Is Derrida full of bullshit? Part 2

Part 1 outlined two notions of bullshit: Harry Frankfurt’s notion of bullshit as phoniness or indifference to truth, and Jerry Cohen’s notion of bullshit as unclarifiable clarity.

We saw too that Cohen claimed – very naughtily, without references – that there is a lot of bullshit in Derrida. Such sentiments are quite widespread.

I’m only going to look at one passage by Derrida which has been called bullshit by Brian Leiter, a prominent philosopher who is bitingly critical of Derrida on his excellent blog, Leiter Reports. Leiter has a deliciously acerbic approach to ‘frauds and intellectual voyeurs who dabble in a lot of stuff they plainly don’t understand’. Leiter is a Nietzsche expert who reserves special vitriol for Derrida’s ‘preposterously stupid writings on Nietzsche’, the way Derrida ‘misreads the texts, in careless and often intentionally flippant ways, inventing meanings, lifting passages out of context, misunderstanding philosophical arguments, and on and on’.

I’ll focus solely on Leiter’s 2003 blog entry, ‘Derrida and Bullshit’, which attacks the ‘ridiculousness’ of Derrida’s comments on 9/11. This came from an interview with Derrida in October 2001. Here is an abbreviated version; you can see the full thing on p. 85 onwards of this book.

… this act of naming: a date and nothing more. … [T]he index pointing toward this date, the bare act, the minimal deictic, the minimalist aim of this dating, also marks something else. Namely, the fact that we perhaps have no concept and no meaning available to us to name in any other way this ‘thing’ that has just happened … But this very thing … remains ineffable, like an intuition without concept, like a unicity with no generality on the horizon or with no horizon at all, out of range for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation, a conjuring poem, a journalistic litany or rhetorical refrain that admits to not knowing what it’s talking about.

9/11 turned the world upside down. Or at least 45 degrees to the side.

9/11 turned the world upside down.
Or at least 45 degrees to the side.

So, is this bullshit, on the Frankfurt and/or the Cohen notions of bullshit? I would say no. I take Derrida to be saying the following.

We often repeat the name ‘9/11’ without thinking much about it. But the words we use can be very revealing. Why do we try to reduce this complex event to such a simple term? Because the event is so complex we cannot capture it properly. Precisely by talking about it in such a simple way, we admit that we don’t really understand it.

If I have understood Derrida – tell me if I haven’t – this explanation is surely wrong. I’d guess that in most cases we call such events by a name, usually a place or a thing. For example:

  • Pearl Harbor, the Somme, Gallipoli, the Korean War
  • the Great Fire of London, Hurricane Katrina
  • Watergate, the execution of Charles I, the storming of the Bastille
  • Chernobyl, Bhopal, Exxon Valdez

My guess is that we are most likely to use a date where we cannot restrict an event to a place or name:

  • Arab Spring
  • (May) 1968 riots
  • the 1960s
  • Black Tuesday, Black Wednesday

But my guess is that such names are rarer: places or things are usually more identifiable.

So, why was 9/11 called ‘9/11’, ‘September the 11th’? My guess is that it would usually have been called ‘the attack on the Twin Towers’ except for the fact that there were two other locations: an attack on the Pentagon, and a plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. I’m also guessing that ‘9/11’ had a ring to it because of the shop ‘7/11’. If the attack had happened in just one location on February 9th, we’d simply refer to the place.

I might be wrong. Other explanations will be gratefully received. But if I’m right, it suggests that Derrida’s explanation is a bit pompous, and probably wrong, but it is not Frankfurt-bullshit, because it is not attempting to deceive anyone, and it is not Cohen-bullshit, because it is not unclarifiably unclear.

There’s a deeper point here, about method. Philosophers and literary theorists often ask questions which are essentially empirical. Derrida’s question is empirical: what explains the name ‘9-11’? To answer empirical questions, it is best to use a scientific approach – for example, looking at more than just one possible explanation. In the fortnight that BlauBlog has been active, this is a point I’ve already made several hundred and fifty times.

Derrida, however, does not think like a social scientist. As a result, his explanation only seems plausible because he has not considered the alternatives.

In short, what Derrida said is crap, but not bullshit.

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42 Comments

  1. Derrida is indeed saying more than your re-presentation includes.

    He points out – when given the name “9/11” by the interviewer – that it is a ‘citation’ (and this is an fundamental concept in Derrida’s philosophy). That is, it is a name that he – Derrida – did not give to the event of 9/11 and using that name (he thinks) makes us also use a much larger way of thinking and talking about it. What is more, that name works because it is itself a kind of citation of other names (as you show in your list of names of events) and its use designates 9/11 as a ‘thing of that sort’ – it might even make it a thing of that sort (the first move in endless war on terror for example).

    Derrida wants to pause and note all of that and not just close off the careful philosophical and ethical reflection he thinks should precede pronouncements of the sort that Habermas delivers in the same book (and remember, it is a book about Philosophy and that period not about foreign policy analysis).

    Derrida knows perfectly well that he can’t just talk about things in some other way he happens to choose and that he can’t ignore the already existing way of talking about it. The reason Derrida often writes in a way some find infuriating is because he doesn’t want to rush into what has already been declared to be ‘clarity’ but make us pause and think about the often unnoticed effects of our words and concepts before we even use them. Incidentally, this is not that different to what Socrates does when he stops his interlocutors and makes them think about a term they have hitherto used with ease and without thought.

    Whatever one thinks about Derrida overall it is interesting that what Leiter, Cohen, Frankfurt and yourself are keen to do is attach an evaluative name to what he says – bullshit or crap – and have that name do all the interpretive and argumentative work for you. You name before reading (perhaps instead of reading) and this is exactly what Derrida, speaking in November of 2001, was worried by in relation to 9/11 – that we would name it and file it along with other things with similar names so that we could then get on with doing something about it rather than stop long enough to think about and reflect upon its enormity.

