Spectres of Derrida

Print edition : November 19, 2004

AFP

Jacques Derrida, 1930-2004.

M. JACQUES DERRIDA, distinguished French writer and philosopher of international eminence, died on October 8 in a Paris hospital of pancreatic cancer. He was 74. One of the most controversial thinkers of his generation, Derrida's antifoundational stance, especially his focus on problematising the boundaries of philosophy, led to a strong provocation of the philosophical establishment. An embodiment of ambiguities, Derrida enjoyed an international reputation for taking contentious intellectual positions at various stages in his life, positions which challenged established orthodoxies and fundamental assumptions and practices. He was a leading figure in the transformation of literary and cultural studies that swept through the English-speaking world in the past 20 years. In particular, his fame rests on the massively influential concept of `deconstruction'.

Derrida's end brings to one's mind the apocalyptic note of `endism' that has haunted the world so much of late. The end of history, the end of philosophy and the end of Marxism are present in the writings of every intellectual of any consequence. Francis Fukuyama, along with his entourage, is just a `latecomer'. With Derrida, the entire Enlightenment project seemed to have floundered. His outright rejection of Enlightenment, which the Hungarian Marxist theoretician Georg Lukacs calls "Romantic anti-capitalism", is seen earlier in G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, and is, to use the British Marxist Alex Callinicos' phrase, "notoriously a staple of fin-d-sicle European thought". In the context of Derrida's philosophy, grandnarratives such as globalisation stand suspect and progress seems only to be an illusion or, shall we say, `reality' that moves the world towards an `endism'. Our age is full of uninterrupted disintegration and renewal, of struggle and contradiction, of ambiguity and anguish. Between any two oppositions lies the spectre which is the `real'. And Derrida's presence will be felt, like Ceasar's, more in his absence in the years to come.

His work, comprising literary criticism, creative writing and philosophy, is part of the oeuvre that spans a long French tradition from Denis Diderot to Jean Paul Sartre. He has influenced a wide range of disciplines ranging from law and sociology to bio-geography and architecture. But his finest work is an extension of the German philosopher Edmund Husserl's philosophy of language - while Husserl holds that the meaning of language derives wholly from the self-conscious intentions of the speaker, Derrida argues that "language is a social practice within which the conscious thought of speakers have no privileged position in the testimony of meaning". He then extends the thesis to apply to thought in general, putting forward the idea that in this case too "the content of thought is not determined by the thinker's current consciousness, but by the temporally extended role within the subject's life of the signs of this thought". This gives rise to two main strands in his philosophy - the critique of "metaphysics of presence" and a commitment to the end of closures or, in other words, an open-ended process of interpretation and re-interpretation.

`Deconstruction' is an idea closely related to both these views. It is an approach to reading and listening which is opposed to the traditional exercise of trying to uncover the central argument of underlying intention, an attempt to expose the shifting nature of contradictory patterns that play superficially on the text. It is for this reason that Derridian deconstruction has many enemies, and has been accused of undermining Western values in the very idea of the human subject, leaving in its place, at best, only relativism or nihilism. Derrida is thus considered by many as a threat to philosophical and literary propriety and a menace to Western civilisation at large.

As against the faith Derrida inspires in his disciples, it can be argued that the perceptions attributed to him - the need to examine the unacknowledged presuppositions of any discourse, to be suspicious of philosophical metaphors as well as of their logic, and to realise the dysfunctionality of language in conveying meaning - are hardly original. Not surprisingly, then, the excesses of his followers are deprecated, especially in literary studies where deconstruction has been invoked to transform the text virtually beyond recognition. Derrida himself has not disavowed such applications in his texts, since they themselves assert both the irreverence of the author's views and the impossibility of distinguishing right from wrong. It is perhaps this view of Derridian philosophy that led his opponents at Cambridge to call his doctrines absurd, claiming that in literature, the denial of the possibility of "distinguishing between important and trivial texts, and between plausible and implausible readings, [dissolves] the character of authors and periods". In politics they are accused of depriving the mind of its defences against dangerously irrational ideologies and regimes.

With respect to the "deconstruction of the subject", Derrida's view is that `deconstruction' is not a threat but rather a move towards strengthening our appreciation of the importance of protecting human freedom. Although it has become an ugly and difficult word, it does not signify a dissolution of the subject: when you dismantle, you do not destroy or dissolve or nullify the legitimacy of what you are deconstructing. Deconstructing the subject, instead, allows for a genealogical analysis of the formation of layers which have built any concept, for every concept has its own complex history. In other words, deconstruction of the subject is the genealogical analysis of the "trajectory through which concepts have been built, used and legitimised". And when one deconstructs, it involves an analysis of all the hidden assumptions which are implicit in the philosophical, ethical, or political use of the concept. It means being aware of those historical components which have contributed to the evolution of the ever-changing definition of the subject, and consequently of human rights.

