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The Deconstructive Universal, Part 4

  • 2.4

That’s one way in which Derrida’s handling of universals is distinctive. The second way is this:

Derrida is content to call his universalism “impossible” and thus to give up on the hard work of making it real in this-worldly practices and institutions. This is the big lesson of Derrida’s Marx book—that Marx was too materialist, that we have to learn to talk again about specters, spectrality, ghosts, Geist, the disembodied, the appearance of the non-material. This last might sound like a return to Hegel—less matter, more Geist—and it’s true that Derrida turns out to be in most respects a more loyal Hegelian than he ever was a Heideggerian (and certainly more of a Hegelian than a Marxist). But then if we keep reading in Specters of Marx, it will turn out that Hegel himself was too materialist for Derrida’s purposes, for the simple reason that dialectical philosophy expects concepts to actualize themselves in the world. The Hegelians are endlessly interested in the simple fact that whoever first thought up the idea of the basket also took the trouble to weave one—that baskets did not remain notional or imagined. The very first philosophers did not require us to maintain our unskilled orientation to the basket, declaring our listless fidelity to the basket-yet-to-come. But in Specters, Derrida is attacking the very idea of reality—the idea, I mean, that we should give priority to the really existing, to the real versions of things rather than to their ideational forms. He gives a couple of different reasons for this.

First, concepts names things in their perfect, utopian, and impossible forms. The democracy-to-come is an impossible democracy, and we should probably take his use of the word “impossible” at face value. We can approximate the impossible concept, but we shouldn’t expect ever to match it, and in that case, the philosopher remains the guardian of the idea in its rigor and its purity—the friend and lover of the concept that is too beautiful to live in this world. One wonders at this point how many practicing Derrideans know themselves to be neo-Platonists, which is as good a shorthand as any for philosophers who go in for otherworldly claims of this kind. Neo-Platonism, after all, lives in the to-come: democracy-to-come (which will never come), justice-to-come (which will never come, which cannot abide in this world, to which we are committed, but only as a super-egoized impossibility, a perpetual, shame-inducing summons to do what you cannot do). Reading Derrida in sequence, you get to watch his anti-philosophical, anti-Platonic writing-beyond-the-father turn into a Platonic bad conscience, and not by shedding its former self, but by learning to function as both at the same time: as anti-Oedipal superego and antinomian nomos, emptying out any given philosophical norm, but only so that it can function as sheer, maddening, exorbitant norm—pure evacuated normativity—without the content that would in fact limit it.

Second, any version of reality comes at the expense of the possible. Anything you build is the negation of the many other things you could have built but didn’t. Unlike actuality, differance and dissemination are committed to keeping the possibilities alive, letting them run riot, not establishing monopolies on the future. Once we’ve learned to reject the textual tyranny of the authoritative interpretation, we have to radicalize that program, take it outside the text (I know, I know), and reject the tyranny of actuality itself. Any institution in which you attempted to make the concept real would block out other possible instantiations of the concept. This democracy turns its back on all the other hypothetical democracies. I drain the concept in the very process of giving it body and strength. The only way to keep the concept going—to keep it mobile and flexible and vital—is to let it remain disembodied, so that it can always insinuate new possibilities. Any particular way of loving is a betrayal of all the other different ways one might have loved; it forsakes the entire set minus itself. But the concept of love, precisely because an abstraction, is always beyond the way you are currently loving. Indeed, it is beyond all the ways people currently love. It brings with it the invitation to innovate or to mutate or to leap. The concept is always the plus-one—but only to the extent that it refuses to be actualized.

Here, then, is an especially telling passage from Specters:

If we have been insisting so much since the beginning on the logic of the ghost, it is because it points toward a thinking of the event that necessarily exceeds a binary or dialectical logic, the logic that distinguishes or opposes … actuality … and ideality (regulating or absolute non-presence). This logic of … actuality seems to be of limited pertinence….[i]

I take this to mean that Hegel is doing us a disservice in forcing us to distinguish between the real and the merely theoretical, between the actualized and the un-actualized or the not-yet actualized. Hegel thinks, of course, that he is being dialectical. The concept-made-real is a fused category; it is the union of mind and the world, the mind-world. Derrida won’t accept this solution, because its dissolved binary requires that we keep a second binary intact, the antithesis of the actual vs. the merely possible. And so what Derrida is trying to imagine is an additional Aufhebung or alternatively fused term: whatever is at once actual and potential, something that doesn’t force us to choose between the actualized and the non-actualized, even something like an actualized non-actuality.

A plainer version: Derrida’s recommendation is that we learn how to build institutions (and devise practices) that don’t set out to exhaust potentiality, that don’t establish a monopoly on (or of) the real—something on the order of a building that doesn’t insist on being one way rather than another. This would be a ghost building, since the ghost is, among other things, Derrida’s term for whatever splits the difference between the real and the ideational. This is the moment where I need to say that Derrida’s anti-Marxism, if that’s what this is, isn’t glib or stupid. He thinks that genuine freedom and justice would require spectral non-institutions of this kind: virtual institutions. If we are committed to freedom then we will be committed to not making the world one way rather than another, and Derrida thinks that this last is what Marxists and Hegelians have never understood. The question of course is whether we could build such buildings. How? And could we build ghost institutions? Real-but-not-real institutions? Real-but-not-real colleges? Real-but-not-real economies? Real-but-not real governments? How do you build something without building Some Thing?

[i] Specters, pp. 78-9.

The Deconstructive Universal, Part 3

  • 2.3

Derrida’s method is to take already universalist positions and make them even more universalist. That claim might, I realize, sound perplexing and Cantorian—in Derrida, terms that already encompass everything, that are already without limit, routinely cede ground to other terms even larger than themselves—so one would do well to proceed carefully here, with the aid of an example. It is at this point that it becomes necessary to consider the religious dimensions of Derrida’s arguments. The many commentators who wish to identify a specifically Jewish Derrida have a number of places they can look. The figure of errant writing is one strong indicator: writing as the traveling, anti-nationalist, cosmopolitan term. In “Plato’s Pharmacy,” the translator, when describing such writing, can’t help but use the word “wandering” six or seven times, and if on Derrida’s behalf, you find yourself talking about “wandering text,” then you have simply slotted writing into the position of medieval folklore’s most famously Jewish figure. Nor is it hard to get from “dissemination” to “diaspora.” All writing is scattered and in exile, all writing is after-the-temple, all writing is Jewish. The matter gets more complicated, though, when the scholars turn their attention to Derrida’s debts to Levinas, which such Judaizing arguments almost always do. The Levinasian Derrida is the Jewish Derrida—we will need to consider the possibility, at least, that this is exactly wrong. Derrida does, indeed, seem to have borrowed a great deal from Levinas’s account of Talmudic reading. One almost wishes to say that deconstruction circa 1975 was a matter of Levinasian reading strategies put to Adornian ends. But then Derrida’s tack was to make about all writing arguments that Levinas makes only about Jewish scripture. His vocation was to universalize the Levinasian stance, which is to say that he was always in the Christian position. His are the pages in which formerly Jewish arguments cast off their Judaism.

Derrida’s fondness for a broadly Christian idiom is hard to miss for anyone not determined to read past it. He says that he prefers a political framework that goes back to the “Jewish-Christian-Muslim, but above all Christian, tradition.” Asked about the ancient sources of his philosophy, he responds by saying that he considers his “own thought, paradoxically, as neither Greek nor Jewish”—and to this one need merely respond that such thinking is less paradoxical than it is Pauline: In deconstruction, there is neither Jew nor Gentile.[i] It is that apostolic strain that rises to the surface in Derrida’s later thinking, after 1990, as his output re-organizes itself around four related ideas: 1) the indiscriminate love of one’s fellows; 2) the messiah; 3) the absolute gift, the other name for which is grace; and 4) antinomianism or moral life beyond the law. The first of these retains a citable Jewish precedent in the form of Levinas, while any of those others, in a polemical context, would count as Christian, each more so than the last, to the point where even the first gets pulled into the Nazarene orbit, and alterity reverts back to agape.

If it is nonetheless a mistake to categorize Derrida as a Christian thinker, then this is because he makes a point of disassociating his gospel of messianism and love-not-law from the specificities of Christian history and Christian institutions. He says, for instance, that deconstruction is a matter of “faith,” which at a religious studies conference would be enough to give his doctrine a Christian cast—and, indeed, a specifically Protestant one—but then immediately repudiates the particularizing force of that word. Deconstruction breeds faith, but faith of no definite kind—“pure faith which is neither Christian nor Jewish nor Islamic nor Buddhist etc.”[ii] Or consider the word “messianicity,” one of Derrida’s most revealing coinages and self-evacuating in much the manner of “pure faith”: from Jesus Christ to the general category of “messiah” (all saviors or anointed ones) to the “messianic” (or messiah-like) to “messianicity” (the condition of having some messiah-like features). Derrideans do not seek a messiah; they seek only messianicity. The disciple’s particular allegiance to Haile Selassie or Sabbatai Zevi gives way to what Derrida himself calls “the universal structure” of “the messianic in general”—an ambient orientation to the future or mood of unspecified expectancy that is “without content and without identifiable messiah.”[iii] What we’ll want to see now is that this purging of content is Derrida’s typical procedure—that deconstruction’s vaunted overcoming of binaries is mostly a search for redemptive abstractions of this kind, lifting the already aloft, refining already generalized concepts into even more recondite noumena, from which former distinctions have been irrigated. And yet this overcoming of Christianity—its de-particularizing reinvention as vacantly faithful messianicity—nonetheless preserves Christianity in two distinct ways. For even once purified, the terms retain the imprint of the religious history from which they have been abstracted. You can’t speak the words “pure faith” and not expect some people to hear sola fide. More: The universalizing operation is itself Christian, recalling as it does the Pauline church’s inaugural act, which was to devise a not-quite-Judaism for Jews and non-Jews alike. Deconstruction’s program is in this sense to perform the Christian operation upon itself, to re-universalize Christianity by evacuating it of all its particular claims, thereby making it available to Christians and non-Christians alike.

[i] Derrida, Negotiations, translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 374; “Deconstruction and the Other,” p. 158. See also the end of “The Force of Law,” p. 56, where Derrida says that his thinking is neither Jewish nor Greek, but “Judaeo-Greek.”

[ii] John Caputo and Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction in a Nutshell (New York: Fordham University Press), p. 22.

[iii] Nutshell, p. 22; Derrida, Specters of Marx, translated by Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 59, p. 28.

The Deconstructive Universal, Part 2

  • 2.2

Set alongside the philosophers he most resembles, Derrida stands out as more universalist, and not less so. This obviously flies in the face of that wisdom which takes it for granted that any Parisian alive in 1968 must have been an anti-universalist, even though May’s most famous chant began with the words Nous sommes tous….  You might, in other words, have filed Derrida away as just one more member of the anti-universalist band, and yet his commitment to the general and all-inclusive is easily established. What we’ll want to see now is not only that the ascension of writing to the place of “all language” is de-particularizing, hence a reorientation towards the universal, but also that this procedure is typical of deconstruction, which is perhaps most succinctly thought of as a machine for abolishing distinctions. Writing exists in deconstruction both as particular (as writing-writing) and as universal (as écriture), but commands our admiration almost only in that second, less accustomed role, the priority accorded which licenses deconstruction’s rather striking inattention to intermediate categories.