    Derrida himself proposed a philosophical method requiring intense and patient attention to what is said and written by philosophers and sought to develop an ethics rooted in that sort of ongoing engagement rather than one built out of naming and categorising things.

    That is never going to please the social scientist (and you are right, Derrida does not think like a social scientist). Giving things their right name, assigning them to categories, demonstrating that individual things or events are expressions of the laws of social science or should be given this or that name invented by social scientists (structure, agent, free rider, utility, interest etc.) – and in so doing making things thinkable for the governments or other agents that want to act on those things and fund our research so that we can help them -is what social scientists are often for. It is not necessarily a bad thing to do. But I am not clear that it would better if the philosophers and ethicists who give us pause and invite us to ask ourselves what we are doing were banished on the grounds that what they say does not make sense to us at a first casual glance. Twelve years later, a lot of people might agree that some people should have taken more time to think about how their way of quickly apprehending events might get them enmeshed in events beyond their control.

    Reply
    • Thanks Alan for your incisive comments. Actually, I suspect we agree more than you imply.

      I didn’t realise that ‘citation’ is a technical Derridean term – apologies for my ignorance. It shows the dangers of dipping into an author like I have done.

      That said, I don’t yet see how it differs from standard debates that we often have about the names. You don’t need to be Derrida, for example, to recognise that ‘female circumcision’ sounds more acceptable than ‘female genital mutilation’ or ‘female genital cutting’.

      Indeed, many people challenge categories and tease out presuppositions. For Brian Barry, what we call ‘power’ is sometimes better called ‘luck’. Habermas now prefers ‘unlimited communication community’ to ‘ideal speech situation’ because the latter has misleading connotations. Hobbes constantly complains that his opponents use ideas which, on reflection, are self-contradictory. There’s a huge literature on the presuppositions of ‘corruption’ (Mark Warren, Dennis Thompson, Mark Philp, etc.). And so on.

      I like your comparison of Derrida to Socrates. I see him in the same way – and Derrideans like Maja Zehfuss, who seek to uncover presuppositions and challenge how we often talk and think. I’m completely in agreement with this; I just think that it is more mainstream than Derrideans often imply. But please say if I am simplifying Derrida or Derridean approaches here!

      That said, I haven’t changed my mind about Derrida’s flawed explanation of why so many people use the term ‘9/11’. Looking at other options might have shown him that his explanation wasn’t too plausible. Most people who ask empirical questions don’t think of themselves as doing social science, but that is a shame: social scientists, like natural scientists, have developed ways of thinking about empirical questions which help us avoid common fallacies. For another example, see my post on Leo Strauss.

      I’m keen to learn more, so please tell me if you disagree further with this and/or with my characterisation of Derrida.

      Reply
  2. I interpret his basic point here to be that no signifier is a pure denotator; therefore no signifier, regarded critically, is innocent, transparent or simple. Every denotation carries connotations along with it — denotation and connotation are ultimately inseparable. ‘9/11’ is probably the best possible example of this fact. It doesn’t just signify a series of events occurring on a particular day; it’s a ‘master signifier’ drawing together whole clouds of meaning, whole swarms of intensely ideological presupposition. A dictionary might define it in the neutral, limited, literal terms of a series of events but dictionaries are apt to miss the point. ‘9/11’ is about as potent a political symbol as exists in American political discourse and its use delimits and prescribes the parameters of conversation. That is, in fact, its purpose.

    So, we must permit ourselves to linger on such terms and to consider our socio-linguistic predicament before delving headlong into conversation. By taking ‘9/11’ as our starting point we are not starting from neutral ground, rather our first steps are pre-determined. By uncritically accepting this terminology as a starting point we are constrained, or at least influenced, in what we go on to discuss. It’s not that the term, the starting point, is necessarily bad — it’s that it’s not necessarily anything, so we’d better think about where we’re treading.

    In short, terminology makes a difference and this difference is worth noting in cases such as this. Signifiers take on lives of their own to a degree proportional to their usage; and some, thereby, become largely abstracted from what they supposedly denote, doing things that their literal description completely fails to capture. Ignoring these facts doesn’t make them go away, it just makes us ignorant.

    Derrida speaks in a deliberately complicated and convoluted fashion but I don’t find his argument to be especially difficult or objectionable. Aren’t these really socio-linguistic truisms? Maybe they seem inadequate and preliminary from a social scientific point of view but that isn’t much of a criticism. Philosophy should inform and interrogate science, it can’t do science’s work for it, nor should we lament this fact. Take it as an intervention into an ongoing conversation, not as a mouth-shutting pronouncement from on high. Perhaps, stripped of its verbiage, there isn’t that much remarkable underneath but bear in mind that such ideas have gradually seeped into social science over the past four decades or so and have been appropriated to greater or lesser degrees. So, if it all seems obvious perhaps that is a mark of the success of Derrida and others, not their failure.

    The problem with Derrida, I find, is not so much the basic ideas themselves as the excruciating detail with which he demonstrates them and his infuriatingly verbose, self-indulgent style. All in all I’m not much of a fan — I avoid him as far as life permits me — but I do feel compelled to defend him against lazy, ill informed accusations of irrationalism, bullshit, etc. Far more people have denounced him than have read him, even cursorily. Indeed, the ‘Derrida’ signified in most offhand, reactionary drive-by denunciations doesn’t always have much to do with the Derrida who wrote books and essays and gave interviews.

    And this surely bears out the general point he was making in discussing ‘9/11’! — ‘Derrida’ is no more of an innocent, referential signifier than anything else. To take but one example, when Simon Conway Morris offhandedly refers to “the poisonous ideas of such individuals as Derrida” for no apparent reason in the middle of a book that had nothing to do with him and without giving any indication or description of what these ideas are exactly, this isn’t Derrida the philosopher he’s really referring to but Derrida the spectre, Derrida the monstrous French irrationalist, Derrida the mythical horned beast who needn’t actually be read or encountered in any substantial way in order to be understood to be unconditionally awful. Derrida the byword for all that is bad and unholy.

