Jacques Derrida, 1930–2004
In an interview with Le Monde published a couple of months before his death at the age of 74 from pancreatic cancer on Friday 9 October 2004, Jacques Derrida conﬁrmed what many already knew, that he was ʻdangerously illʼ, ʻat war against myselfʼ. If questions of ʻsurvivalʼ had always ʻhauntedʼ him, this, he said, took on new meaning in the light of both his pressing health problems and peopleʼs tendency to see him as ʻthe last representative of a “generation”ʼ (Le Monde, 19 August 2004). It would not have surprised him, then, to ﬁnd that it is this generational context which has, for many, served to frame his passing as more than simply another individual loss to contemporary intellectual life (however signiﬁcant), but as something like the effective conclusion to a whole era of thought. In a moving piece from 1998, written on the occasion of Lyotardʼs death, Derrida remembered an earlier testimony for Deleuze: ʻI seem to recall having said that I could feel us quite alone now, Jean-François Lyotard and I, the sole survivors of what has been identiﬁed as a “generation”.ʼ
Derrida was born in 1930 into an Algerian Jewish family, and his early schooling suffered under anti-Semitic Vichy laws. Perhaps, in part, because of this, he had a long and difﬁcult entrance into academic Parisian life during the 1950s. Nonetheless, he made several important friends during this period, including Althusser, Bourdieu, Marin and Foucault, as well as beginning the work on Husserl that included his ﬁrst publication in 1962: a translation of, and lengthy introduction to, The Origin of Geometry. Early essays started to appear in Tel Quel and Critique around this time, but it was not until 1967 that Derrida really ʻarrivedʼ, bringing out three works – Speech and Phenomena, Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology – which, in many ways, formed the basis for everything that was to come. In the years that followed, while teaching and lecturing around the world, Derrida published some seventy books, whose inﬂuence has been felt in ﬁelds from philosophy and literary theory to law and architecture. At the same time, he also sought to challenge the established institutions of philosophy in France – co-founding Groupe de recherches sur lʼenseignement philosophiques (GREPH) in 1974 and the Collège internationale de philosophie in 1983 – as well as involving himself in numerous political activities, from clandestine seminars in cold-war Czechoslovakia to a lengthy commitment to the struggle against apartheid.
If we can trust the mainstream media to have laid out with reasonable accuracy such basic details of Derridaʼs life, we can, unfortunately, trust them for little else. Despite a very decent obituary in the Guardian, by Derek Attridge and Thomas Baldwin, more typical was a follow-up piece in the same paper the next day, soliciting the opinions of twenty ʻkey thinkersʼ on this ʻcontroversialʼ ﬁgure. While a couple had the good grace to admit a general ignorance, others were not so circumspect, either delivering an unsubstantiated verdict of ʻnonsenseʼ (Scruton), proffering utterly incomprehensible ʻexplanationsʼ (itʼs all about ʻinter-linear analysisʼ, according to Sir Christopher Frayling) or falling back on the sort of banal formulations that are the stock-in-trade of Alain de Botton, for whom Derrida was ʻa thinker who made it his business to tell us that things are more complicated than we trust them to beʼ (Guardian, 12 October 2004). As a journalistic exercise, this may have had unintended merit: a middlebrow version of that Brass Eye-style exposé of the willingness of ʻcelebritiesʼ to pontiﬁcate on absolutely anything theyʼre asked to, regardless of their actual knowledge of the subject under discussion. And, no doubt, it is entirely futile to get worked up about the travesties it generates, or to bemoan the demands of a sound-bite culture. Yet the sheer level of shoddiness that has characterized Derridaʼs treatment does call for comment, if only because it attests to the persistence of all those strange – and often frankly malicious – misrepresentations of his thought which served consistently to prevent any real debate concerning the arguments contained within it.
They suggest something else too. For while it may not be strictly true that he was the very last of his generation, he was perhaps one of the last philosophers of our time whose name could spark some recognition beyond the academy. Unlike the journalistic presentation of earlier ﬁgures, however, Derridaʼs ʻmythical imageʼ was constructed almost universally, from the start, as a metonymy for at best a dangerous nihilism, and at worst a mystifying charlatanism. Once so constituted, deconstruction could all too easily be taken as just another name for relativism, scepticism, or whatever you like, while Derrida himself could be blamed, with no textual evidence whatsoever, for everything from the supposed destruction of the canon in American humanities departments by the forces of ʻpolitical correctnessʼ, to the ʻpostmodernistʼ abandonment of the class struggle in favour of capitalist-friendly ʻfree playʼ or the ʻglamorizationʼ of ʻthe homeless as a subject position for social changeʼ. (This attribution to Derrida of some anarchic afﬁrmation of free play is the result of a straightforward early mistranslation of the word jeu, which one might charitably put down to a certain misguided Kantianism, in the 1966 essay ʻStructure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciencesʼ.) As this last shameless ﬁction (copyright Tom Lewis) suggests, nobody comes out with credit from this dismal history. From Habermasʼs willingness to pass judgement on the basis of a popular secondary account (which he got demonstrably wrong anyway), to the self-righteous expressions of moralistic condemnation that apparently constitute argument for certain celebrated Oxbridge Marxists (who really ought to have asked themselves why Oxbridge was more than willing to accommodate such ʻrevolutionariesʼ, while battening down the hatches at any mention of deconstruction), if nothing else Derrida exposed the conditions of an academic Left unable to countenance any questioning of its most cherished dogmas.
It is impossible to offer an adequate assessment of Derridaʼs work here. Central to any such account would, however, be an explanation of why what deconstruction works to ʻrevealʼ as the conditions of possibility for all ʻeffectsʼ of identity or presence are, at the same time, their conditions of impossibility. Thus, for example, in a famous reading of Austin, the necessary possibility that a performative might ʻfailʼ is shown to be a structural condition of the very possibility that it ʻsucceedʼ at all: failure is inscribed within, and ineliminably ʻcontaminatesʼ, any performative, however successful it might appear to be. In the work of the 1960s and 1970s what is at stake in this was most often approached, following Heidegger, through the violently hierarchical structures that dominate a ʻmetaphysics of presenceʼ, in which the self-identity of a privileged term is constituted through an unquestioned logical and ontological primacy over one placed in a secondary, excluded position. Derrida sought to show how, in any such opposition, an essential contamination of the primary by the secondary, by virtue of its necessary reliance upon that which it seeks to exclude in its very self-constitution, necessarily disrupts the structure of pure oppositionality (and thus absolute identity or difference) itself. Contra certain currently fashionable positions, there could thus be, for Derrida, no pure alterity or event. Presence is always already ʻhauntedʼ by an ʻoriginaryʼ difference and non-identical repetition in which identity is constitutively dependent on traces of other identities: ʻAll experience is made up only of traces, and whether we look to the side of the subject or the object, we will ﬁnd nothing preceding the trace.ʼ Yet such logical ʻpriorityʼ cannot produce any new metaphysical principle in so far as it is not itself identiﬁable, nor has any existence, outside of these ʻeffectsʼ of difference and repetition. It is such ʻquasi-transcendentalsʼ that Derrida famously ʻnicknamedʼ, in an always provisional form, the trace, différance, the supplementary, and so on.
There is nothing speciﬁcally ʻlinguisticʼ (let alone ʻsemioticʼ) about this, although it is true that many of Derridaʼs early essays started from those problems of language and signiﬁcation prevalent within the philosophy and human sciences of the time. Rather, it holds, logically, for any effect of identity or presence. Moreover, it has certain more general consequences for both philosophy and the human sciences (and, for that matter, the natural and mathematical sciences), which follow from the necessary re-inscription of the transcendental–empirical opposition that it produces. For, on the one hand, it can be shown that all attempts simply to reduce or ʻexplainʼ the philosophical from a supposedly external position, such as those elaborated by various positivist tendencies within the human sciences, will always be undermined by their need to generate a ʻnewʼ transcendental term to do the job of ʻexplanationʼ: a ʻtranscendental contrabandʼ, the very ʻphilosophicalʼ nature of which they are constitutively unable to think. It is this argument that was the basis for the early critical readings of Foucault, Lévi-Strauss, Benveniste and Valéry, as well as for the beginnings of a long engagement with psychoanalysis. It provides the basis for a resistance to any crude materialist or empiricist inversions of philosophical idealism. On the other hand, and for the same reason, philosophy cannot, through its own explicitly transcendentalizing gestures, ever dominate or reduce without disruptive remainder, a contingency, historicity or facticity that is a necessary condition of any such gestures.
