Jacques Derrida 1930-2004

Expect to see more of kind of obscene gloating in the next few days. There are few scholars whose death could provoke such unseemly and offensive glee among the staff of what used to claim to be a paper of record. The violence of the reactions which Derrida’s work causes amongst those who have for the most part not bothered to read any of his many books and essays suggests there is some truth in his suggestion that deconstruction might be compared to an allergen within the body of Western thought.

Leaving aside the filth peddled by pornographers of death like The Times, most of the reports of Derrida’s sad death from cancer in Paris on Friday night have been stumped by the need to describe what his work consisted of, or of why it might have been so important to so many people. By and large they’re re-hashing the AP and Reuters reports, although a few have gone further afield and picked up on the story in Saturday’s Le Monde. Is Derrida’s hair really the most important aspect of his life and work to comment on? Surely not compared with his uncompromising political stances against oppressive and inhospitable controls on immigration, his passionate commitment to a radical and provocative understanding of democracy, and what can only be described as his wisdom on so many topics.

Just for a minor attempt to correct the misinformation which will doubtless come to stand as Derrida’s epitaph in the short term: even if we accept ‘deconstruction’ as a label for what Derrida’s work does, it is not a ‘theory’, indeed questions the value of the distinction between theory and practice. Derrida is not primarily a philosopher of language, and he is not a relativist. Indeed his work takes up the challenge to fight relativism from his first major published essay on Husserl onwards. If Derrida is careful about the use of terms like ‘truth’ — ‘justice’ finds a place in his work, say, but ‘freedom’ he notes in an interview in Papier Machine is a term he finds too risky to use — this is because he seeks above all to turn us towards the way words and ideas are part of the world, and that we should try and take responsibility for what we do with words. Derrida’s life and work are best seen as a series of ongoing experiments in attempting to come to terms with what it means to live, to think and to act in the world.

In other words, Derrida is a philosopher. If you’re looking for something more edifying to read, this interview in Le Monde, published in August, a few weeks before Derrida went into hospital for the last time, is both moving and inspiring. Derrida reminds us again that one of the most constant themes in his thought has been that of survival: that his is a philosophy of living on, of learning to live with death. ‘Since Plato’, he says, ‘it’s the old philosophical injunction: to philosophise, is to learn to die’. And make no mistake about it: Derrida is a philosopher. His entire oeuvre is a tribute to the power and importance of philosophy to help understand the world. But such a tribute can only be responsible if, as Derrida showed, it meant taking account of the limits and weaknesses of philosophy, its recurrent blind-spots and failings. Only through such a self-critical critique (and Derrida;s work is unthinkable without taking some measure of the Kantian line within which it falls, a tradition which cannot be simply evaded by those C20th philosophies which have claimed to slip the bonds of metaphysics).

Derrida reiterates a number of the key political themes of his recent years. He is wary of the idea of Europe as a spiritual or political entity, which has served to bulwark all kinds of forms of violence in the past; yet he is concerned that the Europe may still offer a political fulcrum in the contemporary geopolitical situation, provided it opens itself to some of the ideals buried within it. For example, as we know from the rest of his work, a tradition of hospitality which orders us to go beyond the mere ‘tolerance’ of the immigrant, but which rests on the idea of a welcome which would not accept the stranger on our terms, but allow the stranger to transform our idea of ourselves. International Institutions such as the UN are the best hope for the future, Derrida feels, but only on the condition that they allow themselves to become something other than they are now. Not only does the UN charter need rewriting, but even its base in New York needs to be moved. True hospitality would mean, Derrida comments in his seminars on the subject, being able to welcome the stranger in their own language, not in the armed and guarded language of your own country.

Another theme which runs through his work is picked up and strengthened. Many of Derrida’s works come back to the idea of the family, and Politics of Friendship for example is a long reflection on the persistence of the rhetoric of fraternity in political thought and action from Aristotle to the writings of Derrida’s own friends Blanchot and Nancy. To insist on brotherhood, he argues, locks up any chance of reconsidering our obligations. If my responsibilities are dictated by an unexamined obligation, and first of all to my real or imaginary family (tribe, nation, people), there can be no question of justice, of a politics turned towards the other rather than one which distributes goods solely to those closest to me, or alike me, or who speak my language. In this interview Derrida argues for the abolition of marriage, which with its religious connotations and legacy, has no place in a secular civil code. He’s not against love — far from it, as readers of The Post Card can confirm — but against, for example, the normative heterosexual implications of the Christian concept of marriage which could be at least begin to be replaced by a more neutral system of civil partnerships which makes no presumptions about the sex or number of the partners (and which could still be conducted in front of religious authorities of one’s choice).

I don’t claim any definitive value for particular suggestions of Derrida’s. It’s up to us to judge for ourselves. But the courage and intellectual integrity of a way of thinking which will put anything into question, even its own deepest assumptions, can only be admired. Amongst other things, Derrida’s work taught me to value philosophy, which is in part why the attacks on his work as some kind of intellectual nihilism seem not merely misguided but completely wrong.