It is the drive to de-particularize that we encounter, for instance, in a 1980 essay of Derrida’s called “The Law of Genre,” which argues like so: I won’t recognize a novel as a novel unless the book somehow or other announces itself as such. The most obvious way for this to happen is for someone just to stick the word “novel” on the title page, as European publishers often do. But this boundary-word, in the front matter, on the edge of the fiction proper, is not itself part of the novel. The scrap of language that establishes the fiction’s identity is an add-on, not a part of the fiction’s unity, and so already a contamination or a breaking of the text’s membrane. A thing is not itself where it names itself. Identity, which we might have thought of as that property most intrinsic to a thing, is established only at the thing’s borders, as a crack in that very identity. It should be said: This argument, as presented by Derrida, is not entirely convincing and would at the very least require more elaboration than he is willing to give. What about, say, superhero movies? Do they only become superhero movies once they have announced themselves as such, via a supplement? What if I stumble upon one while channel-surfing and recognize its genre? I suppose I might think “Oh, it’s a superhero movie”—or some semi-verbal version thereof. Is that then the addendum that negates the superhero movie qua superhero movie? But Derrida’s argument, even if not wholly persuasive, is enough to account for the thorough-going indifference to genre on display in his writings on literature. Derrida finds a lot of interesting things to say about Kafka without caring that he wrote Erzählungen or tales and without wondering what makes these different from “short stories” or about why so many German speakers have gone in for them. He can hold forth for ninety minutes on Joyce’s Ulysses without even bothering to point out that the text in question is a peculiar kind of novel; indeed, he pauses only long enough to suggest that it’s not really a novel, or that it’s a not-novel.[i] The reading protocols of deconstruction are designed to establish that individual words—and individual phrases and in some cases individual texts—are each in some direct and undifferentiated way “writing”; Derridean reading returns each formerly particularized lyric or fable back to the flux of écriture. “I shall not say this drama, this epic, this novel, this novella or this récit, certainly not this récit.”[ii]

So much for intermediate categories. But individua, in deconstruction, don’t fare any better. The doctrine of the death of the author that Derrida shares with Roland Barthes is meant to block one of the lazier ways in which readers try to house writing under the rubric of the individual. Some of his later lectures and interviews do, it’s true, speak of “singularity,” but he says almost nothing about this latter, except to proclaim that we have an impossible obligation to think it. Deconstruction, this is to say, provides no method for bringing the mind up close to singularities while spending thousands of pages spelling out its preferred versions of universalism. Here is one place, in fact, where the distinction between Adorno and Derrida is especially clear, since negative dialectics puts itself forward as just such a method, as a chase after the differentiae. A first pass over Adorno’s arguments could make it sound like he’s talking about differance in an almost Derridean sense. I name an object and its singularity slips away from me, since whatever concept I bring to bear upon it names its commonalties with other objects and not its unrepeatability. So I rouse myself and try again, determined to do something more than call the object by name, attempting a finer description. But this doesn’t help, because the language I summon to this end—the idiom I devise for this x’s grain and distinguishing nuance—is no less abstract than the crudely categorizing name I wanted to go beyond. I am noting nuances, perhaps, but shareable ones. The words I bring to bear on the differentiae install new genera, which produce new differentiae, and ever onwards, unsolvably. That Adornian ever-onwards is a close cousin to differance, though it also one of Zeno’s paradoxes, recast as defeatist epistemology. What’s different about Adorno is that he thinks he has worked out a way to halt this process, to interrupt differance, not by enhancing language such that it succeeds, but precisely by forcing it to fail and then scanning for the object amidst this verbal ruin and inadequacy, glimpsing the unthought x in the rubble of its abandoned descriptions.

That’s not Derrida’s way. Notionally, it should be easy to talk about deconstruction’s universalism, which was never all that hidden. There’s this: “The secondarity that it seemed possible to ascribe to writing alone affects all signifieds in general.” And also this: “Writing is not a sign of a sign, except if one says it of all signs, which would be more profoundly true.” Of one important claim in Of Grammatology (an argument concerning “the obliteration of the proper”), Derrida pauses to note: “This proposition is universal in essence and can be produced a priori.”[iii] One could go on. But deconstruction has been annexed for so long to a generically anti-universalist (or anti-humanist or anti-totalizing) program that we will have to work hard to hear the globalizing claims that come attached to nearly all of deconstruction’s keywords.

That list starts with “differance,” which is precisely not difference, but difference bracketed and rendered elusive, a barred and unachievable nominalism, handing the never really singular term back to the motion of universal écriture. Next comes the term “archécriture,” for which Derrida himself offers the term “generalized writing” as synonym and gloss.[iv] The concept of “dissemination,” meanwhile, ends up turning universalism into a reading method, setting out from the simple fact that books travel unpredictably. You publish a book and don’t know where it is going to end up, and you don’t know how future readers are going to read it, which is to say how they are going to construe it. You can’t guess the purposes to which any patch of language might someday be put, even when that language is (or was) in some sense your own—something you wrote. What’s more, books, especially after print and all the more so after industrialized print, come in very many copies, so readings will proliferate unpredictably as copies and readers multiply.

We’ll understand deconstruction better if we can see now that it takes this argument from the annals of book history, still more or less Gutenbergian, and redoes it in philosophical and utopian form, asking us to bear in mind how any given instance of language might function in places other than here and times other than now, and asking equally that we read with an orientation towards the future. Step one is to look again at whatever sentence or paragraph is now in front of you and think about how it might mean otherwise—what kind of interpretations it might yet bear other than the one that you intuitively gravitate towards. Derrida is sometimes misread as arguing that meaning is entirely free-floating, that any sentence can be made to mean pretty much anything at all, that the sentence reading “The right of the people to be secure in their persons shall not be violated” could, by force of will, be taken to mean “California forecasters are warning against a shortage of clementines this holiday season.” But this isn’t, in fact, how Derrideans read. The task is, rather, to flush out the determinate ambiguities of any particular text—multiple readings, for sure, but each of them defensible by the ordinary protocols of philology and literary criticism. Over-ingenuity isn’t quite the problem that deconstruction’s adversaries have taken it to be. But to this observation we have to append one important asterisk: I can begin listing the various interpretations that a given sentence might reasonably bear in the present, and I might adduce a few readings that depend on a word’s etymology, and so carry the freight of the verbal past. But I can’t know about future meanings, for the simple reason that I can’t predict how the language will have changed some many generations from now and how, in particular, it will have changed around this sentence. The words now in front of me might eventually carry meanings—or, more likely, associations—that I have no way of guessing. This is what Derrideans mean when they say that the full set of meanings is always deferred or when they suggest that we in the present should defer unassumingly to future readers, that we should not insist on the rightness of our renderings and the preemptive falseness of theirs. Not only will the future read differently; we will arrive at that future, and its future will read differently. The moment will never come when all the meanings are gathered.[v] The project of deconstruction, then, is to generate in the present some of those potential readings, to centuplicate constructions beyond the commonsensical, in order to loosen the grip of the past and its settled understandings, to reach out to multiple readers, handing the text over to the future and setting its language back in motion. Deconstructive reading, then, is pitched against the interpretation offered by any particular reader in any particular location at any particular point in time. This is scripto-universalism in practice—reading that has turned its broad-spectrum antennae towards what Derrida calls the “non-localizable voice.”[vi]

But then perhaps this isn’t yet to say much, since a person could reasonably object that when the conversation turns to philosophy, abstract and globalizing claims aren’t much of a distinguishing mark. Some readers, it’s true, are going to find it illuminating to hear that deconstruction is negative dialectics with the universalism put back in, and yet it is only in highly specialized contexts that a philosopher’s universalism will invite special comment. One might reasonably wonder, then, whether there is anything distinctive about the way in which deconstruction upholds universals, something that sets Derrida apart not only from Adorno, but also from the Kantians and the Thomists. Two observations drift into view.

[i] For Derrida on Kafka, see “Before the Law” (1982), in Acts of Literature, edited by Derek Attridge (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 181-220. On Joyce, see “Ulysses Gramophone” (1984) in the same volume, pp. 253 – 309, quotation at p. 74.

[ii] Derrida, “The Law of Genre,” in Acts of Literature, pp. 221 – 252, quotation at p. 231.

[iii] Derrida, Of Grammatology, p. 7, 43, 108.

[iv] See the lecture on “Differance” (1968), in Margins of Philosophy, translated by Alan Bass, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982), pp. 1-28. For “generalized writing,” see Of Grammatology, p. 55.


[v] Sartre, Existentialism: “Nor can I be sure that comrades-in-arms will take up my work after my death and carry it to the maximum perfection, seeing that those men are free agents and will freely decide, tomorrow, what humanity is then to be.”

[vi] Points, p. 135.

The image of the melting Art Forum is a sculpture by Francesca Pastine.

The Deconstructive Universal 1

  • 2. The Deconstructive Universal


  • 2.1

Whether or not you take to deconstruction has always had a lot to do with how you feel about universals in any of that word’s related senses: how you feel, for one, about metaphysical universals, abstract characteristics shared by individual objects or persons; but also how you feel about universals in some distinctively Hegelian sense, master categories and higher abstractions, as opposed to secondary categories and lesser abstractions, the order rather than the genus; and then, too, how you feel about ethical and political universalism, which asks that our institutions give priority to characteristics that all people (in all times and all places) might be thought to have in common. Your views on such matters are germane because Derrida’s single most famous argument is, in fact, universal in scope, pullulatingly so. If you’re going to be a Derridean, the first argument that you’re going to have to take on board is that there is no philosophically defensible distinction to be drawn between writing and speech, that all language is writing, and that all people (and peoples) must be thought of as possessing écriture. That’s the universalism: Writing is everywhere; everyone has it. Derrida, of course, offers reasons for thinking this. His proposition is that we typically (and incorrectly) think of writing as more mediated than speech. I might, for instance, worry that if spoken words represent things, and writing represents spoken words, then all written documents, even original ones, are going to have the smudgy, deteriorating quality of second-generation photocopies. Speech removes me from the object; and writing removes me further still. A Derridean counters this anxiety simply by honing in on the phrases I’ve just written—that “spoken words represent things” or that “speech removes me from the object”—in order to make the point that speech is already mediation, already the arbitrary coding of the world, already constructed out of a network of differences, gaps, or non-positivities. Words emerging from a mouth aren’t any more tethered to their objects than words emerging from an ink cartridge, which means that we will have to give up the fantasy that one type of language can keep us close to things while the other will cost us the world.

Similarly, you might think of writing as uniquely decontextualizing. Once recorded, words strung together in one place and time can be encountered in any other place or (subsequent) time. But then spoken language isn’t nearly as place-bound as we unthinkingly take it to be, since people often remember speech they’ve heard and go about their lives and move around and eventually re-speak it. Writing travels, true enough, but so does quoted speech; there is no world without recording devices. Or again, you might think that spoken language keeps listeners closer to a speaker’s intentions or private understandings, if only because they can interrupt him when he’s being unclear and ask him what he was trying to say. But there aren’t any grounds for thinking that spoken language is less in need of interpretation than the written kind, and if consulted, a living, yakking, disambiguating speaker-in-the-room can only produce more speech, equidistant from his intentions and requiring interpretation in turn.

What we’ll want to notice now is that nothing in this explanation strictly requires Derrida to claim that all language is writing. In fact, the argument would probably be more perspicuous without that provocation, without, I mean, your always having mentally to substitute for the word écriture the notion that all language displays some-but-not-all of the features conventionally associated with writing. Eventually some philosopher is likely to want to reform deconstruction along these lines, by insisting on perspicacity, stripping away as gratuitous the doctrine of universal writing and then seeing what’s left or what else has to change in the absence of an ecumenicized écriture. But anyone wanting to account for the peculiarity of really existing Derrideanism doesn’t have that option. Far from seeming expendable, the needless apotheosis of écriture—that drive to say it’s-all-writing and actually mean something a little different or to say it’s-all-writing even when your argument doesn’t strictly demand it—can easily seem like one of deconstruction’s most salient features.

Writing, this is all to say, is at the center of deconstruction’s bid for universalism, and yet its status as a universal is open to question. Even within the framework generated by Derrida himself, one has to wonder whether writing hasn’t been trickishly generalized. At the very least, we’ll want to describe Derrida’s procedure here, which is to extract a particularized term from the semantic stratum where we are used to encountering it and insert it instead into the place of the universal. At the formal level, to claim that all language is writing is akin to claiming that all vehicles are pushcarts or all buildings are pyramids. That this procedure introduces problems that Derrida cannot solve should be apparent as soon as you notice that writing, even having been promoted to the status of universal, sometimes persists in his arguments as particular all the same—as writing-writing, book-and-document writing; “writing in the narrow sense,” he calls it—at which moments écriture is called upon to function as a subset of itself. In deconstruction, we have an encompassing term, writing-which-means-the-sum-of-all-language, under which we can class a second term, which is … writing. All vehicles are pushcarts, and then some of them are also pushcarts.

The consequences of this will be hard to reckon if we don’t pause first to consider the several different ways that one could deal with writing or language as a universal term—or, indeed, the different ways one could deal with universals of any kind. It will be easier, that is, to say what Derrida is up to if we know which nearby philosophical options he is refusing.

