With Derrida in Oxford

the postcard from Derrida

More than thirty years ago the artist-philosopher Jacques Derrida was working in the Old Bodleian Library in Oxford when he strayed into the shop. On offer were postcards  richly and decoratively redolent of the Western heritage. The shop has since moved to an enlarged space on the far side of the Schools quad and won a prize for its innovative approach to museum marketing. But we didn’t care about commercial opportunities in our universities then. When Derrida visited, in 1977 and 1979, the postcard stand was just a draughty space, clustered at one end of the seventeenth-century Proscholium.

Derrida chose a reproduction of a medieval illustration showing Plato standing behind Socrates. It showed Plato looking over Socrates’s shoulder as if he, Plato, were the teacher and Socrates the scribe. Seeing these two philosophers pictured in the wrong chronological order, Derrida instantly got an idea. What did it mean if the wisdom of ages was not passed on in an orderly fashion, but was confused and accidental? What if this and other great stories of the making of the West were in fact riddled with mistakes and misunderstandings, though taught as fact? He could spin a whole book, a whole career, out of that presumption.


Derrida was always a naughty boy, riffing on this medieval illustration from a book of fortune-telling. He imagined Plato buggering Socrates. Then he re-imagined the two figures as S and p, terms from Aristotelian logic read as a pictogram of something quite different. Plato was defined in terms of his resemblance to Socrates; or P and s were man and woman, coupling at the outset of ‘the West’, as they tried to produce a child. Here was Plato telling Socrates what to write. The future philosophy of the West would be Platonism. Or perhaps S and P, as equals, were  fixing the future heritage of ‘the West’ together. They were conspiring together or one was bullying the other. The idea with these  multiple interpretations was to suggest ‘the West’ sat on shaky and not very noble foundations.

Derrida questioned the heroic narrative of centuries of wisdom passed down the generations by one carrier of the torch to the next. The way of the Logos, taken over by Christianity as the Word of God, seemed to him to have been only one more or less accidental path for the West to take. He asked: who knows what the origins of ideas are, and where they are headed, and where they go astray and peter out and get misread and written over, because they are communicated in words. Just as the post-Darwinian world has no single point of origin, and things in it have no predetermined destiny, nor did this or that idea of the West, in the past, have a destiny to become preeminent. Life, what survives, is accidental.


If you go to Oxford and get yourself a Reader’s Ticket you can relive that undoing of ‘the West’ which Derrida staged for himself, when he worked in the oldest part of the Bodleian library. I’m not sure he staged it deliberately, but a more concentrated experience of heritage than sitting in Duke Humfrey’s Library is hard to imagine. Founded in 1488, routed by anti-Catholic Reformers and reinvented at the end of the sixteenth century, the collection was by then a treasury of manuscripts that attracted scholars from all over Europe. Its books, at first read chained at standing desks, and later shelved in rough timber cabinets, meanwhile began to increase. The cabinets formed quasi-monastic carrels in rows off either side of the main aisle, or nave, of the reading room, under a barn-like tie-beam roof. Sit there now and stare up, and you can see that the eighteenth-century wealth and pride of the university is painted on the ceiling in identical coats-of-arms in every squared vault. It shows an open book on which is written in Latin, Lord Be My Light. The Gothic windows with their stained-glass mullions encourage a church-like atmosphere. Secular and ecclesiastical figures stylized in their mode of authority in grand oil paintings still preside over tiptoeing and whispering readers. Nineteenth-century scholars have left ink stains on the oak desks and the well and the gulley where they dipped and rested their pens are all still in evidence, although now discreetly superseded by electric points for laptops. The volumes which hog the limited natural light are thick, bound in leather long ago worn to suede and held together in old age by webbing bands. Dutch Annotations on the Bible. Rogers on Judges. Sanctius in Libb. Ruth Esdr Etc., Alp.De Torres Institution Sacerdotum, Colloquium Reinaldi Cum Harto, Heylin’s Ecclesia Restaurata, R. De la Torre De Justitia.

The problem for Derrida, the visiting scholar born in Algeria in 1932, and educated in Paris, was the authority of all this heritage.duke humfrey

He wrote, in a fragment of autobiography (to be found in Counterpaths): ‘I have never ceased learning, especially when teaching, to speak softly, a difficult task for a pied noir, and especially from within my family, but to ensure that this soft-spokenness reveal the reserve of what is thus held in reserve, with difficulty, and with great difficulty, by the floodgate, a precarious floodgate that allows me to apprehend the catastrophe. The worst can happen at every turn.’ Derrida went on to talk of being as alienated from Jewish culture as from French: ‘a strangely bottomless alienation of the soul; a catastrophe; others will also say a paradoxical opportunity. Such in any event would have been the radical lack of culture from which I undoubtedly never completely emerged.’   As he sat in Duke Humfreys, with its marvellous view of the Sheldonian Theatre at roof-height seemingly almost at touching distance, he knew he was also here the outsider who had arrived courtesy of his willingness to fit in and suppress certain true aspects of himself. Truth was a matter of suppressing what at its edges was undesirable. It was about excluding the undesirable other.

Users of the Library are asked to obey the rules. They should keep loose pages in order (what order, asks Derrida), and not reproduce texts or images by any method other than the Library’s own copying authority. (Copying was one of the ways in which Derrida thought the authority of tradition was more undermined than perpetuated.) They should not to eat, drink and otherwise multitask while reading. Like all readers on first issue of their ticket, Derrida was asked to swear the Bodleian oath. He was asked to agree not to bring fire into the library and it thrilled him. He had this destructive urge, and he had to find a way to include it in his work, in order for that method to be an example of what it was not to exclude the remainder from the purported whole truth.images

Early in his career he had studied ‘Ordinary Language Philosophy’, the work of John Austin, which had been associated with Oxford since before the war. A new kind of philosopher, Austin thought that since consciousness was difficult to get at, the perceiving subject might be more usefully approached in terms of the language it uses to articulate its experiences. Austin talked about ‘speech acts’. Every ‘speech act’ had an intention behind it and a result ahead of it. The result was not always the one intended, but, taken together, speech acts and the chance to which they were exposed in real life of going wrong seemed to create a new basis on which philosophy could clarify meaning rather than pursue truth.

