The Interpreters of Maladies
That now famous talk was titled "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," and it amounted to a direct and insouciant challenge to the eminent anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, whose theory of "structuralism" had cast a spell over French historians, sociologists, literary critics and philosophers with its vision of self-regulating, perfectly articulated structures of language, custom and politics. As Derrida pointed out, structuralism could explain brilliantly why systems survived, but not why they changed. Because they emphasized structure at the expense of play, Lévi-Strauss and his disciples could only "conceive of the origin of a new structure on the model of catastrophe." The idea of a structure with a center, he argued, merely "expresses the force of a desire." For Derrida, nothing in life is stable, nothing is impervious to the subversions of play--not political systems, not language, not meaning itself.
Derrida took play seriously; it was a synonym, really, for the unexpected reversals of history with which he was intimately acquainted. Even at his most somber, this spirit infused Derrida's work, whether he was writing on Plato, Heidegger, Stéphane Mallarmé, Freud, Artaud or the American Declaration of Independence. In his writing he developed a voice as original as Jean-Luc Godard's--alternately inspired and maddening, animated by a similarly Joycean predilection for puns and collages of association, and a melancholy fascination with specters of the past that haunt the present, or "traces," as Derrida called them. The two men also shared an interest in the French-Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, whose ruminations on the dialectic of Self and Other figure prominently in Godard's latest film, Notre Musique, a beautifully fractured meditation on the wars in Bosnia and Israel-Palestine.
Derrida's undisguised delight in play led him to be accused of the sins of "relativism" and "nihilism." In fact, he had a high regard for truth and for the protocols of scholarship. If he sought to shake the certainties of philosophy, it was not out of a sense of nihilism, or even anarchist mischief, but rather a principled distrust of orthodoxies. Humility about the limits of our knowledge is among the central lessons one draws from Derrida, who, by all accounts, was a deeply modest, generous and fragile man, haunted throughout his life by a sense of his own mortality. In a touching interview published a few months before his death from pancreatic cancer, Derrida told Jean Birnbaum of Le Monde that "to do philosophy is to learn how to die.... I believe in this truth without having surrendered to it.... I haven't learned to accept death."
Another charge that stalked Derrida throughout his career was that he was an enemy of the Enlightenment, indeed of reason itself, and that deconstruction was a sinister anti-Western doctrine. It is true, of course, that Derrida lambasted the philosophical tradition for having marginalized "women, children, animals and slaves." In a 1974 essay, he notoriously described metaphysics as a "white mythology which reassembles and reflects the culture of the West," a mythology "the white man takes...for the universal form of...Reason." Deconstruction was, he proudly declared, "a gesture of distrust with respect to Eurocentrism," as well as to "phallogocentrism."
Not surprisingly, feminist and post-colonial literary critics drew inspiration from Derrida's critique of "white mythologies." More often than not, however, they overlooked the profound tribute his work paid to the Western canon; his distrust was that of a lover, not a prosecutor. As Derrida pointed out, "even when [deconstruction] is directed against something European, it is European.... Since the Enlightenment, Europe has always criticized itself, and in this perfectible heritage, there is a chance for the future." In an age of uncontested American dominance, he said in one of his last interviews, Europe "has responsibilities to assume, for the future of humanity, for that of international law--that is my faith, my belief." Among these responsibilities, he argued, was the creation of a European army independent of NATO, "neither offensive nor defensive nor preventive," that "would intervene without delay in the service of resolutions finally respected by a new UN (for example, in all urgency, in Israel, but also elsewhere)."
In his political commitments, he displayed the same rigorous skepticism that defined his writing. While he spoke out on behalf of the oppressed--Czechs under Stalinism, South Africans under apartheid, Palestinians under occupation, Algerians under military rule--he kept his distance from political parties and never glorified "revolutionary" states or exalted political violence, unlike many French intellectuals of his generation, notably his colleague and rival Michel Foucault. And, as he affirmed his fundamental attachment to the ideals of the Enlightenment late in his career, he came around to the view that some things could not be deconstructed, among them friendship, justice and--though he was not a believer--the "name of God," a metaphor for "the unconditional," and for the promise of redemption. As he explained: "We are by nature messianic. We cannot not be, because we exist in a state of expecting something to happen. Even if we're in a state of hopelessness, a sense of expectation is an integral part of our relationship to time."
This sense of expectation, he said, was not faith-based, and
does not belong to any determined religion. The conflict with Iraq involved numerous religious elements, from all sides--from the Christian side as well as from the Muslim side. What I call messianicity without messianism is a call, a promise of an independent future for what is to come, and which comes like every messiah in the shape of peace and justice, a promise independent of religion, that is to say universal. A promise independent of the three religions when they oppose each other, since in fact it is a war between three Abrahamic religions. A promise beyond the Abrahamic religions, universal, without relation to revelations or to the history of religions."
Amen, Jackie, and adieu.