    And such an attack is, in fact, an attack on ALL philosophers because, while Derrida may be among the philosophy’s more irritating sons, this kind of argument can be and often is levelled at philosophy in general by know-it-all-know-nothings (as my grandmother might put it). When people don’t understand things they are wont to dismiss them as meaningless, stupid, obviously wrong or heretical. It’s understandable insofar as most philosophical arguments sound ridiculous when you sketch them haphazardly, misleadingly and without context. Philosophical arguments are largely incomprehensible without a firm grasp of the problems to which they are responding — and most people approach the answers without understanding the questions.

    This is why philosophers of all sorts are so often treated respond with incredulity, derision and scorn and why ‘drive-by’ denunciations of any philosopher should be subject to a kind of common defence pact, a NATO of philosophers (PTO? well, that could get confusing!). The mindless naysaying of any philosopher, whoever it is, is equivalent to the mindless naysaying of philosophy in general. An attack on one is an attack on all — ‘either criticise what they actually said in at least a semi-informed fashion or shut up!’ Surely his critics will say that this doesn’t apply to Derrida he isn’t really a philosopher because he doesn’t believe in truth, etc. etc. Well, they’re splitters and fools who don’t understand the problems that HE was responding to!

    Of course, you can’t blame people for being uncomprehending when a text is so incomprehensible. Derrida must take a large part of the blame for being such an unnecessarily elusive, irritating and generally crappy prosaist (for all his attempts to ape Heidegger who was in turn aping the poetry of Hölderlin, this is what he was).

    And I should add, finally, that the above post does level criticism at Derrida in an informed and reasonable fashion; it’s not a ‘drive-by’ at all! Very interesting, in fact.

    Reply
    • Thanks for these thoughtful comments, Philip. I’m glad you recognise that I’m not doing a ‘drive-by’ attack on Derrida (nice phrase! – I may have to borrow that!). I’m also not attacking him for incomprehensibility: I think this passage is reasonably comprehensible.

      I’m particularly interested in your fourth paragraph (the one beginning ‘Derrida speaks’). Yes, some of these ideas are now truisms, e.g. words have connotations, these things can take on a life of their own, language is not neutral, etc. And you say that it is partly thanks to Derrida that these things have become truisms, accepted by many social scientists and analytic philosophers. This may well be true. I wonder if you, or other readers of this post, can point me to a good history of science or a good history of analytic philosophy which charts the development of these ideas, and in particular, the extent to which they developed due to the arguments of Derrida and other postpositivists/poststructuralists?

      Reply
      • Lelord K

         /  September 8, 2013

        The historical text that you are seeking doesn’t exist because the event that you are describing never took place. Derrida was tilting at windmills and Phillip above is continuing that tradition. When Derrida started his career as a professional obscurantist no contemporary linguist or philosopher subscribed to a naive referential theory of language–which is essentially what Derrida was critiquing. In simple terms, the referential theory of language is “[t]he idea…that linguistic expressions have the meanings they do because they stand for things; what they mean is what they stand
        for.” (Lycan 2000, p.4) Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations”–which was published in 1953–contains a critique of the referential theory of language. Desilet tells us in his eulogy for Derrida, “when I met with Derrida at UC Irvine in 1993, he told me that he had read nothing of Wittgenstein”. Desilet proceeds to provide an apologetic for Derrida’s negligence but it is untenable; such an egregious neglect of due diligence is unforgivable. I have several introductiory and intermediate texts on the philosophy of language (Lycan 2000; Morris 2007; Miller 1998; Searle 1971; Devitt & Sterelny 1999) and Derrida’s name does not appear in any of them. Derrida has no impact on the philosophy of language. Similarly, Derrida’s attacks on foundationalism were also irrelevant because Dewey and Wittgenstein had also provided criticism of this matter well before Derrida did so. Derrida was fighting ghosts. In his “Of Grammatology” he used Rousseau’s “Essay on the Origin of Languages” from 1781 as a source text to critique Western philosophy of language. That is akin to writing a critque on modern medicine using Galen’s “De motu musculorum”. To the extent that Derrida had no knowledge of Wittgenstein or of Dewey when he began his pseudo-heroic, pseudo-revolutionary project his work is bullshit in the Frankfurtian sense. Someone genuinely interested in advancing human understanding in a fieeld of inquiry would not disregard the prior work that had been performed in that field. I think this meets Frankfurt’s criterion “lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are”. A specific example of such bullshit would be Derrida’s argument in “Of Grammatology” that writing precedes speech. His devout expositors (e.g. Norris) struggle to reconcile this grand pronouncement with reality–and that is somewhat amusing to read–but these efforts have the effect of just heaping more bullshit upon Derrida’s bullshit. An apologetic for bullshit inevitably turns out to be just more bullshit.

