Historian, Teacher, Writer

Friends or Differends? Discursive Tonalities of Late Twentieth-Century Philosophy [2011]

Two books have appeared recently that deal with prominent debates in Continental philosophy since the 1970s.1 Pierre Bouretz’s D’un ton guerrier en philosophie analyzes the infamous debate between Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida during the 1980s-90s, which seemed to put reason, modernity, and Enlightenment on trial. In Marx Through Post-Structuralism, Simon Choat also discusses Derrida, but in the context of his fellow post-structuralists and their radical reinterpretations of Karl Marx. Both books operate on a transnational scale, exploring French, German, English, and American debates over the meaning and purpose of philosophy in today’s world. Both also imply that an attitude of rapprochement, or at most of respectful agonism, is more beneficial to philosophical progress than irreconcilable antagonism. Bouretz considers the actual rapprochement between Habermas and Derrida in the early 2000s as a normative model for productive philosophical discourse, while Choat himself works toward rapprochement by trying to defuse the animosity between French post-structuralists and their Anglo-American Marxist critics. But is rapprochement always a desirable result between seemingly incommensurable positions? On the battleground of philosophy, are all enemies potential friends who, to use Habermas’ terms, might participate in a shared discourse with the goal of mutual understanding? Or rather are some debates representative of a “differend,” to use Jean-François Lyotard’s term, that lacks any equitable standard of judgment and makes any agreement between parties impossible?

In D’un ton guerrier en philosophie, Pierre Bouretz places the well-known Habermas-Derrida debate in three larger contexts: first, in relation to the earlier debate between John Searle and Derrida about the meaning of the English philosopher of language J. L. Austin’s work, which along with the classic Habermas-Derrida debate forms a “Thirty Years War” in philosophy that divided the philosophical consciousness of Europe; second, against the background of post-1989 and post-9/11 politics on the European left; and third, most generally, with regard to the tone of philosophical discourse and how particular tones might imply different sets of discursive and political norms.

Throughout the book Bouretz presents Derrida in a favorable light. The protagonist who comes out looking the worst is John Searle. The first skirmish of the “Thirty Years War” in philosophy began in 1977 when Searle replied to a chapter on J. L. Austin in Derrida’s 1972 book, Marges de la philosophie.2 Searle, who evidently had read little else by Derrida except for this chapter on Austin (“Signature, Event, Context”), sought to vanquish his pretended foe with a single, 10-page stroke. “It would be a mistake, I think, to regard Derrida’s discussion of Austin as a confrontation between two prominent philosophical traditions,” he begins; “This is not so much because Derrida has failed to discuss the central theses of Austin’s theory of language, but rather because he has misunderstood and misstated Austin’s position at several crucial points.”3 Searle’s argument revolves around the central contention that Derrida both misunderstands and deliberately misstates Austin’s theory: “Derrida has a penchant for saying things that are obviously false.”4 But Bouretz observes that Searle’s reply equally misstates Derrida’s position, appeals to the authority of his own writings that were published after Derrida’s book,5 and employs a tone of discourse that forecloses the very “confrontation between two prominent philosophical traditions” that presumably would have been justified had it happened but that “never quite takes place.” Regardless of Bouretz’s bias in favor of Derrida, it is clear that Searle was the initiator of hostilities.6 What exactly was it about Austin that Derrida had so wrong?

In his seminal 1962 book How to Do Things with Words, J. L. Austin outlined a general theory of language based on the distinction between constative and performative speech acts. Constative speech acts refer to a declaration or description of what is the case: this is “what” you say, the meaningful content of your utterance. Performative speech acts, on the other hand, refer to the social consequences of the utterance: this is what you “do” when you say something, the action of speaking and the reaction it provokes. It is this latter type of speech act that made Austin’s theory so groundbreaking. Our concept of language should not be confined to written words and their definitions, he argued, but rather it should be expanded to include the wide array of social situations in which speech occurs. He further distinguished between locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary acts. A locutionary act, like the constative, pertains to the meaning or content of an utterance. An illocutionary act, like the performative, pertains to the subjective action of the utterance: I promise, I declare, I renounce, etc. Finally, a perlocutionary act pertains to the intersubjective action whose outcome is not guaranteed: to try to persuade somebody, to try to embarrass somebody, to try to fool somebody. Derrida believed that Austin had identified the correct problematic—that words are not simply expressions or significations of interior meaning—but had drawn the wrong conclusions from it: namely, that speech and not writing is the dominant mode of language, that subjective intention still greatly determines meaning, and that “ordinary” language provides the logic from which non-ordinary language is derived.

