Critical reader of the radical voices

Jacques Derrida
April 20, 2007

If, one day, someone writes a biography of the philosopher Jacques Derrida, he or she would have to take into account that the person whose life is the object of its study had a lot to say about the biographical genre and, in fact, regularly insisted that, especially with respect to the lives of philosophers, there is very little value in it. This problem still lies ahead of us, however.

Jason Powell's book Jacques Derrida: A Biography is not really a biography at all. As Powell admits, he has no recourse whatsoever to what is "usually necessary for a biography" - to private letters to friends.

Nor does Powell dwell on those occasions in Derrida's public career when things got really personal. The Cambridge affair over an honorary degree in 1992 was only one of a number of interventions by Derrida's enemies in which attempts were made to destroy his career through public denunciations and smears.

There is a gripping story of professional misconduct, of abuse of power and recourse to the newspapers and media that could have been researched and told and could have provided a hook for looking in some detail at the writings by Derrida that provoked such controversy.

But the private communications and personal intrigues that really are necessary for biography are entirely missing in this book. Instead, Powell provides, for the most part, a sort of catalogue of the Derridean oeuvre by date of "release" of its major parts.

This is not to say that there is no biographical ambition here. Such a residue is evident in the constant effort to find "turns" in Derrida's work that would produce narrative effects to an otherwise bleak listing.

Significantly, however, none of these turns actually turn out to be real changes in direction, and Derrida's forays into new fields always amount to elaborations of what it was already possible to read, as Powell concedes, "in the very first works". Derrida's supposed turns are always straight-aheads in which he shows himself only "to be what he always was".

And yet for all its shortcomings as a biography of Derrida, Powell's book does sketch a portrait of what the philosopher "always was" that is not usually so boldly presented to students of his work; namely, of Derrida as a critical reader of the most radical voices in a heritage that "we should call the conservative tradition" - a radical line represented most powerfully by Nietzsche, Heidegger and Carl Schmitt - which Derrida sought, in the name of democracy, to transform "from within".

It is perhaps because of this political ambiguity that the most strangely continuous and haunting interlocutoral presence in Powell's book is the philosopher and elegist of old England, Roger Scruton. Scruton typically enters when things look particularly grim for Derrida and is then taken to task for making egregious comments about the philosopher's work "without provocation, and with obviously little knowledge of what he was dealing with".

But Scruton is singled out for upbraiding by Powell precisely because Powell would like to get away from the image of Derrida as one of those 1968ers who are out to destroy the European cultural and intellectual heritage. Powell is quite right to insist that Derrida does not write against but for the sake of this heritage, out of love for it. It is this love of the heritage that makes Derrida and those such as Scruton, who lament the decline of European culture, partners in a common effort. Concerned to forge a future for the West beyond its current heading, they are, Powell suggests, "in the end, motivated by similar desires".

Simon Glendinning is a fellow in European philosophy in the European Institute at the London School of Economics. His book In the Name of Phenomenology will be published by Routledge in July.

Jacques Derrida: A Biography

Author - Jason Powell
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 262
Price - £10.99
ISBN - 978 0 826 494498

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