The difficulty of introducing a major contemporary philosopher such as Jacques Derrida (b. 1930) in a reference work presenting central issues of literary criticism is double, and this danger, this hesitation on the threshold, has already been systematically thematized in the writings of the philosopher himself. First, there is the danger of oversimplifying, of pigeonholing, of reducing, of defining artificial boundaries, when facing a movement of thought that constantly evolves so as deliberately to defeat and baffle all preordained categories. Then, there is the danger of being merely mimetic, of just repeating strategies and gestures that have been identified with a signature, with an author (and may well have been anticipated by other writers), and that tend to be singular, unrepeatable, yet endowed with universal validity. However, the possibility of bypassing such an initial aporia exists, and it consists in considering the fundamentally affirmative nature of Derrida's thought and writing rather than in stressing the "playful" or "negative" element of his textual practices.|
This affirmative aspect seems to be confirmed by the more recent writings of the philosopher, who has engaged with new fields such as law, ethics, politics, architecture, and teaching as an institution, while moving some distance from the early misconceptions brought about by a very enthusiastic reception of his theses in some North American universities in the late 1970s. Derrida has strongly objected to the interpretations of Deconstruction (a term he still accepts as his own coining and invention) that see it as a purely destructive notion of criticism, deploying an almost nihilistic critique of all institutions, hierarchies, and values. He has remarked that "deconstruction is not negative," adding in an interview that the term he used was meant to translate Martin Heidegger's notions of Abbau and Destruction, concepts that also are not negative. Deconstruction is "not destructive, not having the purpose of dissolving, distracting or subtracting elements in order to reveal an internal essence. It asks questions about the essence, about the presence, indeed about this interior/exterior, phenomenon/appearance schema" (French Philosophers 96-97). Even if these remarks beg the question of what deconstruction is or does, they point to a gesture that hesitates between the assertive and the interrogative. And they show that being basically exploited by literary critics, Derrida's concepts should be seen less as tools than as landmarks in a philosophical meditation on the essence of literature. Therefore, there cannot be anything such as a "Derridean criticism," nor should one be on the lookout for a positive notion of "grammatology" if by "grammatology" one understands a new "science of writing" meant to replace the ancient metaphysical "logocentrism." Indeed, we shall have to understand why no "grammatology" is possible and why such an impossibility nevertheless liberates incalculable critical energies.
A second type of commonplace current among exegetes of "deconstruction" consists in stressing that the movement triggered by Derrida blurs all distinctions between philosophy and literature. Even if this may well be the case, one will be wise enough to follow Rodolphe Gasché's caveat and lay the stress on the strict philosophical training of the author. Derrida is best seen as a philosopher who poses philosophical questions to texts, wherever they come from, and to textuality as such. This should prevent the facile exploitation of his theories in the field of literary criticism by critics untrained in the reading of the often difficult texts he alludes to, from Plato to Heidegger, for instance.
Indeed, one can note that Derrida's earliest theoretical project consisted in an investigation of "the ideality of the literary object" in the late 1950s. The vocabulary bears the mark of what remains Derrida's major philosophical tradition, namely, Phenomenology. He will soon find in Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry a similar approach to another type of ideality, the ideality of science. Just as Husserl studies the conditions of possibility of ideal objects and situates them within language, intersubjectivity, a communal world humanized by a ground and a horizon, Derrida will later meditate on the conditions of possibility of literature. And just as Husserl occupies a paradoxical position, refusing the positivism of objectivist science as well as a blind empiricism extolling facts over theories, Derrida will attempt to go deeper, toward "origins," determining the proper depth of archaeological excavations. Derrida's major "family"--it is rather a matter of "style" in the development of philosophical argumentation--remains that of phenomenology, starting with Husserl and Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, although caught up within psychology and the trivialization of Heideggerianism dubbed as existentialism, to tie up more closely with thinkers and writers as closely associated and as creative as Maurice Blanchot and Emmanuel Levinas. But what prevents the neat inscription of Derrida in the games philosophers play with each other--Husserl is "overtaken" by Heidegger, who in his turn is "overtaken" by Derrida--is that he stands firmly at the crossroads between phenomenology and what used to be called Structuralism in Europe during the 1960s- a diffuse movement of thought ranging between human sciences and linguistics, linking anthropology, psychoanalysis, Semiotics, mythology, and sociology. Rather than to the major exponents of the movement, with whom Derrida kept discussing crucial concepts, such as Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault, one should merely point to the writings of the linguist who inspired them all, Ferdinand de Saussure.
