The performative contradiction of Wikipedia

«Jacques Derrida is among the two or three most prominent and influential philosophers of the twentieth century, and one of the most widely read. It would surely be a great thing if Wikipedia proved itself capable of producing a competent and informative article about this thinker. Unfortunately, a glance at the current state of this article is far from encouraging, and the same can be said for the related articles on deconstruction, and so on. But beyond a glance at the current state, an examination of the history of the editing of these articles makes unavoidable the conclusion that Wikipedia is almost inherently incapable of producing work on this topic of any quality. Put as simply as possible, the problem is this: wherever well-meaning and knowledgable editors have in the past attempted to intervene, to remove the nonsense that has accumulated by uninformed but often enthusiastic editors (whether well-meaning or not), this has in the end always turned out to be a fruitless effort. The insistence by those with little real knowledge that they have as much “right” to “contribute” as specialists (under the misapprehension that Wikipedia is in this sense a “democratic” project: it is not, or rather, ought not to be), and the mistaken belief by others that they are knowledgable when in fact they are anything but, has as its consequence that editors with understanding of the topic are driven away, as they conclude to themselves that it is really not worth the trouble.

This is a great pity, but an inevitable one, if the fundamental situation does not change. I myself am now one of those, something of a specialist in the area, as well as being generally well-disposed to Wikipedia, who can no longer tolerate the thought of trying to “make a difference” to this article. Having avoided even reading the article for a long time, I return to it today, and am immediately confronted by new awful paragraph upon new awful paragraph, a hodgepodge that is clearly the result of every man and his dog adding whatever tidbit of non-knowledge they mistakenly believe they have to offer. To put it as briefly as possible, the article has degenerated even further, to the point of complete incoherence. Readers will learn nothing of significance from this article.

From what I can glean, some of those at the top at Wikipedia, or behind the scenes, understand that the great difficulty this encyclopedia has attracting and retaining qualified and/or knowledgeable specialists is in fact a serious problem. It is a problem that affects some areas of knowledge more than others. In my view, this is one of the articles most ruinously affected by this problem: an article on a topic of interest to many, but that also confuses many, will inevitably be sought out by many readers, and should thus be an article that Wikipedia tries hard to do well. But for the very same reasons it will attract many readers, it also tends to attract too many of the wrong kind of editors (if I can put it like that), who tend to make too many of the wrong kind of edits. The results speak for themselves.

I myself have no solutions for Wikipedia in this regard. What is needed may be clear enough: to reform the culture of Wikipedia to the point that editors capable of writing competently and informatively about this topic have trust enough that their contributions will not only be recognised, but will also not subsequently be undermined by a slow or not so slow process of degeneration (unless they maintain an extreme vigilance against all low-grade additions, a vigilance that is likely to meet with resistance, and a resistance that is likely to result in the eventual loss of the editor from the Wikipedia project). How many potentially committed competent editors have already been lost, probably permanently? But if it is clear enough that this cultural change is needed, it is not clear how to bring about this reform: Wikipedia is clearly and irrefutably an immense success, but this only means that the problems from which it suffers are all the more glaring, to the point that it must be asked whether there is something fundamental in the very structure of the current manifestation of Wikipedia itself that prevents the encyclopedia from reaching even basic levels of competence about topics such as this. This article, and the related articles about Derrida’s work, are emblematic of the difficulty of this question.»

— Comment added by unsigned user (talk) 08:05, 11 May 2011 (UTC) to


«Such procedures still surprise me, and I have difficulty believing my eyes, in my incorrigible naïveté, in the confidence that I still have, in spite of everything, in the ethics of discussion (in morali­ty, if not in moralism), in the rules of the academy, of the university, and of publication. (…) If I insist here on the example of Habermas, after that of Searle, it is not only because of the importance of the questions I have just evoked, in their very contents. It is to underscore a situation that is unfortunately typical – and politically very serious – at a juncture that I will not hesitate to qualify as worldwide and historic; which is as much to say that its scope can hardly be exaggerated and that it deserves serious analyses. Everywhere, in particular in the United States and in Europe, the self-declared philosophers, theoreticians, and ideologists of communication, dialogue, and consen­sus, of univocity and transparency, those who claim ceaselessly to reinstate the classical ethics of proof, discussion, and exchange, are most often those who excuse themselves from attentively read­ing and listening to the other, who demonstrate precipitation and dogmatism, and who no longer respect the elementary rules of philology and of interpretation, confounding science and chatter as though they had not the slightest taste for communication or rather as though they were afraid of it, at bottom. Fear of what, at bottom? Why? That is the real question. What  is going on at  this moment, above all around “deconstruction,”  to explain this fear and this dogmatism? Exposed to the slightest difficulty, the slightest complication, the slightest transformation of  the rules,  the self-declared advo­cates of communication denounce  the  absence  of rules  and  confusion. And  they allow themselves then to confuse everything in the most authoritarian manner. They even dare to accuse the adversary, as Habermas does me, of  “performative contradiction” (pp.  185-86). Is there a “performative contra­diction” more serious than that which consists in claiming to discuss rationally the theses of  the other without having made the slightest effort  to  take cognizance of them, read them, or listen  to them? I invite interested readers – or whoever may still have doubts about what I have  just  said – to read for themselves this chapter by Habermas which claims  to criticize me, naming me for twenty-five pages without  the  slightest  reference  and without  the  slightest  citation.  For what  I  have  been  unable  to render of all  this  is  the frankly comic aspect such contortions often give  to certain passages. Of course, I am not suggesting  that  it  suffices  to cite a  few  phrases or  to  mention  some  titles  of books in order to argue seriously, to comprehend and enlighten a thought

– Jacques Derrida, “Limited Inc.”, footnote, p. 157-158.


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