If this is how deconstruction tackles different issues, it is difficult to see how it is a negative concept that undermines all projects. Distinguishing between reconstruction and deconstruction, Derrida always felt that it is not simply a project of rebuilding but goes further to changing and displacing the world. For it is an all-affirming exercise in constructing something `other'. And insofar as this can be called an `ethics of affirmation', it implies an added emphasis on the `otherness' or the alterity of the `other' which is an internal fact.

IT is surprising, then, to consider how such doctrines can be believed to undermine the intellectual foundations of centres of high learning. To accuse Derrida of denying or dissolving those standards of evidence and argument on which all academic disciplines are based is a facile misjudgment of his work. On the question of language, he ranks with no less than Ludwig Wittgenstein in advocating the demystification of our chronically deluded minds, leading us, in Wittgenstein's famous phrase, to the `rock-ground' of our common, imperfect, open-ended practices. This is undoubtedly a radical position in its opposition to a kind of Olympian disinterestedness of reason which, as we know, usually serves certain people better than others, and in its insistence on the historicity of the cultural nature of our thinking in terms of the way that thought is bound up with the material world. Yet Derrida always employs objective criticism to oppose established orthodoxies. Although a sceptic, nowhere do his doctrines undermine the rationality of the subject.

Although the Yale School of critics make Derrida sound more anarchic than he considered himself, he argued that he has never sought the downfall of philosophy. In fact, of late, he had taken to demonstrating how deconstruction can be the heir to Marxism. One has to balance such sentiments against the more apocalyptic pronouncements of his earlier days, but it has been his deep-seated aim to shake the Western philosophical establishment by questioning its unexamined assumptions.

The tension between internationalism and nationalism, between globalism and parochialist ethnocentrism, between universalism and class privileges are very much the real issues within Derrida's view of history. Derrida's writings are a legitimate reaction to the `monotony of universal modernisms', a vision of the world which is positivistic and identifies with the fantasy of a linear history and absolute truth.

With the end of the Cold War came the short-sighted theory of Fukuyama that history had come to an end. The euphoria lasted for a brief period. The eulogy to socialism was a premature gesture that overlooked the lurking ghost of Marx. The defeat of national dignity by hunger and war, the unrelenting siege of many developing nations by bankers and by the `commercial masters of the world', in the words of Eduardo Galeano, are some of the factors that have prompted Derrida to condemn the systems that usurped socialism.

Both hasty and sustained post-mortems of Marxism have been carried out over the past few years. Serious scholars have suggested ways of restructuring the Left within the so-called `New World Order'. Ethnocentrism and xenophobia are integral to the social and political landscape of the 1990s in which, though nations such as China, Korea, Singapore and Japan have emerged as new economic powers, environmental degradation and poverty remain serious issues facing the world. Within this context, the urgent issues that take up Derrida's concern are immigration and the Algerian crisis.

Derrida enters into this debate with his reading of Marx's `spectropoetics' - his obsession with ghosts, spectres, and spirits. As in his earlier works, Derrida's more recent concern was with the theme of history and politics. History, according to him, is full of beginnings and ends, replete with moments of hopefulness and forward-looking expectation as well as an obsession with a haunting past. Into the welter of problems and views concerning the future of Marxism, and the uncertainty of the attendant points of view, Derrida intervened with his politics of memory, of inheritance and of legacies, believing all along that a philosophical perspective would help to deepen our understanding and inform our actions.

In these days of global acceleration on the one hand and the intensifying local nationalisms on the other, how should we be thinking of Marx and Marxism? Drawing interesting parallels with the repeated entry and exit of the ghost in Hamlet, Derrida waited for an apparition of the spectre of Marx. Like an intellectual Hamlet, Derrida meditated on the life and death of truths and the spectres that haunt memory. He explained the `end of history syndrome' by arguing that each time there is an event, it seems it is the last time. This `hauntology' is behind the whole question of `to be or not to be'. It is all a question of repetition, runs Derrida's argument, like the ghosts which have the habit of returning again and again.

In all our future discussions in the field of humanities and social sciences we will never fail to see the presence of Derridian thought reappearing repeatedly. His relationship to history and politics will continue to give rise to many controversial debates within the critical reevaluation of his writings. It is certain that his interventions in areas such as ethnocentrism, colonialism, literature and philosophy will often aid us in rethinking about his standpoint and not be misconstrued as an assault upon all forms of reasoning in an act of nihilism.

Shelley Walia is Professor, Department of English, Panjab University, Chandigarh.

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