REVIEWS

A selection of the best from recent issues of the Philosopher

 

animal THE LOST UMBRELLA
 

In which Roger Caldwell reviews two past masters of speculative philosophy


The Philosopher's verdict: Perspectivism requires a lost umbrella
Nietzsche and the Political by Daniel W. Conway (Routledge (£12.99) 1996

Derrida and the Political by Richard Beardsworth (Routledge (£12. 99) 1996

In Eperons Derrida draws our attention to a fragment that has otherwise escaped the attention of Nietzsche's admirers and exegetes. The text (enclosed already within its own inverted commas) reads as follows: "I have forgotten my umbrella." Derrida, in his own inimitable fashion, follows through the interpretative possibilities of this pronouncement, concluding with the heretical suggestion that there is no totality to found in Nietzsche's thought, not even a fragmentary one. Rather, what one is given in all his various texts - and this applies as much to the commentary which Derrida himself here supplies - is an umbrella which no one can use. 

This is heretical, above all, in the context of Heidegger who, in his magisterial work on Nietzsche, operates on the assumption that all great thinkers think one great thought, and binds together 'will to power', 'eternal recurrence' and 'transvaluation of all values' into one (more or less) coherent, monumental whole. The result, for most readers, is an accessible introduction to the thought of the late Heidegger. What it is not, however, is an introduction to Nietzsche. Foucault, by contrast disarmingly pragmatic, picks out from the Nietzschean corpus elements which he finds germane to his purpose. Whether the result is true or not to Nietzsche's original purpose is, he declares majestically, "of absolutely no interest." 

Most recent academic commentators, Conway included, take a careful line between the two, avoiding both the temptation to totalize and the arbitrariness of fragmentation. Until recently commentators have not had much positive to say of Nietzsche as a political thinker. Indeed, even Conway admits that his wholesale condemnation of modernity and conservative nostalgia rather disqualify him from making useful comment on modern democracy. Nor does Conway attempt to deny those elements in his thought which made him grist for the Nazi mill - for example. the nostalgia for caste, the defence of slavery, and the contemptuous rejection of Enlightenment values.

Conway's rehabilitation, like that of Ansell-Pearson before him, is of necessity a selective one. Nietzsche the conservative revolutionary is put to one side. The eternal recurrence, the ºbermensch and the will to power (a phrase which, admittedly, has little prominence in Nietzsche's published writings) are all downplayed. What makes Nietzsche modern - even postmodern - is not his macropolitics, which is the stuff of caricature, but his micropolitics, his advocacy of a politics of resistance on the individual level. It is when he turns away from the political or military leader as his model in favour of the philosopher, the artist, the saint, the clown that he enters the modern age. These figures are exemplary not as revolutionary heroes but as heroes of resistance who refuse consent to their age, experimenting with alternatives.

Nietzsche's contemporary relevance is seen to lie in his brand of ethical relativism, (hence Zarathustra's "I am a law only for my own kind - I am no law for all") his perspectivism, and his anti-foundationalism. For Conway, though not for Rorty, this perspectivism doesn't entail a denial of any truth-value independent of pragmatic use. What it does entail is a recognition of the coercive force of power- relations in regard to what are accepted as dominant truths - an insight which is fundamental to much of Foucault's work. Perspectivism in this interpretation requires us to look at the world through as many lenses as possible in the interests of a more inclusive "truth", one which is not liable to fall into the binary thinking into which we are otherwise coerced by prevailing categories of thought. What may result will, no doubt, be another sort of ideology, but, for Nietzsche, one truer to the Heracleitean flux of existence which our concepts, reified like Platonic ideas, otherwise attempt to deny. 

Such a reading of Nietzsche slides us effortlessly into the world of the French postmodernists: the grand political theories of the past are undermined and all that is left to us is to judge in the absence of criteria for Judgement. Of such "old-fashioned" political questions as the role of the state and the basis for its sovereignty, Nietzsche has nothing of use to say. His role is already, and fundamentally, oppositional, in its own way directed as much to an impossible utopia as ever Marxism was. Quite in the grandiose manner of Heidegger his is "the attempt to assassinate two millennia of antinature and desecration of man". He has nothing to tell us of everyday life, only of the heroic individual, the genius, the exception: "A people a detour of nature to get us to six or seven great men." What is left unclear is quite how these heroes of the ascetic ideal are meant to benefit the rest of us. Conway assures us that they are, but it is something we are apparently required to take on trust

Nietzsche is, of course, a great soul speaking to other great souls. He speaks for the sake of his own chosen brethren - who, as Conway points out, did not in fact exist. Hence the feeling, in so much of Nietzsche's writing, of a certain solipsism - he is writing of himself and to himself, to justify himself before the court of himself: a writing addressed to an elite of one. Foucault - whose work from beginning to end can be read as a confrontation with Nietzsche - is less elitist (he could hardly be more so), but is equally impatient with ordinary life. He offers, like Nietzsche, an ethics of permanent resistance, albeit in a grudging awareness that it is liberal democracies that permit us the opportunities to create ourselves as works of art. Like Nietzsche he offers an aesthetics of existence which, in the absence of a universal code of rules, is as much an ethics , and has the purpose of evading political power and scientific 'truth'. In his very equivocation about the nature of truth he likewise follows Nietzsche, declaring "I have never written anything but fictions".

Nietzche's influence has been - and remains - immense in modern French philosophy. To what extent his influence has been as a political thinker in any conventional sense, for all Conway's skilful advocacy, must remain in question. What he offers is so defiantly individualist that it is hard to see how he could give an account as political action in the sense that for political action to be possible there must be a sense of solidarity with others. Nietzsche offers no reason for me to join forces with anyone else. The ethics of the self remains limited to the self. It is hard to see how Nietzsche escapes Habermas' charge that he has made politics impossible.