It might help, for instance, to clear up a few misconceptions about the status of universals in Hegelian philosophy. Hegel, after all, is not quite the aloof, god’s-eye philosopher of Geist and Weltgeschichte that casually hostile readers take him to be. He is in various senses a universalist, to be sure, but this point is easy to overstate, since one of the concerns that most obviously fuels dialectical thinking is a discomfort over the ways in which non-dialectical philosophers get universals wrong, mostly by approaching them too abruptly. Among the core tenets of dialectical philosophy is the notion that universals cannot manifest themselves directly in the world. You can phrase this point in illuminatingly trivial terms—that no entity can be a bird, immediately and nakedly avian, without also being, say, a goose—as long as you realize that the payoff for this claim is above all ethical and political: that no-one can be human without specification, that no-one can instantiate mind or spirit except by pursuing some particular practice, that no-one is the abstract and Vitruvian bearer of rights and freedoms, &c.[i]

From out of dialectics, therefore, even in its classical form, it is not hard to extract some moderately anti-universalist positions, the second of which would state that individuals cannot be directly linked to their universals, but are better understood as passing through an always extendable set of intermediate categories. I am standing in western Ireland in December, looking at a creature with wings and feathers, fairly big for such an alate thing, with a white face atop a long black neck, and a variously grey, elongated body. For almost no purposes will it be enough to say that this x is an “animal” or a “bird.” It probably won’t even be enough to say that it is a “goose,” once one realizes just how high a floor in the taxonomical edifice that designation actually occupies. We might loosely think of geese as forming a species, but they don’t; there are species of goose, but no species “goose.” Nor are geese properly thought of as a genus, one story up, but rather as what zoologists call a tribe or even a subfamily. An informed person, in this context, is one who can introduce additional determinations, who will know that this x is not just a bird but a goose, and not just a goose but a barnacle goose; she might even know that the latter is itself a kind of black goose. One way to appreciate what Hegel is after here is to keep alive in yourself a sense of surprise that even the word “goose” is more abstract than you probably thought and is best approached patiently and stepwise. About écriture, then, a Hegelian would have to say that there can be no writing as such, without instantiation, and further, that no collection of words can be grasped as writing without passing through a set of intermediate terms, which in this case would let the mind loose in the encyclopedia of textual genres: birthday card, saint’s life, personal ad, ransom note, presidential signing statement, silver fork novel, and so on.

Perhaps the least appreciated point about dialectics is that it is at heart an anti-reductionism, a way of combating the mind’s tendency to seek explanations at one degree of abstraction at the expense of other explanations involving other degrees of abstraction. Let’s say, to consider a Marxist offshoot of this Hegelian program, that I am sitting down to write a book about the English Revolution. And let’s say further that I want to show how Atlantic merchants—English men trading with the Caribbean and the east coast of North America—played a central and hitherto underappreciated role in the upheavals that overtook England, Scotland, and Ireland in the 1640s. I won’t be able to make that case if I can’t tell you about those merchants in individuated detail, if I don’t know their biographies, if I can’t account for the choices they made month for month, some of which choices included rising against their king and disestablishing the national church. I have to be able to tell you about Maurice Thomson and Matthew Craddock and Samuel Vassall. At the same, though, I won’t be able to understand what these men were after if I don’t understand the groups into which they formed or the institutions that housed their projects—the corporations (set off against rival enterprises), the dissenting sects (each set off against the others and all of them set off against the Church of England), the often unformalized political factions. Similarly, I’m going to need a robust account of the new colonial-capitalist economy in the Atlantic in which all of these men operated, and to which all English, Scottish, and Irish people were increasingly connected, though at meaningfully different removes—and what I will need to show about this economy is that it introduced imperatives and constraints of its own that none of the actors in the 1640s, whether grasped as individuals or as groups, could simply defy. Just as important, I will need to make clear how each of these explanatory modes requires the other two, how each, if you like, houses the others within itself. Maurice Thomson and Matthew Craddock don’t come to me as mere data or as singletons, not as “individuals,” but as individuated within various groups—within the Providence Island Company, perhaps, or English Baptistry—as also within the Atlantic economy as a whole. But those same groups, meanwhile, are plainly made up of these individuals, while also taking on individuated profiles of their own when positioned across from one another within the Atlantic economy at large. This economy at large, meanwhile, is from some perspective nothing but the networked aggregate of those individuals arranged in those groups.

The task of Hegelian (and Hegelian-Marxist) thought is thus to find the individual and the particular in the universal; but also to find the individual and the universal in the particular; and then to find the particular and the universal in the individual. The idea is precisely to avoid the reduction to the universal or impetuous argument-to-system for which Hegelianism is often mistaken. At the same time, however, Hegelianism cautions against explanations that would lock in at the level of the intermediate category; if revolutions are the day’s topic, then such part-explanations would be the usual business of social history, the history not of persons but of groups and institutions, revealed here to be a reduction to the particular. And then, of course, the methodological individualism beloved of the it’s-more-complicated school of academic history-writing, which prides itself on its own version of anti-reductionism, stands indicted here as a reduction to the deinstitutionalized and un-mediated individual.[ii]

Adorno’s philosophy of non-identity, then, is best thought of not as breaking with Hegel but rather as radicalizing the anti-universalist strain that was indigenous to dialectics all along. This isn’t to say that Adorno’s revisions don’t present subtleties of their own. The trick to coming to terms with Adorno is to grasp that he is not a nominalist, a point that requires us to concede the insufficiently considered possibility of an anti-universalism that does not go back to Ockham. Negative dialectics asks us to oppose universals, in that term’s various senses, but not because these are fake or just names. The point is complicated: There is, in fact, a nominalist moment in Adorno’s thinking, which does sometimes describe concepts as herding singular objects into undifferentiated droves, asking us to fret about the penalties we pay for this most ordinary of all cognitive procedures, the heedless aggregation involved in all naming. It’s just that Adorno is also interested in the ways in which objects (and persons) really can be deprived of their singularity, in actuality and not just in thought, by mass production or by unified institutions or by standardization across increasingly vaster regions of the planet. The administered society, by flooding the world with generic objects, makes real the abstraction that had hitherto been merely verbal or conceptual. The standardized planet is the world remade in the image of language, a world in which language has at last become adequate to things, but only because the latter have become as indefinite as the perfunctory mono-terms with which we have always identified them. Universals in Adorno thus occur on two levels—both as verbal abstractions and as real ones—and it is his outlandish hunch that the universals of one level are best resisted on the other level, that one might be able to turn back the accelerating protocols of standardization—that one could prevent Body Shops from being built in Warsaw or the entry of Pizza Hut into Guangdong—if only one could disable abstraction at its cognitive source, in words and concepts. The vocation of negative dialectics is thus to terminate universals, sometimes via aesthetics, mostly via a re-jigged dialectics capable of bringing thought up against the unthought specificity of things.[iii]

Any guide to critical theory will tell you that Adorno’s is one of the great anti-universalisms in the history of philosophy. And a careful reading of Hegel should show that even orthodox dialectics produces an argued-through critique of das Allgemeine. Saying as much now should bring into view the first of the features that makes Derrida distinctive, which is that he is not an anti-universalist to nearly the same degree.

[i] See Hegel in the Philosophy of History, translated by J. Sibree (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004), p. 59 : “A person is a specific existence; not man in general (a term to which no real existence corresponds).” Or in the early essay on the “Positivity of Christianity,” in the Early Theological Writings, translated by TM Knox (New York: Harper Torchbook, 1961), p. 169: “The general concept of human nature admits of infinite modifications, and there is no need of the makeshift of calling experience to witness that modifications are necessary and that human nature has never been present in its purity. A strict proof of this is possible; all that is necessary is to settle the question: ‘What is human nature in its purity?’ This expression, ‘human nature in its purity,’ should imply no more than accordance with the general concept. But the living nature of humanity is always other than the concept of the same, and hence for the concept is a bare modification, a pure accident, a superfluity, becomes a necessity, something living, perhaps the only thing which is natural and beautiful.” Hence, too, the emphasis placed by many Hegelians on “concrete universality (i.e., the specific embodiment that the universality of modern philosophy receives in particular sociohistorical settings.” See Paul Piccone’s Italian Marxism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 18.

[ii] Hegel’s anti-reductionism is clearest in his account of the syllogism in either of his two Logics, see, e.g., The Science of Logic, translated by George di Giovanni (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010),  p. 588 – 624. The book I’m describing is not hypothetical. See Robert Brenner’s Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (1993) (London: Verso, 2003).

[iii] This is the goal of the demontieren I was describing earlier. See Negative Dialectics, pp. 3 – 28.

Deconstruction is America 3

  • 1.3

A third question: What would it take to remain faithful to deconstruction now, when Derrida is being read less and less, when his name has in large part vanished from the bibliographies and syllabi? How does one set about being a Derridean after Derrida? This is in the first instance an uncomplicated question about the specificity of Derrida’s procedures. How do thinking people even know that they are Derrideans (and not, say, Levinasians or Heideggerians)? Why might a person insist still on reading Derrida, rather than one of the several thinkers that his thought to some degree resembles? Among the many benefits of the disbanding of post-structuralism as an intellectual formation has been a certain opportunity it affords. With even radical philosophers largely de-cathected from the ideologeme of “Theory,” it has been easier to insist on the distinctive features of each of the many philosophical (and anti-philosophical) projects that had been indiscriminately indexed under that name. Now might be the time to disaggregate deconstruction from the period when every English-speaking graduate student in literature was producing vaguely Marxist, Barthes-loving, Lacano-Derridean analyses of discipline and the simulacrum.

This turns out to be harder than it sounds. The difficulty is that Derrida really does share most of his positions with other philosophers. The indistinct borders of deconstruction weren’t just the flattening effect of including it in intro courses and literary-theory anthologies. Nearly every argument that one associates with deconstruction could be assigned to other theorists, and not just piecemeal, but as an ensemble. This obstacle has a name, in fact, which is Adorno. Deconstruction so often presents itself as a replay of negative dialectics that one can legitimately wonder whether having mastered the intricacies of the one, it’s worth the effort to read up on the other. Having gone to the trouble to learn Swedish, are you going to bother studying Norwegian?

Here, then, is the biography of a much taught twentieth-century theorist, a Jew whose life was thrown into turmoil by World War II, and who performed much of the philosophical invention for which he is best known in the United States, first on the east coast, but mostly, having followed a colleague west, in California.

-The philosopher begins his career by writing a dissertation about Husserl, in which thesis he demonstrates that phenomenology was premised on the fantasy of an impossible immediacy, a determination—perhaps dishonest, certainly doomed—to coax thought into shedding its unsheddable mediations and via that shedding to recover some naked and pre-theoretical term. This work on Husserl will furnish the argument to which the philosopher’s later essays obsessively return—the idea, to wit, that there is always something in thought which disrupts its seeming immediacy, its claim to have successfully seized the world in language.

