TL:DR Synopsis: Historians who haven’t read Derrida should STFU about Derrida
I get increasingly worried about the comparative intellectual level of academic history. Partly it comes from seeing university history professors (professors, mind: not lecturers or readers) making the most unbelievably stupid comments about Brexit, on Facebook or elsewhere, or more generally just in the levels of critical sophistication in the arguments one sees published, or in the degree of intellectual ambition or reach. I have said before that I find academic history – in the UK at least – to be a very lazy, complacent discipline. US history seems to have different, existential, problems and challenges, but not ones that have produced better thought.
One of the ways in which this is manifested is in some historians’ attitudes to supposedly ‘postmodern’ philosophy, attitudes which suggest that they think that the normal scholarly principles can be suspended when discussing it and, moreover, that this will somehow make the author appear clever or witty.
Here is an example:
‘We should not pretend that Jacques Derrida has revealed something radically new to us: that hagiography reproduces hagiography rather than some putative reality. Hippolyte Delehaye pointed this out in 1905 in his Legends of the Saints, although because he wrote in plain, comprehensible language, his message was perhaps not as clear as that of Derrida.’ (Patrick J. Geary, ‘Saints, scholars and society: the elusive goal’, in id., Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages (Ithaca NY, 1994), pp.7-29, at p.17)
Take that, Derrida! Note also the barbed comment about Derrida’s language. This is the old Anglo-American trope of the French bullshitter with nothing new to say who only gets away with it because of his impenetrable prose. You can find that in too many flippant discussions to decide on a representative sample but look up Derrida in ‘Sir’ Anthony Kenney’s New History of Western Philosophy for a particularly shabby and libellous example. (1)
I read Geary’s article in 1995 before I had read anything by JD and promptly forgot about it. Maybe I thought ‘ha ha! Good zinger there, Professor Geary!’ Who knows? The passage above has reappeared in my consciousness recently, however, quoted by another good historian whom I know and (at least currently) get on with: James T. Palmer, in his new Early Medieval Hagiography (? s’-Hertogenbosch: ARC Humanities Press, 2018, p.68), which is otherwise rather a useful little primer on the topic. Later in the same chapter, Palmer goes on (p.83):
‘Postmodernism is not a licence to make everything up. Nevertheless, we are not far away from Derrida’s maxim ‘il n’y a pas de hors-texte’ (there is no outside-text), a claim that reality and language never truly intersect. For many medievalists this is largely unproblematic because we know that we are locked into partial views of textual discourses with no possibility of external validation (subject to the invention of time travel, of course). Indeed we have already seen Geary’s dismissal of the idea that Derrida announced something new here, because Delehaye, Graus and many more had already explored issues about textuality and truth. Geary, building on thoughts by Gabrielle Spiegel, even wondered if manuscripts could help to supply something like the “outside-text” that would lead to a better appreciation of the social logic of the text.’
For me, this kind of thing is nowadays like a red to rag to a bull, not least because I should get out more. It’s pretty commonplace to misunderstand the arguments made by other people – indeed Derrida would have said, I imagine, that it’s pretty much inevitable. If I were to say that Patrick Geary or James Palmer had nothing new to say, because loads of people had said what they had to say before, and took a side-swipe at the clarity of their prose-style, people might say I was being a bit rude. If my statement represented an utterly bizarre misrepresentation of their arguments anyway, I would come in for more (justifiable) stick. If, however, it turned out that I had made those remarks without even having read Geary’s or Palmer’s works in the first place, then I’d really be ruled out of court. Yet, it appears that when it comes to continental philosophers, that kind of behaviour is accepted as fair play and even cheered heartily.
