notes and links from bat020
Jacques Derrida, 1930–2004
Paging through the teletext news this morning (an eminently written medium), I learned that Jacques Derrida had finally succumbed to pancreatic cancer. Like the death last year of Edward Said, I'd been expecting this news for a while now, wondering what an appropriate obituary might say, how one could possibly recapitulate his oblique, voluptuous legacy of philosophical and political interventions.
I haven't read any of the newspaper obituaries yet, but barring some cataclysmic outbreak of reason in journalistic circles, there is little or no chance that they will treat their subject with justice. Derrida was misrepresented by both friend and foe throughout his lifetime. Posterity is unlikely to break with this ignoble tradition, in the short run at least.
Derrida's death comes at a time when the constant ritual denunciations of his work have taken on a particularly ugly and strident tone. It's not difficult to see why. His patient, unyielding disassembly of the "white mythology" of Western metaphysics was bound to enrage our contemporary Crusaders, those who would wish to squander the legacy of the European enlightenment by pressing it into the service of an obnoxious triumphalist imperial ideology.
But the relentless distortion and vilification faced by Derrida may well turn out to be counter-productive. I first came across his work as a result of just such an episode – the farcical attempt by a cabal of right wing Cambridge dons to deny him an honorary degree in 1992. I knew next to nothing about philosophy at the time, but I figured that anyone who managed to wind up such reactionary twits must be worth reading. So I bought a copy of Of Grammatology and got stuck in. Twelve years on and I still haven't entirely re-emerged.
This anecdote underlines something I've long felt about Derrida – that the political stakes of his work have yet to be appreciated or properly analysed. This may seem an odd thing to say, given the explicit "political turn" of Derrida's later works. Yet I suspect this picture of a "political turn" is misleading. It downplays the politicisation already present in Derrida's early period. And overestimates the import of his later work, which works through the consequences of his wider deconstructive project within the relatively narrow specialism of academic political philosophy.
The truth is Derrida did not suddenly "become political" in the early 1990s with the publication of Spectres of Marx. His seminal 1968 essay, The Ends of Man, opens with a declaration of solidarity with American protesters against the Vietnam War. His 1971 interview, Positions, contains lengthy remarks on his relationship to Marxism. And even today, reading the opening passages of Of Grammatology one cannot fail to be struck by their manifesto-like quality, the palpable sense of urgency, the interventionary spirit in which they were written.
And while it's undoubtedly the case that as Derrida grew older, the soixante-huitard fire of his earlier works faded, overshadowed by a darker, circumspect and at times insufferable caution, it is also the case that he never renounced that insurrectionary impulse, never allowed himself to be completely overwhelmed by political and philosophical "reformism". A fragment from one of his final interviews bears witness to this optimism – and on the eve of the European Social Forum, I think it's a fitting testament to a writer whose impact is perhaps only just beginning to be felt:
[From "For a justice to come: an interview with Jacques Derrida", available in RTF format from the Brussels Tribunal website.]