Jacques Derrida by Judith Butler
‘How do you finally respond to your life and your name?’ Derrida raised this question in his final interview with Le Monde, published on 18 August this year. If he could apprehend his life, he remarked, he would also be obliged to apprehend his death as singular and absolute, without resurrection and without redemption. At this revealing moment, it is interesting that Derrida the philosopher should find in Socrates his proper precursor: that he should turn to Socrates to understand that, at the age of 74, he still did not quite know how best to live. One cannot, he remarks, come to terms with one’s life without trying to apprehend one’s death, asking, in effect, how a human learns to live and to die. Much of Derrida’s later work is dedicated to mourning, and he offers his acts of public mourning as posthumous gifts. In The Work of Mourning (2001), he tries to come to terms with the deaths of other writers and thinkers through reckoning his debt to their words, indeed, their texts; his own writing constitutes an act of mourning, one that he is perhaps, avant la lettre, recommending to us as a way to begin to mourn this thinker, who not only taught us how to read, but gave the act of reading a new significance and a new promise. In that book, he openly mourns Roland Barthes, who died in 1980, Paul de Man, who died in 1983, Michel Foucault, who died in 1984, and a host of others, including Edmund Jabès (1991), Louis Marin (1992), Sarah Kofman (1994), Emmanuel Levinas (1995) and Jean-François Lyotard (1998). In the last of these essays, for Lyotard, it is not his own death that preoccupies him, but rather his ‘debts’. These are authors that he could not do without, ones with and through whom he thinks. He writes only because he reads, and he reads only because there are these authors to read time and again. He ‘owes’ them something or, perhaps, everything, if only because he could not write without them: their writing exists as the precondition of his own; their writing constitutes the means through which his own writing voice is animated and secured, a voice that emerges, importantly, as an address.
In October 1993, when I shared a stage with Derrida at New York University, I had a brief, private conversation with him that touched on these issues. I could see in him a certain urgency to acknowledge those many people who had translated him, those who had read him, those who had defended him in public debate, and those who had made good use of his thinking and his words. I leaned over and asked whether he felt that he had many debts to pay. I was hoping to suggest to him that he need not feel so indebted, thinking as I did in a perhaps naively Nietzschean way that the debt was a form of enslavement: did he not see that what others offered him, they offered freely? He seemed not to be able to hear me in English. And so when I said ‘your debts’, he said: ‘My death?’ ‘No,’ I reiterated, ‘your debts!’ and he said: ‘My death!?’ At this point I could see that there was a link between the two, one that my efforts at clear pronunciation could not quite pierce, but it was not until I read his later work that I came to understand how important that link really was. ‘There come moments,’ he writes, ‘when, as mourning demands [deuil oblige], one feels obligated to declare one’s debts. We feel it our duty to say what we owe to friends.’ He cautions against ‘saying’ the debt and imagining that one might then be done with it. He acknowledges instead the ‘incalculable debt’ that one does not want to pay: ‘I am conscious of this and want it thus.’ He ends his essay on Lyotard with a direct address: ‘There it is, Jean-François, this is what, I tell myself, I today would have wanted to try and tell you.’ There is in that attempt, that essai, a longing that cannot reach the one to whom it is addressed, but does not for that reason forfeit itself as longing. The act of mourning thus becomes a continued way of ‘speaking to’ the other who is gone, even though the other is gone, in spite of the fact that the other is gone, precisely because that other is gone. We now must say ‘Jacques’ to name the one we have lost, and in that sense ‘Jacques Derrida’ becomes the name of our loss. Yet we must continue to say his name, not only to mark his passing, but because he is the one we continue to address in what we write; because it is, for many of us, impossible to write without relying on him, without thinking with and through him. ‘Jacques Derrida’, then, as the name for the future of what we write.
