The critic Terry Eagleton recently published a review in The Times Literary Supplement (9 June 2016) in which he noted the passing of poststructuralism as an event without mourners. This was my response with regard to his observations on Jacques Derrida, the philosopher-performer who was so vilified in British academic circles during his lifetime and was barely granted a gracious obituary when he died in 2004.
Eagleton made much of the connection between the 1968 student revolts in Paris and the way Derrida’s deconstruction burst on to the literary-philosophical scene in an attempt finally to cripple the power of the traditional humanities, with their core belief in universal meaning and continuity. ‘Libertarian pessimism’, Eagleton labelled Derrida’s contribution, with hindsight, and that seemed to me just right to describe this much-maligned thinker’s engagement with the dwindling power of the Logos in the second half of the twentieth century.
But is the best context to understand Derrida really the last- gasp French Marxism that took to the streets of Paris in 1968? Derrida was never a Marxist and never saw eye-to-eye with the leftist radicals like Julia Kristeva and Philippe Sollers grouped around the journal Tel Quel.
It’s only when we remember that that last gasp include a sigh of misery on the part of the philosophers that the Soviet version of Communism had proved such a disappointment that we begin to get a handle on Derrida’s essentially anti-totalitarian position. He opposed any notion of fixed values and meanings that could be used as instruments of political and cultural repression, and this went for the great cultural goods in literature and art and music which he had in desperation to protest he loved as much as anyone else. He only wanted to announce, as a philosopher, that he saw the danger of false normalities and narrowings, even in the free world.
French culture is, or was, as everyone knows, dominated by philosophy, and where Marx was/is regarded preeminently as a philosopher, the endlessly repeated question was how totalitarianism happened, since, for his supporters at least, Marx was open-ended. Derrida was certainly part of that response, in tandem, for instance, with Paul Ricoeur, one of his shrewdest and most appreciative critics.
For those horrified where Marxism had ended up, Marx’s philosophical predecessor Hegel had to be tackled. This was a Hegel who with Kant could be regarded as the father of Continental Philosophy, but whose dialectic had led, as it seemed, to the wretched closed system of the East Bloc, and the attendant punishments there for anyone who stepped out of line.
Consider this parallel. After the Second World War Germany, West Germany as was, spent the next forty years trying to master its erroneous past, in a self-lacerating cultural process known as Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Something similar happened in French philosophy after the veneer of Soviet Communism was peeled away. The question arose: where did we go wrong, for our ideals of humanitarian progress to end in the Gulag?
Derrida’s self-deconstructing performances whereby the dominant ideas of a culture were rendered undecidable were not pointless in that intellectually damaged France, wondering about the Marxist-Leninism to which it had been committed for so long. Still less was Derrida’s method frivolous with regard to the other Europe, the East Bloc, which still was ideologically imprisoned world for most of his lifetime. Derrida knew real totalitarian conditions well through his Czech-born wife and his involvement in Czechoslovakia.
Nor was the affinity between Soviet totalitarianism and its Nazi equivalent ever far from Derrida’s mind. As a Jew he had been sent home from school in Nazi-occupied Algiers.
When the Jewish pied-noir arrived in mainland France he found he was marginal for different reasons, and that too must have been an incentive to want to undo establishment hierarchies that didn’t welcome in the stranger. For the provincial lad whose voice was too loud Freud was an obvious source of deconstruction. Heidegger was a second tool, for there were bourgeois norms, bound up with classical metaphysics, to be ridiculed too.
It was when Derrida became an industry that the humanities really began to suffer from the Derrida effect. Anyone who has ever sat through a lecture cum performance by a Derridean hanger-on will not be surprised or perturbed by post-structuralism’s demise.
But as one has to say in the case of so many thinkers, what follows in their name is not exactly their fault. Derrida was one man’s resistance to a twentieth-century Western fate. He pioneered a kind of intellectual slapstick and made sure he couldn’t be duplicated.
In fact, and this has to be a great irony, because it places centre-stage those who rejected him in Britain, Derrida’s libertarian spirit has quietly migrated to British philosophy without the historical baggage. I heard one philosopher recently use the word ‘normative’ thirty times in thirty minutes, presumably to tell us that norms are bad.
It’s true that the post-structuralist dislike of norms has helped the neo-liberal economy expand and the possibilities of a unifying culture shrink. But don’t blame that on Derrida! Blame it on the aforementioned neo-liberal type of philosopher-parrot with no sense of European history!
I’ve blogged here about Derrida before, and also written about him in my latest book, A Shoe Story Van Gogh, the Philosophers and the West.