By Mark Bauerlein
While we admire Jordan Peterson for his courage under fire and insistence on empirical evidence against identity politics, a correction is in order. In numerous interviews, Dr. Peterson denounces cultural Marxism for providing intellectual cover to junior totalitarians who have come to power on college campuses, in human resources offices, and in government. But Jacques Derrida, whom he places at the top of the leftist intellectual heap, doesn’t really belong there. In fact, not long after Derrida became famous in American academia, the leftists in the humanities professorate regarded him as an enemy, a thinker whose theories, in fact, discouraged the very politicization of learning to which they were committed.
Derrida’s name began to pop up in literary-critical discussions (philosophers ignored him) in the late-1960s and early-1970s, when his essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” was published in the influential volume The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man and other pieces appeared in cutting-edge journals such as New Literary History. People of my age first came across his work in the early-80s, by which time Derrida’s thought, going by the Heideggerean name deconstruction, had gone from being an exotic interest of elite, philosophically-minded literary theorists to a core school of interpretation that all literary scholars should study, at least enough to show some basic familiarity with deconstructionist methods.
Through the Seventies, many traditional critics argued against deconstruction, often because of its radical epistemological skepticism. There were, too, a few episodes in which deconstructive theorists weren’t hired or promoted because people who disliked the Derridean doctrine didn’t want any of his disciples around no matter how smart and collegial they were. When Derrida famously announced, “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” (that is, there is no “outside-text,” no language or truth that falls outside the play of textuality), traditionalists feared that he would bring chaos to the disciplines. If everything is textual, then inquiry itself, the search for truth, was a phony endeavor. Scholarly study and debate was really just a contest of interpretations, and canons of evidence and argument were just as much up for grabs as was the meaning of the final lines of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Derrida’s emphasis on indeterminacy and “undecidability” would poison the responsible practice of criticism and teaching of art and literature.
All of that agrees with Professor Peterson’s charges. But traditionalists weren’t the only ones to denounce Derrida. By the time I first read him—and was entranced—he had another camp of adversaries. They were, precisely, leftists of various kinds (feminists, Marxists, multiculturalists) who judged Derrida culpably wanting in political consciousness. Derrida “problematized” stable meanings and transcendental frameworks (within which interpretations could be assessed as correct or not), but all his talking about signifiers, textuality, difference, and anxiety—“The hesitation of these thoughts (here Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s) in not an ‘incoherence’: it is a trembling proper to all post-Hegelian attempts . . .” (Of Grammatology)—blunted political action. They demanded a more engaged and activist academic model, a theory of art and culture that exposed masculinist assumptions (feminism), class machinations (Marxists), and Eurocentric bias (multiculturalists). I attended a lecture Derrida delivered in 1984 or 85 at UCLA in which one audience member raised just this point of deconstruction’s apolitical pretense, asking, too, why Derrida hadn’t taken up Marx. Derrida replied that deconstruction didn’t have a political bent in itself. He said something like, “There can be a deconstruction of the left and a deconstruction of the right.” It all depended on what people did with it.
That made sense to me. It was the same thing with Nietzsche, who had his devoted readers on the right (Heidegger) and on the left (Foucault). But this claim of political non-partisanship bothered the leftist professors, needless to say. They argued that Derrida was either naïve in his assumption of being above politics or that he was insufficiently concerned about current conditions.
Furthermore, Derrida committed another conservative sin. His deconstruction came right out of the Western tradition, specifically, the canon of ancient and Continental philosophy. He wrote about Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, and Freud. In one interview, he explicitly defended the classics. He loved Great Books, and believed that nobody should critique the Western tradition before having worked his way studiously through it. The postmodernism that treated the past as simply something to play with would have struck him as an idle fancy. The cultural studies approach that took mass culture as seriously as it did Rousseau he wouldn’t have even recognized. He received a classical education, and understood how much it had formed him. Deconstruction was not a rejection of it. It was the fruit of it.
Derrida’s indebtedness to Husserl et al. (he wrote his thesis on Husserl’s book on geometry) dismayed the leftists theorists, who wanted to enlist anyone with any popularity in the academy into their progressive agenda. Derrida’s followers outnumbered everyone else’s, and it inspired tons of resentment among the political types, who believed firmly in their moral sanction. To them, Derrida and Co. (especially Paul de Man) were a bunch of mandarins. Their theory threatened to turn the rising generation of PhDs into apolitical instructors. Later in his life, Derrida did grow more political in his writings, signaling a strong leftist commitment, but those works aren’t the ones that made him famous and they won’t last.
Jordan Peterson is right to align deconstruction with the postmodern anti-intellectualism of the academic left, but the deconstruction he has in mind is the vulgar kind, the deconstruction put to political uses by simplification and distortion. The dense conceptual analyses of the early years don’t lend themselves to identity politics. They are no basis for social justice. The best answer to the young leftist professor of today who thinks that a snippet of Derrida will give philosophical heft to his activism is to come back with larger snippets of Derrida that show the activist’s superficial and instrumental sense of things.