Saturday, October 09, 2004

Death and Writing

Jacques Derrida: 1930-2004

The headline of Derrida's obituary in Le Monde was typically restrained and factual, nearly to the point of dismissal:

Jacques Derrida était le philosophe français le plus connu à l'étranger, notamment aux Etats-Unis, pour son concept de "déconstruction".

A French philosopher, albeit one who had been particularly famous in the United States and had even been somewhat controversial, had died of pancreatic cancer at 74, after writing many books, marrying, fathering children, appearing on television, partnering for a time with Lionel Jospin, etc.

Obituaries necessarily deal in the past tense, but it remains astonishing how the beginning of the sentence -- "Jacques Derrida était" -- declares its own finality from the outset, as though the past had already been declared, the death contained in the birth, life, and action of the man now dead, now joined to adjectives by an imperfect copula. Derrida saw the assembly of two archives of his papers and materials before his death, one in Paris and another in Irving, California -- it was as though he had already been placed in the past, closed, understood. His obituary had been written in 1989, and occasionally kept warm -- that is to say, re-presenced. The time is out of joint -- or if one prefers Marlowe to Shakespeare:

Thou hast commited --- deconstruction.
But that was in another country,
And now, Derrida is dead.

What "was" deconstruction? Wouldn't a wire service reporter have to embarass themselves in trying to explain what kind of philosophy Derrida practiced? Wouldn't I? I can tell you that Derrida's arguments hinged on the idea of impossibility -- the impossibility of entirely ridding oneself of metaphysical presuppositions, the impossibility of a purely philosophical language, the impossibility of purity as such.

After arguing that so many philosophers' praxis continually contaminates their theoretical commitments, is it surprising that he refused to found a school or definitively state a body of beliefs, instead choosing to practice his new way of reading on philosophical, literary, linguistic, and anthropological texts alike, showing how these works effectively "deconstructed" themselves, especially when faced with foundational oppositions: speech and writing, absence and presence, the same and the other. He coupled intellectual rigor with a style that blended scholarly erudtion with writerly spontaneity, and his remarkable mystery made him a superstar for doing so.

While I've argued for Derrida's continued presence -- a ghostly presence through absence, as the ghosts of Ibsen or Joyce testified to the continued domination of the present by the past, seen in his photograph, which continues to materially and iconically bear his trace beyond his own destruction -- there is one sentence in Le Monde that does decisively work to close the past which we, its inheritors, still inhabit:

Il était le dernier survivant de ces penseurs des années 60, catalogués "penseurs de 68", (Althusser, Lacan, Foucault, Barthes, Deleuze, etc..), grands pourfendeurs de la notion de "sujet".

How can one have been the last survivor (le dernier survivant)? And yet yesterday, one could have said "Derrida is the last surviving thinker of the 60s, called 'thinkers of 68.'" Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes (who wrote "The Death of the Author" shortly after Derrida published his first books), and Gilles Deleuze have all died. And now Derrida, who was a famous French philosopher, the last survivor of the life and death of literary theory, is nothing. Il était.

1 comment:

Tim said...

The New York Times comes closest to getting it right: