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Some Simple Thoughts on Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

An obituary for Jacques Derrida. Argues that despite its difficulty, leftists can learn from deconstruction.

"I don’t understand him, he must be stupid!" It came from the back of the seminar room, from a graduate student whose self-deprecating joke summarized a world of responses to Jacques Derrida. I had assigned Derrida’s Of Grammatology, a book about the impossibility of fixed meaning in writing, to my graduate seminar on the historiography of communication. I argued in my lecture that Derrida has everything to do with writing history, despite historians’ wide distaste for him. "Say what you want about deconstruction as a theory of language," I told them, "but the historian dwells in a world of traces, where any simple, straightforward meaning behind the texts is lost to the interpreter." In other words, Derrida gives the lie to historians’ pretenses toward science in their assembly and use of documents. Derrida’s work does not imply that there is no past, or that all claims on it are equal, or even that we can never know the past. Rather, he is simply pointing out that the world of the text, and the world of reality to which it points, are not one and the same thing. If you read any history, you know that this is still a point worth making.

As many obits have now pointed out, Jacques Derrida was an immensely important and influential figure in the world of left academe. Perhaps fittingly for a figure who argued for the impossibility of fixed meaning and intention, his work has been mischaracterized, wrongly interpreted, unfairly dismissed, and subject to at least one unauthorized translation. As a successful French import, Derrida also has the mixed fortune of a wave of fairly uninventive disciples: as deconstruction descends into orthodoxy, it becomes a parody of itself. Derrida is a conflicted character in comparison with his peers: he is much less clear on his political record than a contemporary like Pierre Bourdieu, his philosophical legacy is more uncertain than those of Gilles Deleuze or Michel Foucault, and to even explain the exact nature of his influence on a subsequent generation is tricky. Yet the verb "deconstruct" has come into common parlance in some circles, and Derrida’s celebration of "difference" has been distilled into a battle cry for everything from major challenges to Western philosophy to bland corporate-style multiculturalism. He was successful in ways that his contemporaries were not.

Deconstruction, the name for Derrida’s elusive method, has an elective affinity with some schools of thought in Marxist, feminist, antiracist, queer and postcolonial circles. Yet deconstruction is not responsible for these positions as they are represented in academia. They are all, to the one, intellectual responses to social movements that began outside universities. Derrida’s deconstruction, meanwhile is very much an academic invention.

Deconstruction did not lead to easy tenure for its early North American practitioners, as New York Times writer Jonathan Kandell preposterously claims. If anything, deconstruction made the left wing postures even less palatable to unsympathetic observers both inside and outside the university. Kandell’s ignorant obituary is only the latest example. In 1991, a group of faculty at the University of Minnesota sought to disband the department of Humanities, in which I was currently studying as an undergraduate. I worked in the psychology department at the time, and so I asked a psychologist (who fancied himself a scientist) who served on the relevant college committee why they were cutting a department with so many successful scholars. He answered my question with one of his own: "What do you get when you cross a deconstructionist and a Mafioso?" he asked. "An offer you can’t understand." The Berlin Wall fell and redbaiting needed a new language: deconstruction’s difficult and resultant poor public image made it a perfect target for critics of all strands of left scholarship. My graduate student in 2000 was making fun of himself, but my employer in 1991 was attacking my teachers, few of whom were actually deconstructionists. The point in both cases, however, was the same. Deconstruction is easy to dismiss because of its difficulty; its apparent distance from real, on-the-ground politics; the sometimes grandiose stands of its practitioners; its counterintuitive sensibility; and its association -- whether earned or not -- with other kinds of outsider positions.

So one might ask why, at a time when people everywhere are fretting about the possibility of George W. Bush actually winning an election, Derrida’s ideas are relevant to us. Many authors have criticized Derrida’s attempts to find an ethical basis for deconstruction. Indeed, Derrida was least successful when he tried to demonstrate that deconstruction leads to progressive politics. As far as I can tell, it does not have to.