Derrida’s latter objection needs clarification. Austin consciously excluded certain kinds of language like fiction, theater acting, and poetry from his general theory on the grounds that they are “parasitic”—that they depend logically on the rules of “serious,” ordinary, and everyday language. Along with this delimitation of language, Austin also privileged “felicitous” over “infelicitous” speech acts; that is, he assumed that illocutionary and perlocutionary acts that succeed are superior to acts that fail to realize their purposes (or to acts that lack any purpose). “Austin thus excludes,” writes Derrida, “the ‘non-serious,’ ‘parasitism,’ ‘etiolation,’ ‘the non-ordinary’ . . . all of which he nevertheless recognizes as the possibility available to every act of utterance.” He goes on to ask a series of rhetorical questions:

is this risk [of infelicitous failure] rather [speech’s] internal and positive condition of possibility? Is that outside its inside, the very force and law of its emergence? In this last case, what would be meant by an “ordinary” language defined by the exclusion of the very law of language? In excluding the general theory of this structural parasitism, does not Austin, who nevertheless claims to describe the facts and events of ordinary language, pass off as ordinary an ethical and teleological determination (the univocity of the utterance [énoncé]—that he acknowledges elsewhere remains a philosophical “ideal”—the presence to self of a total context, the transparency of intentions, the presence of meaning [vouloir-dire] to the absolutely singular uniqueness of a speech act, etc.)?7

Derrida doubts that speech (or writing, on which speech is always already based) is ever unambiguous, univocal, transparent, or fully successful. By emphasizing writing instead of speech, he makes “communication” into just another mode of language. Other modes of language, like poetry, gain equal footing with the so-called “serious” speech acts, and in so doing undermine the possibility of any consistent general theory of language based on ordinary usage.

Derrida’s reply to Searle’s 1977 attack is mostly tongue-in-cheek. The substantive debate between him and Searle had become oddly consistent with the tone adopted by each. To the latter’s seemingly aggressive tone in favor of the hegemony of “ordinary” speech over all language, Derrida responds with coy irony. To the latter’s charge that he has a “penchant for saying things that are obviously false,” Derrida confirms his “penchant for falsity” then questions the veracity of what he writes, even his penchant for falsity. He also spends quite some time scrutinizing Searle’s handwritten copyright notice on the manuscript sent in advance to him, highlighting Searle’s preoccupation with his remarks on citationality and iterability. But after Derrida’s reply, neither combatant continued the fight. Bouretz shifts his attention instead to the fierce polemics that broke out between their respective disciples on American university campuses. This was a time when the “linguistic turn” in the humanities and social sciences was beginning to make a strong institutional impact. Sharp lines of battle were drawn between philosophy and literature departments over who had the right and the capability to answer the important questions of the day. Those on the political left saw in deconstruction—whether actually Derrida’s version or not—a way to critique dominant capitalist society, with its persecution of the “Other” in the form of “parasitic” minorities and subaltern peoples. Those on the right saw in Austin and Searle’s analytical philosophy a sort of pragmatism that could jettison the continental philosophical tradition and assert an intellectual version of Anglo-American exceptionalism. But the political division became less clear when Jürgen Habermas intervened in 1985 with The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.

At issue in the Searle-Derrida debate, that first skirmish of the “Thirty Years War,” was the nature of language itself. The Habermas-Derrida debate reignited the issue and gave it a broader resonance in the history of modern European ideas. Are there universal, transcendental, and rational rules of language that apply to everyone, regardless of creed or culture (the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant)? Or are there only competing wills to power (Friedrich Nietzsche), repeated obfuscations of Being (Martin Heidegger), particular language games (Ludwig Wittgenstein), “phrase regimens” (Lyotard), genres of discourses (Michel Foucault), and fundamental différances (Derrida)? According to Habermas, the first position is characteristic of modernity while the second is characteristic of “postmodernity.” More will be said below on the connection between post-structuralism and postmodernity, but suffice it to say now that in this work Habermas strongly opposes the radical critique of reason offered by post-structuralists like Derrida and Foucault.

