The New Derrida Graduate Course: Lecture One

I’ll be posting each lecture of the course here. Feel free to give any feedback, though of course these are written more loosely than a fixed chapter or essay.

Lecture 1: The New Derrida:

Readings: The Animal that Therefore I am

Jacques Derrida, “Learning to Live Finally” (2004)

Jacques Derrida, “Choosing One’s Heritage,” in For What Tomorrow… (Stanford UP, 2005)

Recommended:

  1. SEP, Jacques Derrida
  2. Mauro Senatore, “Jacques Derrida: A Biographical Note,” in Derrida: Key Concepts, ed. Claire Colebrook (Routledge, 2015).
  3. Elisabeth Weber, “Derrida’s Urgency, Today,” Los Angeles Review of Books
  4. Simon Critchley, “No Exit,” Los Angeles Review of Books (I will refer specifically to this interview)
  5. Philosophy Talk, Podcast on Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction.

This semester, we look not just to study the works of Jacques Derrida, but to introduce and think through a supposedly new Derrida, to quote the title of a book project I have with Rick Elmore, but also something I believe necessary given the recent attacks on his writings. It is presumptuous, is it not, to think one has found something new in a figure whose most famous writings were published 50 years ago this year (Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena) and who died some unlucky thirteen years ago? And who has been the subject of endless journal articles and books? Many know the rumour of a man who stood for nihilism, for the idea that words can mean anything, and should be openly mocked by those who stand for anything—literally anything, since Derrida would have stood for nothing. His work is said to be passée, to be as dead as he is, not just because we have a firm grasp on the a priori or some given foundation (materiality, nature, God, and so on) outside a metaphysics and its history that gives these words their meaning but because we just don’t have time for his patient readings of various writers, for his high conceptualism and high theory, as it was often called in his Anglo-American reception, given the crises we face (and seemingly always do). For a long time now, at least since Luc Ferry and Alain Renault’s La pensée 68 some thirty years ago in France and such works as Richard Wolin’s laughably titled The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism (2006) in the Anglo-American context, Derrida and his generation’s attunement to difference, historicity, and contingency are said to give us nothing but a “fashionable non-sense,” to quote from another notorious theory-bashing text, a “non-sense” that undermines liberal values such as the autonomy of the person and the sovereignty of reason especially in the public space, in short a form of “unreason” that all those with good sense would see as illiberal and thus not able to make distinctions between, say, Trumpist authoritarianism and its leftist critics.

Derrida’s most infamous phrase comes from one of his earliest and best known work, written at the early age (for a philosopher) of 37, smack dab in the middle of Of Grammatology: “il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” which has been taken to mean that there is nothing outside texts, no reality out there, and thus Derrida is guilty of the crime of a linguistic idealism that denies an extra-linguistic world. Was deconstruction in the end, or beyond its end, then about nothing? The accusations facings Derrida’s writings have been multiple, but central to his critics has been the view that his “readings” of texts and textuality leave nothing behind in contradictory but related ways: either he simply destroys the texts he reads, ranging from Plato to Foucault and beyond, leaving nothing of them recognizable behind, or he merely is a reader, perhaps a fruitful one, of these texts but can say nothing positive beyond them. Deconstruction in the former is merely a destruction of the Western tradition, one that must be protected and made safe from the barbarous hordes outside and within our shores. On the other hand, deconstruction is merely a reconstruction of this tradition; it can’t but speak in its modes and can’t say anything new, can’t speak except as a sort of ventriloquism of the texts it reads. Here’s how Simon Critchley, one of his most prominent readers, puts it:

I just don’t see Derrida as offering any kind of positive transcendental philosophy. What Derrida offers is a practice of reading, a practice of reading which is imitable. And that practice of reading is really a practice of double reading: reading with the intentions of the text, reading against the intentions of the text; reading systematically, reading always in terms of the whole structure, or architectonics, in which a text is articulated. So I think Derrida offers a number of exemplary protocols in the manner of proceedings as a reader. Does that mean that there’s a positive content to it in terms of a series of terms, like archi-writing, trace, and so on and so forth, these “nicknames,” as Derrida called them? I see those as incidental, and I’ve never really been persuaded by them….There was a deep ontological unwillingness to be pinned down, or positioned, that I don’t really know the reasons for. It was often irritating. It meant a lot of the text would be: it’s neither this nor that, not this nor the other. And it would be: What do you think! Where does the spade turn for you?

In short, Derrida can’t offer anything beyond a certain reading of texts, even as, oddly enough, Critchley later remarks in the same interview about a certain responsibility at the heart of Derrida’s writings, and therefore one wonders to what or whom its responds and is responsible for. The context for Derrida’s early claim “il n’y a pas de hors-texte,” is key here: this line occurs in a paragraph discussing the fact that meaning and sense always arrive in a context, that there is no “outside” to this contextualization, no position from which any thinking, living, and acting could appear independent from contextual framing, and, thus, independent from some ongoing discourse or history, in short, from some “text.” It is this insistence on context that in a general sense guides the new of this course, for it is easy to argue that the context in which we now read Derrida has changed from deconstruction’s heyday in the 1980s and 90s, given new movements in naturalism, Continental realisms, and the new materialisms, as well as the prominence of such philosophical positions as the Platonism of Alain Badiou, the egalitarianism of Jacques Rancière, the psychoanalytic theories of Julia Kristeva, the non-philosophy of François Laruelle, the Spinozist Marxism of Etienne Balibar, the network theories of Bruno Latour, not to mention the various banalities on display in the contemporary French scene found in works by the Western triumphalist Alain Finkielkraut, the dubious neo-Republicanism of Bernard Stiegler, the ubiquitous and awful Bernard-Henri Lévy, the tepid tea that is Michel Onfray, and the increasingly bland histories and liberalism of Marcel Gauchet. In short, then, the new Derrida would be the one we read from within the very new context we find ourselves in today: the era of Trump, the discovery or invention of the anthropocene, the new technologies that seem to mean that some of us really don’t live outside our texts and texting, Black Lives Matter, and all that has happened in music, the arts, film, television, the internet, forms of communication, geopolitics, colonialism and its various “post” phases that appear more like alibis of its continued existence under other names than any true moving beyond, and so on.

