Derrida And Beauvoir On The ‘Powerless,’ ‘Not Bothersome’ Intellectual

In ‘The Ends of Man,’ (from After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, eds. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, MIT Press, 1987, pp. 129), Jacques Derrida writes:

It would be illusory to believe that political innocence has been restored and evil complicities undone when opposition to them can be expressed in the country itself, not only through the voices of its citizens but also through those of foreign citizens, and that henceforth diversities, i.e., oppositions, may freely and discursively relate to one another. That a declaration of opposition to some official policy  is authorized, and authorized by the authorities, also means, precisely to that extent, that the declaration does not upset the given border, is not bothersome.

As I had noted here a while ago, some writers–political dissidents by design or accident–find out just how talented they are precisely because the powers that be find them ‘bothersome’ and act accordingly to reduce such disturbances. The rest of us have to chug along, our peace and quiet ensured by our mediocrity, by  our inability to stir the hornets’ nest. Insofar as the freedoms of expression are made available by the powerful, they are carefully circumscribed by the troubles they generate. Insecure, anxious regimes lash out blindly and often stupidly, stirring up the depths, roiling the waters; the secure, the assured, the carefully propped up, the ideologically protected, they do not need to act with such haste and panic. They may grandly, with regal authority, with a wave of an outstretched hand, permit the parades of loud and visible disobedience and dissidence to march on, knowing they can and will do little harm. More to the point, such indulgence grants them the air of enlightenment, one to be carefully cultivated by future displays of ersatz concern for civil liberties.

On a related note, at one point in  The Mandarins (WW Norton, New York, 1954; 1999, Simone de Beauvoir (or, rather her alter-ego, Anne Dubreuilh) thinks the following about her American character Lewis Brogan (in real life, Nelson Algren):

All in all, he was practically in the same position as Robert [Dubreuilh] and Henri [Perron], but he reconciled himself to it with a calm bordering on the exotic. Writing, speaking on the radio and occasionally at meetings to denounce some abuse or other satisfied him fully. Yes, I had once been told that here [in America] intellectuals could live in security because they knew they were completely powerless.

That caustic summary of the relationship between the American intellectual and the political systems which pay host to him or her is tinged with a characteristic French disdain for most things American–and perhaps a personally inflected bite as well in Beauvoir’s case–but Beauvoir’s remark is still perspicuous. The ‘critical’ American intellectual is simply not, because of his or her location in culture and its ‘business,’ placed to make dramatic or radical changes in the polity. The ‘real’ cultural, political, and financial power is wielded elsewhere; its face is most dramatically visible when the critical intellectual does dare to make an actually threatening move or two. The fate of whistleblowers reminds us of this grim fact quite frequently.

Foucault On ‘Blackmail Serving To Limit The Exercise Of Criticism’

In ‘Questions of Method: An Interview with Michel Foucault‘ (from After Philosophy: End or Transformation?, eds. Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman, and Thomas McCarthy, MIT Press, 1987, pp. 114), Foucault responds to the question of whether his writings in Discipline and Punish had an ‘anaesthetizing effect’ on ‘social workers in prisons’:

Paralysis isn’t the same thing as anaesthesis…It’s insofar as there’s been an awakening to a whole  series of problems that the difficulty of doing anything comes to be felt….’what is to be done’ ought not to be determined from above by reformers, be they prophetic or legislative, but by a long work of comings and goings, of exchanges, reflections, trials, different analyses. If the social workers you are talking about don’t know which way to turn, this just goes to show they are looking, and hence not anaesthetized or sterilized at all….And it’s because of the need not to tie them down or immobilize them that there can be no question for me trying to tell them, “what is to be done.” If the questions posed by the social workers you spoke of are going to assume their full amplitude, the most important thing is not to bury them under the weight of prescriptive, prophetic discourse. The necessity of reform musn’t be allowed to become a form of blackmail serving to limit, reduce, or halt the exercise of criticism. Under no circumstances should one pay attention to those who tell you, “Don’t criticize, since you are not capable of carrying out reform.” That’s ministerial cabinet talk. Critique doesn’t have to the premises of a deduction that concludes: This then is what needs to be done. It should be an instrument for those who fight, those who resist and refuse what is. Its use should be in the processes of conflict and confrontation, essays in refusal. It doesn’t have to lay down the law for the law. It isn’t a stage in programming. It is a challenge directed to what is.

In the long and dishonorable list of Cliched Reactions to Political Protest and Critique, the kneejerk “but where is your positive theory?” must rank as among the worst. This form of ‘keep talking while I stick my fingers in my ears’ political theater serves several vital functions: most importantly, it instantiates and facilitates political paralysis even as it renders that accusation at the critic. As a piece of political ju-jitsu, despite being so bald-faced about its deceptions and disingenuousness, it has proved remarkably effective over the years: very little radical political critique can escape the charge of being ‘destructive’ in its formulations. But as Foucault points out, the ‘awakening’ it brings in its wake has to have its future direction determined, not on the basis of self-serving assessments of the critique, but by the opportunities it presents for further ‘conflict and confrontation,’ a process that has to be pitched at that level for long enough before anything will give. To cease and desist the critique in the face of the imperative to offer ‘positive theory,’ to smoothen its harsh edges, is to play the game of reaction, to succumb to ‘blackmail serving to limit…the exercise of criticism.’