July 27, 2004

Kerry's French cousin, and Derrida's obscurantisme or otherwise

I've learned some more from other bloggers about the kerneuropa ("core Europe") idea, which I previously posted about here, here and here. And along the way, about a number of other things as well.

Chris Waigl at ˌser.ən'dɪp.ɪ.ti has composed a long meditation on "Europe’s left-wing republicans and right-wing liberals", full of fascinating digressions, like this one:

John Kerry ... has a French first cousin, the politician Brice Lalonde. On first sight you would imagine these two being cousins fits very well, in political terms: Kerry is the “left-wing” candidate (to be) in the upcoming US presidential elections and Lalonde used to be an early member of the Green party and was Minister of Environment in a left-wing government under president Mitterrand. But that’s not the entire story. Lalonde, who has travelled to Boston to lend (moral?) support to Kerry, left the Green party in the mid 80s and underwent a large shift to the right. He is now an outspoken opponent of linking together environmental issues and traditional left-wing (socialist) positions, supports Jacques Chirac and considers himself politically closest to Alain Madelin.

Lalonde being Kerry's cousin is well known (e.g. here, here, here, here), and it's even alluded to (though in passing and without a name) in a New Yorker article that we referenced here, but none of this had really registered with me, and I certainly didn't know anything about Lalonde's political trajectory.

Trevor at kaleboel writes more briefly that

I'd have thought that one would describe Derrida and Habermas as conservatives not because of any association with any particular dogma but because they both clearly long for times past.

The trouble with that definition, it seems to me, is that history is so diverse that anyone who doesn't have a soft spot for one past period or another must be completely lacking in opinions. I'm personally quite fond of the salad days of the Enlightenment, for example, but I've never felt that this entitled me to be considered a conservative. Anyhow, the particular period for which Derrida and Habermas pine is more recent, according to Trevor's hypothesis:

The 70s, let us not forget, were a period which combined rampant collectivism with reasonable sales for the writings of the Axis of Retrieval.

Axis of Retrieval? I can appreciate the cleverness of the pun, but I'm worried that the the content might be going over my head. "Axis of Evil", OK; "retrieval" = "longing for times past", fair enough. But could there be something more specific? According to Google, no -- "axis of retrieval" turns up only an article on some sort of security technology, and a couple on document search. Still, this is Europe, where words don't always mean what us naive Americans think they do, so I'm on my guard.

Trevor goes on to reference John Searle quoting Michel Foucault saying mean things about Jacques Derrida:

Searle: With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he's so obscure. Every time you say, "He says so and so," he always says, "You misunderstood me." But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that's not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, "What the hell do you mean by that?" And he said, "He writes so obscurely you can't tell what he's saying, that's the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, 'You didn't understand me; you're an idiot.' That's the terrorism part." And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes.

Chris, on the other hand, says this about Derrida:

Derrida has this, well, technique of always pushing two apparently contradictory points at once; and I have often found the results enlightening (his written work may be difficult, but he is a superb, crystal-clear lecturer, which amazed me when I first heard him speak).

The idea that Derrida is a crystal-clear and charismatic lecturer is new to me. It would explain something that I've never been able to understand: how could someone whose works are so, well, obscure have become so famous? You can speculate about the appeal of esoteric knowledge to adolescents, or the effects of pure fashion, but these are desperate post-hoc theories that have no predictive power, as they would apply equally well to any incomprehensible crank at all. I've never heard Derrida speak, and based on my experience with his writing, I would not have gone out of my way to attend a lecture, but now I'm curious about it. I wonder if there any lectures of his on the web, in video, audio or transcript form...

[Update -- I haven't located any recordings of Derrida's lectures, but some insight may come from the lectures of Jacques Lacan, whose writings are at least as obscure as Derrida's, but whose performance style creates an unmistable impression of lucidity.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 27, 2004 09:45 AM