Foucault/Derrida Fifty Years Later: The Futures of Genealogy, Deconstruction, and Politics. Columbia University Press , and
The Last Word: Reviving the Dying Art of Eulogy. Coach House Books
Julia Cooper’s beautifully written book is both a personal meditation on the death of her mother and a literary essay on eulogy, “a particularly vexed form.” Using examples from theory, fiction, and popular culture, Cooper takes us on a journey to explore a troubled and troubling ancient ritual. She starts out with Princess Diana’s funeral, an exercise in a normative Englishness destined to downplay her otherness. The recuperation of a wayward “people’s princess” is deconstructed in detail, including the eulogy by her brother and Elton John’s rehashing of a song written for Marilyn Monroe. Cooper gets the book off to a roaring start under her ever-critical eye for inconsistency, intellectual sloppiness, and bad faith. Later we are not surprised to come across Four Weddings and a Funeral and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, not to mention the deaths of David Bowie and Prince.
Cooper is good at showing how late capitalism and positive thinking recuperate grieving or simply make it impossible. She could have done more with the political side of things. I am thinking of the elaborate role-playing that immediately takes over after a public tragedy such as a mass shooting. The eulogies that follow serve as elaborate cover-ups of the chaotic absurd that underpins societies that cannot bear to see their constituent (and constitutional) weaknesses laid bare. There is an economic dimension to this—the funeral and gun industries—but the eulogy is also a way for the political doxa to quickly reaffirm its hegemony. Clichés make grief palatable; they also set to rights anyone who grieves too loudly or too long. Such was the message of Antigone, with whose protagonist Cooper identifies. Grieving on Twitter is the subject of prescient pages: “When death starts trending, we witness information capitalism in action.” This goes back to the telegraph lines that communicated the news of Lincoln’s assassination. Among the most poignant pages are those about Roland Barthes’ grief for his mother in both Camera Lucida and Mourning Diary. Barthes wrote in the shadow of Proust, who deserves a mention here, although Cooper’s comments on grief and time have a definitely Proustian echo to them. This is a lucid, unflinching, and resolutely honest work. Cooper refuses the finality of mourning, for, as she states, “I don’t want to relinquish my dead.”
Foucault/Derrida Fifty Years Later, a collection of scholarly essays, stands in sharp contrast to Cooper’s personal and scholarly opus. Reprising an old philosophical argument about Foucault’s use—or misuse, according to Derrida—of Descartes in three pages (out of 673) in his History of Madness, this is an exhaustive approach to a specific quarrel and a more general discussion of the two theorists. The collection largely avoids the two Frenchmen’s writing styles and their critical reception, as well as their influences on subsequent theory, whether it be women’s, queer, or cultural studies. I wonder if the best way to approach the quarrel might be not intellectual history but fiction, just as Foucault demonstrated an uncanny ability to illustrate his research questions in his quasi-novelistic openings, such as the beautiful pages on the ship of fools. Derrida was right that the History of Madness “did not ask explicitly enough questions about the very possibility of its own writing.” But the quarrel turned into a “dialogue de sourds” between theorists using different methodologies; Derrida’s was based on the explication de texte, whereas Foucault’s was grounded in historical research. The essays are somewhat uneven and there are repetitions, but four stood out for me. Lynne Huffer’s contribution does real justice to Foucault’s “archival thinking,” whereas Michel Naas points out that Derrida went to the heart of the greater philosophical issue of “where meaning becomes possible.” Penelope Deutscher detects a Foucauldian bent to Derrida’s late work on animality and the death penalty. And Samir Haddad tackles Foucault’s biting accusation that Derrida’s method was a “petty pedagogy.” The idea that a “philosophy of teaching is hiding behind Derrida’s critique of Foucault” is a pertinent insight that deserves more research. I wish that the editors had steered some of their contributors toward Derrida’s and Foucault’s accomplishments as writers (not just as thinkers), theory rock stars, and breathing, loving men whom we still mourn.