Notes & Comments: November 2004
When the French philosopher Jacques Derrida died last month at seventy-four, the response was loud, passionate, and predictably divided according to demographic origin. If the response came from outside the academy, it tended to be bemused or critical. If a response came from the purlieus of the professoriate, however, it was likely to be sorrowful, eulogistic, even starry-eyed.
There was nothing surprising about this. "Deconstruction"--the movement that Derrida created in the mid-1960s and over which he presided with tireless attention until his demise--was always a hothouse phenomenon, ill-equipped to thrive in the rough-and-tumble of what Derrida would have scorned to call the real world. Again, this was hardly surprising. It was a central tenet of deconstruction--insofar, we hasten to add, as deconstruction can be said to have entertained anything so vulgarly pedestrian as a "tenet"--that "there is nothing outside the text": en francais, "il n'y a pas de hors-texte." Think about that. You can see why we have always thought that Gertrude Stein admirably summarized the essential tendency of Derrida's philosophy when she observed about the city of Oakland that "there is no there there." Unfair to Oakland, possibly, but not, we think, to deconstruction.
The palm for the funniest eulogy of Derrida must go to the London Times, which weighed in with a leader on the question "Is Derrida dead? A conceptual foundation for the deconstruction of mortality." The Times was brief, but poignant. It began thus:
Can there be any certainty, in the death of Jacques Derrida? The obituarists' objective attempts to place his life in a finite context are, necessarily, subject to epistemic relativism, the idea that all such scientific theories are mere "narrations" or social constructions. Surely, a postmodernist deconstruction of their import would inevitably question the foundational conceptual categories of prior science--among them, Derrida's own existence--which become problematised and relativised. This conceptual revolution has profound implications for the content of future postmodern and liberatory, science of mortality.
What makes this funny instead of fatuous is the fact that the writer is engaged in parody. Can the same be said for Derrida's encomium for his friend Paul de Man? Born in Belgium, de Man wound up at Yale where he emerged as the most celebrated and cerebral of literary deconstructionists. Alas, in 1987, four years after de Man's death, it transpired that the great man had written scores of articles for Nazi-controlled papers during the war. Sample from March, 1941: "one thus sees that a solution to the Jewish question that envisions the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not involve deplorable consequences for the literary life of the West." Embarrassing to the deconstructionist brotherhood, that. Or so one might have thought. Although Derrida was himself of Jewish origin, he seems to have been more troubled by criticism of de Man than de Man's anti-Semitic effusions:
Unable to respond to the questions, to all the questions, I will ask myself instead whether responding is possible and what that would mean in such a situation. And I will risk in turn several questions prior to the definition of a responsibility. But is it not an act to assume in theory the concept of responsibility? One's own as well as the responsibility to which one believes one ought to summon others?
Derrida concludes his sixty-page exercise in exculpation by comparing critics of de Man to Nazi thugs:
To judge, to condemn the work or the man on the basis of what was a brief episode [in fact, it lasted from 1939-1943], to call for closing, that is to say, at least figuratively, for censuring or burning his books is to reproduce the exterminating gesture against which one accuses de Man of not having armed himself sooner with the necessary vigilance. …