-He goes on to propose, as a counter to this philosophy of spurious immediacy, a method by which students would insert themselves into established intellectual systems in order to “dismantle” them from the inside, a dismantling that promises to open any given philosophy to its other, thereby unleashing “the multiplicity of the different,” releasing this latter from “the compulsive character of logic” or logos. The theorist, unsure now whether he wants to even go by the name “philosopher,” calls for a new intellectual commitment to the particular, the specific, and the singular, though on the understanding that one will never be able to hold on to such non-concepts in language, that they will always elude the language we bring to bear upon them.[i]

-At the same time, the no-longer-philosopher proposes a radical ethics to accompany this program of dismantling: an ethics of non-identity anchored, first, in the giving of gifts-beyond-exchange, in gifts understood as the practice of singularity or the incommensurable; anchored, second, in radical hospitality or the welcoming of “the guest who comes from afar,” of finding “joy in utmost distance,” of the menacing stranger who, observed a second time, is “transfigured into a rescuing angel”; and anchored, third, in the nebulous messianism already suggested by that last phrase—in the possibility, that is, of a great Event that we can do nothing to bring about.[ii]

The conundrum, of course, is that this biography, not all that skeletal, could serve equally well for Derrida or Adorno; the language I’ve just quoted is all Adorno’s, but equivalent formulations could be supplied for Derrida and nothing else would have to change.[iii] And it’s not clear that those verbal substitutions would matter much. The puzzle of this one-size-fits-both vita is compounded when we discover each philosopher’s master term in the other’s writing. The surprise of finding Adorno talking about deconstructing logical compulsion in 1966 is matched by the surprise of finding Derrida expounding on the doctrine of non-identity in 1968. The term “deconstruction” is usually thought of as an adaptation of Heidegger’s Destruktion, which was the older philosopher’s word for the work of clearing away the accrued meanings of ordinary language’s most metaphysically overloaded locutions. But Adorno’s demontieren means “to disassemble,” “dismount,” or “deinstall,” and is, unlike Destruktion, not easily misinterpreted to mean “obliterate” or “lay waste.” That’s enough to place it quite a bit nearer to “deconstruction.” And yet the real interest of the word lies elsewhere. For the German language does offer a native synonym to the Latinate demontieren (or Demontage, its more common noun form)—and that would be abbauen, literally to “de-build” or “de-construct.” But in the 1940s and ‘50s, the word Demontage took on some specific political associations in Germany, where it referred to the dismantling of German factories and the reallocation of heavy machinery to the Allies, mostly to the Soviets. It is a word, then, that when Adorno was writing carried strong associations with reparations and de-militarization, and his use of that term invites us to regard negative dialectics as the extension into philosophy of those projects: as restitution and the planned de-industrialization of thought, a Potsdam Agreement for the Ding an sich.[iv]

Derrida, meanwhile, places deconstruction in the service of what he, no less than Adorno, calls “non-identity.” What you’ll want to notice is that Adorno’s term sometimes appears in Derrida’s writing in the spot where you had been expecting to see “differance.”  The ibis-headed man who delivered writing to the Egyptians asks to be understood as “the god of non-identity,” because writing properly understood is a matter not of fixed things stably named, but of “non-identity, nonessence, nonsubstance.” Readers will have to learn to spot a given text’s “non-identity with itself,” and in doing so they will have begun to resist “the raging quest for identity” that otherwise pervades thought. Deconstruction is an ongoing lesson in “not giving in to proximity or identification.”[v] It has become common in the scholarship to refer to Adorno’s thinking as “the philosophy of non-identity,” but that’s a term he should by all rights have to share with Derrida. A common commitment to non-identity offers to render the two identical.

Nor do the affinities end there. If it is one kind of surprise to find Adorno and Derrida swapping their keywords, it is another kind of surprise to find them pooling even their more local word-choices and passing claims. Adorno published his essay “Heliotrope” in 1955; Derrida published “The Flowers of Rhetoric: The Heliotrope” in 1971.[vi] Here’s Adorno in translation: “The name of dialectics says no more, to begin with, than that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder”—that objects in ihrem Begriff nicht aufgehen, they don’t melt into their concepts like pedestrians into a crowd; they don’t go up in conceptual smoke; they don’t evanesce. Derrida, meanwhile, agrees with the proposition that “the Logos can never englobe everything. There is always something which escapes, something different, other and opaque which refuses to be totalized into a homogeneous entity.”[vii] Or again, the most infamous sentence in Minima Moralia declares that “Homosexuality is totalitarian.” You can imagine that the queer theorists have made a habit of going after that one; it can seem like Exhibit A for anyone arguing that homophobia lurks at the heart even of one’s most emancipation-minded allies. It has often been necessary to explain that Adorno, at least, was making an impeccably queer point: If you embrace a radical ethics of non-identity and alterity, then you have no choice but fret about the possibility that homosexuality is a “desire for the same.” The etymology alone has got to make you wonder. You can’t frame an erotic practice as “homosexuality” and not face the philosophical baggage of the “homo-“. And so we pick up Derrida’s Politics of Friendship and find him arguing in just these terms that logocentrism’s drive for purity is incarnated by “the essential and essentially sublime figure of virile homosexuality.”[viii]

We can describe the problem in front of us a few different ways. It’s all a bit flummoxing. Most of what we know as deconstruction, the arguments that have been reported to us as its core tenets, are actually re-statements of Adornian positions. Book-length primers on Derrida can cover a lot of ground and barely even begin to explain ideas that are specific to their chosen philosopher. So again: What would it mean in the present to stay loyal to Derrida, singularly and precisely Derrida? Or if you prefer: What are the positions that you can derive from deconstruction that you can’t reach as readily via negative dialectics? We already know enough to say that these distinctively Derridean positions won’t be the ones you probably filiate to his name. It will be other positions—the precepts of an un-discussed Derrideanism. So what is that other deconstruction?

Those, then, are my three questions: Can anyone and everyone be a Derridean? Who are deconstruction’s true adversaries—who or what is it out to discredit, if not Western metaphysics? And what does it mean to be a Derridean rather than a generic post-structuralist or negative dialectician? Those queries are most expediently posed together for the simple reason that they all have the same answer; or that the answer to each opens up onto the others’; or that the answer to the second question, in particular, will make answers #1 and #3 fall into place. If we can figure out who Derrida took to be his real rivals rather than his official ones, then we will know who is not welcome in deconstruction, which we will then be able to distinguish from theoretical programs that do not share those enemies.

[i] All quoted phrases are from Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (1966), translated by E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), pp. 6 – 8.


[ii] All quoted phrases are from Adorno’s “Heliotrope,” in Minima Moralia (1951), translated by Edmund Jephcott, (London: New Left Books, 1974), pp. 177-178.

[iii] The standard biographies are Stefan Müller-Doohm’s Adorno: A Biography (2003), translated by Rodney Livingston (Cambridge: Polity, 2005); and Benoit Peeters, Derrida (2010), (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2013).

[iv] For Adorno’s use of demontieren, see Negative Dialectics, p. 6. On the policy of Demontage, see Lutz Budraß and Stefan Prott’s “Demontage und Konversion. Zur Einbindung rüstungsindustrieller Kapazitäten in technologiepolitische Strategien im Deutschland der Nachkriegszeit,” in Innovationsverhalten und Entscheidungsstrukturen. Vergleichende Studien zur wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung im geteilten Deutschland 1945–1999, edited by Johannes Bähr and Dietmar Petzina (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1996).

[v] Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” p. 93, p. 70; The Politics of Friendship, p. 106, p. 65.

[vi] Derrida’s “Heliotrope” is a section heading in “White Mythology” (1971), in Margins of Difference (1972), translated by Alan Bass (Brighton, UK: Harvester Press, 1982).

[vii] The bit about logos comes from a question that Richard Kearney put to Derrida in the interview published as “Deconstruction and the other” (1981), in States of Mind: Dialogues with Contemporary Thinkers (New York: New York University Press, 1995), pp. 156-176, quotation at p. 167. Kearney is paraphrasing Derrida back to him, and the latter accepts the gloss: “Just so.”

[viii] Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. ???; Derrida, The Politics of Friendship (1994), translated by George Collins (London: Verson, 1997), p. 279. For Derrida, see also Points, p. 101: “Phallocentrism and homosexuality can go, so to speak, hand in hand.”

Deconstruction is America Part 2


  • 1.2

When a Derridean says that everyone has access to writing, part of the problem is conceptual, but part of the problem is more rudimentary than that, hence more nagging, since in that claim we find our first indication that deconstruction invites us to believe things that are not true. Here’s another: A moment’s reflection should be enough to show that a contempt for writing simply is not the hallmark of the entire Western intellectual tradition. If you’ve read around in deconstruction, you have been told repeatedly that it is—you have been told that we must rally to writing, that we must rescue it from an almost universal opprobrium—and if you have come to accept that idea through sheer repetition, it might be worth pausing to consider again whether you actually take it to be accurate. So ask yourself: Do our most widely shared intellectual traditions train us to distrust writing? The point isn’t entirely far-fetched. It seems true enough that scholars working in the modern academic disciplines do not like having to contend with their own writing practices; they would prefer not to consider their writing as writing or to acknowledge what we might for the sake of convenience call the literary features of their output. Historians don’t like to be told that they are arranging the data of the past into well established narrative genres or that these genres determine what they write at least as much as whatever they last photocopied in the archives. Chemists and physicists don’t like to be shown that something in their prose remains stubbornly figurative and non-formalizable. No-one, scholar or not, much likes to consider the ways in which the words with which we make sense of the world are artificial—fictional, if you like, or poetic—that words are contrivances for endlessly fabricating distinctions where there were none, all of which could and eventually will be different. It is perhaps a bit peculiar to call this bundle of verbal anxieties “the suppression of writing,” but the anxieties surely exist, and it is useful to call them something.

But then maybe that formulation—“the suppression of writing”—isn’t just peculiar. Maybe it’s worse. Derrida’s readings of Plato, Rousseau and Husserl are all, taken serially, quite convincing, as is his grand re-staging of the old Hegelian idea that everything is mediated and nothing directly given. The question in front of us is whether these readings add up to the insight that Plato and Rousseau are the representative figures in European philosophy, that everything in Western metaphysics, including the ordinary language infiltrated by that metaphysics, defaults back to the banishment of the poets. And if we give in to the idea that in some sense or another Westerners just can’t deal with writing, then how do we account for the scripturalism of most Christian churches, or for the writerliness of the old humanist, grammar-school curriculum, or for the centrality of ancient languages to the nineteenth-century European university? It was the innovation, in fact, of twentieth-century linguistics to stick up for the study of spoken language against what the new discipline saw as centuries of overweening textualism—the obsession of Orientalists and classicists with the scribal cultures of antiquity. Grammatology, which Derrida presented as a new science struggling to be born, is perhaps better grasped as the disguise assumed by a refurbished philology, whose authority it attempts to restore. And what of bureaucracy, as both word and social form? Would a society that had comprehensively disempowered writing need a term that meant “rule by writing desk”? Of course, the very word, which has always been an epithet, could itself be understood as an instance of Europe’s deep contempt for writing—as further evidence of our collective determination to shame writers and writing whenever they become powerful. So am I meant to give up, as logocentric, the critique of bureaucracy? Is deconstruction a bureauphilia?

And what, finally, of the great ideologies of civilization? It’s enough to round up some commonplaces on the topic: “The invention of writing was one of the great advances in civilization.” “Whereas historians argue on what exactly civilization is, writing, cities, agriculture, government, religion and art are usually on the list.” Online, you can cue up a lecture course on “Writing and Civilization,” though you may not need to if you’ve already worked through the dozen or so webpages grouped under “Writing and the Development of Civilization.” If, conversely, you can’t be bothered, you might download and sign your name to a college essay called “Writing and the Rise of Civilization.” The word “civilization” is paired so often with the word “writing” that it can seem to absorb this other into itself, referring not just to the cities of its etymology, or to the making urbane of once unsettled places, but also to text and the expansion into new territories of scroll, book, or document. But then does this latter—grammification, we might call it, or scriptification—really have nothing to do with Western metaphysics? Do we really think that European intellectual traditions need to be called to account for having placed insufficient emphasis on civilization-which-is-to-say-writing? If writing is the opposite of metaphysics, and writing and civilization are closely linked, then does that mean that civilization, too, is un-metaphysical and so exempt from deconstructive scrutiny? If you find yourself answering no to these questions, then you might be coming round to the idea that Derrida, by sticking up in some general way for writing, can’t have been attacking Western metaphysics, if such a thing exists, which I doubt.[i]

At this point, if not sooner, the learned Derridean interrupts to object that this simply isn’t what Derrida meant—that when he offered his theory of écriture, he wasn’t talking about writing in any of its accepted senses and certainly not in this Babylonian one, that deconstruction has no interest in that Victorian progression from cuneiform to hieroglyphics to ancient Hebrew (or “Phoenician” or “West Semitic”) and onto the Greek alphabet. When deconstruction speaks of “writing,” it doesn’t mean what Derrida used to call “writing in the narrow sense,” but something like the unfixed quality of all language, the tendency of language to head out in all directions in the way that mass mailings do paradigmatically. And when it speaks of the suppression of writing, it means the tendency of most language, including most written language, to pretend that it is more stable and transparent than it actually is. Deconstruction might indeed wish to rescue writing, or bring it out into the open, but only in this second, wholly specialized sense. To this one can only respond that the word “writing” is a truly terrible way of making that point, depending as it does on a sharp break with ordinary usage that the Derridean is condemned to explain and re-explain and explain again. Deconstruction is the philosophy that licenses a permanent and predictable confusion between the usual meanings of the word “writing” and what the Derrideans, when pressed, will tell you they mean by it. It is that system of thought that allows a defense of civilization to hitch a ride on what it insists is at one level only a defense of Mallarmé and Joyce. The Derrideans cannot reasonably expect us to bracket out the everyday associations that accompany their master term. Hence my second question: Derrida says that we People of the Book are the ones who repress writing. But we don’t repress writing. So who are deconstruction’s real targets?


