This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
Say what you like about Jacques Derrida, he was one cool looking dude. As a boy, the young Jackie (he was christened for the star of Chaplin’s The Kid, Jackie Coogan) wore a straw boater and sang along with Maurice Chevalier records. As a man, with his high cheekbones and his sly, ophidian eyes, not to mention that shock of quiffed white hair, he could have been a pop chanteur: the Sacha Distel of semiotic deconstruction.
Certainly Derrida looked good on TV — all fey irony and corduroy blouson — in those oh so serious talk shows the French still specialise in. Not that he was on TV all that much. He was too busy writing. Over the years, Derrida, who was born in Algeria in 1931 and died in 2004 in Paris, published more than 40 books. So Peter Salmon’s title, An Event, Perhaps, is something of a hostage to fortune. Biographies, even biographies of idealist philosophers who doubt anything and everything, are stories. Like all stories, they’re made up of stuff that happened — what Harold Macmillan called “events, dear boy, events”.
That means that you can write a biography of Socrates because drinking hemlock can’t but make for good drama. You can write about Nietzsche because his descent into catatonia will always have a lurid pull. The same goes for Sartre’s, ahem, escapades with the French resistance. As for Paul de Man, where to start? This is the guy who swindled his employers, who conned his way into Ivy League academia with a phoney PhD, who was deported from but smuggled himself back into the States (without passport or visa), who bigamously married one of his students. Oh, and he also supported the Nazis during their occupation of his Belgian homeland, writing book reviews for Le Soir which called the Jews degenerate and assured readers that a “New Order had come to Europe”.
Now that’s a life, though I wouldn’t have mentioned it were it not for the fact that de Man was a friend of Derrida — and that Derrida’s shameful attempt to absolve de Man of his posthumously exposed Nazi past is one of precisely two moments of drama in Salmon’s book. (De Man’s pro-Nazi articles were so hysterically fawning and over the top, Derrida argued, that they actually served to point up the silliness of antisemitism.)
The other page-turning incident is a John le Carré-style scene from the early 1980s. Derrida has been invited to communist Czechoslovakia by the Jan Hus Educational Foundation. They want him to give dissident intellectuals an illicit lecture on Descartes and language.
Except that it wasn’t all that illicit. Even as he waited to board his plane at Orly airport, Derrida had the feeling he was being followed. Once in Prague, the surveillance became “obvious”, with a spook following him on to the Metro — and Derrida actually leaping back on to the platform to evade capture. To no avail! Later that day, he was followed on a visit he made to Kafka’s grave, and from there on to the lecture and back to his hotel.
Derrida’s books are unreadable. He was a master of designer impenetrability
Justifiably terrified, he cancelled the seminar he was due to lead and made a dash for the airport. Alas, when he got to the security desk a “huge guy” insisted on going through his bags. Derrida, Salmon tells us, was worried that they were looking for manuscripts. But no. The heavies had bigger fish to fry.
Having “found” several packets of a brown powder in the lining of his suitcase (they had, in fact, just planted them there), they arrested Derrida for “producing, trafficking and transferring drugs”. After a seven-hour interrogation, he was banged up with a bunch of assorted rogues and vagabonds, all of whom agreed he was headed for a minimum two years in stir. Only after President Francois Mitterrand had given the Czech ambassador to France a dressing down was Derrida released.
Amen to that. But why was Derrida so worried about those papers? He had, after all, long identified as a man of the left. Was his thought really so subversive as to represent a threat to the Czech authorities? Even granting that it were that subversive, how would the authorities have known? Derrida’s books are unreadable. He was a master of designer impenetrability. His prose, which stops being turgid only in order to be turbid, is utterly incomprehensible. Derrida actually meant it as a compliment when he compared Rousseau’s literary style to masturbation.
