Derrida

Jacques Derrida died last weekend. Polite French journalese will refer to "sa disparition," his disappearance. If I were a "deconstructionist," this would be the moment to reflect on the words disappearance and appearance. We only say someone has disappeared, we do not speak of his life as an appearance, but this is what is implied by someone's disappearance.

An Autothanotography

photo by Steve Pyke. Image via.

Jacques Derrida died last weekend. Polite French journalese will refer to “sa disparition,” his disappearance. Now, if I were a “deconstructionist,” this would be the moment to reflect on the words disappearance and appearance. We only say someone has disappeared, we do not speak of his life as an appearance, but yet this is what is implied by someone’s disappearance. He was, at one point, present, here, appearing, now he has disappeared. But everyday French language only has the negative without the positive. There is not first, in the order of things, something called appearance and then something called disappearance which happens later. There is always the trace of disappearance inside of every appearance, absence within presence.

But now is not the time to play with appearance and disappearance. And I am not a deconstructionist. Now is also not the time to wonder playfully whether “Derrida” died last weekend, or many weekends ago. Maybe it was 1987, when the Heidegger controversy and Paul deMan’s collaborationist wartime journalism resulted in a campaign to smear Derrida by association, permanently damaging his reputation in the United States. Maybe it was when he agreed to appear in that documentary two years ago, willing to be his own celluloid caricature. Or, no matter how reluctantly, when he posed “en intéllo” for Steve Pyke’s photograph, the mass reproduced postcard version stuck up in my study. We all know that newspapers keep obituary files in data storage, ready to rush into print. To judge from the Times’ particularly sneering and petty obit, highlighting how many times Derrida failed his baccalaureat exam and his inability to explain his philosophy in a single soundbite in a long-ago magazine profile, “Derrida” had been dead and buried in the American press for a while. We were only waiting for the definitive announcement from the French president’s office.

But now isn’t the time for such games. To do so would be disingenuous and accede too quickly to one of the charges often leveled against “Deconstruction”: sophistry, a fondness for the play of rhetoric and metaphor over truth, facts, and history. The charge, never just or fair though leveled by vocal supporters of justice and fairness, ignored that Deconstructionists were incredibly wary of saying aloud that they’d discovered a truth for fear that they’d uncovered another metaphor. The conviction that all was metaphor or trope could grow into arrogance, but more often bred a dull hesitancy about concluding. Old school literary critics always understood this, and so warned against Deconstruction as a school of resentment and its hermeneutics of suspicion. Neither poetry nor ‘hard’ philosophy, sharing aspects of both, Deconstruction is loved by neither.


A man’s death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 74 will not change any of this nor resolve old disputes. Death is not a metaphor, although there certainly exists a powerful rhetoric of death and nothing calls up rhetorical excess like death. And yet I want to mourn Derrida in a way that I’ve never felt about public figures or writers. I want to make hyperbolic claims about the end of an era: the last great generation of intellectuals, Derrida and Edward Said in the last year. They are passing. We couldn’t grasp them when they lived. Will we even bother now they’re dead? That’s a selfish fear behind an odd sentiment. Does complexity matter? And to whom? Especially now when we prefer certainty, loyalty, iterability, and information (preferably the kind that confirms what we know already), when Bernard Lewis and Bernard Henri Levy are the house intellectuals of choice? How good those two must feel to know that they’ve at least lived long enough to see their ideological enemies buried.

Only an American would pair Said and Derrida as representatives of a hope for the future of thinking and education that was always more than just fashionable theory, although fashion itself is a decayed form of hope. The fashion for theory and the words “Orientalism” and “Deconstruction” was as much a result of intelligent, angry and alienated Americans fastening on to a promise without quite grasping the training and the commitment to lonely thinking through a fixed tradition required to make it a reality. Despite its rapid politicization, “theory” in America or la pensée 68 in France, was not going to change the world (if by world we mean government). Theory, however, could and did change individual lives. Briefly, it redeemed difficulty and especially a discomfort some people felt intuitively about subject and object, language and self. Those people who felt they stood on shaky foundations suddenly had a home for their native anti-foundationalism. They too could become theorists. Think of it as a job creation program for all intellectual nerds, outcasts and misfits, people whose kind of intelligence meant that they weren’t even comfortable around most other intelligent people. The betrayal by the American system of higher education of those who’d enrolled enthusiastically in these job placement programs is a sad but minor footnote to the history of the 1990s. I don’t mean the dwindling number of jobs for French, German, and philosophy PhDs or the corporatization of the University, although that’s part of it. The betrayal began before, when those who showed glimmers of interest in theory were led to think that their curiosity would be nurtured into knowledge by a series of occasional course offerings and visiting instructors who rarely stayed long enough to ground a program. Instead of finding themselves in an academy, however, these students found themselves in the agora, fighting for money, time, attention, and space against better organized guilds. Theory did not, in itself, corrupt the young. The siege mentality surrounding theorists and theory did.


The sick rush I felt when I heard of Derrida’s death was not someone saying “too late, too late” for us, for the grand civilizing Euro-Cosmopolitan cult of complexity, impossibility, and singularity. This will continue in some form and continue to bring forth a few tortured geniuses to be paraded about. The news reminded me of a time eight years ago when it became “too late, too late” for me. A door slammed in my life and Derrida helped shut it. I went to Paris in 1996 with hopes of apprenticing myself to the master, to learn at the source. I was flush with undergraduate enthusiasm. I had even been encouraged by the notoriously discouraging Gayatri Spivak.

I gained a student visa by enrolling at the Sorbonne master’s program for foreigners. Instead of finding myself in a class of immigrants, as I’d hoped, I was with well-heeled Japanese, Americans, and Swedes. We were condescended to mercilessly by our professors, who put us through the schoolroom exercises of the high school French curriculum, explication du texte and resumé, Racine and Voltaire. My own high school French teacher, a Haitian veteran of the same system, had prepared me too well. I dropped out before I had to pay. That was September. Derrida’s annual seminar at the free university, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes Sciences Sociales (imagine the New School without tuition), did not begin until late November. That was unusually late, he was teaching a mini-course at NYU and, in any case, could come and go as he pleased.

So I waited for him. I read on my own, went for walks, and hung out with Saamer Saad, another malcontent from Columbia who was so bored that he contacted a local Mujhedin group to find out how to fight in Bosnia. For the first time in my adult life, it was September and I wasn’t in school and I didn’t have a job. Worried phone calls from college friends, my mother and her left bank friends. Would I drift? I drifted. The hot political issue of the moment was illegal immigration. The National Front was on the rise. The conservative Juppé government tried to halt the rightward shift of their voters by cracking down on the paperless, “les sans-papiers,” some of whom, in an odd medieval touch, sought refuge in local churches. The churches had then been raided by the police, briefly uniting socialists and Catholics in mammoth street demonstrations.

Derrida’s seminar was on hospitality. It was his usual touch for the relevant without engaging in the actual politics of the moment. Every session he fended off questions from students anxious to know how reading Lévinas or the orientalist and anthropologist Louis Massignon linked to the issues of hospitality facing France. He told them that he’d signed the petition supporting the sans-papiers and had marched, but his intellectual method seemed designed to evoke a present social situation and frustrate his students’ desire for arguments to use on the barricades. It’s important to know what’s happening, but that means we should read Hegel or Lévinas or even the Catholic pornographer Pierre Klossowski with more care and slowness than before. You could imagine frustrated radical students pelting Derrida with flowers and baring their breasts. At the very least he was ignored by the activist left. His method seemed to revel in delayed gratification and delayed action. Thought was the appropriate response to a political crisis, but only if one thought about the right things. Patience was the only test he gave, and I failed it.