In this context, we can’t help but read Derrida differently and anew; his texts do not provide a set of Platonic ideas set off from the ways they are taken up, read or not read, line by line, or book by book, as if there was something behind them, some ideas that are unchanging and eternal–which would be the worst for some, an eternal Derrida that goes on forever, like some of his lectures seem to do. No, as we will see, Derrida’s emphasis on finitude, death, and the limits of the human is not some existentialist emphasis on the absurd but an affirmation of life and its temporality. This won’t be a reactionary course that gives you some “Standard Derrida” because there is no such thing–not least on his own terms, which we guess would be a standard thing to say. No, we will argue that some of the central insights of his writings have never been more relevant, never more new to us, than in this context, in this place, in this world that faces the end of it all. Derrida himself, in his last interview, given two months before his death to Le Monde, worried that his work will have left nothing behind:

I have the double feeling that, on the one hand, to put it playfully and with a certain immodesty, one has not yet begun to read me, that even though there are, to be sure many good readers…in the end it is later on that all this [his works] have a chance of appearing; but also, on the other hand, and thus simultaneously, I have the feeling that two weeks or a month after my death there will be nothing left. Nothing except what has been copyrighted and deposited in libraries.

That is, his books will have had no effectivity, they will have left nothing behind, as his greatest critics have always wished. But let’s take Derrida at his word, that beyond the Derrida of legend and thus a phantasmatic apparition whose haunting is said to have cursed us for too long, the one who could never get beyond texts and textuality, is one that is new and yet to arrive. The claim made Ferry, Wolin, and even Critchley is that Derrida follows all too closely the work of Martin Heidegger, who argues that we are in the “closure” of metaphysics, an interminable ending in which we endlessly rearrange the concepts of metaphysics without ever escaping them. No doubt, the naïve suggestions in the years since Derrida that mathematics via set or category theory or materialism or an attunement to objects can break us free of what Heidegger dubbed onto-theology, the reduction of the becoming of being to a given substance or substrate (God, matter, will, etc.) beneath or beyond this becoming, lends much credence to this suggestion. However, it would seem to lock us within that closure and therefore within a tradition that Derrida often said repeated somnambulantly a privileging of identity over difference, unity over multiplicity, not to mention the human over the animal, the European over its other, and so forth. In this case, to think a new Derrida we would have to think how he could arrive at the new himself beyond or within this closure. In an interview with Elizabeth Roudinesco, “Choosing One’s Heritage,” Derrida sets out well the perplexities of belonging to a tradition to which one must necessarily belong. No doubt, he has in mind something like Heidegger’s notion of “thrownness” and Nietzsche’s affirmation or “yes” to the eternal return: our finitude means that we can’t just shuffle of the tradition the way a snake shuffles off its coil. Derrida writes:

Only a finite being inherits, and his finitude obliges him. It obliges him to receive what is larger and older and more powerful and more durable than he. But the same finitude obliges one to choose, to prefer, to sacrifice, to exclude, to let go and leave behind. Precisely in order to respond to the call that preceded him, to answer it and to answer for it—in one’s name as in the name of the other. The concept of responsibility has no sense outside an experience of inheritance.

The claims are clear and all but unbearable: the weight of a given tradition, like thrownness (Geworfenheit) in Heidegger, throws us inexorably towards a future that we, each of us, will have been responsible for. We will need to tuck this reference to sacrifice away for the coming weeks, since I want to examine Derrida’s given and take with sacrifice, whether he is willing to sacrifice it from his own work, give its last rites and thus avoid a whole theological lineage that puts sacrifice at the heart of the political. He certainly critiques it in The Death Penalty Lectures and wherever he discusses the question of the animal. In any event, in dealing with a heritage, Derrida goes on, there is “a reaffirmation and a double injunction, but at every moment, in a different context, a filtering, a choice, a strategy.” And that is what propose for this course: to think a Derrida not as a simple textualist but one who never gave up on the idea that texts can be read otherwise, but also never gave up the thinking of that which arrives otherwise and that for which we are nevertheless responsible, as survivors inheriting his work and the tradition to which he bore inexorable witness. To write of a new Derrida is a choice, a strategy, a way forming alliances as inheritors that combat the somnabulant repetition of a Western metaphysics that never seems to grow tired or too old, but is reborn in different ways wherever one wants to find what is hiding beneath beyond the materiality of texts and their contexts, meaning this or that place, milieu, or a time. That is the legacy we must take on, while recognizing our responsibility for thinking Derrida otherwise–one who takes positions, comes up what he says is undeniable, and is not just a “reader” who gives us great readings of different canonical figures and nothing more. To read him anew means, for now, jettisoning that Derrida for now.