15 July 1930, Birth of Jacques Derrida, Jewish philosopher, critic and postmodern deconstructionist #otdimjh


“A Jew is one who asks: Who is a Jew?”

JACQUES DERRIDA (1930–2004) was a French philosopher and literary critic. Born on 15 July 1930 in El-Biar, Algeria, he was expelled from his lycée by Algerian administrators who were anxious to implement anti-Semitic quotas set by the Vichy government. In 1949 his family moved to France. Beginning in 1952 he was a student at the École Normale Superiéure in Paris where he studied under Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser. Later he studied at the Husserl Archive in Leuven, Belgium where he completed his aggregation. Later he became a lecturer there. [Dan Cohn-Sherbok: Fifty Key Jewish Thinkers, 52-54]

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During the Algerian War of Independence, Derrida taught children of soldiers. Following the war, he was associated with the Tel Quel group of literary and philosophical theorists. From 1960 to 1964 he taught philosophy at the Sorbonne, and from 1964 to 1984 at the École Normale Superiéure. He completed his These d’Etat in 1980; this was published in English as The Time of a Thesis: Punctuations. Until his death in 2004 he was director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. With François Châtelet and others, he served as co-founder of the International College of Philosophy. From 1986 he served as Professor of Philosophy, French and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Irvine. Derrida was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 2001 received the Adorno-Preis from the University of Frankfurt.

He received honorary doctorates from Cambridge University, Columbia University, the New School for Social Research, University of Essex, University of Leuven and Williams College.

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Derrida’s earliest manuscript dealt with Edmund Husserl; it was submitted for a degree in 1954 and was later published as The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Phenomenology. In 1962 he published Edmund Husserl’s Origin of Geometry: An Introduction. Derrida’s first major contribution to the international academic community was his essay ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’ which was delivered to a conference at Johns Hopkins University in 1966. The conference dealt with structuralism, which was then widely discussed in France but was only becoming familiar to departments of French and comparative literature in the United States. Derrida’s lecture charted the accomplishments of structuralism, but also expressed reservations about its limitations.

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In 1970 the conference proceedings were published as The Structuralist Controversy. At the conference Derrida met Paul de Man and Jacques Lacan. In 1967 Derrida published three collections of work: Of Grammatology; Writing and Difference; and Speech and Phenomena. These contained studies of: philosophers such as Rousseau, Saussure, Husserl, Lévinas, Heidegger, Hegel, Foucault, Bataille and Descartes; anthropologists such as Levi-Strauss; psychoanalysts, including Freud; and writers such as Edmond Jabés and Antonin Artaud. In these early works Derrida set out the principles of deconstructionism in an attempt to illustrate that the arguments put forward by their subject matter exceeded and contradicted the oppositional parameters in which they were located. The next five years of work were collected in two publications: Dissemination and Margins of Philosophy; in addition, a collection of interviews, published in 1981 as Positions, appeared.

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On 14 March 1987 Derrida presented at the International College of Philosophy conference an essay entitled ‘Heidegger: Open Questions’, which was later published as Of Spirit. This work demonstrates, in response to the debate about Heidegger’s Nazism, the transformation of Derrida’s philosophical inheritance. In it he traced the shifting role of Spirit through Heidegger’s work, and also considered three fundamental and recurring elements of Heideggeran philosophy: the distinction between human beings and animals; technology; and the privilege of questioning as the essential nature of philosophy.


Derrida’s essay ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’ which he published in 1966 was the starting point of what is Derrida’s most important contribution: deconstruction. Basically this concept is an attempt to open a text to a range of meanings and interpretations; its method is to take binary oppositions within a text and illustrate that they are not as stable as might appear. In fact the two opposed notions are fluid; as a consequence, the meaning of the text is similarly fluid. This fluidity is a legacy of traditional metaphysics founded on oppositions that seek to establish a stability of meaning through conceptual absolutes where one term is elevated to a status that designates its opposite.


According to Derrida, these hierarchies are silently challenged by the texts themselves, where the meaning of a text depends on this contradiction. The aim of the critic is to show that this dialectical stability is subverted by the text’s internal logic. Deconstruction thereby leads to new interpretations of philosophical and literary texts. No meaning is ever fixed; rather, the only thing that ensures there is a sense of unity within a text is what Derrida refers to as ‘the metaphysics of presence’, where presence is granted the privilege of truth.


