So the discussion has begun. But the underlying question is: Why the ongoing fascination with deconstructionism and with the work of the philosopher whose radical works inspired it? Why does this philosophical strain seem strangely central to the conception of modern criticism, even as it recedes in influence? And why do these thinkers’ personal lives and ideological compromises seem unusually relevant to their work, beyond the usual scandal-sheet Schadenfreude?

It may have something to do with their distinctive views regarding the relevance (or, rather, irrelevance) of character and personality to the objects of their study. Menand offers a crucial insight in his Critic at Large piece on de Man, explaining that deconstructionism offered a sort of nuclear physics of literature:

It generated intellectual power by bracketing off most of what might be called (with due acknowledgement of the constructed nature of the concept) the real-life aspects of literature—that literature is written by people, that it affects people, that it is a report on experience. But it was exciting to get inside the atom.

The crucial difference is that, when a physicist splits atoms, they’re not the atoms of the chair that he’s sitting on or of the equipment that he’s splitting them with. Deconstruction pulls the chair out from under the reader, compels the reader to undermine his own habits of reading. By dissolving the overt categories of reading—plot, story, style, character, moral—deconstruction wrenched literature away from the amateurs and delivered it to the sole care of academics, who alone had the tools with which to approach it. Thus, it transformed the academic study of literature from a marginal scholarly apparatus of footnotes to the only game in town, thereby turning traditional readers into spectators.

Deconstruction is a reflexive philosophy: it makes the very notion of literary analysis a self-revealing, self-questioning, quasi-poetic creation, undoing the traditional hierarchy by which the literary critic is the handmaiden of the creative writer. This philosophy doesn’t merely study the art of writing, it fuses with the art; instead of depersonalizing literary criticism into a quasi-scientific activity, it turns the literary critic into a self-defined peer of the novelist and the poet. (Similarly, Roland Barthes’s famous “death of the author” was actually the birth of a new author; namely, the critic who proclaimed that death.)

Heidegger happens to have been—a blessing and a curse—a brilliant writer, whose serpentine, spellbinding prose was both an argument against the traditional authority of logical reasoning and a performative undermining of that authority. (De Man, by contrast, is a rather dully mechanical writer; when I read his books in college, I found it strange that his influence should have survived his prose.)

But, even without particular regard to Jews and Nazis, Heidegger’s brilliance was intrinsically political. For Heidegger, the project of rescuing language from the ostensible truth of logic and restoring it to iridescent incantation implied kicking out the intellectual struts from under the claims to progress on the part of technological society. By undermining logic and science, Heidegger also undermined the Enlightenment—and the individualism, the freedoms, the claim to rights that are made in the name of reason and progress. Even apart from his specific ideological pronouncements, Heidegger was, philosophically, an anti-humanist rightist.

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) is another splendid writer whose prose is also a performance of his philosophy. But, for Derrida (who was Jewish), the project of deconstruction, with its undoing of long-sedimented hierarchies and categories, was, in effect, a way of attacking traditional power structures philosophically. If I had to sum up his life’s work in a single sentence, it would be: redefining the Heideggerian project as leftist. Derrida is gone now, but, with the discovery of Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks,” this reconstruction of Heidegger may prove harder, in retrospect, for his acolytes to sustain.


"This compulsion to an activity without respite, without variety, without results was so cruel to him that one day, seeing a lump on his abdomen, he felt real joy at the thought that he might have a fatal tumor, that he was no longer going to have to take charge of anything, that it was the disease that would manage him, make him its plaything, until the impending end. And indeed if, during this period, he often desired death though without admitting it to himself, it was to escape not so much the acuteness of his sufferings as the monotony of his struggle."

“Swann’s Way”, Marcel Proust

"Comparative philosophy is a promiscuous activity because the par­ticipants experience a broadening of cultural horizons, and try out new connections, new directions, new ideas, new thoughts, and different ways of thinking and being human. The comparative thinker must remain promiscuous because of the possibility of the fusion of divergent horizons. This promiscuous activity occurs on the margins of philosophy, which is indicative of the uncertainty, risk, and dangers associated with comparative philosophy and one’s willingness to venture one’s self-understanding in the presence of the other. An advantage of being on the margin is that it can offer one a perspective and freedom that one might not have in normal circumstances. The marginal nature of comparative philosophy does not exclude anyone from active engagement in the life of more than one culture. By means of its location on the margins of culture, the comparative philosopher is a liminal being, struggling with revealment and concealment on the margins of differ­ent philosophical cultures trying to make sense of the hermeneutical dialogue in which one is engaged."

Zen and the Art of Postmodern Philosophy

"The struggle is a matter of survival, because so much has been lost already.

Recently, I was at a talk by a couple of people from the Mi’kmaq Warrior Society. They spoke of inspiration, of carrying on, of never giving up… One of the speakers talked about his kids. “I’m doing this for them. I don’t want them to have to go through what I went through.” He had been to jail, he had faced live ammunition from the RCMP. And now he’s away from home on a months long speaking tour.

Similarly, on a recent episode of Democracy Now! a woman from Bahrain was being interviewed. She had faced harsh consequences for protesting the government there, and her young daughter would wake up at night worried that she would be taken to jail. She said the same thing: “I’m doing this for her.”

A lot of people in the very White, very privileged community I organize in might say, this is irresponsible — that, once you have kids, you can’t go around doing that stuff any more.

But in my opinion, it’s precisely those of us that have the privilege-to-choose-to-walk-away from the struggle that have the responsibility not to.

At the same time […] very few of those kids [may] recognize or appreciate that. Overwhelmingly, they are angry and bitter that their parent cared more for the struggle than for them. They talk about the poverty and the pain their mothers and family were thrown into and how hard it was growing up the child of someone who wasn’t around.

And they certainly have very little sympathy for the struggle — in fact, in most cases there’s outright hostility towards it.

If we had a more collective way of raising kids, the impact of a parent who’s often out at meetings or who ends up serving some time would be less severe and maybe kids wouldn’t reject the movement because of how it hurt them. If we had a system in place to take care of people who can’t find work because they refuse to sell-out their principles, people wouldn’t constantly be moving to Toronto to find paid work they can justify doing. We should have a way to ensure that our sick or elderly will be taken care of when they can’t care of themselves — that we won’t forget them in the same way we don’t forget our comrades in jail.

If we had this kind of mutual aid in place, then maybe people would feel less afraid of giving all of their time, resources, and energy to something beyond their own personal lives. And we could have a real movement — one that people could have kids and grow old in — one in which people don’t have to default to the mainstream life of savings and mortgages and career paths… because what we would have instead would be so much better than all that.