“JACQUES DERRIDA will have been the greatest thinker of the 20th century. This might sound like the opinion of a misinformed, biased, sycophantic fan willfully ignorant of intellectual history. To nominate one person as meriting such an accolade would be to ignore and trivialize the achievements of all the other great thinkers of the past century, to treat what deserves utmost seriousness as a game or a horse race. Yet the great impact and wide-ranging influence of Derrida’s writings on the study and practice of a broad range of disciplines such as philosophy, art and aesthetics, political theory, literature and literary studies, psychoanalysis, religious studies, law, architecture and urban planning, linguistics, post-colonialism, and even science, which will take years to be measured and assessed, will bear out what at first appears to be a wildly exaggerated remark. No other 20th-century thinker will have had such a profound effect on so many domains of knowledge as Derrida.”
Terry Eagleton enjoys a superb biography of an original thinker
In May 1992, the dons of Cambridge University filed into their parliament to vote on whether to award an honorary degree to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, founder of so-called deconstruction. Despite a deftly managed smear campaign by the opposition, Derrida’s supporters carried the day. It would be interesting to know how many of those who tried to block him in the name of rigorous scholarship had read a single book of his, or even a couple of articles.
The truth is that they did not need to. The word was abroad that this purveyor of fashionable French gobbledegook was a charlatan and a nihilist, a man who believed that anything could mean anything and that there was nothing in the world but writing. He was a corrupter of youth who had to be stopped in his tracks. As a teenager, Derrida had fantasised with some of his friends about blowing up their school with some explosives they had acquired. There were those in Cambridge who thought he was planning to do the same to western civilisation. He did, however, have an unlikely sympathiser. When the Duke of Edinburgh, chancellor of Cambridge University, presented Derrida with his degree in the year in which Charles and Diana separated, he murmured to him that deconstruction had begun to affect his own family too.
Deconstruction holds that nothing is ever entirely itself. There is a certain otherness lurking within every assured identity. It seizes on the out-of-place element in a system, and uses it to show how the system is never quite as stable as it imagines. There is something within any structure that is part of it but also escapes its logic. It comes as no surprise that the author of these ideas was a Sephardic Jew from colonial Algeria, half in and half out of French society. If his language was French, he could also speak the patois of working-class Arabs. He would later return to his home country as a conscript in the French army, a classic instance of divided identity.
At the age of 12, Derrida was excluded from his lycee when the Algerian government, anxious to outdo the Vichy regime in its anti semitic zeal, decided to lower the quota of Jewish pupils. Paradoxically, the effect of this brutal rejection on a “little black and very Arab Jew”, as he described himself, was not only to make him feel an outsider, but to breed in him a lifelong aversion to communities. He was taken in by a Jewish school, and hated the idea of being defined by his Jewish identity. Identity and homogeneity were what he would later seek to deconstruct. Yet the experience also gave him a deep suspicion of solidarity.
If he was always a man of the left, he had an outsider’s distaste for orthodoxy and organisation. His role was that of the gadfly, the professional dissident, the joker in the pack. In the end, he was writing of the “absolute singularity” of every human being, and was always a dedicated non-joiner. Norms, doctrines and mass movements were likely to be oppressive, whereas margins and deviations were potentially subversive. Yet the English Defence League is marginal. And it took a mass movement to topple Gaddafi. Respecting freedom of speech is an orthodoxy, and the right to strike is a doctrine.
From a modest background in Algiers, Derrida moved to the most prestigious lycee in France, and from there to the Ecole Normale Supérieure. It was a heavily Stalinist institution at the time, which confirmed his reluctance to shout with the larger crowd. If Derrida was later to declare himself a communist, it was only in the sense that Kennedy called himself a Berliner. When student revolt erupted around him in May 1968, he stood mostly on the sidelines. Yet the libertarian impulse of the sixty-eighters was also a driving force behind his own work. The previous year had been his annus mirabilis, witnessing the appearance of three of the books that were to make his name revered and reviled across the globe.