In his chapter and excursus on Derrida in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, Habermas accuses the French philosopher of a performative contradiction: Derrida needs reason in order to undertake his “destructive” attacks on reason. Despite his critique of the logocentrism of Western thought, Derrida is unable to “extricate himself from the constraints of the paradigm of the philosophy of the subject.”8 “Earnestly pursued deconstruction,” Habermas continues,

is the paradoxical labor of continuing a tradition in which the saving energy is only renewed by expenditure: The labor of deconstruction lets the refuse heap of interpretations, which it wants to clear away in order to get at the buried foundations, mount even higher.9

Interestingly, Habermas associates Derrida in this regard with Theodor W. Adorno. Deconstruction joins with Adorno’s “negative dialectics” in a “totalizing self-critique of reason [that] gets caught in a performative contradiction since subject-centered reason can be convicted of being authoritarian in nature only be having recourse to its own tools.”10 Even an immanent critique of reason, Habermas implies, gets caught in this contradiction. His real problem with Derrida, however, is that he “does not belong to those philosophers who like to argue.”11 The perceived withdrawal by Derrida from conventional philosophical debate, Habermas believes, is detrimental to the very idea of philosophy:

if, following Derrida’s recommendation, philosophical thinking were to be relieved of the duty of solving problems and shifted over to the function of literary criticism, it would be robbed not merely of its seriousness, but of its productivity. . . . Whoever transposes the radical critique of reason into the domain of rhetoric in order to blunt the paradox of self-referentiality, also dulls the sword of the critique of reason itself.12

Does Habermas side with Searle in his claim that Derrida lacks philosophical seriousness? Or, if he does admit that Derrida is serious, does Habermas’ staunch opposition to his deconstructive method leave between them any room for rapprochement? The latter possibility may seem improbable at first, but Bouretz reconstructs aspects of their respective work during the 1980s and 90s that in fact seem to have prepared the ground for peace.

The key text in this regard is Derrida’s D’un ton apocalyptique adopté naguère en philosophie (1983), which harkens back to two articles written by Immanuel Kant in 1796 for the Berlinische Monatsschrift: “On the Recently Prominent Tone of Superiority in Philosophy” and “Proclamation of the Imminent Conclusion of a Treaty of Perpetual Peace in Philosophy.”13 Bouretz crafts his title, D’un ton guerrier en philosophie—or, “On the Warrior Tone in Philosophy”—from the constellation of these three texts. He notes that in the two articles, Kant comments somewhat uncharacteristically about styles of discourse and tonalities of philosophical debate. In response to a rising fad of mysticism in Germany at the time (probably based on the ideas of F. H. Jacobi), Kant defended the science of metaphysics and the tone of critical philosophy against esoteric mystagoguery. What bothered him about the latest brand of neo-Platonist “oracular” philosophy, whose propagators adopted a tone of intellectual “superiority,” was its lack of scientific rigor, transparency, and publicity. But after his polemic against the enemies of metaphysics, Kant asked,

now why all this quarrelling between two parties, who at bottom have one and the same good intention, namely to make men wise and honest? It is much ado about nothing, disunion through misunderstanding, needing no reconciliation, but only explanation on either side, in order to conclude a treaty which makes concord henceforth more intimate than ever.14

Does Kant imply that different philosophical means matter not so long as they are directed toward the same end, “to make men wise and honest”? It is true that his moral philosophy was one of ends rather than means, but his earlier critique of mystagoguery proves that he did not accept all means of philosophy as valid.