Most structuralists took their cue from Saussure's system, endorsing his ideas about the prevalence of synchrony over diachrony, the arbitrary nature of the link between signifier and signified, the conception of language as a system made up of differential tokens. By a kind of oversimplification, one might say that Derrida uses this theory of the sign--a purely diacritical mark, made up of absence, since in language there are "only differences," according to Saussure--to criticize Husserl and Heidegger, while bringing the phenomenological inquiry to bear on the foundations (or lack of foundation) of structuralist scientism, thus forcing two very different traditions to grind ceaselessly against each other. Or perhaps, by an even bolder structural homology, one might say that Derrida has taken up Heidegger's critique of all language theories that would attempt to bypass a certain type of Hermeneutics, showing how they remain trapped up in pure instrumental approaches, but has changed the ground of Heideggerian foundational criticism: instead of attacking the recurrent metaphysical blindness to ontological difference (to the fact that we forget Being inasmuch as we reduce beings to being-present, to presences or to presence as such), Derrida locates the differential hinge in the always unsteady relationship between language and trace. This blind spot in a tradition as old as philosophy itself (and "philosophy" is a term that can never be detached from its Greek, and specifically post-Platonic, context) takes the familiar name "writing," although one should not identify writing with its historical or cultural manifestations. Instead, one should be aware of the "ideality" proper to writing, an ideality that constantly crosses the boundaries between idea and matter, between transcendental questioning of a priori conditions and the factual account of empirical realizations.
Thus Derrida can easily show how Husserl meets considerable difficulties as soon as he tries to ground the tradition necessary to the preservation of mathematical truths in a concept of consciousness defined by an intentionality of meaning, ultimately identical to the capacity of "hearing oneself speak," and point at the same time to Saussure's strange overrating of speech phenomena and parallel dismissing of writing, seen as a mere tool bringing confusions. Both commonsense evidence and a tradition dating back to Plato tend to pin consciousness down to a form of vocalization of the self, to a living voice proving its validity and permanence by being always at hand and identical to itself. Against this alleged evidence, Derrida stresses writing, not as a tool or concept, but as an experience, and this recognition of writing implies the disquieting fact that one leaves a trace that can survive without the presence of its author, without being corroborated by the living agency of its original inscription.
Writing leads to a deeper understanding of origins and of the paradoxes clustering around the notion of "presence" (which is never "condemned" as such; on the contrary). Writing implies in itself the capacity of an endless repetition deprived of any fixed standard of authorization, therefore an ambivalent knot of death and survival. Writing is a trace that cannot be present here and there without having already divided itself, since it always refers back to another being, to another trace. The fold between Being and beings described by Heideggerian hermeneutics is thus reinscribed as the operation of an "original trace," with the added difference that it rules out any belief in an absolute, pristine origin. Inscription, instead of engendering a meaning vested in a paternal authority, recontextualizes everything that would hold a claim to uniqueness and oneness. Any reader of Derrida will have recognized the motif underlying countless readings of classical and less classical authors, including Plato and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lévi-Strauss and Antonin Artaud, Sigmund Freud and Paul Valéry.
