Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Final Thoughts on Derrida and Foucault

I vented about the death of Lit studies in academia here and here. I griped about Derrida and Foucault in particular. In response to a private email, I'm going to explain my position on Foucault and Derrida. I'll provide an example from each and do my best to "deconstruct" them. (A bit of academic humor there.)

But since I'm a writer, not a philosopher or psychologist, I only intend to expose the dirty underbelly of academic orthodoxy to perhaps help a frustrated Lit student find his way to other points of view. I'm not interested in debating "fine points" about either men (as if such a thing even exists), because doing so would be like an atheist arguing about whether angels have brown or white wings. Like the atheist, I reject post-structuralists (and post-modernists generally) at their philosophic root. I hold that reality exists independent of any man's wishes or whims, that your mind is either in close contact with reality or it's not, and that the choice is yours. This makes me profoundly human and profoundly not postmodern.

On that note, I suggest that anyone who wants to go head-to-head with postmodernism first learn to deal with concepts honestly, accurately, and consistently. This is the branch of philosophy called epistemology, which addresses how and whether we know what we know. For more on that, I suggest that you start here or here. In my view, Aristotle was essentially right, and Plato was essentially wrong. Let Ayn Rand bring you up to date on that disagreement.

Also, if you want an introduction to the sorry state of Literature in academia, I recommend the book Literature Lost, not because I agree with all of the author's conclusions (I don't), but because it shines a bright light on the prevailing literary practices. In particular, it will show you how (your) postmodern professors will try to obscure reality by replacing the actual context of an author's work with their own personal one, and always in a way that favors the professor's narrow political bias; for example, Thomas Jefferson's revolutionary and emancipatory political genius can be ignored because he owned slaves and may have had sex with one. Sadly, this is what you will get from some—if not most—of your Literature courses.

Now back to Derrida and Foucault. Here's what you should expect:

To begin with, I sincerely suspect that both men deserved to be called psychopathic. In my view, they were both arrogant rhetoricians who displayed wickedly deceptive behavior. Intelligent? Yeah, sure, but that just makes them all the more guilty, because it means that on some level they knew what they were doing.

As I said, these men are rhetoricians first and foremost. By that, I do not mean to imply that they are philosophically astute. They're not. I mean that they know how to create labyrinths out of floating abstractions. They are wordsmiths who use their skills to deceive. I also don't mean to imply that these men use language well. In fact, they don't. Their quackery is made obvious by the way they torture language until it no longer resembles a human conversation, a fact you will soon see for yourself. All you need is a solid understanding of grammar — elements like compound-complex sentences, pluperfect subjunctives, displaced antecedents, and so on — plus a good dose of honesty in order to stay ahead of them.

Here's a rather easy example from Foucault:
Now in this connection I believe that this [humanistic] thematic which so often recurs and which always depends on humanism can be opposed by the principle of a critique and a permanent creation of ourselves in our autonomy: that is a principle that is at the heart of the historical consciousness that the Enlightenment has of itself.

- What is Enlightenment ? » (« Qu'est-ce que les Lumières? »), in Rabinow (P.), éd., The Foucault Reader, New York, Pantheon Books, 1984, pp. 32-50.

Sideways translation (or, what I think he's trying hard to say without saying it): "Humanism, when broadly defined, can stand opposed to the idea of individualism—what most people think the Enlightenment was all about."

And that's not even Foucault at his worst. Sometimes I don't think Foucault even knows what he's saying.

Notice the way he stacks relative pronouns: "that...that...that..." and "which...which..." Notice his breathless use of meaningless and unsubstantiated adverbs: "so often"and "always". Notice his purple ornamentation: "permanent creation", "historical consciousness" and "at the heart of". Notice his trademark, circular use of concepts: "this [humanistic] thematic...which...depends on humanism". Notice his sly but not innocent anthropomorphism: "the historical consciousness that the Enlightenment has of itself."

