Monday, April 11, 2005

The "original" cult of personality

"I am very happy there is a conference to do with deconstruction. I have heard it's on the wane, dying, for the last 30 years. I tell you, it is dead. If there is a difference between deconstruction and any other fashion, discipline and so forth, it is that it started with dying."


Or an effective borrower, anyway. Sartre borrows everything, as you know, but in the end maybe that matters less than some would suggest. Still Derrida speaks somewhere of the danger every serious thinker must confront, or rather always negotiate--that of becoming oneself an example or a persona, merely, a stylistic trademark or brand, a convenient label to disfigure, a distraction from the duty to think or, in his fond phrase, actually read those one is accusing. The last thing any genuine thinker desires being a herd of disciples ("more Derridian than Derrida himself," Lyotard smiles, somewhere else). And yet where would we be without his example, Sartre's, today? The era of 'the cult of personality' would seem to be over, only its desperately fundamentalist, utterly banal, reactionary dregs left over, flailing and writhing in their death throes. Or maybe this is an optimistic description; maybe the announcement of death was premature. (Descriptions are permitted a certain optimism, surely!) While the cult of personality is often framed as a "problem" or a "curse" for the "left", there is no such "left" now, and such phrases risk sweeping the contemporary likes of Chavez preemptively under the rug with Stalin. One cannot just say, "the cult of personality" without some attempt at (ideological) description or historical contextualization...

But is Derrida correct? Did Sartre commit some kind of fundamental miscalculation or intellectual's error? Did he betray the role of a 'responsible' intellectual by becoming too overtly political, too much an iconic symbol? At yet this seems to be happening to Derrida anyway, despite his life-long protests and meticulous care in what he said and did not say (his constant attention to tone, often seemingly childish in its extreme sensitivity, and combined with such seriousness; he has such low tolerance for games at his own expense, those contrived not without a hint of jealousy or even malice as if to help him take himself less seriously)...

Anyway, on a somewhat related note, I have been reading this from Wittgenstein's Ladder:
In the autumn of 1939, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his young Cambridge student and friend Norman Malcolm were walking along the river when they saw a newspaper vendor's sign announcing that the Germans had accused the British government of instigating a recent attempt to assassinate Hitler. When Wittgenstein remarked that it wouldn't surprise him at all if it were true, Malcolm retorted that it was impossible because "the British were too civilized and decent to attempt anything so underhand, and . . . such an act was incompatible with the British 'national character'." Wittgenstein was furious. Some five years later, he wrote to Malcolm:

Whenever I thought of you I couldn't help thinking of a particular incident which seemed to me very important. . . . you made a remark about 'national character' that shocked me by its primitiveness. I then thought: what is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., & if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any . . . journalist in the use of the DANGEROUS phrases such people use for their own ends. (2)

What is the use of studying philosophy if it doesn't improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life?...

The example Wittgenstein thus set writers from Samuel Beckett (who insisted that he hadn't read any Wittgenstein until the late fifties, long after he had completed such "Wittgensteinian" works as Watt and Waiting for Godot), (13) to Bachmann and Bernstein, is that he never gave up the struggle, both with himself and with language, never allowed himself to accept this or that truth statement or totalizing system as the answer. "Language," he wrote in his notebook, "sets everyone the same traps . . . . What I have to do then is erect signposts at all the junctions where there are wrong turnings so as to help people past the danger points" (CV 18). And one of the implications of the famous aphorism "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world" (T #5.6), is that the cult of personality, of a subject somehow outside language, that dominated American poetry, from the confessionalism of the fifties to the "scenic mode" (Charles Altieri's apt phrase) of the seventies has now begun to give way to a resurgence of what was known, in the heyday of the New Criticism which regarded it with some asperity, as "the poetry of ideas." (14)

But not the "poetry of ideas" in the traditional sense, where it meant the expression of significant "content" in appropriate language and verse form. For if we accept Wittgenstein's premise that "The results of philosophy [and hence by analogy of poetry] are the uncovering of one or another piece of plain nonsense and of bumps that the understanding has got by running its head up against the limits of language," and that "These bumps make us see the value of the discovery" (PI #119), the "poetry of ideas" becomes the site of discovery, where the "bumps" we receive by running our heads up against the walls and ceilings of the rooms we dwell in are interrogated. And that process of interrogation is of necessity tentative, self-cancelling, and self-correcting, even as it deals with the most ordinary aspects of everyday life...(Marjorie Perloff)

You'll have to follow the link for her footnotes, but the essay is worth reading in its entirety.

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