Just over a decade ago, the dons of Cambridge University awarded an honorary degree to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, having previously turned him down for one. It is doubtful that many of the Cambridge academics who voted against him had read more than a few pages of his work – these being men and women, after all, who urge on their students the importance of scrupulously weighing the evidence before arriving at a judgement. They simply knew, having tuned in to the Cambridge grapevine, that Derrida was a sinister French nihilist with vaguely leftish connections and a taste for Parisian haute couture. He believed that anything could mean anything else, and that there was nothing in the world but texts.To cap it all, he had had his photo in Time magazine, looking a great deal more suave and sexy than most Cambridge dons. He was a cult figure who had made philosophy glamorous and iconoclastic, and it was partly for this that he was not to be forgiven by the old fogeys of the Fens.
Derrida, so it was darkly rumoured, was the exponent of a newfangled device known as deconstruction, which meant subverting everything you could lay your hands on. He was a kind of intellectual Arthur Scargill, better dressed but just as bolshie, a “structuralist” who had addled the brains of gullible students with his belief that language was only about itself and not about the real world at all. He was also reportedly out to “decentre” human beings, which sounded as ominous as it was obscure. Not much of this was true, apart from the haute couture. Derrida was not a structuralist, and had never claimed that language was only about itself. He simply pointed to the problem of how words come to mean things, as many a philosopher has done.
He did indeed comment that “there is nothing outside the text”, but he did not mean by this that Mme Derrida or the Arc de Triomphe were just thinly disguised pieces of writing. He meant that there is nothing in the world that is not “textual”, in the sense of being made up of a complex weave of elements which prevents it from being cleanly demarcated from something else. “Textual” means that nothing stands gloriously alone. He has never argued that anything can mean anything, rather that meaning is never final or stable. No system of meaning can ever be unshakeably founded. “Decentring” human beings does not mean abolishing them, but denying that they can ever be independent of the forces that went into their making. To deconstruct does not mean to destroy, but to show that terms which seem to be opposites (say, “man” and “woman”) violently suppress the ways in which they are secretly in collusion. Or, more generally, to show how every coherent system is forced at certain key points to violate its own logic. It is, Derrida has insisted, a form of political critique, not just a literary method. Indeed, he has recently described deconstruction as a kind of radicalised Marxism – a claim which is hardly likely to endear him to the killjoys of King’s Parade, but which is scarcely consistent with claiming that he believes in nothing but writing.
Like most modern French theorists, Derrida was not exactly French. He was born in Algeria, in 1930, of a Sephardic Jewish family. As a young student in Paris, he experienced considerable culture shock. His work, which ponders on the paradoxical relations between “inside” and “outside”, “centre” and “margins”, “proper” and “improper”, “original” and “derivative”, is impossible to grasp outside this context. Derrida started off as a colonial Jewish semi-outsider in a French academic system notorious for its rigid hierarchy and and rationalism. His project from the start was not to “destroy” reason but to expose its limits, along with the authoritarian pretensions of some of its claims. He was sensitive to the violence that lurked within western rationality, without surrendering to some fashionable irrationalism. He was always, he claimed, a “man of the left”, and at one time was especially close to his fellow Algerian, the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser. His annus mirabilis, in which he published his classic works Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology, was 1967, the year before Paris exploded with student militancy. Along with Michel Foucault, Derrida is heir to the great French current of political libertarianism, which passed to him from the surrealists and situationists. His work marks the moment at which these revolutionary avant-gardes break into the lofty fortress of philosophy itself, blurring the boundaries between the sensuous and the conceptual, the analytic and the experimental, the serious and the playful. Philosophically, Derrida is the inheritor of Freud, Nietzsche and Heidegger – of a tradition of “anti-philosophy” which seeks to put into question the very metaphysical foundations of western thought. By releasing language, meaning and identity as far as possible from the straitjacket of metaphysics, you could anticipate an emancipated society in which identity was fluid and provisional. By fastening on the hybrid, devious and indeterminate, on whatever bends the norm or escapes the grip of the concept, you could help to prise open the prison-house of reason.
Derrida, who now divides his time between teaching in the US and a prestigious professorship in Paris, has not been immune to his own cultification. Over the years, his prose style has become increasingly mannered and portentous, revolving as it does on vacuous rhetorical questions: “What is it, to eat peanuts? Why this plural? What is this ‘what’? Who is asking here? Anybody or nobody? Is this question even possible? What if it were at once essential and impossible?” (This is my parody, but only mildly so.)
Entranced by the ambiguous and indeterminate, Derrida’s high Gallic style winces at anything as vulgar as being “for” or “against” something. This, for a self-proclaimed leftist, is something of a drawback. But if Derrida is a libertarian, he is one without political hope. You must not be so naively un-Parisian as to imagine that freedom could ever actually arrive. Nineteen sixty-eight lives on in a fantasy of the floating signifier, but not as political possibility. Meanwhile, Derrida has turned his attention to other topics – friendship, the gift, so-called negative theology. There are those who predict that he will end up a rabbi, and those who claim that that is what he always was.
Jacques Derrida Born 1930 in Algiers. Philosopher of language and creator of the critical technique of deconstruction, which seeks to examine the unconscious politics and intentions behind any given text. In 1967, published three definitive works: Writing and Difference, Of Grammatology and Speech and Phenomena. Currently director of studies at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Science, Paris