“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]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hélène Cixous is one of today’s best-known feminist theorists and author ofComing to Writing and Other Essays, The 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.
JACQUES DERRIDA’S LIFE AS AN ALGERIAN JEW REVEALED IN NEWLY TRANSLATED BIO
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