I have said, for many years now, that the degree of venom spat at Derrida stands in inverse proportion to the familiarity of the writer with Derrida’s works. Indeed, if one reads Geary’s article, there is no sign from the footnotes or text that he had, at that stage at least, read anything at all by Derrida or that, if he had, he’d made much effort to understand it. What he had read, and what is cited in the passage quoted earlier, is Gabrielle Spiegel’s well-known article ‘History, historicism and the social logic of the text in the Middle Ages’ (Speculum, 1990: reprinted in ead. The Past as Text. The Theory and Practice of Medieval Historiography, Baltimore, 1999). For many, perhaps most, medievalists, Spiegel’s widely-read and -cited article appears to have stood in for any first-hand acquaintance with Jacques Derrida’s writing. This is a shame because Spiegel misunderstood Derrida and deconstruction pretty badly (I will leave that for another time, perhaps). She had, however, at least read some of Derrida’s early works and made an effort to engage with his thought.
Palmer has made the effort to look up the page reference for the phrase ‘il n’y-a pas de hors-texte’, infamously mistranslated by Gayatri Chakravorty-Spivak in the first edition of the English translation of De la grammatologie as ‘there is nothing outside the text’ (Chakravorty-Spivak possibly read the phrase as something like ‘il n’y-a pas dehors texte’ but who knows?). Palmer quotes the more correct translation: there is no outside-text.
Neither Geary nor Palmer – manifestly – had/have the faintest idea of what Derrida was talking about, however, as is abundantly clear from their comments. Abundantly clear, that is, to anyone familiar with Derridian philosophy. The gamble in statements like theirs, though, is the fairly safe one that none of their medieval historian readers will be familiar with Derridian philosophy. It is a – not untypical – rhetorical ploy to suggest familiarity with ‘postmodern’ philosophy while simultaneously dismissing it, and thus staying securely and unthreateningly within the accepted, traditional historical paradigm and its attitude to ‘postmodernism’ (see also the misuse of Derrida’s term ‘deconstruction’).(2) That is to place a bet on what look like good, safe odds. It’s actually a high scholarly stake to gamble but normally it pays off. If it doesn’t, though, you run the risk of looking pretty foolish.
Over the past decade or so, I have read quite a lot of Derrida’s writing, and exegesis of it. Indeed I was partly drawn to Derrida precisely by the venomous reaction any citation of his name appears to excite. If people hate him that much, he must have something important to say, thought I. Over the years it became clear to me that my hunch was exactly correct. What Derrida’s thought calls into question is the very project of modern, ‘rigorous’ Anglo-American ‘analytical’ philosophy. Indeed, in my opinion, he makes it fairly clear that that project, the whole search for logical truth, is entirely pointless. (3) No wonder that, even 14 years after his death from cancer, you can still find British philosophy professors deriding Derrida (pun intended) as a French fraud.
Derrida had nothing to say about the things that Geary mentions. ‘Hagiography reproduces only hagiography’ has nothing to do with Derrida’s thought. Contra Palmer, Derrida’s thought is absolutely not about ‘textuality and truth’ in the sense that Delehaye, Graus and the rest were discussing it. There is almost no intersection between the philosophy of Jacques Derrida and those topics. Derrida didn’t say anything that Delehaye had said before, which is no slur on Delehaye. They were discussing quite different topics.
So, what was Derrida on about? Let’s start with ‘il n’y-a pas de hors-texte’ and work back. To understand that phrase you need to understand what Derrida meant by ‘texte’. One key point made in De la grammatologie, actually a pretty prescient point (as John D. Caputo says in his recent, excellent Hermeneutics: Facts and Interpretation in the Age of Information (Penguin, 2018)), is that the fundamental characteristics of writing apply to all other means of the communication or recognition of information. The features that allow a written text to convey information regardless of the presence or absence of the initial writer or the intended recipient – the idea of iterability – underlie spoken language too. Indeed, they underpin any form of the conveyance of meaning. Once a signifier of any sort has become associated with a signified it can be repeated ad nauseam. This feature of iterability brings with it all the possibilities for the slippage of meaning when the sign is deployed in new, different contexts. The sign (of any sort) has meaning only because of its place in an endless chain, or infinite network, of relationship to and difference from other signs. Even on the very first time that a specific signifier is used to relate to a particular signified it has always already acquired the feature of iterability, the capacity not just to relate to that one thing but to any other instance of that thing, and to relate to it ironically or sarcastically, and its meaning is always already conveyed in part through its difference from other things. Thus – in time – you can never get back, however hard you try, to an ‘originary’ meaning where sign and referent are entirely co-extensive. Such meaning is perpetually deferred. And – in space – you can never leave the chain or network of differences. Even to imagine such a thing you have to move into the realm of theology: in the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God (John 1.1): ontotheology. This applies to speech, to writing, to pictorial representation, to mathematics, to basic cognition of the world around you. Nothing can be understood outside a network of presences and absences, beyond the play, or motion, of différance (Derrida’s neologism that conveys the combination of deferral and difference just alluded to). This was what Derrida meant when he talked about ‘texte’: the features of ‘text’ that in fact all cognition and communication are based upon. All transmission of information works using the structures and principles of writing, to describe which he coined another of his many neologisms: archi-écriture (a word that combines architecture and écriture – writing – and the word arche, meaning beginning or origin). All such systems work with ‘graphemes’, signifying-units subject to différance.
So: there is no ‘outside-text’: no ‘neutral’ vantage-point, outwith archi-écriture, outside the features of writing and text, from which to assess absolute meaning; no point from which it would in any case be possible to convey absolute meaning, self-present to, co-extensive with, the means by which it was conveyed. If Hippolyte Delehaye or František Graus ever said anything even remotely like this I would be extremely glad of the reference as their significance within the history of continental philosophy has been entirely ignored! The other point to be made, is that the discussions of différance, texte and archi-écriture are the spring-board for, not the end-point of, Derrida’s thought about deconstruction.
Is ‘il n’y-a pas de hors-texte’, then, ‘a claim that reality and language never truly intersect’? Clearly not. It is a claim that, insofar as it is perceived and understood, reality is ‘text’. In the Venn diagram metaphor, the sets of ‘Derridian ‘text’’ and ‘perceived reality’ do not merely intersect; they are the same set. Anything outside those sets simply cannot be perceived, understood or represented; it’s equivalent to the Lacanian Real, the Kantian ‘Ding an sich’, the reason why Speculative Realism is speculative. Once something is perceived, understood and described, it becomes iterable, subject to the potential slippage that comes with différance, caught in the features of text and archi-écriture.
None of that, you will note, has anything – at all – to do with text reproducing other text, or discourse staying within the bounds of discourse (that’s Foucault, not Derrida: the two were very different). Geary ought to read Derrida on ‘the law of genre’, in that regard.(4) Nor does any of it have anything to do with the problems involved in dealing with the partiality of our evidence or the dangers of reconstructing the past from partial evidence. The vantage point ‘outside text’ (hors du texte) or a means of expressing reality via a supposed hors-texte can hardly be equated to going back to ‘seeing it for yourself’ via time-travel (ho ho). That (sorry, James) is a simply absurd misrepresentation. Equally absurd is the idea that manuscripts would create an ‘hors-texte’ (to be fair to Geary, I can’t find any point in his article where he claims this). No one with any familiarity with Derrida would suppose that it could. The only way that you could recognise, extract and convey information about the past from manuscripts, whether in their contents or in their physical construction, or the statistical analysis of their distribution, production, etc., would be – inescapably – through ‘text’ in Derrida’s sense. The mistake here – on both Palmer’s and Geary’s parts – has been to wrongly assume that Derrida was talking about actual texts in the most narrow, scriptural sense. That is an error of the most egregious kind.(5) These representations of Derrida’s argument in De la grammatologie are unrecognisable. The usual ‘clever’ (with a big K) cop-out response is to say ‘ah, but if text is inherently slippery, isn’t my reading as valid as anyone else’s? Is the author not dead?’ To which the answer is, firstly, that the argument that the slipperiness of text makes interpretation a free-for-all is that of Paul de Man and the ‘Yale School’ of deconstruction, not Derrida’s. Derrida distanced himself from that use of his idea. He did that not least because Derridian deconstruction is based upon the most minute, careful close-reading of the authorial text. The ‘death of the author’ is Barthe’s idea, not Derrida’s, though clearly there are points of contact. Derridian deconstruction leaves the (apparent) authorial text and intended meaning in place; it just, additionally, points out the other readings and texts that inhere within it so that the intended meaning is not the only one. Alternative texts, though, are nevertheless produced via the act of close reading. You might want to argue that there are other conflicting texts within Derrida’s writing but you still have to leave the text and argument(6) as it is. That is why Derrida’s writing is as difficult as it is. He was, ironically, attempting to make his argument as clear as is possible within language. ‘Plain, comprehensible language’ – language, in other words, predicated on accepted style – is precisely the sort that renders itself open to the presence within it of other texts.
