Volume Five, December 2004

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The Derridean Difference: In Memoriam Jacques

When I am not dreaming of making love, or being a resistance fighter in the last war blowing up bridges or trains, I want one thing only, and that is to lose myself in the orchestra I would form with my sons, heal, bless and seduce the whole world by playing divinely with my sons, produce with them the world's ecstasy, their creation. I will accept dying if dying is to sink slowly, yes, into the bottom of this beloved music.
(Jacques Derrida, “Circumfession”)

What if someone came along who changed not the way you think about everything, but everything about the way you think?

It is with a great deal of self-consciousness that one sets out to write in tribute to the memory of Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Thinking his presence in his absence is an exercise in spectropoetics, perhaps the ultimate deconstruction act that he got around to instigate. It is in the nature of his legacy to be left to surmise, imagining how he would ‘apply himself’ to dismantle his own obituaries, tearing praise apart and turning arguments against themselves, unrelenting in his interrogation of who speaks for whom and from what vantage point, always vigilant in problems of authority and authoriality, wondering: "Am I in a situation, would I accept to put myself in a situation to talk about such reading effects? Because of the privileged position which could be mine here, I am also in the worst position from which to accede to such effects and especially to evaluate them" (in Weber 1995:39). Larger than any one intellectual, indeed an intellectual phenomenon, the French scholar was accorded more acclaim than any living philosopher, leaving an indelible mark on modern thinking, and profiling himself as the most influential continental philosopher or ‘anti-philosopher’, as some would argue, of the late twentieth century. Dazzling in a rather unique way, Derrida was the most widely read and translated theoretician of the century and French Academy’s greatest loss since the death of Jean-Paul Sartre in 1980. A cult figure of the academic circles and of the theoretical humanities, Derrida wrote on virtually every conceivable subject area in humanistic discourse from the concepts of futurity and mortality to the dynamics of hope, aesthetic value and forgiveness, to the 9 11 attacks. From the “truth in painting” to the war on terror, his notorious deconstructive vein lasers on cognitive structures of various kinds, exposing received modes, showing reading codes undo themselves, and disturbing in the process everything you ever took for granted or thought you knew about. Unlike many of his commentators and detractors, whose interpretive authority is all too often confined to a ‘portable’ Derrida acquired via secondary material, the man himself was an intensely close reader of texts, whose overriding ethics was “to return the proposition its power to provoke” (1982: 23), which is exactly why reading Derrida is always such an enlightening and seductive experience.
Contrary to what some literary and cultural critics would have one believe, Derrida was a live theorist, attentive to a humanity finding itself at a critical historical juncture, and assiduously heedful of what monsters self-complacent and fallacious foundations may breed. To those that failed to see the ethical through the ‘impenetrable prose’ and sophisticated analytic apparatus, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (2003) must have come as an immense surprise. Called upon to unpack the political theologies at stake in the war on terror rhetoric and assess their implications on the post-Cold War world order, Derrida warns yet again against the dangers of binary thinking and easy hierarchies, in this case of confecting and projecting absolute others as enemy figures. "Bush speaks of 'war', but he is in fact incapable of identifying the enemy against whom he declares that he has declared war” (in Borradori 11), Derrida emphatically resolves, at the end of an astute demonstration of deconstructive practice at its most productive. A discursive reality, Derrida intimates, America and its political agendas and theologies are not above analysis, and Islam, certainly not yielding to any one single, incontrovertible ‘truth’.
A powerful liberator and challenger of orthodoxies, cultural and social institutions, Derrida sought to ’decentralise’ the underlying assumptions of Western philosophical traditions by uncovering their deep-seated cultural myths and hegemonies. Reactions to his non-conformity with classical forms of enquiry ran the full gamut from overawed appraisal to hateful invective. Thus, whereas in the Anglo-American literary world, Derrida’s defiance of norms paved his way to academic stardom, in that of analytic philosophy, his stretching of conventions of scholarship beyond the expected ‘standards of clarity and rigor’ brought him more disrepute than appreciation. Among the incidents for scrapbook, the infamous “Cambridge affair” of 1992 when, fuelled by the offended sensibilities of a group of eminent local figures, twenty philosophers from ten countries signed an open letter opposing Derrida’s being awarded an honorary degree by the venerable establishment. Clearly, Derrida’s bold revisionism of the very foundations of Western philosophy did not sit well with Cambridge pragmatism. Preconceptions not withstanding, Anglo-Saxon scepticism abated and the doctorate conferred in the end after a memorable 336 to 204 ballot, the doctor honoris causa nearly denied to Derrida drawing to a close some “four decades of intellectual insularity” as The Independent commented at the time.
