Not a Book Review: “An Event, Perhaps A Biography of Jacques Derrida”

“I have only one language and it is not my own.” Jacques Derrida

Peter Salmon, an Australian novelist, has written a brilliant biography on French philosopher Jacques Derrida, aptly titled “An Event, Perhaps A Biography of Jacques Derrida.” In philosophy, the word Event has a particular significance. An Event is considered an occurrence that shatters ordinary life, a radical rupture in the usual flow of things, a transformation of reality, a religious belief, or the rise of a new paradigm of thought.

In this sense, Derrida’s life was Eventful.

Derrida was born in Algeria, then a French colony, to Jewish parents. As a refuge in France, he had a difficult childhood. On his first day of high school, in 1942, the government of France imposed new Jewish quotas on school attendance in Algeria. It led to Derrida being expelled from the school. This would be the first of many events that will mark Derrida’s life. The experience of exclusion will become the grounding gesture of Derrida’s philosophy. It is no surprise that identity is never given or attained for Derrida, “only the interminable and indefinitely phantasmic process of identification remains.”

Another major event occurred in October 1966. A 36-year-old philosophy tutor took to the stage at a conference on Structuralism at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, entitled “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man.”

The conference was a colossal intellectual event, bringing together over 100 philosophers, literary critics, sociologists, anthropologists, psychoanalysts and cultural theorists from different countries. Some of the big names included:  Roland Barthes, Jean Hippolyte, Hans Georg Gadamer, Northrop Frye, Tzvetan Todorov and Jacques Lacan. The conference was meant to introduce the American audience to the philosophy of Structuralism, which was slowly eclipsing existentialism, the most important intellectual movement of the time.

Derrida was barely known at this point, so it is no surprise that he was not on the original guest list. He received invitation only when the Belgian anthropologist Luc de Heusch was unable to attend. The organisers were desperately seeking someone to fill the empty slot on the final night of the conference. Jean Hippolyte suggested his former student Derrida as a second thought, “I think he would be somebody who would come.” Derrida prepared a paper titled “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” Derrida’s paper was less than usual. In Salmon’s words, “no one could have guessed that he had come not to praise structuralism but to bury it, and, according to some, to bury with it the very foundations of philosophy.”

Derrida noticed that all structures or systems orient themselves through a centre that fixes or holds the structure in place (God in the medieval feudal hierarchy as a central force). The centre is conceived as providing the reason (logos) of the structure. It is the nodal point to which everything ultimately referred to, which lent the system its closure. And, further, this centre is associated with the fullness of presence, of being, of positivity, of essence, of being something. Derrida was not there to celebrate the superiority of Structuralism but to undermine it.  He offered a critique of this practice of centering from within.

According to Derrida, since its inception, Structuralism was an attack and criticism of metaphysics on one hand and science on another. Science was a predominant way of acquiring knowledge in the West. Structuralism began as a critique of the assumption behind science as well as metaphysics or religion. But what Derrida questioned was how come the same assumptions we find in metaphysics and science are also operative in Structuralism? Derrida highlights that, on the one hand, Structuralism is a critique of science and metaphysics. On the other hand, it uses the same assumptions which it claims to reject.

There was no shortage of response. The New York Times reported that Derrida had “shocked his audience”. He had made a mockery of a symposium created to introduce Structuralism to America. He had destroyed its very foundations. The Belgian literary critic Georges Poulet told J. Hillis Miller, the Professor Emeritus of English at Johns Hopkins, “I have just heard the most important lecture of the conference – it’s against everything that I do, but it was the most important lecture.” As Miller notes, “It was an extraordinary piece of prophetic insight … I don’t think the historical importance of that conference has been exaggerated.”

The Baltimore conference was a radical rupture in the usual flow of things, an Event par excellence.

There was another event at the University of Cambridge on May 16 where a ballot counted on whether Derrida should be allowed to go forward to receive an honorary degree. Salmon notes that Cambridge academics reacted with outrage to a proposed honorary degree from their venerable institution to Jacques Derrida. In a letter to the Times from 14 international philosophers protested, “Derrida’s work does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour.” This was hardly surprising, considering analytical philosophy has mainly been opposed to its continental counterpart, subjecting it to the charges of obfuscation and sophistry. However, as Salmon points out brilliantly, the irony is that “none of them had taken the time to read any of Derrida’s work.”

On another interesting note, It is widely considered that Derrida is not easy to ready. His writing is dense and, at times, obscure. It was no different in the high school where his examiner noted: “The answers are brilliant in the very same way that they are obscure.” Similarly, his work as an undergraduate was no easier to decipher either. When Derrida submitted his dissertation, his examiner Louis Althusser said: “I can’t grade this, it’s too difficult, too obscure.” So he decided to pass it on to a friend, an assistant professor – Michel Foucault. Derrida had previously attended Foucault’s lectures, identifying him as “this ‘charismatic’ young man,” only four years older than himself. Foucault found Derrida’s dissertation ‘really upsetting.’ After reading the dissertation, Foucault said to him, ‘Well, it’s either an F or an A+.’

I think in this book, Salmon does a commendable job of explaining Derrida’s thinking and providing a framework for understanding the development of his ideas. 

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