(OPE-L) Callinicos on Derrida

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Thu Nov 11 2004 - 10:13:24 EST

Does anyone know where and when the interview with Derrida in
which, according to Callincos, he said that "he was intimidated by
the dogmatism of Althusser and his pupils" was published?

In solidarity, Jerry

>Socialist Review
>November 2004
>Obituary: The Infinite Search
>Feature Article by Alex Callinicos, November 2004
>There is much to celebrate in the work of the French philosopher Jacques
Derrida, says Alex Callinicos.
>The death last month of Jacques Derrida at the age of 74 removed the last
 of that succession of great French intellectuals whose writings
decisively  shaped avant-garde thinking in the west during the second
half of the 20th  century. Derrida first burst onto the philosophical
scene in 1967, with  the publication of no less than three books.
>Like other French thinkers of his generation he was strongly influenced
by  the theory of language developed by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de
Saussure. Saussure argued that language is composed of signs and that
each  sign is a combination of signifier (a sound or mark) and signified
(the  meaning of the sign). But he also claimed that signs gain their
meanings  through the differences between signifiers. Thus the sound
shift from  'mat' to 'cat' produces a fundamental difference of meaning.
'In language  there are only differences,' Saussure wrote.
>One implication was that it is best to think of language as a
>self-enclosed system in which the important relationships are not those
between words and the real objects to which they refer, but rather those
internal to language and consisting in the interrelations of signifiers.
In France in the 1960s this led to what came to be known as
structuralism.  As practised by Claude Lévi-Strauss or Roland Barthes,
for example, this  involved treating a 'primitive' society or Paris
fashions as a coherent  system whose meaning could be decoded as if it
were a language.
>Derrida sought to subvert structuralism. He pointed out that if
signifiers  acquire meaning through their differences from one another,
there is no  reason why this process shouldn't go on for ever. Each
signifier points to  a signified, its meaning, that is itself another
signifier, and so on ad  infinitum. There is no stable halting point in
language, but only what  Derrida called 'infinite play', the endless
slippages through which  meaning is sought but never found.
>The only way to stop this play of difference would be if there were what
Derrida called a 'transcendental signified' - a meaning that exists
outside language and that therefore isn't liable to this constant process
 of subversion inherent in signification. But the transcendental
signified  is nothing but an illusion, sustained by the 'metaphysics of
presence',  the belief at the heart of the western philosophical
tradition that we can  gain direct access to the world independently of
the different ways in  which we talk about and act on it. With this
argument what came to be  known as post-structuralism first took shape.
>Derrida's most famous saying must be understood in this context. It was
translated into English (rather misleadingly) as, 'There is nothing
outside the text.' In fact, Derrida wasn't, like some ultra-idealist,
reducing everything to language (in the French original he actually wrote
 'Il n'y a pas de hors-texte' - 'There is no outside-text'). Rather he
was  saying that once you see language as a constant movement of
differences in  which there is no stable resting point, you can no longer
appeal to  reality as a refuge independent of language. Everything
acquires the  instability and ambiguity that Derrida claimed to be
inherent in language. This applied also to what had been the foundation
of European philosophy  since the 17th century - the individual human
subject. One variation,  according to Derrida, of the metaphysics of
presence was René Descartes'  idea that the individual subject is
'self-present', having direct access  to the contents of his
consciousness. Like his French contemporaries,  Derrida was profoundly
influenced by Freud's discovery of the unconscious,  and by the
implication that the subject isn't even in control of his own mind.
Derrida's intervention took place in the lead-up to the great explosion
of  1968, a moment of growing politicisation. Louis Althusser's attempt
to  reinterpret Marx along 'anti-humanist' lines that denied the
importance of  individual or collective subjects was then nearing the
height of its  influence. Derrida was friendly with Althusser, with whom
for many years  he taught philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in
>But he remained silent about Marx and Marxism till the 1990s. In a later
interview he explained that he was intimidated by the dogmatism of
Althusser and his pupils. Moreover, as an anti-Stalinist he was afraid
that if he openly criticised the Soviet Union and the French Communist
Party, which then dominated the left, he would be identified with the
right. This doesn't mean that Derrida's philosophy was purely apolitical.
Of  Jewish origin, he was born in Algeria in 1930. Brought up under
French  colonial rule and expelled from school under the Vichy regime, he
always  felt himself to be an outsider.
>He saw his critique of some of the central concepts of the western
philosophical tradition as subverting the Eurocentric view of the world
that a few years later Edward Said, another intruder into the
metropolitan  academy from the Arab world, was to denounce in his famous
>Orientalism. By decentring language and the subject, Derrida hoped to
open  a space in which the marginalised and excluded - women, blacks, the
 colonised - could speak for themselves.
>Like Said, Derrida didn't advocate simply rejecting the western
tradition.  He believed that it was impossible to escape the metaphysics
of presence.  Meaning in the shape of the 'transcendental signified' may
be an illusion,  but it is a necessary illusion. Derrida summed this
tension up by  inventing the word 'differance', which combines the
meanings of 'differ'  and 'defer'. Language is a play of differences in
which meaning is  endlessly deferred, but constantly posed.
>Full: http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=9101

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