On Jacques Derrida by Judith Butler

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Fri Oct 15 2004 - 14:32:47 EDT

         On Jacques Derrida

          October 9, 2004

          Judith Butler

          "How do you finally respond to your life and your name?"
          Derrida raised this question in his final interview with Le Monde,
          published in August 18th of this year. If he could apprehend his
           life, he remarks, he would also be obliged to apprehend his death as
           singular and absolute, without resurrection and without redemption.
           At this revealing moment, it is interesting that Derrida the
          philosopher should find in Socrates his proper precursor, that he
           should turn to Socrates to understand that, at the age of
74, he still

           did not quite know how best to live. One cannot, he remarks, come to
          terms with one's life without trying to apprehend one's death, asking,
           in effect, how a human lives and dies. Much of Derrida's later work
           is dedicated to mourning, though he offers his acts of
public mourning

          as a posthumous gift, for instance, in The Work of Mourning published
           in 2001. There he tries to come to terms with the death of other
           writers and thinkers through reckoning his debt to their words,
          indeed, their texts; his own writing constitutes an act of mourning,
           one that he is perhaps, avant la lettre, recommending to us a way to
          begin to mourn this thinker who not only taught us how to read, but
           gave the act of reading a new significance and a new promise. In that
          book, he openly mourns Roland Barthes who died in 1980, Paul de Man,
           who died in 1983, Michel Foucault, who died in 1984, and a host of
           others, including Edmund Jabes (1991), Louis Marin (1992), Sarah
          Kofman (1994), Emmanuel Levinas (1995) and Jean-Francois Lyotard
           (1998). The last of the essays, for Lyotard, included in this book
           is written six years before Derrida's own death. It is not, however,
          Derrida's own death that preoccupies him here, but rather his "debts."
          These are authors that he could not do without, ones with whom and
          through whom he thinks. He writes only because he reads, and he reads
         only because there are these authors to read time and again. He
         "owes" them something or, perhaps, everything, if only because he
         could not write without them; their writing exists as the precondition
         of his own; their writing constitutes the means through which his own
         writing voice is animated and secured, a voice that emerges,
         importantly, as an address.
         It strikes me as strange that in October of 1993 when I shared
         a stage with Derrida at New York University, I had a brief, private
         conversation with him that touched upon these issues. As we were
          seated at a table together with some other speakers, I could see in
         Derrida a certain urgency to acknowledge those many people who had
         translated him, those who had read him, those who had defended him in
         public debate, and those who has made good use of his thinking and his
         words. I leaned over after one of his several gestures of nearly
         inhuman generosity and asked him whether he felt that he had many
         debts to pay. I was hoping, vainly it seemed, to suggest to him that
         he need not feel so indebted, thinking as I did in a perhaps naively
         Nietzschean way that the debt was a form of enslavement, and that he
         did not see that what others offered him, they offered freely. He
         seemed not to be able to hear me in English. And so when I said "your
         debts," he said, "my death?" "No," I reiterated, "your debts!" and he
         said, "my death!?" At this point I could see that there was a nexus
         between the two, one that my efforts at clear pronunciation could not
         quite pierce, but it was not until I read his later work that I came
         to understand how important that nexus really was. He writes, "There
         come moments when, as mourning demands (deuil oblige), one feels
         obligated to declare one's debts. We feel it our duty to say what we
         owe to the friend." He cautions against "saying" the debt and
         imagining that one might then be done with the debt that way. He
         acknowledges instead the "incalculable debt" that one that he does not
         want to pay: "I am conscious of this and want it thus." He ends his
         essay on Lyotard with a direct address: "there it is, Jean Francois,
         this is what, I tell myself, I today would have wanted to try and tell
         you." There is in that attempt, that essai, a longing that cannot
         reach the one to whom it is addressed, but does not for that reason
         forfeit itself as longing. The act of mourning thus becomes a
         continued way of "speaking to" the other who is gone, even though the
         other is gone, in spite of the fact that the other is gone, precisely
         because that other is gone. We now must say "Jacques" to name the
         one we have now lost, and in that sense "Jacques Derrida" becomes the
         name of our loss. And yet we must continue to say his name, not only
         to mark his passing, but precisely as the one whom we continue to
         address, in what we write, because it is, for many of us, impossible
         to write without relying on him, without thinking with and through
         him. "Jacques Derrida," then, as the name for the future of what we
          * * *
          It is surely uncontroversial to say that Jacques Derrida was
         one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, that his
         international reputation far exceeds any French intellectual of his
         generation. More than that, his work fundamentally changed the way
         in which we think about language, philosophy, aesthetics, painting,
         literature, communication, ethics and politics. His early work
         criticized the structuralist presumption that language could be
         described as a static set of rules, and he showed how those rules
         admitted of contingency and were dependent on a temporality that could
         undermine their efficacy. He wrote against philosophical positions
         that uncritically subscribed to "totality" or "systematicity" as
         values, without first considering the alternatives that were ruled out
         by that preemptive valorization. He insisted that the act of reading
         extends from literary texts to films, to works of art, to popular
         culture, to political scenarios, and to philosophy itself. The
         practice of "reading" insists that our ability to understand relies on
         our capacity to interpret signs. It also presupposes that signs come
         to signify in ways that no particular author or speaker can constrain
         in advance through intention. This does not mean that our language
         always confounds our intentions, but only that our intentions do not
         fully govern everything we end up meaning by what we say and write
         (see Limited Inc., 1977). Derridaas work moved from a criticism of
         philosophical presumptions in groundbreaking books such as On
         Grammatology (1967), Writing and Difference (1967), Dissemination
          (1972), The Post Card (1980), and Spurs (1978), to the question of how
         to theorize the problem of "difference." This term he wrote as
         "differance," not only to mark the way that signification works, with
         one term referring to another, always relying on a deferral of meaning
         between signifier and signified, but also to characterize an ethical
         relation, the relation of sexual difference, and the relation to the
         Other. If some readers thought that Derrida was a linguistic
         constructivist, they missed the fact that the name we have for
         something, for ourselves, for an other, is precisely what fails to
         capture the referent (as opposed to making or constructing that
         referent).He clearly drew critically on the work of Emmanuel Levinas in
         order to insist upon the "Other" as one to whom an incalculable
         responsibility is owed, one who could never fully be "captured"
         through social categories or designative names, one to whom a certain
         response is owed. This framework became the basis of his strenuous
         critique of apartheid in South Africa, his vigilant opposition to
         totalitarian regimes and forms of intellectual censorship, his
         theorization of the nation-state beyond the hold of territoriality,
         his opposition to European racism, and his critical relation to the
         discourse of "terror" as it worked to fortify governmental powers that
         undermine basic human rights, in his defense of animal rights, in his
         opposition to the death penalty, and even in his queries about "being"
         Jewish and what it means to offer hospitality to those of differing
         origins and language. One can see these various questions raised in
         The Ear of the Other (1982), The Other Europe, Positions (1972), For
         Nelson Mandela (1986), Given Time (1991) The Gift of Death (1992), The
         Other Heading: Reflections on Today's Europe (1992), Spectres of Marx
         (1993), Politics of Friendship (1994), The Monolingualism of the Other
         (1996), Philosophy in a Time of Terror (with Jurgen Habermas) (2002),
         and his conversations with Helene Cixous, Portrait of Jacques Derrida
         as a Young Jewish Saint (2001).