Before long, the taciturn, socially gauche young man from the colonies was gracing the dinner tables of a galaxy of French luminaries: Jean Genet, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Maurice Blanchot and others. Even the French government fell under his spell. When François Mitterrand came to power in 1981, Derrida was invited to set up an international college of philosophy in Paris. Deconstruction was now all the rage from Sydney to San Diego, while Derrida himself was feted as an intellectual superstar. Soon, there was an American comic book featuring a sinister Doctor Deconstructo, and magazines on home decor were inviting their readers to deconstruct the concept of a garden.
I suspect that one reason Derrida enjoyed travelling the world so much was because it allowed him some respite from the bitchy, sectarian, backstabbing, backscratching climate of Parisian intellectual life, which this superb biography faithfully records. What the book fails to underline quite as heavily is how waspish the maitre himself could be.
Two dramatic moments stand out in Derrida’s subsequent career. Travelling to communist Prague in 1981 to address a secretly organised philosophy seminar, he was arrested and charged with drug smuggling. It seems the authorities saw the dismantling of binary oppositions as a threat to the state. The police officer who had planted the drugs in Derrida’s suitcase was himself later arrested for drug trafficking.
Six years later, Derrida’s life was again disrupted, this time by the revelation that his recently dead friend, the critic Paul de Man, had contributed antisemitic articles to the pro-German Belgian press during the second world war. Shattered by the news, Derrida wrote a long essay in De Man’s defence – which must rank among the most shamelessly disingenuous texts of modern times.
Benoît Peeters has ransacked the voluminous Derrida archives and interviewed scores of his friends and colleagues. The result is a marvellously compelling account, lucidly translated by Andrew Brown. The man who emerges from this portrait is an agonised soul with sudden outbreaks of gaiety, an astonishingly original thinker with more than a dash of vanity who nevertheless made himself fully available to the humblest student.
In personal conversation he was that most admirable of intellectuals, one visibly relieved not to have to speak of intellectual matters. He was one of the latest in an honourable lineage of anti-philosophers – from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Marx to Freud, Adorno, Wittgenstein and Walter Benjamin – who could say what they had to say only by inventing a new style of writing and philosophising.
Not all of Derrida’s writing is to everyone’s taste. He had an irritating habit of overusing the rhetorical question, which lends itself easily to parody: “What is it, to speak? How can I even speak of this? Who is this ‘I’ who speaks of speaking?”
Even so, the Cambridge backwoodsmen were wrong. Derrida, who died of cancer in 2004 urging his friends to affirm life, was no nihilist. Nor did he want to blow up western civilisation with a stick of conceptual dynamite. He simply wished to make us less arrogantly assured that when we speak of truth, love, identity and authority, we know exactly what we mean.
• Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right is published by Yale University Press.
A biography that focuses not on the origins or content of the philosopher’s work, but on the life of the man behind it
In addressing a philosopher of the importance of Jacques Derrida, whose massive output – about 60 volumes not including his as yet unpublished seminars – has been translated and debated the world over, Benoît Peeters has quite rightly chosen not the origins or content of the work itself, but the life of the man behind it. In short, he has written an excellent biography entirely in keeping with Anglo-Saxon traditions. He is the first to have gained access to the writer’s records at France’s Institute of Contemporary Publishing Archives and the Langson Library at the University of California, Irvine. He also interviewed around 100 essential figures.
He has reconstructed the events that prompted a young, non-practising Jew, born in 1930 in Algeria and banned from his lycée in 1942 by the Vichy government, to move to Paris in 1949 to study at the Lycée Louis le Grand, subsequently graduating to the Ecole Normale Supérieure.
In 1966, after acquainting himself with the work of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, Derrida took part in the celebrated symposium on structuralism organised by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore that brought together Roland Barthes, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Jean Hyppolite, René Girard and Jacques Lacan, among others. A year later he met Paul de Man, a theorist of modernist literary criticism, who introduced him to several US universities. He was soon rewarded with considerable success, particularly after the publication of De la Grammatologie (Of Grammatology) and L’Ecriture et la Différence (Writing and Difference). Over the next 10 years he found his place between two generations of brilliant thinkers, engaging in constant dialogue with Emmanuel Lévinas, Maurice Blanchot, Jean Genet, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and Louis Althusser.
