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Massacre of the Innocents: Derrida and the Cambridge Dons;Waiter Benjamin Centenary; Women and the History of Philosophy; Singer Silenced; Philosophy for Children

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Massacre of the Innocents:

Derrida and the Cambridge Dons
On 21 March, at a lofty conclave of dons at Cambridge University, something happened. The matter for discussion was a list of
academic aristos to be invited to receive an honorary doctoral
degree from the Duke of Edinburgh. (Honorary degrees are
solemn rewards for those who have advanced the goals of a
university; the world record is held by Herbert Hoover, who
collected ninety.) The list included several scientists, a novelist
and a dancer; but the fly in the ointment was Jacques Derrida,
nominated by members of the English Faculty in recognition of
the energy which he has infused into literary theory over the past
twenty years.

What the English dons had forgotten was that Derrida’ s
official trade is Philosophy, not English. They had reckoned
without the fury of Cambridge’s official philosophers – a group
which, it must be admitted, had not shown many signs of life for
the past half century or so. But the prospect that Derrida might be
honoured by their university was too much for them. Four people,
led by Professor Hugh MelIor, stood up at the meeting on 21
March, and uttered the ritual shout of ‘Non placet!’ when Derrida’s
name came up. This meant that the question whether he should be
offered an honorary degree would have to be settled by a ballot of
all senior members of the university.

The ballot was to take place on 16 May, and the Cambridge
philosophers set about organising a campaign against Derrida. He
was a charlatan, a double-crosser, a traitor. The fact that the
sumptuous allusiveness of his writing is actually attractive to a
considerable public only aggravated the offence. Apparently
people had been offering £50 a ticket to hear Derrida’ slow-key
performance at the Oxford Amnesty Lectures a few weeks before
(where he had presented himself as the soul of moderation), and
this unusual popularity was also held against him. They turned
him into a kind of Mata Hari of the philosophical world: a
seductive and ambiguous entertainer whose name could be relied
on to stir old gentlemen into a lather of prurient and self-righteous
sadism.

The main plank of the campaign was a letter to The Times (9
May) signed by nineteen individuals, some noted for their work
in philosophy, and all for their self-esteem. Here is how they set
themselves up: ‘In the eyes of philosophers, and certainly those
working in leading departments of philosophy throughout the
world, M. Derrida’ s work does not meet accepted standards of
clarity and rigour.’ Professors Smith, Albert, Armstrong, Marcus,
Quine et al .were offering, in other words, a mere and meagre
argument from authority. You might have expected the selfappointed representatives of ‘the leading departments of philosophy throughout the world’ to be a bit more circumspect. If the
existence of their drab profession has any justification at all,
beyond self-satisfaction and self-perpetuation, it must be that it
provides some kind of intellectual encouragement or at least
Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992

asylum for those who may have reason to dissent from common
sense or professional intimidation. Arguments from authority,
you would have thought, are the one thing that philosophy should
never countenance at all. The professors made themselves even
more absurd because the authority to which they were appealing
was none other than – themselves. ‘We’re the masters of this
college, what we don’t know isn’t knowledge’ -that was the long
and the short of their argument.

The affair was taken up in the ‘quality’ press. Numerous
scribblers were found with the confidence, if not the competence,
to give bluffers’ guides to Derrida, and editorials brimmed with
embarrassed jocularity and innuendo about eggheads and frogs’

legs combined with a bit of everyday racism about Plucky Brits
calling the Fancy Frenchman’s Bluff. As if to clinch the matter,
they would take sentences at random from Derrida’ s work and
invite us to have a good laugh at their alien opacity.

It can hardly be denied that readers are unlikely to get much
out of reading isolated sentences from Derrida, “or indeed from
anyone much else for that matter. It is also true, no doubt, that
Derrida has published some rather slight, inflated and forgettable
pieces. But then, so did Descartes, Kant, or Bertrand Russell,
amongst others: so let them be forgotten, rather than tracked down
and brandished as if they somehow discredited all the rest. What
is certain is that Derrida has made considerable contributions to
a long and high line of Western literature. The tradition includes
Montaigne, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, and its starting point is a
fear that overweening confidence in one’s own comprehensive
rationality and humanity may – however righteous its intentions
– be in effect exclusionary, crazy and cruel.