Most misunderstandings of Derrida have derived from a failure to understand what was entailed by this unavoidable movement of ʻnegotiationʼ, irreducible to juridical–moral rules, and which was, from early on, thought in terms of the possibility of a ʻlesser violenceʼ in an unsublatable ʻeconomy of violenceʼ. In much initial reception of his work, whether positive or negative, there was a tendency to stress the second argument outlined above, imagining that, because he sought to demonstrate that the philosophical idea could not be purely separated from, say, its linguistic or idiomatic ʻexpressionʼ, Derrida was arguing that philosophy was nothing other than a particular language game, rhetoric or literary genre. By contrast, later ʻcritiquesʼ often presented him as precisely the epitome of the classical transcendental philosopher, subjecting the human sciences to an unknowable and mystiﬁed Law that denied all radical transformative praxis. Both can be shown to miss the ʻdouble movementʼ that, in principle, Derridaʼs articulation of deconstruction insists upon.
Yet one can also understand the genuine frustration that at least some of these critiques reﬂected, even if one must remember that frustration has never amounted to refutation. Undoubtedly there are justiﬁable reasons why his work – particularly as it seemed to develop in the 1980s, with its associated elaborations of an unconditional ʻoriginary afﬁrmationʼ, ʻlaw before the lawʼ or ʻgift before exchangeʼ – might seem to have resulted only in the interminable analysis of such irreducibly aporetic (quasi-) transcendental conditions in an all-too-traditionally philosophical way. However, if something like an ʻoriginary afﬁrmationʼ, or ʻresponseʼ to the other, must be thought of as necessarily independent of any and every determinate context, it is, equally, never present outside of context, being always imbricated in concrete singular ways with the sphere of facticity. As Derrida wrote in the late 1980s, it still remains necessary to ʻarticulate this unconditionality with the determinate … conditions of this or that context; and this is the moment of strategies, of rhetorics, of ethics, and of politicsʼ.
The questions raised by this necessity no doubt motivated, in part, the apparent shift in emphasis, in the later writings, towards more explicitly ʻpoliticalʼ issues; a shift perhaps also provoked by the so-called Heidegger and De Man ʻaffairsʼ of the late 1980s, and the gleeful attempt on the part of some to have ﬁnally done with Derrida through guilt by association. Yet, notwithstanding a seemingly new stress on the ineliminability of a ʻcertain experience of the emancipatory promiseʼ, the notion of a ʻmessianicity without messianismʼ, for example, is in many ways entirely consistent with that argument concerning the quasi-transcendental which is present from the very beginning of Derridaʼs published work. Thus he was to insist that, if Benjamin was primarily concerned with the ʻprivileged momentsʼ of messianic power opened up within particular ʻhistorico-political phasesʼ, a messianicity without messianism was explicitly construed as ʻnamingʼ a universal structure of experience which would be the condition of (im)possibility of any praxis at all. It is not hard, then, to show why most criticisms of Derridaʼs politics have been misjudged: they simply miss the ʻlevelʼ at which his arguments are pitched. Nonetheless, it is also fair to say that there does indeed remain an issue of precisely how a quasi-transcendental level of analysis is to be ʻarticulatedʼ with determinate ʻhistorico-politicalʼ contexts. Despite the over-hasty attempts by some to assimilate Derrida to the terms of a Levinasian ethics, the real problem that Derrida leaves us with may be what, as early as ʻStructure, Sign and Playʼ, he deﬁned as a political ʻproblem of economy and strategyʼ. How is the force of orientation of a ʻstrategy without ﬁnalityʼ to be understood (as it must be) outside of any teleological horizon, utopianism or regulating Idea, yet in relation to speciﬁc social forms and relations?
This is, perhaps, just to say that Derridaʼs own work – which was, ﬁrst and foremost (if not only), the work of a philosopher – is not enough. Of course! It leaves us with problems. What thinking worthy of the name does not? Despite certain appearances to the contrary, despite the desire on the part of others for discipleship, it may be that Derrida frustrated a good many people precisely because he did not fulﬁl the conventional role of the French intellectual master, resisting the lure of political posturing and the construction of theoretical models or programmes that would relieve us of the responsibility to think and to engage.
For many who were students in the 1980s and 1990s, Derrida was a crucial ﬁgure who decisively transformed our thinking, philosophical and political. Nonetheless, Iʼm somewhat shamefully aware that, for a while now, some of us have rather avoided mentioning his name, even when his thought is most clearly presupposed, perhaps because it entails so many difﬁculties, opening up, yet again, ʻargumentsʼ weʼre sick of having.
In doing so, unhappily, we have risked becoming complicit with the kind of academic fashion industry for which Derrida is simply yesterdayʼs news, a moment of ʻnegativityʼ and ʻcritiqueʼ now displaced, most often, by a version of that constructivist ʻimmanenceʼ afﬁrmed by his friend Deleuze. This ʻdisplacementʼ obscures both the afﬁnities and the genuine divergences between these two thinkers, and frequently results in a caricature of each. Such a caricature is particularly prevalent in cultural studies and contemporary art theory. It takes up a long-standing demand that deconstruction be succeeded by some new ʻconstructionʼ. Yet such an argument simply shows how little what Derrida meant by deconstruction was understood in the ﬁrst place.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak
I do not want to remember him, I want to invoke him. I want to quote Audenʼs harsh words:
Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To ﬁnd his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modiﬁed in the guts of the living.
We are buffeted by this daily punishment, by the amazing mainstream hostility that is visited upon his name. They seem to have forgotten even the conventional courtesy to the dead.
Starting from the 1968 essay ʻLa Différanceʼ, in which Derrida undertook to explain his method to the doyens of the French philosophical establishment, his style has been a teaching style. This rankles for those who are not used to learning.
There can be no doubt that Derrida knew more than most of us about teaching – from the intimacy of a small seminar in French to the long distance and remote spectrality of the Internet; from English to the many languages of the world. There is authority – what other word can we use? – in his implicit model of the classroom as the workshop of the production of collectivity. ʻHow many are weʼ (the refrain in the classroom-based Politics of Friendship), ever, in a classroom? A single teacherʼs students, ﬂung out into the world and time, is a real-world example of the precarious continuity of Marxism in the lowest reaches of global activism today.
There is often a slow but tenacious change of mind, quickly dismissed by the metropolitan establishment. This is reﬂected in the repetitive burrowing gestures of Derridaʼs style. After the collapse of international communism as a structured state-system, and the freezing or loosening of left parties, in reaction or coalition, it is in that open form, that call – of indeﬁnite, and often unrecognizable collectivities, with little possibility of ever coming together across insuperable linguistic and spatial divides – that ʻMarxʼ survives as at least the possibility of resistance in the far-ﬂung global grassroots. Our hope for a persistently moving democracy that tries for its own salvation even as it salutes the other, lies here: Derridaʼs ʻNew Internationalʼ. To be able to think this is so rare, so outside the established lines of recognizable good politics, that it is no wonder that he causes such profound unease in the establishment.
In the pages of the New York Times, Edward Rothstein, for example, felt that he could simply mock this man for saying, in his opening remarks (not as a conclusion, as Rothstein implies) in Philosophy in A Time of Terror, that the contraction of the events of 11 September 2001 into ʻ9/11ʼ or other short forms shows that we do not know what we are talking about. Remember, that event, thus contracted, was part of the obscenities of the electoral campaign. On the other hand, so contracted, it can allow mourning. A great deal could be added to this. It was Derridaʼs virtue that he thus saw both enabling sides, without claiming that they were equivalent, yet without claiming the power of knowledge: logocentrism is not a pathology, but it is deconstructible.
The only thing that Derridaʼs careful statement – which, even out of context, can be seen as respecting the unqualiﬁable in its singularity – cannot provoke is mockery. Jürgen Habermas, the other philosopher in the exchange that was published as Philosophy in a Time of Terror, came to understand that ʻdeconstruction is essentially praxisʼ. In Derridaʼs own memorable words, ʻthe simultaneous generation, by graft, of the performative and the constativeʼ.A word here about religion: friends who understand the need for secularism in todayʼs conﬂicted world sometimes misunderstand Derrida too quickly. I refer to two things: ﬁrst, his correction of Kant in ʻFaith and Knowledgeʼ that the so-called secondary matters (Nebengeschäfte) of buying and selling salvation must be taken into account as irreducibly imbricated with the religious; and, second, his courageous remark on the anniversary of Levinasʼs death that, by remaining silent about the earthly Jerusalem, Levinas forgot that the state of Israel was daily breaking the commandments.
Speaking at Columbia University on the work of mourning, Derrida had remarked that without an intuition of the transcendental, one can neither execute nor mourn. The austerity of his own burial, with no mourning speeches apart from his own anodyne words read by his son, and the absence of any religious functionary, was a valediction forbidding mourning that showed religion to be no more than performative conventions, even as his staunch opposition to the death penalty had interdicted the other example.
I will now say what we all know and feel: we will not see his like again.
An activist approach to concepts
Immediately after Derridaʼs burial, I ﬂew to Seoul to deliver a lecture at a conference on ʻGlobalization and the Imaginationʼ. My title was ʻIs Language “Local”?ʼ My words turned out to be an immensely simpliﬁed homage. I reproduce them here, in part, because of the brutal remark of a perfectly proper Americanized local female academic: ʻHis face was more beautiful than his philosophy.ʼ O my friend…
Derrida was a controversial ﬁgure. He was controversial because he was not interested in exposing error, but, with an altogether relentless honesty, he investigated the way we produce our truths. He looked at our inconsistencies, at our exclusions, because they allowed us to live. Among these exclusions, he noticed again and again that, in order to enter democratic structures, the woman must become an honorary male.
The male-dominated tradition found such attention intolerable. There are at least two reasons for this: ﬁrst, because we are not accustomed to scrutinizing ourselves in such detail, Derridaʼs style was sometimes found absurd; and, second, since the dominant trend in philosophy leaned towards ordinary language, his scrutiny has seemed nonphilosophical.
In fact, Derridaʼs is an activist approach to concepts. No concept that needs to be practised can ignore detail, as we ﬁnd out if we are trying to do something rather than merely talk or think about it. Attention to detail is the secret of successful labour, manual or intellectual. Historically and structurally, a majority of the worldʼs women and all manual labourers have been forced to remember this. This is also true of natural science. Disciplinary philosophy and ofﬁcial history have been able to ignore this for the sake of saving the argument, except when they are quantitative. Disciplinary anthropology trades performative attention to detail for ethnographic consistency. The vehemence with which Derrida was rejected is a kind of mechanism of denial of such things. Derrida submitted intellectual labour to the test of manual labour, scientiﬁc labour, womenʼs work. It is because of this, I believe, that Jürgen Habermas has written that ʻDerridaʼs deconstruction is essentially a praxis.ʼ Habermas understands that Derridaʼs attention to detail does not mean giving up. It means persistence, repetition, circling back, for the job is never quite done.Such a way of working and thinking can be related to the question of globalization and language. This is a particularly important issue for women because, all over the world, with very few exceptions, women and manual labourers have less control over language. I have discussed at length elsewhere why simply giving them apparent access to information and communications technology may not be as humanitarian as it is made to sound.
In his 2003 book Voyous, Derrida noted that Plato and Aristotle, philosophers who used classical Greek as their mother tongue, noticed problems of detail with ʻdemocracyʼ, a Greek word, which we, who have fetishized the word and even make it an excuse for military intervention, have decided to forget. Plato put the leaders above the law. Aristotle warned us about the inbuilt problem of conﬂict between merit and numbers. This attention to a language in use is not ʻlocalʼ in the sense of ʻcut off from the globalʼ.
There is no doubt that globalization – having the same system of exchange all over the world and managing that through information and communications technology – can be the condition and effect of a just world. If we apply the standards of manual labour to this dream, as did Jacques Derrida to all intellectual labour, unceasingly, we would see that such a project necessarily involves incessant exclusions and inconsistencies. Languages in their idiomatic detail, in so far as they are singular yet pulled into translation, however imperfectly, are protection against the ʻdenialʼ symptoms of globalization, a denial of the irreducible untranslatability of idiom by imposing a single hegemonic language, impoverished and instrumental.
A sociology of knowledge looks into the ways in which social forces determine our way of knowing. A way of knowing – epistemology – brings with it a way of shaping what we know – constructing an object of knowledge. The new sociologists of knowledge suggest that, as a result of the explosive advances in information technology, our very way of knowing, our very way of intuiting space and time, have changed. Marshall McLuhan was the ﬁrst to suggest this, in the 1960s. Today this has become a common presupposition or assumption for many people. The most often acknowledged are, in alphabetical order: Manuel Castells, Saskia Sassen, Paul Virilio.
These intellectuals propose that those who think outside the virtual channels of telecommunication are not in keeping with our postmodern society. To put it in Castellsʼs powerful and inﬂuential words, they are still thinking ʻplaceʼ when the real world of the virtually connected megacities of the information society is made up of the ﬂows of ʻspaceʼ. The exclusion here is clear: everyone unconnected with the world of telecommunication. This excludes not only the rural poor and the underclass of global North and South but also those of us who might still believe in that archaic instrument called the book. It excludes those who believe that it might take time to train the imagination. In the world of telecommunication speed is king.
The movement of data is indistinguishable from the movement of ﬁnance capital. That is because the value-form of ﬁnance capital, negotiable capital instruments that need not necessarily be converted (or realized, as the old word goes) into money or goods – in that sense the ʻpurestʼ form of capital – is the data-form. The value-form of ﬁnance capital is the data-form. What Antonio Gramsci called ʻthe organic intellectualʼ, the intellectual who speaks and thinks for this new conduct of capital, will convince us that the world (in this case the globe) is created by telecommunication and groups that do not think, do not really belong to our world. This is not conspiracy theory. It is common sense.These are the major exclusions of the cultural theory of globalization. The major inconsistencies begin with the fact that minds do not change at the same speed as institutions. Castells celebrates the cultural theory of the disappearance of the book in three sequential books. The theorists of the new mind-set or episteme suggest that the inhabitants of this brave new world think space and time differently. Some of us think that, although we can think of different ways of thinking of space and time, and thus organize our thinking of space and time in different stories, in fact the human being thinks – does, as in performs – space as extension and time as sequence and this does not change. Derrida reminded us of this in Aporias.
Let us look at a more obvious inconsistency, an inconsistency in argument. I turn to Castells because his trilogy on the information society is massive, thoughtful and outstandingly documented. In his second volume, Castells tells us that certain movements have arisen in reaction against the virtuality of information theory. They are identity movements that tell us we are ﬂesh and blood, that we exist: feminism, culturalism, fundamentalism. There are at least two inconsistencies here. If these movements arise in reaction to the abstractions of globalization, they must in some way, however inchoate, be part of that abstraction. Do they belong to the postmodern world of virtual reality or not? Castells does not discuss this.
A further inconsistency is lodged in the history of these movements. Culturalism as nationalism, fundamentalism as xenophobia, and feminism, ʻas itselfʼ, have such long and variegated histories that to put them together simply as reactive to the information society seems unwise. And the most glaring inconsistency is that feminism has had an oblique relationship to the other two movements.
Derrida would read the claims of the organic intellectuals of the information society with an immensely scrupulous micrology or attention to detail. That scanning eye is now closed. It is imagination that lets us look closely at these exclusions and inconsistencies. I will deﬁne imagination as that which can make us, or allows us to, act against self-interest as well as think what is not present. This is the vaguest possible deﬁnition that may be useful only when set to work. Such a deﬁnition will always be tied to the situation in which it is set to work. (Is auto-affection self-interest is the kind of question that will pop up, for instance.) Derrida deﬁned this tied-in-ness as ʻtraceʼ as early as 1968 and suggested that to take such situational constraints into account prevented the easy ʻtransgressionʼ (his word) into universalization. For example, when my deﬁnition is taken by someone who teaches the humanities and the verbal arts of literature, it is tied to professional self-interest and thus prey to the inconsistency that it criticizes. And, attempting to be inclusive, it excludes the very globalization whose exclusivity it deplores, unless they come around to our side and thus serve the self-interest that our deﬁnition excludes. We cannot launch this deﬁnition to add to the grand deﬁnitions of the imagination that Europe has given us since the eighteenth century. Whatever effect it has will be in spite of itself. But it works ﬁne to give a rough account of language. For language nourishes the imagination, and, as soon as you put something in language, you assume that it is not immediately present.
