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Voweling the Unvowelable or: How Derrida Wasted Four Hours of My Time

One of the great things about UCSB--aside from the girls, the drinking, the beach, the partying, the freedom, the library and the academic learning, in that order--is the Arts and Lectures program.

Through the A&L program, I saw performances by Herbie Hancock, Etta James and Bobby McFerrin. I listened to readings from Michael Chabon and Peter Matthiessen. I heard lectures by Eric Schlosser (who asked the room how many people had smoked pot, then everyone raised their hands) and Vandana Shiva. I saw my first Hiyao Miyazaki movie at Campbell Hall. In downtown Santa Barbara, I listened Colin Powell shrug off the missing WMDs. (As the Santa Barbara Independent explained, “You might have thought he was explaining how he returned some DVDs to the wrong video shop.”)

And then I saw Derrida.

That’s right, Jacques Derrida, a philosopher so famous, I only need to write his last name...unless you don’t follow post-war philosophy, in which case, Derrida is the king of postmodern continental philosophy--the creator/un-creator of Deconstruction. When Colin Powell came, the two hours line to get tickets stretched hundreds of people long. Knowing Derrida’s popularity and preeminence in his field, I went early to get tickets. I didn’t want to miss out the way so many had with General Powell.

I was the only person in line.

But what my fellow college students didn’t know, the senior faculty at UCSB did. The night of his lecture, Derrida had three introductions (three!), including one from UCSB’s Chancellor Henry Yang. Almost every senior faculty member attended the lecture and Stephen Hawking (Stephen Hawking!) sat in the front row. Jacques Derrida is a big fricking deal.

Most excitingly, Derrida planned to talk about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Could there be a bigger, more important topic for a bigger, more momentous speaker?

I went to the lecture with a friend who was a graduate student in philosophy (analytic philosophy). As luck (cruel, cruel luck) would have it, as soon as my friend and I found seats in the auditorium, the TA from my Environmental Ethics class saw me, and took a seat right next to me. More on this later.

So after the introductions, Derrida took the stage. Old but not frail, he began his lecture in a thick French accent by warning the audience, “We must never forget what it means to vowel. And vowel-ing the unvowel-able.”

Now, I knew going in Derrida would be impenetrable--it’s kind of his thing; when Derrida died, The New York Times obituary described him as “abstruse” in the headline--but this impenetrable? What the hell do vowels have anything to do with Israel and Palestine? Would we have to consonant the un-consonant next?
A few minutes later, I realized Derrida was talking about vows, and how we need to vow the un-vow-able. So I stopped paying attention, pleased that I had a good anecdote to share with people later. (To be fair, the “vowing the unvowable” sentiment is as equally meaningless as “voweling the unvowelable”.)

I wasn’t alone; about thirty minutes into the lecture, the students relegated to the back of Campbell Hall headed for the doors. I’d have joined them, too, but like I wrote earlier, my TA was sitting right next me. I didn’t want him to be grading one of my papers thinking, “This ass walked out on Derrida. What does he know about environmental ethics?”

On the walk home four hours later--it may have been less; it felt like four hours--my friend summed up the lecture neatly, “I was really hoping Derrida would have something insightful to say. He didn’t.” And my friend, a graduate student in real philosophy, paid attention to the lecture.

To bring this back around to On Violence, Derrida didn’t say anything meaningful. I get that he’s a got a post-structuralist philosophy to uphold and years of intentionally vague and contradictory writing to push, but Derrida wasted everyone’s time in that building. Eight years on, people are still dying on the Gaza Strip, and one of Western civilization’s “greatest” philosophers couldn’t say anything remotely coherent or useful on the topic.

Listen to this Philosophy Bites episode on the importance of philosophers in everyday life and political debates; I couldn’t agree more. Philosophers have a place in the world, not just writing obscure philosophical tomes or debating each other at lonely philosophy conferences. They don’t just have the opportunity but the obligation to make the world a better place, especially when people are dying. Philosophers should try, to the best of their ability, to inspire non-professionals to read their ideas and spread those ideas to the larger world. Again, especially if people are dying.
Derrida wasted his chance. Instead of offering a solution, he offered aphorisms. Instead of ideas, he pointed out contradictions. Instead of thinking of something new and useful, Derrida offered philosophical insights like, “...although Israelis and Palestinians are not living together peacefully, they are still living together.”

And thoughts like these don’t help at all.

three comments

I am still pleased that Eric took a class on environmental ethics. Between that and my class on the History of Electronic Dance Music (probably the class I retained the most knowledge of all my classes) the liberal arts education is alive and well.

BTW, UCSB just got ranked the #41 school in the country today. Go Gauchos!