No doubt this kind of writing has its limitations: for example,
it is inevitably self-referential and ironic in style: you cannot
consistently propose a complete ethico-philosophical system of
your own, when it is precisely the dangers of any such proposal
that you are trying to warn against. Graham McCann of super-rich
King’s College Cambridge wrote to the Times Higher Education
Supplement (15 May) to explain his opposition to Derrida. He
announced his sympathy for ‘the two teenage boys now living on
the street outside my faculty’ and asserted that Derrida, in contrast, is ‘disinterested (sic) in other people’s suffering’. Which
tends to prove the Derridean point: that self-righteous humanists
are liable to become mindlessly aggressive when their own
credentials are on the line. Dr David-Hillel Ruben, from a Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method in London
scored a similar own-goal when he wrote a sporting letter to The
Times (13 May). He boasted that ‘philosophers love a good
argument about anything’ but then said that Derrida must be
excluded because he has questioned the philosophers’ rules of
‘clear, rigorous, rational discussion’.

The Crusaders for proper professional philosophy may have
61

symbols of sweet compassion and cool reason emblazoned on
their armour, but they get pretty aggressive when they smell the
blood of a Derridean. The name of their game could be Acting the
Innocent. It is a gratifying routine which offers all players the
assurance that nothing which challenges their pride or prejudice
could possibly deserve a respectful hearing. This is how it works.

The Crusaders profess that, though they may be somewhat simple-minded, they are filled with a sincere desire to understand
what their challengers are saying. So they ask them, frankly and
apologetically, to translate their challenge into plain language.

The rest is easy. If the challengers do not paraphrase themselves
to the Crusaders’ satisfaction, they can be reviled as heathens,

charlatans and foreigners, who have refused to abide by the proper
rules of intellectual engagement. But if they do, then the Crusaders can ask with a great show of astonishment: ‘Is that all?’ The
challenge, it appears, is something everyone had always known
about: the only novelty was that it was dressed up in swanky
foreign prose. Heads I win, tails you lose.

In the event, the players of Acting the Innocent were outwitted’ and on 12 May the self-appointed guardians of philosophy
were defeated. Derrida’s invitation was confirmed by 336 votes
to 204, in an approximately 25% poll, and he collected his honour
on l3 June. The only intelligent accounts of the affair were in
Liberation (17 May) and Die Zeit (22 May).

Jonathan Ree

Waiter Benjamin Centenary
Of all the figures of the intellectual left in the febrile German
culture of the 1930s, Walter Benjamin is perhaps the one now
most closely associated with the pathos of the times. From his
almost total obscurity prior to the publication of Adorno’ s twovolume edition of his writings in 1955, Benjamin has emerged as
the most celebrated, and scrutinised, of thinkers. The appearance
in German of a selection of his letters (1966) and the sevenvolume Collected Writings (1972-89) containing (as volume 5,
1982) the materials of his great unfinished project, the PassagenWerke (Arcades Project) was accompanied by an avalanche of
secondary literature, as Benjamin’s work quickly became a battleground for more recent intellectual and political disputes.

Translations followed, albeit with the delay customary to the
complacency of English-language publishing, and a substantial
portion of Benjam in’s writings is now available in English, along
with a mounting critical literature of an unusually high standard.

Benjamin’s place in the pantheon of critical theorists is
established, yet the search for some readily transmittable essence
of his thought remains largely unrewarded. For all the exegesis of
the writings, the thought eludes summation. Captured, bespectacled, chin in hand, in the photograph by Gisele Freund which has
done so much to fix his image as the quintessential intellectual solitary, intense, Jewish, preoccupied, yet nonetheless exuding a
certain arrogance and calm- Benjamin’s downcast eyes do not so
much connote the displacement of attention from the camera to
some other object within their field of vision, as the melancholy
awareness of profounder, inexpressible truths, of history, the actuality of which were soon to overwhelm him. Frozen in the extratemporal stasis of the photographic image – a stasis that was the
model for Benjamin’s own notion of the dialectical image Benjamin is at once placed beyond our reach and produced as a
screen for the projection of a variety of current concerns – with
marginality, with language, with time, with Judaism, with the city
– which his texts are then asked, retrospectively, to authenticate,
nurturing them with the gravitas of his persona.

It is in the context of this uncomfortable combination of
familiarity and distance, assimilation and inassimilability, that
the centenary conference, Waiter Benjamin, 1892-1940, held at
Birkbeck College, London, 16th -18th July, derives its interest as
a snapshot of the current state of the reception of Benjamin’s
work in the English-speaking world. Twelve papers over three
days, all in plenary sessions, with a range of speakers from
Germany, the USA and the UK, suggested that a sustained
engagement with the vexed issue of Benjam in ‘s contemporaneity
was in store. If this engagement never quite happened, it was
nonetheless a highly stimulating and occasionally intriguing
experience.

