic figure of study. What’s most important is that we all suffer from the institutional preference for famous proper names, which draws a talent pool primarily skilled at exegesis and hagiography, trains young scholars to specialize in exegesis and hagiography, and then primarily publishes material that is easily packaged and sold as exegesis and hagiography.

This is our twilight, the conversion of critical thinking and metaphysical abstraction into advertorial content for edutainment seminars. If the new capitalism is a lifestyle capitalism, then the study of the good life is just another product to be sold: in that hypothetical world, there’d be niche brands (Deleuze) luxury brands (Derrida) and off-brands for the budget conscious (Rorty). And even our conversation about Derrida being SO OVER is just a manifestation of market saturation, with new designers thinkers waiting in the wings to cure our ennui with some avant-garde, underground, truly (no seriously this time) countercultural philoso-styling. It’s scholarship as branding, philosophy as fashion, with a New! Fall! Line! every decade or so, the Latest! Parisian! Styles! available soon, and sooner to those who don’t need to wait for the translation. (Those lucky hipsters–I bet all the boys swoon with jealousy and/or lust at their inimitable cool.)

Philosophy is all that, ironically unironic in its acceptance of the marketing paradigm, of demographics (analytic, continental, feminist) and of name recognition, but it is also the craft of twisting free of the bullshit, stealing the distance and time needed to pause, think, and not buy anything or any idea.

“Oh!” you say. “AP sure has bought into that whole fantasy of radical passivity and ataraxia. Philosophy is the window-shopping of the soul, amiright? You think you’re looking, but you’re really just buying into the marketplace of ideas with your eyes.” No! I mean, yes, insofar as there’s an industry for inner peace and a factory somewhere that churns out self-help books on serenity, it’s true that capitalism can even commoditize the resistance to commodification. But still, no! We can still practice the techniques of freedom and that practice starts with solitude, withdrawal, contemplation, consideration, and critical insight.

“Ha!” you say. “So now you’re selling freedom and clarity, too? What are you, a Scientologist? Those are just illusions, ideological projections of an Enlightenment subjectivity that never was and never will be. It was a popular brand once, but retro items aren’t in this year ” But that’s just it: the Enlightenment was on to something. Progress in knowledge starts with a recognition of the limits of knowledge. One skeptical Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is worth a hundred rationalist Monadologies. So while I’d rather not be a telemarketer for Hume and Kant, it’s a hundred times better than becoming a spam-bot for their opposition. And ultimately Derrida was in the Critique camp, showing us the limits of our favorite certitudes, and at least at his best, giving good reasons for his positions and defending his claims. Since many of his claims were about reason-giving and claim-defending, his defenses and reasons were sometimes a little convoluted. But that’s precisely why we need exegetes… and also why Derrida scholarship need credible critics who charitably interpret, engage with, and dispatch his arguments when they are bad, wrong, irrelevant, or unhelpful. (This does already happen, by the way, but it’s still cautious and fleeting criticism, wary of transmuting hardwon authorial gold into straw with too trenchant or powerful an attack.) Without that, Derrida scholarship would be doomed… but I think that the field will move in that direction naturally as his friends, students, and lovers grow older. Like any Great Leader or Work of Art, the world returns to equilibrium as his charismatic spell fades and the enchantment of his aura wanes.

12 thoughts on “Interpretation”

  1. Very nice post, AnPan. And I appreciate the fact that you say I am no "mere" derridalogist. (I'm not really sure whether I am one or not, but the adjective "mere" indicates to me that it's probably good that you don't think I am.)

    Of course, in broad strokes, I agree with much of what you say here. I guess my only disagreement would be with the idea that "original" thinking can't still be done, or that "original" thinking is simply reducible to some kind of novelty-fetishism. I think Derrida is the primus inter pares example of someone who was an excellent reader and interpreter of texts (and "the world we share") at the same time as being an "original thinker."

    That said, I think that you (and Emelianov) are right to point out that Derrida is not very-well suited for disciples. I completely agree with your assessment that Derridean scholarship needs critics who will "interpret, engage with, and dispatch his arguments where they are bad." (Absolutely correct use of BOLD there!) There are, and will always be, "assistant professors" ready and waiting for all of the great thinkers– and, honestly, thank god for that!– but Derrida's work needs more (in your words) "credible critics" and less "assistant professors," I think.

  2. Thanks Dr. J! I just don't always know what 'original' thinking is or what it's good for.

    If we're trying to think through a new problem or situation, then it seems valuable. Underlying Emelianov's argument is the claim that a lot of secondary lit on Derrida is -boring- and there I'm hard pressed to disagree. But, if we're just engaged in what Maurice Blanchot called the 'infinite conversation' in ways that peak our interest, well, then we ought to be absolutely sure that we've got all the 'unoriginal thinking' done.

  3. Some peirceology: "Any philosophical doctrine that should be completely new could hardly fail to prove completely false…" (CP 5.11)

  4. I like this, AP, and your suspicion of "original" thinking seems right to me. Would it be correct to say that you aren't reducing all originality in thinking to a novelty- fetishism so much as you are noticing the way in which the idea of originality is easily appropriated and integrated into the market paradigm with not enough resistance from Philosophy? And that the market paradigm is bad for thinking insofar as "original" becomes a label to be won by a philosopher and that philosopher becomes a brand name worn by the "interpreter", the "assistant professor?"