        A fine example of Frankfurtian bullshit appears in a Q&A after Derrida delivered “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences” at a 1966 international symposium hosted by the Johns Hopkins University. This is noteworthy because both parties to the dialogue are exchanging Frankfurtian bullshit. Usually it is only one party that provides the Frankfurtian bullshit but in this case we see a dialogic form of mutual bullshitting:

        JEAN HYPPOLITE: I should simply like to ask Derrida, whose presentation and discussion I have admired, for some explanation of what is, no doubt, the technical point of departure of the presentation. That is, a question of the concept of the center of structure, or what a center might mean. When I take, for example, the structure of
        certain algebraic constructions [ensembles], where is the center? Is the center the knowledge of general rules which, after a fashion, allow us to understand the interplay of the elements? Or is the center certain elements which enjoy a particular privilege within the ensemble? My question is, I think, relevant since one cannot think of the structure without the center, and the center itself is “destructured,” is it not the center is not structured. I think we have a great deal to learn as we study the sciences of man; we have much to learn from the natural sciences. They are like an image of the problems which we, in turn, put to ourselves. With Einstein, for example, we see the end of a kind of privilege of empiric evidence. And in that connection we see a constant appear, a constant which is a combination of space-time, which does not belong to any of the experiments who live the experience, but which, in a way, dominates the whole construct; and this notion of the constantis this the center? But natural science has gone much further. It no longer searches for the constant. It considers that there are events, somehow improbable, which bring about for a while a structure and an invariability. Is it that everything happens as though certain mutations, which don’t come from any author or any hand, and which are, like the poor reading of a manuscript, realized [only] as a defect of a structure, simply exist as mutations? Is this the case? Is it a question of a structure which is in the nature of a genotype produced by chance from an improbable happening, of a meeting which involved a series of chemical molecules and which organized them in a certain way, creating a genotype which will be realized, and whose origin is lost in a mutation? Is that what you are tending toward? Because, for my part, I feel that I am going in that direction and that I find there the example even when we are talking about a kind of end of history of the integration of the historic; under the form of event, so long as it is improbable, at the very center of the realization of the structure, but a history which no longer has anything to do with eschatological history, a history which loses itself always in its own pursuit, since the origin is perpetually displaced. And you know that the language we are speaking today, à propos of language, is spoken about genotypes, and about information theory. Can this sign without sense, this perpetual turning back, be understood in the light of a kind of philosophy of nature in which nature will not only have realized a mutation, but will have realized a perpetual mutant: man? That is, a kind of error of transmission or of malformation would have created a being which is always malformed, whose adaptation is a perpetual aberration, and the problem of man would become part of a much larger field in which what you want to do, what you are in the process of doing, that is, the loss of the centerthe fact that there is no privileged or original structurecould be seen under this very form to which man would be restored. Is this what you wanted to say, or were you getting at something else? That is my last question, and I apologize for having held the floor so long.
        JACQUES DERRIDA: With the last part of your remarks, I can say that I agree fully but you were asking a question. I was wondering myself if I know where I am going. So I would answer you by saying, first, that I am trying, precisely, to put myself at a point so that I do not know any longer where I am going. And, as to this loss of the center, I refuse to approach an idea of the “non-center” which would no longer be the tragedy of the loss of the center this sadness is classical. And I don’t mean to say that I thought of approaching an idea by which this loss of the center would be an affirmation. As to what you said about the nature and the situation of man in the products of nature, I think that we have already discussed this together. I will assume entirely with you this partiality which you expressed with the exception of your [choice of] words, and here the words are more than mere words, as always. That is to say, I cannot accept your precise formulation, although I am not prepared to offer a precise alternative. So, it being understood that I do not know where I am going, that the words which we are
        using do not satisfy me, with these reservations in mind, I am entirely in agreement with you. Concerning the first part of your question, the Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of some thingof a center starting from which an observer could master the fieldbut the very concept of the game which, after all, I was trying to elaborate.
        HYPPOLITE: It is a constant in the game?
        DERRIDA: It is the constant of the game. . .
        HYPPOLITE: It is the rule of the game.

        Mutual bullshitting is unusual in that the usual motives for bullshitting are absent. Is the above dialogue a performance intended for the consumption of the audience? Is it more like mutual masturbation, a mutual indulgence of the other’s bullshitting for some sort of gratification? In any event it is impressive in the commitment to bullshitting that Derrida and Hyppolite show. Derrida shows an ambition that culminates in ” the Einsteinian constant is not a constant”–certainly the crowning glory of his heap of bullshit.

        But it would be unfair to characterise all of Derrida’s work as Frankfurtian bullshit–indeed some of it is–but Derrida exhibited a certain virtuosity in relation to promoting unclear thinking, bad writing and ignorance that extends well beyond Frankfurtian bullshit. As far as I know there is no Cohenian bullshit–unclarifiable unclairty–in Derrida’s work. Derrida’s voluminous writings are resolvable into lucid and compact prose. The problem is that the end product–of the clarification–is tautology, truism, banality, false dichotomy or just plain falsity. The extract on 9/11 is an exemplar of this and I would say that Philip’s apologetic is Frankfurtian bullshit. Derrida’s pompous rambling resolves into a truism, a banality–something which Saussure described and explained in the early 1900s. But Derrida does not understand Saussure’s “Course in General Linguistics” either and most of Derrida’s expositors blindly repeat Derrida’s misunderstanding of Saussure.

        Derrida’s greatest skill was his ability to take a banality, locate outdated texts to use as a basis for attacking that banality as if it represented a current problem in philosophy, dressing-up that banality in the most pretentious, affected, rambling and tortuous prose and present it to philosophically naive audiences as revolutionary work. Derrida’s greatest impact has been in aesthetic disciplines (e.g. architecture, fashion, sculpting, painting etc.). Derrida has had little if any influence on the syllabi of philosophy departments in the Aglosphere or in continental Europe (see for example Ian James’ “The New French Philosophy” and look at the syllabi of French universities via their web pages).

        Reply
        • Thanks Lelord for these thoughts.

          I’m partly in agreement but I think you overstate your case in a few respects.

          “When Derrida started his career as a professional obscurantist” – this is unfair and too all-or-nothing. Derrida says many things which are unclear, and maybe he sometimes does so intentionally; but there is a good deal of evidence that a lot of what he says make sense (and you imply as such later in your comments) and is sincerely meant; so at worst he may tilt towards obscurantism in places but this does not constitute a “career as a professional obscurantist” (nice though that phrase is!).