The papers were broadly of two types (with the inevitable

62

exceptions): sophisticated academic interpretations of specific
themes in Benjamin’ s work, without much direct consideration of
the contribution of Benjamin’s treatment of these themes to
current political debates; and more or less ambitious attempts to
chart Benjamin’s contemporary significance, within which the
interest of the readings of Benjamin on offer was generally in
inverse proportion to the directness of its application. As a whole,
the conference may thus be seen to have staged a dilemma in the
interpretation of Benjamin’s work in the form of a contradiction
between the textual and practical adequacy of its various readings:

a contradiction that gradually became more apparent as the
conference progressed.

Of the more academic papers, three stood out. First was Sigrid
W eigel ‘s ‘From Gender Images to Dialectical Images’ – for me,
one of the highlights of the conference. Based primarily upon a
reading of the little known early work ‘Metaphysics of Youth’

(1913), it traced the positioning of female figures in the
development of Benjam in’s writing in terms of a moveinent from
the side of the ‘other’ (silence) to the threshold between dreaming
and awakening – Benjamin’ s central metaphor for the elucidation
of historical consciousness – through a comparison of the roles of
the prostitute and the whore, within which, it was argued, women
gradually come to represent what is present in the form of the
repressed and forgotten within modernity; rather than a purely
negative, internal limit to representation as such. They thereby
become a privileged site for allegory, whereby the imaginary
structure of representation is dispersed from within. Thus, while
Benjamin’s earliest writings position women within language
only by negation, in a way directly comparable to the analyses of
Kristeva and Irigary (‘Language denies women their souls’,
Benjamin writes at one point), the later work was seen to make
them central. The movement of reversal at work here in the
allegorical deconstruction of the image (privileging the repressed,
distorted and forgotten), central to Benjamin’s concept of the
dialectical image, was presented by Weigel as the distinctive
product of a preoccupation with the polarities of gender.

Second was Gillian Rose’s characteristically idiosyncratic
‘Walter Benjamin – Out of the Sources of Modem Judaism’,
which extracted a theological interpretation of fascism as ‘the evil
of liberation from law without God’ from The Origin of
Trauerspiel, and more or less deduced the ‘spirit of fascism’ from
the immanent development of Protestant thought.

Finally, Andrew Benjamin offered a comparison of
Benjamin’s and Heidegger’s work on historical time by reducing the presence of the Messiah in Benjamin’s writings to the
status of a figure within an attempt to articulate an ‘ontology of
the event’, on the basis of a demonstration of the impossibility
of redemption.

Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992

extending Benjamin’ s notion of shock into a full-blown neurological concept of modernity characterised by a ‘synaesthetic
system’ within which the asetheticisation of politics has outlived
fascism to become the narcotic norm of everyday life; the latter
through some desultory, but highly pertinent, remarks on the
Theses on the Philosophy of History as a model ‘only for an
interruption, never for a curriculum’ . Distanced as we are from the
‘terrible simplification’ of the conjuncture of 1940, Wohlfarth
argued, we need a political redefinition of the present out of which
we write if we are to begin to appropriate Benjamin’ s critique of
historicism for a living politics. Once more, however, as at certain
points earlier in the conference, it was the spectral presence of
theology, Benjamin’s ‘wizened dwarf’ ,that made room for doubt
about the feasibility of the whole enterprise.

If Buck-Morss’s paper was the strongest affirmation of the
potential of Benjamin’s thought for a contemporary cultural
criticism which has not forsaken the big issues of commodification
and aestheticisation, Wohlfarth’ s was its salutary companion.

And if the issue of the contemporaneity of Benjamin’s thought
was never completely satisfactorily addressed, this was in one
sense a tribute of its own to what was perhaps Benjamin’s most
enduring theme: what he once described as the ‘falling ill’ of
tradition, and the difficulties of replacing it with new forms of
collective experience capable of securing a mode of continuity
with the past that can form the basis for a liberated future.

