Grande biog

RP 176 () / Review

Benoît Peeters, Derrida: A Biography, trans. Andrew Brown, Polity Press, Cambridge and Malden MA, 2012. 603 pp., £25.00 hb., 978 0 74565 615 1.

‘What matter who’s speaking, someone said, what matter who’s speaking?’ Despite post-structuralist philosophies’ association with Beckettian questions such as these, they remain surprisingly bound to what Foucault called that ‘singular relationship that holds between an author and a text’. Hence, of course, the ambiguous attractions of biography in a field so often marked today by its mechanisms of authorial branding and commodification of ‘key thinkers’. A less fashionable or influential figure in academia than he was a decade or so ago, for a wider public Jacques Derrida remains probably the most famous philosophical ‘name’ since Sartre. The commission of a biography as exhaustive as Benoît Peeters’s Derrida was thus an inevitability.

Still, even (or especially) here, the sense that, in philosophy above all, ‘the life’ is somehow beside the point remains a powerful one. Derrida cites Heidegger’s own description of Aristotle’s life: ‘He was born, he thought, he died.’ The ‘rest is pure anecdote’. Biography may tell us something of the milieu in which the modern intellectual exists, but as regards what is distinctive about the philosophy itself: it would appear to be a necessary part of its traditional self-understanding that it always escapes such narration. ‘Lives’ are for poets. As every commentator is obliged to point out, there is, of course, a further difficulty. Any would-be biographer has to confront the extent to which Derrida’s thought is itself identified with a challenge to conventional ideas of authorship, the subject or, indeed, the identity of ‘a life’. Yet, equally, precisely because it is a supposed condition of the properly philosophical subject that it rigorously exclude biography as a ‘dangerous supplement’, a realm of empirical accident external to the internal coherence of the thought, what could be more open to deconstruction than such a desire to insulate the idea from its contamination by the contingency of an everyday, material life? And, in fact, few philosophers could be said to have ‘exposed’ themselves to the degree that Derrida does in texts like ‘Envois’ and ‘Circumfession’.

If all this raises a set of fairly obvious ‘philosophical’ issues, they are not, however, ones that much trouble Peeters, at least beyond his short introduction. Instead, he states, he has been content ‘to write not so much a Derridean biography as a biography of Derrida’. To all intents and purposes, this is the last time that any concerns regarding form or genre intervene. In many ways, one can be grateful for this – how awful does a ‘Derridean biography’ sound? And, if nothing else, the book’s remorseless endeavour to do exactly what it says on the tin may mean, with any luck, that the abomination that was Jason Powell’s 2006 Jacques Derrida: A Biography can now disappear quietly. Best known in France as a graphic novelist and author of a very good biography of Hergé, Peeters most obviously assumes here the role of a professional writer working to a commission (in this case from the editors of Flammarion’s Grandes Biographies series). Consequently there are few echoes of his own earlier ‘experimental’ biographies of Claude Simon and Paul Valéry; the first of which has been credited with inaugurating a distinctively French genre of ‘autofiction’. Instead, such reflexivity has been reserved for the 250-page ‘Biographer’s Notebook’, Trois ans avec Derrida, also published by Flammarion (and unlikely, one suspects, to be translated into English). Derrida: A Biography, meanwhile, sticks relentlessly to a chronological narration of the facts. Journalistically chronicled via 4–5-page chunks of text, and organized into chapters that generally cover no more than two or three, often overlapping years (1967 and 1968 get chapters to themselves), Peeters doesn’t quite tell us what Derrida has for breakfast every morning, but he does, for example, relate his student complaints about the École Normale Supérieure restaurant, with its slices of camembert ‘approaching the consistency of a brick’. We learn that Derrida watched a lot of telly, liked gangster films and swimming in the sea, and appears to have spent much of his twenties on the verge of a nervous breakdown, getting by on ‘special diets’, sleeping pills and anti-depressants (not, one suspects, entirely unusually for students at the ENS). As for Peeters himself, he disappears entirely into the role of organizer and archivist, all personal reflection siphoned off into the companion notebook.

