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Unprincipled voices: Derrida a dedicated supporter of the democratic process

By Max Deutscher - posted Tuesday, 19 October 2004

Greg Barns promotes Richard Wolin’s recent The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism as if to confirm that “Wolin has exposed the postmodernists in an unprecedented fashion”.

The context is the death of Derrida, who is held responsible for an alleged racism and fascism endemic within “postmodernism”. Derrida, however, was a dedicated supporter and participant in the democratic process. President Chirac praised him for his contributions to national life - political and intellectual. He opposed the French war in Algeria and in Vietnam, worked to make philosophy more accessible in education, and helped to create an international milieu for philosophy in Paris. While he opposed the American war in Vietnam, far from hating the US and all it stood for, he was a welcome visitor who evidently enjoyed its life and people.

It is, then, painful to read the hateful attacks on his character that Barns recycles without critique. In contrast with them, Derrida was generous as a person and almost unfailingly generous in his reading of others.


Barns endorses Wolin’s collecting an assortment of writers and ideas under the vague idea of “postmodernism”. Heidegger, Derrida, Carl Jung, Bataille, Foucault, Blanchot, and Baudrillard. (Barns throws in the Green movement in Australia as “anti-enlightenment”). Nietzsche is reckoned to be the primary influence upon most of them.

Well, Derrida’s “deconstruction” of texts is a step (a series of very long ones) from Nietzsche’s perspectivalism. But Jung’s adaptation of Freud? What has that (or “new age baby boomers”) to do with Derrida or postmodernism? Worse, Barns uses Wolin to attribute to Derrida (Jewish, and an opponent of all totalising systems), Blanchot’s anti-Semitism and “advocacy of terror” as his “intellectual base”. Derrida has advocated terror? Derrida is guilty of anti-Semitic opinion or actions? Barns, admiring this soldier battling the “voice of unreason”, feels free of the need for evidence.

Barns (via Wolin) alleges a general antipathy by their “postmodernists” towards the US. Barns cites a remark by Baudrillard that although it is the terrorists who flew the aircraft into the Trade Center, “it is we who wished for it”. The “we”, however, is a cultural, public one. It is not a personal confession by a member of the “Postmodern Bombers Brigade”, but part of Baudrillard’s attempt to capture the imagination thrown up by the images that now surround momentous contemporary events. To read his expression, we need to recall that events of the sort represented by the destruction of the World Trade Center were already a subject of widespread fantasy of mass entertainment. When the event did happen, those planes seemed just to dissolve into the (as if) malleable surfaces of those buildings as in a dream, as in a movie dream.

No real connection is argued between Baudrillard and Derrida anyway. Barns endorses (“as Wolin notes” etc.) Wolin’s work to stitch up a baggy monster called “postmodernism” and then accuses Derrida of anything he chooses to stuff into it. Certainly, Derrida liked some of what Blanchot wrote on the problems of writing but to see anti-Semitic fascism smeared through Derrida’s writing (or Blanchot’s) is a fantasy. It is no better than seeing some essential “Semitic” quality spread throughout the writings of anyone who is Jewish.

The unhappy fact is that writers, intellectuals, scientists, poets, and politicians of all schools of thought are capable of any of the ordinary prejudices, resentments and forms of malice. These should gain no special elevation in being part of the utterances of such (even if “great”) people. By the same token, however, their prejudices do not constitute a “real hidden meaning” of their work. Sartre, for instance, expresses sexist notions about women (as well as some uncommonly enlightened ideas), but that does not make his categories (being for itself, being for others, etc.) intrinsically sexist. Beauvoir adapts them for a powerful proto-feminism. (I refer to my recent Genre and Void: Looking back at Sartre and Beauvoir, Ashgate, 2003).

