Remembering Derrida


JD Lemonde

On the one hand, we feel we have the right to demand that philosophical research and questioning never be dissociated from teaching... But, on the other hand, we also feel we are authorized to recall that some aspect of philosophy, perhaps the essential part of it, is not limited to, has not always been limited to, teaching acts, to educational events, to its institutional structures, indeed to the philosophical discipline itself. The discipline can always be overrun, sometimes provoked, by the unteachable. Perhaps it has to accept teaching the unteachable, to produce itself by renouncing itself, by exceeding its own identity. How is one to maintain, within the same now of the discipline, the limit and the excess? How to maintain that one must teach this very thing? That it cannot be taught?

---Jacques Derrida, "The Antinomies of the Philosophical Discipline"


To the Editor of the Globe and Mail: On Mourning the Death of Jacques Derrida

October 11, 2004

Dear Editor:

     I was just saying to my undergraduate students last week that the Globe & Mail never gives up an opportunity to play the role of public anti-intellectual in this country, or, for that matter, of denouncing difficult ideas because it imagines they are of consequence only for the universities. Thank you for providing me with a concrete example of that kind of bullying and fearful condescension, this, in the form of the obituary of the French philosopher and critical theorist, Jacques Derrida, reprinted from the New York Times ("The Father of Deconstruction" 11 Oct 2004). It was bad enough that, rather than thinking for itself, as an enlightened newspaper might do, the Globe mechanically reproduced Jonathan Kandell's mostly taunting dismissal of Derrida's extraordinary life, work, and legacy. What is worse is that the Globe printed this cant now, when, given the warring global situation, carefully remembering Derrida's unparalleled contribution to thinking about the question of democracy, justice, and responsibility was by far the more timely and useful path to take. Derrida's ideas are difficult, yes, but always taught in a spirit of generosity from which the Globe tellingly flees, like a guilty thing surprised. Did it ever occur to your editorial staff that the passing of one of the twentieth-century's most influential philosophers deserved an original and a considered response--rather than resorting to someone else's baseless accusations of his supposed obscurity, or worse, fascism? Do you really want to align yourself with the egregious errors of the New York Times, which, after all, is only here circling the wagons against yet another hallucinated "terrorist" threat? Derrida was and is an ally of democracy and of critical thinking, not the enemy. What part of that do you not get? By reprinting this obituary you declare yourself incapable of responding to these questions in a way that matters. In the wake of Derrida's death, Canada's "leading newspaper" leads Canadians only in thoughtlessness.

David L. Clark
Professor                                           Associate Member
Department of English and                  Health Studies Program
     Cultural Studies
McMaster University

October 9, 2004

On Jacques Derrida

By Judith Butler

     "How do you finally respond to your life and your name?" Derrida raised this question in his final interview with Le Monde, published in August 18th of this year. If he could apprehend his life, he remarks, he would also be obliged to apprehend his death as singular and absolute, without resurrection and without redemption. At this revealing moment, it is interesting that Derrida the philosopher 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. One cannot, he remarks, come to terms with one's life without trying to apprehend one's death, asking, in effect, how a human lives and dies. Much of Derrida's later work is dedicated to mourning, though he offers his acts of public mourning as a posthumous gift, for instance, in The Work of Mourning published in 2001. There he tries to come to terms with the death of other writers and thinkers through reckoning his debt to their words, indeed, their texts; his own writing constitutes an act of mourning, one that he is perhaps, avant la lettre, recommending to us a way to begin to mourn this thinker who not only taught us how to read, but gave the act of reading a new significance and a new promise. In that book, he openly mourns Roland Barthes who died in 1980, Paul de Man, who died in 1983, Michel Foucault, who died in 1984, and a host of others, including Edmund Jabes (1991), Louis Marin (1992), Sarah Kofman (1994), Emmanuel Levinas (1995) and Jean-Francois Lyotard (1998). The last of the essays, for Lyotard, included in this book is written six years before Derrida's own death. It is not, however, Derrida's own death that preoccupies him here, but rather his "debts." These are authors that he could not do without, ones with whom and through whom he thinks. He writes only because he reads, and he reads only because there are these authors to read time and again. He "owes" them something or, perhaps, everything, if only because he could not write without them; their writing exists as the precondition of his own; their writing constitutes the means through which his own writing voice is animated and secured, a voice that emerges, importantly, as an address.