For a book by a novelist, Derrida: A Biography is, then, a remarkably, even ostentatiously, ‘unliterary’ work. Such an approach has its benefits. The book is way too remote from its subject to result in hagiography, even if we are left in little doubt that its author – who marks his personal gratitude for Derrida’s ‘generous piece’ about one of his own earlier publications in the introduction – likes as well as admires his subject. Equally, the biography resists any idealization or over-dramatization of its subject’s life, although the near total absence of judgement, whether philosophical, psychological, moral or political, becomes itself wearying after a while. The impersonal style of narration also has its advantages in that Peeters refrains from any direct forays into, for example, the more obvious cod psycho-biographical explanations that might tempt him in the sections dealing with Derrida’s Algerian childhood, when ‘they expelled from the Lycée de Ben Aknoun in 1942 a little black and very Arab Jew who understood nothing about it’, as Derrida famously recalled in ‘Circumfession’. Nonetheless, in sticking so unbendingly to the facts, it is remarkable just how little space is devoted to presenting the actual significance of Derrida’s writings, given that Peeters has himself a philosophy degree from the Sorbonne and a Master’s dissertation supervised by Barthes to his credit. The philosophical importance is instead presumed, and, by comparison to works like Elisabeth Roudinesco’s 1993 biography of Lacan, or the late David Macey’s Lives of Michel Foucault, any kind of précis of Derrida’s major works is thin on the ground. Peeters begins by suggesting that he wanted ‘to present the biography of a philosophy at least as much as the story of an individual’. But what results comes close to reducing the ‘genesis’ of ‘a philosophy’ to little more than a list of books read, people met, and institutions passed through, rhythmically punctuated by a chronology of publication dates.

Peeters’s account of the pivotal 1964 essay on Levinas tells us something, for example, about how the 30-year-old Derrida first came to read Totality and Infinity (on the recommendation of Paul Ricoeur), and about the process by which its original ‘monster text’ of more than a hundred pages came to be edited down and published over two issues of Jean Wahl’s Revue de métaphysique et de morale (an invocation of textual ‘excess’ that will become a familiar motif throughout the book). Yet, beyond a few fairly unilluminating citations, Peeters’s summary of its actual contents boils down to: ‘while the study was overall very flattering, it also made several critical points’. Quite what such ‘points’ might have been is something the reader is not told. (And is it really ‘very flattering’?) Peeters could justifiably reply that there are plenty of other books that can tell us this, at least in the case of such celebrated texts as ‘Violence and Metaphysics’. But, given the extensive labour in the archives, it feels more of a missed opportunity where the gestation of other works, particularly early on in Derrida’s career, are concerned. Peeters dutifully tracks the topics of the writing from some precocious schoolboy essays on Sartre onwards. However, there is nothing equivalent to what might be truly described as that ‘biography of a philosophy’ to be found in Edward Baring’s The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, which meticulously tracks the young Derrida’s turn from existentialism towards self-consciously scholastic readings of Husserl or the development of différance as manifest in the edits and rewrites of early papers for publication in Writing and Differance. (Baring’s book – itself a product of much time served in the archive – will be reviewed by Andrew McGettigan in RP 178.) So, while, for example, Peeters notes in passing Derrida’s 1964 award of the ‘prestigious’ Prix Cavaillès for his translation and introduction of Husserl’s Origin of Geometry, nowhere does he remark how apparently odd, from the perspective of his subsequent reputation, it should be that Derrida’s first such recognition should have come in the context of the philosophy of mathematics, nor what significance for the ‘genesis of the principal works’ that were to come this might have. Something a good deal closer to ‘intellectual biography’ would not have gone amiss here.

