Hear the Writing of French Theorists Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard & Roland Barthes Sung by Poet Kenneth Goldsmith


Jacques Der­ri­da, Jean Bau­drillard, Roland Barthes… to my fresh­man ears, the names of these French the­o­rists sound­ed like pass­words to an occult world of strange and for­bid­ding ideas. I start­ed col­lege in the mid-90s, when Eng­lish depart­ments glee­ful­ly claimed post­struc­tural­ism as their birthright. Aca­d­e­m­ic cam­paigns against the fuzzy log­ic of these thinkers had not yet gath­ered much steam, though con­ser­v­a­tive cul­ture war­riors were already on the warpath against post­mod­ernism. Very short­ly after my intro­duc­tion to French post­struc­tural­ist thought, ana­lyt­i­cal pos­i­tivists launched for­mi­da­ble cam­paigns to ban­ish crit­i­cal the­o­ry to the mar­gins.

The back­lash against obscu­ran­tist the­o­ry made a good case, with pub­lic sham­ings like the “Sokal Hoax” and Phi­los­o­phy and Lit­er­a­ture’s Bad Writ­ing Con­test. Such dis­plays made the work of many Euro­pean philoso­phers and their adher­ents seem indeed—as Noam Chom­sky said of Der­ri­da, Slavoj Žižek, and Jacques Lacan—like so much vac­u­ous “pos­tur­ing.” But as potent as these cri­tiques may be, I’ve nev­er cared much for them; they seem to miss the point of more cre­ative kinds of the­o­ry, which is not, I think (as phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor Eric Schwitzgebel alleges) “intel­lec­tu­al author­i­tar­i­an­ism and cow­ardice,” but instead an explorato­ry attempt to expand the rigid bound­aries of lan­guage and cog­ni­tion, and to enact the mean­der­ings of dis­cur­sive thought in prose that cap­tures its “errantry” (to take a term from Mar­tini­quan poet, nov­el­ist, and aca­d­e­m­ic Edouard Glis­sant.)

In any case, the debate was not new at all, but only a lat­er iter­a­tion of the old Continental/Analytic divide that has long pit­ted expo­nents of Anglo­phone clar­i­ty against the some­times awk­ward prose of thinkers like Kant and Hegel. And I hap­pen to think that Kant, Hegel, and, yes, even lat­er Con­ti­nen­tals like Derrida—despite the delib­er­ate obscu­ri­ty of their writing—are inter­est­ing thinkers who deserve to be read. They even deserve to be sung, bad­ly, by poets—namely by con­cep­tu­al poet Ken­neth Gold­smith, who is also found­ing edi­tor of Ubuweb, senior edi­tor of PennSound, and one­time host of a radio show on glo­ri­ous­ly weird, free-form radio sta­tion WFMU.

With his nat­ty sense of style and seri­ous appre­ci­a­tion for absur­di­ty, Gold­smith has sung to lis­ten­ers the work of Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Lud­wig Wittgen­stein, and Sig­mund Freud; he has giv­en us an avant-garde musi­cal ren­di­tion of Har­ry Pot­ter; and he has turned selec­tions of Theodor Adorno’s grim Min­i­ma Moralia into 80s hard­core punk. Now, we bring you more of Goldsmith’s musi­cal inter­ven­tions: his goof­ball singing of Der­ri­da over an icy min­i­mal­ist com­po­si­tion by Anton Webern (top); of Bau­drillard over a lounge-pop instru­men­tal by Fran­cis Lai (mid­dle); and of Roland Barthes over the All­man Broth­ers (above).

As an added bonus, if you can call it that, hear Gold­smith war­ble Marx­ist the­o­rist Fred­er­ic Jame­son over Coltrane, just above. Do these ridicu­lous musi­cal exer­cis­es make these thinkers any eas­i­er to digest? I doubt it. But they do seem to say to the many haters of crit­i­cal the­o­ry and post­mod­ern French phi­los­o­phy, “hey, light­en up, will ya?”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky Slams Žižek and Lacan: Emp­ty ‘Pos­tur­ing’

John Sear­le on Fou­cault and the Obscu­ran­tism in French Phi­los­o­phy

The The­o­ry of Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Lud­wig Wittgen­stein & Sig­mund Freud Sung by Ken­neth Gold­smith

30 Min­utes of Har­ry Pot­ter Sung in an Avant-Garde Fash­ion by UbuWeb’s Ken­neth Gold­smith

Theodor Adorno’s Crit­i­cal The­o­ry Text Min­i­ma Moralia Sung as Hard­core Punk Songs

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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