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Derrida: A Biography
Derrida: A Biography
BenoƮt Peeters
Polity, 2012
700 pp., 34.62

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James K. A. Smith


The Other, Derrida

Don't smooth out the folds.

Early in his career, as the skyrocket of his stardom was fueling, Jacques Derrida had to answer a question his Jewish mother asked with a frown: "But Jackie, have you really written 'difference' with an 'a'?" Raised "like a bourgeois Parisian girl," tending her Jewish family in Algeria, Georgette Derrida prized their French identity and citizenship. And now here was her son, Jackie, misspelling words of their adopted tongue—his only language but not his own (as he would later put it in Monolingualism of the Other). This wasn't concern over a spelling error; it was a question of (French) identity.

This little vignette, noted very late in Benoît Peeters' massive biography, captures something at the heart of Derrida's life: the dynamics of difference, of being precariously "other," just close enough to the center to actually realize one is on the margins. This is the experience of the assimilated Jew in Europe and its colonies; it is the experience of the Algerian intellectual in Paris; and it seems that something like this experience of persistent otherness was the fuel that powered Derrida, deconstruction, and yes, even différance.

This distance and difference was felt from the very beginning of his time as a student in Paris, in the lycée Louis-le-Grand, one of the most prestigious in France and a gateway to the école Normale Supérieure. At "Baz'Grand" he would experience something that would characterize his whole life: privileged marginality. On the one hand, he was a student at one of France's élite institutions; on the other hand, he was a boarder at the lycée. And as Peeters recounts, "in those days, there was a real barrier between the boarders and the rest." Consigned to wearing a grey smock all day long, the provincial boarders could easily be distinguished from the cosmopolitan Parisians who enjoyed lunch at home and would return to their families each night. "In many respects," Peeters observes, boarders like Derrida "were the proles of the khâgne," the course of study that prepares students for the entrance exam to the éns.

Imagine, then, how the young Derrida would have reacted to Henri Gouhier's judgments on his performance on the exam:

These answers are brilliant in the very same way that they are obscure … . An exercise in virtuosity, with undeniable intelligence, but with no particular relation to the history of philosophy. Has studied Descartes. Can't make up his mind about Malebranche. Can come back when he is prepared to accept the rules and not invent where he needs to be better informed. If we fail him, we will be doing this candidate a favour.

"Judgments like these," Peeters comments, "were of a kind that none of his later successes would ever allow him to forget." Indeed, one could argue that instead Derrida made a virtue of such invention, laying claim to the outside as his territory. If they wouldn't accept him in the establishment, he would establish the margins.

We love to hate Jacques Derrida in no small part because of his academic rockstar status on this side of the Atlantic, where he enjoyed appointments at Johns Hopkins, Yale, and UC Irvine while also tirelessly traveling the lecture circuit. But in fact Derrida never made it to the centers of power in the French (i.e., Parisian) academy. He was never appointed as a professor of philosophy at the Sorbonne or any other major university in France—and that wasn't from a lack of trying. He was passed over for several such posts that he sought. Instead, he occupied research positions in parallel institutions like the École des Hautes études en Sciences Sociales, sometimes founding new ones like the Collège Internationale de Philosophie. But this proximity to the French intellectual establishment only highlighted his sense of not breaking into it. "I don't feel at home either in the university system … or outside the university system," he later wrote in a letter. "But is it a matter of being at home?"

Admittedly, the intellectual establishment in Paris was not exactly a paragon of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. Nothing in this biography is going to convince the Allan Blooms of the world to be more appreciative of the French intellectual scene in the late 20th century. Even when Peeters is trying to invest all of the debates with gravity and world-historical significance, the players come off as juvenile, preening, and self-absorbed. One almost farcical account (complete with a photograph) recounts a kind of intellectual West Side Story when Bernard-Henri Lévy and his entourage arrived at a meeting of the Estates General of philosophy, confronting Derrida and his circle in what is as close as you'll get to a philosophical rumble. From the 1970s onwards, the story bounces from one personality clash to another, skirmishes that seem to have less to do with philosophy and more with standing in a French intellectual peerage. After Derrida had a particularly tense exchange with Foucault, "the two men would not speak to each other for a long time, and even avoided anywhere they might meet." Welcome to sixth grade, apparently.