It is surely uncontroversial to say that Jacques Derrida was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century; his international reputation far exceeds that of any other French intellectual of his generation. More than that, his work fundamentally changed the way in which we think about language, philosophy, aesthetics, painting, literature, communication, ethics and politics. His early work criticised the structuralist presumption that language could be described as a static set of rules, and he showed how those rules admitted of contingency and were dependent on a temporality that could undermine their efficacy. He wrote against philosophical positions that uncritically subscribed to ‘totality’ or ‘systematicity’ as values, without first considering the alternatives that were ruled out by that pre-emptive valorisation. He insisted that the act of reading extends from literary texts to films, to works of art, to popular culture, to political scenarios, and to philosophy itself. This notion of ‘reading’ insists that our ability to understand relies on our capacity to interpret signs. It also presupposes that signs come to signify in ways that no particular author or speaker can constrain in advance through intention. This does not mean that language always confounds our intentions, but only that our intentions do not fully govern everything we end up meaning by what we say and write.
Derrida’s work moved from a criticism of philosophical presumptions in groundbreaking books such as Of Grammatology (1967), Writing and Difference (1967), Dissemination (1972), Spurs (1978) and The Post Card (1980), to the question of how to theorise the problem of ‘difference’. This term he wrote as ‘différance’, not only to mark the way that signification works – one term referring to another, always relying on a deferral of meaning between signifier and signified – but also to characterise an ethical relation, the relation of sexual difference, and the relation to the Other. If some readers thought that Derrida was a linguistic constructivist, they missed the fact that the name we have for something, for ourselves, for an other, is precisely what fails to capture the referent (as opposed to making or constructing it).
He drew critically on the work of Emmanuel Levinas in order to insist on the Other as one to whom an incalculable responsibility is owed, one who could never fully be ‘captured’ through social categories or designative names, one to whom a certain response is owed. This conception became the basis of his strenuous critique of apartheid in South Africa, his vigilant opposition to totalitarian regimes and forms of intellectual censorship, his theorisation of the nation-state beyond the hold of territoriality, his opposition to European racism, and his criticism of the discourse of ‘terror’ as it worked to increase governmental powers that undermine basic human rights. This political ethic can be seen at work in his defence of animal rights, in his opposition to the death penalty, and even in his queries about ‘being’ Jewish and what it means to offer hospitality to those of differing origins and language.
Derrida made clear in his short book on Walter Benjamin, The Force of Law (1994), that justice was a concept that was yet to come. This does not mean that we cannot expect instances of justice in this life, and it does not mean that justice will arrive for us only in another life. He was clear that there was no other life. It means only that, as an ideal, it is that towards which we strive, without end. Not to strive for justice because it cannot be fully realised would be as mistaken as believing that one has already arrived at justice and that the only task is to arm oneself adequately to fortify its regime. The first is a form of nihilism (which he opposed) and the second is dogmatism (which he opposed). Derrida kept us alive to the practice of criticism, understanding that social and political transformation was an incessant project, one that could not be relinquished, one that was coextensive with the becoming of life and the encounter with the Other, one that required a reading of the rules by means of which a polity constitutes itself through exclusion or effacement. How is justice done? What justice do we owe others? And what does it mean to act in the name of justice? These were questions that had to be asked regardless of the consequences, and this meant that they were often questions asked when established authorities wished that they were not.
If his critics worried that, with Derrida, there are no foundations on which one could rely, they doubtless were mistaken. Derrida relies perhaps most assiduously on Socrates, on a mode of philosophical inquiry that took the question as the most honest and arduous form of thought. ‘How do you finally respond to your life and to your name?’ This question is posed by him to himself, and yet he is, in this interview, a ‘tu’ for himself, as if he were a proximate friend, but not quite a ‘moi’. He has taken himself as the other, modelling a form of reflexivity, asking whether an account can be given of this life, and of this death. Is there justice to be done to a life? That he asks the question is exemplary, perhaps even foundational, since it keeps the final meaning of that life and that name open. It prescribes a ceaseless task of honouring what cannot be possessed through knowledge, what in a life exceeds our grasp. Indeed, now that Derrida, the person, has died, his writing makes a demand on us. We must address him as he addressed himself, asking what it means to know and approach another, to apprehend a life and a death, to give an account of its meaning, to acknowledge its binding ties with others, and to do that justly. In this way, Derrida has always been offering us a way to interrogate the meaning of our lives, singly and plurally, returning to the question as the beginning of philosophy, but surely also, in his own way, and with several unpayable debts, beginning philosophy again and anew.