I went through the office hour ritual. Someone said he rarely showed up at the orange carpeted small room in EPHESS when he was supposed to. I forget how I tracked him down, but I was there on the right day, an hour early and third in line. My name was on a list with the secretary. The girl in front disappeared quickly through the door. The guy just ahead of me was working on his PhD with maitre Jacques. He was in his mid-thirties, and although he’d taught college in America he stood fiddling with a large “cartable” folder of papers like a schoolboy. He’d been doing his PhD for ten years, but then again, it was France. Derrida himself had not defended his dissertation until he was 50 and already established. These things take time. At 23, I couldn’t imagine myself at 35, still working on a PhD. I didn’t want to be waiting in line to have a form signed. The eternal student characterized their relationship as formal and polite. It seemed like a Kafka novel.

Someone said he looked like God, but when I got through the door I thought he looked like a long lost sephardic cousin of my grandfather. He wore clumsy tortoise shell reading glasses and moved nervously, playing with a pipe on his desk. The office was bare, standard office supply desk and chairs, his coat and leather briefcase. He seemed uncomfortable in it. Another Jewish intellectual, I thought. I felt at home. That is, I felt terrified in an utterly familiar way, as though my father was about to ask me whether I’d asked a good question in school. I had written “Marco Roth, étudiant Américan de Columbia University” on the secretary’s sheet and he was holding it when I came in. He asked me about Columbia, about Gayatri, about my plans in Paris with perfunctory disinterest. I asked him if I could take his course, what reading I needed to do to catch up (the seminar was an ongoing serial and “hospitality” had started the year previously), what sort of work was required (none but the reading and a presentation if I wished). After telling me the reading list (there was no syllabus, only his word), he stopped and asked me if I was really American. I said yes. You don’t have the accent, he said. It’s true, I learned young. He twinkled. That’s very good. Did I tell him that I’d read in his Otobiographies that he’s still ashamed of his North African-tinged French, that he tries as hard as he can to sound Parisian despite the occasional extra rolled r or nasal “a” that would creep in, that we were united by passing, by having learned that Parisians do not take you seriously unless you speak their language, their way, with abominable provincialism and snobbery? I did not. I left, however, having shaken his hand and, after weeks of barely speaking to anyone, a vague sense of good will and although illusory, a bond.

When the French say seminaire, they mean lecture. The hall was enormous and not usually more than half-filled. We met every two or three weeks (depending on his travel schedule) for three or four hours. He lectured for most of the time, an impressive feat, and he lectured fluently, though almost always from manuscripts. He read to us from what would become his book on hospitality. My French is good, but the lecture was like going to a Bloomsday recitation every three weeks. I picked it up in parts, finally succumbing by the third hour to the mere rustlings of language. Joyce was a model for Derrida’s style, as for many of his generation, but Derrida and Hélène Cixous are the only ones who managed to come closest to French Joyce, rather than Joyce in French. Perhaps in twenty-five years, the académie Française will confer canonical legitimacy on Derrida’s prose style, though imitation will still be discouraged. When I could take no more, I watched the raven haired girl who always wore a miniskirt and a fur coat, the sort of Parisienne I fantasized about meeting before my trip. She filled line after line of graph paper in a neat miniscule hand, never stopping. She seemed to be able to take him down verbatim. At the end, she would dash out of the hall. Where?

Other auditors lingered, closing toward the podium like shy zombies. Sometimes there was time for questions. Mostly these consisted of the few actual doctoral students, who would seize the moment to deliver their own twenty-minute guerilla presentations. The exagerratedly formal rhetoric was still maintained from the medieval university’s disputatio format, when dissertation defenses lasted several days and included a rebuttal against all comers, like a joust. As an American raised on the ethos of classroom discussion and also quasi-talmudic back and forth, I found it deeply alienating. There was also the occasional mad person. For three sessions running we endured a woman who continually asked Derrida to relate his work to the Kabbalah and would offer her own interpretations of Merkabah mysticism.