He elaborated on this problem in his second article. Here Kant argued that philosophy is an inherent “itch” or drive of human nature. To trifle, to philosophize, to dispute, “to squabble on behalf of one’s philosophy,” even to wage open warfare—all this is part of Nature’s “beneficent and wise arrangements . . . whereby she seeks to protect man from the great misfortune of decaying in the living flesh.”15 The necessity and finitude of physical existence is therefore counterbalanced by the infinite life of the mind. Because philosophy functions as a sort of “medicine” for humanity, it should be administered with the greatest care: “the authorities must be vigilant to see that it is qualified physicians who profess to advise what philosophy should be studied, and not mere amateurs, who thereby practice quackery in an art of which they know not the first elements.”16 A critical philosophy that focuses on the investigation of “the power of human reason” must be

ever-armed (against those who perversely confound appearances with things-in-themselves), and precisely because of this [it] unceasingly accompanies the activity of reason, offers the prospect of an eternal peace among philosophers, through the impotence, on the one hand, of theoretical proofs to the contrary, and through the strength of the practical grounds for accepting its principles on the other; a peace having the further advantage of constantly activating the powers of the subject, who is seemingly in danger of attack, and thus of also promoting, by philosophy, nature’s intention of continuously revitalizing him, and preventing the sleep of death.17

It seems that peace can only be attained once the specifically Kantian critical philosophy has leveled the playing field. But the significance of this passage is that the “peace” that Kant has in mind is an armed, vigilant peace that thrives precisely because it wakes everyone up from their dogmatic slumbers. One might even speculate that Kant envisioned a sort of unsocial sociability among philosophers, whereby repeated polemical debates would gradually induce them to stop bickering and realize their shared higher purpose.

It is unlikely that Derrida approved of Kant’s blatant teleology in these articles or of his list of the super-sensible objects of our knowledge (God, freedom, and immortality). Yet in D’un ton apocalyptique adopté naguère en philosophie, Derrida sees himself in a similar situation as Kant in 1796: the “apocalyptic tone” echoes what Kant had heard as the death knell of philosophy in amateur claims to intuitive superiority. Derrida also hears in the attacks by Searle and others a disingenuous and mean-spirited attempt to discredit him in particular and continental philosophy in general. He commends one final idea put forth by Kant, an allusion that might seem peculiar given the nature of Derrida’s work: the duty of truthfulness in philosophical discourse. According to Kant, this “tone of truthfulness,” or Redlichkeit, proscribes two kinds of lying: “1. when someone gives out as true, what he nevertheless knows to be untrue; and 2. when he gives out as certain, what he nevertheless knows himself to be subjectively uncertain of.”18 The latter possibility of exaggerated certainty appears most often, and Derrida’s sensitivity to uncertainty and différance accounts in part for his frequent use of the qualification “peut-être.” What is important however is that he seems to agree with Kant that so long as all parties act in good faith, philosophical debate will avoid turning into pointless squabbling.

Who then is the more Kantian peacemaker, Habermas or Derrida? Bouretz concentrates his analysis, which is meticulous and incisive but also rather longwinded and repetitive—the book is twice as long as it needs to be—on the first substantive moment of reconciliation between the two thinkers. In 2000, Alex Honneth and Simon Critchley organized a private seminar at Frankfurt that made such reconciliation its goal. Over the previous decade, Derrida and Habermas had met at a series of parties and dinners through mutual friends like Richard Bernstein. On the basis of these informal meetings and through further persuasion by Honneth and Critchley, the two philosophers finally agreed to meet in a more formal academic setting. The proceedings of the Frankfurt seminar have not been published (and it is unclear whether they were even recorded), but Bouretz attempts to reconstruct the discussion through a close reading of Critchley and Derrida’s advance papers and through personal interviews with Critchley. He attributes the apparent success of the meeting largely to Critchley’s opening remarks, which made it possible “to delimit a priori the points of agreement and disagreement in order to provide a well delineated space for the confrontation” (200). Apparently Critchley also lightened the mood of the proceedings by referring to the potential concord between the two philosophers as “une alliance matrimoniale” (203). The main topic of debate was justice and the ethics of responsibility. At the end of the seminar, it was clear that “a strong theoretical disagreement existed between Derrida and Habermas . . . [but the meeting] offered perhaps an example of the precise delimitation of zones of divergence and convergence that is the condition of possibility for an authentic discussion” (210). Perhaps overestimating the importance of the event, Bouretz speculates that the tone of truthfulness adopted at the Frankfurt meeting—its redlich character—“held the promise of opening a peaceful horizon in the relations between two thinkers whose war attested to a profound rupture in the philosophical consciousness of Europe” (213).