     It strikes me as strange that in October of 1993 when I shared a stage with Derrida at New York University, I had a brief, private conversation with him that touched upon these issues. As we were seated at a table together with some other speakers, I could see in Derrida a certain urgency to acknowledge those many people who had translated him, those who had read him, those who had defended him in public debate, and those who has made good use of his thinking and his words. I leaned over after one of his several gestures of nearly inhuman generosity and asked him whether he felt that he had many debts to pay. I was hoping, vainly it seemed, to suggest to him that he need not feel so indebted, thinking as I did in a perhaps naively Nietzschean way that the debt was a form of enslavement, and that he did not see that what others offered him, they offered freely. He seemed not to be able to hear me in English. And so when I said "your debts," he said, "my death"? "No," I reiterated, "your debts!" and he said, "my death!?" At this point I could see that there was a nexus between the two, one that my efforts at clear pronunciation could not quite pierce, but it was not until I read his later work that I came to understand how important that nexus really was. He writes, "There come moments when, as mourning demands (deuil oblige), one feels obligated to declare one's debts. We feel it our duty to say what we owe to the friend." He cautions against "saying" the debt and imagining that one might then be done with the debt that way. He acknowledges instead the "incalculable debt" that one that he does not want to pay: "I am conscious of this and want it thus." He ends his essay on Lyotard with a direct address: "there it is, Jean Francois, this is what, I tell myself, I today would have wanted to try and tell you." There is in that attempt, that essai, a longing that cannot reach the one to whom it is addressed, but does not for that reason forfeit itself as longing. The act of mourning thus becomes a continued way of "speaking to" the other who is gone, even though the other is gone, in spite of the fact that the other is gone, precisely because that other is gone. We now must say "Jacques" to name the one we have now lost, and in that sense "Jacques Derrida" becomes the name of our loss. And yet we must continue to say his name, not only to mark his passing, but precisely as the one whom we continue to address, in what we write, because it is, for many of us, impossible to write without relying on him, without thinking with and through him. Jacques Derrida, then, as the name for the future of what we write.

     It is surely uncontroversial to say that Jacques Derrida was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, that his international reputation far exceeds any French intellectual of his generation. More than that, his work fundamentally changed the way in which we think about language, philosophy, aesthetics, painting, literature, communication, ethics and politics. His early work criticized the structuralist presumption that language could be described as a static set of rules, and he showed how those rules admitted of contingency and were dependent on a temporality that could undermine their efficacy. He wrote against philosophical positions that uncritically subscribed to "totality" or "systematicity" as values, without first considering the alternatives that were ruled out by that preemptive valorization. He insisted that the act of reading extends from literary texts to films, to works of art, to popular culture, to political scenarios, and to philosophy itself. The practice of ãreadingä insists that our ability to understand relies on our capacity to interpret signs. It also presupposes that signs come to signify in ways that no particular author or speaker can constrain in advance through intention.

     This does not mean that our language always confounds our intentions, but only that our intentions do not fully govern everything we end up meaning by what we say and write (see Limited Inc., 1977). Derrida's work moved from a criticism of philosophical presumptions in groundbreaking books such as On Grammatology (1967), Writing and Difference (1967), Dissemination (1972), The Post Card (1980), and Spurs (1978), to the question of how to theorize the problem of "difference." This term he wrote as "différance," not only to mark the way that signification works, with one term referring to another, always relying on a deferral of meaning between signifier and signified, but also to characterize an ethical relation, the relation of sexual difference, and the relation to the Other. If some readers thought that Derrida was a linguistic constructivist, they missed the fact that the name we have for something, for ourselves, for an other, is precisely what fails to capture the referent (as opposed to making or constructing that referent).

     He clearly drew critically on the work of Emmanuel Levinas in order to insist upon the "Other" as one to whom an incalculable responsibility is owed, one who could never fully be "captured" through social categories or designative names, one to whom a certain response is owed. This framework became the basis of his strenuous critique of apartheid in South Africa, his vigilant opposition to totalitarian regimes and forms of intellectual censorship, his theorization of the nation state beyond the hold of territoriality, his opposition to European racism, and his critical relation to the discourse of "terror" as it worked to fortify governmental powers that undermine basic human rights, in his defense of animal rights, in his opposition to the death penalty, and even in his queries about "being" Jewish and what it means to offer hospitality to those of differing origins and language. One can see these various questions raised in The Ear of the Other (1982), The Other Europe, Positions (1972), For Nelson Mandela (1986), Given Time (1991) The Gift of Death (1992), The Other Heading: Reflections on Today's Europe (1992), Spectres of Marx (1993), Politics of Friendship (1994), The Monolingualism of the Other (1996), Philosophy in a Time of Terror (with Jurgen Habermas), 2002 and his conversations with Helene Cixous, Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint (2001). Derrida made clear in his small book on Walter Benjamin, The Force of Law (1994), that justice was a concept that was yet to come. This does not mean that we cannot expect instances of justice in this life, and it does not mean that justice will arrive for us only in another life. He was clear that there was no other life. It means only that, as an ideal, it is that toward which we strive, without end. Not to strive for justice because it cannot be fully realized would be as mistaken as believing that one has already arrived at justice and that the only task is to arm oneself adequately to fortify its regime. The first is a form of nihilism (which he opposed) and the second is dogmatism (which he opposed).

