Deriding Derrida

Obfuscatory and certainly overrated he was, but perhaps we are slowly approaching something like an honest appraisal of Jacques Derrida, a midwit philosopher not without nuance, though it was often difficult to identify among the verbiage.

He was, for a time, the king of theory, the verbose form of analysis that gobbled up literary criticism in the Anglophone world in the 1980s and onward, emerging initially from the May 68 generation in France (though intriguingly, Derrida himself sat that one out.) The theory wars of those years have created generations of critics who have learned to theorise but not to criticise, arguably. But perhaps, like all pendula, it has begun to swing back again as that generation ages and a new generation has its own concerns and modes of expressing them.

Undoubtedly, though, literary analysis has suffered at the dead hands of Derridean deconstruction. We have lived in the long shadow of what Anthony Burgess might have termed Frenchified madness for far too long. However, it must be said that, among the anti-semites, paedophilia apologists and spoofers of that era, Derrida (and Cixous, and certainly Arendt) is far from the worst.

Prospect mag features a review of a new biography of Derrida, which is intended to provide some nuance to the polarised perspectives he generates. For some, and I find myself largely in sympathy, he is one of a school of French obscurantists who had little love of language or literature and a significant debt to Marxism, and who did more damage to literary criticism than contributing to its development. For others, he was a key voice in a generation of French theorists who provided new ways of looking at cultural production.

Anyhow, Derrida’s star may have waned, and perhaps not enough, but it seems that he will be with us for some time yet. One waits (in vain) for similar sober reappraisals of others of that era, in particular the preposterous Badiou, the overblown Foucault and especially the charlatan Lacan.

Riddley me this

So, after a summer hiatus, there’s a new post on the Ponying the Slovos blog, the first of three looking at Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker on the occasion of its 40th anniversary.

Hoban’s novel, like A Clockwork Orange, deals with dystopia by distorting the language, the very means of communication between author and reader. A broken world is revealed piecemeal via broken English.

Can we talk about Riddleyspeak as a language in itself? It’s obviously derivative of English and is supposed to be that English which has evolved over 2000 years following a civilisational collapse. In that regard, by its own premises, it fails. A mere 13 centuries after Anglo-Saxon and Caedmon’s hymn, English is entirely unrecognisable compared to its forebear tongue, whereas Riddley Walker’s English is mostly comprehensible to us on first sight.

Perhaps that is nit-picking, since books are written to be understood and read.

Anyhow, more here.

Stranger in a Brave New World

Recently I’ve been researching Heinlein, for the ongoing project on Buddhist futurism, but also in light of Farah Mendelsohn’s recent book, which I have sitting on the shelf, waiting to be read properly.

I thought it would be worth catching up on existing criticism of Heinlein first before tackling her magnum opus, so among other things, I picked up a copy of “The Martian Named Smith”, a thin but weighty text on Stranger in a Strange Land by William Paterson Jr and Robert Thornton.

Amazingly, the second hand copy I purchased was the one that Paterson had given to his father, before he died.

The book was as I say slight as in short, but managed to be incredibly dense on detail and panoramic on perspectives on what remains an influential and also controversial novel. This is not necessarily surprising, as Paterson was a great scholar of Heinlein, perhaps the best to date.

What most struck me, though, was that this density and range of perspective was aimed at undergraduate readers, perhaps even secondary school students. I derive this conclusion from the fact that each chapter had debate questions at the end for discussion in class.

This book was published in 2001. What an odyssey we have embarked upon since then. Paterson and Thornton’s work exudes a sense of the scholarly mission. It acknowledges different schools of thought, weighs up seriously competing perspectives and ideologies. It’s becoming hard to imagine such a text emerging nowadays, when polemic and activism are supplanting the pursuit of knowledge.

The present is a strange land, and this book, like so much scholarship from the (even very recent) past, seems a stranger in it.