The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Jacques Derrida

In him, France gave the world one of the greatest contemporary philosophers, one of the major figures in the intellectual life of our time.- President Jacques Chirac

Anthony McIntyre • 25 October 2004

With the death of the deconstructionist Jacques Derrida earlier this month, French society lost a second 'penseur' in quick succession, the novelist Francoise Sagan predeceasing the philosopher by a matter of weeks. If it were not for the French, European intellectual apparel over the past four decades would have looked a tad threadbare, its bearers inclined to limp rather than strut along the global cultural catwalk. The intellectual equivalent of haute couture would have descended to the level of dementia. Consequently, more people may have looked across the Atlantic for cerebral inspiration.

The rock of French philosophy was a bulwark against the facile march of US ideas and arguably prevented the colonising of more European minds. This is perhaps one element feeding into the delirious Francophobia afflicting the governing class in America in current times. Paris, May 1968, and the notion of a vibrant counter culture is not something to be welcomed in the US ‘Fukayaman’ world of no ideas other than their own.

Intellectual influences are frequently a matter of taste and choice. Whenever I follow my own curiosity and browse - without ever delving enough to acquire much understanding - the produce of other European countries on the good side of the English Channel my mind rarely dwells on more than one morsel from each. Fleeting glances at Habermas in Germany, Kundera in Czechoslovakia, Mandel in Belgium or Milosz in Poland are the sum of my forays. But France is different - Sartre, Camus, Foucault, Althusser, Derrida. Paris gave to thinking what Rio de Janeiro did to soccer. Whether in the fields of literature or philosophy the French have deep wells of tradition to draw from and their pails have always brimmed.

The US right are not alone in their resentment of the autonomy of French intellectual life. Being French alone suffices to turn many Brits off from engaging with a culture barely 35 minutes away courtesy of the Eurotunnel. The 1992 balking response of Cambridge dons, most of them probably immersed in a world of spooks, to a proposal that Derrida be awarded a prize for his work, prompted the comment from that bane of academic snobbery, Terry Eagleton, that 'English philistinism continues to flourish, not least when the words "French philosopher" are uttered.' Derrida was the first nominee for one of Cambridge’s annual awards to have been opposed in 29 years.

'Continental philosophy', as the mental labour of the French is sometimes described with pejorative inflection, has also found its detractors amongst the Irish left. A few years ago when I reviewed a book on the work of Derrida, our own leftoids howled with disdain. Suspecting a postmodernist challenge to their totalitarian drivel that might just discomfit their love of certainty, they railed against 'pissing with continental philosophy', paradoxically overlooking the origins of the founder of their own secular religion, Karl Marx.

When he came to Dublin towards the end of the 1990s, Jacques Derrida explained that an objective of his work was to deconstruct ‘pervasive shibboleths.’ In his view politics functioned as ‘a privileged space for the lie.’ Seemed reasonable to me. But when I tried reading this French iconoclast my experience proved similar to that of the novelist, JG Ballard: ‘I've been floating around Derrida like a space capsule whose landing instructions have got lost, and I have never really made contact.’

Nevertheless, his ‘rebel yell’, as it has been called, combined with his acceptance of ‘the Marxian spirit of opposition’ always held me within range of his insights. Derrida took on board Zygmunt Bauman’s fear that citizens of the western world, in the wake of the collapse of the Eastern bloc, were ‘living without an alternative’ when he wrote his 1993 Spectres of Marx. It was a response to the end of history/no alternative thesis put forward by Francis Fukuyama in his History And The Last Man, published the year previously. At a time when many in the Marxist tradition were thinking only of how to plan a comeback for the vanguard party led by some dictator of the proletariat, Derrida was seriously trying to revitalise the influence of Marx in an era where Marxist sects and cults were caricaturing the philosophy of their own master.

In dismissing Fukuyama, Derrida offered the following assessment:

Never have violence, exclusion, famine and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings in the history of the earth and of humanity … no degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before, in absolute figures, have so many men women and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on the earth.

Gay rights activists, death row prisoners, nuclear disarmament movements, blacks fighting apartheid, North African immigrants in France, Czech dissidents, third world resistance culture all found sustenance in Derrida’s work and quite often secured his active support for their causes. But despite being a man of the left, the left quite often could never rest comfortably with his erosion of the notion of absolute truth and certainty. And it was not that he served as some nihilist locked in a labyrinthine relativism from which no political judgement could be ventured. His very advocacy of ethical resistance belied this. When he challenged the dogma of certainty his point was never that meaning was endless, but that there was never merely one meaning. As Brian Boyd in the Irish Times wrote, ‘belief not tempered by doubt was mortal danger for Derrida.’ His was a constant struggle against the totalitarian impulse:

The certainty of reason is a tyranny that can only be sustained by the evils of repressing or excluding what is uncertain, what doesn’t fit in, what is different. Reason is indifferent to the other.

Earlier this year, already suffering from the effects of the pancreatic cancer to which he would eventually succumb, he signed a petition published in Les Inrockuptibles magazine along with thousands of other French intellectuals, doctors, lawyers and artists accusing the French government of ‘waging war on intelligence’ and of instituting ‘a new state anti-intellectualism.’ To the end he promoted diversity and difference.

The author of around 70 books and numerous essays, Derrida, according to Christina Howells, in each of them demonstrated that he was a ‘scrupulous, meticulous, patient reader, determined to disentangle what has been conflated, bring to light what has been concealed, and to pay scrupulous attention to marginalia and footnotes.’ Those at the margins, those dismissed as mere statistics, those viewed as heretics for harbouring that awful word ‘why?’ or being that hideous thing, ‘other’, all lost a champion when Jacques Derrida faced the ultimate deconstruction.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

25 October 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

European Social Forum
John O'Farrell

Democracy and the Internet
Mick Hall

Resistance And Survival: The Case Of Education And Free Software
Toni Solo

Jacques Derrida
Anthony McIntyre

'The Impact of the Middle East Conflict on Palestinian Children'
Queens University Friends of Palestine and the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC)

21 October 2004

Think Tanks, Reunions and Medals
George Young

Tribute to George
Bernadette McAliskey

Aspects of British Propaganda during the War of Independence
Mags Glennon

Born Iron, Living Free
Marc Kerr

Arise Ye Bored and Read Again
Anthony McIntyre

Blame Orange Order But Buck Stops with British Crown
Father Sean Mc Manus

Capt. Kelly Campaign Update
Fionbarra O'Dochartaigh

None of the Above
Fred A. Wilcox

Reflections On Swift Boats and Slow Wits
Peter Urban

Street Seen, Making the Invisible Visible
Press Release

Paying Our Condolences in Salem
Daphne Banai

The Israeli Invasion of North Gaza
Jennifer Loewenstein



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