15 December, 2004Issue 4.1Philosophy

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A Note On Reactions To The Death Of Jacques Derrida

Joseph Streeter

There was no shortage of obituaries of Jacques Derrida, who died aged 74 on 8 October 2004, and it is not my intention to add to their number. Rather, I want to focus on these obituaries, which showed clearly the range of reactions that his work provoked. He was variously characterised as a dangerous nihilist, advocating a pernicious relativism that undermined all claims to truth and morality; a charlatan in the tradition of Hegel and Heidegger, concealing banalities behind incomprehensible prose; or a revolutionary ‘thinker of the unthinkable’, subjecting cherished verities to rigorous analysis and opening up new perspectives from which to contest canonic claims to truth and power. Although his influence on academic debate waned somewhat since its height in the period from the late 1960s through to the early 1980s, the manifold reactions to his thought and influence have resurfaced since his death. Rather than trying to summarise his work—if such an enterprise is possible, or even desirable, given that it would necessarily involve the imposition of some kind of ordering principle on a diverse range of texts—the more useful focus might be on attitudes towards his work, particularly the first two above, and on the possible longevity of his legacy.

Nihilism/Relativism

Some of the accusations of this sort merit little comment. Anthony Grayling, self-appointed public defender of truth and rationality (demonstrated, presumably, by the alacrity with which he castigated Derrida’s legacy) accused ‘deconstruction and its postmodern allies’ of abandoning standards of judgement, ‘and thereby making it a criterion of excellence that a work’s author (his or her intentions, of course, aside) has an appropriate gender, ethnicity, or geographical origin’. It is dispiriting to see a once respectable academic philosopher using such lazy terminology. With respect to standards of judgement, almost all of Derrida’s work addresses solidly canonical texts and authors. Admittedly, his canon is much wider than that of the average analytical philosopher, comprising as it does authors as diverse as Levi-Strauss, Freud, Plato, Austin, Rousseau, and Marx. Nonetheless, they hardly betray any rejection of the canon, so much as a desire to understand it. Indeed, ‘new historicist’ critics have questioned the canon more thoroughly than Derrida and his followers, and it over-simplifies matters enormously to regard them as his ‘postmodern allies’. In any case, it is surely no bad thing if the authority of the Western Canon is occasionally called into question.

Similarly, a letter to the Guardian saw in deconstruction ‘a backlash against post-war existentialism with its uncomfortable emphasis on individual responsibility’ and went on to suggest that this ‘conveniently let France off the hook for collaborating with the Nazis’. The claim that Derrida, in denying any fixed, non-contextual meanings, thereby positively advocated a form of relativism is not new—although why he should be particularly concerned with addressing French war guilt is unclear. The ethics of deconstruction came to the foreground in 1988, when an assiduous Belgian doctoral student, Ortwin de Graef, uncovered Paul de Man’s anti-Semitic wartime writings for the newspaper Le Soir (for a readable summary of this controversy, see D. Lehman’s Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man). Close links were made between de Man’s wartime writings and his subsequent academic career on the basis that, through adopting some form of moral and conceptual relativism, he might assuage his own guilt. Of course, all of this might be true with respect to de Man, although many of the justifications for such an argument rest on some rather facile psychology. Likewise, Derrida’s intellectual debts, particularly to Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, have also been used to compromise deconstruction. Certainly Heidegger is a troubling figure: for a time he supported the Nazis and, in his later philosophy, he appears to have thought that authentic being could be revealed in the ‘original meanings’ of German words (see, for example, his essay ‘Building, dwelling, thinking’). The case of Nietzsche is much more obscure. However, with both authors, Heidegger especially, it is worth asking whether disreputable conduct should discredit their works, and the same point might be made of de Man. Moreover, it is unclear whether deconstruction should be characterised as a philosophical theory—it is, in many ways, more similar to scepticism, being a certain attitude rather than a coherent philosophical model.

Charlatanry

Perhaps the most common criticism levelled at Derrida is that of charlatanry. The Cambridge dons who opposed his honorary doctorate pointed out, among other things, the opacity of his prose, which they felt was a mask for essentially banal thoughts. Roger Scruton felt that there was nothing to explain in Derrida’s work, since it was ‘nonsense’, while in a similar vein the headline to the New York Times obituary labelled Derrida an ‘abstruse theorist’. The Guardian, in an editorial column defending his work, noted that ‘for many, Derrida personified the worst type of “French fraud”, in the manner of Jean-François Lyotard and Michel Foucault, impenetrable theorists who spouted nonsense.’ (The meaning of the last quote is not entirely clear to me—specifically whether the Guardian editorial writer regards Foucault and Lyotard as ‘impenetrable theorists who spouted nonsense’, or is simply characterising popular conceptions. This is particularly puzzling as Foucault is nothing like as difficult to understand as Derrida.)

Although it is judicious to be wary of clichés about French hero-philosophers, Derrida’s death did highlight the unusually high status of philosophers in French society. It was announced by the president’s office, and Chirac commented upon his influence and legacy. Compare this with Britain: Tony Blair felt the need to join the chorus of praise for John Peel, but there is almost certainly no intellectual for whom he would extend the same courtesy. While there have been and are public philosophers—Bertrand Russell is the most obvious example—they most often become so when their serious intellectual work is behind them. The more public place of intellectual life in French society, coupled with its highly centralised and interdisciplinary academic centre, enables the philosopher to be much less constrained by disciplinary factors than their Anglo-American counterparts. Accordingly they can range more widely across academic fields, and Derrida’s prose quite explicitly shows its literary parallels, as does the work of that other notoriously obscure French thinker, Jacques Lacan. On a personal note I find some justifications for abstruseness—such as the idea that difficult ideas require difficult prose for their expression—spurious, and I do not warm to that side of Derrida’s work. Nonetheless, Anglo-American philosophers should not be deceived into thinking that abstruseness and difficulty is a preserve of modern continental thought. Derrida’s work is scarcely as difficult as that of Kant, while Wittgenstein, claimed by analytic philosophy, while extremely rewarding is frequently obscure.

Legacy?

Assessing the legacy of any thinker so immediately after his or her death is always a nearly impossible task. In the 1930s, Spengler and Toynbee were major figures, but are now read almost exclusively by intellectual historians. By the same token, Giambattista Vico’s Nuovo Scienza was substantially neglected until its rediscovery by Jules Michelet in the early 19th century. So any loud claims for Derrida’s place in Western thought need to be taken with a pinch of salt: it is something we simply cannot know yet. Terry Eagleton noted the brilliance of Derrida’s early work, while the development of that peculiar conjunction of disciplines called ‘Theory’ owes much to his influence. However, a number of recent literary critics once receptive to these ideas—notably Frank Kermode and David Lodge—have voiced the complaint that ‘Theory’ has rendered texts as simply grist to the philosophical mill, and have called for a return to the methods of writers like William Empson. Most Anglophone philosophy departments remain resolutely closed to modern continental philosophy, and in this setting Derrida is probably more ignored than actively criticised. John Searle’s argument with him is a rare example of his reception by a philosopher, but it resulted in almost nothing productive. Accordingly, one suspects that Derrida’s legacy will be most significant (at least in the US and UK) in literature departments, although there are some signs that the analytic-continental philosophy distinction is weakening. Any more certain statements about his future influence are impossible, although those interested in intellectual history will have much on which to work.

Joseph Streeter is a DPhil student in Ancient History at University College, Oxford. His dissertation examines personal identity in late antiquity, particularly in relation to death. He is currently co-editing a collection of G.E.M. de Ste Croix’s essays on early Christianity for OUP (forthcoming, 2006).