A slow learning
Let me repeat here the common-sense description of learning a ﬁrst language that I often use: language is there because we want to touch another. The infant invents a language. The parents learn it. By way of this transaction the infant enters a linguistic system which has a history before its birth and will continue to have a history after its death. Yet during its life this infant, grown up into a human being, will think of this language as his or her most intimate possession, and will mark it in a way, however small, which will be incorporated into its impersonal history. Only the ﬁrst language is learnt this way. It activates a mechanism once in a lifetime. Derrida wrote of this in Of Grammatology.
There will be global English only when English is learnt this way by every child in the world. I am of course deeply troubled by claims to global English. I should perhaps include Chinese here. For it is sometimes claimed that the Internet can go Chinese. I think that in order for that to happen, Chinese will probably have to go beyond simpliﬁed characters, and conﬁne itself to the twenty-six letters of the pinyin, make its tonal system contextual. Then, since its grammar is simpler than English, we can make the same troubling pronouncement about Chinese. There will be global Chinese when Chinese is learnt this way by every child in the world.
I must make my last move in the hopeless concession that it is possible that if globalization is as inexorable, powerful and inevitable as it is claimed by its theorists, it is within the realm of possibility that the imagination will have to ﬁnd its habitat within Chinese and English, two languages whose superb poetic traditions will remain inaccessible in their globalized versions, because imagination, implicit in poetry, takes time to train, and is therefore inconvenient.
It is obvious that self-interest drives globalization. Even the plans for world governance and the eradication of poverty are tainted by simpliﬁed versions of the civilizing missions of old imperialisms. Unlike my lopsided deﬁnition of the imagination, the agents and the system of capitalist globalization will, as I mentioned earlier, work by exclusion and inconsistency – the agents unselfconsciously or deliberately, the system by its inner laws of working.
The very forces we are ﬁghting will make sure that, even without the humanities ﬁghting for languages on the level of teaching, not everybody will have access to the powerful uniformity of a global language. If globalization is to work, every child will not learn the global language in the way of a ﬁrst language. We take shelter in that apparent sign of inequality, turn loss into gain. In my estimation, a successful globalizing socialism will also move towards the uniformity of speed-oriented world languages, perhaps with greater alacrity because, presumably, there will be more real equality under socialism. In theory, the only difference between capitalism and socialism is in the redistributive impulse of the human beings who run the state. For both systems to work, capital-formation, the driving force of globalization, must be assumed. And redistribution is against self-interest. It cannot happen without a highly trained sympathetic imagination; and the imagination is nourished by the slow learning of the otherʼs language, with the memory of that ﬁrst learning in the works. The learning of oneʼs ﬁrst language (the native language, the mother-tongue, marked by birth) is at once slow and fast, linked, as the philosophers of artiﬁcial intelligence and neural networking tell us, to the very telecommunication that needs to make uniform the multiplicity of languages.
Although most of us cannot perform Derridaʼs ﬁne-tuned reading of the Greek language within the history of Europeʼs self-representation, and the history of words like ʻdemocracyʼ, a crude summary like the one I have just offered asks for such a ﬁne-tuned reading of the word ʻsocialʼ – and its companions in German and French – together with their transformations in the languages of Asia and Africa.
Here, and again by way of summary, let me point out that ʻcapitalʼ and the ʻsocialʼ of socialism both work by abstraction. The ʻabstractʼ is produced by the imagination, for it is not the here and now. But the work of the abstract requires the wiping out of singularity, the repeatable difference. Most of the workers for globalization do not produce the abstract, but accept it as given, and systematize within it. As I am insisting, the wiping out of singularity involves the destruction of the multiplicity of languages of the world, not because they are local, but because they are singular, translatably different. To give you a sense of this repetition and difference at work, I cannot know how the English word ʻsingularʼ plays with ʻlocalʼ in Korean, with its own pattern of contradictions. Korea is a major player in telecommunications technology. I am citizen of a country, India, which is also becoming competitive in information technology. As Derrida plays between ancient Greece and global modernity, so should we be able to plot the passing of the grand ethical abstractions of Buddhism passing from classical India into Korea and see their displacement into the abstractions of global modernity.
For this we need different lines of communication between the worldʼs (not the globeʼs) multiplicity of languages. Here I have described a linguistic singularity and economic violence which are a displacement of ethical singularity and political violence.
The last time I appeared in public in front of an audience with my friend Derrida was in New York in 2001, at a belated celebration of his seventieth birthday, in a synagogue on the Lower East Side. I insisted then, with the obstinacy of an old friend who acknowledged the absolute superiority of the otherʼs intellect and learning in every possible way, on repeating my criticism of his reading of Marx. Some of you may know that he had chided me on this in print. On this occasion too he chided me, affectionately, but did not question the substance of my criticism, as he had not in his published remarks. My point was that, if one considered industrial capitalism, which was Marxʼs subject, one would see the human being, female and male, ʻspectralizedʼ (Derridaʼs word) in abstract average labour, labour power. It is this spectral power that socialism snatches from capitalism. But, because the power remains spectral or abstract, a merely abstract equalizer of all that is human in the form of value, indistinguishable from capital – human capital – it can become subsumed and an ally of globalization, where all that is human is virtualized in the form of data. It is destructive of the multiplicity of singularities. In order for socialism to become messianic (Derridaʼs word), we must look outside its boundaries. Derrida has taught me that socialism, like all systems, becomes auto-immune if it continues to account for itself. The activist suppresses this risk at her peril.
As we all know, ﬁnance capital has to use world trade. And, in its lower reaches, in spite of all the changes wrought by telecommunication, world trade still operates by the rules of the old industrial capitalism. The intense feminization of labour is one of its proofs. This argument has been made by others. It relates to what I said a while ago: ʻThe very forces we are ﬁghting will make sure that not everybody will have access to the powerful uniformity of a global language.ʼ As among the rural poor, so here, imagination is potentially fostered in this lack of access. Humanities teaching must supplement this and transform the lack into an excess, the excess of the multiplicity of languages.
This brings me to my ﬁnal point; but before I can make it, I must repeat something that I have said many times. I do not, indeed cannot, believe that a womanʼs entire fulﬁlment is in child-bearing and child-rearing; yet reproductive heteronormativity – in spite of intuitions of originary queerness – has been the norm of the world for a much longer time than capitalism. (I am not speaking as if that norm is necessarily desirable. I am attempting to place myself within my context.) It is in that spirit that I say that the large majority of feminized labour, the large majority of urban and rural poor, are mothers who navigate their childrenʼs initiation into the mother-tongue, the mysterious process that I just described. Melanie Klein has suggested that, from the womb to the ﬁrst years of childhood, the child constructs the ʻlanguageʼ of ethics, by transforming the body parts of mother (and father) into a complex semiotic system. It is this conglomerate ethical semiotic, among the children of the disenfranchised women of the world, separated from the monoculture of globalization, that humanities teaching such as yours or mine can supplement, from above, so that it is not excluded from the deﬁnition of our world. This is why I said at the beginning that theories of globalization that announce a general change in knowledge patterns exclude those that believe that it might take time to train the imagination. We professors of the humanities, going on about distant learning, and video classrooms, never think of the fact that we share in this exclusion. Today I am urging that we make use of that common exclusion – from above, learning to learn from below.
To give you an idea of how we might do this, let me tell you a story. I was speaking to a group of managing directors and provincial government ofﬁcers in southern China who were learning English in order to work with the World Trade Organization. No one in the audience knew ʻwho I wasʼ. One of the men said to me, ʻYou speak English so well because the British owned you.ʼ I said, ʻYes, my brother, you are right. The British had their boots on our neck. But now that you want to enter the World Trade Organization, do not let the Americans do the same thing to you. I love English because I love my mother tongue. The reason to learn a language is not only trade, but to be able to appreciate its poetry. I am learning Chinese because, in my old age, I want to be able to taste your great poetry.ʼ
To these Chinese professionals and administrators I was speaking as a teacher of English. I believe they thought I was a teacher of language. But, as you know, I teach comparative literature – English, French and German, three hegemonic languages – mostly to people who are native speakers. To the students in New York I have been saying, for a long time, control your desire to be ethical at your own convenience under the newly globalized world at your command since the end of the so-called Cold War. Learn the otherʼs language carefully and well, to be able to access their ethical system. Train your imagination by way of the otherʼs language. To those in Asia and Africa I would say what I said to my interlocutor in China: let us love our mother tongues as public as well as private languages so that we can love the global language. Not as the language of globalization but as the language of poetry. And as we come up to universities – let us learn languages from other parts of Asia and Africa than our own, to break the bilateral bond of the West and my own place. It is thus that language can be a protection against globalization, because it can take us on the track of imagining the singularity of the other.