Peter Os borne

Falling most clearly into my second category (with the
exception of Terry Eagleton’s ‘Benjamin and Ireland’, which
took relevance to the point of almost failing to refer to Benjamin
at all, whilst offering a clearly historicist history of Ireland as an
alternative) were Janet Wolff’s dissection of ‘The Equivocal
Appeal ofWalter Benjamin for Contemporary Cultural Studies’

– from which I have borrowed the theme of the iconic status of
Freund’s photograph (above) ; Julian Roberts ‘s ‘Constructi vism,
Melancholy and Architecture’, in which another highly idiosyncratic intelligence was put to work – Rose and Roberts, one is
tempted to suggest, are the tom halves of an idiosyncracy of the
intellect; and Axel Honneth’ s ‘Moral Functon of Magic Experience’, in which the Habermasian categories of communication
and intersubjectivity were deployed to translate Benjamin’ s work
into a moral philosophy so as to compensate for its allegedly
inherent lack of either theoretical or political contemporaneity.

Each offered illuminating in sights into their respective topics,
yet, one felt, without ever really getting a grip on the distinctive
theoretical structure of Benjamin’s work. Wolff’s paper was
followed by an exchange with Sigrid Weigel over the feminist
critique and/or appropriation of Benjamin’s work which hi~h­
lighted the contrast between the two approaches. Thus, whIlst
Wolff reiterated her much cited gender critique of thej7tlneur (‘the
invisible flaneuse ‘) , Weigel insisted on the historical objectivity
of the gender content of Benjamin’s account, and suggested that
it is more productive for feminists to appropriate Benjamin’s
interpretive procedures for gender criticism.

If, in the course of the papers described so far we had had
‘Benjamin and .. .’ the Borgesian list of Feminism, Judaism,
Philosophy, Cultural Studies, Architecture & Habermas, it was
left to Susan Buck-Morss, author of what is probably the best
book on Benjamin in English (The Dialectics of Seeing: Waiter
Benjamin and the Arcades Project, MIT, 1989) and Irving
Wohlfarth (editor of the Benjamin special issue of New German
Critique, no.39, Fall 1986) to restore the political context to
Benjamin’s thought: the former through an illustrated tour deforce,
Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992

Women and the
History of Philosophy
The eighth annual conference of the British Society for the
History of Philosophy was held at Girton College, Cambridge in
April. Its theme was ‘Women and the History of Philosophy:

Genre, Canon, Audience’ . There were papers on individuals such
as Elena Tarabotti, Catharine Trotter, Edith Simcox, George
Eliot, Queen Christina, Anna Wheeler, Mary Wollstonecraft, Sor
Juana Ines de la Cruz, and Catherine Macaulay, as well as on
general themes about canonicity and philosophy’s audienc~.

Speakers had evidently heeded a request from the orgamsers
that, beyond unearthing forgotten philosophical women, the
conference should consider more general issues: whether some
conceptions of philosophy were more hospitable to women than
others; whether philosophy is more hostile to women than other
disciplines; whether the study of woman philosophers throws up
problems for received approaches to the history of philosophy;
and several more.

The papers were excellent, and the discussions unusually
wide-ranging and open-minded. Perhaps this was because four
out of five of the participants were women – roughly the reverse
of the customary sex-ratio at philosophy conferences. This was
one of the rare occasions when the BSHP has tried to fulfil its
founding aims, which included cooperation with other disciplines, reappraisal of the canon, and raising methodological and
historiographical questions about the nature of philosophy. The
Society will revert to its usual form for its next major conference,
on George Berkeley, in Oxford in July 1993. Anyone wishing to
join the Society should write to Beverley Southgate, Hatfield
Polytechnic, Wall Hall Campus, Aldenham, Herts WC2 8AT,
England.

Jonathan Ree
63

concerns posed by applied ethics with the
Nazi programmes of eugenics, and the
murder of many thousands of disabled
people. But Singer notes a ‘peculiar tone
of fanaticism about some sections of the
Peter Singer, leading light in the field of German debate over euthanasia that goes
applied ethics and notable campaigner on . beyond normal opposition to Nazism, and
behalf of animals, has recently been instead begins to seem like the very mendrawing the attention of English-speaking tality that made Nazism possible’.

