On October 10, the New York Times published a front-page obituary for French philosopher Jacques Derrida. The headline, “Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies in Paris at 74,” was a tip-off to anyone familiar with US press coverage of the seminal thinker that the piece was not going to be an affectionate homage to the man whom Jacques Chirac called “one of the major figures in the intellectual life of our time.” Yet even though American papers had scorned and trivialized Derrida before, the tone seemed particularly caustic for an obituary of an internationally acclaimed philosopher who had profoundly influenced two generations of American humanities scholars.
The writer, Jonathan Kandell, did not conceal his disdain for Derrida’s style of philosophical inquiry, popularly known as “deconstruction.” Derrida had advanced deconstruction as a challenge to unquestioned assumptions of the Western philosophical tradition. He described it modestly as a “gesture of distrust” toward prevailing notions. Kandell, on the other hand, suggested that it amounted to a no-holds-barred attack on truth and meaning.
Kandell’s obit provoked an uproar among Derrida’s American admirers. Professors at the University of California, Irvine, where Derrida had lectured for years, were indignant about what they viewed as an irresponsible assault on complex thought at a time when the manichean worldview emanating from the White House encouraged “black and white thinking.” Kandell had, in fact, resurrected an old, bitter dispute over Derrida’s influence and legacy among American intellectuals. The vilification of deconstruction dates back to the culture wars of the 1980s. Conservatives pilloried deconstruction as a campaign against all that they held sacred: standards, tradition, Western civilization, the classics and truth.
At that time, the right was waging a battle against the influence of “tenured radicals,” as neoconservative Roger Kimball put it in a screed published in Commentary in June 1990. Derrida came in for particularly harsh criticism from Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind and Lynne Cheney in Telling the Truth. The term “deconstruction,” along with “postmodernism,” provided a handy way to link all of the objectionable “isms” infecting the academy; by identifying it with radical feminism, multiculturalism and even Marxism, so-called cultural conservatives could stigmatize all of these intellectual currents in a single stroke and scold the whole gamut of dangerous innovators.
Ironically, the American left was often no more enamored of Derrida than the right. Although Derrida had always been a man of the left–a tireless critic of South African apartheid and the death penalty, an opponent of totalitarianism and racism–many American leftists faulted him for what they saw as an insufficiently firm commitment to truth. Some of their criticism was similar to what was coming from the right. They argued that deconstruction made it impossible to develop a principled political philosophy with its stress on constantly questioning the basis of ethical judgment.
Chastisements of deconstruction reached a climax in 1987, with the “de Man affair.” A young Belgian researcher named Ortwin de Graef discovered anti-Semitic articles written by the Yale literature professor Paul de Man in 1941 and 1942 during his youth under the German occupation of Belgium for two collaborationist journals. De Man, who had died four years earlier, had been Derrida’s close friend and the most prominent American exponent of deconstruction.
In the Times, Kandell referred to Derrida’s “contortionist defense of his old friend,” insinuating that Derrida had exculpated de Man in a speech he delivered at a University of Alabama colloquium shortly after the affair was publicized. While the speech has often been misconstrued as an apologia for de Man’s wartime journalism, Derrida did not condone his friend’s youthful writings, but rather tried to rescue de Man’s later work. As disturbing as de Man’s complicity was, Derrida argued, his contributions to literary theory and philosophy could not be dismissed, much less tarred with the brush of anti-Semitism, because of writings from almost half a century earlier. Derrida’s opponents accused him of trying to “deconstruct” the articles to demonstrate that they were not anti-Semitic and berated him as an apologist.
The de Man affair fueled the hostility of Derrida’s most vociferous critics, notably David Lehman in his book Signs of the Times, who bemoaned what he argued was de Man’s exploitation of deconstruction’s dangerously elastic conception of truth, suggesting that the appeal of deconstruction for de Man might have been precisely its pliable, permissive attitude toward truth, which allowed him to evade culpability for his youthful affiliations.
Around the same time as the de Man debacle, to make matters worse, a book by Victor Farias came out in France documenting the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s notorious 1930s membership in the Nazi Party. The book sparked debate about Heidegger’s influence on Derrida, helping bolster the charge that deconstruction was soft on anti-Semitism.
Kandell reiterated such recriminations as points of fact. Never mind that Derrida, a French-Algerian Jew who was expelled from school at the age of 10 because of anti-Semitic laws, had written numerous essays on Jewish identity and the impact of the Holocaust in the work of writers like Paul Celan and Edmund Jabès. Or that in 1989 Derrida asserted that de Man’s wartime writings demonstrated “an alliance with what has always been for me the very worst.” As for Heidegger, it would be hard to find a significant Jewish philosopher since his 1927 opus Being and Time who was not in some way influenced by him, among them Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse and Emmanuel Levinas.
Kandell’s rehashing of old affronts against deconstruction glossed over critical complexities and left little room for comment on any of Derrida’s most important work after the de Man affair, when he made a strenuous effort to become more lucid about his political and philosophical affiliations, meditating on ethics, justice, democracy and the legacy of the Enlightenment.
In his last years, he even forged a rapprochement with his former adversary, the German Kantian philosopher Jürgen Habermas, and collaborated with him on a document published in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung calling for “the rebirth of Europe” with “new responsibilities beyond all Eurocentrism,” such as bringing about the “effective transformation of international law and its institutions” in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks and two US invasions.
Sadly, Kandell’s obituary, mired in old debates and echoing only those who had maligned Derrida, overlooked the most recent expressions of his thought, which were also the most relevant and pressing.