As befits a professional writer, where Peeters evidently feels on stronger ground is in describing Derrida’s developing style or tone. ‘A sentence by Derrida is closer to Henry James than to Proust’, Peeters notes in one nice remark, ‘it seems to coil indefinitely round itself, before making a sudden leap forward.’ Commenting on The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy – with the caveat that this ‘is not the place to discuss such a technical work’ (as if other ‘less technical’ works might be discussed elsewhere) – Peeters rightly notes how ‘one of the most striking things’ about a piece written for a Diplôme d’études supérieures is the exceptional self-confidence with which it is presented. Similarly, Peeters writes, the ‘grandiose, magisterial tone’ that opens the Levinas essay is ‘completely different from a critical review’, and observes of ‘Force and Signification’, written around the same time, that with ‘the loftiness of its views … [it] manifests a style of thought and writing which Derrida’s readers must have felt they would need to take seriously.’ Peeters thus implies – though does not quite say – that at least part of Derrida’s early reputation was propelled by this ‘magisterial’ manner that suffused his work.

The strongest commentary is to be found in those sections dealing with the formal innovations of books like Glas and The Postcard. The material and typographical invention of Glas, in particular, gets a chapter to itself (1973–1975), where, for once, the customary details of the publishing process, in an era before the word processor, does not feel quite so anal in their recounting. (Here, too, Peeters’s labour in the archive pays off, digging up intriguingly enthusiastic responses in letters from both Althusser and Derrida’s old classmate Pierre Bourdieu.) Beyond this, Derrida: A Biography tends to be most revealing when it is proceeding by way of citation of Derrida’s own words. Although fleshed out by interviews with the likes of Étienne Balibar and Bernard Pautrat, the chapter ‘In the Shadow of Althusser 1963–1966’, for example, takes most of its actual ‘analysis’ from Derrida’s long interview with Michael Sprinker of 1989. Little further light is shed, despite a long citation from a 1964 letter responding to the last chapter of For Marx, on the intellectual dimensions of what must be considered one of the more enigmatic friendships in postwar French philosophy; even if Peeters more than competently narrates Derrida’s thoroughly admirable personal loyalty to the man who first employed him at the École Normale.

This is not to say that there is nothing here that doesn’t make Peeters’s book a significant point of reference, at least for the time being. Most importantly, along with more than a hundred interviews with friends and acquaintances – from Régis Debray to Jean-Luc Nancy – is the glimpse that Derrida: A Biography offers into the full range of materials to be found in the archives. The ‘public’ archives are themselves divided between Irvine, where Derrida taught during the 1990s (but with which he later fell out), and the Institut Mémoires de l’Édition Contemporaine near Caen, which also holds those of Althusser and Barthes, among others. It is the material culled from these collections, and from Derrida’s correspondence in particular, that constitutes the most important new resource here. Peeters has unearthed more than a few gems, including a wonderfully splenetic response to Anti-Oedipus in a letter to Roger Laporte – a ‘very bad book (confused, full of exasperated denials, etc.) … welcomed in a very broad and dubious sector of opinion’ – and a ‘peer review’ of Badiou’s early article on Althusser for Critique – ‘important’, Derrida judges, despite its ‘author’s pomposity, the “marks” he hands out to everyone as if it were prize giving or the Last Judgement’. Other significant correspondence includes letters to Levinas on philosophical dialogue and from Genet on commitment, as well as a hilariously frosty exchange with a seemingly near-sociopathic Lacan. There is also some interesting material, by way of Pierre Aubenque, Lucien Braun and Jacques Taminiaux, on Derrida and Heidegger’s ‘to-and-fro relation’ – although, despite the latter’s expressed wish to make ‘the acquaintance of Monsieur Derrida, who already sent several of his works’, the two never met.