philosophers to a new expression of inThere are, however, parallels with
tolerance in Germany, Switzerland and disruptions of lectures carried out by UK
Austria. Apparently, disruptive action by left groups not so long ago under the sloprotesters at the University of Hamburg
gan ‘ No platform for Racists’ . Singer does,
secured the cancellation of a lecture by Dr indeed, agree that there would be wide
Anton Leist, a shortlisted candidate for a support for some restrictions on free speech,
new chair in applied ethics. His name was e.g., in banning incitement to racial hatred
subsequently removed from the shortlist. – and he distinguishes defence of the
Singer says that he has, himself, been principle that views should not be supunable to lecture openly in any ofthe three pressed from the right to express those
countries since 1989, whilst courses based views in particular ways and in particular
on a translation of his Practical Ethics
times and places. Reasoned and respectful
have been persistently disrupted. He also debate, he thinks, is the way to come to
cites the cancellation of one international terms with Germany’s Nazi past – not
conference, and the transfer of another sloganising and disruption. (See P. Singer,
from Germany to the Netherlands because
‘A German Attack on Applied Ethics’,
of threats of disruption or objections to the Journal ojAppliedPhilosophy, Vol. 9,No.

participation of some of the invited
1, 1991, pp. 85-91.)
speakers.

Ted Denton
The objections are not to Singer’s advocacy of extending the circle of moral
concern to non-human animals, but rather
to his reasoned defence of euthanasia in
certain circumstances. Indeed, for some of
the objectors, it is not the position on this
issue taken by Singer and other practitioners
of applied ethics which causes offence, but The International Council of Philosophithe attempt to discuss the issue at all.

cal Inquiry with Children (lCPIC) ConSinger notes that these objections come, ference was held in June at Graz in Austria.

not as might be expected in the EnglishAttended by about 200 participants from
speaking countries from Conservative and over 26 countries, this gathering marks the
religious quarters, but from an alliance of growth over the last twenty years of the
campaigning groups of the disabled,
teaching of philosophy at school.

feminists, and some groups on the left.

At this year’s conference issues were
Clearly these groups are associating the
discussed ranging from the philosophical

Singer
Silenced

Philosophy
for Children

underpinnings, the evaluation and the implementation of philosophy for children,
and the training of teachers to environmental ethics and the first ever feminism
and philosophy for children seminar.

Prof. Mathew Lipman founded a programme in philosophy for children at the
Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State College,
New Jersey, USA. Since 1970 curriculum
materials for kindergarten to final year
have been developed in the form of a set of
‘novels’ (such as Harry Stottlemeier’s
Discovery) accompanied by substantial
teachers’ manuals explaining the leading
philosophical ideas likely to be raised by
readers and providing a variety of discussion plans and exercises for use in the
classroom.

In the classroom, these ‘novels’

stimulate discussion in the context of a
community of inquiry, in which the pupils
raise their own questions, set the agenda
for discussion and share their ideas together.

The pedagogical process is pupil oriented
rather than teacher centred. The fundamental insight of Philosophy for Children
is that overladen curricula leave little space
for children to explore their own and others’ ideas. The community of inquiry
provides a locus for critical and creative
thinking as well as the examination of the
big questions in philosophy which fascinate
kids.

Those interested in the teaching of
philosophy in schools should contact:

IAPC, Montclair State College,
Upper Montclair,
New Jersey, 07043
USA

San MacColl

ERRATA
Due to teething problems with changes in our production
system, a number of errors found their way into RP 61. In
particular, two lines were omitted from the penultimate
paragraph of Gregory Elliott’s ‘A Just War?’, on p.13. The
third sentence ofthe paragraph in question should have read
as follows: ‘One salutary effect on the real Gulf War was to
remind us of something fashionably reviled as ‘essentialism’

by those for whom life is not a recurrent emergency: i.e., the
existence of human needs which are universal (trans-historical and cross-cultural) and objective (rooted in nature
common to homo sapiens), and upon whose satisfaction,
whatever its precise modality, human beings are dependent
for survival and hence any conceivable well-being.’

There were also a number of smaller errors in Wal
Suchting’s ‘Reflections Upon Roy Bhaskar’s “Critical Re-

64

alism”’. Wal Suchting has asked us to draw readers’ attention
to the following:

p.26, col.2, line 22: For ‘producers of production’ read
‘process of production’;
p.27, col.2, 28 lines from the bottom: For ‘of the transcendental’ read ‘of that the transcendental’;
p.28, col.2, 31 lines from the bottom: For ‘(CN-2_’ read
‘(CN-2)’;
p.28, col.2, 26 lines from the bottom: For ‘restructures/’

read ‘structures/’;
p.29, line 13: For ‘instances in’ read ‘instances of;
p.30, co12, line 12: For’substanctive’ read ‘substantive’, and
delete the question marks which follow;
p.31, col.2, lines 3 & 30: For ‘Bihme’ read ‘Bohme’;
p.31, col.2, line 7: For ‘1713’ read ‘171e’.

Radical Philosophy 62, Autumn 1992

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