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.

Getty
Show Hide image

“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times