Deconstruction of Totalitarianism [1]

Reading, last night, from Jacques Derrida's 'Like The Sound of the Sea Deep Within A Shell: Paul de Man's War', in Memoires for Paul de Man (Revised Edition) (Columbia UP, 1989). de Man's wartime writings, uncovered in the late '80s and after his death, have provoked some controversy. As a literary journalist in Belgium for Le Soir newspaper from 1940-1942, he wrote a column concerning the arts and literature, one instance of which contained anti-semitic passages (although nothing that would warrant an accusation of Nazism). These passages are also difficult, for they are 'convoluted'; moreover, de Man also apparently contributed material to Exercises du Silence, a resistance publication. It appears, more than ever, that de Man was engaged in a tactical media of some sorts. Although this may appear a two-faced movement (i.e., a foot in each pond), it may be that de Man was playing what had to be said in one paper--while at the same time phrasing some very interesting things that in fact question Nazi ideology--while doing, or writing, elsewhere, another. In any case, and besides noting that de Man quit Le Soir shortly after it was put under full censorship, Derrida's analysis of de Man's writings performs the interesting manoeuvre of not only complicating de Man's wartime writings--& here I wonder, what will these writings, the blogwritings, written often quickly, be construed as in the future? For are we not also under a censure of 'wartime'?--but of engaging in a mock game of polemics with the opportunists who, in the '80s, and after de Man's death, saw de Man's wartime publications as a chance to condemn the entire enterprise of 'deconstruction' outright. It is, in fact, with this operation--that of totalising, condemning, judging, putting on trial (en proces)--that Derrida identifies a totalitarian logic.

(1) Such a formalizing, saturating totalization seems to me to be precisely the essential character of this [totalitarian] logic whose project, at least, and whose ethico-political consequence can be terrifying. One of my rules is never to accept this project and consequence, whatever that may cost. (2) For this very reason, one must analyze as far as possible this process of formalization and its program so as to uncover the statements, the philosophical, ideological, or political behaviors that derive from it, wherever they may be found. The task seems to me to be both urgent and interminable. It has occurred to me on occasion to call this deconstruction... (240)

Derrida goes on to say, in "the discourses I have read or heard in the last few months [1988]... whether they attack or defend de Man, it was easy to recognise forms off behavior that confirm the logic one claims to have rid oneself of [i.e. totalitarianism]" (ibid.). These behaviors include: "purification, purge, totalization, reappropriation, homogenization, rapid objectification, good conscience, stereotyping and nonreading, immediate politicization or depoliticization (the two always go together), immediate historicization or dehistoricization (it is always the same thing), immediate ideologizing moralization (immorality itself), of all the texts and all the problems, expedited trial, condemnations, or acquitals, summary executions or sublimations. This is what must be deconstructed..." (241).

It is this logic that not only underlies the obvious strategies, language and power of the Bush regime and its nationalistic militarism, patriotism, and so on, but also surfaces in the discourse and strategies of the left, for example, as noted in the analysis of Adbusters and its poorly researched opinion, if not plain homogenisation and dismissal of none other than Jacques Derrida.

In any case, the concern over our current events is resonating clearly enough. In the recent edition of the MLA newsletter (Modern Language Association, Spring 2004, 36:1, p. 3), President Robert Scholes, after recognising the "thirty thousand positions on most issues" of MLA members, and thus undermining his authority to speak "for you on any occasion, even rather cautious in speaking to you," recognises that "speak [he] must." With the death of Edward Said and Carolyn Heilbrun on his mind, he turns to Said's advice of "speaking truth to power":

It is my duty as well, and, in some sense our duty, the duty of all of us who teach language and literature, to speak truth to power. Our language is being abused daily by masters of spin. In his prison, Florestan [a character in Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, who is imprisoned for speaking such truth to power] dreams of Freiheit--freedom. But, alas, this is now one of the most abused words in the modern languages. Some are born free, apparently, and some achieve freedom, while others are to have freedom thrust upon them. As a nation we are simultaneously thrusting freedom upon reluctant foreigners and curtailing the freedoms of our own citizens, even as are spending to restore educational institutions abroad while allowing them to become impoverished at home.

Scholes' idea of duty is neither nationalistic nor duty-bound; it is a duty beyond duty (despite the narrowing of this duty to teachers of 'language and literature'). One gets the sense this is a duty beyond, a duty not that of 'to the State', but of the figure 'truth to power'. He treads a fine line in suggesting what 'truths' need to be spoken, and to what 'power'. This power is not only that of the 'nation', in which the 'we' of this article is complicit. This power extends to the privatization. It extends to all, to oneself; it therefore does not mean that such 'truth' is implicitly right. This is a complicated act of freedom, yet, of questioning the premises of 'freedom', the word, and also its economic effects:

This privatization of education will allow the wealthy to purchase the best education available for their children, even as it condemns the children of ordinary citizens... In the name of "freedom" of choice, economic status is rigidifying into a class structure all around us.

Privatization to patriotism, and I quote the remainder of the column:

And in the name of "patriotism" (as in the Patriot Act), our academic freedom to seek the truth and teach what we find is also being restricted. [...] We ["members of the MLA", whose offices are close to Ground Zero] offer no comfort to terrorists who kill innocent people [notice the qualifier: innocent]. But we also know that patriotism and freedom are words that are capable of abuse and therefore in constant need of scrutiny. Thoreau advised us to beware of enterprises that require new clothes. And I would say that we should be doubly cautious of those who drape themselves in the flag.

In Luca Signorelli's famous frescoes of the apocalypse on the walls of the duomo at Orvieto, the preaching Antichrist looks remarkably like standard representations of Jesus. We can only wonder what words he is uttering, but we can be certain that he is a master of spin, as he is so clearly an expert in disguise [reread that & its implications, again-tV]. I am saying no more, I suppose [this time not a qualifier, but a supposition, a possible, or maybe], than we need to read and listen critically to all the words we encounter, and we need to insist on our right to bring critical judgments to bear on the language of our leaders, to insist on our right, and even our duty, to speak truth to power, in our classrooms and in public as well. And we must also remember that, in those classrooms, we are power [and here, the contingency of Said's dictum, its own power implications], so we must recognize the rights of those who disagree with us to speak their truths to their classmates and to us. Academic freedom must go all the way down, or it starts to spin ominously itself.

It is for these reasons--the way in which language can imply so much in so little, hint and question--that I find reassurance that what can be marked as dissent, 'within the academy', insofar as it questions, and does not follow blindly, is still, at least in some areas and organisations, alive and well. There is more to say here, on the line being tread, on Derrida's cautions--but I think Scholes knows them well enough, and leaves us here with many questions in the call to assume responsibility, a responsibility not unlike Derrida's rule "to never accept [the] project and consequence" of totalising, and thus, totalitarian logic, "whatever that may cost cost."

posted. Wed - February 11, 2004 @ 12:27 PM           |