Friday, October 19, 2018

An American in Paris on the Ronell affair (remember that?)

Justin Erik Halldór Smith is an American philosopher working in the Continental tradition and living in Paris.
Like top chefs who travel far to ply their trade, Derrida found that the crowds at his distant destinations could not make any distinction between what was inspired in his words, and what was inherited, what was the product of a singular mind, and what the generic template of an earlier acculturation. The most conventional dishes will get French chefs raving reviews if they go and open a restaurant, perhaps calling it ‘Ooh-La-La’, in a strip mall in Orange County (an example drawn from my true memory of a suburban California childhood). That is the whole secret of Derrida’s decades-long mystification of the Anglophone world.

The American right and the ‘classical liberals’ continue to denounce the ‘postmodernism’ of the academic left, as if it were still 1984, as if nothing ever changes. They have not detected the massive upswell in the past few years of what is in crucial respects the exact opposite of postmodernism. Graduate students in the humanities are not deconstructing anything anymore, and are in no doubt about the existence or accessibility of certain basic truths. They are defending the truth of their moral world view, against the falsehood of the world view of their enemies. The dividing line is generational, and nowhere has it been more visible than in the recent revolution of comp-lit graduate students against their elders and ostensible mentors, Butler and Žižek and the others, who for their part, in the wake of the Ronell-Reitman sublimatedly-sexual harassment scandal, insisted in various ways that the human heart is a dark forest, and sometimes the real truth is hard to come by. However wary I am of the stark black-and-white moral realism of the grad students who rose up against Ronell, I am at least happy to see her New York branch of Derrida’s horrible chain finally closing down. I would however wish that the focus were on the food, on the fact that it is no good, while the young people’s principal complaint seems to be that the place is not, as it were, up to code.

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