Although Derrida’s writings have had a profound influence, analytic philosophers and scientists have been critical of his approach. Some of his detractors regard his work as non-philosophical or as pseudophilosophy. Supporters of Derrida maintain that such criticism is circular – detractors of Derrida propose a system of evaluating philosophy that is antithetical to Derrida, and then criticize Derrida for not following it. In their view, these philosophers fail to recognize the complexity of Derrida’s work. Commenting on such criticism, Derrida wrote in ‘Following Theory’:


You also asked me, in a personal way, why people are angry at me. To a large extent, I don’t know. It’s up to them to answer. To a small extent I know: it is not usually because people are angry at me personally, but rather they are angry at what I write. They are angry at my texts more than anything else, and I think it is because of the way I write – not the content, or the thesis. They say that I do not obey the usual rules of rhetoric, grammar, demonstration, and argumentation.

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Despite such criticism, Derrida has had a major impact on academics in a wide range of fields. Deconstruction has been used in such diverse fields as law, politics, literary theory and criticism, and philosophy.

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Reflection and Prayer: Messianic Jews have yet to come to terms with the life and significance of this pivotal Jewish thinker. But his work has paved the way for postmodern thought, identity and expression, something the Messianic Jewish movement is indebted to as a child of its time. Derrida’s playful indeterminacy is both threatening and fascinating, and serious theological reflection demands an engaged response to the effect of his work. May Messianic Jews and others not flinch from such work, and may Derrida’s contribution be appreciated, appropriately responded to, and developed further. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.






A more accurate title for this book would have been The Non-Jewish Derrida.

Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint

Hélène Cixous. Translated by Beverley Bie Brahic

Who can say “I am Jewish?” What does “Jew” mean? What especially does it mean for Jacques Derrida, founder of deconstruction, scoffer at boundaries and fixed identities, explorer of the indeterminate and undecidable? In Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint, French feminist philosopher Hélène Cixous follows the intertwined threads of Jewishness and non-Jewishness that play through the life and works of one of the greatest living philosophers.

Cixous is a lifelong friend of Derrida. They both grew up as French Jews in Algeria and share a “belonging constituted of exclusion and nonbelonging”–not Algerian, rejected by France, their Jewishness concealed or acculturated. In Derrida’s family “one never said ‘circumcision’but ‘baptism,’not ‘Bar Mitzvah’but ‘communion.'” Judaism cloaked in Catholicism is one example of the undecidability of identity that influenced the thinker whom Cixous calls a “Jewish Saint.”

An intellectual contemporary of Derrida, Cixous’s ideas on writing have an affinity with his philosophy of deconstruction, which sought to overturn binary oppositions–such as man/woman, or Jew/non-Jew–and blur boundaries of exclusion inherent in Western thought. In portraying Derrida, Cixous uses metonymy, alliteration, rhyme, neologisms, and puns to keep the text in constant motion, freeing language from any rigidity of meaning. In this way she writes a portrait of “Derrida in flight,” slipping from one appearance to the next, unable to be fixed in one spot, yet encompassing each point he passes. From the circumcision act to family relationships, through Derrida’s works to those of Celan, Rousseau, and Beaumarchais, Cixous effortlessly merges biography and textual commentary in this playful portrait of the man, his works, and being (or not being) Jewish.


Hélène Cixous is one of today’s best-known feminist theorists and author ofComing to Writing and Other EssaysThe Newly Born Woman, and Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing (Columbia), as well as fiction and plays. Beverley Bie Brahic is a translator and poet living in Paris.


The philosopher’s influential legacy is reshaped by the part of his life story that is often overlooked

By Scott Krane

July 15, 2013

Jacques Derrida, 1993. (Ferenc Kalmandy/AFP/Getty Images)

“Writing a biography means living through an intimate and sometimes intimidating adventure,” writes Benoît Peeters in his newly translated biography of Jacques Derrida, who would have turned 83 today. But what is the difference between the biography of a living man and a dead man? In the Introduction toDerrida, published in France in 2010 and now beautifully translated into English by Andrew Brown, French artist, critic, and author Peeters writes, “Whatever happens, Jacques Derrida will not be part of his own life, like a sort of posthumous friend. A strange one-way friendship that he would not have failed to question.” The author continues in the book’s introduction: “I am convinced of one thing: there are biographies only of the dead. So every biography is lacking its supreme reader: the one who is no longer there. If there is an ethics of biographers, it can perhaps be located here: would they dare to stand, book in hand, in front of their subject?”

