Derrida's Wake

When last weekend's conference at Cardozo Law was first announced, the title was given simply as "Derrida/America." Only while standing in the lobby did I learn the subtitle, "The Present State of America's Europe," from the official brochure containing the final schedule. The original title had been nagging away at my memory for several days.

February 24, 2005

When last weekend's conference at Cardozo Law was first announced, the title was given simply as "Derrida/America." Only while standing in the lobby did I learn the subtitle, "The Present State of America's Europe," from the official brochure containing the final schedule. The original title had been nagging away at my memory for several days. It conjured up echoes from (roughly) the first Reagan administration -- the time when, as a somewhat pushy adolescent culture vulture, I began auditing graduate courses in English and comp lit.

It wasn't just a punctuation mark, used oddly. (Your sense of appropriate punctuation was the first thing to change, in theory boot camp.) That slash between "Derrida" and "America" was a borderline .... an unreadable signifier of connection and separation ... marking the difference yet also erasing it .... And so on. We learned to prize such moments, when the text deconstructed itself.

At least in his work from the late 1960s and early '70s, Derrida had referred to the "hinge" between terms in a metaphysical opposition -- between, say, appearance and essence. By the time it was assimilated into American literary study, the philosophical nuances had been cut back in the interests of classroom exposition. You'd track down some plausible equivalent of a metaphysical opposition in a literary text. In a pinch, the distinction between literal and metaphorical meaning would do. Then you'd find the border or hinge between them. (I can't quite describe how this was done; it's like riding a bike, you just know when you've done it.)

Taking that "hinge" firmly in hand, you would flip the opposition, unleashing complexities aplenty. And then -- whoa! The implications spiraled out of control. It could leave you breathless. (I have some dim recollection of writing a paper on Hawthorne's preface to The Scarlet Letter that left it sounding slightly more experimental than Finnegans Wake.) Afterwards, it sometimes felt as if you had successfully overthrown the entire history of Western thought from Plato to NATO, even if your knowledge of that history were not so profound.

After a while, though, the entire enterprise began to prove all too predictable. It felt like a technique for building your very own abyss from a prepackaged kit, manufactured in New Haven. Sometime around the start of the second Reagan administration, I found better things to do -- for example, studying the thinkers Derrida himself had been reading, but also getting arrested in protests against American foreign policy. (The latter seemed more urgent and worrisome than Hawthorne's aesthetic ideology.) Today, no journal publishes the sort of deconstructive literary analyses that the Yale critics once produced. It is hard to imagine why anyone would, except as an exercise in nostalgia.

As it happens, Derrida himself became somewhat put out with the initial reception (and domestication) of his work by literature departments. As early as 1980, he referred to deconstruction as "a word that I have never liked, and whose fortune has disagreeably surprised me." He insisted that his work had consequences not only for the reading of literary or philosophical texts, but for understanding and changing institutions -- in particular, scholarly institutions.

Anyone curious about the implications of deconstructive thought for academic administration might take a look at Derrida's lectures and memos in Eyes of the University, published last year by Stanford University Press. "I believe," he announces, "in the indestructability of the ordered procedures of legitimation, of the production of titles and diplomas, and of the authorization of competence." (I do believe some conservatives owe Derrida an apology.)

Derrida's effort to push his thinking beyond the university -- and past the boundary lines of contemporary politics -- reached its end in a book called Voyous, the last major work to appear in his lifetime. It has just been published in translation as Rogues, also from Stanford. Simplifying somewhat, you could call Rogues a book about democratic globalization. Or rather, about what Derrida calls "the democracy to come" -- a notion both infinitely hopeful and endlessly problematic.

Certainly there is more to it than a faith that democracy will steadily spread across the globe, deepening and strengthening itself as it goes. Derrida was never interested in futurology. And if he is a prophet, it is only in the most ironic of religious senses. In speaking of "democracy to come," he was posing a subtle but powerful question -- asking, in effect, "What will democracy have meant, when we can begin to think about it, one day, in a democratic world?"