         Derrida made clear in his small book on Walter Benjamin, The
         Force of Law (1994), that justice was a concept that was yet to come.
         This does not mean that we cannot expect instances of justice in this
         life, and it does not mean that justice will arrive for us only in
         another life. He was clear that there was no other life. It means
         only that, as an ideal, it is that toward which we strive, without
         end. Not to strive for justice because it cannot be fully realized
         would be as mistaken as believing that one has already arrived at
         justice and that the only task is to arm oneself adequately to fortify
         its regime. The first is a form of nihilism (which he opposed) and the
         second is dogmatism (which he opposed). Derrida kept us alive to the
         practice of criticism, understanding that social and political
         transformation was an incessant project, one that could not be
         relinquished, one that was coextensive with the becoming of life
         itself, and with a reading of the rules through which a polity
         constitutes itself through exclusion or effacement. How is justice
         done? What justice do we owe others? And what does it mean to act in
         the name of justice? These were questions that had to be asked
         regardless of the consequences, and this meant that they were often
         questions asked when established authorities wished that they were not.
         If his critics worried that, with Derrida, there are no
         foundations upon which one could rely, they doubtless were mistaken in
         that view. Derrida relies perhaps most assiduously on Socrates, on a
         mode of philosophical inquiry that took the question as the most
         honest and arduous form for thought. "How do you finally respond to
         your life and to your name?" This question is posed by him to
         himself, and yet he is, in this interview, a "tu" for himself, as if
         he is a proximate friend, but not quite a "moi." He has taken himself
         as the other, modeling a form of reflexivity, asking whether an
         account can be given of this life, and of this death. Is there justice
         to be done to a life? That he asks the question is exemplary, perhaps
         even foundational, since it keeps the final meaning of that life and
         that name open. It prescribes a ceaseless task of honoring what cannot
         be possessed through knowledge, that in a life that exceeds our grasp.
         Indeed, now that Derrida, the person, has died, his writing makes a
         demand upon us, bequeathing his name to us who will continue to
         address him. We must address him as he addressed himself, asking what
         it means to know and approach another, to apprehend a life and a
         death, to give an account of its meaning, to acknowledge its binding
         ties with others, and to do that justly. In this way, Derrida has
         always been offering us a way to interrogate the very meaning of our
         lives, singly and plurally, returning to the question as the beginning
         of philosophy, but surely also, in his own way, and with several
         unpayable debts, beginning philosophy anew.

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