If, in all its strengths and weaknesses, much of modern French thought can be seen as a protracted engagement with Nietzsche, the contemporary maätre penseur (?) is undoubtedly Heidegger (as Tom Rockwell has persuasively argued). In turn, Derrida, as a sort of French Heidegger, has become the master to whom whole swathes of American and English academia pay awed obeisance. The result is that most commentaries on Derrida - as has been the case with Heidegger, up to recently - are aimed less at expounding and criticising his texts than at defending them wholesale against the unbelievers. 

The result is that it has been difficult to get at a critical distance; one is either disciple or detractor. Beardsworth is very much a disciple. Nonetheless his book is (intermittently at least) lucid enough to reveal to the more sceptical reasons to retain their scepticism. Admittedly, it is hard to get at Derrida's arguments direct. Instead, they are to be disinterred in the course of a reading of Derrida's readings of other texts, even in this case, ones he has not "in an empirical sense" read. Thus we are taken on laborious detours through Saussure, Kafka, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger and Levinas to arrive at our goal. We are warned several tines at an early stage of the journey that Derrida's work is complex. Certainly, Derrida makes things complicated. But to what effect? 

The seriousness of Derrida as a political thinker - which has been, understandably, much-questioned - is not obviously borne out by those few texts which actually engage in politics. One thinks, for example, of L'autre cap which offers some rather commonplace if well-intentioned thoughts on Europe adorned with a good deal of residual Derridese; it is not apparent that there is any essential relation between the conclusions offered and the intricate matrix of Derridean thought as a whole. Beardsworth attempts, energetically, to persuade us that there is such an essential connection. Yet he at times betrays a sort of mauvaise foi, letting slip at crucial points the possibility that Derrida's thought is too conceptual, too linguistic, or too purely philosophical to give rise to any concrete political effects. 

Beardsworth has, indeed, an uphill struggle. In the conclusion to this book he throws a somewhat desperate challenge to the unbelievers - X the irreducibility of the 'aporia of time' is untenable. To understand the context of this, and its supposed crucial nature, we have to take several steps back. To take the challenge seriously we have to entertain several assumptions, not all of which appear compatible. We must assume that what Derrida calls 'the aporia of time' is an issue which has fundamental political implications, that metaphysical assumptions about time are, up to now, all of them mistaken; that the concepts of metaphysics are determinative of how we conceive of, and experience, time; and that developments in what Beardsworth calls (but fails to define) "technics" leads to "an experience of time that forgets time." 

It scarcely takes much philosophical astuteness to realise that we are in somewhat familiar territory. This is largely a recapitulation of late Heidegger, with a forgetting of time standing in for a forgetting of Being, and an analysis (if one can call it that) of technics which in a ghostly fashion revisits Heidegger's texts on (or rather against) technology. We have here the same highly questionable presuppositions about the omnipresence and omnipotence of metaphysics, where science and technology are somehow determined by philosophy, and in particular by Aristotle's definition of time. 

But let us take up Beardsworth's challenge more directly. Derrida's arguments about time attempt to show that any concept of time is inadequate to its object; there is, however one defines it, an excess of time. Similarly, of course, with other concepts, such as that of law. Thus, by a none too subtle sleight of hand, the aporia of time is identified with the aporia of law (One could, of course, continue the 'argument', with other concepts and arrive at similarly dubious identifications.) But, even if one accepts all this as more than a failure to understand how language works, one is still entitled to ask what political consequences are supposed to follow from it. 

Beardsworth takes Derrida's text on the American Declaration of Independence as one of his most 'profound' texts It is here, if anywhere, we feel, that we will get our answers. Instead, we find only familiar Derridean sophistries. The Declaration is either premature (since Independence hadn't yet happened) or belated (since Independence had already happened). What it cannot be is instantaneous with what it declares. And so on. (The full discussion is, of course, more 'complex' than this.) But what if the Founding Fathers had had knowledge of Derrida's arguments and subscribed to them? In what way would this 'knowledge' have affected the Declaration of Independence? 

Robert Solomon, stressing Nietzsche's pragmatism, points out that it is what "makes a difference" that matters rather than the abstract possibilities of difference as such. Beardsworth's text (like Derrida's own texts) is full of references to violence. Thus we are told that violence is inherent to metaphysics, that all decisions are violent, that Kant's attempt to determine the limit between the knowable and the unknowable is violent, and so on. To use the term "violence" in such an undifferentiated way might well be seen as unhelpful - as well as something of an affront to those who are genuinely the victims of violence. Derrida's intentions, we are told several times, is to intervene in the interests of a "lesser" violence. 

The American Declaration of Independence is, inevitably for Derrida, an act of violence. But how would a Derridean intervention have made of it a lesser violence? Of course, we are not told. Beardsworth can only evasively conclude that it could be 'rewritten'. So could anything. The question is, how? and to what effect? We are not told here - we are not told anywhere in this book - how Derrida's differance makes a difference. We are informed (many times) that the law is always too early or too late, that it always fails and so on. What we are never told is in what way the application of Derridean aporetics would help to make it more timely or, in the language of Beckett, to fail better. 

It is understandable, therefore, if those who work slowly through this by no means easy book should at the end feel cheated. Despite Beardsworth's claims, Derrida's contribution to political thought remains as elusive as ever - and no amount of neo-Heideggerian bluster about technics can succeed in disguising this fact. Derrida could hardly hope for a better exegete than Beardsworth who follows the master faithfully through all his convoluted (and usually unconvincing) arguments. No one is liable, in the future, to perform the task any better. The question is rather whether the task was worth performing to begin with. It is not Beardsworth's fault but rather the fault of Derrida himself if at the end of it all we have is simply another umbrella that we cannot use. 


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