“I confess I find this really difficult to follow,” a teacher at Paris’s Lycée Louis-le-Grand commented on one of the young Jackie’s shapeless essays. “Remember the reader.” Good advice, though Derrida wasn’t listening. A few years later, when he was a student at the École Normale Supérieure, the rivers of drivel he kept handing in baffled even that vapouring Marxist Louis Althusser. “I can’t grade this,” he wrote on Derrida’s thesis, “it’s too difficult, too obscure.” Richard Feynman once said that anyone who claims to understand quantum mechanics doesn’t understand quantum mechanics. Anyone who claims to understand Jacques Derrida doesn’t understand jack.
I know, I know. Nobody ever said philosophy was meant to be easy. But need tricky propositions mean tortuous prose? Perilous for a writer to kid himself that what he has to say is so original very few people will perforce understand it. Positively lethal for him to believe that thinking the unthinkable necessitates his writing the unreadable. Writing well, Karl Popper once said, “isn’t just a question of clarity — it’s a question of professional ethics”. So when Salmon calls Derrida’s book Of Grammatology “gloriously bonkers” consider yourself warned.
Still and all, Salmon — who is a novelist and creative writing teacher — does as good a job as anyone has of rendering Derrida’s thought accessible. He sketches in the background detail lightly, making clear how France, having fallen for the humanist blandishments of existentialism in the aftermath of the war, gradually acceded to the more deterministic theories of the structuralists — the cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, the linguist and semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure.
Language is to our relations with one another what oxygen is to our lungs
And he shows how structuralism soon lost its purchase, as Derrida (along with the literary critic Roland Barthes and the historian-cum-philosopher Michel Foucault) laid waste to what he saw as its hollow metaphysical certainties.
Though his relations with Lacan were always frosty, it was Saussure whom Derrida really wanted to take on. Saussure had argued that the relationship between a word (he called it the signifier) and the object it referred to (the signified) was arbitrary and conventional. There is no intrinsic link, that is, between, say, the word “ball” and the spherical object you might occasionally hit with a racket.
Derrida took that ball and ran with it. Saussure’s theory is fine as far as it goes, he said — but it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. To start with, no individual signifier in and of itself signifies very much. Words don’t so much denote as negatively connote. “Ball” only signifies the concept ball by virtue of everything it doesn’t signify — a call, or a fall, or a hall, or a bale, or a bell. Meaning doesn’t inhere within individual signifiers. It is diffuse and dispersed and forever delayed as it makes its way along an endless chain of signification. Context is everything, which means that meaning is unstable, contingent, indeterminate, multiple.
And since language is what marks out we human beings from other mammals — language is to our relations with one another what oxygen is to our lungs — we’re constituted not by meaning but by that never-ending concatenation of not quite meaning. It follows that the idea of the individual, sealed-off self is just that — an idea, a fantasy. Moreover, because the language we use cannot but have existed before we ourselves did, we don’t so much speak it as it speaks us. You might think you’re telling me what’s on your mind or in your heart. But all you’re really doing is running through the clichés that our linguistic strictures permit. Forget Descartes’s “I think therefore I am”. I think, therefore I am thought, is the essential Derridean lesson.
Is there more to all this than a game of conceits? Well, it is always good for hard-headed commonsensical types to have their eyes opened to the possibility that things out there might well not be as they seem in here. And while Derrida’s talk of the perpetual indeterminacy of meaning has had precious little traction in day to day life, it has led to some intriguing literary analyses — not least by Paul de Man (a nasty piece of work, but a brilliant critic).
Indeed, 30 years ago, when a group of philosophers tried to make the University of Cambridge rethink its awarding Derrida an honorary degree, their most telling argument wasn’t that he had made “French philosophy an object of ridicule”, but that his influence had been felt “almost entirely in fields outside philosophy — in departments of film studies . . . or of French and English literature”.
Linguistic idealism, like other idealisms, is all very well. But back in what even the most devout Hegelian cannot help but think of as the real world there are bills to be paid and beds to be made. “If you tried to doubt everything,” Wittgenstein once remarked (in an argument that anticipates Derrida’s line about things being themselves only by virtue of their not being something else), “you would not get as far as doubting anything. The game of doubting presupposes certainty.” Or as one of the students at Derrida’s Prague lecture more pithily put it, “How is that supposed to help?”
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