Peeters is pleased that his book is now appearing in English. “My biography of Derrida, the first to be based on research work first-hand, was very well received when it was published in France,” Peeters told me in a recent interview. “And Derrida as a thinker is reflected in the world; it was logical that my book be translated. The United States played a decisive role in the reception of deconstruction. It is therefore not surprising that the English translation was the first to appear,” he said. Soon, he added, there will be translations available in German and Spanish, as well as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

But there is also Jacques Derrida’s own reckoning on the art of biography to consider: “As you know, the traditional philosophy excludes biography, it considers biography as something external to philosophy. You’ll remember Heidegger’s reference to Aristotle: ‘What was Aristotle’s life?’ Well, the answer lay in a single sentence: ‘He was born, he thought, he died.’ And all the rest is pure anecdote.” While a French audience wouldn’t be surprised by such sardonic nihilism, it may be shocking for readers who are used to the ethic of Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose theory of history from a century earlier held that there is no history, only biography.

Derrida’s attitude toward biography may have also been shaped by the experiences of his own family and his resulting loss of verifiable connection to his origins. Most of the papers concerning Derrida’s family life and his early life growing up as a Jew in Algiers have disappeared. In a book review for the Guardian, literary theorist Terry Eagleton wrote:

At the age of 12, Derrida was excluded from his lycee when the Algerian government, anxious to outdo the Vichy regime in its anti-semitic zeal, decided to lower the quota of Jewish pupils. … Paradoxically, the effect of this brutal rejection on a “little black and very Arab Jew” as he described himself, was not only to make him feel an outsider, but to breed in him a lifelong aversion to communities. He was taken in by a Jewish school, and hated the idea of being defined by his Jewish identity. Identity and homogeneity were what he would later seek to deconstruct. Yet the experience also gave him a deep suspicion of solidarity.

In an interview, Peeters said, “In 1942, anti-Semitic measures taken by the Vichy regime had him excluded from school for a year. Like other Jews of Algeria, he was stripped of French nationality. These experiences marked him forever. But this time, he also kept away from the Jewish school founded by teachers excluded from formal education. These themes run throughout his life and his work.”

In 1962, Derrida’s parents left their home and his birthplace of El Biar in the “hill suburbs of Algiers.” But Peeters manages to capture content that may have seemed elusive to researchers and searchers for autobiographical sentiment. “I was part of an extraordinary transformation of French Judaism in Algeria: My great-grandparents were still very close to the Arabs in language and customs,” Derrida once recalled during a later-in-life interview quoted by Peeters.

Peeters, a one-time teacher of Bernard Henri-Lévy, was attracted to the project in part by the idea of exploring the literary biographical materials that the philosopher himself refused to trust. “I first wanted to capitalize on the huge archive left by Jacques Derrida, and I was the first to explore it,” Peters said. “I found notes, manuscripts, diaries, especially the thousands of letters of great literary quality. But it would have been absurd to rely only on written materials, while most of the relatives are still living.” He then proceeded to offer a glimpse at his craft: “Essential meetings were often long and sometimes repeated, with numerous witnesses, all ages. I had the chance to talk with the brother, sister, and cousin closest to Derrida, with his wife Margaret, his sons Peter and John, as well as many friends.” Reviewing in the Guardian, Elisabeth Roudinesco wrote of Peeters, “He is the first to have gained access to the writer’s records at France’s Institute of Contemporary Publishing Archives and the Langson Library at the University of California, Irvine. He also interviewed around 100 essential figures.”

The book explores everything from its subject early to later intellectual pursuits, beginning with his childhood initiation in Algeria into the world of cheap French novels and translations of Nietzsche. From this point, the young Derrida falls in love with Sartre, of whom he writes, “I recognize my debt, the filiation, the huge influence, the huge presence of Sartre in my formative years.” He writes, “I have never striven to evade it,” however he found Being and Nothingness to be “philosophically weak,” outshined as it were, by his early readings of Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger. He would travel to Harvard University, leaving Paris in 1956, to study Husserl’s microfilms and acquired special audit status.

