Thoughts on Derrida: Constructive or Destructive? Reply to Peter Gratton

Just a quick reply to Peter Gratton’s thoughts regarding comments I made on Derrida as ‘destructive.’ Is Derrida ultimately a destructive, rather than constructive, figure in the history of philosophy?

Well, of course Derrida was constructive while destructive. I mean, that’s his whole project, isn’t it? But I guess by saying he’s destructive, what I’m trying to criticize is the particular form of productivity he engages in.

Certainly, Derrida produces, to use the phrase employed by Deleuze, monstrous children. And his skill at this is undeniable. But while Deleuze produced monstrous children from those into whose language he insinuated himself, these monstrous children were always parts of the larger project whereby he constructed what was to ultimately be the Deleuzian philosophy of the virtual. Now, Derrida certainly also produced monstrosities to give birth to himself.

But his monstrosity did not give birth to a new anti-system of the Deleuzian sort, but rather, an anti- as such, a pure proliferative monstrous that cannot, I think, ever be put to work to say anything in particular without immediately monstrizing it. We get a motion without end, an anti-Heidegger in which Being speaks in a million names, but none of which last long enough to stand upon.

If we compare the Deleuzian terms: the virtual, the fold, abstract machine, aion, body without organs, the whole cinematic logical panoply. I can’t but think this is more useful, a loaded term, of course, than hymen or pharmakon. Derrida’s work is about text, only texts, and the destruction of texts, while Deleuze gambles on the world, believing in the world again.

Derrida, I believe, bought the wisdom of Silenus, described by Nietzsche. Despite all his protestations, and very smart ones at that, he still hits me as a negative theologist, if of a very careful sort.

But which of his terms will last? What does he have to say? Of course, these are silly questions for anyone who has read and understood Derrida. But perhaps I think these questions still have much to say to us today, if differently than before.

Perhaps I still believe in Spivakian strategic essentialism. I think one needs a ‘surface of inscription,’ to throw in even a Laclauianism, in order to be able to speak from one’s position, to organize, to be one thing rather than another. I realize Derrida does this in relation to particular texts. But his is a performance of evanescence, one that cannot be said, merely shown.

I don’t buy the fact that things still cannot be said, and said well. We just have to do it differently.
Derrida’s a sly fox, there’s no question of that. Nor do I question his sincerity or political engagement. I also think that on his terms, he is impossible to defeat argumentatively. But I do think he’s a dead end. Once one realizes the wisdom of the Silenian Derrida, what then?

To quote Nietzsche, one must stand a rung down. And stay there long enough to build. One cannot simply keep moving, or one will dismantle any structure one wants to create. This position, while ultimately safe and unassailable, does not, I think, work at the speed of the world. The world moves slow. We need to articulate positions into full systems, rather than take a temporary strategic position one term at a time, then move on. We need to construct, create, and build, to delude ourselves, for a time, that all we say does not ultimately unweave itself as soon as we say it.

Otherwise, why say anything? To be a bit Deleuzian here, because I think it’s worth still believing in the world.


~ by chris on January 25, 2011.

4 Responses to “Thoughts on Derrida: Constructive or Destructive? Reply to Peter Gratton”

  1. Most of the destructive consequences of Derrida’s philosophy, I’ve argued elsewhere, apply to reifications of the intentional or the intensional: roughly, phenomenology and realism about meanings. These are clearly not the whole of reality, so I think it is misleading to suggest that Derrida’s arguments are destructive for metaphysics per se. The iterability argument implies that it is a condition of the structural repeatability of marks that there can’t be semantic essences, for example. But it is easy to show that iterability implies a metaphysics of events meeting the desiderata of repeability and particularity. Even if Derrida doesn’t set out an explicit metaphysics, his work implies one. (

    The other thing I value about Derrida is that he comes up with interesting arguments. Deleuze is a fascinating metaphysician, but – out of methodological scruple, perhaps – gives us few reasons to believe in his system.


  2. […] claim that Derrida was a “destructive” philosopher. Vitale has come back with a longer post on this: To quote Nietzsche, one must stand a rung down. And stay there long enough to build. One […]

  3. I’m not sure I agree with your view that for Derrida “all we say does not ultimately unweave itself as soon as we say it,” nor that Derrida is always opposed to stable meanings. Consider what he says in Rogues and Of Hospitality about the way that the law of unconditional hospitality / democracy and the settled laws of conditional hospitality / democracy require and support one another. What Derrida takes issue with seems to be less the idea that we need to create structures and meanings so that we can act and more the risk that these structures will ossify into dogmatism or complacency. Maybe he undervalues the stability of meaning and identity (in fact, this is precisely where I have been criticizing Derrida in my own work), but it would be wrong to say that he tries to have done with these altogether.

  4. […] Error, to which I responded briefly here. Networkologies responded to Philosophy in a Time of Error here and I commented on that post (comment awaiting moderation as I write this). Philosophy in a Time of […]

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