The complex strategies of reading elaborated by Derrida actually take a lot of time and space, deliberately resist summary, and entail a complete and varying scenography. One may note the constant shifting back and forth between philosophers, poets, and novelists. It is not only that one would find in literature what remains lacking in philosophy, the awareness of the opacity of signs, the deeper insight into the metaphorical nature of language being too often obscured by the philosophical wish to hit on absolute truths. Indeed, the first two magazines with which Derrida associated himself at the beginning of his "public" career, Critique and Tel Quel, had been dominated by personalities who refused a strict dichotomy between literary and philosophical endeavors, Georges Bataille and Philippe Sollers. Varied and multiple as they are, Derrida's literary authors all fall under three rough headings- the Romantics (in a vague sense), where Rousseau, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Charles Baudelaire figure prominently; the post-Symbolists, with Valéry and Stéphane Mallarmé (see Stéphane Mallarmé and French Symbolism); and the "Moderns," among whom one could distinguish a purely Jewish tradition with Franz Kafka, Edmond Jabès, and Paul Célan, and an avant-gardist mode, with James Joyce, Artaud, Bataille, Sollers, Francis Ponge, and Jean Genet (the last 10 names would in fact make up the entire Tel Quelian canon), with a special mention for Blanchot because of the proximity of his own status as author of novels, narratives, and literary essays. Most of these writers teach something about writing, Mallarmé and Joyce having been granted the privilege of a direct anti-Platonic practice of writing in the early essays, while the later books stress the generosity of Célan over Joyce's infinitely cunning calculations and take Baudelaire's prose poems as an excellent antidote to Marcel Mauss's ingenuous theory of the "gift." However, it is not certain that they have more to "teach" than, say, Friedrich Nietzsche, Freud, or Heidegger (as Lacan could say of poets who show the way to analysts and thinkers), or even than Plato himself--the founder of metaphysics being the first to find himself in the "double bind" to which is condemned a thinker who rejects writing yet expresses himself almost exclusively in the mode of literary dialogue, and in the name of another philosopher, Socrates, who did not write.
One could roughly oppose a first moment in Derrida's strategies when he aimed at showing how a text always subverts or exceeds the author's intended meaning thanks to a complex functioning of metaphors, tensions, or distortions between layers of sense owing to an unperceived linguistic instability typical of textuality in general, and a second moment when the notions of "undecidability" and "incalculability" run counter to the economic metaphors still implied by the first approach. The first moment would be distinguished by the often misconstrued notion that there is "nothing outside the text"--pas de hors-texte--(Grammatology 58), the second by a stress on critical gestures themselves, with an ethical or political questioning of boundaries and global economies of meaning. The first moment stresses a continuously plural language--"one must speak several languages and produce several texts at once" (Margins 135); the second would consider the endless autobiographical task of unveiling and confession implied by any writing ("Circonfession"). The first moment would thus naturally select Finnegans Wake as a model of a perpetually self-deconstructing literary object, whereas the second would take Joyce to task for having programmed everything in advance, for having engineered an encyclopedic memory of culture, including the hubristic desire to calculate undecidability itself, and opt rather for Molly Bloom's more naive "yes" to life at the end of Ulysses (see "Two Words for Joyce" and "Ulysses Gramophone: Hear say yes in Joyce" in Acts of Literature).
But throughout this progression in the constitution of a general aesthetics of paradoxes and transgression of accepted limits, Derrida sticks to a few critical tenets. One is that no hermeneutics of literature is possible. The criticism of Jean-Pierre Richard's thematic readings in the "Double Session" has often been documented and clearly provides a major reading of Mallarmé. The long argument with thematicism leads to the replacement of polysemy by "dissemination," not only because of the lability of themes, neither signifiers nor ideas, too slippery to be identified before they merge into one another, but most of all because no critical metalanguage can free itself from the pervasive metaphoricity of the text. Terms as crucial as the Mallarméan "fan," which keeps closing and opening, function both as metaphor and metonymy of the fold by which the text ceaselessly re-marks itself (Dissemination 250-59).
The later confrontation with Hans-Georg Gadamer reveals that there has been no compromise with current versions of post-Heideggerian hermeneutics. It would take too much space to compare the various readings of Célan and Mallarmé by Gadamer and Derrida to list everything that opposes them. When Gadamer concludes a reading of Mallarmé's Salut with the statement that "both dimensions of meaning can be carried out as the same melodious gesture of language and in the same unity of discourse" (Dialogue 45-46), one could hardly be further from Derrida's constant contention that no single "plane of discourse" can be established, that the metaphors always clash violently and dangerously in a poem, and, fundamentally, that any writer attempts to achieve the impossible by leaving the trace of an absolute singularity. Thus, Célan's poetry becomes entirely paradigmatic, with its difficult relation to the language in which it is written (German, the language of the Nazi oppressors); its short, cryptic utterances; and its multilayered games with traditions, allusions, and personal contexts. In "Shibboleth" as in "Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok" (the introduction to Abraham and Torok's The Wolf Man's Magic Word) one would find the same "anasemic" poetics: literature always hides the crypt of a dead body and attempts to let it survive by inscribing the disordered letters--filtered by multiple and perverse language-games--in a signature. In this sense, one could speak of an approach very close to the radical psychoanalysis invented by Abraham and Torok, not so far even from certain of Lacan's formulas ("to love means to give what one hasn't got"), while staunchly opposing the neo-Hegelianism of Lacan's system (see "Pour l'amour de Lacan").