In this period, Derrida ambiguously asked his lifelong lover Marguerite and her family for their blessings in a decidedly quirky if not unorthodox application to matrimony. At Harvard he purchased an Olivetti 32 typewriter and, for the first time in his life, learned to use the mechanical instrument. His main reason for coming to America, however, according to Peeters, was to avoid military service. Derrida returned to Algeria in 1957, after marrying Marguerite and honeymooning in Paris, to join the military and please his bride’s family, with whom he had held rickety correspondence in the formative stages of arranging the marriage. Derrida asked to teach the children of soldiers in lieu of military service during the Algerian War for Independence from the French from 1957 to 1959. Most of the research for this section of the biography is based on formerly recorded memoirs, which Peeters has sifted through with care.

In 1960, Derrida was appointed an official lecturer at the Sorbonne in Paris. Peeters writes: “As there was no syllabus in general philosophy, Derrida was at liberty to choose his subjects. He gave entire lecture courses on Heidegger’s Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics and ‘What Is Metaphysics.’ ” Peeters stresses that Derrida’s ethics for public politicizing and propagandizing were built and developed in consequence of the geopolitical upshot of the Algerian War. Peeters makes a citation of a book that greatly influenced Derrida’s opinion of Algerian geopolitics. The book was The French of Algeria published by Julliard, written by one of Derrida’s fellow pupils at Louis-le-Grand, his wartime station: “Isn’t it difficult to lay the blame for all of France’s policies in Algeria over the past 130 years on something like the French Algerians (in spite of their massive and unremitting guilt, which should neither be overlooked nor diluted on the pretext of sharing it round)?” The citation continues, “If, as you say, the French Algerians have indeed been the ‘makers’ of their own history and misfortune, this is true only if, at the same, one points out that all governments and the whole army (in other words the whole French people in whose name they act) have always been the masters.”

Derrida supported the writings of Albert Camus—a French Algerian elder contemporary and a thoughtful absurdist—while gracefully disagreeing with his philosophy. Peeters explains, “Over and above the wounds on the family and personal level, the Algerian War also constituted one of the stimuli for all Derrida’s political thinking.” Perhaps it is his political thinking that this biographer is able to crystallize and explain more efficiently than others and perhaps via Derrida’s own memoirs and interviews: “In France,” writes Peeters, “for years, he would avoid speaking in public about a subject that remained too controversial. But in an interview he gave in Japan in 1987, he acknowledged that, while he had approved of the Algerians’ struggle for independence, he had long hoped for ‘a solution that would allow the French Algerians to continue to live in that country,’ ‘an original political solution that was not the one that actually came about.’ ” In his final TV broadcast in 2004, Derrida refers to the Israel and Palestine conflict, seeing it as “a different problematic than that of two sovereign states” and using his purview of the Algerian Republic and war as a random geopolitical corset to assess the situation. Benoît Peeters’ inclusion of these opinions makes his biography unique in shaping Jacques Derrida’s legacy in a way that a new generation would benefit from knowing.


How to Survive Jacques Derrida

Devorah Baum on the French philosopher’s moral legacy

Devorah Baum  |  Winter 2004  –  Number 196

‘What happens when a great thinker becomes silent?’ – Jacques Derrida, ‘Adieu à Emmanuel Levinas’

I can’t believe he’s dead: the ‘greatest living philosopher’ no more. Yet the facts are these: Jacques Derrida (15 July 1930-8 October 2004). There have already been attempts to evaluate the singular life that spanned those dates. I find myself reading countless articles, by his friends, supporters and detractors, and awaiting his response. As if death were not, after all, decisive; as if I were still expecting to hear from him once more. Perhaps because, if there was one word (and there is never only one word) to describe the tenor of his writings, for me it would be the word response. Derrida often described death, after Levinas, as an experience of the ‘non-response’. To quote Levinas’s own God, Death, and Time (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2000):

“There is here an end that always has the ambiguity of a departure without return, of a passing away but also of a scandal (‘is it really possible that he’s dead?’) of non-response and of my responsibility.”

Derrida will never again respond. And so, with his scandalous ‘passing away’, we are called upon to respond, not only to those words that have been written about him, but to everything that survives him: everything he opened up to us, everything he revealed as demanding thought, consideration, a response. As if we, the survivors of Derrida, were responsible for his death – responsible for what takes place in his name, or in the future of his name, now that he no longer bears it.

Derrida conceived of a ‘friend’ as someone whose name he might be left to utter in their absence: ‘in calling or naming someone while he is alive, we know that his name can survive him and already survives him’. The name, therefore, because it exists independently of the one who bears it, is connected, in Derrida’s imagination, to death. The name is not, like its bearer, finite. As such, it will outlive its bearer, alerting the friend, in advance, to the ‘work of mourning’ that will follow the death of the friend, depending on which dies first. At the same time, the fact that the name will survive my death, alerts me to the thought that I cannot ever fully command the ‘life’ and meaning of my own name. My name does not belong to me, even if I belong to my name.

In what follows, I will examine how Derrida responded to ‘being named’. It is a question of identity, and of a certain departure in the ‘politics of identity’. It is also a question of the response, and of our responsibility before those condemned to silence or the ‘non-response’.

In 1942, aged 12, the as yet undetected ‘great twentieth-century philosopher’, Jacques Derrida, was expelled from his lycée in French-occupied Algeria. On the first day of term the head teacher had announced that ‘French culture is not made for little Jews’. And so it would seem that Derrida’s early or earliest experience of the ‘academy’ was of anti-Semitism, as if, from the outset, the western (‘Greek’) schools of learning were linked to his personal experience of suffering an injustice.

Exiled from his lycée, the young Derrida was sent to a Jewish school set up for the expelled Jewish students and staffed by the expelled Jewish teachers. The exclusively Jewish school was called Alliance, the French term for ‘covenant’, referring to the covenant of the Jewish people with their G-d; the covenant that binds one in advance, before one has the right to decide or choose for oneself to agree to the terms of the arrangement. The covenant whose mark on the flesh of the male Jewish infant is the sign of circumcision, which Derrida received when he was eight days old and in no way able to say Yes or No to the law, anymore than he was able to choose the name he would be called by or the language he would later learn to speak. Derrida was enrolled in the Alliance school but absented himself because, as he explained, ‘I felt . . . just as out-of-place in a closed Jewish community as I did on the other side’, which was, he observes, the

“Paradoxical effect, perhaps, of this brutalization: a desire for integration in the non-Jewish community . . . an impatient distance with regard to the Jewish communities, whenever I have the impression that they are closing themselves off by posing themselves as such. Whence a feeling of non-belonging that I have no doubt transposed . . .”

Evidently the young Derrida was not happy to be cast in a situation not of his own choosing. He did not wish to be forced to identify with a particular community or group; especially thisAlliancewhich both condemns and saves him – providing him with a place of refuge from those who expelled him, but also naming the reason for his expulsion. And this ‘double rejection’, as Geoffrey Bennington puts it in his and Derrida’s book Jacques Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993)  first the rejection of Derrida by the French authorities (or ‘French culture’) and then Derrida’s own rejection of the marginal and insular Jewish community into which he felt pushed or exiled – was ‘transposed’ by Derrida into his thinking about other things. Derrida wanted to situate himself nowhere, he wanted to belong nowhere; just as, in his theoretical work, the critic or philosopher is, and must be as a kind of guiding principle, perpetually displaced.

As an autobiographical note, this ‘double rejection’ appears to provide a rich resource for anyone interested in the psychological background of deconstruction. For it would seem as if Derrida’s entire philosophical contribution was marked by this originating trauma or wound. As Bennington comments, ‘this difficulty with belonging, one would almost say of identification, affects the whole of J.D.’s oeuvre, and it seems to me that . . . [deconstruction] is the very thought of this’. Bennington’s description of deconstruction as ‘this difficulty with belonging, one would almost say of identification’ explicitly associates Derrida’s ambivalent ‘Jewish identity’ to the larger question of his philosophy. Derrida felt ‘difficulty with belonging’, it seems, because belonging (to any particular community, culture or group) can never be justified. Every identification or alliance implies the exclusion of others, hence the desire for non-belonging in order to protest at the injustice of belonging.

Indeed, Bennington has argued that Derrida did manage to belong nowhere, by standing neither on one side nor the other side of the dialectic between ‘Greek’ exclusion and ‘Jewish’ exclusivity. Derrida, says Bennington, is ‘neither Jew nor Greek’. Hence the difficulty the academy has had, within its various disciplines and departments, when dealing with him – for he has no (and deliberately has no) position, no place.