I say this last comment is not innocent because he seems to be avoiding taking a stand about something important. He seems unwilling to say what he thinks the Enlightenment is about — at least not here in this spot — so he instead turns an abstruse phrase: "the historical consciousness that the Enlightenment has of itself." Expect to see a lot of crypto-babble like this from other post-structuralists.

Here in this speech, he's allegedly trying to defend himself against the charge that he's against the Enlightenment. In fact he is against it, but by god if he's going to admit it. Elsewhere Foucault essentially rejects concepts like reason, rationality, objectivity, and even science! To be more precise, I should say that he may use these concepts from time to time, but he would first label them discursive elements instead of concepts, then he would utterly transform their meanings, and finally he would claim them as his own — in effect stealing the words for his own devices. More on that in a second.

So what idea do I think he's avoiding? What aspect of the Enlightenment does he not want to commit to? I can only guess, because his layered use of relative pronouns makes it impossible to find the right antecedent for the principle in question. (Hmmm...why might that be?) Either the antecedent is the idea of individualism as understood by most Enlightenment thinkers (an idea he rejects), or a "critique" in the Kantian sense of finding the limits of the concept Enlightenment, or the idea of value-judgments ("the creation of ourselves"), which he earlier tried to unpackage from the concept Enlightenment and repackage in the separate, supposedly antithetical concept humanism.

Such willy-nilly repackaging of concepts to fit the moment, by the way, is yet another favorite magic trick of the post-structuralists. Here's how that particular trick works:

A post-structuralist holds that a word means whatever you want it to mean, which implies that you can never interpret a document without having some kind of "discourse" with the writer. A key problem with that approach to language is that whenever you ask an author to interpret his own words for you, especially an author like Foucault, you will see that he is free to say whatever works for him in the moment. In other words, he just makes the word fit.

In Foucault's own words:
"Is not the material unity of the volume[*] a weak, accessory unity in relation to the discursive unity of which it is the support?"

The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), Routledge, 1972 [* The word volume here means word or language.]

Read: The language of something ("the discursive unity") is much more important than the actual object to which the language refers ("the material unity"). In other words, an object's identity and existence in the real world is only grudgingly recognized as a sort of vague backup for the truly real and powerful thing, which is: the word. The word (or volume) becomes the object, while the object becomes a mere suggestion of the word — and one that's easily ignored, I might add. This is pure Foucault and is almost as anti-Enlightenment as you can get. Nowhere else can you see more clearly how Foucault turns language upside down.

Anyway, it seems that being considered anti-Enlightenment was not de rigueur in Foucault's day, so he was probably under some kind of pressure to come down on the side of pro-Enlightenment values some how, some way. Trouble is, many of those same Enlightenment values were a bit too...unpleasant, shall we say, for Foucault to embrace, or maybe he knew that he had already decried those ideas elsewhere and that it would be too obvious for him to suddenly embrace them.

Not a problem! Just extract the unpleasant aspects from the concept, move those aspects over to the concept humanism, and finally distance yourself from humanism. Voilá! A raging anti-Enlightenment figure is suddenly free to declare himself a hard-for-the-guard, reveille-playing troubadour for the pro-Enlightenment army (depending on what you mean by the Enlightenment, of course, wink-wink). Amazing! Just like magic!

Read the essay. I think you will see that it is like watching someone change trains midway through a trip so that it will never occur to anyone seeing him depart at his destination that he was ever on the other train. In other words, it's just more stinky structuralist B.S. at its best.

On Derrida, here's Derrida himself (found on Wikipedia):

You also asked me, in a personal way, why people are angry at me. To a large extent, I don't know. It's up to them to answer. To a small extent I know; it is not usually because people are angry at me personally (well, it happens in private, perhaps); but rather they are angry at what I write. They are angry at my texts more than anything else, and I think it is because of the way I write — not the content, or the thesis. They say that I do not obey the usual rules of rhetoric, grammar, demonstration, and argumentation; but, of course, if they were simply not interested, they would not be angry. As it is, they start to get involved but feel that it's not that easy, that to read my texts they have to change the rules, to read differently, if only at another rhythm.

