Dealing with Derrida: Concerning (without citing) certain citations
What I want to know is: why is it that the texts of a certain family of Hellenists, specifically scholars of Archaic Greece, theoretically robust but decidedly non-deconstructionist and post-post-structuralist, persist in citing Derrida, every once in a while, as an aside, neither approving nor disapproving? What do they hope to accomplish by this? Or rather, in order to remove, for the time being, the entire question of intention — because it occurs to me all of a sudden that I know enough members of the family in question that, if I had the courage, I might simply ask them, and I am not sure whether their answers would satisfy me (and it is at any rate the heights of condescension to impute intentions to the living) — what is it that is accomplished when they do this?
Because it is very odd, this particular citation. It is, at any rate, out of place, and almost never necessary or even particularly relevant to the argument in question. In general, such out-of-place citations bow to some other necessity. For example, there may be a text or a figure who looms large enough in the field that its omission would be conspicuous to anyone familiar with that field: the proverbial “elephant in the room.” But neither Derrida nor deconstruction has loomed particularly large in any sub-discipline of classical philology, except perhaps in studies of the Phaedrus, where it is still customary for even the analytically inclined to aim a scoff and a sneer in the direction of “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Even outside of Classics, where his influence has been more marked, it has often been his disciples who produced the studies of individual texts which have been definitive. This is partly a consequence of the divergence between his area of greatest interest (philosophy) and his field of greatest influence (literary criticism). His most famous readings are readings of philosophical texts, but they have not become foundational, both because Derrida did his level best to avoid becoming foundational and because it is precisely the philosophers, especially in this country, who have done their best to ignore him.(1) At any rate, he has not made any substantial contribution to the study of Archaic Greek poetry that would render him impossible to ignore.
Perhaps, then, it is a matter of politesse: there are authors that one must cite because someone (someone, for example, on the peer-review board) would complain if one did not. And I can imagine that in the nineteen-eighties there would have been certain fields (English, for example) in which there were deconstructionists who were dogmatic enough to make this a serious concern. But not only has the era of greatest deconstructive dogmatism long passed, the reaction that set in over the course of the last few decades is still fairly entrenched:(2) Derrida is, if anything, a liability. And particularly so in Classics, where his influence has always been fairly negligible. Not too long ago it was possible to say — and was in fact said — “when she starts citing Derrida, most classicists will stop reading.”(3) The politics of Classics in the twenty-first century would if anything discourage the citation of Derrida.
So why? To what necessity do these citations respond? If the notion of necessity seems to imply (and I do not believe that it does) intention, or in any case seems to rob the scholars in question of their intention, let us return to more modest question: what is accomplished by such a citation?
The following is my fantasy. It is my hope that it is one of the things that is accomplished by such citation; I often fondly speculate that it is part of what makes them necessary; and, yes, I sometimes allow myself to wistfully imagine that it is with such an intention that he is thus cited.
Derrida must be kept in reserve. We have not exhausted what gestures and strategies derived from his work have to tell us about Archaic Greece, even if the task of unfolding this relevance must be held in abeyance, even if the authors in question are uninterested in undertaking such a task or unable to expend the necessary time and effort: even if their interests and capacities lie elsewhere. But with the occasional citation, particularly a citation that seems, on the face of it, somewhat out of place, we can maintain a certain Derridian reserve: a sense that something remains to be said, that we have not completely exhausted the topic, in part because we have failed to give Derrida his due, and in part because, if we were to give him his due, if we were to make a deal with Derrida, we would be reminded with a particular vividness why the topic is in principle inexhaustible.
1. One would like to think that elsewhere — in Germany, perhaps, or in the little enclaves of continental philosophy in the states — this is not the case. I do not know. I should perhaps, therefore, shut up about such generalities right now.
2. Or is it? In the search referenced in note 3, it seemed to me that since his death, interest in his oeuvre has steadily increased. My impressions are clearly out of date. But at any rate, the texts to which I refer go back at least to the early nineties, when reaction to Derrida was at its height. Nonetheless, I should perhaps shut up about such generalities right now.
3. Or something like that. I have been unable to find the review in which it occured, which means at the very least I have the phrasing wrong. Perhaps I am also wrong to locate it “not too long ago.” I should perhaps, therefore, shut up about even the specifics right now.