But the politics of identity cannot be resolved quite so simply. Indeed, there is a certain conception of the Jew with which Derrida did seem to identify. The Wandering Jew as one who, by very definition, has no place. The uprooted stranger in the wilderness of messianic desire, always awaiting deliverance into the Promised Land as the promise of justice; the promise of a just place – a place always in the future, always to come. In this sense, if non-belonging or displacement was to be Derrida’s theoretical position, then, if he was to identify with anyone at all, identifying with the Diaspora Jew was perhaps the most compatible with his thinking. The Diaspora Jew, like Joyce’s Leopold Bloom, who is on the one hand as integrated as possible within his society, observing no particular ritual to mark him out as different, but who, on the other hand, remains conscious of a certain otherness buried deep within his being, even if what attaches him to this otherness – which is his Jewishness – only hangs there by the weakest of threads.

This rather romanticized figure, the Wandering Jew, is perhaps how most European Jewish intellectuals after the Shoah have wanted to see themselves. For this figure, lacking all power, property and territory, at least in the national sense, is always in the role of victim rather than persecutor. He is the perpetual stranger in our midst and therefore a reminder of everything we owe the stranger.

But this identification seems to be towards a sense of oneself as the victim – the one to whom things happen – the one who, lacking a place of his own, need not therefore take any responsibility for the place of the world or for the events of history. And this echoes a common criticism of deconstruction, on both the left and the right, as a form of parasitism (bearing in mind that the parasite is also an antisemitic stereotype): the deconstructionist has sometimes stood accused of feeding off the canon, only commenting and never crafting, and so, in a certain sense, risking nothing of his own.

Defending deconstruction against this type of allegation could, inadvertently, also suggest a defence of the Jew. For Derrida, whose influence is beyond any reasonable doubt, did not pretend to the innocence of a victim. The ‘absolute victim’, he argued, is powerless to identify himself, even to himself. He bears no name, like Hannah Arendt’s stray dog, a metaphor for the plight of the refugee. As she put in in The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1951), ‘a dog with a name has a better chance of survival than a stray dog’. Or, if I may be permitted the extremity of the example, it has often been noted that, amongst the first to die in the concentration camps were those who they did not know when they were being called because they could not speak any German; they had no power of response, not even the power of saying: ‘Yes, it is me, I recognize myself in your address.’ In other words, the first moment in becoming responsible is the moment of being called and responding to the call: response-ability, quite literally. Whoever is not responsible, because not response-able, is the ‘absolute victim’ – he is the stranger, not because he wants to be as a theoretical choice, but because he is entirely estranged from the world in which he takes place.

It was also Hannah Arendt who stated, in her conversation with Gunter Gaus which appears inThe Portable Hannah Arendt (edited by Peter Baehr; New York: Penguin Books, 2000), that:

“If one is attacked as a Jew, one must defend oneself as a Jew. Not as a German, not as a world-citizen, not as an upholder of the Rights of Man, or whatever. But: What can I specifically do as a Jew?”

She was responding to her own first realization of a ‘Jewish identity’, which came from a less than desirable source:

“I did not know from my family that I was Jewish. My mother was completely a-religious . . . the word ‘Jew’ never came up when I was a small child. I first met up with it through antisemitic remarks.”

Arendt thus saw it as her absolute responsibility to identify with and defend the Jewishness with which others had sought to victimize her. Shylock’s famous defence – ‘Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?’ – would not be enough. Attacked as a Jew, it is as a Jew that one must defend oneself: one must speak out against the persecutor as the very Jew undergoing this specific persecution.

Responding as called, then, for Arendt, is the refusal to play the part of the victim. Whoevercan identify herself, can name herself, regardless of the evils perpetrated on her or in her name, she, in Arendt’s trenchant analysis, must take some responsibility. This didn’t win Arendt many friends in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust when she demanded accountability of a certain kind even from the victims. Responding as a Jew is already to deny a certain victimhood: it is to own that I have response-ability, that is, the ability to respond.

In which case, the desire to be no one and to stand nowhere, out of concern for justice, is perhaps a failure of responsibility; it perhaps assumes an even greater injustice than the one against which it would like to protest. Indeed, contrary to popular misconceptions, Derrida did not resist ethical responsibility. He responded to ‘his calling’ (and I intend here the spiritual sense of the word calling as well as the literal fact of being called by/a name). Derrida responded, as called, I would argue, precisely on behalf of those who have no power of response.

Arendt positioned the Jew as one who must answer to that name when called. Derrida, one could argue, expanded her argument to include the address not just of the persecutor but also of those in one’s own community who regard themselves as being on ‘one’s own side’. As such, one might reformulate Arendt’s position as follows: the other, whether friend or foe, decides who I am; the other names and calls me, and I must respond to the other as and when called.

