Monday, October 11, 2004


Jacques Derrida died over the weekend. The Grauniad has a leader praising his achievements
He should be remembered as a profound thinker who made a lasting contribution to intellectual discourse.
Deconstruction, in terms of literary theory, springs from a simple idea that originated with Friedrich Nietzsche: that any text is open to an infinite number of interpretations. That makes it possible to ignore the author's intentions, stated or otherwise, and examine a text for meanings that would otherwise be uncomfortable or hidden. This thought is little different to some of Ludwig Wittgenstein's ideas, but by concentrating on epistemology he avoided the obloquy heaped on Derrida. . .What was important was that deconstruction held that no text was above analysis or closed to alternative interpretation. It is no coincidence that it came into vogue in the 1960s and 1970s, when many cultural and social institutions were being challenged. As a result, Derrida became popular among those willing to question the sterile idea of a "western canon" who wanted to expand literary discourse so that writers such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon could sit alongside the Brontes. Thanks to Derrida, many new voices were heard.

The Grauniad obituary includes a summary of his life and thought including
For him the fact that moral values cannot be expressed as simple rules of conduct increased, rather than decreased, the importance of our ethical responsibilities.
The obituary elides,as obituaries do, over the most disgraceful part of Derrida's life and work:
The discovery, in 1987, of his friend Paul de Man's collaborationist wartime journalism was a personal blow to Derrida.
The first three chapters of Jon Wiener's splendid anthology "Professors, Politics and Pop"1 give a detailed account of Paul de Man's collaborationist past in war time Belgium together with a discussion of his supporters, especially Jacques Derrida, in late twentieth century academia.
In brief, de Man wrote 170 articles for the Belgian paper Le Soir when the paper "was stolen and controlled by the occupiers, the directors and the editorial board of our newspaper having, on the contrary, decided not to collaborate"2.
In his defence of de Man Derrida emphasises de Man's youth, 21 years old, at the time of writing the anti-semitic collaborationist articles. This may be a supporting argument but here the defence cannot rest.
De Man's problems continued when he lied and tried to keep his pro-Nazi, anti-semitic writings secret.
"Derrida answers that telling the truth would have been a "pretentious, ridiculous" gesture for de Man, one that was "indiscreet and indecent," a "pointlessly painful theatricalization". Moreover telling the truth "would have deprived us of a part of his work" because it "would have consumed his time and energy". Thus de Man did the right thing when he hid the truth about his past. Telling the truth should be avoided because it is time-consuming: that is a morally bankrupt argument."3
Wiener goes on to criticize Derrida for denouncing the press as "full of hatred" when all they did was to report the news on his friend.
The conclusion one is left with is that what de Man did - collaborate with the Nazi occupiers of Belgium - should be understood and forgiven, but what de Man's critics have done - commit "reading mistakes" - should be condemned as unforgivable. Outside the circle of de Man's most committed defenders, few readers will find this argument persuasive".4
Derrida let his duty to friendship override his ethical responsibility to accept, reveal and condemn de Man's Nazi, anti-semitic, collaborationist past.

Notwithstanding the de Man affair, perhaps Derrida's most interesting work was Spectres of Marx and the volume of responses Ghostly Demarcations. (Comment on Spectres of Marx coming soon).

1Wiener, Jon. Professors, Politics and Pop.London: Verso.1991
2Ibid p16
3Ibid p18
4Ibid p22

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