Peeters’s patient chronology has some moments of revelation to impart as well; chiefly via its decompression of events that most critical commentaries tend to flatten out. This is the case, for instance, in the book’s narration of the notorious argument with Foucault. As Peeters shows, Derrida’s respectful but relentlessly pressing 1962 critique of History of Madness – his first proper academic lecture in Paris – was initially praised in remarkably fulsome terms by its target. Indeed, writing that ‘You have magisterially shown the right road to take’, Foucault enthusiastically encouraged its publication. Three years later, he was still sending letters to Derrida, such as one on the occasion of the publication of ‘Writing Before the Letter’, flattering him that ‘In the order of contemporary thought, it is the most radical text I have ever read.’ In fact, it was a rather later dispute concerning a mention of Derrida’s essay in a lengthy 1967 review article by Gérard Granel that seems, then, to have been the first prompt in what, another five years on, would result in the infamously vicious ‘reply’ published as an appendix to a new edition of History of Madness in 1972 (not, it should be said, Foucault’s finest hour). Typically Peeters does not fully make the point as such, but the implication is that this had as much to do, on Foucault’s part, with his former student’s rising star, as with any insurmountable intellectual or political disagreement that might otherwise have been expected to make itself felt rather sooner than it did.

Unsurprisingly, any reader looking for confirmation of the claustrophobic bubble of elite French intellectual life will find plenty here. Peeters looks on as a slightly bemused observer rather than an aggressively hostile judge of the tight and incestuous circles of Parisian philosophy – among Derrida’s direct contemporaries at the fairly small preparatory Lycée Louis-le-Grand to which he went in 1949 were, for example, Bourdieu, Granel, Michel Serres, Pierre Nora and Michel Deguy. At the same time, Peeters places a good deal of emphasis on an image of Derrida as a perpetual outsider to this academic world – plausibly enough for an Algerian Jew and adolescent ‘rogue’, with ‘another youth, different from the Parisian student existence’ (as Derrida put it in a 1951 letter) who never left El Biar until he was 19. Yet the biographical details suggest that this can be exaggerated. Derrida got his share of stupid comments from markers, and found life understandably hard as a boarder in the ‘draconian’ regime of Louis-le- Grand. But his oft-mentioned failure, twice, of the ENS entrance exams was not so remarkable (and seems to have had more to do with his highly strung character than any specific animus from the establishment, at this stage). The real ‘humiliations’ came later, after a relatively conventional passage through an assistant appointment at the Sorbonne to his work alongside Althusser at the ENS, with the failure to be appointed, first, in 1980 as Ricoeur’s replacement at Nanterre (for which Ricoeur had encouraged him to apply) and then, a decade later, to a position at the Collège de France, despite the support of Bourdieu. By this point, Derrida had already published more than twenty books, translated into a number of languages, and held visiting professorships at Johns Hopkins and Yale.

This increasingly ‘vexed’ relationship with French academia played out in parallel with growing international success. In so far as it touches here on a broader mode of intellectual history, Peeters’s book has some suggestive things to say about the formation of the networks by which ideas and works (and, finally, brands) are disseminated, although this tends to dissolve into simple lists of names in Peeters’s narration. By comparison to, for example, Roudinesco’s Jacques Lacan & Co. or François Cusset’s French Theory, there is little reflection on the institutions of ‘theory’ themselves. Peeters entitles one chapter (1996–1999) ‘The Derrida International’, picking up on a phrase used by Deguy to refer to the ‘faithful’ who ‘spread the influence of deconstruction across the world’. A rare critical tone threatens to enter Peeters’s account at this point, but he remains reluctant to pursue with much force the strategies at work in such cultivation of translators and disciples. As early as a 1968 letter to his friend Henry Bauchau, Derrida remarked the need for his ‘very definite, restricted’ audience to act as mediators of his thought. In the USA, this became akin to a sort of military campaign, dividing the country into friend and enemy states, with anointed representatives in each. (Avital Ronell recalls taking up ‘the role of “Minister for Germanic Affairs”’ in Derrida’s ‘team’.) In similar vein, Derrida referred to himself on more than one occasion as being caught in the role of ‘travelling salesman’. A general theme of excess takes over the latter parts of the book: endless trips, marathon lectures that go on for hours, innumerable interviews and seminars, all carried out at the ‘pace of a real rock star’, in the words of his son Pierre.