[i] For the commonplaces, see:


All sites retrieved December 17, 2015.


Deconstruction is America; or Derrida’s Empire

                  For a pdf of the entire book, click here.

  • 1.1

I want to begin by asking three questions about the philosophy of Jacques Derrida that I don’t think have ever been adequately addressed.

My first question goes back to something that Jacques Rancière said in an interview around the year 2000. I should note first that Rancière is one of the great unacknowledged Derrideans, a philosopher whose core arguments often work by transposing into a directly political key positions that Derrida was taking in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Derrida is typically thought to have taken an ethico-political turn late in his life, but much of the interest of Rancière’s project lies in how effortlessly he devises an emancipatory or radically democratic program just by epitomizing the lessons of the supposedly pre-political Derrida. Rancière’s writings on aesthetics have been a boon to the many of us who had been thinking all along that deconstruction could stand to be quite a bit more than vulgar than it was, though I don’t think anyone could have predicted that it would be Rancière who would be keeping Derrida’s thought in front of us even after the latter’s death in 2004, or that deconstruction would survive into the present mostly in this post-Maoist vulgate, weaponized and plump.

Here, then, is Derrida on the whetstone. In an interview published as “The Distribution of the Sensible,” Rancière is asked to explain how novels and plays and maybe paintings can assist in the struggle against a managerial pseudo-politics. How does art equip us against the administered society? The first point to understand, Rancière responds, is that literature is not speech. It is important, indeed, to resist speech as celebrated by Plato, because the spoken word establishes fixed identities and fixed spaces. If you celebrate speech as opposed to writing, it’s because you want to know at all times who you are talking to and where you both are. Conversation to that extent always has a kind of police function, allowing me to visually ID my auditors and thus generating the position of the appropriate addressee—language meant for some persons and not others.  Speech is language under surveillance. But write out that same language on a page (or elsewhere) and everything changes. Script and the printed text don’t try to pin anyone down, establishing instead a “regime”—really a non-regime—“based in the indetermination of identities, the delegitimation of positions of speech, the deregulation of partitions of space and time.” We often think of language as best when it is living and intimate: words spoken to a lover, arguments shared around a seminar table, the poet we finally get to hear read her works out loud. But it is Derrida’s signature argument, here adapted by Rancière, that language is never really intimate in these ways—that it is always adrift, separated at once from the person who speaks or writes it, from the person to whom it is addressed, and from the things in the world that it putatively names. The words you speak and write aren’t really yours; nor can you ever be sure they will carry the meanings you intend them to have; nor can you guarantee that they will reach the people for whom they were devised, or that they will reach only them. Derrida’s core claim is that this is nothing to worry about—that, on the contrary, a liberated philosophy will have to keep faith with a language thus unfixed. Rancière’s way of getting at this—and this is the formulation that deserves our close attention—is to ask us to consider the “equality that comes to pass on a written page, available as it is to everyone’s eyes.”[i]

Writing is egalitarian and radically democratic because anyone can look at it. If I point out now that the premise of this claim is incorrect—that not everyone has the seeing eyes to pore over a printed page—then it immediately becomes unclear how to assess deconstruction in this form. You don’t have to feel outrage on behalf of the blind to feel that there is a problem here. Knowing that blind people exist, and presuming that Rancière knows about them, too, how are we to assess his claim? If it can’t mean what it says—“available to everyone’s eyes”—then what does it mean instead? And while we’re at it, what is the status in the vaunted critique of phonocentrism of people whose lives are for whatever reason sound-centered?—people, in the first instance, who don’t read, a group that would include most blind people, since current estimates indicate that fewer than one in ten ever bother to learn Braille. You might be tempted to shrug off the problem as negligible, by declaring the three to four percent of the population who are in some sense or another blind irrelevant to the project of deconstruction, but then your impatience would suggest the magnitude of the problem, which is that deconstruction, in order to preserve the conceit of its “everyone,” has to declare some people extraneous to its program.

But then why are we talking about blind people? Rancière almost certainly isn’t referring to eyesight. He’s not talking about the freedom that comes into being when we look at a written page; he’s talking about the freedom that comes into being when we read one, and interpretive charity would demand that we not parse his words with this exasperating literalness. What is at stake in deconstruction is not the freedom of the sighted, but the freedom of readers. The written page is available to everyone’s eyes, and what they do with those eyes is read. But then, of course, this revised claim is even harder to defend than the first. Interpretive charity only aggravates the issue. A philosopher might just about get away with the claim that anyone can look at writing—not strictly true, but true-ish. It is, however, ridiculous to claim that everyone can read the writing that they (almost) all see. A few numbers will bring the problem into focus: Current estimates suggest that roughly one in five adults in the US are functionally illiterate, meaning that they cannot without assistance perform the readerly tasks that a bureaucratic society routinely expects of them. So what is their status in deconstruction? But then Rancière is actually presuming higher literacy—the paragraph in question is mostly about Flaubert, so he has to be premising his claim on people who can read nineteenth-century novels—in which case the percentage of adults in the US eliminated from his “everyone” rises to roughly seventy-five percent. What we’ll want to take away from this—the starting-point, I would offer, of any clear thinking about Derrida and the Derrideans—is that deconstruction has secreted away within itself, as its precondition, a major historical event, which is the arrival of mass literacy in Western Europe and the United States after 1850, which event it then daintifies into the fiction of a universal literacy: Writing is available to everyone.[ii]

But then rather than write off Rancière’s argument as a pious mistake, it would be more revealing to consider the ways in which it is inconsistently right. The easiest way to bring historical thinking to bear upon deconstruction would be to point out that it was closer to the truth in 2000 than it had been in 1800. That’s what it might mean to say that deconstruction’s claims are covertly historical—that they require a France that has existed in some centuries, maybe two, but not in most. And then, of course, the point would have to be repeated in a geographical register: Deconstruction is truer in some places than it is in others—plausible in those places (and only in those places) where one can just about say that everyone has access to writing. A philosophy, then, for Seattle and Minneapolis, but less so for Long Beach, CA or Mesa, AZ; for Norway and Finland, but not for Niger or Afghanistan. The claims of deconstruction realize themselves unevenly upon the planet.

When Derrida offers his own version of Rancière’s argument in “Plato’s Pharmacy,” his English-language translator assigns him the word “anyone” rather than “everyone.” “Isn’t writing … essentially democratic? … ready to do anything, to lend [itself] to anyone.” One wonders whether that switch matters—from “everyone” to “anyone.” Derrida is doing something complicated here. He has been calling attention to the ways in which speech, unlike writing, is radically localized (or can be readily mistaken as such); it is uttered and sprangles briefly, just here, within earshot, and then vanishes. His point is that the permanence of writing—the ability of language once written to live on as a kind of object—makes it impossible to localize in this fashion, hence impossible to control. Writing will tend to travel, especially in the print marketplace (which thereby reveals itself as deconstruction’s second great historical object, alongside mass literacy), and so find its way into new situations, unenvisioned by its authors, where it will be read in ways that these could not have anticipated and are powerless to countermand. Derrida’s way of putting this is to say that writing is “errant … wandering … uprooted … unattached to any house or country.” A drifter, a hobo, a train-jumper, homeless…[iii]

At the same time, and as an extension of this point, Derrida is arguing that this writing-on-the-move cannot tell a reader what it means. No text can comment learnedly on itself, sparing the reader the labor of interpretation, since any self-commentary will re-join the text upon which it remarks, as text, and so require interpretation in its own right. Your favorite book will never pull you to one side and obligingly say something other than what it said the first time you read it—something fresh, something less oblique and roundabout: OK, you want me to break it down for you? Most saliently, no text can tell you what lies before or behind its own writing. If a book were a person, we would say of him that “he doesn’t even know who he is, what his identity—if he has one—might be, what his name is, what his father’s name is. He repeats the same thing every time he is questioned on the street corner, but he can no longer repeat his origin.”[iv] Not just a homeless person, then, but a crazed and amnesiac homeless person.

There’s more. Derrida is also interested in the ability of writing to outlive its authors, and what’s distinctive about his position is that he thinks of this ability not as an extension of an author’s powers into posterity, a major poet’s claim upon the future, but only as further evidence of how little control a given author had to begin with. Writing inevitably leaves authors behind, projecting itself into scenarios where they simply cannot follow. His way of putting this is to say that the death of the author is implicit in all writing—that a patch of language cannot count as writing if it ceases to be intelligible upon its author’s death—and that it, by contrast, is the creature that will not die, a thing “not completely dead: the living dead, a reprieved corpse, a deferred life, a semblance of breath.”[v] A zombie, in short—a homeless, crazed, and amnesiac zombie.

This brings us back to the “anyone.” Writing is essentially democratic, ready to do anything, to lend itself to anyone. If en reprise you hear a certain erotics in this last phrase, that’s only as it should be: Writing, as praised by deconstruction, is nothing if not game—slutty, DTF and not just sometimes, “giving itself equally to all pleasures” while “wandering in the streets.”[vi] Here’s the puzzle: The subject of deconstruction is simultaneously the person capable of reading A Sentimental Education, bizarrely misrendered as l’homme universel, and this homeless, crazed, and amnesiac zombie-whore, not easily mistaken for a librarian or associate professor of Romance languages. And yet perhaps this position is less ambiguous than I’ve just made it sound, provided we realize that what’s being named here as “the subject of deconstruction” is not, in fact, a single position, but rather two distinct positions—the co-subjects of deconstruction: the reader plus (an anthropomorphized) writing, though it would be important to recognize that we-who-are-now-reading remain in the dominant position. We are precisely not the zombie-whore; we are the ones who indifferently dally with the nameless runaway. Still, even though writing thus allegorized is not a generalizable type—not an image of universal humanity, since most of us live in homes and deny ourselves at least some pleasures—it (he? probably she?) nonetheless re-stages the claim to universality in precisely the terms that Rancière will take over, as the wanton’s promise of universal access. Radical democracy means never getting to say no.

The word “anyone” promises a lack of discrimination—writing will open itself to anyone and most certainly to us, the anonymous johns of écriture—and this is what can make it sound like a Jacobin term, the pronoun of the democratic revolutions, their promise of capoyarchy or rule-by-who-knows?. And yet the word “anyone” at the same time insinuates limitations, and this in two different ways. It is almost always spoken over atop contextual assumptions, referring back to an established set, whose members one is declaring equivalent for some particular purpose. “Anyone” usually means “any member of the relevant group, which I don’t need to spell out to you.” This is a limitation that also afflicts “everyone,” which tends to be contextually bound in just this way: “Everyone” rarely means tous le monde, but then neither does tous le monde. It’s just that the word “anyone” introduces a further limitation that it doesn’t share with “everyone,” which we can flush out simply by making them the subjects of the same sentence: You ask, “Who do you want at the party?” And I might respond: “I don’t care. Everyone can come.” But then I might respond: “I don’t care. Anyone can come.” That I don’t care is the coin of my democratic indifference; it is what makes me the sans-culottes of this weekend’s festivity. But if I say the latter—that “anyone can come”—I probably mean any subset of what was already an implicitly bounded group, any thirty of some possible hundred, but not everybody. The sentence “anyone can come” might even house the concession that we don’t have room for everybody, that if everybody came, we would run out of gin. Not everybody, but anybody.

So that leads to my first question, which is: What do we make of deconstruction’s claim that writing is available to anyone? Or that literature is? And that question, once asked, generates at least two additional, closely related variants:

Can anyone be a Derridean?

Can everyone?

[i] Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics (2000), translated by Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2004), pp. 14-15.


[ii] Literacy statistics come in various forms. One recent set is available from the National Center for Education Statistics, A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century (NCES Publication No. 2006-470).


