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.

Simone Beauvoir On Psychotherapeutic Healing As Mutilation

In Simone de Beauvoir‘s The Mandarins (WW Norton, New York, 1954; 1999, pp. 64), Anne Dubreuilh, a practicing psychoanalyst wonders:

Why does healing so often mean mutilating? What value does personal adjustment have in an unjust society?….My objective isn’t to give my patients a false feeling of inner peace; if I seek to deliver them from their personal nightmares, it’s only to make them better able to face the real problems in life.

It is a matter of some interest that Beauvoir does not place scare quotes around “real” in the passage above; given the worries about her practice that Anne has just expressed, such a distancing might well be considered appropriate.  The doubt that Anne directs at her apparent ‘healing’ of her patients is an acute one: Is the patient being ‘cured’ or merely subjected to a form of psychotherapeutic cosmetic surgery to make them fit better into the contours and constraints of an entirely unreasonable world? Their nightmares are not only of their own making; a nightmarish world should induce such visions even in our sleep. Perhaps it is the world that is out of joint, not the sufferer on the couch; but we cannot cure the world, so we cure our patients instead.

In his Listening to Prozac: A Psychiatrist Explores Antidepressant Drugs and the Remaking of the Self (Viking Press, New York, 1994), Peter Kramer had expressed a similar worry: perhaps anti-depressants were a form of chemical cosmetic surgery–“cosmetic pharmacology”–deployed to round off and smoothen the rough edges of depressed and neurotic patients, the ones that did not allow them to fit into, to conform with, the world around them. We cannot respect and cherish the oddity, the idiosyncrasy, the ‘depressed’ or ‘neurotic’ person brings with them; they do not sit comfortably with this world’s required characteristics, the attributes it has granted preeminence in its table of values. (Kramer balances these claims with a sensitive appreciation of the suffering of the depressed thus addressing the perfectly reasonable claim that some kinds of mental health situations cry out for chemical intervention if only to prevent severe harms from being visited on the patient or those around them.)

The language of ‘cosmetic pharmacology’ and ‘mutilation’ suggests then, uncomfortable resonances with the oldest feminist critique of psychiatric healing directed at women: their supposed ‘mental illness,’ their ‘hysteria,’ was an entirely appropriate response to a sexist and patriarchal world. (These critiques would find particularly pointed form in Phyllis Chesler‘s 1972 Women and Madness.) If they were mad, they had been driven so; but that madness was a divine one, for it was touched with visions that the society around them was blind to. An ‘adjustment’ to this society was to take on its madness instead; it was to participate in its ‘unjust’ structures and arrangements.

This then, was the ‘unjust society’s’ final addition of injury to insult for those who could not, would not, conform: a labeling as ‘defective,’ and a prescription for modification. Come back when you’re different and are ready to play; we’ll still be here.