— Derrida, "Following Theory", p. 17, in life.after.theory

Um... Mr. Derrida, did it ever occur to you that "it's not easy" for them because you're a goddamned obfuscationist by trade?! Of course it did. These self-conscious words of yours right here demonstrate that you knew exactly what you were doing. As Derrida says: "To read my texts, they have to change the rules, to read differently, if only at another rhythm"? You dishonest son-of-bitch! This is a rare instance of a post-structuralist almost admitting that he learned to ply his trade by doing freak-show work in David Copperfield's Amazing Magic Circus.

There's another important lesson to learn here about Derrida. Notice how he switches the blame from himself to those who have trouble with him: "But, of course, if they were simply not interested, they would not be angry." This is a non-sequitur if ever there was one, and it's classic, arrogant Derrida. It makes absolutely no sense. It tells you nothing about the problem, yet it leaves you vaguely sensing that he has somehow switched the blame onto his readers, but for what exactly? What have they done wrong? It's unclear, but notice that his words do leave you with a sense that Derrida is an important player in the discourse, which I think was his main, if only, message.

Also notice the arrogant connotation: "but, of course..." As if every reasonable person would see his point without having to be told. You can almost see the man pointing his nose up in the air. I would expect this theme to appear in almost everything Derrida ever wrote.

Even Noam Chomsky takes a critical view of Derrida. According to Wikipedia, "Noam Chomsky has expressed the view that Derrida's work is essentially pointless, because his writings are deliberately obscured with pretentious rhetoric to hide the simplicity of the ideas within."

Wow! If it's bad enough to offend Noam Chomsky's sense of language, it's bad enough to offend anyone.

Even so, Foucault and Derrida have a hungry audience in academia. As a student, you may soon be embarrassed to witness postmodern Lit professors having brain orgasms while reading or discussing any kind of abstruse, multisyllabic, hackneyed, patois nonsense, whether from Foucault, Derrida, or someone else. I think you will also see that men like Foucault have played that audience particularly well (or played them for fools).

Here's some parting advice, if you want it:

Don't let your professors play you for a fool. Don't let them dispose of your most precious organ. Instead, practice safe learning. Think, think, think! Thinking is like a condom for your brain. Demand facts and clarity. Assume that a professional obfuscater has only one purpose: to hide his incompetence.

Look for honest and competent professors. Take their classes and honor them with your hardest work — befriend them, if possible — even if you disagree with their politics. Go outside your degree program to find such a person, if you have to. They will have a lot to teach you.

If you ever hit rock bottom, have a plan for dealing with it. Try thinking about something besides class. Try humming the song "These are a Few of My Favorite Things" (but only do that about once a year, for your sanity). Better yet, bring your IPod to class and have Enya ready to play when you begin to feel that rage rumbling in your belly.

Of course, you can always try to argue with your professor. Just be forewarned that a hard-line postmodernist will not always give you the satisfaction of arguing back. His/her response can be much worse than that. He may just smile at you paternalistically and say, in effect, "Don't feel bad about your strange ideas. After all, you're a male/non-immigrant/heterosexual/white/overpriviledged/American. You obviously can't help but say those stupid things." Then he'll just ignore you. Unless you happen to be, say, a black, homosexual female and you disagree with him. Then I suppose he might hate you for being a "traitor", or worse, he'll just think that you're some kind of fascinating freak.

Whatever you do, don't merely get your degree. I recommend using college as an opportunity to learn how to keep your focus on reality. It's a testing ground. If you can learn to remain truthful through all the muddy waters put in your way by postmodern professors, then you will have accomplished something very great. Two key virtues you will have acquired (or exercised), despite your professors' best efforts, are rationality and independence.

Here's my last advice: Don't give those mind-numbing deconstructionist fools the middle finger until you're actually walking out the door with a B.A. in your hand. (By then, you may not care enough about them to bother.) And good luck.

Oh, and by the way, if anyone out there wonders what all of this has to do with literature — that's a very good question! What does it have to do with literature?!

[Edit: Snipped out some redundant stuff. It's still too long, but I don't have time to fix it.]