I think Derrida is on the side of Matthew Arnold in Arnold's following castigation of the philistine version of a morality of literalness, despite what many (if not most) think about him--namely, that his entire injunction is to take the use of words seriously, to be unimpeachable in what one says. This is precisely wrong. Derrida wants us to be responsible for "our" text--which is infinitely different than taking it seriously or trying to remain unimpeachable or politically correct. And I put this "our" in quotes because this responsibility is precisely constituted by considering this text to be always ours and yet always already, in its being ours, beyond ourselves in its effects and even in its constitution. Thus, Derrida would reply in the voice of Arnold to those who think responsibility is not precisely located in the infinite demand a text makes upon me, a reader, but rather a matter of somehow thinking the words I use are ethical only insofar as they are weighed or treated (only) literally: responding to a critic (Mr. Wright) who castigated Arnold for saying that Wright's translation of Homer "had no proper reason for existing," Arnold says that,
Sunday, March 2, 2008
the phrase had, perhaps, too much vivacity; we have all of us a right to exist, we and our works; an unpopular author should be the last person to call in question this right. So I gladly withdraw the offending phrase, and I am sorry for having used it; Mr Wright, however, would perhaps be more indulgent to my vivacity, if he considered that we are none of us likely to be lively much longer. My vivacity is but the last sparkle of flame before we are all in the dark, the last glimpse of colour before we all go into the drab,--the drab of the earnest, prosaic, practical, austerely literal future. Yes, the world will soon be the Philistines! and then, with every voice, not of thunder, silenced, and the whole earth filled and ennobled every morning by the magnificent roaring of the young lions of the Daily Telegraph, we shall all yawn in one another's faces with the dismallest, the most unimpeachable gravity.
-Preface to Essays in Criticism, 1865.
This, I think, is the sentiment underlying the unbelievable (and too vicious) attack of Derrida upon the two graduate students at Columbia in Critical Inquiry in the early 90's. This is, indeed, is the spirit in which he says we wage a war on doxa in his last interview. Indeed, these are instances in which Derrida is expressing things as clumsily as Arnold's original comment. But if they offend, for Derrida they should offend through a reading of him, rather than a mere pointing out of a fault. I'm not defending Derrida or Arnold here, either: I just think they share perhaps a more similar spirit than we are used to thinking.