ONE of the most influential French philosophers of the past century, Jacques Derrida, died of pancreatic cancer in October 2004. He was 74. 1 must admit that, when asked to write this obituary I baulked, thinking, No, not him of all people. What am I to write? A straightforward and truncated quasi-biography? Attempt to recapitulate his work? A critique? Impossible. And yet, all three, in some way: what he would have called the “possible impossible,” perhaps.
Supposing one compared philosophical thought to genocide (might one even, at risk of offending the dead, say, logicide?) – Jacques Derrida would be the forensic scientist sent to investigate; notthe covered-up scene, but the offices in which records of the crime are stored by the governing bureaucracy. From my reading of Derrida, and it is not wide, I sense that he stumbled upon a crime of omission committed by western philosophy, if not in thought, then, in deed, and that his “method,” (which he insists is no method in so far as it cannot be taught) “deconstruction,” is an investigation into this crime. He speaks of “marks, traces, signs,” that are tampered with and flimsy, inspired by Freud’s concept of Nachtrciglichkeit: the object of a memory is not identical with the contents, that these are interpretations, and thus, that of the original event only its traces are present to memory.
Yet, by reading the texts – and he said, time and again: “There is only text” and by applying his own quasi-transcendental non-concept, différance: “a concept that defies explanation because every attempt to explain it is an attempt to go beyond the limits of language,” he sought to challenge the privilege accorded by western philosophers to notions of identity and similarity,” and following Saussure, he argued that “a language is defined not by the positive content of its signifying material (sounds or inscriptions) but the structure of differences between them . . . différance referring to the move-ment by which such differences come into being” (Paul Patton in Dictionary of Philosophy, T. Mautner, ed., Penguin 1996).
His attempt then, has been to question and unsettle closed philosophical systems that, in his eyes, wrongfully usurped the right to determine what is true, why it is, and according to whose rules. As he himself said: “In my work I endeavor to create greater understanding, more light, as Goethe said. As this deconstruction now forces us to ask questions regarding truth, meaning and light where this questioning of truth is itself no longer subject to the authority of truth. But this is not obscurantism … On the contrary, it is a way… of experiencing truth” Französische Philosophen in Gespräch, Klaus Boer Verlag 1987).
Whether he was right in doing so, in that manner, is a cause of dispute, sometimes vehement He has been accused of “terrorist obscurantism” (sic): that through his textual “intervention” he undermined objectivity and merely achieved a radical relativism, since fixed demarcations of signs (words) were blown open to infinite readings, meanings, interpretations.
He was born in Algeria in 1930. Being of Jewish descent he was expelled from school at the age of 11 when Algeria was overrun by Vichy collaborators. His teacher informed him that: “French culture is not made for little Jews.” He moved to Paris at the age of ig, and was admitted into the Ecóle Normale Supérieure where he studied philosophy, concentrating on the works of Husserl and Heidegger. In his “Envois,” a false preface to La carte postale, he speaks of this event as having a decisive influence upon him:
Will they not one day, if they could, expel me from school? Is that not why I have, until now, established myself there, to provoke them to it and give them the greatest desire, always at the point of banishing me yet again … one must wage a certain war against uiem, when the obscurantism, and especially the vulgarity that is ever present settles in.
Something he also touched upon in a lecture he gave in Seattle in 1984 titled “Shibboleth pour Paul Celan.” The Danish philosopher Niels noted that: “Shibboleth is a Jewish, or Hebraic, watchword, a password, that – depend- ing on its pronunciation – revealed one’s nature, lineage or party, tribe: e.g. the Ephraimites, a Jewish tribe, pro- nounced it differently from the people of the tribe of Jephta. The word’s original meaning was of no significance, only the effect of the pronunciation was, as it, in the given historical and political situation – the state of war between Jephta and Ephraim – was a sign, or a cipher, of either belonging (to Jephta) or exclusion (from Ephraim). A pure signifiant, if you wish, without signifié and without any referent other than its effect as acceptance or exclusion. As circumcision … became [in Nazi Germany] centuries later” Egebak (Skriftens simulacrum, Forlaget Rimoere 1987).
Both Derrida and Celan experienced in different ways and to different degrees this exclusion. In the case of Celan the paradox and irony, according to Egebak, is that, having lost his family to the camps, he had to give expression to this exclusion by means of the only language he really knew, German, and in the form of his poem “Todesfuge” (Death Fugue):
It was in his analysis of this and other poems by Celan that Derrida was struck by correspondences surrounding the uses of shibboleth and circumcision as signs, and how this brought out a dimension of the text, which prompted him to write:
(And 1 will also add, that shibboleth, today, in its terrible political ambiguity, could refer to the state of Israel, the state of Israel’s present state. This deserves more than a parenthesis, some would say. Yes. But what I say here in parenthesis is this: this is all that is spoken about all over, and beyond the confines of this parenthesis.)
Jacques Derrida is absent; he is dead, translated, deconstructed. And through all the apparent equivocality he seems to still speak very carefully to all of us, all over.