A philosopher's presence
Some assume, mistakenly, that Jacques Derrida's death means we no longer have to grapple with his ideas
WHEN THE PHILOSOPHER Jacques Derrida died on Oct. 9, some wondered playfully whether he had died last weekend, or many weekends ago. Maybe it was really in 1987, when the controversy over literary theorist Paul de Man's collaborationist wartime journalism resulted in a campaign to smear Derrida by association, permanently damaging his reputation in the United States. Maybe it was when he agreed to appear in a documentary two years ago, or when he posed reluctantly for Steve Pyke's iconic 1990 photograph.
The New York Times obituary gives the impression that Derrida's death and the demise of deconstruction, the philosophy of language he developed, are one and the same. It cited a sentence from a 1994 New York Times Magazine piece: "Many otherwise unmalicious people have in fact been guilty of wishing for deconstruction's demise -- if only to relieve themselves of the burden of trying to understand it." Many other people, however, did in fact find the thought malicious. Within days, hundreds of professors, students, artists, writers, and architects signed an open online letter complaining about the sneering, anti-intellectual tone of the obituary.
Derrida's death isn't a metaphor, and to suggest it is, even playfully, is in poor taste. Stretching for meaning this way, as Richard Wolin also does in his "good riddance" valediction on The New Republic's website, is to be guilty of one of the charges that has been levelled against deconstruction: sophistry, a fondness for the play of rhetoric and metaphor over truth, facts, and history. The charge, never just or fair -- though levelled by vocal supporters of justice and fairness -- ignored the fact that deconstructionists were incredibly wary of saying aloud that they'd discovered a truth for fear that they'd uncovered another deeper layer of metaphor.
The conviction that all was metaphor could grow into arrogance, but more often bred a dull hesitancy about concluding. Old-school literary critics always understood this. Harold Bloom, once a friend and ally of Derrida and de Man, thought of deconstruction as a "school of resentment" -- as though too much talk about the unending play of the signifier could make you lose your playfulness. Neither exactly criticism nor "hard" philosophy, yet sharing aspects of both, deconstruction is loved by neither.
A philosophy of language that emphasizes everything in a text that's outside the rules (exceptions, double or triple meanings, paradox, hesitation, interruption, the singular, and the absent), deconstruction is designed to resist easy summary. Indeed, Derrida's signature style of homonyms, often extravagant puns, and rhetorical gymnastics arose partly in reaction against the very dry method of summarizing the canon of Western philosophy from Plato to Hegel that still is drilled into French high school students.
Deconstruction, however, has become so many things to so many people. The transitive verb "to deconstruct" -- generally meant as a synonym for "analyze," usually to the point of absurdity -- is a creation of the American media and Woody Allen. When Derrida used the verb, rarely at first and later bowing to students and journalists who wouldn't leave it alone, it was always reflexive. Concepts deconstruct themselves. People do not deconstruct other people. Of course, once a word is released into the wild all sorts of things happen. It was inevitable that a philosophy associated with concepts like "the death of the author" and free play of language would have trouble controlling its terminology.
A man's death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 74 will not change any of this nor resolve old disputes. And yet I want to mourn Derrida in a way that I've never felt about public figures or writers. I want to make hyperbolic claims about the end of an era: the last great generation of intellectuals, the much talked about "death of theory" now matched by death in the flesh, with Derrida and Edward Said both gone within the last year. We couldn't grasp them when they lived. Will we even bother now they're dead? Does complexity still matter? And to whom? Especially now, with election-year bullhorns roaring, we prefer certainty, loyalty, iterability, and information -- preferably the kind that confirms what we already know.
Despite such worries, I want to mourn Derrida because I met him. I went to Paris in 1996 with hopes of apprenticing myself to the master, to learn at the source. I had just graduated from Columbia and was still flush with undergraduate enthusiasm and yearning for adventure. I enrolled at Derrida's annual seminar at the free university, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes Sciences Sociales.
The political issue of that moment was illegal immigration. The far-right National Front was on the rise, and the conservative Jupp government tried to halt the rightward shift of their voters by cracking down on "les sans-papiers," the undocumented. Derrida's seminar was on hospitality. It was his usual touch for the relevant without engaging too hotly in actual politics in the classroom (though he did grunt work for the Parti Socialiste on the side).
Every session Derrida fended off questions from students anxious to know how reading the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas or the anthropologist Louis Massignon linked to the issues of hospitality facing France. He told them that he'd signed the petition supporting the sans-papiers and had marched, but his intellectual method seemed designed to frustrate his students' desire for arguments to use on the barricades. It's important to know what's happening, but that means we should read Hegel or Levinas with even more care and slowness than usual.
Although the French refer to Derrida as part of "la pensee 68," evoking thoughts of street riots, you could imagine frustrated radical students pelting him with flowers and baring their breasts. His method seemed to revel in delayed gratification and delayed action. Thought, he implied, was the appropriate response to a political crisis, but only if one thought about the right things.
I went to see Derrida during his office hours. Someone said he looked like God, but when I got through the door I thought he looked like a long-lost Sephardic cousin of my grandfather's. He wore clumsy tortoiseshell reading glasses and moved nervously, playing with a pipe on his desk. The office was bare. He seemed uncomfortable in it. Another Jewish intellectual, I thought. I felt at home. That is, I felt terrified in an utterly familiar way, as though my father was about to ask me whether I'd asked a good question in school.
My turn to address the class came in late March. I'd arranged a presentation on the Book of Jonah and its contribution to a Judeo-Christian rhetoric of hospitality, particularly the concept of "cities of refuge." By then, however, France's own problem with hospitality was becoming increasingly urgent. The street cry of "solidarit avec les sans-papiers" had struck a chord with me beyond the usual slogans. Wasn't I also a foreigner? I decided to go as a freelance journalist to Vitrolles, a small town near Marseilles where the National Front had won the mayoralty, to investigate reports that white toughs had roamed the public housing projects with baseball bats in an effort to suppress the Arab vote.
When I returned to Paris, two curious things happened: I found that somehow I'd missed the day of my presentation, and I wrote an article about what I'd found in Vitrolles. It appeared that I'd made a decision. Farewell deconstruction, hello journalism. I hadn't intended to do it, and I'd thought I'd made a terrible mistake.
I went to see Derrida again. He remembered our first meeting, though fortunately he seemed to have forgotten that I was the one who had stood the seminar up. I told him about Vitrolles. He seemed interested, at least enough so as not be angry. He thought he could reschedule my presentation for next year, right at the beginning. You understand, he said, "que voulez-vous?" It's a colloquial expression, a rhetorical question that signifies powerlessness and submission to a larger will. Literally, it means "what do you want?"
Taken literally, it was a good question. What had I wanted from France that required equal immersion in immigration politics and Jacques Derrida? What did I expect from Derrida himself that I couldn't get in a course on Deconstruction and Literary Theory at an American graduate school? Somehow I wanted to become French, but more French than the French. French and other. American and other. Self and other. Deconstruction was the language of this impossible desire, as I then knew it.
In the institutionalization and translation of Derrida's philosophy, something was always lost. A way of thinking that emphasized the singular and unrepeatable, the absent and the paradoxical, could never offer the satisfaction that one was leading the good life, only that you and others were leading an impossible life. The temptation to put the man himself in the place of absent certainties and paternities was overwhelming and I'd fallen for it. I doubt I was the only one. To his credit, Derrida resisted as much as possible the messianic role others wanted for him. Now he no longer has to.
Marco Roth is an editor of the journal n+1. This essay appears in somewhat different form on the website www.nplusonemag.com.