Deconstructing Derrida

The French philosopher is dead, but his legacy lives on in the age of unreason.

James Heartfield

Topics Culture

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France’s celebrated philosopher Jacques Derrida died at the age of 74 in Paris on 8 October.

His philosophical project of ‘deconstruction’ caught the imagination of the intelligentsia at the end of the twentieth century. As the ideologies first of the left and then the right were disintegrating, Derrida’s philosophy seemed to give a rationale to attempts to ‘think outside the box’ (as the policy-wonks had it). Deconstruction was a method that spread from literary criticism, through cultural studies until it became so ubiquitous that you could buy a ‘deconstructed [ie. rumpled] suit’ in Camden, London, in the 1990s.

Fame came late to Derrida, who laboured patiently in the philosophical school of ‘phenomenology’ – using close description to attempt to get to ‘the things themselves’, without the interruptions of preconceived theoretical frameworks, or the separation of experience into external reality and internal reflection.

His first published work, and introduction to the founding text of the school, Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry, was three times longer than its subject in 1961. There Derrida’s style of worrying around a topic until it fell apart in your hands was first on show. Husserl, taking a science with an ideal object, geometry, had tried to show that truth was the product of inter-subjective agreement, not correspondence with an objective reality. Though Husserl’s argument is already a retreat from scientific objectivity, its concessions to finality were too much for Derrida, who introduced his celebrated concept of ‘ différance‘, writing that ‘the Absolute is present only in being delayed-deferred [différant]’ (1). In other words, there could be no objective answer settled on, because it would always elude definition.

Différance was important for Derrida, because it meant that definitions were always elusive. He was not wrong. Theory is grey, life is ever green. But Derrida did not just insist on the fluidity of reality, which would have been useful, but also on the impossibility of a theoretical appropriation of reality, at which point it descended into a radical scepticism. As the English philosopher Francis Bacon said, the sceptics and me agree at the outset, that everything should be doubted; but for me discovery follows doubt, whereas for them, doubt is the beginning and the end. Derrida occasionally hinted that a work of reconstruction should follow the deconstruction, but it never happened.

He went on to emphasise the idea of différance in Ferdinand de Saussure’s linguistics. The Swiss philologist had shown that all meaning was not inherent in terms (still less their objects), but in the relations between terms. Words changed meaning as new ones were introduced into the language, such as the way that the French ‘porc‘ (meaning pig) coexisted alongside the English ‘swine’, when introduced by the Norman invasion, but each is now restricted to special uses (food and livestock, respectively). Derrida understood that Saussure’s long chain of interrelated terms was necessarily endless, exemplifying the principle of différance.

From the German philosopher (and infamously Nazi-supporting) Martin Heidegger, Derrida took the notion of a ‘destruction of ontology’. Heidegger meant to tear up universal notions of reason to restore philosophy on the basis of a pre-reflective and more rooted ‘being-there’. French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas quipped that the trouble with Heidegger’s ‘being-there’ was that the ‘there’ turned out to be where someone else was already.

Derrida, though, identified with the radical overturn of preconceived philosophical ideas he found in Heidegger; not hearing the echo of the Nazis’ book-burning parties in the ‘destruction of ontology’, he proposed a ‘deconstruction’ of grand narratives. Later, when Victor Farias published a biography of Heidegger exhaustively demonstrating not just his Nazi links but also the correspondences between his politics and his philosophy, Derrida jumped into the controversy with his Of Spirit. It was a tortuous argument, that inverted reality to define Fascism as a philosophy of rationalism, and condemning Heidegger only for his lingering commitment to humanism, when so many thought his crime was the opposite.

Derrida’s insistence on the multiplicity of meanings was attractive to literary critics, who were pleased to find an argument against the finality of interpretation. Notably it was the English department that proposed Derrida for an honorary degree from Cambridge University in 1992, only to be attacked by more militant philosophers, defending the notion of truth (and more than a little national pride).

Différance was presumed to be a philosophy of radical subjectivism, but as Derrida explained, deconstruction was not reserved for the external world. He insists that différance is so primordial that it cannot be kept outside of the Subject, but must call into question the Subject itself: ‘What differs? Who differs? What is différance?.… If we accepted this form of the question, in its meaning and its syntax (“What is? “Who is?” “What is that?”), we would have to conclude that différance has been derived, has happened, is to be mastered and governed on the basis of the point of a present being as a Subject a who.’ (2)

Derrida’s scepticism was directed inwardly, calling into question even the possibility of a questioning subject. This was the core of Derrida’s contribution. He expressed not just the collapse of political ideologies at the end of the twentieth century, but the way that this collapse made meaning, and even the subjective agent himself, collapse into confusion.

There is little doubt that Derrida was an erudite and learned philosopher, but his erudition was bent towards a destructive aim. In him the unreason of the age found its cunning articulator. The pernicious influence of Derrida’s philosophy, underpinned by the confusion of the times, persists after him.

James Heartfield is author of The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained, 2002. Buy this book from Amazon (UK); or order it at £11.00, plus £1.50p&p from Publications,, 8 College Close, Hackney, London, E9 6ER (make cheques payable to ‘Audacity Ltd’).

(1) Edmund Husserl’s ‘Origin of Geometry’: An Introduction, Jacques Derrida, Bison Books, 1989, p153

(2) A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds, Columbia University Press, 1998, p65

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