Living on

Five years after his death, Jacques Derrida's ideas continue to resonate

Five years ago, the French philosopher and founder of "deconstruction" Jacques Derrida died of pancreatic cancer in Paris. Derrida was arguably the most famous (some would say infamous) of all contemporary philosophers. In his prime -- coinciding with the winds of postmodernism that swept university campuses and architectural practices in the 1980s and 1990s -- his influence extended well beyond the academy. On hearing of his death in October 2004, Jacques Chirac declared him "one of the major figures of intellectual life of our time". Judging by how little noticed the fifth anniversary of his death has been, however, his star has fallen a long way in the past five years.

Part of the reason for this may lie with the natural shelf life of Derrida's uniquely opaque writing style, not to mention his refusal ever to allow the meaning of his work to be pinned down. "He writes so obscurely you can't tell what he's saying," Derrida's friend and colleague Michel Foucault once said of him. "That's the obscurantism part, and then when you criticise him, he can always say, 'You didn't understand me; you're an idiot.' That's the terrorism part." Foucault was certainly not alone in finding Derrida's philosophising too wantonly obscure. Many, and perhaps most notoriously the analytic philosopher John Searle in a 1983 essay in the New York Review of Books, saw all the verbal pirouettes as a diversionary tactic, designed to draw attention away from the lack of substance in his work.

But neither this nor the various controversies Derrida became embroiled in stopped him from developing a huge following over the years. So is the real reason for Derrida's low profile today simply that the world has moved beyond the sort of critical vision he sought to apply to it? The style of deconstruction Derrida championed was intended to sweep away the "meta-narratives" of a promised utopia inherent in modern political thought. His aim was to reduce them all to their paradoxical cores, ushering in a period of sceptical, deliberately disjointed reflection in their stead. But deconstruction's own stock has devalued of late, perhaps because, as the cultural critic Terry Eagleton points out, it boils down to an ethical free-for-all in which anything goes and nothing is left to stand for the good life. In his book After Theory, Eagleton jokes of Derrida's view of ethics: "One can only hope that he is not on the jury when one's case comes up in court."

All of which makes it hard to imagine Derrida's oeuvre making a sudden comeback, called up for reasons of practical necessity in the way that Keynesian economics recently has been. The difficulty of imagining it notwithstanding, that seems to be precisely the intention behind a new edition of his lectures, soon to be published by the prestigious University of Chicago Press under the title The Beast and the Sovereign. The lectures -- which have been gathering dust for the past few years in the archives of the University of California-Irvine -- hold out the promise of a more politically relevant Derrida, fit for our times, as they deal with questions of "force, right and justice".

Undoubtedly this is all very much of the political moment. But there is one problem: Derrida was ultimately never political in the way that these new lectures seem to portray him. To be sure, he was not apolitical, a common misconception. In an interview with a fellow intellectual, Mustapha Chérif, shortly before Derrida's death, he held forth on a range of matters, including Islam, secularism and democracy, and his own centre of gravity was always very much on the left. But it was also always part of his politics to refuse to adopt or support any particular political creed or movement. Marxism, he pointed out, was no longer anything to follow, and even in his most overtly political books -- such as Spectres of Marx and The Politics of Friendship -- he allowed only a hesitant normative light into his thinking.

To quibble about Derrida's own political leanings, however, may be to miss both the point and the possible value of hearing his distinctive voice speak to us once more through these lectures. Regardless of his own political tactics, the legacy of Derrida's approach to texts, to the need to tease out the layers of often contradictory meaning contained within them, remains important. From that attention to inconsistency and contingency comes a trenchant critique of the danger and seductive power of thinking through binaries such as "good versus evil".

In this sense, Derrida remains entirely pertinent to the moment. The misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan top a long list of such Manichaean follies. And that these are follies foisted on us through the asserted legitimacy of particular discursive constructs (the idea of the "war on terror", for example) merely restates the importance of the ultimate Derridean argument: that we do well to take the production and disputation of discourse seriously, because it is through words and texts that acts and deeds materialise.

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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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