Derrida was not honored in his own country. And the seminar attendees included only a scattering of French students. Most of us were foreigners: a handful of American graduate students from Brown, a number of Norwegians, Japanese, others unknown. We each in our own world sat scribbling away and returned to our apartments and the grand public libraries to continue our reading. There was no esprit de corps. Even the smokers kept to themselves. Somehow, it was rumored that we could catch the master after class at one of the grand cafes near the Boulevard Raspail, La Coupole or Flore. There were days when he emerged in the company of a band of initiates and wandered off, others when he dashed quickly into the courtyard. Interrupted in his flight, he could be furious. I witnessed him screaming at a student, a German or American by the look of it, who’d seized the moment to ask if Derrida had read the paper he’d slipped under his door. There was never any paper, at least according to Derrida. The student insisted. Had the master perhaps mislaid it? That charge was enough to transform the usually courteous philosopher into a madman. The student was barred from the seminar, told never to return. Trying to make sense of this, I thought that Derrida had detected, somewhere in this apparently sincere young man, an inappropriate desire for closeness beyond that of auditor and master. He wanted to make Derrida feel guilty and Derrida would have none of it. He got into his nondescript white car, a cheap Renault, nearly reversed into the crowd of onlookers and drove off.


My turn to give a presentation finally came in late March. I’d arranged a talk on the Book of Jonah and its contribution to the rhetoric of hospitality, particularly the concept of “cities of refuge.” Then Derrida announced that the seminar would take an extra long break, beyond the traditional two weeks in February for the traditional “vacances de ski.” We wouldn’t meet again until mid-March, after the usual three-week hiatus between sessions. It turned out that he was going to teach a six-week mini-course in Tel Aviv. A nine-week break is a long time and longer when you’re 23 and your two meaningful activities are reading a philosophy that not even your two French friends understand and you can’t explain to them and composing endless letters to an ex-girlfriend.

I worked on the presentation slowly, discovering that I had neither enough Hebrew nor enough understanding of the City of Refuge to make a coherent point; I decided to switch instead to an argument about prophetic utterance as a kind of hospitality, hosting a language and a message which didn’t belong to us but which we consented to allow to speak through us. Jonah was interesting because his resistance seemed to make a good narrative out of an article of faith in the canons of post-humanism. And then he was himself turned into a living demonstration of the principle of hospitality at stake in prophecy. I wondered if anyone would care. I tried to date the kick-boxing Irish pint-puller of an expatriate bar. We had a long and expensive evening, ending when I paid our way into a club where she met her boyfriend. The National Front won the mayoralty of the small town of Vitrolles near Marseille.

It seemed that France had an urgent problem with hospitality. The street cry of “solidarité avec les sans-papiers” had struck a chord beyond the usual slogans. Wasn’t I also a foreigner? In the metro with Saamer we’d often been stopped and asked for our papers. Light skin curly hair and dark skin curly hair walking together added up to two Arabs. I decided to go to Vitrolles on my own and investigate. Also, I had to admit, I’d had enough. I’d grown frustrated with Paris, with this very infrequent seminar that I’d tried to make central to my life. My soul didn’t feel like a smithy but a shabbily-carpeted and very cold garret furnished with a few second-hand books. I was waiting for something to happen.

Vitrolles was full of rumors. Books about Vichy France had been removed from the library, gangs of white toughs bussed in from elsewhere (of course no locals would admit involvement) had roamed the courtyards of the public housing projects to suppress voter turnout with baseball bats (me: are you sure they were baseball bats, in France? Source: Yes, they’re good weapons). No one wanted to talk on the record, however, except the head of the young franco-Arab students’ association and a few of his friends. Looking back on it, now that things have become worse, it’s worth noting that their learning that I was an American Jew did not much affect our talk on the sidelines of a dusty soccer field; Israel was a non-issue, so was Islamic fundamentalism. They were angry and marginalized, but they were going to organize for the next election and it seemed like the makings of a secular grassroots movement.

When I returned to Paris, two curious things happened: I found that somehow I’d missed the day of my presentation, and I wrote an article about the silence I’d found in Vitrolles, the shame of the victors who no longer even wanted to say anything racist that I could put into print. They had their reaction, they’d achieved power in their corner of La France Profonde, “que les autres nous foutrent la paix!” It wasn’t only the choice to speak that comes with power, but the choice to keep silent. Meanwhile the angry and disempowered had to keep quiet when they wanted to speak or speak only to themselves or at the invitation of the random traveler or self-appointed ambassador from the capitals of Paris and New York. They could also, as it turned out, complain to Wahhabite fundamentalists, but we didn’t yet know that in 1996.