          The Hyppolite/Derrida conversation: maybe, but we need to take care to consider (a) if something is lost in translation, (b) if there is technical jargon here which we are missing, or (c) if off-the-cuff verbal comments should be treated in the same way as edited written text. But I agree, this conversation smells a bit brown.

          “Someone genuinely interested in advancing human understanding in a fieeld of inquiry would not disregard the prior work that had been performed in that field.” – I don’t think this is fair or that it amounts to Frankfurtian bullshit: there are many analytical philosophers who ignore important work done in the area, to greater or lesser extents. We might chide this habit, but it doesn’t mean they are being disingenuous or phony.

          “Philip’s apologetic [in the above comment] is Frankfurtian bullshit” – I don’t agree. It struck me as a sincere contribution to the debate.

          But thank you very much for a detailed and instructive contribution; I’m particularly struck by the alleged conversational bullshit.

        • THIS is bullshit!!!

  3. Anonymous

     /  June 7, 2013

    Interesting, seems to me that the shorthand date reduces the attack to a movie spectacular to go along with the spectacular nature of the attack; many films are advertised this way..

    Reply
  4. cameron

     /  June 7, 2013

    The name “9/11” stuck as a term in the US to some degree because in that country 911 is the number you dial for emergency services. It’s like 999 in the UK.

    Reply
  5. diegovela

     /  June 8, 2013

    Repeating the phrases “9/11”, and “the terrorists” becomes a license not to think.

    “for a language that admits its powerlessness and so is reduced to pronouncing mechanically a date, repeating it endlessly, as a kind of ritual incantation, a conjuring poem, a journalistic litany or rhetorical refrain that admits to not knowing what it’s talking about.”

    Have you been to the US at any time over the past 12 years?

    Derrida was saucing up the obvious. That it wasn’t obvious to you is telling.

    Reply
    • Thanks Diego, but that is indeed the point I was trying to make!

      Reply
      • diegovela

         /  June 8, 2013

        You said he was wrong. He was’t. But I should have been clearer. His warning was obvious, but it was also obvious that it would be ignored.
        Your response is to quibble about names, when he is arguing the distinction between naming and description. Being a philosopher he’s partial to naming things, but he loads the process up with anxiious poetic fluff to soften the ideologizing and artificial ridgidity. But in the end it always returns to names: 9/11, The Bush Era, The Homeland, The Terrorists, The Heroes, etc. Naming is atemporal, expieience is time. Derrida’s comments were obvious to any historian or writer, but not to philosophers. Their blindness is more of a problem than his fluff, though both are equally symptomatic.
        All this goes to explain why althouh you may write about the idea of politics, you will never have much to say about politics itself.

        Reply
      • Ah, I see where we disagree now.

        I wasn’t trying to quibble about names. I was trying to say that Derrida’s explanation is simplistic. If (if) I read him rightly, he is giving an explanation for this ‘minimalist’ name – ‘a date and nothing more’. I think his explanation is naive: ‘we perhaps have no concept and no meaning available to us to name IN ANY OTHER WAY this “thing” that has just happened’ (emphasis added). Surely not.

        When we make empirical claims, we should think like a social scientist, which sometimes involves comparing explanations. Here, I believe there are more plausible explanations than Derrida’s. Two other contributors to this thread (Anonymous, and Cameron) have added other explanations to mine.

        So you may be right that I ‘will never have much to say about politics’ – most of my students have far more to say about politics than I do! – but this blog is more about how we think about politics, and I believe that Derrida makes a common mistake here from which we can all learn.

        I’m not immune to this error either: my original post says that Derrida ‘does not think like a social scientist’. Do I really know that? Might he have thought like a social scientist, ruled out these alternative explanations, but not shown us why? I doubt it, but it’s possible.

        Reply
      • diegovela

         /  June 8, 2013

        Sorry, you didn’t say he was wrong, you said he was crap.
        “To answer empirical questions, it is best to use a scientific approach”.
        The study of history is empiricism but not science. The attempt at a scientific history failed disastrously. The formal arrangement of ideas and names don’t model the world very well, and a fondness for naming is just that. The sciences of politics and economics fail for the same reasons.

        Derrida’s writing is mannered and “artsy”. If you want to understand his arguments look to the history of mannerism and the periods precedes them. If you want to understand contemporary claims for political “science” do the same.

        Reply
      • If I claim that the Iraq War happened for humanitarian reasons, and you tell me that it was about oil, and I say “no it isn’t”, and you ask for my evidence, and I say “oh it came to me in a dream”, that is not a good justification!

        This is why it is sensible to consider different explanations. That’s the point I’m making about science. There’s lots of criticisms of scientific approaches like the ones you make, but the simple view I am putting forward is that when we put forward empirical claims we should (if possible) consider different explanations and try to give a sense of how strong we think the evidence is for one explanation over another.

        Reply
    • diegovela

       /  June 8, 2013

      The two poles you use -humanitarianism/oil- fall within the scope of normative debate in the US. Debates elsewhere -Spain, Sweden, Lebanon, Iran, Nigeria- over the same US policies follow other lines. If you want to understand US policies it helps to understand how “humanitarianism/oil”, messianism and self-interest, are united in the American imagination. Americans always say “But we’re here to help” and believe it. Others will demur.
      http://wemeantwell.com

      I am not going to give more weight regarding Palestinian politics to the opinions of an Israeli political scientist, based solely on on his expertise, than to the opinions of a Palestinian taxi driver. That we now have something called “feminism” doesn’t mean that the feminism of men and of women are equivalent. Saying “I’m a feminist” means no more than sitting in a cafe and proclaiming yourself a revolutionary. That’s the absurdity behind the McGinn fiasco. Rationalists rationalize, and the self-blindness can become comic or tragic depending on the result or your point of view. “Pretentious, Moi?”