    None of this would mean that we can't have originality, but only that fetishization of "the original" distorts and impoverishes the conversation, insofar as it leaves Derrida "SO OVER," Foucault passe, etc. etc, and drives us without adequate reflection to the next hot thing. More precisely, it leaves us with a bad interpretation of interpretation by making original and interpretation easily packaged into distinct boxes. As Dr. J. reminds us about Derrida, he was both interpreter and original thinker, or original as an interpreter. While few of us will see ourselves put into the "original" box (a very problematic box), we still ought not understand interpretation as a merely derivative exercise, but as a discipline of thinking where something novel (however minor) might occur.

  5. Melanie- It's quite true that I feel the main problem is with the philosopher as another commodity, whose originality, not to mention impenetrability, is fetishized over other features of her thought. I think you're quite right to push back against my near-demonization of novelty, which of course plays into the hands of strict dichotomy between creation and interpretation. (We're dangerously close to recapitulating the themes of "Anxiety of Influence," here.) Novelty isn't a prerequisite for thinking but neither is it an absolute bar to it.

    I think my own work functions best in two modes: a definitional mode that engages with phenomena in the political sphere and argues for a particular interpretation while simultaneously offering certain kinds of interpretations that provoke arguments by being at odds with the mainstream, and a genealogical mode that tries to historicize and contextualize the prevailing discourses by which interpretations are arranged into a discipline: the liberal/communitarian split becomes a certain dispute within civic republicanism about the role of bureaucratic proceduralism, for instance. I'm not sure if that self-understanding is shared by all those who call themselves philosophers, but it's my working model right now.

  6. More Peirce: "…I take pride in the entire absence of originality in all that I have ever sought to bring to the attention of logicians and metaphysicians" (CP 8.213).

    Obviously, novelty is a more of a gewgaw in some disciplines over others. Overall, I think it is fair to be leery of novelty that is unconnected to changing conditions, such as a Rortyan "reinterpretation 'cause we can". This fits with classical pragmatism's critique of Cartesianism – thought not generated by a living doubt tends only to present old ideas in a new dress. One consequence is that it becomes more difficult (and more necessary) to do the genealogical work to trace the interactions and shifts between concepts and terms.

  7. An aside on all these dead folks we hang out with: I have always liked the work of Thomas Lynch on the notion of undertaking. The dead are not boisterous in their gratitude because they do not care; funerals and wakes are for the living.

    "…I had come to know that the undertaking that my father did had less to do with what was done to the dead and more to do with what the living did about the fact of life that people died."

  8. I don't think that my problem with secondary literature on Derrida is that it is not original – the fact that this is expected is a whole different issue – my problem is that it is boring and largely uninspired. The short version of my post is this: how is that that such an exciting (even if at times turgid) thinker did not produce an array of engagements? I could care less about disciples – god knows how many academics are there searching for their father figures or seeking to fulfill some sort of psychological wish to establish themselves as scholars so that "they can all see" – why do people become academics at all? certainly not always out of simple thirst for philosophical knowledge, right? I don't really care much for "original" either, especially after Derrida's own discussion of the notion of origin and all that – originality is still too metaphysical an idea. All I want is to read a book and be exposed to some ideas that are worth thinking about, not a regurgitated summary of a summary – do we need secondary literature? of course, how else would we learn about thinkers? surely not by reading their primary texts?

  9. Mikhail- To take the last part first, if I'm reading your elliptical sarcasm right, I would agree that Derrida's main fault is that he's almost illegible as a primary text, that not a single one of his essays can be read without grounding in other philosophical work. No undergraduate course could productively begin with Of Grammatology: you always work up to him. He's not alone in this, but he's probably the worst offender I can think of who is still granted 'celebrity status.'

    You seem troubled that I've misread you, but I don't think I have and I actually liked the point I thought you were making so I hope you won't see my post as taking you to task for some failure. I was cuing and riffing primarily on this line of yours: "The basic question, I think, is the following: was it ultimately Derrida’s own fault that his very best commentators today are people like John Caputo who, being a great scholar and summarizer that he is, in the end lacks his own take on philosophy[…] and can only pride himself at knowing all that Derrida said, wrote and even thought?" Despite your protestations, I interpret your post as criticizing Derrida for being so impenetrable that only a devotee, only a derridologist, can make use of his work, and then only within a very circumscribed arena predefined by Derrida himself. Have I truly misread you so badly? If so, I apologize.

    Your rearticulated question, about the 'array of engagements' Derrida's texts and students fail to achieve, strikes me as part and parcel of this objection, so I'm not sure how to respond. If anything, there are far too many people who think they can (or must) engage with Derrida's work with only a passing conception of what that work is or entails. These bricoluers are the reverse side of the secondary lit coin: because of Derrida is so often misread, we have a lot of exegetes going to painfully boring lengths to show the shallow readers what they've missed.

  10. I don't think you're misreading my point – I don't really remember what my point was to be honest, I think it was something angry, something mean – I am not ready to accuse Derrida himself of not being able to produce the disciples that would produce exciting books, I'm not even sure if this is the task for any thinker. I am aware of the fact that he's a difficult read, but then so is the majority of the thinkers that most of us would consider worth reading with a few exceptions, of course. Actually, I think I am ready now to absolve Derrida of any responsibility for his commentators because "Derrida" simply functions here as a convenient point of reference, not really as a person united by all of his texts into a real flesh and blood short Frenchman… Contemporary derridalogy is mostly a kind of bio-bibliographic project of marking all the themes that Derrida mentions as if the very fact that Derrida said X about Y counts as research – it's certainly useful and I was only semi-sarcastic in my remark about the usefulness of secondary lit – it counts as knowledge and it's great, but where is the thought? Doesn't the cataloging of Derrida's thoughts in itself look so un-Derridean?

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