[iii] Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy,” in Dissemination (1972), translated by Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 61 – 171, quotations at pp. 144-5, 143.


[iv] ibid., p. 143.


[v] ibid., p. 143.


[vi] ibid., p. 145, 143.


How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 5

7. The new histories of empire are theory-laden.

One of the more remarkable features of Richard White’s writing is a certain idealist strain that breaks through irregularly. At one point, he informs readers that the middle ground was the site of certain “beliefs,” a kind of doctrine: “beliefs not only that the boundaries between societies and cultures were permeable but also that identities were interchangeable.” (389) It is important to register that the character of White’s argument has just shifted, by assigning to the frontier a moment of reflection or norm-generating self-consciousness. He is now claiming something more than that social and ethnic roles were up-for-grabs on the borderlands. He has added the assertion that the frontier-dwellers also knew this, or at least that they believed it, the suggestion being that they held cosmopolitan and anti-identitarian commitments. The Indians, he writes, were “attempting to prove the boundaries permeable.” (391) It’s that last phrase, with its clear echoes of the seminar table, that gives one pause, tending as it does to transform the Delaware and Shawnee into bearers of Adornian or Butlerite positions, or, indeed, to cast eighteenth-century Native Americans as undergraduate Sartreans, the ones who got As on their existentialism mid-terms, while the Anglo-Americans sit there looking slightly abashed, the square students who just don’t get it or who have read the wrong philosophers. The problem isn’t that the Virginians and Pennsylvanians were colonists—so, after all, were les habitants and les voyageurs. The problem was their identitarianism and mauvaise foi.

Perhaps Sartre and Butler are a red herring, however, because White’s real mentor in matters of political philosophy goes by a different name. Anyone reading The Middle Ground for the first time might notice that White is hung up on a couple of phrases: “The common world of the pays d’en haut” (519); “it succeeded in restoring, at least diplomatically, a common world and a common understanding.” (270); “The common world was … becoming ragged” (430); “The common world narrowed.” (432) A person might even be puzzled by this. Nowhere does White sound more like a pop existentialist than on the opening page of The Middle Ground, where he tells readers that his will be a book “about the search for … common meaning,” a phrase that, by recalling Viktor Frankl, does nothing to make the American frontier seem more benign, since Frankl, we’ll recall, was searching for meaning in a concentration camp. One of the worst things about “Indian haters,” at any rate, is that they “sought to terminate … more complicated searches for common meaning.” (389) But we can leave the word “meaning” to one side. For it is the word “common” that links the phrases “common meaning” and “common world” and thereby points us to a proper name. For “common world” is one of Hannah Arendt’s signature terms. A quick search of recent literature on Arendt turns up an essay called “How Common Is Our Common World?” (Kattago) and another called “The Idea of a Common World” (Jones). Outfitted with that unmarked citation, the reader soon spots White borrowing other concepts and arguments from a beloved philosopher. First Arendt (1972: 142 – 143): “It is, I think, a rather sad reflection on the present state of political science that our terminology does not distinguish among such key words as ‘power,’ ‘strength,’ ‘force,’ ‘authority,’ and, finally, ‘violence’…. Power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert.” Then Richard White: George Rogers Clark, the head of the Kentucky militia, “was by temperament a war leader who thought that force was power”—though one notes that by “force,” White seems to mean “violence” and so becomes the target of Arendt’s argument in the very act of restating it. (426) Or again: Anyone who has read around in Hannah Arendt will know that the “common world” takes as one of its near-synonyms “the in-between,” which hereby joins those others as the fourth of the middle ground’s major connotations: the Midwest, the frontier, political moderation, and the Arendtian in-between. At this point, in order to collate these dispersed references, it becomes necessary to bring into view Hannah Arendt’s Big Story. For Arendt, politics always takes place in that intermediary zone, the public space of the polis or its agora, which we must learn to cherish for its own sake, which we must take care to distinguish from private life and which we must commit ourselves to cultivate and protect. The public and in-between is the space where we can deliver speeches and undertake actions without—and this is its signal advantage over home—having to certify these as intimate or authentic. The in-between is also the place where differences between people can be put on display and to some degree adjudicated without any presumption of unanimity. If members of a society share a common world than they need share little else—not attitudes or beliefs or ways of living. It doesn’t matter that we maintain different perspectives on x, provided we remain certain that we in some sense share x or that x is a public thing. Arendt’s philosophy can thus be read as a therapeutic program, designed to strengthen its readers’ flagging commitments to the public and active life, to remind them of all the reasons to love the common world, hence to combat the consoling lure of private life. But it is perhaps better read as a grand récit about the collapse of that common world, about the overtaking of politics by mere household concerns—what Arendt calls “the social” but what we on etymological grounds might more tellingly call “the economic.” Richard White’s least remarked upon achievement is also his most wondrous—a specimen to be admired by all collectors of rechercé academic ingenuities. He is retelling Arendt’s Big Story, her only story, the story about the death of politics, but has adapted it to a (somewhat) new location and a (sharply) new chronology, like Akira Kurosawa deciding to set King Lear in Sengoku-period Japan. In the place of ancient Greece, which was always Arendt’s paradigm of a Properly Political Place, we find Fort Detroit, as the vita activa’s womb and epitome. And the American Revolution, which Arendt took to have sponsored a temporary revival of genuine politics, translating Anglo-Americans into the active life, turns out instead to have brought about the fall of public man (because public man lives on the Midwestern frontier, and US Americans depoliticized that space via thick settlement and Indian removal). 1776, which we have been taught to see as the common world’s second chance, was instead its betrayal and shutdown. That White is also adapting the arguments of Frederick Jackson Turner should be abundantly clear by now. The Middle Ground works by superimposing upon a Turnerite story about the end of the frontier an Arendtian story about the end of the common world. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” rewrites itself as The Human Condition.


How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 4

6) The new histories of empire are generically comic. Whether or not you find a given account of the frontier plausible will have a lot to do with positions you’ve arrived at, and tastes you’ve formed, before you’ve ever heard of Fort Duquesne or Blue Jacket. How do you think history typically proceeds?—except that most history-writing is narrative, so the question is better rephrased: What kind of stories do you think history typically yields? And before that: What do you think makes for a good story anyway? What kinds of stories are you drawn to? There comes a woozy moment, in any extended discussion of history-writing, when the emphasis has to shift from the history to the writing, from the conscientious checking and re-checking of paleographic fact to the fashioning of a narrative that living readers will find aesthetically satisfying and so assign explanatory effects. Informing yourself about the eighteenth-century American frontier—or about any other patch of imperial history for that matter—is not fundamentally unlike choosing a movie to watch. Your housemate turns to you and asks: “What are in you the mood for?” In the standard accounts of Pontiac’s Rebellion, the generic conventions are almost too easy to pick out. Literary critics surveying the available texts are likely to feel that they should have to try a little harder. A reader thus opens Francis Parkman’s Conspiracy of Pontiac, first published in 1851, and finds Anglo-American heroes “bold and hardy enough to venture” into Indian country in the face of “murderous attacks,” “stout-hearted” “adventurers” and men of “duty and courage” (455-6, 678, 456). Ranged against these chevaliers of the New World we find Pontiac, “the Satan of this forest paradise,” an “arch-demon,” avatar of a “murder-loving race” (508, 812, 829). The Ohio Valley becomes the stage of an American adventure story, or romance, with clearly delineated heroes, performing “memorable feats” “in the true spirit of heroism” and thereby squaring off against Indians who serve largely as obstacles to be overcome (579, 576). (Maybe your housemate has proposed that you watch an old Western. Maybe your housemate is your dad.) Of course, other genre cues can join themselves to these medievalizing ones. Parkman sometimes writes in a Homeric mode, filling his pages with war councils and martial catalogues, in a manner that suggests he meant to supply US literature with its missing epic. Similarly, he sometimes writes as the classical historian of the American colonies, with Tacitus and Herodotus as his proximate models, hence with the Indians cast as Goths or indeed as “barbarian hordes” (796). That said, the fundamentally neo-chivalric cast of Parkman’s language can be pegged to a single word, gallant, which he favors: The non-British commander of Fort Pitt is “the gallant mercenary,” supported by “the gallant Swiss, Captain Ecuyer,” a “gallant soldier” capable of “gallant conduct” (642, 734, 735, 794). Anglo-Americans used to refer to native American settlements as “castles.”[i]

To script the 1763 rebellion as a tragedy, meanwhile, is simple enough—it takes just two steps: First, Howard Peckham’s Pontiac and the Indian Uprising (1947) is the only monograph to present itself as a biography of the Ottawa leader. Chapter 1 is called “His Background,” Chapter 2 “His Early Life,” and so on. The effect of this choice is to frame a generalized anti-colonial war as the effort of a one admittedly important war-leader—or, if you prefer, to fix our attention on the program laid out by a single chief. Syntactically, this individualizing thrust makes itself felt via persistent synecdoche, in which the name “Pontiac” is made to serve as the term for the collected Indian forces: “If Pontiac could not stop the supply ships from reaching Detroit….” (210) “He [Pontiac] had failed to annihilate Dalyell’s force….” (209) Other literary conventions reinforce Pontiac’s centrality. It is Peckham’s habit to summarize the speeches given by other people only to reproduce Pontiac’s oratory in full, often over several pages, setting them off as monologues in a manner that readers are likely to experience as Shakespearean. The book’s biographical frame is thus reinforced by quasi-theatrical sequences, which Peckham can almost name as such: “The spotlight had been focused on [Pontiac] for the past several days, but this climatic appearance on the stage of Indian diplomacy was his last role of consequence.” (297) A man who never once saw a play, who in fact spent his life some six hundred miles from the nearest theater, is anachronistically described as thespian and leading player. Second, the historian, having emphasized the (theatricalized) agency of Pontiac as individual nonetheless insists on the limits of same. If we look back at the instances of synecdoche just quoted, we’ll see that they emphasize miscarriage and disappointment, rendering Pontiac as sole actor, but then announcing his inability to act or to complete an attempted action: He could not stop the ships. He failed to wipe out the British army. In his final chapter, then, Peckham reclassifies the book he has just written, swapping genres at the last possible moment. Pontiac’s has been a story about a “diminishing of power,” about “losing,” about “not attaining any of [one’s] objectives.” (319) In formulations such as these, biography yields to tragedy: The Indian leader “stood in our path for a moment and thrust us back, revealing the tragedy of his people and the cost of human progress. … From this date the real tragedy of the Indian begins.” (322) The scholar obligingly names his preferred plot-form at the moment of its conclusion. The first play written by an American to feature an American setting was Ponteach, or the Savages of America: A Tragedy (1766).

Or again, readers with more lurid tastes might decide they prefer David Dixon’s Never Come to Peace Again, published by the University of Oklahoma in 2005. That Dixon has written a kind of Gothic yarn—or perhaps a horror-Western in the manner of Ravenous or Bone Tomahawk—should be clear by Chapter 4 at the latest, when we read an interpolated “legend” about a British settler, killed by Pontiac outside of Detroit, trying twice to scrabble out of his burial ground, his “pale arm protruding from the grave.” (112) It is around that zombie-movie freeze-frame that the rest of Dixon’s book will now organize itself. Pontiac’s Rebellion was a war full of “bizarre tales,” the historian/crypt-keeper tells us in the language of the pulps, a “horrifying holy war” on the Indian side, a sequence of atrocities on the English side, outrages perpetrated by white “fiends.” Quotations from period documents obligingly make the genre argument for us: “Anything feigned in the most fabulous romance cannot parallel the horrid sight now before us.” (qtd 163) And it’s true: One wonders whether any other peer-reviewed monographs by tenured American historians feature quite so much cannibalism. Dixon even concludes his preface with a winkingly insincere warning/enticement to the reader—“I beg the reader to be indulgent through the relation of numerous horrific atrocities perpetrated by both sides during the conflict” (xiii)—a sentence that converts the academic prologue into a vintage B-movie teaser: “Do you have the guts to sit in this chair?” “Trained nurses will be available in the lobby.” “No refunds!” A reader skimming forward at this point will notice that Chapter 2 is called “A Colony Sprung From Hell,” in which the Ohio Valley becomes the stage for an American horror story. It remains to be said that an older version of literary theory would suggest that we call such hell-writing “satire” rather than “horror,” where “satire” refers to stories without heroes, stories, that is, in which the characters who would usually be regarded as heroic are merely victims or are themselves bad, hence stories in which nobody wins. Thus Dixon, in his book’s final pages: “Neither side could claim any decisive victory in the conflict.” (242) At one point he asks us to “ponder” a bit of anonymous backwoods graffiti: Nous sommes tous sauvages.[ii]

By now, anyone familiar with Northrup Frye’s short catalog of story-types or “fictional modes” will have realized that one of them is missing. Historians can fashion the stuff of the eighteenth-century frontier into an American romance; they can fashion it into an American tragedy; or they can fashion it into an American horror story. The mind now itches to ask whether they can also fashion it into an American comedy—a comedy, that is, that would include the Native Americans, since inclusion is one of the comic mode’s more important features. Can we fix our attention on the frontier and find (except—no, not “find”) there a story, not of universal savagery, but of new life, or revival and rejuvenation, a story in which there are no losers, a story of reconciliation in which everybody wins, in which nearly all the characters turn out to be good guys, in which apparent conflicts are revealed to be misunderstandings, and in which the social order remakes itself at last around a few improbable marriages? A reader can disagree with every page of Richard White’s Middle Ground and still admire the resourcefulness with which he sets about this unlikely task, point for point for point.