      Self-awareness cannot be naturalized. Politics without self-awareness is error. And the idea of self-awareness is not self-awareness. Absent an acceptance of hard determinism there’s no way to resolve the conflict as a “science”

      Reply
  6. Jacques derrida

     /  June 8, 2013

    Letter a nietzsche expert? This is funny

    Reply
  7. “there were two other locations: an attack on the Pentagon, and a plane that crashed in Philadelphia” the fourth plane, UA Flight 93, actually crashed in Western Pennsylvania, in Somerset County. The Crash was closer to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, than it was to Philadelphia. i remember this well, as i was in attending school in Pittsburgh at the time, and i will never forget the people who were panicking when they heard reports that a plane was headed for Downtown Pittsburgh. just wanted to point that out.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Airlines_Flight_93

    Reply
  8. There’s also the 4th of July. I also noticed when I lived in Italy that they have a tendency to talk of dates rather than events–via 20th September, for instance, among many other date-oriented events. As an empirical matter–which you rightly direct our attention to–9/11 used to be called “the tragic events of September 11”, then it got shortened, largely I would guess out of ease (though we’d have to do the research on this). To counter the crap point, and insist on Bullshit, Americans thought they understood this event just fine, it wasn’t ineffable at all. That was the problem, I think.

    Reply
    • Interesting point about Italy. This could become an interesting empirical project: what explains the naming of ‘events’ and how does this differ in different countries and at different times?

      On your crap/bullshit point, I’ve got some sympathy with Derrida on this – there was and is a lot of parroting of names and ignoring the complexities.

      But more to the point, on the two notions of bullshit which I discussed in Part 1 (Harry Frankfurt’s and Jerry Cohen’s), Derrida could only be talking bullshit if his comments were phony or unclarifiably unclear, respectively. I don’t think either applies here, though. So, even if I’m wrong about ignoring the complexities – which I might be – that still makes Derrida’s comment crap, not bullshit!

      Reply
  9. Good points Adrian.

    My sense is that he’s talking out his arse by ignoring (1) the obvious counterexamples that would occur to any reasonably well-informed person and (2) the easily checkable history of the phrase. For that reason, I think he’s speaking with a superficial disregard for whether what he says is true. It’s calculated to look deep, when in fact, it’s just not. It seems the BS designation requires one diagnose *the intention* of the speaker, rather than the simple truth or falsity of the proposition.

    Reply
  10. C

     /  June 10, 2013

    “I believe always in the necessity of being attentive first of all to this phenomenon of language, naming, and dating, to this repetition compulsion (at once rhetorical, magical, and poetic). To what this compulsion signifies, translates, or betrays. Not in order to isolate ourselves in language, as people in too much of a rush would like us to believe, but on the contrary, in order to try to understand what is going on precisely *beyond* language and what is pushing us to repeat endlessly and without knowing what we are talking about, precisely there where language and the concept come up against their limits: “September 11, September 11, le 11 septembre, 9/11.”

    “But we can and, I believe, must (and this duty is at once philosophical and political) distinguish between the supposedly brute fact, the “impression” and the interpretation. It is of course just about impossible, I realize, to distinguish the “brute” fact from the system that produces the “information” about it. But it is necessary to push the analysis as far as possible.”

    Seems to me that the particular point Derrida is making is neither bullshit nor crap. At worst it is belabored, but if such is a sin. . ..

    The problem he is trying to explore is clearly indicated: it is the problem of thinking the singular, the event, etc. In this case, it is the problem of thinking *that* 9/11 is a singular event, that it somehow erupted from nowhere and without explanation. This is a persistent problem in continental philosophy and one which many anglo-american philosophers have relegated to the status of a pseudo-problem. This may have to do with the persistence of a certain Kantian set of assumptions in c.p. But it certainly has to do with a critique of the blithely unreflective use of concepts that can be traced back to Socrates as earlier commenters have said.

    But nevertheless I take D. to be pointing out that naming the event itself is neither metaphysically nor ethically-politically innocent. And as a good philosopher he wants to start by unpacking assumptions rather than just jumping in and pontificating about the meaning of the event. He doesn’t want to offer an explanation of some sociological or historical fact (why “9/11” rather than “day of doom”?) and so the contrasts with other “singular” events seems rather beside the point. He isn’t really interested in the peculiarity of this name (a date). He is interested in what is being obscured by the naming, by the production of this instantaneous memorializing, what is being assumed or forgotten.

    Perhaps he could speak more concisely, perhaps he could just get on with being a public intellectual and telling us something that we want to hear (yes 9/11 is singular, no 9/11 is not singular). But, casting the issue in the context of crap-bullshit tells us more about how you think than how D. thinks. Because Derrida of course knows that philosophers (or better thinkers, since philosophy often fails to think) are more interested in the question than the answer. Not “is Derrida crap or bullshit?” but “what does it mean to ask, as you have done, whether Derrida is crap or bullshit?” The latter is the philosopher’s work, the former. . .well, we might ask Blogoshite or Bleitershite just as reasonably? 🙂 The philosopher or the thinker should start with the presumptions of the very question itself. The sociologist just wants the answer. about the condition of the blogosphere that explains asking such a question.

    So I would invert the opposition, and say that we should be thankful that D. does not just replace the work of thinking with the empirical answers that you desire, that’s why he is a philosopher and not a sociologist.

    Reply
  11. C.,

    You write:

    “But, casting the issue in the context of crap-bullshit tells us more about how you think than how D. thinks.”

    Oh, come now. I think the point has been made above that Derrida’s observation was (1) not really factually accurate and (or) (2) not particularly original or interesting. In light of this allegation, Adrian wondered what sort of failure this was. Some call bullshit, others just crap. Other answers are possible, but they haven’t been under discussion. You don’t think it’s a failure. But that’s a different thing from accusing others of falsely dichotomizing.