Derrida learnt his Ordinary Language Philosophy after having studied Husserl’s phenomenology. He had the phenomenologist’s interest in the way things seem to me, what I hold to be true, and the linguist’s, in the words used to express that point of view. But I think what most undermined his sense of where the Logos of the West, aka the Truth as known to Western Philosophy, had arrived was his knowledge of Freud. Derrida’s reading of Freud convinced him that all the unintended and uncontrollable elements involved in verbal expression so much interfered with the truth-seeking will of the rational man to communicate what he meant that what Austin was proposing could only be superficial.

In Freud Derrida found the combination of artist-rebel-debunker-cultural philosopher that he was himself. (See my The Secret Artist A Close Reading of Sigmund Freud London: Quartet 2000, New York Seven Stories 2001). Chamberlain_SecretArtist_largeThe trouble-maker in Derrida drew on Freud’s notion of the unconscious to worry about motivations not immediately knowable but which affect the truths language written and spoken attempts to pass on. Freudian repression was the story of how the civilized man buried certain facts about himself because they didn’t fit the grand narrative of What Should Be; and that was true of Western civilization in general. Meanwhile the repressed material emerged in dreams and double-meanings and fantasies. Reading Freud was how Derrida’s own most characteristic work became a linguistic skating rink. It retained Austin’s interest in speech as performance, but poeticized it along lines set out by Freud’s exploration of the unconscious.

Derrida’s performances meanwhile derived another aspect of their meaning from Heidegger. This was the idea that truth has to happen to us. It can’t just sit there and be, in a book, on the wall. We can only grasp the truth of our being here, and being in the world, as being-in-performance. Just as, to be art, the work of art has to go to work, so there are moments when beings are what they are, and we are fully in their presence when the truth of them happens. I’m extracting here from all that I’ve written about Heidegger’s 1936 lecture-essay ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ in A Shoe Story Van Gogh The Philosophers and the West (Harbour Books, 2014).shoes cover

Both Austin and Heidegger were dissatisfied with thinking about consciousness as the fundament of philosophy. Moreover, although Austin was about Oxford no nonsense and about clarity, and Heidegger was German and unintelligible (at least to prejudiced Oxford minds) in fact Austin’s aims were oddly compatible with Heidegger’s, for where Austin was practical and Heidegger metaphysical, both sought meaning in performance. And when Austin’s view was parsed as saying that what language describes it simultaneously creates then no one could deny that Austinism looked like the return of metaphysics by an unexpected route; meanwhile Heidegger too was trying to reinvent metaphysics.

One of Derrida’s best books, readible and witty, is La Carte postale. The translation as The Post Card is irritating. Postcard is one word in English. But it’s long established. So The Post Card it is. Was it a novel? A fictionalized piece of autobiography, consisting of messages sent home? Whatever it also was (and always in Derrida there is an indefinable remainder), it fictionalized the ‘Oxford’ years, 1977-79, when Derrida twice visited Oxford and revelled in ideas about language and communication, and the dubious authority of tradition. He thought Austin was wrong to think misunderstanding could ever be limited; and  he took John Searle to task, as Austin’s disciple, for just accepting this. See Limited, Inc. Derrida in and after Oxford insisted that misunderstanding was inherent in human communication.

To the idea that language creates the reality it describes he brought an old French fear, already set out by Descartes, that the devil might be in there somewhere. Why wasn’t Austin more wary? Derrida’s wariness took the form of différance, or, let’s say, the potential for  speech acts always to mean something else than their original speaker intended, and for ultimate clarification to be indefinitely deferred.

Derrida strengths and talents as a poet-artist-joker emerged out of a deeply serious engagement with twentieth-century philosophy and also with literature. It’s worth remembering that Austin’s theory of meaning as performance, while it opened many new doors in philosophy, was also a product of the high age of literary modernism. In the first half of the twentieth century  language suddenly had revolutionary potential. Here it touched a writer, there a philosopher, there a Dadaist; a Hans Arp and a Heidegger, a James Joyce and an Austin. I talk about Arp in this context in A Shoe Story.download

Experience happened for Joyce as sound. Much of the power of language derived not from intended meanings but from accidental associations. Derrida didn’t think the language of philosophy could exempt itself from that kind of erosion and reinvention; nor should it. He concluded that the names of things were the anarchic element we swim in. The treachery of signs is how we are.

Derrida played a game which consisted in closing the Holy Book, with its definite Writ, for the last time. Once it was closed the Logos became writing and writing was indeterminate and contradictory.

He was drole, in the way the little sprites you can see in the margins of medieval manuscripts in the Bodleian are. He was the intruder into Holy Writ, peculiar and amusing and inappropriate. Why he did it was because Holy Writ propped up outmoded forms of political power. Empire not least. He was for a newer, more inclusive, radical civilization of cosmopolitans and others.manropingtext22


He was a sprite in a fool’s cap who demanded that the margins be included. A new radical West would give equal space to what in the past, in the interests of defining Holy Writ, and holding that world together , had been repressed.doodle-1


To read the texts of culture from the margins, as he did while he visited Oxford, whether those texts were art or philosophy or  or some other collection of  Derridean ‘graphemes’, helped create the anti-philosophy of postmodernism. Which causes me a great deal more anxiety that it caused Derrida, because my mind is not nearly so free.


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