Thursday, October 14, 2004

Reactionary Attrition?

After publishing a horrible obituary marking the death of the philosopher I admire most, Jacques Derrida, the NYT has published a very readable, straightforward, and beautiful eulogy written by the world-renowned scholar Mark C. Taylor, professor of humanities at Williams College.

The NYT would be wise to take seriously Taylor's version of the Derridean axiom, "There can be no ethical action without critical reflection" before it again publishes such a debased and inaccurate obituary of someone so revered by so many. This, however, is probably too much to ask from an institution too often reactionary in character.

What Derrida Really Meant

October 14, 2004


What makes Jacques Derrida's work so significant is the
way he brought insights of major philosophers, writers,
artists and theologians to bear on contemporary problems.

Excerpt from the article:

"... There can be no ethical action without critical reflection.

During the last decade of his life, Mr. Derrida became preoccupied with religion and it is in this area that his contribution might well be most significant for our time. He understood that religion is impossible without uncertainty. Whether conceived of as Yahweh, as the father of Jesus Christ, or as Allah, God can never be fully known or adequately represented by imperfect human beings.

And yet, we live in an age when major conflicts are shaped by people who claim to know, for certain, that God is on their side. Mr. Derrida reminded us that religion does not always give clear meaning, purpose and certainty by providing secure foundations. To the contrary, the great religious traditions are profoundly disturbing because they all call certainty and security into question. Belief not tempered by doubt poses a mortal danger.

As the process of globalization draws us ever closer in networks of communication and exchange, there is an understandable longing for simplicity, clarity and certainty. This desire is responsible, in large measure, for the rise of cultural conservatism and religious fundamentalism - in this country and around the world. True believers of every stripe - Muslim, Jewish and Christian - cling to beliefs that, Mr. Derrida warns, threaten to tear apart our world.

Fortunately, he also taught us that the alternative to blind belief is not simply unbelief but a different kind of belief - one that embraces uncertainty and enables us to respect others whom we do not understand. In a complex world, wisdom is knowing what we don't know so that we can keep the future open."


Shannin said...

I came across your blog today -- it's great to see a liberal blogger. I especially appreciated the letters to the Times -- I'm in LA as well and totally agree with what you wrote.

Anonymous said...

It is hard to imagine a world without Derrida alive and working. I am deeply saddened. I found so much comfort in the work of Derrida. He was always supplying me with what I needed...his work, his life..his contributions to thought will be so missed. He was an anchor.

Obits are so difficult. I hardly ever find one that adequately presents the life and the affects of that life had on individuals.(and that can't ever be known)
I know that obits are for the masses but to find meaning for me, the individual, to find my needs met, the significance that this person had on an entire generation of people, and me in particular, to find him recongnised in the ways I would like to see...are impossible. I will just have to suffice with my own interpretation of his works and the impact his work had on my life, and the integration of this ideas into contemporary thought ( so deep ) and all those around me that know and have grown from his work.

Anonymous said...

The article in the LA Times Sunday edition today from a former student of Derrida's was difficult for me to read. I suppose mostly because the writing was boring, and suggested the kind of following Derrida had amoung his students.( Brilliant but misguided minds surging with the proximity to greatness) But it opens an issue that is debateable. Like Focoult when he died and all the argument about his life versus his work...Morality etc... how does a person's life affect their work, or the reading of thier work?
For Derrida, it is the infamous story of his attraction to beautiful women most particulary.
I saw the Derrida film, and yes, it humanizes him and that is good. He is just a man.
But I suppose what I come away with is the undying interest in his wife, Margurite (sp?)the phychoaanlyst. What was her role in his work, considering that in the film he speaks of a terror/hatred of phsychoanlsysis?(Freud) What remains for me is the silent care taking of that woman...what was her life like? How did he reconcile his work with hers? I am not looking for a hero in either Derrida or his wife, and I think the film sucessfully illustrates the daily routines that even the most eloquent thinkers endure ( escape to, hide from, hate??) .
I suppose the 'dailyness" of that film is also what remains, that even the deepest thinkers, the most poetic and imaginative thinkers of our time have to shit and eat just like the rest of us. It simultanously thrills and dissapoints us to see a man like Derrida eat in silence with his wife, with nothing to say. (while the camera is recording...) I find myself hoping that their life together is so deep that the arena of documentary film making cannot come close to capture, and that they must protect against such abreviated summaries of their life together..( i.e. what is it like to live with Derrida? )... but I have to say that there is a residue there of something sad, something empty...I find myself wanting to hear more from his wife.