Derrida spent his life and his career responding with great ambivalence to the names he was called – and particularly to the name Jew. Consider, for example, an event to which Derrida alludes at the end of his most autobiographical work, Circumfession (which forms part of Bennington and Derrida’s Jacques Derrida). He refers to a conference at the UCLA on The Final Solution and the Limits of Representation where some ‘young imbecile’ dares to ask, after the lecture, ‘what you [he] had done to save the Jews during the war’. The question insinuates an accusation: you, Derrida, who come here and speak on this grave and serious subject from the arrogant pulpit of philosophy, you yourself did not do enough to save the Jews during the war, did you?

This insinuation of an accusation by a younger generation towards its parent generation is doubly impertinent because Derrida has the best line of defence: he was Jewish during the war! he was the victim! He, it was, who needed saving: there was nothing he could do, the evil was visited upon him (even if not to the extent that it was visited upon the Jews in central Europe). But relating this episode with the ‘young imbecile’, Derrida is also forced to acknowledge the following:

“but though he may well not have known, until your reply, that you will have been Jewish, it recalls the fact that people might not know it still, you remain guilty of that, whence this announcement of  circumcision, perhaps you didn’t do enough to save the Jews, he may be right, you [I] always think the other is right.”

Note the way Derrida moves from a reaction of self-defence towards a position of responsibility. Annoyed at first by the young imbecile’s question or accusation, Derrida soon acknowledges its legitimacy because he understands that it is addressed to Derrida not as a Jew. He acknowledges that he has not announced or revealed his Jewishness publicly enough, he has not owned it and so may stand guilty as charged of not doing enough to ‘save the Jews’. For if he is only prepared to identify publicly as Jewish in these moments of pure defensiveness, when to be Jewish is to plead the case of the victim, then he fails to defend them at other times, by not speaking out in their name. Rejecting the imposition of this Jewish identity, only owning it here and now when it names the name of the victim who could do nothing, who was innocent, vulnerable, passive and defenceless, this puts Derrida on the side of the persecutor – the one who is not prepared to take on the responsibilities of being called, of having a place and a name. So Derrida confesses that: ‘I am ready to justify or even repeat the very thing I’m being accused of’ (and here the name Jew is represented as an accusation: he is accused of being Jewish just as he is accused of not doing enough to save the Jews). He goes on: ‘for after all . . . what else am I in truth, who am I if I am not what I inhabit and where I take place’? In this particular passage, then, Derrida is prepared to own his place – and the place he refers to is the place or position of the Jew.

It seems to me that Derrida’s ‘announcement of circumcision’, the hidden sign of the JewishAlliance with which he was indelibly marked, and which he had rejected as a child, indicates a new departure in the politics of identity. Derrida did not say, in the present tense, ‘I am Jewish’, because the name Jew remained, for him, the name of a secret whose meaning was always to come. But he did come to accept the name Jew as one name of his calling – responding to that call without ever claiming to be the thing he was called.

He followed that call wherever it took him, to a Jewish Library in Paris, Jewish Book Week in London, and even to Israel. Israel: the modern Israeli state, which, today, is surely the crux of the problem of identification and the ‘difficulty with belonging’ for the European Jewish intellectual. For the State of Israel has seemed to mark an end to the wanderings of the Jew and an end to the status of the Jew as solely the victim of history. But if one responds to the call of the other, and to the name one has been called, in order to reject the identity of the victim, then one must continue to respond to that name in the moments when it does not name the innocent, but in the moments when it names the guilty party. As Levinas says, the more responsible one is, the more guilty one is: the responsible person is one who bears the guilt. Which is why Derrida, a quintessentially Diaspora figure, did not pass over the responsibility for Israel.

Wanting to be in the place of the innocent, which is no place, that’s when one is really guilty – guilty of not responding when one has the ability to respond and bearing the guilt that comes with having a name and a place. But by taking responsibility for that name and place, by bearing that guilt, and by committing oneself to the future of both name and place, then one stands for, not only those in whose name one speaks (those who have the same name as I do), but for those who cannot speak or respond or answer for themselves.

Devorah Baum is researching European philosophy at Kings College, University of London.

About richardsh

Messianic Jewish teacher in UK
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1 Response to 15 July 1930, Birth of Jacques Derrida, Jewish philosopher, critic and postmodern deconstructionist #otdimjh

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