Peter Thomas examines the work of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who died in October
Derrida is often regarded in the Anglophone world as a leading French postmodern philosopher whose doctrine of “deconstruction” propounded a moral relativism and political passivity.
In fact Derrida was neither French nor post-modern. He was as opposed to doctrines as he was insistent on the necessity of moral and political choices and commitments. He was, to be sure, a philosopher, but one whose life and work were spent interrogating and problematising precisely those responsibilities which accompany the practice of philosophy as a way of life in the contemporary world. Beyond the transitory academic debates in which his name was often invoked, it is perhaps this element which constitutes Derrida’s true and lasting legacy.
Born in Algeria in 1930 into a Jewish family, inhabitant of a colonised territory and member of a marginalised community (his education was suspended for several years due to anti-semitic Vichy laws), Derrida’s life was marked from the outset by experiences of difference, exclusion, foreignness. He eventually gained entrance to the elite École Normale Supérieure in Paris (where he formed a lasting friendship with another “Algerian”, the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser) and, from the early 1960s onward, began to redefine our understanding of the western philosophical tradition in over 70 book length and innumerable shorter studies, whose themes ranged from the theory of language (Of Grammatology, 1967), the human sciences (Writing and Difference, 1967), the visual arts (The Truth in Painting, 1978), psychoanalysis (The Post Card, 1987) and, increasingly in his later years, ethics (The Gift of Death, The Work of Mourning, 2001).
Perhaps his most famous concept was that of différance (in French, it combines the meanings both of difference and deferral), by which he sought to argue that meaning and truth are never immediately present, but are endlessly constructed and reconstructed according to differential (temporal and spatial) relations with that which they are not. At its limit, différance came in the form of the strategy of reading which came to be known as deconstruction. Particularly popular in literary departments in the US, this and related Derridean concepts sought to demonstrate how totalizing claims in the western philosophical and literary traditions continuously defeat themselves and demonstrate their own internal limits.
Derrida was often criticised by Marxists impatient with his lack of political clarity or sense of urgency, particularly during the “dog days” of the 80s and early 90s. Few could doubt that his rich body of work on difference and identity, his questioning of received verities and hierarchies, his outspoken opposition to injustice (for example, in South Africa) and championing of the excluded marked him as “a man of the left, in some suitably indeterminate sense”, as Terry Eagleton once remarked. Yet his relative silence on the question of the state, on political organisation, and the rare reference to the Marxist tradition in his published works led many from the far left to regard his work as, at best, an academic irrelevance, at worst, an opportunism contributing to the new anti-marxist orthodoxy of those years.
Spectres of Marx, published in 1993, with its devastating critique of Fukyama’s thesis of an “End of History” in the post cold war new order, its call for a new international, and its insistence that there remained a legacy of Marx beyond its Stalinist deformation, went some way toward initiating a new and more productive relation between Derrida and Marxism. Yet tensions remained, as evidenced in the volume Ghostly Demarcations (Verso), in which many prominent Marxists took Derrida to task for his (seemingly) continued avoidance of central practical questions and concrete political proposals.
It was a tension which was as inevitable as necessary and, understood in another sense, productive. For Derrida’s continuing importance for revolutionary Marxists, and the reason why revolutionary Marxists should read his texts (despite there admitted difficulty, even for those with a philosophical training) perhaps consists precisely in the movement of différance which characterised his relation with the themes of the Marxist tradition — neither identical with them but yet not, for that, entirely foreign either. If Derrida’s work lacked some of the concrete focus of the Marxist tradition’s ways of criticising phenomena such as the state, commodity fetishism and wage slavery, his incessant critiques of the logic of hierarchical impositions of false, formalistic unities in the face of diversity can still be taken up and developed by Marxists for their own ends. In this sense, one of the values of this philosopher’s interpretation will only be created retrospectively, and can only be assessed justly according to the capacity of others to use it in order to change the world.