It’s an indefensible, disgraceful way to handle a scholar’s work and Palmer and Geary should really be ashamed of themselves. Leaving out the comments discussed here would hardly have made any difference to their works, so why are they there? If they treated their medieval texts and the ideas expressed in them, or the works of their contemporaries or near contemporaries in the historical profession, in anything like the same way – and I am pretty sure that neither of them does – they would rightly be hounded out of the academy. If one handled, say, some of Augustine’s more recondite texts like this, on the assumption that it was a safe bet that none of your audience was familiar with them, and were found out, the consequences for one’s scholarly reputation would (or ought to) be serious to say the least. Treating philosophical in such cavalier fashion should be seen as equally poor scholarship.
1: I have long thought it a sorry indication of the state of play in British philosophy that Derrida gets a fairer hearing in Bluff your Way in Philosophy than in Kenney’s New History.
2: The best place to read this is, probably, in his responses to John Searle: Limited Inc. translated by A. Bass & S. Weber (Evanston, IL: Northwestern Univ. Pr., 2008). Charles Barbour (Derrida's Secret: Perjury, Testimony, Oath (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017)) describes Searle’s attempt to take on Derrida’s critique of Austin’s category of performatives as like taking a knife to a tank battle. A more balanced account can be found in Raoul Moati (trans. T. Attanucci & M. Chun), Derrida/Searle: Deconstruction and Ordinary Language (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014)
3: The outstanding example of this approach is Richard J. Evans’ In Defence of History, which consistently sets itself up in opposition to continental philosophers like Derrida, Lyotard, Derrida, Baudrillard, but without giving any indication, via footnotes or text, that the author had read anything at all by any of these writers. This is an irony in a book championing empirical research. The way in which ‘deconstruction’ has acquired a wholly different meaning from that which it was coined, by Derrida, to convey is an interesting ‘scholarly’ phenomenon in itself. Misusing the word to mean ‘critically taking apart’ allows the author to sound ‘philosophically’ or ‘theoretically’ sophisticated (note how French philosophers are so often called ‘theorists’, buying into the ‘analytical’ narrative that denies them even their status as philosophers) while doing nothing new at all.
4: English translation in Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature. Edited by Derek Attridge. (New York: Routledge, 2009).
5: Palmer also says (Hagiography, p.78), ‘This leads us, directly or indirectly, of theorists such as Derrida and Foucault who encouraged such decentring – and who in the process encouraged greater attention to narrative’. Any ‘leading’ going on here would have to be extremely indirect. Again, the frequent pairing of Foucault and his student-friend-enemy-friend Derrida (in the terrifying two-headed beast Foucaultandderrida) is problematic. I am not sure what Derrida (or Foucault) said about the sort of de-centring going on in the paragraph from which I just quoted. The paragraph is more haunted by the works of Lyotard than by either Foucault or Derrida. Palmer moves seamlessly from the dreaded mythical two-headed French monster to that rather more domesticated animal, Hayden White. White, however, was entirely dismissive of Derrida, with whom, like so many others, he barely took the trouble to engage.
6: I originally wrote ‘his text’, but Derrida was opposed to the idea of proprietary ‘ownership’ of texts – one reason he fell out with Chakravorty-Spivak and other Marxists (see also Searle and Limited Inc.). ‘Texts to which the name Jacques Derrida has been appended’ would have been his preferred circumlocution. I have left the phrase ‘Derrida’s writings’ (or ‘Derrida’s works’) elsewhere simply because it was too much like hard work to change them all.