chapter  12
13 Pages

Jacques Derrida

ByMAJA ZEHFUSS

Jacques Derrida’s work has had a major impact on scholars working in the humanities and social sciences. But Derrida is famous beyond the academic world. His work has influenced artists, too, and he was involved in organising exhibitions. ‘Deconstruction’, a term associated with Derrida’s work, has become part of our vocabulary, although it is often used in a way that is not faithful to his thought. Derrida was also active politically. The issue of teaching philosophy in schools was a concern for him throughout his life. He was involved in a group supporting dissident intellectuals in Czechoslovakia and, after participating in a secret seminar in 1981, he was imprisoned on false drug charges by the Czechoslovakian authorities. Derrida also spoke out against apartheid. When he died in 2004, he had been the protagonist of films and cartoons, and the subject of at least one rock song (Attridge and Baldwin 2004; Bennington and Derrida 1993). Derrida was born in El-Biar, Algeria, in 1930. He was named ‘Jackie’, and

chose to use ‘Jacques’ in his professional life. Algeria had been invaded and colonised by France from 1830; eventually it was made a part of France. As a Sephardic Jew Derrida was a full French citizen, unlike the vast majority of Muslim Algerians. After attending the local primary school, he moved to the lycée in 1941. Yet in 1942 he was expelled because he was Jewish. AntiSemitic laws emanating from occupied France applied, although Algeria was never occupied by Germany. At this time Derrida was also subjected to physical and verbal violence. Whilst he suffered from the anti-Semitism of society, he was not comfortable at the Jewish high school either and did not attend his classes for almost a year (Bennington and Derrida 1993: 326-27). Derrida returned to his previous school in 1943, but failed the baccalauréat in 1947. He was dreaming of becoming a professional footballer. Nevertheless, he immersed himself in reading. After passing the bac in 1948, he decided to attend the École Normale Supérieure (ENS), the leading French institute for literature and philosophy. He left Algeria for the first time to take preparatory classes in Paris and eventually passed the entrance examination at his third attempt. At the ENS he made friends with, among others, Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, though he later fell out with Foucault. He also met psychoanalyst Marguerite Aucoutrier, whom he

married in 1957. Derrida passed his aggrégation in 1956, again after more than one attempt (Attridge and Baldwin 2004). After his military service, during the Algerian war, he started his first teaching post at a lycée in Le Mans in 1959 (Bennington and Derrida 1993: 330). In 1964 he was appointed to ENS where he remained until 1984, when he accepted a position at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Powell 2006). Clearly, Derrida had to overcome obstacles and set-backs early in his

academic career. He also struggled with ill health and depression. Yet he published three major books, Speech and Phenomena (1973), Writing and Difference (1978) and Of Grammotology (1998) in 1967, when he was barely in his late thirties. His work was recognised internationally and across disciplines from the 1970s. Derrida held many appointments at American universities; from 1987, he taught one semester each year at the University of California at Irvine. His appointment to a university chair in France was, however, blocked in the early 1980s (Bennington and Derrida 1993: 333). In 1992 the University of Cambridge awarded him an honorary degree, but only after a controversy over his credentials for such an honour (Derrida 1995b: 399-421). Derrida’s work is, in other words, both highly influential and controversial. It is not easy to summarise Derrida’s thought. This is not merely because

he published some 70 books and countless articles. People who are unfamiliar with his work sometimes balk at the words he uses, such as différance or undecidability. Some of them he indeed ‘makes up’. Yet this is not unique to Derrida. Scholars often use terms in specific ways that depart from everyday language. Sometimes they introduce new words needed to express phenomena or relationships between them that were not previously considered important. The potential difficulty with Derrida’s terms is more fundamental. As his arguments challenge the categories within which we think – that is, our language – his terms are not easily explained using that language. You have to understand the logic of his thought to appreciate différance, for example. Geoffrey Bennington also highlights that Derrida’s work does not consist of a ‘system of theses’, which would be easier to summarise, but in readings of philosophical and literary texts (Bennington and Derrida 1993: 6). Often his texts perform what they say: they challenge the language used in them. Because of what he argues Derrida considers reading extremely sig-

nificant. You can tell from the care with which he approaches the texts he critiques that he loves reading. More entertainingly, his love for reading becomes clear in the film Derrida (Dick and Kofman 2003) during a conversation in Derrida’s study. The walls are covered with books and the filmmaker asks Derrida whether he has read all of them. He smiles and says that he has read ‘three or four’ of them, but that he has read those very, very carefully. Derrida has certainly read more than ‘three or four’ books, but that he reads extremely carefully is no joke. One way of understanding his work is to focus on how he reads and why he is such a champion of reading

carefully (1988). For him reading is itself an act of writing; that is, reading does not decipher the given meaning of a text but is part of creating that meaning. So this chapter offends against the spirit of Derrida’s work. You should

read his texts, carefully, rather than avoid this challenge and hope that I offer a shortcut to his insights. Such a shortcut is not possible, not least because the journey is significant; it is not just a matter of where you get to in the end. Yet Derrida recognised the value of occasionally summarising his ideas. Derrida’s interviews, or introductions to his work, offer useful simplifications; they should not, however, replace reading his – undoubtedly difficult – key works. What I want to do in this chapter is not to make you feel that you ‘know Derrida’ but to show why engaging with his texts is worth the effort. Derrida’s work is difficult for the best possible reason: it makes you think. It makes you question aspects of the world that you may have taken for granted. Indeed, it makes you question the ways in which you are able to think about this world.