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.

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge