In 1966 Jacques Derrida gave a lecture at Johns Hopkins University that confused much of his audience. Afterwards, in a Q&A session, one member of the audience asked what Derrida’s argument was “tending toward.” Derrida replied, “I was wondering myself if I know where I am going. So I would answer you by saying, first, that I am trying, precisely, to put myself at a point so that I do not know any longer where I am going.”
There are very good reasons for thinkers or artists to try to position themselves so that they don’t know where they are going. They may perceive that a particular discourse—a certain set of debates, arguments, declarations—has become exhausted; that participants in that discourse are merely rehashing the same old positions in the same old ways. (Anyone who has spent any time on social media in the past decade or so will recognize the feeling.)
But when you determine not to rehash the same argument, when you commit yourself to evading the conventional arguments and positions, when you strike out for unknown territory, several possibilities may emerge … and not all of them are desirable.
The most likely eventuality is that you will simply restate those same old arguments, if perhaps in slightly different costume. (Our cognitive environment with its well-fortified plausibility structures is stronger than most of us think.) But then, perhaps by leaving the beaten path and exploring genuinely new territory, you will find fertile new ground – you will blaze a trail for others. Or maybe your trail will be so new, so original, so radically different that no one will be able to follow you. But they can admire you.
Richard Rorty, in his seminal book Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, distinguishes between two kinds of “revolutionary” philosophers: “On the one hand,” he says, “there are revolutionary philosophers … who see the incommensurability of their new vocabulary with the old as a temporary inconvenience, to be blamed on the shortcomings of their predecessors and to be overcome by the institutionalization of their own vocabulary.” They expect that the trail they have blazed will soon be followed by others. “On the other hand, there are great philosophers who dread the thought that their vocabulary should ever be institutionalized, or that their writing might be seen as commensurable with the tradition. Edmund Husserl and Bertrand Russell (like Descartes and Kant) are of the former sort. The later Ludwig Wittgenstein and the later Martin Heidegger (like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche) are of the latter sort.”
So—among those who put themselves where they do not know where they are going—one can wrongly believe oneself to be radically original; or one can genuinely be radically original in ways that others can follow; or one can be radically original in ways that no one else should or can follow.
But there is one more possibility: One can be a charlatan. The word charlatan comes from the Italian ciarlatano—a babbler. One can leave the path of common sense only in order to talk nonsense. It is telling, I think, that the more radical revolutionary philosophers, in Rorty’s scheme, are the ones most often accused of being charlatans. For everyone who thinks that Nietzsche or Wittgenstein or Heidegger has revolutionized philosophy, there are probably two or three who think them philosophically worthless—who think them mere babblers. Whatever the quality of their work, they remain extravagant—in the etymological sense: those who wander beyond the usual boundaries.
These debates raise important questions in philosophy, but they apply in the arts as well, and I am thinking of them because Jean-Luc Godard has died, by assisted suicide, at the age of 91.
J. Hoberman claims that “There are more ideas about more things in any five minutes of Godard’s latest opus, Goodbye to Language, than in the year’s five next most intelligent movies combined”—which may be true; I won’t argue—but the more important point is that Godard’s ideas are bad. They are superficial, commonplace, simplistic, undigested. Why do we condemn prostitution when our entire culture is prostitution? (See Vivre sa Vie.) The bourgeoisie cannot make culture; they can only tour its ruins. (See Weekend and Film Socialism—the same message in movies filmed four decades apart.) Linear narrative is how we reinscribe capitalism. (See the last forty years of his career.) America is the world’s greatest force for evil. (See almost every movie he ever made.) For almost the whole of his career Godard sacrificed his considerable visual imagination to those simplistic ideas.
Or so I think. This is not the place for me to make my case against Godard. I just want to call attention to two really interesting points about these “revolutionary” figures, these thinkers and artists who manage to put themselves where they don’t know where they are going. First: You either get them or you don’t. It is simply impossible to imagine how anyone who loves Godard’s films could be persuaded that they are inept. And it is almost as difficult to conceive of someone, like me, who is bored and/or repelled by Godard’s films to see them as works of genius. (The two conditions are somewhat asymmetrical, I think: Experience tells me that it’s more common to move from contempt to respect than from respect to contempt.)
But—and this is the second point—what’s even more fascinating about these figures, these extravagant revolutionaries, is that they seem, generally speaking, to remain as controversial long after their deaths as they were when alive. Views of the thinkers Rorty names—“the later Wittgenstein and the later Heidegger,” Kierkegaard and Nietzsche—have not moderated over time; they have, rather, remained remarkably consistent. They will, I suspect, always be extra-vagant, wandering beyond our norms and standards.
And the same, I think, will be true of Godard. At least, I cannot imagine a future world in which Godard’s reputation will be as secure as Jean Renoir’s or Yasujirō Ozu’s. By so constantly putting himself where he did not know where he was going, he ensured that. And that may be his greatest virtue: the courage to be extravagant. In “In Praise of Limestone,” W. H. Auden says of a limestone landscape, which always changes because limestone dissolves in water, that “It has a worldly duty which in spite of itself / It does not neglect, but calls into question / All the Great Powers assume; it disturbs our rights.” And perhaps that disturbance is a contribution to our shared culture that evades all questions of artistic excellence or failure. Perhaps that is why Godard, like Nietzsche and Wittgenstein and Heidegger, is worth paying attention to even when we think his work is bad.