A story of revival and rejuvenation? White’s very first argument is that colonization was not just destructive; it didn’t merely mow down native people. Nor was it the extension unto monotony of older European social forms. Empire “creates as well as destroys”; or, better, it provokes rounds of creativity in Europeans and Native Americans alike. The last sentence of the book’s first paragraph reads: “Something new could appear”—a “new man,” “new systems of meaning and of exchange,” “new meanings and through them new practices.” (ix-x) In sun-saluting prose, Richard White summons his readers to the colonial equinox. The hard ground yields. Birds remember their song.

A story in which there are no losers? One is tempted to argue, as a discrete point, that the new histories of empire are pro-trade. The observation proves skippable, however, and not only because it is wholly unsurprising, but also because it is properly catalogued as one of the school’s comic impulses. In this regard, the most telling sentence in The Middle Ground is tucked into one of the book’s two distinct and widely separated attacks on dependency theory. White is out to contravene a group of dependency theorists, including a younger version of himself, who thought they could show that a growing reliance on European manufactures had narrowed the political options available to Native Americans in the period of westward expansion. The Europeans possessed a permanent bargaining advantage, one they did not fail to exploit, which was that they controlled access to goods that the vast majority of native people were not prepared to do without. Here, then, is that argument’s comic refutation: On the frontier, “it remained possible for both traders and Indians to profit from … exchange.” (484) Global trade under colonial conditions did not undermine Indian autonomy; it gave native peoples scope, rather, to initiative and self-reinvention. This was especially true around the Great Lakes, because trade with the French involved “love”; without that “love,” it’s true, trade risked turning “chaotic,” not oppressive, necessarily, but disordered. (265) This is an argument that White then gladly extends to military affairs: The biggest Indian uprising of the eighteenth-century sought, not an end to colonial rule, but an “accommodation between the races.” (270) Even “conflict” and “confrontation” are best grasped as opportunities to “rearrange … relationships.” (420) [iii]

A story in which apparent conflicts are revealed to be misunderstandings? White is interested in misunderstanding in two different modes. First, misunderstanding is one of the engines of imperial creativity: Forced to adapt to native lifeways, the French never fully comprehended the practices they had adopted, and so unwittingly created new ones, by force of persistent mis-emulation. That the same point can be made of the Indians, compelled to guess what the Europeans wanted from them and never quite getting it right, merely duplicates the point. American modernity is a bad translation and subtly botched rite. White’s second version of misunderstanding is more obviously of the type identified by genre theorists and directly recalls the plots of the comic stage. The Middle Ground reports on the moment when the Mingos, a breakaway group of mostly Seneca Indians who moved into the Ohio Valley in the eighteenth century, decided that the British had “bad designs” upon them. White calls attention to this instance of resentment and antipathy and then analyzes it in a manner that largely exculpates the British. The Mingos had given in to an understandable misperception. “Famine and epidemic, coupled with British trade policies, created an [Indian] image of the British not as misguided brothers, but as enemies, a malevolent people bound by neither kinship nor ritual obligations.” (275) Such is the subtlety of comic plotting, which it is easy to underestimate: A well-tooled comedy needs to be able to mimic the plots of epic and tragedy and the adventure story, simulating the conflicts and crises that are the indispensable stuff of narrative interest, and so affording, after a fashion, the basically jejune and melodramatic pleasures of the non-comic genres, all the while negating the plot’s various dangers and clashes, even as it stages them, by in the end re-classifying all conflict as misperception, transient and rectifiable. British imperial agents in North America were nobody’s enemy; they were, at worst, temporarily estranged kin: “misguided brothers.” “Misunderstandings were also the stuff on which the middle ground fed.” (383)[iv]

A story of societies remade by hitherto disallowed marriages? There is an x here that goes by many different names. The classically minded theorists of genre call it comedy. The Victorianists call it the marriage plot. The anthropologists call it exogamy. For a while, the postcolonialists made it seem compelling again by calling it hybridity. A literary historian might call it the last two chapters of Walter Scott’s Waverley. I’m writing for the moment about colonial North America, so I’ll call it the Pocahontas motif in order to observe that Richard White deploys it with the frequency of a priest publishing the banns:

-“Indians, like the [French] commanders, saw marriage as an integral part of their alliance with the French. . . .” (69)

-“To keep the villagers loyal, French commanders depended, too, on the métis legitimes and on the Frenchmen who had intermarried and traded among the Indians.” (215)

-The middle ground sponsored “a heterogeneous mix of different peoples loosely linked by intermarriage and common loyalties.” (316)

-“The French took wives from the Indians and produced children of mixed descent; the British took land and threatened the well-being of [Indian] children.” (342)

It is this last sentence that most bolsters one’s sense that Richard White thinks in terms of literary genre, though perhaps without realizing that this is what he is doing. In two pared-back clauses, he has assigned to each of the major North American empires its characteristic plot. The British Empire generates melodrama: sociopaths with posh accents menace the cowering young. The French Empire is a library of courtship novels, a favorite book multiply re-read, at the end of which there will always be a Québécois Darcy, ever-wedding his Anishinabe Elizabeth.[v]

Comedy, it hardly needs saying, is not an obligatory mode. It is at least as plausible to describe the pre-Revolutionary frontier as, in the words of another ethnohistorian, “a place where the peripheries of two cultures merged, creating potentially dangerous situations based upon tension, hostility, fear, and insecurity between the two peoples,” a “flux area,” unusually “precarious” (Kawashima: 2) Read alongside these contrasting claims—mixture, yes, but volatile mixture, dangerous to some of its human components, ready at times to re-separate—Richard White’s version of the colonial periphery stands out by virtue of its wholly amicable stability, not the stability of particular imperial or Indian formations, but the stability of the middle ground itself, as the matrix for these others. To hear White tell it, everything fed the middle ground; everything that happened on the middle ground, no matter how death-stalked or superficially antagonistic, was an invitation for further moderation and accommodation. The French were ousted from Canada, and the British got absorbed by the middle ground even as they refused it. The Indians arranged around Pontiac launched a simultaneous rebellion against every British fort in the west—and nonetheless ended up reaffirming the Middle Ground. One consults Gary Nash, summarizing a generation’s worth of research into Native America in the 1770s and ‘80s, and finds him writing that the American Revolution was a catastrophe for Native America (Nash: 346ff.; see also Calloway). And then one turns back to White, who claims instead that “for all its clamor and destruction, [the Revolution] watered the political middle ground….” (366) Even murder fed the middle ground: Every ambushed trader provided impetus for a fresh cycle of diplomacy; every killing was a chance to reaffirm friendships and expiate wrongdoing. “In fighting and death, as well as in peace and negotiations, there were contacts, meanings to be deciphered, and understandings reached.” (387) The most important thing about a murder is the people who come calling after the funeral.

Anyone still puzzled by White’s position need merely dip back into literary theory. You can tell what White is doing if you know how comedies work. For students of the genre have often observed that Shakespearean comedy, in particular, has a thing for forests. In many comedies, characters exit the ordinary world of city or court and remake themselves, not always by choice, in the woodlands outside of Mantua or Athens. When literary historians go looking for the origins of the frontier myth, they tend to single out the more or less martial genres of early American writing: captivity narratives, memoirs of Indian war. What Richard White has grasped better than these English professors is that comedy has always been a sylvan genre, too, no less than these others. It was only a matter of time, then, before some writer seized the genre-dictated opportunity to redescribe indigenous Wisconsin as the Forest of Arden. White’s most enduring bequest to the new histories of empire, replicated serially across the continents and across the university’s many regional expertises, has been to show scholars how to look at any contested zone of timber, bush, or jungle and to see there only the green world.[vi]

[i] For “castle,” see, for instance, Middleton 2007: 29, 33, 60, as in: British “claims threatened the upper Mohawk castle of Canajoharie.” (29) By introducing the question of genre, I am, of course, following a procedure first recommended by Hayden White in Metahistory.

[iii] The full quotations might be instructive in this instance: p. 265: “When gain rather than ‘love’ ruled the trade, exchange remained chaotic.”; p. 270: “Out of the radically different British and Alognquian interpretations of the meaning of the British victory over the French, it [Pontiac’s Rebellion] forged a new, if tenuous, accommodation between the races.”; p. 420: “To portray the confrontation along the Ohio simply as a conflict between the new American state and Indian tribes misses the complexity of the relationships between the various groups involved; it neglects the extent to which confrontation itself was rearranging the organization and relationships of the region.”

[iv] See also Martin Goodman in Rome and Jerusalem (386): “Bloodshed [in Judea in the early first century] seems always to have been the result of quite specific incidents. During the festival of Passover in the late 40s or early 50s a Roman soldier bared himself, turned his backside to the assembled pilgrims and let out a noise like a fart, according to Josephus’ account in his Jewish War; in the parallel account in the Antiquities, the insult was to display his genitals. (The accounts are of course not incompatible. Perhaps this was a cultural misunderstanding and Romans felt able blithely to joke about nudity and bodily functions in a way that Jews found disgusting.)”

[v] An early review by Rebecca Kugel highlights the centrality to White’s argument of Indian women and intermarriage. See also Plane 2002.

[vi] On the literary origins of the frontier myth, see especially Slotkin 1973.

How to Read the New Histories of Empire, Part 3


Here, then, are seven points to keep in mind when reading the new histories of empire—preliminary theses that any reader should be able to confirm by reading widely in the scholarship published since 1990 or so. The first three are implicit in what I’ve already written:

1) In the contemporary academy, defenses of empire are surprisingly common.[i]

2) These often emerge from the corners of the university where you would least expect to find them—from among ethnohistorians, for instance, or critical theorists.[ii]

3) They are typically liberal or left-liberal in orientation.[iii]

The remaining four points will require a little more explanation.