Habermas and Derrida agreed to meet again for a public discussion at the earliest opportunity, but illnesses and the September 11 attacks delayed their plan. Derrida described what had developed between them as “the story of a friendship with obstacles” (qtd., 223). Finally, the two decided that the post-9/11 political situation necessitated a meeting in New York. The meeting was successful and produced a book that was released in American and French editions.19 On May 31, 2003, the two co-authored an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and other papers, “Nach dem Krieg: Die Wiedergeburt Europas,” in which they turned the popular protest against the recent U.S.-led invasion of Iraq into an appeal to Europeans to unite in opposition to American imperialist hegemony and to reclaim Enlightenment commitments to cosmopolitan democracy and universal human rights. They published words of praise for each other over the next year, but Derrida’s death in October 2004 put an end to the developing friendship.

Was their rapprochement based on genuine philosophical agreement—even an agreement to disagree? Was the “warrior tone” of the previous thirty years replaced by a tone of truthfulness that allowed for a sort of perpetual peace among philosophers? Derrida wrote on the subject of friendship on several occasions during his later years and suggested that friends need not exist in perfect harmony. Enemies in fact might be the best of friends:

The enemy is then my best friend. He hates me in the name of friendship, of an unconscious or sublime friendship. Friendship, a “superior” friendship, returns with the enemy. There would be an enemy’s fidelity. . . . The two concepts (friend/enemy) consequently intersect and ceaselessly change places. They intertwine, as though they loved each other, all along a spiraled hyperbole: the declared enemy . . . the true enemy, is a better friend than the friend.20

Despite the fact that Habermas and Derrida became declared friends, the inimical nature of their earlier war might have already contained within it the possibility for a friendship predicated on difference (if we use Derrida’s language). Mapping friendship onto the larger contours of the crisis of European philosophical consciousness (as Bouretz tries to do), however, is a difficult matter. For instance, Derrida considered himself  “unqualified” to be the representative of any prominent philosophical tradition,21 and in surveying the sundry terrain of contemporary French philosophy—post-structuralist or otherwise—we are inclined to agree with him. Alain Badiou has described French philosophy in the second half of the 20th century as a foundational moment in Western thought on par with classical Greek philosophy circa 4th century BCE and German idealism circa 1800. He wove together thinkers as disparate as Merleau-Ponty and Derrida, Bachelard and Foucault—and, modestly, himself—into a cohesive whole worthy of world-historical recognition.22 But do phenomenology, structuralism, and post-structuralism go together so easily? In Marx Through Post-Structuralism, Simon Choat does a much better job than Badiou in making sense of the fray.

As in the skirmish recounted by Bouretz between Searle and Derrida over the interpretation of Austin, the object of debate among Choat’s protagonists was already dead. The general subject of Marx Through Post-Structuralism is the legacy of Karl Marx. Choat has three main objectives: first, to define (French) post-structuralism in such a way that redeems it from its association with “postmodernism” and the devastating critique by Anglo-American Marxists, Jürgen Habermas, and others; second, to ground a “genuinely materialist philosophy” in the problems confronted by the post-structuralists; and third, to revivify Marx as a thinker of contemporary relevance in light of his post-structuralist reinterpretations. Through his reading of Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze, Derrida, and Foucault, Choat argues that the main post-structuralist critique of Marx was that the latter’s historical materialism was prone to idealist backsliding. The idealism of Marx was manifest in his Hegelian preoccupation with “origins” and “ends,” that is, his ontological-teleological vision of human nature. Despite their many differences, the post-structuralists agreed that only an anti-humanist, anti-historicist, and anti-Hegelian Marx could contribute to a critique of present society.