Peeters' biography is not quite hagiographic, but neither is it adequately critical. He tends to let Derrida's account of things stand as the canonical version. For example, he lets Derrida have the final word on his non-participation in the events of May '68. Derrida (as usual) claimed the moral high ground ("I did not say 'no' to '68") while others suggested quite a different interpretation, revolving around Derrida's self-interest, but those critical voices are nowhere heard in Peeters' narrative. We hear the testimony of others only as it confirms and expands the Derridean version. Or at least Derrida always gets the final word.

The most egregious case of this has to be Peeters' interpretation of Derrida's relationship with a longtime mistress, Sylviane Agacinski, with whom he fathered a son (after an earlier pregnancy was aborted). Agacinski would later marry Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister, who would raise the boy as his own. The relationship between Derrida and Agacinski is clichéd: She was a student in his seminars at the École Normale Supérieure in 1970. Jacques, who "already had a reputation of being a seducer," consummated the relationship at a conference in Cerisy in 1972, and the affair would continue into the 1980s, well-known in his intellectual circles. An old, tired story we expect (and lament too little).

Peeters has the temerity to not only recount this matter-of-factly but gloss it with a philosophical spin. Later reflecting on Derrida's critique of "phallologocentrism"—the sort of deconstructive discourse that reads like a parody but is not—he notes the resonance between Derrida's work and a growing feminist movement associated with figures like Luce Irigiray and Hélène Cixous. "Between Derrida and what would soon be known as 'feminine studies' a real alliance was established," Peeters comments, adding this ludicrous rider: "His relationship with Sylviane Agacinski surely played a part." You'll forgive my bourgeois skepticism, but I wonder what Marguerite Derrida, Jacques' wife, would make of this hypothesis. Is not she, too, a woman? Would she see Derrida's philandering as evidence of his solidarity with "liberation"? In even suggesting this, Peeters' admiration for Derrida runs amok.

But let us leave the gossip of Paris aside. There is another legacy of Derrida's work that is an enduring gift to contemporary reflection, and one that can be traced throughout this biography: his complication of our long-inherited distinction between philosophy and literature, a tension that goes back at least to the quarrel between Plato and the poets. From his earliest work in the breakout year of 1967, Derrida was interested in contesting the supposed borders between philosophy and literature, policed so assiduously by those who uphold the ideals of "analytic rigor." (This, in part, explains why he was received in North America through English departments rather than philosophy departments.)

One can see a prescient example of this in the discussion that followed his famous lecture, "La différance," at the Société Française de Philosophie in 1968. A spellbinding (some would say self-indulgent) presentation, more akin to a poetry reading than a philosophy lecture, the talk elicited strong reactions. Jeanne Hirsch criticized Derrida's mode of expression: it would be better, she admonished, if "the way of saying things went unnoticed"—as if there was a pure, crystalline conduit for conveying information that avoided such "literary" flourishes. But Hirsch's plea for "clear" language was precisely what Derrida was criticizing, which is why he's never had fans in the camp of analytic philosophy.

One can see the young Derrida torn: to make his way into the center of the French philosophical establishment, he would have to play their game, by their rules, playing along with this myth of clarity. But that's not what drew him to philosophy; to the contrary, in some ways he backed into philosophy from his interest in literature. "His first desire," Peeters claims, "led him 'toward something that literature makes room for better than philosophy.' " His was "the Nietzschean dream of the philosopher-artist."