The central questions of these poetics become indissociable from the new philosophical problematics of Derrida's recent writings- What is an event? Under which conditions is it possible? How can a poem be given if giving must entail the abolition of exchange (nothing must be expected from it, otherwise giving becomes bartering)? What is a signature? What is a name in a text? How can the title be distinguished form the name of the author and from the content of the text? How far and how long can one play on an author's name (the French poet Francis Ponge's name thus turns into "sponge" and many other "things" alluding to his own poetic corpus)? What is a "corpus"? These problems still imply the strategy of "double b(l)inds" and "vicious performatives" invented in order to destroy John Searle's hasty reappropriation of Austinian theories of Speech Acts, while hesitating between broad recontextualizations (within large institutions defining areas of supposed competence) and extremely precise issues posed by untranslatable idioms. Yet as soon as one "translates" a proper name, the gesture may trigger off a violent style of punning, as when, in "Limited Inc a b c . . . ," Searle's name is deftly turned into the French abbreviation "Sarl" (Société à responsabilité limitée, "Society with Limited Responsibility" [Limited Inc 36]).
The wish to come closer to an untranslatable idiom implies a more "writerly" style; indeed, after Glas, a very baroque piece of writing that proves that "doing things with words" is possible, Derrida's concerns seem to expand so as to include anthropological or psychoanalytical issues such as incorporation, introjection, fetishism, mourning, eating, and sexual difference, broaching at times religious themes such as baptism, the Eucharist, circumcision, alliance, and negative theology, without excluding a strong political commitment, taking sides on very contemporary issues (Derrida was for instance arrested in Prague in 1981 because of his active support for dissident intellectuals), such as the end of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the foundation of the American constitution, the Gulf War, the insane calculations involved by the threat of nuclear war, the concept of a new Europe, and so on. These multiple activities, involving countless texts on painting, architecture, and drawing as well, finally place him in the French tradition of the committed intellectual, as exemplified by Sartre or Foucault, never loath to plan a state reform of philosophy teaching or to launch an institution such as the groundbreaking Collège de Philosophie in Paris.
In view of this committed stance, can we speak with Christopher Norris (Gasché is more reserved; see 157-58) of Derrida as a neo-Kantian, propounding a more sophisticated and updated version of transcendental criticism? To be sure, in a recent interview in the Magazine littéraire Derrida insists that deconstruction must continue a dialogue with post-Kantian critique. Criticism supposes, after Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and the whole Enlightenment, a judgment between two terms in a situation of crisis. If it refuses alternatives set by binary logics or dialectics, deconstruction does not attempt a "criticism of criticism" but aims at thinking the same process from another side, linked to the genealogy of judgment, of will, of consciousness: the decidability of truth criteria cannot be reached by a blindness to the aporias of undecidability. Deconstruction therefore strives to let appear the affirmative (not positive) movement presupposed by any criticism. This has consequences for politics--the politics of a different Europe to be thought anew in The Other Heading--as well as for the intelligence of an intellectual heritage dominated by German philosophy and its mystique of the Geist ("spirit"). Derrida's mixture of innate skepticism and Jewish faith in the written word could be evoked by Joyce's tortuous praise of Stephen Dedalus: "It had better be stated here and now at the outset that the perverted transcendentalism to which Mr. S. Dedalus' (Div. Scep.) contentions would appear to prove him pretty badly addicted runs directly counter to accepted scientific methods. Science, it cannot be too often repeated, deals with tangible phenomena" (Ulysses, 1922, ed. Hans Walter Gabler, 1984, ch. 14, ll. 1223-26). Derrida's persistent interrogation of the foundational and thus impossible act of "giving" makes us want to probe behind the reassuring existence (and etymology) of all phenomenal "givens" or "data."