The problem, first of all, is that the philosophical tradition is by no means an abundant source of concepts for thinking about democracy. Down the ages, it was often understood in nightmarish terms. A democracy would be a state run by the lowest denominator. At best, "rule by the people" is conceived as a high ideal. "We do not yet know what we have inherited," writes Derrida. "We are the legatees of this Greek word and of what it assigns to us, enjoins us, bequeaths or leaves us." Yet, he also writes "we ourselves do not know the meaning of this legacy." We make haste to pass the notion of democracy on, without looking too closely as its demands.

The root difficulty, according to Derrida, is that we cannot think about democracy without dragging in another concept, sovereignty. "These two principles," he writes, "are at the same time, but also by turns, inseparable from one another."

Why is that a problem?

Well, the concept of sovereignty (that is, authority and domination over a discrete territory) has survived from the era of monarchy. Under democracy, "the people" replace the king as sovereign. But the structure remains at least potentially authoritarian. For one thing, defining "the people" is anything but a semantic issue: Even a multiethnic democratic state can be gripped by the passions of xenophobic exclusion.

At the same time, the very notion of sovereignty implies the use of force. The borders of a sovereign state are ultimately backed up by the power to wage war in their defense.

The internal contradictions create what Derrida calls political "autoimmunity" -- the tendency of sovereign power to turn on democratic rights, in the name of democratic principles.

These tendencies go into overdrive with the emergence of even the most rudimentary forms of an international democratic order. Derrida looks at the role played by the concept of the "rogue state" since the fall of the Soviet Union. Regimes have been so designated, almost always by the United States, on the grounds of "supposed failings with regard to either the spirit or the letter of international law, a law that claims to be fundamentally democratic." While calling on the United Nations to respond to such regimes, the United States has been willing to ignore international law and agreemends endorsed by most countries in the world.

Derrida does not hesitate to call the U.S. one of "the most perverse, the most violent, the most destructive of rogue states." He is also pretty harsh on the United Nations Security Council. And as if all that were not bad enough, a new species of political agent has appeared on the world stage: the transnational network, making no bid to establish traditional forms of sovereignty, yet possessing (or seeking) the power to kill on scale equivalent to that of any state, "rogue" or otherwise.

A book of questions, then, and not of answers. Derrida was swift to open parenthetical arguments, nestling them one inside the other -- and ending them, far too often, with an ellipse.... Rogues does not feel like his last word on anything; rather, it seems to have been the opening stage of a project that remains unfinished.

A few people cited Rogues during the gathering at Cardozo, but usually in passing. It will take time to assimilate. And for that matter, there will be more from Derrida. Besides thousands of pages of unpublished seminars, there are stray texts, such as a chapter that he added to the manuscript of his book The Gift of Death after it appeared in English ten years ago. Adam Kotsko, a graduate student at the Chicago Theological Seminary, is now completing a translation of the chapter and writing an essay on it.

Kotsko wasn't at the Cardozo event, but a few days beforehand did attend a symposium on Derrida at Northwestern. He took time out to tell me, by e-mail, about the material he's translating. It moves, he says, between Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, the Book of Genesis, and Kafka's "Letter to His Father." "Derrida argues that pardon and literature are intrinsically linked and that the modern Western institution of literature has Abrahamic roots," Kotsko told me. "He concludes by connecting both literature and pardon to the democracy to come."

Reading that, I felt a little bit like Jean Hippolyte, who was Derrida's first thesis advisor (a task interrupted by his death in 1968). After a conference at Johns Hopkins in 1966 where Derrida first presented his work to an American audience, Hippolyte told him, "I really do not see where you are going."

But then, the younger philosopher had a perfectly good reply. "If I clearly saw ahead of me where I was going," Derrida said, "I really don't believe that I would take another step to get there."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top