Meanwhile, he worked hard on research, teaching and publication. In 1983, with several fellows, he founded the International College of Philosophy, then took up a post at the Graduate School of Social Sciences. His fame spread and his virulent critique of Marxism, structuralism and a certain ideal of overturning the established order – mistakenly seen as “1968″ thinking – percolated down through French public opinion. From 1986 he increasingly came under attack. The tide of hatred grew so strong as to dash any hopes of election to the Collège de France.
In fact, Derrida remained a social democrat opposed to colonialism and capital punishment, a feminist, a true Enlightenment scholar, attached to republican values, and an admirer of De Gaulle and Mandela. But from around 1987, as Peeters points out, he was successively depicted as an anti-democratic nihilist and an adept of two Nazi theorists – Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger – whose work he had investigated, then as an extreme leftwinger, on account of Spectres de Marx (Spectres of Marx), a major work on the concept of revolution. Finally he was accused of being a Nazi, after making a clumsy attempt to defend his friend De Man, whose murky past working on an antisemitic Belgian newspaper had emerged after his death.
Peeters sheds light on all this nonsense while revealing the many facets of a passionate thinker who travelled widely and invented a new language of philosophy. This explains his interest in a wide range of subjects (literature, law), social situations (exclusion, homosexuality) and struggles against suffering and discrimination (racism, antisemitism).
Derrida caused a scandal not because he was some sectarian fanatic but because he kept a rational watch on what was going on, monitoring unpredictable occurrences, events on the sidelines and at the extremes, and what he referred to as “dissemination”. This concern relates to the two terms he popularised: “deconstruction”, the process designed to undo a dominant system of thought and resist the tyranny of unity, the better to progress towards the future; and différance playing on the original French word’s dual meaning of difference and deferral, which allows us to conceptualise a universal otherness without cultivating differentialism.
This piece originally appeared in Le Monde
By Elisabeth Roudinesco, in Guardian Weekly
Without my knowing it, many elements long predisposed me to write the biography of Jacques Derrida.
Between 1974 and 1976, I was a pupil following the intensive and competitive post-baccalauréat humanities course at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where Derrida had been a boarder twenty-five years previously. It was during that time that I read, for the first time, L’Écriture et la différence and De la Grammatologie. In the next three years, as a philosophy student at the Sorbonne, then as a student of Roland Barthes at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, I occasionally attended Derrida’s seminar at the École Normale Supérieure.
I had published two short novels while I was a student and did not pursue my university studies beyond my Master’s. After becoming a writer and screenwriter, I came across Derrida again in another way, in 1983, when I collaborated with Marie-Françoise Plissart in creating an entirely wordless photographic story, Droit de regards (Right of Inspection). We approached Derrida with this work, asking him to write a preface for it. One year later, he finally came up with a long and superb “reading”. The album was published by Éditions de Minuit before being translated into German, English, Korean and Japanese, and together we launched it in Paris, Berlin and Vienna.
Our book-related exchanges carried on for several more years. I continued to read him. And we saw one another for the last time in the summer of 2000.
In 2007, three years after his death, it became clear to me that the biography of Jacques Derrida was a project that I had to undertake. My former ties with him largely privileged my relationship with his wife, Mme Marguerite Derrida, and with several others in his entourage. Since then, I have devoted most of my time to this project, with a steady passion. I have read or reread his immense bibliography, met some one hundred people who knew him, methodically explored archives kept in the “Special Collections” of the University of California, Irvine, and in the IMEC – Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine – in Normandy. I am the first person to have had the fortune to explore the incredible sum of documents accumulated by Jacques Derrida over the course of his life: his schoolwork, personal notebooks, book manuscripts, previously unpublished lectures and seminars, unedited interviews, thousands of letters received, press articles… I have also managed to track down correspondence addressed by Derrida to some of his intimates, from different periods of his life, notably several extraordinary letters from his youth that shed light on his years of study.