    Reply
  12. C

     /  June 10, 2013

    Well, no, John. I do not accuse of false dichotomiziing (I presume a third alternative is at least conceptually entertained, “neither”). Nonetheless, there are assumptions built into the choice of the question–assumptions that might remain occluded and after which one might ask.

    If I were to accuse, it might be of a hasty or even sloppy reading that produces the very answer to one’s own question in advance. And then I might wonder what it is about the very question itself–crap or bullshit–that might incline a reader to such a hasty reading that goes against the very intentions expressed by the text. And even, how the very terms chosen indicate a sort of cavalier sensibility that has already perhaps judged the text and knows what it must find in it and so accuses the author of doing crappy sociology rather than what the author suggests is his aim. (Which isn’t to say that such an author might not aim to do philosophy and end up doing crappy sociology–the death of the author and all of that. . . .).

    “in order to try to understand what is going on precisely *beyond* language and what is pushing us to repeat endlessly and without knowing what we are talking about”

    Reply
  13. C.,

    Let’s try this again. You write: “If I were to accuse, it might be of a hasty or even sloppy reading that produces the very answer to one’s own question in advance. And then I might wonder what it is about the very question itself–crap or bullshit–that might incline a reader to such a hasty reading that goes against the very intentions expressed by the text.”

    Now in addition to the presumption of false dichotomy (which you accuse of, but obviously do not hold, as you point out), you accuse the critics of circularity. I don’t think this is really correct.

    Here’s how the discussion has gone, I think. Derrida said x. People said, “hey, I think that is wrong for reasons x and y.” Then, in addition to that, some (Adrian) said “and I think to say x, in light of A and B, is just crap.” Others said, “no, I think it’s bullshitting.” These aren’t the only two that exist, and no one seems to have presumed or entertained that. Perhaps there are others, perhaps these are wrong. But your disagreement is not with that, but with the initial negative evaluation (i.e., it’s wrong for reasons x and y).

    You apparently think what he said was insightful and not wrong. So obviously you don’t proceed to step two of the evaluation.

    Reply
  14. C.

     /  June 10, 2013

    Sure–please do try this again. But, it’s not a tricky point–to accuse person x of saying something crap or bullshit when what you think s/he says is not a plausible way of reading the text is something close to a straw –f you prefer the language of informal logic. (It’s not really a straw man, I’d say, but illustrates a type of rational-communicative-intellectual failure of which straw men are instances as well).

    Though, I would argue that D. is saying that philosophically we should begin by thinking about the assumptions and the decisions that condition such a reading or such a question. That’s fairly clearly what D. seems to be saying in his introduction to the interview from which the passage is taken–we must start by thinking through the assumptions of the question and not too hastily acceding to them (a matter of philosophical and political duty in fact). The irony, of course, that apparently I didn’t make explicit enough is that this a lesson that we might learn from D. in the case of asking a question like–crap or bullshit? The negative evaluation might at least wait until we have understood and explicated what he says and why he says it. A few paragraphs later D even says we are just “preparing ourselves to say something about it.” He hasn’t done anything other than begin a sort of preliminary consideration of what is being assumed by the name he is being asked to think about–remember it is his interviewer who asks him whether he thinks “9/11 is a major event.” He is beginning a response to that question by asking what is even being assumed by that question. Not much more. But who needs the rest of the interview or think about context to judge what he is saying as bullshit or crap?

    “The bullshitter may or may not deceive us, or intend to deceive us, about the alleged facts. ‘What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise.’ In short, the essence of Frankfurt-bullshit is phoniness, indifference to truth.”

    Indeed.

    Reply
  15. C.,

    Right. I think I understand what Derrida is saying just fine and I think it’s a very plausible way of reading the text. The disagreement is about whether Derrida said anything worthwhile or true. Some think not. I concur with them. Then the question is what sort of thing might be said about that. The second is a different question.

    Reply
  16. joblow2000@yahoo.com

     /  June 11, 2013

    RIP Derrida

    this man is DEAD. RIP

    Dead people cannot speak from the grave. Let this man be in peace at the cemetary..

    Humanities will be gone gone by 2020.. Humanities will be obsolete by internet by 2020

    Reply
  17. Pat

     /  June 11, 2013

    Adrian (and others),
    I’d like to offer something. I often use this example from Derrida when I teach informal logic, and while I don’t claim to comprehend Derrida’s philosophy, I think I understand one of his points regarding 9/11.

    I discuss this example while discussing why things and events are named as they are, and the power that such names can have over our ability to think critically about them. Other names in my discussion include, for example, “The Death Tax” instead of “The Estate Tax,” the “War on Terror” instead of the “War in Iraq,” the way that corporate names overpower the thing itself (Kleenex for tissue, Xerox for copies), etc. The first two are largely attributable to Frank Luntz, a GOP strategist and wordsmith, hired to sway public opinion on critical issues in virtue of renaming them. (Sidenote: George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, and Elizabeth Wehling are good at diagnosing this kind of thing, whether or not one agrees with the underlying cog sci or their tactics.)

    So, what about Derrida and 9/11? I ask my students (one you alluded to above), when did Pearl Harbor happen? Most don’t know; a few, usually with ties to the military, know it was December 7, 1941. I then ask them, when did 9/11 happen? And they see the absurdity in asking the question, though, again, some of them don’t know the year.

    I think this is part – and only part – of Derrida’s point. “A date and nothing more… a kind of ritual incantation…” The name inscribes the event into the very nature of time in a particular way. It marks the event as akin to a holiday, something that we have to go through every year, whether we want to remember it or not. (Think of how the political phrase “Never Forget” is tied into this naming of the event – of course we cannot forget if it happens annually.) Not so with Pearl Harbor, nor May ’68, etc. One of the effects of naming the event this way is that it annually reintroduces the threat of terror.

    One of your objections matches one offered by my students. We don’t just call it “The Attack on the Twin Towers” because of the attack on the Pentagon and the crashed plane in PA. But I don’t think that’s enough. I want to say that, generally speaking, when people bring up 9/11, most people think of New York before those other two (with obvious exceptions for those geographically near the other two or who had close family members or friends near the other two). The more likely explanation is that naming 9/11 “9/11” was a concerted effort, one created by an echo chamber between politicians and mainstream media. Such echo chambers are well documented.

    Sorry this is long, but a few last things. You suggest that Derrida’s ‘explanation’ of the name 9/11 fails because there are alternative explanations; likewise, you suggest we need to look for help from social scientists here. I don’t think Derrida is trying to explain the name 9/11; rather, he’s trying to help us understand the effects of naming it 9/11. Some of those include us not thinking very hard about the name, how it’s ‘unique’, what it does, etc. And there are surely other points, alluded to by others above, about ‘citation’ and Derrida’s method.

    Second, someone might suggest my reading of Derrida is wrong. I’m fine with that. I think it’s nonetheless productive for thinking about the name ‘9/11’ differently for what it does. Most of my students, and many adults and friends I’ve told this to, say they’ve never thought about it this way. And it stems from reading Derrida and commentary on him. In other words, if I’m wrong, misreadings can be productive.

    Lastly, I have no idea whether Derrida’s prose here falls into bullshit or crap, on the views under consideration.

    Reply
    • Thanks Pat, that is an exceptionally useful contribution, so as a thankyou, let me point people towards your blog: http://denehy.blogspot.com.

      (1) I am very attracted to your idea that the term ‘9/11’ leads to an annual remembrance, unlike ‘the Twin Towers attack’, say, as described in your paragraph starting ‘One of your objections’.

      I’d need more evidence that this was a concerted effort between politicians and the media – but I haven’t provided much evidence for my own claims, either, so I don’t mean that critically. And I’m certainly open to your argument.

      (2) However, I am not convinced about the explanation/effect claim, in your third-from-last paragraph. As I read Derrida, he is saying or at least implying that this does explain why 9/11 was called 9/11 – hence words he uses like ‘marks’ and ‘admits’. To me that sounds like an explanation. I might be wrong, and/or something might have been lost in translation.

      For what it’s worth, I do believe Derrida can be very perceptive at spotting the presuppositions of terms we use, but in the passage I quote above he does seem to me to be primarily talking about why we use these terms.

      But I am far from certain about this, and I am extremely grateful to you for presenting a different intepretation like this, which I take very seriously; in Hobbes scholarship, which is my primary field, we regularly read and re-read passages with different interpretations in mind, to see what ‘fits’ best.

      Reply
  18. diegovela

     /  June 14, 2013

    I’m amazed.

    Pat: “I discuss this example while discussing why things and events are named as they are, and the power that such names can have over our ability to think critically about them.”

    Diegov: “Repeating the phrases “9/11″, and “the terrorists” becomes a license not to think.”

    Pat:”Other names in my discussion include, for example, ‘The Death Tax’ instead of ‘The Estate Tax,’ the ‘War on Terror’ instead of the ‘War in Iraq,’ ”

    Diegov: “9/11, The Bush Era, The Homeland, The Terrorists, The Heroes, etc.”

    I really thought I was being clear. “Us” and “Them” are simple names. People who divide the world into those binary categories choose not to think.

    And stil no discussion of issues in the world.
    As I said: amazing.

    Reply
  19. Maria Snyman

     /  August 9, 2015

    Derrida basically talks about what is called “name-calling” – he tried to demonstrate its power to position bodies, to reduce meaning … Derrida deals with things at a very basic level, at a level where the very simplicity of it makes it enigmatic – he plays on a monstrous scale, not many people can take such enormous (serious) play:

    name-calling
    noun
    abusive language or insults.
    “the party’s internal bickering and name-calling”

    https://www.google.co.za/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=name-calling

    Read Jensen’s Gradiva, and see if you get it.

    Reply
  20. I enjoyed this a lot Adrian! I would call bullshit on Derrida here, in the sense of packaging quite a simple and even trite idea in flowery, obfuscating language. It seems quite obvious that the reasons why we choose to use certain terms to designate key historical events are worthy of study; whether Derrida helps us much is less clear… Of course, a label of this sort cannot capture the full complexity of a profoundly important historical moment, but the fact that such a label is being used doesn’t mean that we can’t interrogate what lies behind it.

    And let me add ‘The Ides of March’. Any proper study of this kind of naming in the West would have to go back at least to Greco-Roman antiquity: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7d/Eid_Mar.jpg

    Reply
    • Thanks for the kind words, Adam. However, I don’t agree that we should call something “bullshit” if it involves what you accuse Derrida of (“packaging quite a simple and even trite idea in flowery, obfuscating language”). For me, and indeed for Harry Frankfurt and Gerry Cohen, that’s not best called bullshit.

      Reply
  21. To be clear, I think the passage of Derrida you cite is both bullshit and crap; bullshit in that it dresses up a simple argument, and crap in that the argument is incorrect, or at least so undercooked that it doesn’t carry much weight.

    And ‘9/11’ gained currency in part because of how the Americans call the police. In the UK we still say ‘September the 11th’, right?

    Reply
  22. Reblogged this on MUSO MUSINGS ON FATHERHOOD THEORY AND STUFF and commented:
    A satisfying Part 2 on Bull Shit. A disappointing absence of Freudian Psychoanalysis.

    Reply
  1. Is Derrida full of bullshit? Part 1 | BlauBlog
  2. Fun with Derrida | The Non Sequitur
  3. TV bullshit and its effect on clear thinking | BlauBlog
  4. Talking in Code | jacques derrida
  5. Crisis in the Humanities : Scientific ignorance and the Renouncement of Logic | La Connaissance

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