Can, not will. Humanities education strives to rearrange desires. It trains the citizens of the coming world, not merely the traders of the globe. It is the effort of teaching that can put us on the track of imagining the singularity of the other in the otherʼs language. Imagination expands languages. And this effort of teaching and training, like all teaching and training, must of course be repeated. The schools do not close after one generationʼs business is ﬁnished. The humanities cannot abdicate their task. Some years ago, the Indian writer in English Khushwant Singh recommended writing ﬁction only in English to Indians because, he said, you can say ʻblue skyʼ in many different ways in English, whereas in Hindi, his mother tongue, you can only say neela asman. What this told us was that he had lost the capacity to imagine in his own language.
No, in the era of globalization languages are not local. They are instruments to affect the monoculture of the global. Together let us keep alive the multiplicity of languages and not give up. For nurturing this conviction in me, I remember my friend Jacques Derrida.
‘Affirm the survival’
In his ﬁnal interview with Le Monde, published last August, Derrida offered a set of meditations and inquiries about death. If he could learn how to live, he remarks, he would also learn how to die, and this would mean to die without any sense of resurrection or redemption; this would be an absolute death. It is interesting that at this revealing moment, Derrida should ﬁnd in Socrates his proper precursor, that he should turn to Socrates to understand that, at the age of 74, he still did not quite know how best to live. In fact, he claims in this interview that he is ʻinéducableʼ on the matter of knowing how to live and how to die. He says to his interviewer: ʻSo then, to answer you plainly, no, I have never learned how to live. Not at all!ʼ and then, a few lines later, he is clear that he has not learned to live because he has never learned to die: ʻI have not learned to accept death.ʼ We can accept what he says, since he is, after all, speaking plainly here, or we can ask what he might mean by this declaration. A paradox emerges, since at the end of the interview there seems to be a nearly ineffable acceptance of his death. We might pause, then, to consider whether learning how to live and to die is the same as a certain capacity for afﬁrmation, a yes-saying.
At the end of the interview, Derrida remarks that everything that he has said, since 1986, about survival ʻproceeds from an unconditional afﬁrmation of lifeʼ. Survival, la survie, is, he explains, the ʻafﬁrmation of a living being who prefers livingʼ and, hence, surviving, to death, because survival does not refer to what is left, what remains, but to ʻthe most intense life possibleʼ. If, then, he is ineducable on the matter of learning how to live and to die, it is because his relation to living and dying is not one that can be instructed or learnt; it is a matter of afﬁrmation, and this afﬁrmation is not learnt or acquired, and it is most certainly not based on evidence that supports the case that, yes, afﬁrmation is warranted. The yes-saying of afﬁrmation is not based on evidence; it proceeds with indifference to evidence, and it takes the form of the ʻyesʼ – though I take it that this ʻyesʼ can happen in various ways.
So knowing how to live and knowing how to die are something that Derrida cannot do, has never been able to do, a task in relation to which he is permanently ineducable. He clearly did not expect to achieve that knowledge in this life since, at the time he is speaking, he knows that he is nearing his death. So is this a biographical insight into the person, Derrida? Can we say that Derrida happened to be ineducable in this regard but that surely other people are, that they have successfully learned how to live and how to die? The insight may well be biographical, but it seems to be what he would call ʻstructuralʼ as well. Derrida remarks,
As for the formula you refer to [ʻto ﬁnally learn how to liveʼ, apprendre à vivre enﬁn]; it came to me after the book [Specters of Marx] was ﬁnished. First of all, it plays, but seriously, with the common meaning of the phrase. To learn how to live is to mature, also to educate. If you shout at someone and say, ʻje vais tʼapprendre à vivreʼ [Iʼm going to teach you how to live], sometimes in a threatening way, it means I am going to coach you, even train you [te former voire te dresser]. And the ambiguity of this play on words – between enseigner and apprendre – is even more important to me, this sigh (le soupir) opens up to an even more difﬁcult interrogation. Living, can it be learned? Can one learn through discipline or apprenticeship, by experience or by experimentation, to accept or, better, to afﬁrm life?
The conversation reminds me of Platoʼs Phaedo, in which the questioner, Simmias, asks Socrates on his deathbed whether it is true that a philosopher is always preparing for death. Socrates answers that ʻif a man has trained himself throughout life to live in a state as close as possible to death, would it not be ridiculous for him to be distressed when death come to him?ʼ Simmias answers with characteristic acquiescence, ʻit would, of courseʼ. Then Socrates elaborates: ʻtrue philosophers make dying their profession, and that to them of all men death is least alarming.ʼ Derrida has failed at this philosophical task; he is, as he tells us, ʻineducableʼ on the matter of learning how to live and how to die, this sagesse or wisdom. But if we ask further about Socratesʼ vocation, he tells us quite clearly that death is welcome only because there is no wisdom to be attained: ʻa true lover of wisdom who has ﬁrmly grasped this conviction . . that he will never attain to wisdom worthy of the name elsewhere than in the next world – will he be grieved at dying?ʼ So for a moment, we can see that Derrida is characteristically Socratic in underscoring his ineducability. If for Socrates it is a training and practice that leads him to the conclusion that there is no wisdom that he can acquire on how to live and how to die, it is a certain rigour associated with a systematic ascesis of thought. But once we see this moment of convergence between Derrida and Socrates, they clearly depart again, since Derrida makes clear that there is, regardless of the impoverished state of wisdom in this life, an imperative to afﬁrm this life, a life for which there is no redemption, a life that is not justiﬁed through reference to another, more perfect life.
Indeed, there is no afterlife for Derrida, no soul that separates from the body, but there is an afterlife of words. In this ﬁnal published conversation, he takes up the question of what survives, and so offers, we might conjecture, a certain consolation to his readers and to his friends in much the same way that Socrates spends most of the Phaedo doing for those who will survive him.
He is clear about the ﬁnality of death, but he returns to the task of afﬁrming what he calls survival, la survie. He refers to Walter Benjamin, who, in ʻThe Task of the Translatorʼ, makes a distinction between überleben, the survival of a part, surviving death, as a book can survive the death of its author, or a child survives the death of a parent, and fortleben, living on, continuing to live, the continuation of life itself. Survival carries these two meanings, continuing to live, but also, he emphasizes, living after death. Derridaʼs way of thinking about this question is not Socratic, and yet in another way it remains so, once we remember that ʻSocratesʼ, if he lives on, does so by virtue of Plato – that is, by virtue of Platoʼs writing. That writing becomes the matrix in which a certain textualization of the conversation constitutes a survival, one in which the ʻcontinuing to liveʼ (fortleben) haunts the survival of these words, their überleben. Are we hearing from Derrida again, does he still live, or is this what is left of him in the words we read and speak? A certain haunting or spectrality is induced through this equivocation, and this equivocation, he tells us, is structural, even originary. We expect survival to come later, as a concept that follows a life, as a predicament we face upon the death of the author, but Derrida tells us, here, at the end of his life, that the predicament was always there, and that this equivocation, this question of survival, even this imperative to afﬁrm survival, is there from the outset, built into the language that precedes us. He says,
All of the concepts that have helped me to work, especially that of the ʻtraceʼ and the ʻspectreʼ, are to be found in ʻsurvivalʼ as a structural dimension. It (the notion of survival) is derived neither from life nor from death. This is why I call it an ʻoriginal mourningʼ – it does not wait for death to become effective . . [S]urvival is an original concept, that constitutes the very structure of what we call existence, da-sein if you wish. We are structurally survivors, marked by the structure of the trace, the testament. But having said that, I would not want to leave the interpretation there, according to which survival is closer to death than it is to life and the future.
Here it seems to me that he refuses the Socratic claim to be closer to death. And he turns the task around, claiming that ʻall the time, deconstruction is in the corner of the “yes” – the afﬁrmation of life.ʼ
It is important to remember that this is an author speaking, one who, by deﬁnition, loses his words in a very precise way when he speaks and when he writes:
when one writes a book for a large audience, one doesnʼt know to whom one speaks, one invents and creates outlines, but they no longer belong to us. Spoken or written, all these gestures leave us: they start to act independently of us, like machines or, at best, like puppets.… At the moment that I allow ʻmyʼ book to be published (no one makes me do it), I begin to appear-and-disappear, like some unteachable ghost who never learned how to live. The trace that I leave signiﬁes to me both my death, either to come or already past, and the hope that it will survive me. Itʼs not an ambition of immortality, itʼs structural; it is the constant form of my life. Every time I allow something to go forth, I see my death in the writing. The extreme test: one expropriates oneself – one gives oneself away – without knowing to whom one conﬁdes the thing one leaves. Who will inherit it now and how? Will there even be inheritors? Thatʼs a question that one can pose now more than ever. It preoccupies me ceaselessly.
So there is no ambition for immortality, but there is a kind of survival that preoccupies him without pause. We do not choose the language into which we are born, we are born into a set of traces that have by and large lost their origins, but which constitute the survival of what is irrecuperable.
Derrida understands that he may now have left his traces in the French language, but he is clear that this language never belonged to him, an Algerian, a permanent foreigner, and that it nevertheless welcomed him and that he could welcome it, through a ʻreﬁnedʼ form of ʻdisrespectʼ. He does not understand himself as inventing a new genre of writing, but only participating in an ongoing revolution: ʻin every situation, an appropriate new mode of exposition must be created, a law of the singular event.ʼ And though he understands the pedagogical impulse to teach the student to read, indeed to live, in some way that she is not being taught from any other place, he understands as well that he cannot form his reader, in the same way that no one could teach him, ﬁnally, how to live.
Survival is structural – it seems a neatly unpoetic way of replacing the dream of immortality. We inherit the traces of the dead, even when we were not the intended recipients, but in the moment in which we give away our own words, we participate in a certain wild future of inheritance, one for which no framework for kinship exists. We are not sure ʻwhoʼ survives, but there is a surviving that takes place, spectral, haunted, in and through the trace. I am reminded of Celan, returning to accept an award at Bremen in 1958, returning, as it were, from another landscape, as he tells it, one that suggests that he has survived or that survival is the name for his being there. He addresses the crowd and lets them know that ʻBremenʼ has always had the sense of the ʻunreachableʼ for him. And then he reads the following sentence:
Reachable, near and not lost, there remained in the midst of the losses this one thing: language. The language remained, but it had to pass through its own answerlessness, pass through frightful muting, pass through the thousand darknesses of a death-bent speech. It passed through and gave back no words for that which happened; yet it passed through this happening. Passed through and could come to light again, ʻenrichedʼ by all this.
Celan writes that he ʻgoes with his very being to language, stricken by and seeking realityʼ. Derrida joins Celan perhaps precisely at the moment in which Celan writes that ʻnot lost, yes in spite of everythingʼ. The ʻyesʼ that wedges itself in there as a non sequitur, that inaugurates the phrase that follows with no preparation and with no justiﬁcation, it is perhaps this ʻyesʼ that Derrida offers enﬁn ʻin spite of everythingʼ.
Towards the end of the interview in Le Monde, Derrida maintains,
Everything that I say about survival as a complication of the life and death opposition proceeds from my unconditional afﬁrmation of life. Survival, that is the life beyond life, the life that is more than life, and the discourse that I offer is not petriﬁed or mortiﬁed – it is the afﬁrmation of a living one who prefers life and surviving death, because survival, which is not simply what remains, is the most intense life possible. I am never more haunted by the necessity of death than in moments of happiness and pleasure. Taking pleasure and crying in the face of impending death – for me they are the same thing. When I recall my life, I have a tendency to think of the good luck I have had in loving the unhappiest moments in my life and even to bless them. Almost all except for one exception that is near [Presque tous à une exception près]. When I recall the happy moments, I bless them as well, surely, at the same time that they propel me toward the thought of death, toward death, because it happens, ﬁni.
So we learn – if we did not already know it – that Derrida takes the eternal return seriously, and to everything that has happened he says ʻyesʼ, since no suffering, no loss, no injustice that takes place in life exacts from him a ʻnoʼ to life itself. I am unsure that I can follow him here. But I know that there is no instruction manual to help me. He says yes to the life that is mortal, but he does not precisely say his ʻyesʼ to death itself. That remains the one thing he cannot afﬁrm, and he cannot afﬁrm it precisely because he afﬁrms the singular and ﬁnite life that is his. What he does afﬁrm, though, is survival in its equivocal and double sense, the originary structure of existence that turns out to be the originary structure of language as well.
At the end of the interview, after the concession that death does happen, Derrida says ʻﬁniʼ and the interview ends. Is this a perfect consonance, in which the word enacts the experience? No, the last word that names the ﬁnality of death, the ﬁnality of his words, is still an act of naming, an event in language and so continues a certain ʻyesʼ to life in spite of everything. The word is as much a trace as it is signiﬁer. And inasmuch as the word ﬁni is spoken then, before he dies, it continues to belong to life, to his life, and yet it is there, spoken in anticipation of being read when he is gone, a spectral utterance that equivocates between the life that is continued in the word, and the word that survives a life that is not continuing. It names and mobilizes that equivocation.
At his funeral outside Paris, Derrida left a few lines to be read by his son Pierre. Among them was a certain imperative, ʻAfﬁrmez la survie.ʼ These are the words that survived him, the ones he wanted to be read by his inheritor, the one he knew, even as he knew that survival means precisely not to know where oneʼs words will go and what kind of inheritance lies in wait for them. Afﬁrm survival, he tells us, and suddenly I am orphaned, since he gives us no instruction, and we are not told how, in the face of suffering, in spite of suffering, this afﬁrmation is to take place. He cannot teach us here, except to let us know that this afﬁrmation is precisely what cannot be taught. Afﬁrmez la survie – it is his voice; it is a prosopopeia, it is a demand that he bequeaths to someone, anyone, words that cannot precisely seize and craft us, but words with which we are left. We can try to make better sense of them, but they persist in their spectral materiality, as it were; they are what is left, that they remain. That they continue to live and live on is precisely the point, the point we are always missing, the predicament that is ours as beings who go to language stricken by reality, seeking it.
I am stricken by the reality of Derridaʼs death, which has indeed happened, ﬁni. But, for some reason I do not understand, I continue now in or with his words, and something else continues there, which claims me prior to any decision. I do not seize upon it; it seizes upon me. Between what is ﬁnished and what is left to be afﬁrmed is precisely the equivocation of survival itself, one that proves its structural persistence, for us, in spite of us, without him, with him.
An ethos of reading
A vital measure of the inﬂuence of a thinker on a discipline is the extent to which they transform its customs, protocols and practices in a way that makes it difﬁcult to conceive how things were done before they appeared on the scene. Such transformations are usually simply incorporated into the discipline and presupposed by those who come after. This is why we often have a thankless relation to the most inﬂuential thinkers – because their innovations are now the way in which we are accustomed to see and do things. Deﬁnitionally, then, great thinkers are often those who change the way we do things in a peculiarly thankless way. Jacques Derrida was a great thinker. He exerted a massive inﬂuence over a whole generation of people working in philosophy. His death is an unfathomable loss. In what follows I would like to thank him for what he enabled people like me to presuppose thanklessly in our practice.
How did Derrida transform the way in which people like me do philosophy? Let me begin negatively with a couple of confessions. I was never a structuralist and always found Ferdinand de Saussureʼs linguistics a deeply improbable approach to language, meaning and the relation of the latter to the world. There is no doubt that Saussurean structuralism enabled some stunning intellectual work, particularly Claude Lévi-Straussʼs anthropology, Jacques Lacanʼs reading of Freud and Roland Barthesʼ brilliant and enduring literary and cultural analyses. But that doesnʼt mean that Saussure was right. Therefore, Derridaʼs early arguments in this area, particularly the critique of the priority of speech over writing in the hugely inﬂuential Of Grammatology, left me rather cold. Talk of ʻpost-structuralismʼ left me even colder, almost as cold as subsequent throat-clearing about ʻpostmodernismʼ. So, in assessing Derridaʼs inﬂuence, I want to set aside a series of notions famously associated with him – like différance, trace and archi-writing – in order to get a clearer view of what I think Derrida was about in his work.
I have a similar scepticism about the popular idea of deconstruction as a methodological unpicking of binary oppositions (speech/writing, male/female, inside/outside, reason/madness, etc., etc.). In my view, this is a practice which led generations of humanities students into the intellectual cul-de-sac of locating binaries in purportedly canonical texts and cultural epiphenomena and then relentlessly deconstructing them in the name of a vaguely political position somehow deemed to be progressive. In so far as Derridaʼs name, and half-understood anthologized excerpts from some of his texts, were marshalled to such a cause, this led only to the reduction of deconstruction to some sort of formalistic method based on an unproven philosophy of language.