     Derrida kept us alive to the practice of criticism,understanding that social and political transformation was an incessant project, one that could not be relinquished, one that was coextensive with the becoming of life itself, and with a reading of the rules through which a polity constitutes itself through exclusion or effacement. How is justice done? What justice do we owe others? And what does it mean to act in the name of justice? These were questions that had to be asked regardless of the consequences, and this meant that they were often questions asked when established authorities wished that they were not.

     If his critics worried that, with Derrida, there are no foundations upon which one could rely, they doubtless were mistaken in that view. Derrida relies perhaps most assiduously on Socrates, on a mode of philosophical inquiry that took the question as the most honest and arduous form for thought. "How do you finally respond to your life and to your name?" This question is posed by him to himself, and yet he is, in this interview, a "tu" for himself, as if he is a proximate friend, but not quite a "moi." He has taken himself as the other, modeling a form of reflexivity, asking whether an account can be given of this life, and of this death. Is there justice to be done to a life? That he asks the question is exemplary, perhaps even foundational, since it keeps the final meaning of that life and that name open. It prescribes a ceaseless task of honoring what cannot be possessed through knowledge, that in a life that exceeds our grasp. Indeed, now that Derrida, the person, has died, his writing makes a demand upon us, bequeathing his name to us who will continue to address him. We must address him as he addressed himself, asking what it means to know and approach another, to apprehend a life and a death, to give an account of its meaning, to acknowledge its binding ties with others, and to do that justly. In this way, Derrida has always been offering us a way to interrogate the very meaning of our lives, singly and plurally, returning to the question as the beginning of philosophy, but surely also, in his own way, and with several unpayable debts, beginning philosophy anew.


The New York Times
, October 14, 2004
What Derrida Really Meant

By Mark C. Taylor

     Along with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, who died last week in Paris at the age of 74, will be remembered as one of the three most important philosophers of the 20th century. No thinker in the last 100 years had a greater impact than he did on people in more fields and different disciplines. Philosophers, theologians, literary and art critics, psychologists, historians, writers, artists, legal scholars and even architects have found in his writings resources for insights that have led to an extraordinary revival of the arts and humanities during the past four decades. And no thinker has been more deeply misunderstood.

     To people addicted to sound bites and overnight polls, Mr. Derrida's works seem hopelessly obscure. It is undeniable that they cannot be easily summarized or reduced to one-liners. The obscurity of his writing, however, does not conceal a code that can be cracked, but reflects the density and complexity characteristic of all great works of philosophy, literature and art. Like good French wine, his works age well. The more one lingers with them, the more they reveal about our world and ourselves.

     What makes Mr. Derrida's work so significant is the way he brought insights of major philosophers, writers, artists and theologians to bear on problems of urgent contemporary interest. Most of his infamously demanding texts consist of careful interpretations of canonical writers in the Western philosophical, literary and artistic traditions - from Plato to Joyce. By reading familiar works against the grain, he disclosed concealed meanings that created new possibilities for imaginative expression.

     Mr. Derrida's name is most closely associated with the often cited but rarely understood term "deconstruction." Initially formulated to define a strategy for interpreting sophisticated written and visual works, deconstruction has entered everyday language. When responsibly understood, the implications of deconstruction are quite different from the misleading clichés often used to describe a process of dismantling or taking things apart. The guiding insight of deconstruction is that every structure - be it literary, psychological, social, economic, political or religious - that organizes our experience is constituted and maintained through acts of exclusion. In the process of creating something, something else inevitably gets left out.

     These exclusive structures can become repressive - and that repression comes with consequences. In a manner reminiscent of Freud, Mr. Derrida insists that what is repressed does not disappear but always returns to unsettle every construction, no matter how secure it seems. As an Algerian Jew writing in France during the postwar years in the wake of totalitarianism on the right (fascism) as well as the left (Stalinism), Mr. Derrida understood all too well the danger of beliefs and ideologies that divide the world into diametrical opposites: right or left, red or blue, good or evil, for us or against us. He showed how these repressive structures, which grew directly out of the Western intellectual and cultural tradition, threatened to return with devastating consequences. By struggling to find ways to overcome patterns that exclude the differences that make life worth living, he developed a vision that is consistently ethical.

     And yet, supporters on the left and critics on the right have misunderstood this vision. Many of Mr. Derrida's most influential followers appropriated his analyses of marginal writers, works and cultures as well as his emphasis on the importance of preserving differences and respecting others to forge an identity politics that divides the world between the very oppositions that it was Mr. Derrida's mission to undo: black and white, men and women, gay and straight. Betraying Mr. Derrida's insights by creating a culture of political correctness, his self-styled supporters fueled the culture wars that have been raging for more than two decades and continue to frame political debate.

     To his critics, Mr. Derrida appeared to be a pernicious nihilist who threatened the very foundation of Western society and culture. By insisting that truth and absolute value cannot be known with certainty, his detractors argue, he undercut the very possibility of moral judgment. To follow Mr. Derrida, they maintain, is to start down the slippery slope of skepticism and relativism that inevitably leaves us powerless to act responsibly.

     This is an important criticism that requires a careful response. Like Kant, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Mr. Derrida does argue that transparent truth and absolute values elude our grasp. This does not mean, however, that we must forsake the cognitive categories and moral principles without which we cannot live: equality and justice, generosity and friendship. Rather, it is necessary to recognize the unavoidable limitations and inherent contradictions in the ideas and norms that guide our actions, and do so in a way that keeps them open to constant questioning and continual revision. There can be no ethical action without critical reflection.

     During the last decade of his life, Mr. Derrida became preoccupied with religion and it is in this area that his contribution might well be most significant for our time. He understood that religion is impossible without uncertainty. Whether conceived of as Yahweh, as the father of Jesus Christ, or as Allah, God can never be fully known or adequately represented by imperfect human beings.

     And yet, we live in an age when major conflicts are shaped by people who claim to know, for certain, that God is on their side. Mr. Derrida reminded us that religion does not always give clear meaning, purpose and certainty by providing secure foundations. To the contrary, the great religious traditions are profoundly disturbing because they all call certainty and security into question. Belief not tempered by doubt poses a mortal danger.

     As the process of globalization draws us ever closer in networks of communication and exchange, there is an understandable longing for simplicity, clarity and certainty. This desire is responsible, in large measure, for the rise of cultural conservatism and religious fundamentalism - in this country and around the world. True believers of every stripe - Muslim, Jewish and Christian - cling to beliefs that, Mr. Derrida warns, threaten to tear apart our world.

     Fortunately, he also taught us that the alternative to blind belief is not simply unbelief but a different kind of belief - one that embraces uncertainty and enables us to respect others whom we do not understand. In a complex world, wisdom is knowing what we don't know so that we can keep the future open.

     In the two decades I knew Mr. Derrida, we had many meetings and exchanges. In conversation, he listened carefully and responded helpfully to questions whether posed by undergraduates or colleagues. As a teacher, he gave freely of his time to several generations of students.

     But small things are the measure of the man. In 1986, my family and I were in Paris and Mr. Derrida invited us to dinner at his house in the suburbs 20 miles away. He insisted on picking us up at our hotel, and when we arrived at his home he presented our children with carnival masks. At 2 a.m., he drove us back to the city. In later years, when my son and daughter were writing college papers on his work, he sent them letters and postcards of encouragement as well as signed copies of several of his books. Jacques Derrida wrote eloquently about the gift of friendship but in these quiet gestures - gestures that served to forge connections among individuals across their differences - we see deconstruction in action.

     Mark C. Taylor, a professor of the humanities at Williams College and a visiting professor of architecture and religion at Columbia, is the author, most recently, of "Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World Without Redemption."

Related Links:

Remembering Jacques Derrida
(A site created by the faculty at the University of California-Irvine).

Le Monde, 12 October 2004

A tribute to Jacques Derrida hosted by New York University

Jacques Derrida: "I am at War with Myself"

Jacques Derrida: "I am at War with Myself"
(Studio Visit translation with French original)

"For a Justice to Come: An Interview with Jacques Derrida"

Writing in Reserve: Deconstruction on the Net / Jacques Derrida Online

Seminar by Jacques Derrida at the University of California-Irvine.
(A short clip from the film D'ailleurs Derrida (directed by Safaa Fathy)

Traces: Race, Deconstruction, and Critical Theory, University of California Research Institute
(Video presentations of seminars by Jacques Derrida and others)

Jacques Derrida: "The Future of the Profession or the Unconditional University"
(A lecture given at the State University of New York at Albany, 11 October 1999)