Oddly enough, the central figure for Choat is neither Marx nor any of the post-structuralists, but rather Louis Althusser. Usually defined as a “structuralist,” Althusser offered an interpretation of Marx that strongly influenced Choat’s protagonists (and Choat himself). Althusser’s periodization of Marx’s work in For Marx hinged on what he called the years of the “break” circa 1845, when Marx abandoned the Left Hegelian residues of his youth and invented the new problematic of historical materialism. Rather than follow Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel, which simply inverted the idealist-materialist hierarchy of the latter without transcending it, Marx introduced the concept of “praxis” in order to reproach his former allies for ignoring that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.”23 Althusser’s emphasis on the break between the early and the late Marx did run into problems. Most notably, he ignored or at least downplayed the significance of the Grundrisse, which suggested a greater degree of continuity in Marx’s oeuvre. But Althusser’s pains to eliminate all traces of idealism in the late Marx anticipated the main difficulty faced by the post-structuralists in crafting materialist philosophies based in part on critical reappraisals of Marx: the loss of “the ability to orient critical reflection at all” (3). In other words, after destroying all forms of metaphysical idealism, they soon found themselves on the edge of a relativist abyss, lacking a solid Archimedean point from which they could effectively move (or explain) the world.

For Lyotard and Deleuze, this lack of an external critical standpoint did not seem to pose much of a problem. In fact, it hinted at the solution. In Libidinal Economy, Lyotard drew on Nietzsche and Freud to argue that human life is based on desire and that desire is a force present within capitalism itself. There is no alienation from first nature or from the products of one’s labor, only multiple “investments of desire” (in commodities, for example). Capitalism oscillates between destructive and reproductive drives, where any fulfillment of desire destroys its object, giving way to ever new desires. At first, Lyotard’s argument reads like advice on how to stop worrying and love capitalism. But according to Choat, Lyotard alluded to a critical potential for emancipation when he suggested that capitalism could collapse under the weight of “excess” desires. Taken to the extreme, capitalism might dismantle itself and give way to a new social order. Not a believer in determinate negation, Lyotard never speculated on whether post-capitalism would be “better” than its predecessor. Although he had broken with Castoriadis and the Socialisme ou barbarie group, he continued to grapple with their troubling uncertainty about what the post-capitalist future would hold: namely, socialism or barbarism.

Deleuze shared with Lyotard a commitment to an immanent critique of capitalism. Like the latter, he believed that capitalism’s demise would result from its own forces. Instead of the destructive and reproductive forces of desire, however, Deleuze focused on what he called the deterritorialization and reterritorialization of “flows.” As Marx had admitted, capitalism is a revolutionary mode of production. Its essence is flux, boundless accumulation, destruction of tradition, and constant movement. But this “deterritorialization” of capitalism is repressed, or “reterritorialized,” by cultural forces extraneous to it, like religion, the family, morality, and all manner of social institutions. Society’s artificial limits on capitalism’s revolutionary potential actually preserve it as the dominant mode of production. Counterintuitively, but in line with some of Marx’s own strategies against trade unionism, only extreme deregulation of capitalism—letting it run free—will produce the conditions for its collapse. Marx had thought that these conditions were increasing immiseration of the working class and decreasing rates of profit, but Deleuze offered a less “economic” prognosis: the erosion of old values and the creation of a qualitatively new ontology. In this regard, Deleuze read Marx through Nietzsche, who was an important figure for the development of post-structuralism as a whole.

Choat’s two other protagonists, Derrida and Foucault, were hostile to ontologies of any sort. In Specters of Marx, Derrida countered what he considered to be Marx’s ontology with a “hauntology.” “Specter” was one of Derrida’s magic words, “neither living nor dead, neither present nor absent, ‘neither soul nor body, and both one and the other’” (71). It contains within it a paradoxical différance. The central text for Derrida was The German Ideology, in which Marx began exorcizing ideological ghosts in the name of the “real relations” of production. Later, in his theory of labor value, Marx treated exchange-value as a specter somehow derivative of and subordinate to use-value. Deconstruction, however, insists that “that which is excluded as secondary or parasitic (exchange-value) in fact is always a necessary structural possibility of that which is supposedly originary and self-sufficient (use-value)” (81). Derrida was skeptical of any attempt to exorcize the Other or to affirm the identity of any concept at the expense of difference. In a more political key, then, capitalism also contains the structural possibility of its Other. While he rejected the idealist flipside of ontology—teleology—Derrida did orient his philosophy toward the future through a “messianic eschatology” (71). Philosophy for him involved a quasi-Heidegerrian openness to a future than cannot be anticipated. It is not Being that “perhaps” will arrive (pace Heidegger) but a non-religious “Messiah” that might save humanity and the world.