In my view, Derrida was a supreme reader of texts, particularly but by no means exclusively philosophical texts. Although, contrary to some Derridophiles, I do not think that he read everything with the same rigour and persuasive power, there is no doubt that the way in which he read a crucial series of authorships in the philosophical tradition completely transformed our understanding of their work and, by implication, of our own work. In particular, I think of his devastating readings of what the French called Les trois H: Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger, who provided the bedrock for French philosophy in the postwar period and the core of Derridaʼs own philosophical formation in the 1950s. But far beyond this, Derridaʼs readings of Plato, of Rousseau and other eighteenth-century authors like Condillac and his relentlessly sharp engagements with more contemporary philosophers like Foucault, Bataille and Levinas – leaving aside his readings of Blanchot, Genet, Artaud, Ponge and so many others – are simply deﬁnitive.
We should also mention Derridaʼs constant attention to psychoanalysis in a series of stunning readings of Freud. In my view, what confusedly got named ʻdeconstructionʼ, a title Derrida always viewed with suspicion, is better approached as double reading. On the one hand, a double reading gives a patient, rigorous and – although this word might sound odd, I would insist on it – scholarly reconstruction of a text. This means reading the text in its original language, knowing the corpus of the author as a whole, being acquainted with its original context and its dominant contexts of reception. If a deconstructive reading is to have any persuasive force, then it must possess a full complement of the tools of commentary and lay down a powerful, primary layer of reading. On the other hand, the second moment of reading is closer to what we normally think of as an interpretation, where the text is levered open through the location of what Derrida sometimes called ʻblind spotsʼ. Here, an authorship is brought into contradiction with what it purports to claim, its intended meaning, what Derrida liked to call the textʼs vouloir-dire. Derrida often located these blind spots in ambiguous concepts in the texts he was reading, such as ʻsupplementʼ in Rousseau, ʻpharmakonʼ in Plato, and ʻSpiritʼ in Heidegger, where each of these terms possesses a double or multiple range of meaning that simply cannot be contained by the textʼs intended meaning. Many of his double readings turn around such blind spots in order to explode from within our understanding of that author.
The key thing is that the explosion has to come from within and not be imposed from without. It is a question of thinking the unthought within the thought of a speciﬁc philosophical text. Derrida often described his practice as parasitism, where the reader must both draw their sustenance from the host text and lay their critical eggs within its ﬂesh. In the three examples of Plato, Rousseau and Heidegger, the crucial thing is that each of these conceptual blind spots is deployed by its author in a way that simply cannot be controlled by their intentions. In an important sense, the text deconstructs itself rather than being deconstructed.
For me, Derridaʼs philosophical exemplarity consists in the lesson of reading: patient, meticulous, scrupulous, open, questioning reading that is able, at its best, to unsettle its readersʼ expectations and completely transform our understanding of the philosopher in question. Because Derrida was such a brilliant reader, he is a difﬁcult example to follow, but in my view one must try. This is what I would see as the pedagogical imperative deriving from Derridaʼs work. What one is trying to cultivate with students – in seminars, week in, week out – is a scrupulous practice of reading, being attentive to the textʼs language, major arguments, transitions and movements of thought, but also alive to its hesitations, paradoxes, quotation marks, ellipses, footnotes, inconsistencies and downright conceptual confusions. Thanks to Derrida, we can see that every major text in the history of philosophy possesses these self-deconstructive features. Deconstruction is pedagogy.
Returning to the question of inﬂuence, although all of Derridaʼs training and the great majority of his publications were in philosophy, it is difﬁcult to think of a philosopher who has exerted more inﬂuence over the whole spread of humanistic study and the social sciences. The only comparable ﬁgure is Michel Foucault. And just as it is now unimaginable to do historical or social research without learning from what Foucault said about power, subjectivity and the various archaeologies and genealogies of knowledge, so too Derrida has completely transformed our approach to the texts we rely on in our various disciplinary canons. In a long, fascinating and now rather saddening interview with Le Monde from 19 August 2004, which was republished in a ten-page supplement after his death, he describes his work in terms of an ʻethos of writingʼ. Derrida cultivated what I would call a habitus of uncompromising philosophical vigilance at war with the governing intellectual common sense and against what he liked to call – in a Socratic spirit – the doxa or narcissistic self-image of the age.
Derridaʼs treatment by mainstream philosophers in the English-speaking world was, with certain notable exceptions like Richard Rorty, shameful. He was viliﬁed in the most ridiculous manner by professional philosophers who knew better but who acted out of a parochial malice that was a mere patina to their cultural insularity, intellectual complacency, philistinism and simple jealousy of Derridaʼs fame, charisma and extraordinary book sales. In the English context, the incident which brought matters to a head was the initial refusal in late spring 1992 to award Derrida an honorary doctorate at the University of Cambridge, a refusal that found support among prominent voices in the Philosophy Faculty. After Derrida ﬁnally received the honorary doctorate with his usual civility, humour and good grace, a letter was sent to the University of Cambridge from Ruth Barcan Marcus, then Professor of Philosophy at Yale, and signed by some twenty philosophers, including Quine, who complained that Derridaʼs work ʻdoes not meet accepted standards of rigor and clarityʼ. I would like to take this opportunity to register in print my gratitude to these know-nothings for the attention they gave to Derrida.
At the heart of many of the polemics against Derrida was the frankly weird idea that deconstruction was a form of nihilistic textual free play that threatened to undermine rationality, morality and all that was absolutely fabulous about life in Western liberal democracy. In my view, on the contrary, what was motivating Derridaʼs practice of reading and thinking was an ethical demand. This is something that can be traced to the inﬂuence of Emmanuel Levinas and his idea of ethics being based on a relation of inﬁnite responsibility to the other person. Against the know-nothing polemics, deconstruction is an engaged and deeply ethical practice of reading that is of great social and political relevance. Derridaʼs work from the 1990s shows this relevance with extraordinary persistence in a highly original series of engagements with Marx, with European cultural and political identity, the nature of law and justice, democracy, sovereignty, cosmopolitanism, the death penalty, socalled rogue states, and ﬁnally with what Derrida liked to call an alternative possible globalization, an altermondialisation.
Derridaʼs work is possessed of a curious restlessness, one might even say an anxiety. A famous American philosopher, sympathetic to Derrida, once said to me, ʻhe never knows when to stop or how to come to an endʼ. In the interview with Le Monde, Derrida describes himself as being at war with himself: je suis en guerre contre moi-même. He was always on the move intellectually, always hungry for new objects of analysis, accepting new invitations, confronting new contexts, addressing new audiences. His ability in discussion to listen and then to synthesize new theories, hypotheses and phenomena and produce long, detailed and fascinating analyses in response was breathtaking. I saw him do it on many occasions and always with patience, politeness, modesty and civility. Derrida had such critical and synthetic intelligence – a brilliance, as Levinas was fond of saying. I remember sitting next to Derrida on a panel in Paris and thinking to myself that it felt like being close to an intellectual light bulb. The whole ethos of his work was at the very antipodes of the inert and stale professional complacency that deﬁnes so much philosophy and so many philosophers.
A death foretold, a life retold
It was a death foretold. In the lengthy interview with Jacques Derrida published in Le Monde last August (recorded in March), his interlocutor, Pierre Birnbaum, clearly found it difﬁcult to begin the conversation. He remarked that Derrida had been almost ubiquitous over the last year or so and brieﬂy chronicled his recent activities. And then he hesitated: ʻItʼs a lot for one year and yet, and you do not hide it, you are…ʼ Derrida interrupted him: ʻGo on, say it, quite dangerously ill and going through some unpleasant treatment. But letʼs leave that, if you donʼt mind. Weʼre not here for a health bulletin – public or secret.ʼ Derrida was suffering from pancreatic cancer, and that is not a disease that takes prisoners. He was hospitalized in mid-September and died on the night of Saturday 9 October.
The ﬁrst obituaries published in Le Monde and Libération were quite brief and said little that was not in the bald releases from Agence France-Presse. In its 9 October issue (which, thanks to the paperʼs bizarre publishing cycle, actually appeared on the Monday afternoon), Le Monde did little more than note Derridaʼs death and make some general comments on his career and status. On 11 October, Libération published a lengthy dossier (it seems inappropriate to describe it as a ʻsupplementʼ) written mainly by its philosophy correspondent Robert Maggiori. The next day, Le Monde followed with an eleven-page dossier, which included a reprint of the August interview and comments and tributes from various luminaries. There was nothing unusual about this. France is probably the only country in the world where the deaths of intellectuals and philosophers make front-page news. The publication of dossiers like this is part of a tradition that, if memory serves, began with the death of Sartre in 1980, when, in tribute, Libération published a ʻspecial editionʼ running to ﬁfty-six pages. Such dossiers and special editions rarely say anything new about the deceased. They serve as long obituaries that sum up careers, and they allow a variety of friends and commentators to say farewell (in very moving terms, with Derridaʼs death, in the case of Jean-Luc Nancy and Michel Deguy, both writing in Libération). With time, they become historically valuable documents.
What is slightly surprising is that the extensive coverage was not restricted to Le Monde and Libération. The very conservative daily Le Figaro is not normally noted for its interest in deconstruction, but the various sections of its 11 October issue carried no fewer than six pieces devoted to Derrida. LʼHumanité, the journal of what is left of the Communist Party, ran two articles recalling his attendance at various of its annual Fêtes. A further article appeared the next day. The Catholic La Croix joined in the tributes. Francophone voices from further aﬁeld echoed them: Le Devoir in Montreal and Le Temps in Switzerland.
Slightly later in the week, Le Nouvel Observateur published a round-up of the tributes that had been paid. President Chirac, Communist senator Robert Hué, psychoanalyst Elisabeth Roudinesco and mayor of Paris Bernard Delanoé all mourned the death of Jacques Derrida. Their comments do not necessarily signal any great acquaintance with his work – I do not suppose that Hué has ever spent much time studying Spectres de Marx – but they do express a consensus. France, it was agreed by all, had lost an important thinker, almost a national treasure. Virtually all the newspapers commented on the sheer quantity of Derridaʼs output. More tellingly, many people described him as a successful ʻexportʼ. In death, Derrida became ʻFranceʼs greatest philosopherʼ; in life, he had enjoyed greater prestige abroad than at home. He was never elected to a chair at the Sorbonne or the Collège de France, and probably had as many detractors as admirers. Admirable as it may be, the Collège internationale de philosophie, which he helped to found, is a somewhat marginal institution.
Obituaries and press releases are scarcely the places for expositions of the complexities of Derridaʼs philosophy (though Maggiori did do a good job). Friends spoke affectionately of a man with a gift for friendship; others paid tribute to his political work. All recalled his Algerian past. In his press release the minister for culture and communications, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, described Derrida as a ʻprofound humanistʼ who had devoted his last years to studying the values of hospitality, ʻwith a particular concern for the link between Europe and the Mediterranean – he was a successful cross between the two – that often led him to speak of the “Nostalgeria” of a boy born in Algeria. He wanted to build an open idea of Europe: the best tribute we could pay to him would be to make his wish come true.ʼ
The contrast with the coverage in the UK press is depressing. The Guardian, Times and Independent all produced ﬁne obituaries: the piece in the Guardian by Derek Attridge and Thomas Baldwin (11 October) was particularly good. But both the Guardian and Times undermined them In the formerʼs ʻG2ʼ tabloid, Stephen Moss asked ʻa few key thinkersʼ if anyone actually understood Derrida. Was there really any point in putting the question to Julie Birchill or Roger Scruton? Was there really any point to The Timesʼs leader ʻIs Derrida Dead?ʼ (a question also asked by Rod Liddle in the Spectator)? Was there really any point to Gary Dayʼs ʻwittyʼ piece (THES, 5 November), which begins by noting that Derridaʼs death coincided with that of Christopher (ʻSupermanʼ) Reeves, which was unfortunate as it inevitably meant that he would be compared with the man who saved the world. ʻPlayfulʼ comments of that kind do no justice to either the philosopher or a good actor and very brave man. Such displays of boastful pride in oneʼs own ignorance and ʻnot understandingʼ are not pretty, and, whatever one thinks about ʻdeconstructionʼ, all the trite ʻjokesʼ about the undecidability of Derridaʼs death are simply distasteful in the extreme.
In the Le Point interview, Derrida spoke of his boyish enthusiasm for Gide: ʻFor me he wasnʼt a novelist, but a moraliste who was telling us how we should live. For me, thatʼs what philosophy has always been: the search for an ethics and a way of living.ʼ And, of course, of dying. He told Le Monde ʻWhen I recall my life, I tend to think that Iʼve been lucky enough to love even the unhappy moments of my life, and to bless them.ʼ Donʼt mock: begin the work of mourning.
A different world
Dogs bark at what they do not understand. Heraclitus
In Radical Philosophy 21 (Spring 1979) I wrote one of the early essays on Derrida in English, ʻIntroduction to Derridaʼ. (It was reprinted in Roy Edgley and Richard Osborne, eds, Radical Philosophy Reader.) This was an attempt to give a sympathetic (though not uncritical) presentation of the critical resources that Derrida was bringing to the table, in the face of suspicions from the Left that Derrida was a neoor crypto-conservative, and suspicions from the analytic orthodoxy that he was a charlatan. It was for many a source of despair that on the occasion of his death, the spectre of the culture wars – and the Cambridge Affair – could rise again from the bathtub, and that Jonathan Kandell could entitle his New York Times obituary ʻJacques Derrida,
Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74ʼ. They offer hemlock even to his dead body. This led to a great outpouring of letters of protest and signatures of support (to the date of writing 3,949) for the outraged ʻLetter to the Editorʼ written by Samuel Weber and Kenneth Reinhard (they are captured on UC Irvineʼs web page ʻRemembering Derridaʼ).
It seems a long time ago that I (and many other English philosophers and graduate students) ﬁrst met Derrida in Oxford in 1969, the year following the big March 1968 Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam demo, and the May 1968 student revolt in Paris. My tutor, Alan Monteﬁore, invited the rising star over from Paris on a number of occasions. My friends and I were captivated not just by the manʼs sheer intellectual brilliance but by his modesty, openness and extraordinary generosity of time and attention, traits which never left him, and which often surprised those who knew him only from his books. In 1972 Derrida published Positions, in which he publicly held his ﬁre against Marxism. Instead he was helping us ʻcontinentalistsʼ work through the positivistic edge of structuralism and the metaphysical aspects of phenomenology. But unlike his entry into the USA (ʻStructure, Sign and Playʼ addressed literary theorists at Johns Hopkins in 1966), in the UK Derrida was ﬁrst addressing philosophers. Though I am no disciple, Derrida indelibly shaped my intellectual trajectory. It would take him twenty-ﬁve years to write Specters of Marx, and, even then, disappoint the Left. Derrida was always suspicious of dialectizable alternatives, including the victory of liberal democracy over communism, announced by Fukuyama. ʻFreedomʼ was never a straightforward value for him, even as he came to proclaim that nothing was less outdated than the Enlightenment ideal.
It seems now like a different world. The main ﬁgures listed as reading on my courses have now nearly all died. Heidegger (1976), Marcuse (1979), Sartre (1980), Lacan (1981), Foucault (1984), Althusser (1990), Deleuze (1995), Levinas (1995), Gadamer (2002). This semester I have been teaching a graduate seminar on Derrida. Most of the ʻContinentalʼ philosophers I knew in Britain in the 1980s and early 1990s have emigrated – mainly to the USA (David Krell, Robert Bernasconi, Tina Chanter, Jay Bernstein, Geoff Bennington, Simon Critchley). It is perhaps not surprising that it is in the United States that Derrida really assembled a following.
It seems like a different world. And yet here we are again, ʻat warʼ with a globally deﬁned enemy. Here ʻweʼ are again – we academics, intellectuals, philosophers – faced with our impotence in preventing war, torture, genocide, preventing the worst violence. Here we are again, propelled into the future for another four years, after an election that puts in question the very democratic institutions it serves, and that brings the language of good and evil to the lips of those who never believed they could think that way. Many of us with an address in this rogue state wonder whether living in the lap of the great Satan gives us any greater opportunity to inﬂuence the course of events, or any greater responsibility. And in the shadow of this barbaric repetition, it is no accident that Derrida began to talk more about hospitality, about cosmopolitanism, about terror, about democracy, about the European ideal, about the ghosts that haunt us and the (im)possibilities that we can neither anticipate nor give up on.
Derrida was an Algerian Jew, living in the heart of the ex-colonial power, who specialized in inhabiting the uncanny space of the border, the margin, the never completely at home, impropriety. He was not a revolutionary, he had no programme, but he held open the possibility of transformation in every instant, at any time. I doubt I will see his like again.