Thus, in a recent text Derrida seems to recant even his antiphonological stance when he answers the question "What is poetry?" by saying that poetry can be defined by a desire to "learn by heart." This is no falling back into naive immediacy, however. To learn by heart is the only chance of an "embodiment" of letters in a subject: "Eat, drink, swallow my letter, carry it, keep it in you, like the law of a writing transformed into your body: writing as such," this would be the lesson or "fable" conveyed by any poem that gives itself entirely, in the familiar Mallarméan gesture of legacy (Ferraris 240). This poetical and subjective text about poetry is rather typical of Derrida's recent mode of confessional writing: he writes about his own desire to incorporate letters thanks to poems that have relinquished their Heideggerian pretensions, their claim to let language (or truth) speak. No pathos of creation, a pure passivity, deprived of either quotations or title, yet bearing witness to the "passion of the singular mark," a "signature rehearsing its own disappearance." Derrida has to conclude a little wistfully, however, that such an account finally rules out any question in the form of "What is -------?" since as soon as this is asked, not only does metaphysics hold its sway again but the form of the question heralds in itself the birth of prose.
Notes and Bibliography
See also Deconstruction and French Theory and Criticism: 5. 1945-1968 and 6. 1968 and After.
Geoffrey Bennington and Jacques Derrida, Jacques Derrida (1991); Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature (ed. Derek Attridge, 1992), L'Autre Cap (1990, The Other Heading: Reflection on Today's Europe, trans. Pascal-Anne Brault and Michael B. Naas, 1992), "Circonfession," Jacques Derrida (Bennington and Derrida), De la grammatologie (1967, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 1976), De l'esprit: Heidegger et la question (1987, Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby, 1989), A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds (ed. Peggy Kamuf, 1990), La Dissémination (1972, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson, 1981), Donner le temps: 1. La Fausse Monnaie (1991, Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money, trans. Peggy Kamuf, 1992), L'Écriture et la différence (1967, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, 1978), "Fors: Les Mots anglés de Nicolas Abraham et Maria Torok," foreword to Cryptonomie: Le Verbier de l'homme aux loups, by Abraham and Torok (1976, "Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok," trans. Barbara Johnson, foreword to The Wolf Man's Magic Word: A Cryptonymy, by Abraham and Torok, 1986), Glas (1974, trans. John Leavey and Richard Rand, 1986), Limited Inc (trans. Samuel Weber, Jeffrey Mehlman, and Alan Bass, 1988), Marges de la philosophie (1972, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass, 1982), Parages (1986), "Pour l'amour de Lacan," Lacan avec les Philosophes (1991), Schibboleth: Pour Paul Célan (1986, "Shibboleth," trans. Joshua Wilner, in Midrash and Literature, ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick, 1986), Ulysse Gramophone: Deux mots pour Joyce (1987, "Two Words for Joyce" and "Ulysses Gramophone: Hear say yes in Joyce," Acts of Literature, ed. Attridge, 1992), La Vérité en peinture (1978, The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Ian McLeod, 1987).
François Ewald, "Une 'folie' doit veiller sur la pensée" (interview with Derrida), Magazine littéraire 286 (1991); Maurizio Ferraris, Postille a Derrida: Con due scritti di Jacques Derrida (1987); Rodolphe Gasché, The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection (1986); Diane P. Michelfelder and Richard E. Palmer, Dialogue and Deconstruction: The Gadamer-Derrida Encounter (1989); Raoul Mortley, French Philosophers in Conversation: Derrida, Irigaray, Levinas, Le Doeuff, Schneider, Serres (1990); Christopher Norris, Derrida (1987); William R. Schultz and Lewis L. B. Fried, Jacques Derrida: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1992); David Wood, ed., Derrida: A Critical Reader (1992).
|Topics Index Cross-references for this Guide entry:|
écriture, aporia, deconstruction, grammatology, intentionality, logocentrism, metonymy, synchrony/diachrony, transcendental|
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