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PRINT March 2005

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Jacques Derrida

JACQUES DERRIDA’S greatest virtue was his tenacious literalism. He wanted to capture everything in his net. About his adolescence and the continuity of some of his obsessions into maturity, he said to Derek Attridge in Acts of Literature (1992): “Still today there remains in me an obsessive desire to save in uninterrupted inscription . . . what happens—or fails to happen. What I should be tempted to denounce as a lure—i.e., totalization or gathering up—isn’t this what keeps me going?”

In a German newspaper article appearing after Derrida’s death in October, Jürgen Habermas wrote that he had come to understand, at last, that “deconstruction is essentially praxis.” Earlier, in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (1987), he had thought that Derrida “dulled the sword of the critique of reason itself.” Did he understand, working more closely with Derrida toward the end, that the French theorist was interested in protecting reason rather than making it accountable only to itself and making it “auto-immune”?

Derrida presented his case to the philosophy establishment in France in 1968 to suggest that everything was seen as identifiable only insofar as it was different from what it was not, and hence differing (différance) was the (non-)name of things; that everything was held in the text of a trace and could not therefore be universalized; and so on. (In the first English version of Derrida’s essay “Différance,” David Allison translated texte as “context”; by the time Alan Bass published the definitive translation in 1982, “text” had entered the language of theory in the extended sense, text-ile, a weave, as from Latin texere, to weave. “There is no outside-of-text” did not mean everything is language, as some of us knew.) “Différance” was a paper about how to practice philosophy.

In Rogues: Two Essays on Reason (2005), his last published book, Derrida wrote that the a of différance was now inflected into the a of a-venir (to come). This, too, is practice, even philosophical practice, only philosophy has by this time come to embrace history as the future anterior. In Of Grammatology (1976) he had asked: “Without venturing up to that perilous necessity, and within the traditional norms of scientificity upon which we fall back provisionally, . . . on what conditions is grammatology possible?” “Grammato_logy_” he found to be “walled-in within presence,” precisely because it was a logic of the gramme. But “that there could be no law [logos > logic] without the possibility of trace [signaling outside the system] . . . refers to a common and radical possibility that no determined science, no abstract discipline, can think as such.” He spent his life playing out the unthinkability of the trace as an affirmative possibility. Starting with Glas, published in 1974—a mourning text for his father’s death—he ventured as far up to those perilous necessities as he could. If official philosophy in his time had taken as its task the greatest possible pared-down accuracy about the most stringent view of language and a simplified view of the mental theater, he took his cue from the Nietzsche, who wished to infuse typography itself with signifying possibility. That was both the task and burden of Glas, a son mourning his father in the name of Jean Genet, a criminal, illegitimate, queer genius who never knew his father at all. All this mixed with the most unnervingly original readings of Kant, Hegel, Marx, Freud.

Derrida’s insatiable curiosity about grasping it all kept him on the question of sexual difference. Curiously enough, Freud seemed not to have been his sourcebook for answers on this topic. I believe his interest in Freud was because psychoanalysis knew the limits of reason, yet Freud wanted to found a science. Freud as a philosopher moved Derrida. Although he had great respect and affection for René Major, I remember hearing Derrida argue with Major that he did not feel there could be a deconstructive psychoanalysis. What was named the unconscious was something like a trace structure, and it could not be thought as such by psychoanalysis as a discipline. Again, in his last book, he warns against a politics based on singularity with this witty but serious question, embedded in a torrential series of questions: “How many votes for an unconscious?”

How broadly he cast his net! Literature of course—Mallarmé, Valéry, Joyce, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Ponge, Blanchot, Celan. But also architecture—working with Peter Eisenmann and Bernard Tschumi. You can see his mark on the Parc de la Villette, on which he collaborated with Tschumi.

