THE Book of the Week - Who Was Jacques Derrida? An Intellectual Biography

Martin McQuillan applauds an outsider's appraisal of the giant of deconstruction

December 31, 2009

The humanities today are deeply in love with Jacques Derrida, even though they don't know it. Just as the disciplines of the humanities now disavow the implications of Derrida's thought, a weak form of deconstruction permeates every discipline, from ubiquitous work on the animal or technology to the present fashion for sovereignty. We certainly would not have "performance" or "postcolonialism" without him.

Love and denial are two painful sides of the academic dialectic. Consciously or not, after the whirlwind, the humanities are asking, who was Jacques Derrida? A philosophical celebrity who, in an obvious to discern (but fiendishly difficult to explain) way, transformed the entire landscape of the university using the power of thought alone. This situation suggests a question that deconstruction may be able to ask but only traditional disciplinarity can answer. David Mikics' path-finding book is the first study to make a response.

Sitting on the Tube each morning, and before I close my eyes in bed last thing at night, I have for some time been mulling over two questions. First, what would a biography of deconstruction look like? Second, what would happen to the text of Derrida if it were read appreciatively from outside the field of Derrida studies?

The two questions are no doubt related, for writing a narrative biography of Derrida may not be considered a particularly deconstructive thing to do, and yet it is necessary. Similarly, reading his work in a non-deconstructive way would be something of a risk, but is inevitable. Mikics' book takes on the task set by my own nocturnal pondering and produces something almost unique in academic publishing: an engaged and positive humanist account of Derrida.

Mikics is not of the school of Derrida. He does not read Derrida in the way that deconstruction does, which is to say, according to the principles and strategies for reading that Derrida taught many of us to follow. Derrida scholars read Derrida as if it were Derrida reading himself. In contrast, Mikics' account of Derrida's philosophy does not rely on the exegesis of orthodox deconstruction. There is no outline of the quasi-transcendental, for example, that one might find in Rodolphe Gasche, Geoffrey Bennington or Peggy Kamuf.

Instead, he pursues the genre of the "intellectual biography", itself a curious academic subgenre in which, in the absence of access to any of the sources necessary to write a traditional biography, the biographer seeks to work through an author's published texts and publicly available press cuttings to construct a life narrative, which can be explained by those texts, and in turn illuminate the published work. This is a strategy that may be familiar to, say, readers of The New York Review of Books, but one that deconstruction itself might find difficult to swallow.

However, and here is the really big and scary question for deconstruction, what will happen when the figure of Derrida migrates from the academic circle of his friends and commentators into a mainstream reception of the history of ideas? Yes, the history of ideas is always already in deconstruction and Derrida's thought puts into question the very idea of such a history, but nevertheless, this normative discourse exists, it will exist for some time to come, it must do so and is impossible in principle to escape (as Derrida tells us), and its institutional power is overwhelming.

The question of the interpretation of Freud has moved beyond Freud's own group. Equally, devoted Kantians or Hegelian acolytes no longer determine the analyses of Kant or Hegel. One no longer needs to be a card-carrying Communist Party member to offer an extended opinion on Marx. Likewise, Mikics' book opens the door to a possible future for Derrida in which his text is read in an idiom that is not of its own making.

This is a serious attempt to understand Derrida. Given the remarkable hostility to Derrida's thought to be found in normative critical discourse and popular journalism, deconstruction should take seriously a treatment that is obviously committed to explaining and appreciating Derrida from somewhere other than deconstruction - especially one that offers some much-needed "lived" perspective from outside "the family" of Derrida commentators. I like Mikics' suggestion that the trembling of traditional ideas in 1960s America took place in the complete absence of knowledge of Derrida: "Throwing out books and traditions in favour of chemically induced ecstasy, sexual release, and free expression, these liberated spirits could scarcely have cared about rereading Heidegger."

This is not David Lehman's Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man, which at the height of the "de Man affair" - in which Derrida was wrongly castigated for appearing to excuse youthful anti-Semitic writings by his friend de Man - set out to trash the legacy of the Yale school. Rather, Mikics admirably takes on the task of reading not only Derrida, but the texts that Derrida writes about as well. Here, he shows himself to be a reader of considerable range and sensitivity.

In fact, the majority of the book consists of accounts of selected texts by Derrida (chosen for their significance in the narrative arc of Derrida's "intellectual biography") and the thinkers they address (from Claude Levi-Strauss and J.L. Austin to Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Celan). In this sense the intellectual biography must ironically and necessarily marginalise Derrida's life in favour of the life of the mind.

Mikics offers the narrative that Derrida's work begins as an Edmund Husserl commentator in a rejection of the Marxism of the 1960s, leading to a sustained demystification of metaphysics. After the de Man affair, Derrida realised that this work had led him up a blind alley and so reinvented himself as a political commentator influenced by his own Judaic inheritance. One of Mikics' key claims is that Derrida's work was not concerned with psychology - that is, in understanding how people think and so act. Derrida, says Mikics, preferred to undo the myth of the self. This is a really interesting problem for the biography of thought: how to account for its subject's own "resistance to psychology" and simultaneously to respect Heidegger's prescription against psychology in intellectual biography, when he says of Aristotle that he was born, he thought, he died, and the rest is mere anecdote.

From the point of view of deconstruction, much of this book should probably come with a health warning. However, Mikics uncovers many lovely moments of biographical pathos: for example, the month that Jacques and Marguerite Derrida spent with their two-year-old son Pierre on the Lido in Venice in 1965, the year before Derrida's success at the Johns Hopkins Sciences of Man symposium. Having myself spent a week on the Lido with an academic wife and a two-year-old child, trying unsuccessfully to write, I can only speculate on what the childcare arrangements were while Derrida composed Of Grammatology.

I applaud Mikics' intellectual curiosity and open-mindedness. In this respect, his account of Derrida is really a chapter of his own autobiography. No philosopher wrote more seriously about how traditional philosophy eschews biography than Derrida, while he himself had the amazing capacity to write across idioms and genres to reach unexpected audiences (Paper Machine, for example). This is why Mikics is drawn to his fascinating subject and manages to reproduce, in his own way, the best of Derridean intentions.


David Mikics, professor of English at the University of Houston, studied for his undergraduate degree at New York University before completing his doctorate at Yale University. Although trained in Renaissance literature, Mikics has a range of interests and has also written on 20th-century poetry and fiction, continental philosophy and literary theory.

Mikics has authored the books The Limits of Moralizing: Pathos and Subjectivity in Spenser and Milton (Bucknell University Press, 1994), The Romance of Individualism in Emerson and Nietzsche (Ohio University Press, 2003) and A New Handbook of Literary Terms (Yale University Press, 2007). In 2001 Mikics won the University Teaching Excellence Award, and in 2004 he was a Fulbright Professor in Leipzig, Germany.

Who Was Jacques Derrida? An Intellectual Biography

By David Mikics
Yale University Press
288pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780300115420
Published 21 January 2010

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