Don't deride Derrida

Print edition : November 19, 2004

ENGLISH philistinism continues to flourish, not least when the words "French philosopher" are uttered. This week the United Kingdom's home-grown intelligentsia gave a set of bemused, bone-headed responses to the death of Jacques Derrida. Either they had not read him, or they believed his work was to do with words not meaning what you think they do. Or it was just a pile of garbage.

In line with this judicious assessment, Derrida - one of the most eminent post-War French thinkers - was turned down for an honorary degree at Cambridge University. The man was regarded by the stuffed shirts as a subversive nihilist, who believed that words could mean anything you liked, that truth was a fiction, and that there was nothing in the world but writing. In their eyes, he was a dangerous mixture of anarchist, poet and jester.

But the dons who voted him down were the kind of scrupulous academics who had almost certainly not read his books. They knew he was radical, enigmatic, French, photogenic and wildly popular with students. The university had the good sense to reverse its decision later; but many academics regard him as a man out to destroy philosophy, thus depriving some of them of a living.

In fact, Derrida rejoiced in the pantheon of philosophy from Plato to Martin Heidegger. Deconstruction, the philosophical method he promoted, means not destroying ideas, but pushing them to the point where they come apart and expose their latent contradictions.

It meant reading against the grain of supposedly self-evident truths, rather than taking them for granted. English senior common rooms are full of self-righteous blather about thinkers like Derrida being more interested in abstract theories than in close reading. In fact, he read works of art and philosophy with a stunning originality and intricacy beyond that of most of his critics.

This was never for Derrida a purely academic pursuit. His first great works appeared in Paris on the eve of the political explosion of May 1968, at a time when he was close to, but critical of, the French Communist party. Since the party had cravenly supported the French repression of Algeria, and since Derrida was an Algerian Jewish colonial, his oblique relations to official Marxism were understandable.

But he remained a staunch member of the political Left. He aimed to prise open classical leftist ideas such as Marxism to the marginal, the aberrant; in this sense his project had affinities with the work of Raymond Williams, E.P. Thompson, Stuart Hall and the 1970s feminists in Britain. A vital part of the heritage of May 1968 has been extinguished.

Derrida once remarked that he wanted to "write like a woman". He was one of a lineage of anti-philosophers, from Sren Kierkegaard to Ludwig Wittgenstein, who invented a new style of philosophical writing. He understood that official thought turns on rigorously exclusive oppositions: inside/outside, man/woman, good/evil. He loosened up such paranoid antitheses by the flair and brio of his writing, and in doing so spoke up for the voiceless, from whose ranks he had emerged.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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