As early as 1969, Derrida made his decision: if accepting the philosophy/poetry distinction was the price of admission to the establishment, then he would return the ticket; the price was too high. This was, in a way, a response to an exhortation from his friend, the writer Henry Bauchau, who encouraged Derrida to "launch out on a more literary form of writing." As he put it in a letter to Derrida in 1969, "I wonder whether you have started to write outside philosophy and yet with 'all your bags and baggage,' as you put it so well. I reckon that's where you'll end up, there's a part of you that only a poem could express … . But perhaps you still want to see things too clearly, where the place of the poem is obscure." In time, Derrida launched into a season of writing that would produce such genre-defying works as The Post Card and Glas (to which Peeters devotes an entire chapter).

Derrida's style is itself a philosophical argument of sorts—that the division between philosophy and poetry is not as clear or stable as we think it is; that there is no "literal" meaning that is insulated from metaphorical "play"; that even our most analytic discourse is infected with the poetic; that our philosophic texts "mean" in ways that can't be controlled, like the play of fiction. This is a fruitful line of thought for us to consider, especially in the age of an ascendant "analytic theology."

Derrida's more sympathetic readers often recognized this. Jean Genet, praising "Plato's Pharmacy," wrote Derrida an effusive note of praise, claiming that the opening of Derrida's essay "is as celebrated as the first page of [Proust's] Young Girls in Flower." Genet recognizes that one needs to read Derrida's philosophy as literature, offering what is surely one of the best sets of instructions for wading into Derrida's forbidding corpus: "Read gently. Laugh gently as the words make their unexpected entrance. Accept above all what is offered to us with good grace: poetry. Then the meaning will be handed to us, in reward, and very simply, as in a garden."

Granted, such a project can also become a license for self-indulgence. In a special issue of L'arc devoted to Derrida's work (already in 1973), the editor Catherine Clement noted that "the method of deconstruction is always coming close to fiction." In the same issue, the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas found in Derrida's work, "over and above the philosophical implications of the propositions," a "purely literary effect, the new frisson, the poetry of Derrida." In his appreciation for Levinas' kind affirmation, Derrida seemed to miss the haunting ambiguity of the ensuing metaphor:

Whenever I read [Derrida], I again see the exodus of 1940. As it retreats, the military unit arrives in a locality which still suspects nothing, where the cafés are open, where the ladies are shopping in the "novelties for ladies" section, where the hairdressers are hairdressing hair, the bakers are bakering [sic], the viscounts meeting up with other viscounts and telling one another stories about viscounts, and where everything is deconstructed and desolate an hour later, the houses, closed or left with their doors open, emptying of their residents swept away by a river of cars and pedestrians through streets restored of their "profound yesterdays" as roads, traced in an immemorial past by the great migrations.

With compliments like this, who needs criticisms? On the one hand, Levinas appreciates the mode of Derrida's project. Indeed, Levinas' own works such as Totality and Infinity are also better absorbed than analyzed. But on the other hand, Levinas sees a foreboding effect of such "deconstruction." One could say that Derrida's work spawned a generation of intellectual viscounts telling one another stories about other intellectuals. Nonetheless, Derrida is not entirely to blame for the Derrideans.

What we should appreciate and appropriate is Derrida's refusal to let some version of "rigor" hegemonically dictate the shape of truth, even within the academy. Despite the overwhelmingly negative (and largely uninformed) response of Christian philosophers to Derrida's work, Christian intellectuals more broadly should be sympathetic to his intuition here, a sensibility closer to Flannery O'Connor than A. J. Ayer. He invites us into the difficulty of things—a welcome antidote to the dumbing-down of our public discourse, which demands simplification beyond measure.

Denis Kambouchner, a one-time student and later friend of Derrida, recounts that Derrida one day gave his students a rule: "not to smooth out the folds." After laying down this rule, he remembers how Derrida "very quickly set you in the midst of them, probably with the idea that practising philosophy meant taking an interest, right from the start, in certain complications, and accepting them." Too often, in the name of conceptual clarification and analytic "rigor," we are pressed to smooth out the folds of creational complexity. Sometimes it is wiser to simply do them justice.

James K. A. Smith teaches philosophy at Calvin College and is the editor of Comment magazine. His next book—Who's Afraid of Relativism?—will be published in the spring by Baker Academic.

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