15 December, 2004Issue 4.1LiteratureWriters

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Jacques Derrida

Alan Ramon Ward

Whereas obituaries generally work to fill the void of physical absence, the body of obituary for Jacques Derrida has become a supplement to his own oeuvre, as significant as it is welcome to his readers. Such a shift in commentary from man, to man and work seems inevitable, and particularly likely, particularly (in)appropriate, with Derrida where passage, transitivity and the metaphysics—the uncertainty—of presence is forever ready to eat at the columns of prose on the page. And so now, for today at least, this sometimes sophisticated elegiac supplement supplants his work as it was. We read him with death on our minds. And suddenly his Work of Mourning is most relevant.

Naturally the specific tenor of this new discourse surrounding his writing is impermanent. But is it possible that, just as in the obituaries the loss of the man seems bound to a supplementation of (and thus an absence in) his work, the absence of Jacques Derrida will signal the necessity for another supplementation to his work, which no number of obituaries will satisfy? For this question, as for Derrida, the supplement is the flip-side of the absence. If this signaled necessity goes unsupplemented, we are left with a new found absence in reading Derrida. Is our lament for Jacques Derrida then also a lament for an oeuvre diminished in some way?

In effect, we are asking how the physical presence of a writer is manifested in the writing. This question is particularly worthwhile for Derrida, for whom the effect of his own physical absence from his discourse was so real that the first two decades of his career were spent mimicking this absence, refusing and evading pictures and media. Even if the writer’s relevance is unimportant, and their importance irrelevant, their presence, their being behind the words, on the screen, page and mind give the words fullness and plenitude. It allows one to fall in love with the words. When the writer dies, we may revere but no longer love their words, a seeming finality problematized by our thorough acceptance of death by which we enable life’s appreciation. For Derrida, death is not only a given but has happened already [déjà], just as a friendship is mourning, just as to say “I am” is to say “I am dead”. To being, time is the dubious organizational trick of the intellect. That is why Derrida’s eulogies seem to bid farewell each time to an entire circle. One of a generation dies and all die with them, always forever but forever different for each, for him and for us, chaque fois unique, la fin du monde.

In the figure of Lyotard, a posthumous figure constructed very personally and explicitly of memories and texts, he holds the last of his great friends, and thus his own penultimate death. The Lyotard we read, ultimately, is Derrida trying to entice the man from his work with anecdotes and a tragic playfulness. But he will not come, and too stark for Derrida is the resulting contraposition of his own presence and his friend’s absence. He has to leave writing and join the obituary as its written subject, if only briefly. He no longer writes about Jean-Francois. Il y a l’immortalité entre toi et moi, qui nous verrons mourir. This is Jean-Francois, repositioned it seems, now writing to Derrida while Derrida, so alone, so aware, seeks his own absence and place with his friend. Je l’aime, Jean-François, et qu’il me manque, comme les mots, au-del√° des mots.

For the living theorist, their written words are their thoughts. Their words represent a presence. They question to provoke and challenge; the written word of the living thinker supplies inevitable vigilance. And this vigilance, manifested in the great thinkers, has the power to give the field a living unity by posing their different questions simultaneously to so many. Though their living relationship to their readers was anything but parenthood, each death, it seems, created an absence for Derrida akin, metaphorically, to the loss of a parent for the other parent. With Lyotard, like deMan, Foucault, Althusser, Kaufman and others, death moved to reduce the vigilance that was deconstruction to a sub-cannon of structuralism and post-structuralism. Death had moved against Derrida in this sense as against them.

The loss for Derrida, however, is not so much a loss of his father or fathers as fatherhood, a concept-thing recognizably him which is reduced in himself and his work with each death. Gayatri Spivak reads Glas as a fiction of Derrida turning into a thing. Derrida’s father’s absence, taken ultimately to represent his ancestry, is metaphorized as the crypt in the Jewish tabernacle that Pompey finds empty in Hegel’s Spirit of Christianity. He encrypts his father’s name as derrière les rideaux or “behind the curtains” of the crypt and works to mimic a filling of the emptiness with a manipulation of what surrounds it. The absence is not filled, only distorted enough to distract and, inevitably, lend a signature to its distortion. The signature is the encryption of Derrida himself; it is his passage into thingness. This encryption is the sum of what is, or rather what appears—the simulacra replacing the absence behind the curtains. Spivak reads what is there as what is there “already”: Derrida as déjà.

To the extent that his writing incorporates the late post-/structuralist writers, Derrida has refilled their absences by the manipulation of what they left behind and leaves us also with the necessarily encrypted Derrida, the Derrida we know, which for the sake of reference we can refer to as Derrida the Philosopher.

Now we can re-ask our earlier question of a sadly diminished oeuvre: How long will this Derrida last?

The answer is in the paradox of our lament: the tragedy of his loss felt in the loss of an encrypted thingness. Though it is not yet apparent, “Derrida” is no longer synonymous with “deconstruction” as his intellectual chronology ceases now to be the history of the practice to simply take its place in that history.

The human loss felt by so many for a wonderful teacher and friend signals the loss of a vital identity-concept, created and nurtured inevitably. While Derrida lamented Lyotard, encrypting him in the space of his absence, he encrypted himself, Derrida the Philosophy, that is there déjà or simply not there when he ceases to encrypt. His loss is most tragic for its finality—we have no doubt we are alone. Now to read Derrida, to watch his image-chasing in Glas or Chaque fois, we watch, what is immediate and already, a great man take with him what was always his: a sustaining vigilance, a voice, a presence.