A frondeur wary of easily placed allegiances and heritages, Derrida personified the condition of cultural liminality, which he envisaged as the experience of being and thinking at the limit that allows the discourse ’to think its other’. A French Jew born in Algeria, Derrida grew up in recognition of the ‘trace of difference’ at the overlap of multiple territories, Christianity and Judaism, Islam and Judaism, Europe and Africa, France and its colonial empire, the sea and the desert. However, despite their uncomfortable and unsettling predicament, Derrida’s most radical statements are also his most empowering and liberating. Mostly misconstrued as the furthermost explosive site of postmodern relativism, his system of analyses commonly referred to as ‘deconstruction’ foregrounds signification as the production of infinitely potent layers of meaning, illuminating from within the legitimacy of misreading, our right to marginal, preferred readings. Often taking it at face value, critical theorists remained for the larger part impervious to the affirmative and enabling potential of Derrida’s deconstructive project, quick to profess its alleged nihilism and destructive quality.
Derrida’s quarrel was with dominant systems of thought, and this is where his impact on the variegated arenas of the human sciences is incalculable, the Derridean moment marking the entry into a new critical order. Generating both priestly and vituperative responses, Derrida cuts a solitary figure at the level of the abuse liberally heaped on his work. It is ironic that one of the most iconoclastic, anti-essentialist figures of the twentieth century should also be one of the most universally ‘misread’ and domesticated. The subject of films, talk-shows and cartoons, the ‘Mick Jagger of cultural philosophy’ ranked as well as the sexiest, most exciting thinker of the latter part of the twentieth century (a hierarchical positioning he would no doubt object to). Capturing with great verve the eloquent aura and charisma of the public thinker, the biographical documentary Derrida directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, winner of the San Francisco Golden Gate Award, does full justice, among other, to a writer unparalleled in his spontaneity and the refreshing naturalness of his discourse. One week before his passing, Derrida was being tipped as a possible winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Literature, an award that was eventually made to Elfriede Jelinek. Paying homage to the seminal thinker on October 9, Jacques Chirac, the French president, evoked in late Professor Derrida, "one of the greatest contemporary philosophers and major intellectual figures of our time" that France has given the world.
In thinking out our debt to Derrida today, and exploring how he will “continue to produce effects beyond his presence and beyond the present actuality of his meaning, that is beyond life itself” (1982: 313), we somewhat seem to internalise more fully his notion of the mechanisms that make writing at all possible, including “this absence, which however belongs to the structure of all writing” (313). And it then becomes apparent, paradoxically again when read against his demystification of the ‘metaphysics of presence’, that the ‘Derridean difference’ goes beyond deconstructionism per se, accommodating the humilitude of the writer, the gracefulness of the person and sparkle of the public persona hence the genuine sadness that the ‘founding father of deconstruction’ leaves us with. Such is the plenitude of the Derridean mark:

To write is to produce a mark that will constitute a kind of machine that is in turn productive, that my future disappearance in principle will not prevent me from functioning and from yielding, and yielding itself to, reading and rewriting. When I say “my future disappearance,” I do so to make this proposition more immediately acceptable. I must be able simply to say my disappearance, my nonpresence in general, for example the nonpresence of my meaning, of my intention-to-signify, of my wanting-to-communicate-this, from the emission or production of the mark. For the written to be written, it must continue to “act” and to be legible even if what is called the author of the writing no longer answers for what he has written, for what he seems to have signed, whether he is provisionally absent, or if he is dead, or if in general he does not support, with his absolutely current and present intention or attention, the plenitude of his meaning, of that very thing which seems to be written “in his name.” (1982: 316)

Borradori, Giovanna (ed.). Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen
Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. 1972. Trans. Alan Bass. New York & London:
Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1982.
Derrida, dir. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman, Jane Doe Films, 2002.
Weber, Elisabeth (ed.). Points…Interviews 1974-1995. Trans. Peggy Kamuff et al.
Stanford CA: Stanford UP, 1995.

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