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.