4) The new histories of empire are superficially pro-indigenous and so easily misread as hostile to empire. This matter is perhaps best understood as involving a rhetorical technique. Many readers will find defenses of empire plausible only if these have been routed first through a defense of indigenous people. The initial task facing the new imperial historian is thus to show that empire brought benefits to non-Europeans or that it was in some meaningful way the latter’s choice and co-creation—that empire, indeed, was just one more version of indigenous society. The simplest way to do this will be for the historian to route his imperialism through a necessary mediation, by focusing our attention on some group of colonized people who for whatever reason elected to cooperate with the Europeans. One sides with empire by siding first with them. At the same time, arguments of this kind typically proceed by way of the negative, which is to say that their defense of one set of imperial practices announces itself as a critique of other empires. In practice, this requires little more of historians than that they identify to their own satisfaction which version of empire was best for indigenous people, hence that they posit a Good Imperialism alongside a Bad One, though if carefully written, even this simple A-B coding can masquerade for long stretches as an anti-imperialism. This antithesis, it must be noted, can work a few different ways: the early stages of empire vs. the late ones; the remote margins of an overseas territory vs. its oldest and most settled districts; weak imperial programs (indirect rule, soft power, treaty imperialism) vs. strong ones; national empire #1 vs. national empire #2, the French vs. the British, the British vs the Spanish, any of these vs. the Americans. White’s arguments, for all their archivally generated detail, are, of course, iterable. Arguments he makes about the French can be transferred at will to any other group of Europeans. One important circle of historians, headed by Francis Jennings and Stephen Saunders Webb, have asked us to admire the British Empire for its determination to protect native peoples from Anglo-American encroachment. For much of the continent, Indian survival would have required more empire and not less. In such writing, the British and Indian alliance, as forged at Albany and points north, becomes the target of our trans-historical identification, and this cathexis yields a position that, though difficult to parse in the political categories of the early twenty-first century, is nonetheless fairly common among PhD-holding historians: anti-colonial, but pro-empire.[iv]

5) The new histories of empire are Americanizing. White’s writing cultivates in the reader a disaffection towards American history. The Anglo-Americans are the ones who menace the middle ground and in the book’s final act destroy it. They are the agents of ethnic and religious immoderation; the founders of some strange, new country without a middle; the designers of its impossible geometry—a surface, vast and unbroken, that is nonetheless all perimeter. And yet it is enough to blink once, and these two seemingly opposed terms—America and the middle ground—will start to merge. America, which we have been instructed to see as the middle ground’s annihilator from the east, turns out instead to be its synonym and twin, a second name for the third term. That which is neither Indian nor European is. . . . To American Studies scholars, meanwhile, the notion of the middle ground is likely to suggest nothing so much as the chronotope of Hollywood Westerns and dime novels. Frontier stories, after all, have always rendered the US as the space in-between, carving their story-world into three vertical tiers: a Far West, wolfish and primordial; an effete and overcivilized East Coast; and a central zone, paradigmatically American because semi-civilized, on the understanding that semi-civilization is actually the preferred state. The task of the Western, as genre, is to consider how this last, easily understood as transitional and unstable, might nonetheless be maintained: how to be white, certainly, but not too white. Any backyard, toy-gun reenactment of the frontier myth—any game, I mean, called cowboys and Indians—is thus an abbreviation of what was always a more complicated narrative structure. The organizing principles of the Western are not two-term, in the manner beloved of structuralists and schoolboys, but three-term: cowboys and Indians and Easterners: dudes, greenhorns, English dandies, pedant-journalists, the shady agents of the railways. Frontier stories are to this extent always multiple and hard to summarize. Readings of Westerns inevitably yield paradox, since the master-story they tell while facing westwards will be contradicted by the master-story they tell while facing east. Stories about bringing civilization to the deserts and the badlands double as Rousseauvian parables about Europeans who regenerate themselves by exiting the metropolis. Your typical Western is at once a vernacular narrative about the coming of modernity and a story about the return to nature, in which the Easterner becomes an American by stripping away finical layers of accreted custom and luxury. No doubt: It is the genre’s anti-Indian animus that has allowed Westerns to function as so many parables of modernity into the twentieth century and beyond, re-tooling the form’s older, agrarian republicanism by harnessing it to a fully commercial ideology. Settlers in Westerns look like yeomen but are inevitably the bearers of market society. The historical cowboy, after all, nonsensical icon of American independence, was a not-at-all-autonomous worker paid a wage to drive his boss’s bovine commodity to market. Complexities abound, however. If the fictional cowboy is not simply a Lowell factory girl in disguise, then this is because the persistence, in the genre, of the East as a cursed space, even when Indians are the primary enemy, means the Western is always eager to draw distinctions among its pioneers. There are proper ways of living in a commercial society, visible only in the primal spaces of incipient modernization—distinctively American ways, as opposed to European ones—and these will still be roughly primitivist and republican, rather than bourgeois-Occidental. It is therefore misleading to describe literary cowboys and frontiersmen as the puppet-envoys of European society or as generically white. For they will count as American only if their whiteness has been modified and perhaps even compromised, if, that is, they have to some degree adopted Indian ways. White Indians were the stock figures of early American nationalism: Daniel Boone, Natty Bumppo, sundry other rangers, scouts, and trappers, all of them figures of the middle ground. In the introduction to his book, Richard White tells the reader that he “found . . . much that surprised [him]” while researching the volume, that, indeed, he “found his perspective on the period changing” in some fundamental way. (xi) Anyone reading these words might well expect White to be expounding a new paradigm. How baffling, then, to realize that this “new Indian history” (he uses the term on p. xi) is mostly a restatement of the old Western and frontier myths—more baffling still to return to the book and find that its author has admitted as much on the first page: “American myth . . . retained the wider possibilities that historians have denied American history.” (ix) In defiance of our accustomed sense that historians are among the great demystifiers, the fact-checkers of popular memory and dispellers of chauvinist legend, the new history of the West steps forward to validate the frontier myth, to renew the Leatherstocking fable by reassigning it to the French. The result is a book that just keeps repeating all the old claims about how the West was the true America, and about how this true America was eventually lost. The old West, White tells us, was the open space where “a person could become someone else.” (389) The book’s lyrics are skeptical and anti-nationalist, but its tunes have all been borrowed from patriotic songs.[v]

[i] One monograph does not a pattern make. For other instances, see the discussions below of James Merrill and Doris Sommer. Subsequent footnotes will draw attention to scholarship on west Africa, South America, the Pacific, ancient Israel, and the multicontinental British Empire. The thrust of this scholarship is especially apparent in Nicholas Thomas’s Islanders: The Pacific in the Age of Empire (Thomas 2010), whose jacket copy assures readers in its second sentence that the book will reveal to them the “gain” of empire—imperial benefits and rewards—and not just “loss,” as well as empire’s capacity for “invention.” The book goes on to claim that most native people were more interested in “creative accommodation” than in resistance and to demonstrate in indigenous societies a widespread “enthusiasm for things European and things British” (3, 24).

[ii] A belated word on the essay’s title: There was a vogue around 1990 for re-christening as “new” various subfields in the study of European expansion: the new Western history, the new American studies, the new imperial history. The last is especially instructive: The “new imperial historians” were credentialed, archivally adept historians who nonetheless avowed a disciplinarily unfashionable debt to critical theory and who to that extent gave priority to culture and discourse; who paid special attention to matters of gender, race, and ethnicity; who promised to write an imperial history without nostalgia; and who refused to take nations as given, but instead favored explanations in terms of “circuits” or “webs” or “global interconnections.” For the new imperial historians, Britain would no longer count as central, even in the British Empire. For a while, Antoinette Burton was pushing the term “critical imperial history.” (See Part II of Burton’s Empire in Question (2011: 122ff.).) What has become clear over time, as the new histories of empire have aged out of their novelty, is that these putatively critical historians have tended to restate the claims of an older imperial historiography. “New” and “critical” histories of an empire without a British center dovetail with older and apologetic accounts of British imperial absentmindedness, lack of coordination, reliance on local elites, and, in general, the limits of British power in the colonies. Conversely, when the inheritors of the older imperial history step forward to refurbish their case, often in defiance of the new imperial historians, they nonetheless avail themselves of the tropes of “networks” and “native agency” first touted by their rivals.

[iii] Thomas’s way of defending empire is to call it “cosmopolitan”: “This book has emphasized the cosmopolitanism of the Pacific during the nineteenth century.” (182) His second example of this mindset arrives in the book’s opening pages, in the form of three men from an island near New Guinea who were abducted by the Spanish in the early 1500s—forced onto a ship, made worldly by the European explorers who seized them; they are evidence of “a particular cultural condition … that of cosmopolitanism,” which the author seems to think of as to be affirmed even when involuntary. (3-4) The new histories of empire congratulate kidnap victims on the occasion of their expanded horizons. “Empire,” Thomas ends up concluding, was “replete with possibilities, marked out by travels, possible travels, and travels of the mind.” (297) John Darwin, meanwhile, introduces two more devices to the liberal defense of empire: First, he considers dropping the term empire itself. Darwin’s first career retrospective is called The Empire Project (2011), and the trick of that title is that it both uses the word empire and offers to negate it. The British pursued the project of empire, which to that extent was less than a thing: a projective empire, aspirational, underway, incomplete, in some large part imagined. In the text itself, he often refers to “the British world-system” or to “British connections” and at one point to “the Britannic association.” (159) Second, then, and already apparent in those last two formulations, Darwin describes the British Empire in a strongly horizontalist idiom borrowed from network theory: The Empire was “a large, loose, decentralized confederacy,” a “network of alliances,” “not a structure” but a “web.” (69, 97, 1) It falls to Henry Kamen (2002), then, in his work on the Spanish Empire, to combine Nicholas Thomas’s bluntly imperial cosmopolitanism with Darwin’s ontologically flattened non-empire. Kamen’s distinctive tic is obsessively to negate the word conquest: “There was, literally, no conquest of the islands.” (65) “Castilians of subsequent generations tended to assume that they had conquered Italy. There was no real basis for the belief.” (65) “When the Spaniards extended their energies to the lands beyond the ocean, they did not … conquer them.” (95) “There was never in any real sense a ‘conquest’ of America, for the Spaniards never had the men or resources to conquer it.” (121) “collaboration rather than ‘conquest’” (122) The Spanish had “never been in a position to conquer any overseas territories or plant its banner anywhere” (169) “the year 1573 marked a fundamental change of direction in royal policy that affected not only Europe but the whole empire. … conquest was no longer to be an objective.” (187) ”The possibility of ‘conquest’ did not arise, for there were never adequate Spanish men or weapons” (254) The monarchy “definitively banned further conquests in America” (255) Kamen finally just puts scare quotes around the “Spanish Empire” on p. 153, convinced as he is that the political formation he is describing was neither Spanish nor an empire—an empire “in theory,” but actually “a complex international network” “a cosmopolitan network” of multiethnic endeavor, a “vast commercial enterprise” with “the outward form of an empire,” a spur to the ingenuity and energy of people other than the Spanish. (170, 289, 297)

[iv] See, for instance Jennings 1984, Webb 1995, Webb 2013. Ian Steele (2000: 384) begins his review of Oberg’s Dominion and Civility like so: “The likelihood that promoters of empire were more humanely inclined towards Amerindians than were their colonists may be another obvious truth finally returning from banishment by indiscriminate anti-imperialists.”

One especially notable variant of this position is visible in John Thornton’s Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World (1992). The book’s core argument, at least in its first half, is that West African elites were full and eager participants in the Atlantic slave trade. Before 1680 and perhaps thereafter, Europeans neither created nor even much transformed the workings of the region’s already existing trade in captives. The most important thing to know about the market for slaves is that it was well-established, distinctively African, and big enough to accommodate the entry of the Europeans as just one more set of customers. That’s the argument. Rhetorically, then, one of the book’s most conspicuous features is its reliance on the terms Africa and Africans, as the title already indicates. It is not uncommon to find other historians remarking that race was a creation of the slave trade itself—that sailors couldn’t know themselves to be white or European until they arrived on the coast of Guinea, just as the Igbo and Yoruba couldn’t know themselves to be black or African. (Among many other instances, see Rediker 2007: 261. But Thornton uses the terms European and African without comment, and the cunning of this move is that it allows a defense of Europeans to masquerade as a critique of Eurocentrism. Thornton says that his book is de-centering Europe, by asking that we hail the slave trade as an African accomplishment and a sign of the continent’s strength. Submerging the difference between slave states and their quarry is the precondition to those claims, since it is plainly impossible to see the slave trade as announcing the strength of all Africans equally. Having declared European merchants marginal to the slave trade, Thornton is now able to say that “Europeans did not pillage Africa” and that they introduced no “monopolistic distortions of trade.” (53, 65) The critique of Eurocentrism is called upon to testify to English and Portuguese virtue. Other rhetorical choices follow on from there, all made possible by the dedifferentiated word African: Thornton says repeatedly that the Atlantic slave trade was “peaceful” and that it was “voluntary”—that such, indeed, were the unappreciated hallmarks of the trade: “we must accept that African participation in the slave trade was voluntary” (124) The European relationship to West Africa was a matter of “peaceful regulated trade.” (38) Thornton’s book is improbable in at least one further respect—a book that proclaims its allegiance to Braudelian world-systems history while arguing that the linking to the oceanic system of its chosen region changed that region in no important way.


[v] On frontier stories and Westerns, see Slotkin 1973, 1985, 1992.