If that is not ambiguous enough, the potential for emancipation in Foucault’s work remained even less clear. In what might be the most important chapter of his book, Choat argues that despite Foucault’s scattered and generally negative remarks about Marx—for example, in The Order of Things, where he reduced Marx to an epiphenomenon of the bourgeois economic episteme24—he was implicitly closer to Marx than either Lyotard, Derrida, or Deleuze. Focusing on the Nietzschean genealogical turn of Discipline and Punish, Choat wants to recast Marx as a Foucauldian “historian of the present.” Reading this Nietzschean Marx back into Foucault, Choat tries to uncover the revolutionary potential of the latter’s work:

In denaturalizing the present, and in showing that history is not subject to a patient and predictable evolution, Marx hopes also to demonstrate the possibility of revolution: to show that societies are open to change—change which is often sudden and violent. Marx’s own work, profoundly politicized as it is, hopes to play a part in breeding this revolution. (112)

Through his genealogical method, Foucault demonstrated the contingency of the present, which includes the central notion of the bourgeois subject. But is demonstrating the contingency of the present enough to prove its mutability? After reading Discipline and Punish, one gets the overwhelming sense that the disciplinary regime of modern capitalism and of the administrative state is unassailable and only strengthens its position by mastering ever new areas of social life. As if in quicksand, every attempt at individual or collective resistance to the regime only pulls one down deeper under its control. Choat does acknowledge this interpretation of Foucault (122-23) and eventually steps back into a weaker position: the job of the philosopher “is not to tell us what to do but to alter our way of looking at the world in ways that may be useful for those who have already decided to resist” (123). This position begs the question, which Choat himself argues is central to post-structuralism, of whether there was any specificity at all in Foucault’s critique.

Choat’s insistence that there are many iterations of Marx—one for every interpretation—and that our task should not be to recover the “real” Marx begs another question: why should we still care at all about Marx? Or, to put it less glibly, why could Choat not abandon his attempt to resuscitate Marx and title his book instead “Post-Structuralism Through Marx”? Marx appears in his analysis of Lyotard, Deleuze, Derrida, and Foucault only as a convenient thread to tie “post-structuralism” together in a different way than do its critics, who tend to claim that post-structuralism is defined by its rejection of Marx and of any critical attitude toward capitalism. As Choat notes, Fredric Jameson, Perry Anderson, and David Harvey all associate post-structuralism as a whole with postmodernist praise for consumerism. Alex Callinicos, Terry Eagleton, and Christopher Norris associate it with political defeatism. Analytical “non-bullshit” Marxists like G. A. Cohen consider it abstract French nonsense. Jürgen Habermas, who takes a less explicitly Marxist stance, considers post-structuralism to be fundamentally anti-modern, anti-rationalist, and anti-Enlightenment. The value of Choat’s account is to unify a disparate intellectual movement not according to what it rejects (Marxist critique, modernity, reason, Enlightenment) but to what it affirms, namely, a problematically non-idealist philosophy that attempts to critique capitalist society from within. By emphasizing the critical nature of post-structuralism, Choat prepares the ground for a potential rapprochement with its enemies.

Both Bouretz and Choat’s books deal with some of the fundamental issues of contemporary Western philosophy. The legacy of the Enlightenment lurks behind debates over the deconstruction versus the reconstruction of reason, the continued value of metaphysical idealism, the universal versus the particular nature of language, and the social role of critique. Bouretz focuses on tonalities of discourse, while Choat demonstrates the utility of philosophical tradition in making sense of possible intellectual positions in the present. The basic common denominator of their protagonists is a shared commitment to critical thought. Recognizing this, both authors resort to a normative telos of rapprochement: enemies should become friends, either directly through mutual understanding or indirectly through agonistic discourse. Yet Lyotard’s differend—that situation of inequality between plaintiff and defendant, between the court of law and the person outside the law25—holds out the possibility for irreconcilable and non-productive differences.

