The theatrics of Baltimore raise another important point, and one that’s emerged since. To put it bluntly: How much was pure sham, pure preening and ego jousting? At times, the mimetic rivalries and derivative desires seemed to be a showcase for the very principles Girard’s Deceit, Desire, and the Novel describes.
The American philosopher John Searle excoriated Derrida, insisting,
You can hardly misread him, because he’s so obscure. Every time you say, “He says so and so,” he always says, “You misunderstood me.” But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that’s not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste . . . And I said, “What the hell do you mean by that?” And he said, “He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying, that’s the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.”
Not everyone, of course, agrees with this reading—though many have criticized Derrida for his byzantine writing, with its italics, its phrases in phantom quotation marks, and its dizzying wordplay. Girard himself clearly felt respect, as well as dismay, for his colleague. Girard himself, although dismayed by the deconstructive frenzy Derrida wrought, clearly had respect for his colleague as well. In particular, he wrote and spoke admiringly of Derrida’s early essay, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” which anticipated his own insights in some respects.
To some extent, Searle’s criticism reflects the porous divide between analytic and continental philosophy, and the former still dominates the American intellectual landscape and our public discourse. Speaking very roughly, analytic philosophy focuses on analysis—of thought, language, logic, knowledge, mind; continental philosophy focuses on synthesis—synthesis of modernity with history, individuals with society, and speculation with application. Anglo-American philosophy has emphasized the former; mainland Europe the latter. Searle is aligned with the analytic camp; so is linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, one of America’s leading public intellectuals.
Chomsky called Lacan a “total charlatan” posturing for the television cameras, charging that “there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t,” he said.
Searle’s and Chomsky’s critique is part of the American opposition that began in the 1980s, continuing the philosophical school of “American pragmatism” that looks for ideas to deliver some intellectual payoff. American pragmatists have been called “the plumbers of philosophy”—they attempt to solve problems, not provide elegant and clever descriptions of problems.
Perhaps questions should be practical, too. Sometimes a single naive question can bring down an entire edifice of thought. Let me extend a few naive questions, then, in that spirit: How is a philosophy embodied in the man who espouses it? What is a philosophy that does not change a man—not only what he says, but how he lives? How does a man’s being—the sum of his knowledge, experience, and will—“prove” his knowledge? Can we ever devise a philosophy, even a theory, wholly apart from who we are, and what we must justify? These questions were raised in earnest when Heidegger’s affiliation with the Nazis, and later Paul de Man’s complicity with them, were revealed. What does the test of time show us about the merits of an idea? However heated the arguments in the Parisian coffee shops, in the end, decades later, they would become systems of thought characterized by wordplay, mind games, and a noncombatant’s flexibility, charm, and elasticity—all delivered with an ironic wink.