Gary Day

November 5, 2004

Derrida's philosophy is confusing, particularly as he denied having one. Still, it's worth trying to tap along to his rhythm

A couple of weeks ago I opened the paper to find that Superman had died, and so had Jacques Derrida. It's a bit unfortunate to pass away at the same time as someone who has saved mankind several times over because their obituaries are bound to be more glowing than yours, especially when your philosophy, deconstruction, can only offer "a certain way of resigning oneself" to how things are. Incidentally, the fact that deconstruction also "liberates forbidden jouissance " brings it quite close to the classical theory of tragedy. Both are forms of acceptance relying on the release of affect. Death - the final signified - is central to tragedy and tragedy is uncomfortably close to comedy. Which is why some people feel able to make jokes about the demise of the great philosopher. "Hit the Road, Jacques"; "Derrida is not dead, he's only sous rature ", and, the most laboured and therefore the one he would no doubt have loved the best, "he who said we could never be present to ourselves or others is now well and truly absent".

Does that sound disrespectful? I'm only trying to be true to the great man who said that our response will always be "double and divided". And he himself declared that it was only after their death that you could prove your fidelity to the deceased. Since they are no longer there to check on what you are doing, or else too busy in the afterlife to care, then your responsibility towards them is absolute. I think that's what he meant, but then Derrida was such a tease that it's hard to be sure.

He claimed that it's our lack of certainty that makes us moral beings.

"Ethics start when you don't know what to do, when there is this gap between knowledge and action, and you have to take responsibility for inventing the new rule which doesn't exist." Isn't that partly what Hamlet's about? Perhaps some of Derrida's appeal is his affinity with the prince who found it so easy to think, so hard to act. I only wish the same applied to new Labour.

Derrida liked to think he had rhythm. In fact he claimed that it "matters more than what I say". So, if you don't like the lyrics, go with the beat. But it could be an awfully slow one. Derrida didn't like to rush things. Even when he was at last going to make a point he would say something like "to put an end, without further ado, to circulation, or to an interminable circumnavigation, to avoid the aporia with a view to a better beginning... ". Hardly foot-tapping stuff. But, in his defence, you could say he gave you pause for thought. Sometimes more pause than thought. But he was capable of pithiness: literature is "an institution which allows one to say everything in every way". It's the word "institution" that gets you thinking in that sentence. Or how about "immediacy is derived"? Practically his whole philosophy is contained in that sentence. Except Derrida would deny he had a philosophy. Well, if he didn't know what he was about, how can we?

Years ago I spent a long time reading Derrida and, after three months' solid work, got to page six of Writing and Difference . So it's no use asking me - not that anyone would - what his legacy will be. That we never get to the end of meaning? That entire traditions tremble before an unconsidered trifle? That there's always a deep logic to the supplement, except those that come with the Sunday papers? Who knows? I don't. A more important question might be why Derrida rose to such prominence in England and America but not, apparently, in France. Was it because both these countries adopted a market philosophy that France did not? Was there something in Derrida's deconstruction of hierarchies that chimed with the break-up of the mixed economy? Was it because his critique of presence underwrote a culture of spin? It would be hard to prove these and other coincidences, but it's fun pointing them out.

And how about this? Derrida's reception in England should be seen in the context of literary culture's troubled relationship to F. R. Leavis. Yes, there are differences between the two thinkers - Derrida had more hair - but there are also similarities. Both were interested in the relation between literature and philosophy and both were deeply committed to tradition. Derrida said that he was "above all a guardian of memory". But what they most had in common was a commitment to close reading. Each man, in his own way, was sensitive to the singularity of a work. Oh, and we mustn't forget, both men were badly treated by Cambridge University.

Let's just hope Derrida is remembered better than Leavis ever was.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

Next week: Derrida special

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