And the visual arts. I still find his Truth in Painting (1987) uncanny in its refusal to let a picture be read as evidence. He could play the game of Conceptual art—the early big book on Valerio Adami has many lovely moments such as the one when he reads a ladder as “potence” with the pun on potentiality and the scaffold. But his catalogue essay on Gérard Titus-Carmel’s series of drawings and etchings “The Pocket-size Tlingit Coffin,” celebrating singularity in such beautifully orchestrated sentences as “if I now write THAT WILL HAVE REMAINED WITHOUT EXAMPLE, they will not read it. . . . The Coffin . . . defies repetition in a series,” already courts the uncanny commentary that makes us philosophize as we read. Art criticism from now on almost invariably appears as a dialogue. Consider the commentary on the plangent series of photographs, Droit de regards, translated by David Wills as Right of Inspection (1998). “Would you go so far as to speak of photographs being ‘in French’? . . . You should speak of these photographs as of thinking, as a pensiveness without a voice, whose only voice remains suspended.” Although his appearance in films such as D’ailleurs, Derrida (2000) and the Sundance Derrida (2002) have become popular, the early cameo appearance “as himself” in the 1983 film Ghost Dance retains the aura of the uncanny. The later Derrida is too much the bland philosopher in those other films, good for the public but not his old friends.

He was broadly based in his political involvement. I remember how quickly he agreed to sign a letter to free the Bangladeshi poet Farhad Mazhar from imprisonment without charges. He involved himself with institutional reform in the ’70s as he led the Groupe de Recherches sur l’Enseignement Philosophique, or GREPH. (Who’s Afraid of Philosophy, first published in French in 1977, is the most memorable product of this initiative.) He was instrumental in establishing the Collège International de Philosophie in the ’80s. He worked with Czech dissidents and on behalf of Algerian immigrants, and he was fearless in his criticism of the state of Israel.

In “Experience and Language in Religious Discourse” (Phenomenology and the Theological Turn: The French Debate, eds. Dominique Janicaud et al., 2000), Paul Ricoeur has distinguished between “the structure call/response” and “the relation question/response.” In Derrida’s work these two are connected in a “relationship without relationship.” Of the existence of the first one we cannot be sure—we can think of it as leaving a trace, seemingly signaling something that went before, rather than a sign, promising meaning. We can hear it only as the second thing—a question to be answered. This is how Derrida rewrites Kant’s transcendental deduction, undoes Heidegger’s Zusage, and detheologizes Levinas. When in 1980 he distinguished his earlier work from his later by the difference between “guarding the question” and a “call to the quite-other,” he was therefore not indicating a progression, not even perhaps a shift in emphasis, but a half-empty–to–half-full nudge in his style of philosophizing. I can’t be sure of this just yet, but Ricoeur’s binary is surely undone.

It was this relationship without relationship that allowed Derrida to think ethics and politics, justice and law. Insofar as the inescapable calculus of politics and the law based itself on the unverifiable (therefore indeconstructible) assumed ground of ethics and justice, they were “mad.” And just as in the early days Derrida insisted that logocentrism was not a pathology but an enabler, so was this madness. There were combinations such as phallologocentrism, or the madness of fraternocracy, which had to be undone, turned around, again and again, looking ahead.

Ever since the books The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe (1992) and Politics of Friendship (1997), the concern with democracy seemed to override all—although nothing was given up. The importance of these works is their fidelity to detail. No pious sentiment is left unquestioned, no platitude left unpacked.

Politics of Friendship represents an imaginary session of an actual, ongoing seminar compacted and arrested between the covers of a book. And in the end that is what we have lost—a remarkable teacher who believed that the care of classroom pedagogy was the model, however uncertain, of the formation of collectivities. I have observed elsewhere that this activity, carried out as a relay over time and space, lay behind Derrida’s idea of the New International. As our great universities turn corporatist and teacherly responsibilities are no longer understood, I am more and more drawn to this idea.

The most important philosopher of the twentieth century. The world’s most famous intellectual. A man who was infinitely kind to my mother. A guy who’d rather have been a soccer player; who loved to dance, to tell jokes, to try out new things. Tributes and memories mean nothing to him any more.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak is Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, New York.