Why I won't be mourning Derrida

He was the mad axeman of Western philosophy. He tried to hack apart the very basis of our thought

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The popularity of Jacques Derrida's philosophy among academics is hard to understand except as a symptom of decadence. Western intellectuals have never been more safe, more comfortable or more free - so they have turned to a wild, often absurd philosopher who trashes the humanities (and any coherent political project) in a search for intellectual stimulation. As he is buried this week, it is time to ask whether his ideas - and the long, agonising postmodern intellectual spasm - should be buried with him.

The popularity of Jacques Derrida's philosophy among academics is hard to understand except as a symptom of decadence. Western intellectuals have never been more safe, more comfortable or more free - so they have turned to a wild, often absurd philosopher who trashes the humanities (and any coherent political project) in a search for intellectual stimulation. As he is buried this week, it is time to ask whether his ideas - and the long, agonising postmodern intellectual spasm - should be buried with him.

I have friends who still awake weeping at 3am with nightmares about trying to understand Derrida in time for their final exams. It's true his writing is wilfully obscure, and at times he lapses into gibberish. But in fact, once you learn how to boil down his prose, his ideas are fairly simple - and pernicious.

Derrida believed Western thought has been riddled since the time of Plato by a cancer he called "logocentrism". This is, at its core, the assumption that language describes the world in a fairly transparent way. You might think that the words you use are impartial tools for understanding the world - but this is, Derrida argued, a delusion. If I describe, say, Charles Manson as "mad", many people would assume I was describing an objective state called "madness" that exists in the world. Derrida would say the idea of "madness" is just a floating concept, a "signifier", that makes little sense except in relation to other words. The thing out there - the actual madness, the "signified" - is almost impossible to grasp; we are lost in a sea of words that prevent us from actually experiencing reality directly.

Derrida wants to break down the belief that there is an objective external reality connected to our words, a world "out there" that can be explored through language, science and rationality. There are, he said, no universal truths, no progress and ultimately no sense, only "decentred", small stories that are often silenced by a search for rationality and consistency.

The Enlightenment - the 18th century tradition that gave us our notions of rationality and progress - is just another empty narrative, a sweet set of delusions.

So the whole foundation our culture is built on - the absolutely fundamental assumptions we act on every day - are rotten. All we can hope for is to establish a "metaphysics of presence", where we try to clear the clutter of language from our minds and experience a few things directly and purely. Derrida's method for destroying language is deconstruction - a technique that makes us see that "signifiers" are so ambiguous and shifting that they can mean anything or nothing.

Derrida was, in short, the mad axeman of Western philosophy. He tried to hack apart the very basis of our thought - language, reason and the attempt to tell big stories about how we became as we are. All we are left with - if we accept Derrida's conclusions - is puzzled silence and irony. If reason is just another language game, if our words don't match anything out there in the world - what can we do except sink into nihilism, or turn to the supernatural?

The deconstructionist virus has swept through the humanities departments of universities across Europe and America. But the best way to demonstrate the intellectual collapse this has caused is by looking at the impact of postmodernism on fiction. Modernist fiction - for all its flaws - engaged with the world. At its best, it even tried to change it: John Steinbeck hitched a wagon across Depression-scarred California and found a family that became the subject for The Grapes of Wrath.

Compare that to postmodernist fiction, a form of torture so heinous that it surely contravenes the Geneva Convention. Look at the execrable novels of Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace, trapped in self-referential Derridan word-games and irrelevance while a world warms and wails outside their pages. The critic Dale Peck has described the postmodern implosion of the novel perfectly: "This is a tradition that has systematically divested itself of any ability to comment on anything other than its own inability to comment on anything."

Now magnify that effect across the humanities: imagine this deflation happening in anthropology, sociology, philosophy ... you get the idea. There is nothing more depressing than meeting smart graduate students who should be researching really important subjects, only to find they are writing a postmodern deconstruction of the idea of happiness or wealth or human rights, or a thesis with a name like "Is Anthropology Really Possible in Post-Modern Space?". The passivity and irrelevance of European intellectuals and American universities over the past three decades is largely due to the wrong turn they have taken into masturbatory post-modernism.

To be fair to him, late in his life Derrida seems to have begun to understand the terrible forces of ultra-scepticism he unleashed. Very few people can actually bear to be nihilists; very few people can preach a message of paralysis and despair for long. So Derrida declared in the early 1990s that there are some "infinitely irreducible" ideas that should not be deconstructed - particularly justice and friendship.

But it was too late. Derrida had vandalised all the tools he could have used to make a case for justice. If reason is worthless, if words are mere symbols in a void, how can he suddenly call a halt to the process of deconstruction when it comes to one particular value he happens to like? Is his use of the word "justice" somehow immune to all the rules he spent his career articulating? Derrida was left making the preposterous case that justice is a "Messianic" concept that would somehow be revealed to us once we stripped away language and reason.

Oh, please. I suppose it's touching that Derrida made a tragic final attempt to chain his own decontructionist beast. But the time for him to dissociate himself from nihilism was decades earlier, when he first launched the idea of deconstruction.

Buried in his philosophy there are small nuggets of insight: that the structure of language determines our thought much more than we previously understood, and that grand narratives are inherently dangerous. Derrida could have drawn the same conclusions from this at the start of his career: that we should show a greater degree of scepticism both toward language and narratives than before. But Derrida always promoted a far more shrill and silly agenda. He concluded that we have to tear apart the Western tradition and start again from Plato.

And build what? Derrida neglected to discuss alternatives except in language so opaque it is impossible to decipher. His "metaphysics of presence" are incomprehensible. In the real world, the alternatives to reason (Divine revelation? Superstition? Pure will? Despair?) are even more flawed and even less likely to lead to the "liberation" Derrida claims to seek.

Enough. No hungry person ever pined for deconstruction; no tyrannised person ever felt they were trapped in a language game. When there are urgent crises in the world that need serious intellectual application, it is faintly disgusting for intellectuals to spend time arguing about whether the world is really there at all or whether it can ever be described in language. Perhaps there is a space for a continuing debate about post-modern thought in the more obscure philosophy departments - but to allow it to dominate so much of the humanities, as it has for decades, is almost pathologically deranged. Academics, novelists and serious thinkers have been parked in the Derridan dead-end for too long.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

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