In an interview in the Guardian in 2017, the celebrated rationalist Daniel Dennett declared: “I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts.” If Dennett’s anathema was heard in the afterlife by Jacques Derrida, who died in 2004 renowned as the progenitor of what is commonly described as postmodernism, his shade must have smiled.
Nothing is more characteristic of evangelical rationalists than the demonological discourse of fundamentalist religion. But what can “pure evil” mean for those who claim to have exorcised all traces of the supernatural in their thinking? In the same interview, Dennett describes himself, evidently without irony, as “an eternal optimist”. By what magic does he imagine unadulterated malevolence can be banished from the world? Such enemies of postmodernism beg to be deconstructed whenever they open their mouths.
Denounced as a hater of truth, Derrida’s crime was to illuminate the true nature of modern humanism as a hodgepodge of forgotten religion and metaphysics. His misfortune was to beget an intellectual mass movement for which deconstruction was an assault on Western traditions. As Peter Salmon shows in this rigorous and revelatory biography, Derrida’s hybrid background as an Algerian pied-noir and Sephardic Jew stirred him to explore his inheritances rather than demolish them. He revered and loved the classical, Talmudic and modern European texts he spent his life examining.
Contrary to received opinion, Derrida’s thought is not obscure. But his prose can be oracular, and Salmon’s lucid exposition will be indispensable to anyone who wants to understand Derrida’s key ideas. (Benoît Peeters’ Derrida: a Biography of 2010 remains a valuable guide to the philosopher’s life.) In defending Derrida against his critics, Salmon’s book is a triumph. It is less successful in defending Derrida against his followers.
Born in a suburb of Algiers in 1930, Derrida grew up amid the conflicts that came with what he described as his “Judaeo-Franco-Maghrebian genealogy”. In 1940, the Vichy government stripped Algerian Jews of their French citizenship. A year later quotas were introduced for Jews in schools, and Derrida – “Jackie”, as he called himself then – was expelled. In November 1942, when the Allies landed in North Africa, he was able to resume his education and joined an after school philosophy club. In 1949 he left for Paris, where he entered the École Normale Supérieure, which became his home for the next 30 years. Although never comfortable in the university system, Derrida lived and died a professor. His life was more eventful, however, than that of most professors.
At 7am on the morning of 16 November 1980, Derrida’s long-time colleague, the Marxian philosopher Louis Althusser, turned up at the home of the campus doctor declaring he had killed his wife Hélène. Going at once to the Althussers’ apartment, the doctor found Hélène dead in the bedroom. Calling the police and a mental hospital where Althusser had been a patient a few days earlier, the doctor had the philosopher committed. An autopsy a few days later showed Hélène’s windpipe was broken, suggesting she died by strangulation. A panel of psychiatrists judged Althusser unfit for trial and he was never charged with any criminal offence. After spending time in various clinics, one of them chosen by Derrida, he was released to live in the north of Paris, where he could be seen walking the streets shouting, “I am the great Althusser!”
In December 1981 Derrida was arrested in Prague, where he had gone to address a seminar of dissident philosophers. When he arrived, and took the city’s Metro, he knew he was being followed. After visiting Kafka’s grave and addressing the seminar on Descartes and language – a talk that provoked one attender to ask, “How does that help?” – he decided to return to Paris. Stopped at the airport, he was taken into a side room, accused of drug smuggling and remanded to prison. News of his arrest reached France via one of the relatives of Derrida’s Czech-born wife Marguerite. The Czech ambassador was summoned by President Mitterrand, and Derrida was released the following afternoon.
In 1983 he heard of the death of his close friend, the cultural theorist Paul de Man, whom he had known since 1966. The two had talked on the phone most days during the course of De Man’s cancer. Clearing all other engagements, Derrida travelled to Yale to deliver a eulogy on De Man and his work. In 1986 he published a meditation on memory, which he entitled Memoires: for Paul de Man. A year later, the past he’d attributed to his friend was abruptly deconstructed when evidence was uncovered of De Man’s earlier life as a Nazi propagandist who, in 1940-42, wrote anti-Semitic articles for a Belgian newspaper. When he was sacked, he tried to set up a pro-Nazi arts magazine. Escaping to Latin America at the end of the war, De Man was sentenced in absentia to five years in jail. Moving on to the US, he was admitted to Harvard on the basis of a non-existent master’s thesis and an “unfinished” doctorate. After finagling his way into Yale, his march through academia was unstoppable.
Derrida’s public reaction to these events was no different from that of any other French academic of his generation. He was at one with the rest of the intelligentsia in thinking Althusser must be shielded from any legal process. He viewed the assistance he gave him as expressing an ethic of friendship, while omitting to ask how a woman who had been choked to death figured in this morality.
According to Salmon, the experience of being arrested in Prague was “one of the most traumatic of Derrida’s adult life, perhaps the most traumatic”. Yet, protected by his fame, Derrida was not at any serious risk. It was the reality of totalitarianism that was traumatic. Despite his experiences as a child, like most Western philosophers he took the freedoms of a liberal society for granted.
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His reaction to the discovery of De Man’s past was to ask how anyone had the right to condemn someone who had suffered the “unliveable discord” of finding himself “between two worlds”. Here, too, Derrida was at one with much of the intelligentsia in refusing to condemn the repellent behaviour of one of its leading figures.