Derrida can work sympathetically with some writings of Blanchot (The Space of Literature, for example) without being infected by Blanchot’s support for the Vichy and Petain. He can write about Heidegger’s note by Aristotle on “being”, without being sympathetic with Heidegger’s support for National Socialist policy (or Aristotle’s acceptance of slavery). Derrida does not “espouse” the prejudices for which Barns thinks that Wolin has “skewered” (his revealing word) Blanchot. There were notable writers who certainly did (particularly during the traumas of the ‘30s) express fascist yearnings, but it is strange that it is postmodernism that is reckoned the real culprit, when we recall those many classic modernists (Ezra Pound and T.S.Eliot for instance) who were sympathetic to fascism. But, apart from (or even within) the unhappy history of those fascist tendencies, these writers did work from which we can learn, and which we can admire. An appreciative interest in that is what leaves Derrida open to the smears that Barns recycles.


Wolin sees Derrida’s ideas as deriving from Nietzsche. One might turn to Derrida’s Spurs to get some idea of how complex and critical is Derrida’s approach to Nietzsche. His work tracks how the terms upon which a writer depends - the iterated terms that make their work what it is - slip and twist under the pressure laid upon them. If he has some affinity with Nietzsche it is not because he borrows his opinions but because of Nietzsche’s capacity for irony about his own use of language, and its limits.

Nietzsche does say some bad things about Jews - and a lot of biting things about Christianity. He is concerned with the identification and critique of a culture of resentment by those who choose a path of “humble obedience” - something he identifies as typical of Christianity rather than of Judaism in fact. His “overman”, however, is not a Fuehrer, but an individual who overcomes his tendencies to envy and resentment - and that useless yearning to change the past which is one origin of destructiveness - “We would rather will nothing, than not will”.

One can imagine, unhappily, how the “buffoon, Mussolini”, as Barns (and Wolin) report, might have admired what were to him choice bits of Nietzsche. I have heard of members of the Mafia who have Kant as their bedside reading. Perhaps they get off on his absolute self-regulating will that takes no account of personal inclination or sentiment. So Kant is an intellectual Mafioso?

Barns also endorses Wolin’s attack on Derrida for his view that law and justice do not coincide. The natural law tradition that they praise would agree with Derrida, not Barns and Wolin. Think of the previous laws against cohabitation in apartheid South Africa. As to the danger of recognising this conceptual fact; surely to deny that law is justice simply because it is law, is not an incitement to general lawlessness. Far from making all laws as good as each other, as Barns fears, it continues the Socratic spirit of critique of existing law.

The question of the justice of a law is always in the offing, and the question of the operation of the law is an even more vexed one. (The current controversy about plea-bargaining, for instance). Barns promotes Wolin’s imputation (“as Wolin notes”) of a desire for violence to Derrida. This is done on the basis of Derrida’s saying that systems of law that regulate justice have their origins in violence. This is downright irrational of Wolin - and Barns who joins in. For instance, the American Revolution destroys British rule and institutes a system of greater justice out of that violence. Then, out of the fearful destruction of the Civil War, slavery is abolished. Not atypical examples. Perhaps happier histories can be found, but for Derrida to recognise the common fact does not make him a lover of violence.

Barns appears to share Wolin’s fear of Derrida’s interest in difference and heterogeneity. It is, however, the ear of reason that listens to the differences between one voice and another. This does not produce the “ethnic and tribal” threats to democracy of which Barns warns. To recognise differences of voice is a condition of reasoned analysis. The inability to articulate thought and feeling promotes violence, and the outraged sense that others are determined never to listen, intensifies it. Derrida’s strategy, then, is some help to us in living with differences rather than doing violence to them in the name of unity. In his desire to deal with writers by casting them in a bad light rather than engaging with their writing, Wolin (as Barns portrays him) has engaged in irrational practice, even as he set himself up as an apostle of reason. Derrida, the one who shows how a writer tends to undo what he says in the very process of saying it, might be allowed a posthumous smile.

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About the Author

Professor Max Deutscher is an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the School of Society, Culture, Media and Philosophy, Macquarie University

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