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.