It appeared that I’d made a decision. Farewell to Deconstruction and hello to journalism, a successful instance of intelligent choice from a young man with the best background in education from the country that prizes choice above all and had given him too many choices. Here’s how life happens. But I hadn’t, at least not intentionally, at least it didn’t seem that way then to me. I thought I’d made a mistake. Without intending to, I’d let my presentation day slip by while I wrote something else. My mind had been elsewhere. My notes were in my drawer on the orange block graph-paper notepad I’d bought in imitation of the raven-haired amanuensis. It was to be a short presentation, American-style, with plenty of questions for the audience, not a lecture at all.

When I showed up to plead my case in the EPHESS office, there were no more books than the first time. It was still and always a temporary office. He remembered our first meeting. Fortunately, he seemed to have forgotten that I was the person who’d stood up the seminar the week before. When I told him, he seemed confused rather than angry. There were usually two presenters and whoever was supposed to present with me had apparently taken advantage of my absence to speak for twice the normal length and so taken up the class. It was unsurprising, really, but lucky. I told him about Vitrolles. He seemed interested, at least enough so as not be angry. He thought he could reschedule me for next year, right at the beginning. It wasn’t soon, it’s true, but—”que voulez-vous?” As he said it he shrugged like a Lower East Side grocer. “Que voulez-vous?” It’s a colloquial expression, a rhetorical question that signifies powerlessness and submission to a larger will, usually bureaucratic. It’s like Valmont’s “Ce n’est pas ma faute.”

Taken literally, though, it was a good question. What had I wanted from France that required equal immersion in immigration politics and Jacques Derrida? What did I expect from Derrida himself that I couldn’t get in a course on Deconstruction and Literary Theory at an American graduate school? Somehow I wanted to become French, but more French than the French. French and other. American and other. Self and other. Deconstruction was the language of this impossible desire, as I then knew it. Derrida, in himself, had managed to become this, but it wasn’t something that could be transmitted. With the shrug of his “Que voulez-vous,” I recognized what I was not.

J’ai retrouvé un père en vous,” Julien Sorel tells Abbé Pirard when he finally arrives in Paris, with the Abbé’s help. It’s a moment of embarrassment for both characters and even an embarrassment for the novel, which, like its hero, never makes up its mind about whether the search for surrogate fathers precludes autonomy or is necessary for it, or whether the Abbé delivers Julien to freedom or more hypocrisy. So it was with me and Derrida. I went back to the States. And enrolled in graduate school.

In the institutionalization and translation of Derrida’s philosophy, something was always lost. A way of thinking that emphasized the singular and unrepeatable, the absent and the paradox could never offer the satisfaction that one was leading the good life, only that you and others were leading an impossible life. The temptation to put the man himself in the place of absent certainties and paternities was overwhelming and I’d fallen for it. I doubt I was the only one. To his credit, Derrida resisted the messianic role others wanted for him as much as possible. Now he no longer has to.

Related Articles

August 16, 2013

It’s not aspirational; it’s “pay less.” I mean, the aspiration is that you save money. But that’s a negative now, for them.

February 11, 2013
Must We Mean What We Say?
June 20, 2011

The intern is to appreciate the opportunity to peek at the file folders into which she slides contracts and correspondence.

February 2, 2011

When I moved here after college, I wanted to be a copywriter. Actually, what I really wanted to do was write novels

More by this Author

Issue 8 Recessional
The Rise of the Neuronovel
October 31, 2005

The carnival is supposed to be a mini-revolution in everyday life: paupers become kings and kings become paupers.

February 19, 2005

We should dress more conservatively because we live in sad, dangerous times, and it’s important to remember that.

Issue 4 Reconstruction

Our generation seems far too aware that reading is safe and fun, that literature is spectacle.