But perhaps Derrida’s critics, and maybe even the man himself, were looking in the wrong place for politics in his work. I still take great inspiration from Derrida’s early writings, when his critical stance seemed more strictly formal and he seemed more interested in making promises about radical theses to come than in actually delivering them. For it is precisely here, where he is least apologetic and least expressly political that he is at his most radical. Derrida’s early writings such as Speech and Phenomena, Of Grammatology, and his essay "Difference" all take language and intelligibility as their purported subject. But there is a deeper drive animating all of these texts: an all-out hostility to the theological concepts that underlie so much of so-called Western philosophy. Though the late Derrida would offer a more considered relationship with messianism, the early Derrida had no time, no place for metaphysics or its trappings. In these early works, he convincingly shows how ideas that are supposedly couched in reason, logic, and sense were in fact mystical incantations of a sort. Though he loved Heidegger, he also completely obliterated the mystical foundations of Heidegger’s conservative philosophy. Though he loved Levi-Strauss and Saussure, he showed how their relatively rigid theories of culture and language respectively contained the seeds of their own negation. In its early incarnation, deconstruction avoided positive statements (except between parentheses) and sought to root out all claims to textual authority. It was not nihilistic. It was jubilant. Derrida believed his work to be life affirming. Even if it is hard to describe deconstruction as "affirmative," we could at least claim him as the ultimate re-animator of modern philosophy.

The undead reference is apropos: there is something powerful in Derrida’s work, something deliberately unholy. Deconstruction demands we confront the theological residue that undergirds so much Western thought. Because of his outright and sustained hostility to metaphysics, Derrida’s anti-philosophy is, among other things, a powerfully atheistic critique of the canon.

Atheism -- or secularism, its more gentle name -- is not a necessarily left wing position. But even where religion is an inspiration for progressive activity, it is never enough. The enlightenment principles which inform progressive thought are rooted in the struggle to reject religious and messianic doctrine. Left thought places the responsibility for improving the world on the shoulders of people, rather than deities or their proxies (like "technology" or "the market"). Derrida’s distrust of metaphysics harmonizes well with this political humanism, and indeed his critique of rationality in the early deconstructive texts follows this logic to its conclusion. Deconstruction calls out rationalist thought at the point where it begins to treat concepts like many theologians treat God: as self-sufficient, universal, and without need for supplementation. This is not to say that it is easy or even good strategy to reject all trappings of theology. Plenty of Marxist writers use the rhetorical gestures of Jewish or Christian messianism (depending on whom you read) even as they approvingly cite Marx’s distaste for organized religion. But the point is well-taken. Even when we think we’ve shaken off the yoke of blind faith, we may find its ghost animating our most apparently secular concepts. Derrida simply asked that we be vigilant about it.

It is precisely a reckoning with religion, the casual style of everyday theology, that the left now needs. And this is why Derrida is still relevant as ever at the moment of his death, with progressives everywhere obsessing about the upcoming US election. Bush represents a presidency where belief trumps proof in all cases, where "further research" is only necessary to establish the opposition’s point of view. This is not a simple matter of debunking. As Michael Berube said of Dick Cheney, "He says the most batshit crazy things in the most soothing, avuncular tones, and he always has. He’s very good at it. His demeanor is basically that of the guy working the grill at the backyard barbeque." Cheney’s clarity is precisely what we need to fight against: we have now for almost four years struggled against the "obviousness" of right-wing Bush-era discourse. It is not that we need to deconstruct it, it is that we need to understand its power.

To be sure, deconstruction can never be enough for left intellectuals, since there has to be a utopian dimension to progressive thought. A better world must be possible in order to fight for it. But considered in itself, Derrida’s early oeuvre represents a valuable resource, both for what it did and for what it did not do. While Derrida’s persnickety sense of humor may be lost to many because of his dense prose, the joke’s on us if we forget, or worse caricature, the lessons of his work. Beware of the hard-headed, plain-talking realists. They may hide more than the obfuscators.

Copyright © 2004 Jonathan Sterne. All rights reserved.