Spectres of Derrida

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Tue Nov 16 2004 - 12:25:12 EST

Vol:21 Iss:23 URL: http://www.flonnet.com/fl2123/stories/20041119007712800.htm

Spectres of Derrida


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-dé-siècle 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,

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