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By James K.A. Smith


In Memoriam: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

Remembering a philosopher who never forgot about death.

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Jacques Derrida took up with vigor the Socratic vocation of philosophy as a kind of dying. Notoriously linked to discourses on "the death of the author" (and almost universally misunderstood on this score), Derrida's work was regularly haunted by ghosts. Death inscribed itself in his corpus and has now left its mark on his body, and we are left to mourn. But that is only to say that we are left with the task of deconstruction: what Derrida described as the work of mourning. It is not without reason that some of his most powerful meditations—on Levinas, de Man, Deleuze, Lyotard and others—come to us in the form of eulogies and memorials.

It has been the mistake of his critics—both in the academy and media—to conclude from Derrida's preoccupation with death that deconstruction is simply the next nihilism. And so Derrida has been vilified as the enemy of truth, justice, the university, and many more of our cherished institutions and values. The myths and lies—yes, lies—about Derrida persist even in his death (Jonathan Kandell's obituary in The New York Times was a travesty).

But this is a picture of Derrida and deconstruction that one could maintain only by failing to read him. For in the end—or better, from the beginning—deconstruction is a work of love. Far from being a mere "method" for critique, Derrida was at pains to demonstrate the essentially productive aspect of deconstruction. "It is not negative," he once commented, "For me, it always accompanies an affirmative exigency. I would even say that it never proceeds without love."

The news of Derrida's death came as a surprise, though we've known of his illness for over a year now. Most surprising is how sad it has made me. I received the news here in Cambridge (site of an infamous "Derrida affair"), where I'm finishing a book whose title now, after the event of October 8, seems ironic, perhaps even perverse, maybe secretly wishful: the book was to be called Derrida: Live Theory, part of the "Live Theory" series published by Continuum Press. I took up the project as an invitation to return to texts I first read a decade ago, though many I've never stopped reading. Just days before Derrida's death, Of Grammatology was on my desk and its tattered pages (and my sophomoric marginalia) were like a song that brought me back to a time, a place. Having just emerged from a midwestern Bible college, I remember buying the book at a university bookstore, then diving into it, bewildered and exhilarated, thinking to myself, "This is a long way from Charles Ryrie."

Having spent the last few years launching criticisms of Derrida, after working through Derrida, this project brought me back to a deep appreciation for how much I owe to his work. Just last week I had shared with a friend my excitement about sending a copy to Prof. Derrida as a small token of appreciation. The news of his death came to interrupt those plans. All of a sudden I found myself with a package—a care package with a little love note inside—but no address, no recipient (a scenario that would have interested the author of The Post Card).

Hidden in my sadness, I suspect, is an element of guilt, for I had also hoped that the book could be a means of reconciliation, or at least, a token of apology. When I last saw Derrida, I was presenting a paper at the American Academy of Religion—a fairly blistering critique of his notion of hope, and Derrida was in the audience. We didn't have a chance to discuss the paper because he had to hurry off to a book-signing (he was such a rock star). While I stand by the critique, I'm disappointed we didn't have that conversation, and more disappointed by the asymmetry of my brashness and Derrida's graciousness. For what I always found most disarming about this intellectual giant was his personal humility—a kenotic humility that could put his Christian critics to shame. I've been plagued by a nagging sense that Derrida was somewhat hurt by the critique, and I had been hoping that Derrida: Live Theory could be a sign to him of my profound debts and respect.

This reminds us of something that Derrida persistently emphasizes (emphasized, I guess—will I ever get used to the past tense when thinking of Jacques?): remaining faithful to a thinker will require a certain break; being an authentic "follower" will require that one part ways at some point, in the name of fidelity. While I make no claim to be a follower or "acolyte" of Derrida, I owe him much. And if I must at times depart from the direction of his thinking, this is often in the name of following Jacques Derrida. It will be strange and lonely not being able to find new tracks.

In one of the treasures of his corpus, "Circumfession," Derrida gives us a hint of his hopes in death:

when I am not dreaming of making love, or being a resistance fighter in the last war blowing up bridges or trains, I want one thing only, and that is to lose myself in the orchestra I would form with my sons, heal, bless and seduce the whole world by playing divinely with my sons, produce with them the world's ecstasy, their creation. I will accept dying if dying is to sink slowly, yes, into the bottom of this beloved music.

And so prayers, and tears, for Jacques Derrida. I hope he found this music in the new song of the Beloved.

James K.A. Smith, associate professor of philosophy at Calvin College, is currently visiting fellow in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge. His most recent book is Introducing Radical Orthodoxy: Mapping a Post-Secular Theology (Baker Academic). His work on Derrida will appear with Continuum next year.

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