If there is a focus here on various relationships, both friendly and strained, Baring’s characterization of Peeters’s book as emphasizing the ‘private and personal’ is nonetheless not quite true. In an interview in the 2002 film Derrida, responding to the question of what he would want to see in a documentary about a philosopher, Derrida answers: ‘Their sex lives. … Because it’s something they don’t talk about. Why do these philosophers present themselves asexually in their work?’; though he follows this up by slyly adding that ‘I never said I’d respond to such a question.’ Yet here, too, Peeters is coy. While he describes Derrida at one point as having ‘the reputation of being a seducer’, the only affair mentioned is one that could hardly be avoided: his twelve-year relationship with Sylviane Agacinski, which ended in 1984 with the birth of a child, Daniel, and which Derrida tried to keep secret even from close friends (though most seem to have known) until it uncomfortably entered the public realm when Agacinski’s husband Lionel Jospin ran for president in 2002. It was to Agacinski, Peeters suggests, that the ‘strange and superb correspondence’ making up ‘Envois’ was originally addressed, and, given some later attacks on each other in print, the relationship between the philosophical and the personal evidently becomes rather fraught at this point. Meanwhile, Derrida’s wife, Marguerite, hardly appears as a living, breathing person at all; something, one suspects, that may have been a condition of her full cooperation.

Apart from personal traumas, and despite moments of excitement such as the 1981 arrest in Prague when visiting to give covert seminars on behalf of the Jan Hus Education Foundation – and a public punch-up with Bernard-Henri Lévy – overall, as one might well expect, Derrida: A Biography presents a welltravelled life, but not one that provides much of a rival for, say, Ray Monk’s Ludwig Wittgenstein as the basis for a page-turning read. Generally, where the wider world is being uprooted, whether in Algeria in 1962 or Paris in 1968, Derrida is assuming the role of the torn and troubled onlooker – although he had more involvement in the events of 1968 than did, for example, either Althusser or Deleuze, organizing the first general assembly at the École Normale, despite his misgivings about ‘spontaneism’. In tracing Derrida’s involvement in the politics of his time, among the more interesting ‘new’ material in Peeters’s book is a long unpublished letter from 1961 sent to former classmate Pierre Nora in response to the latter’s Les Français d’Algérie. Here, Derrida carefully attempts to articulate a nuanced position, as someone brought up as a French Algerian, that would acknowledge the necessity and justice of the struggle for independence but resist decolonizing lurches into nationalist assertions of racial or religious identity; while also suggesting that it ‘is perhaps the whole Marxist dogma about colonization, economic imperialism (and the phases of capitalism) that needs to be revised’. These thoughts, however, remained private. While, then, it might be true to suggest, as Peeters does in one rare moment of speculation, that the Algerian War constituted ‘one of the sources of all his political thinking’, the book itself offers little in the way of elaboration. Overall, this is a pattern to which Derrida: A Biography remains true throughout. Peeters’s archival tracking does, however, unearth what comes to appear as a fairly consistent but (until the mid-1990s at least) unpublicized position in Derrida’s relations to Marxism, going back to at least his encounters with the Althusserians, in which it was in fact a commitment to being ‘on the left’ which meant (as he puts it in a letter to Granel in 1971) that the risk of giving an ‘impression of apoliticism, or rather “apraxia”’, was tied to the strategic requirement to avoid appearing to take a reactionary position in criticizing current orthodoxies on Marx: ‘I’ll never fall into anti-communism, so I’m shutting my mouth.’

The final words of Peeters’s book are a citation from Derrida’s last interview, carried out a few weeks before his death, in which he marked his ‘preoccupation’ with the question of ‘Who is going to inherit, and how? … When it comes to thought, the question of survival has taken on absolutely unforeseeable forms.’ Peeters claims that his is a ‘biography [that] has refused to exclude anything’. Yet one cannot help but feel that the one thing that it has finally excluded is the ‘life’ of a philosophy itself.