The structures of philosophical debates determine in large part their range of possibilities. As was apparent in the 2000 Frankfurt meeting of Habermas and Derrida, the importance of personal networks (mutual friends, the persistence of Honneth and Critchley, etc.) might have outweighed any real philosophical basis for rapprochement. External circumstances, too, like 9/11 and the Iraq War, might have provided a basis for political affinity where mere intellectual affinity would not have sufficed. One could dismiss the latter point by insisting that philosophy is always already political and that there are thus no circumstances “external” to philosophy. “Peut-être,” as Derrida might say. Attention to tonalities of debate and to social structures of discourse does facilitate a more nuanced understanding of how intellectuals interact with each other, but it remains uncertain just how influential surface and structure are on the substance of philosophy itself.


  1. Simon Choat, Marx Through Post-Structuralism: Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze (London: Continuum, 2010), 207pp; Pierre Bouretz, D’un ton guerrier en philosophie : Habermas, Derrida & Co. (Paris: Gallimard, 2010), 572pp. Page references to these texts will appear hereafter in parentheses.  (back)
  2. John R. Searle, “Reiterating the Differences: A Reply to Derrida,” Glyph, Vol. 1 (1977), 198-208; Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. A. Bass (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982).  (back)
  3. Searle, “Reiterating the Differences,” 198.  (back)
  4. Ibid., 203.  (back)
  5. Ibid., Notes 3 and 4 (208).  (back)
  6. Bouretz’s corresponding bias against Searle is certainly not as bad as that of his reviewer in Libération, who describes Searle as a “cowboy, [wearing] boots and a checkered shirt,” who “speaks a French slang picked up in Parisian bistros.” Robert Maggiori, “Aux armes, théoriciens !” Libération (Jan. 13, 2011), retrieved online at http://www.liberation.fr/livres/01012313306-aux-armes-theoriciens.  (back)
  7. Jacques Derrida, “Signature Event Context,” trans. A. Bass, in Derrida, Limited Inc (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988), 1-23 (17).  (back)
  8. Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures, trans. F. G. Lawrence (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1987), 166.  (back)
  9. Ibid., 183.  (back)
  10. Ibid., 185.  (back)
  11. Ibid., 193.  (back)
  12. Ibid., 210.  (back)
  13. Jacques Derrida, D’un ton apocalyptique adopté naguère en philosophie (Paris: Galilée, 1983); Immanuel Kant, “On the Recently Prominent Tone of Superiority in Philosophy,” trans. P. Heath, in Kant, Theoretical Philosophy after 1781, ed. H. Allison and P. Heath (Cambridge UP, 2002), 425-45; “Proclamation of the Imminent Conclusion of a Treaty of Perpetual Peace in Philosophy,” trans. P. Heath, in ibid., 451-60.  (back)
  14. Kant, “On the Recently Prominent Tone,” 444.  (back)
  15. Kant, “Treaty of Perpetual Peace in Philosophy,” 453.  (back)
  16. Ibid., 454.  (back)
  17. Ibid., 455. Emphasis mine.  (back)
  18. Ibid., 459.  (back)
  19. Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, ed. G. Borradori (Univ. of Chicago Press, 2003) and  Le « concept » du 11 septembre : Dialogues à New York (octobre-décembre 2001) avec Giovanna Borradori, trans. C. Bouchinhomme and S. Gleize (Paris: Eds. Galilée, 2004).  (back)
  20. Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, trans. G. Collins (London/New York: Verso, 2005), 72.  (back)
  21. Derrida, Limited Inc, 38.  (back)
  22. Alain Badiou, “The Adventure of French Philosophy,” New Left Review, Vol. 35 (Sept.-Oct. 2005), 67-77.  (back)
  23. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd Ed., ed. R. C. Tucker (New York/London: Norton, 1978), 143-45 (145).  (back)
  24. Michael Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York: Vintage, 1994), 261-62.  (back)
  25. Jean-François Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, trans. G. Van Den Abbeele (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1988).  (back)