Where Derrida differed from his colleagues was in suspecting himself of falsehood. Throughout his career it seems he suffered from a version of imposter syndrome. As Salmon writes: “Derrida’s nagging fear, that those who saw him as a charlatan were right, never left him.” In Circumfession, an autobiographical text published in 1991, he wrote: “Whether they expelled me from school, or threw me into prison, I always thought the other must have good reason to accuse me.”
In a letter sent to the Times in May 1992, 18 philosophers objected to a proposal to award Derrida an honorary degree at Cambridge. Derrida had “come close to making a career out of what we regard as translating into the academic sphere tricks and gimmicks similar to those of the dadaists or of the concrete poets”. In a later interview, Derrida acknowledged “the violence of these denunciations”, hinting at their impact on him. Despite these accusations, he was awarded the doctorate. The affair was reported in the Independent under the headline “Cognitive Nihilism Hits English City”.
In 1961 Derrida attended an elite academic conference where he mingled with leading figures such as the German Marxist Ernst Bloch and the Catholic existentialist Gabriel Marcel. The paper on the founder of phenomenology Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) which Derrida delivered established him as a philosopher. It also marked his debut as the person he subsequently became. As Salmon writes: “The paper is significant for its signature. The boy from Algeria no longer presents himself as Jackie. For the first time he signs his name as Jacques Derrida.”
These were not the only names he knew himself by. In his last years, Derrida often pondered on “his secret name, Elie, given to him on his circumcision… without its ever being written on the official records”. On his grave, a simple marble slab in an outer suburb of Paris where he lived for much of his life, is the name of the kid from Algiers, the one on his birth certificate: Jackie Derrida.
A further turning point came when Derrida addressed another academic conference, this time in Baltimore in October 1966. It was here that “an event, perhaps” occurred: deconstruction was born. The conference was meant to promote the work of the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. In their different ways they had inspired structuralism, a powerful current of thought that moved away from ideas of authorship and intention to find meaning within the system of signs in which a text is produced. While endorsing the shift from authorship, Derrida argued that these systems contained contradictory elements that generated undecidable questions. “By the time Derrida was finished,” Salmon writes, “the entire structuralist project was in doubt, if not dead.”
Derrida’s critique of structuralism was completed in Of Grammatology (1967). He explained deconstruction as a type of genealogical analysis, investigating – as he put it in a lecture in Oxford 30 years later – “the trajectory through which concepts have been built, used and legitimised”. As outlined in Of Grammatology, deconstruction is the critical analysis of fundamental categories of thought, commonly binary and hierarchical, in which the dominant category is shown to be undermined in other parts of the discourse in which the pair occur. Examples are nature and culture, speech and writing, presence and absence, humanity and animality. There is nothing fixed in these conceptual structures, which are historically and culturally contingent to a high degree. Their seeming self-evidence only shows how well they conceal their origins.
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In 1973 Derrida’s Voice and Phenomenon, a critical inquiry into phenomenology, was published in English. Husserl defined phenomenology as the reflective study of the phenomena of consciousness from a first-person point of view. This might sound like a philosophy of subjectivity, but Husserl aimed to show that logic and mathematics were composed of necessary truths, wholly independent of the human mind. Without these certainties, he was convinced, objective knowledge was impossible. Derrida, however, found radical uncertainty in the first person itself. The human subject was not given but inherently problematic. Forever being made and unmade, it offered no privileged access to truth.
From one point of view, Derrida’s work can be read as an extended commentary on Nietzsche’s observation in Twilight of the Idols (1889): “I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar.” With “the death of God”, it was not only the Christian deity that disappeared, but any transcendental realm of “ideas” and “values”. Nietzsche veered into myth-making, sometimes – as with the Übermensch, or “superman” – with embarrassing results. Humankind, or a superior section of it, could redeem the world from nihilism by an act of will.
Derrida’s 21st-century disciples reproduce Nietzsche’s myth. Since the world is a human construction, they seem to believe, it can be remade by humans as they please. But asserting that the world is a conceptual construction suppresses the inhuman reality that human beings struggle to know and live with, through science, religion and other practices. As in Nietzsche, the result of postmodernism is yet another humanism.
Derrida is more tentative and subversive. For him, what Nietzsche called nihilism was the endemic instability of meaning. Part of being human, this is not a condition that can be overcome. Instead, perhaps surprisingly, Derrida suggests a return to philosophy. But it is of a kind that consists in playing with the limits of language, more like poetry than logic or metaphysics.
The playful quality of Derrida’s writings has been widely neglected. From being a meditation on the slippages of language, deconstruction has morphed into an antinomian cult. The postmodern intelligentsia furiously demolishes the Western traditions that made it possible. It never thinks of deconstructing itself. Here again, Derrida’s shade would smile. To be a Derridean is to miss the joke.
Derrida’s thought was an unending self-interrogation. He knew the identity he had made for himself was a performance. That may be why the prominent philosopher does not appear on his gravestone. But if he was a charlatan, as he sometimes suspected, Derrida was one of a very special kind: a charlatan manqué, an authentic thinker despite himself, and one of great insight.
An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida
Verso, 320pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold