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Eulogy for Jacques Derrida
Gregory Desilet

Presented to
The International Communication Association Annual Conference in New York City
May 28, 2005

Recollecting the Legacy of a Great Language and Communication Philosopher


    Jacques Derrida died at the age of 74 in a Paris hospital on October 8th, 2004, succumbing to advanced pancreatic cancer. He emerged as the most famous, or as some would have it, the most infamous philosopher of the late twentieth century and one of the best and most original philosophical minds since Kant. His challenging and often misunderstood praxis, notoriously known as deconstruction, exerted cultural influence beyond academic philosophical circles. It challenged the dominant trends of analytic and ordinary language philosophy and included contributions to theory and interpretation in fields as diverse as literature, law, politics, religion, business, film, art, and architecture. Derrida’s extensive cross-cultural and interdisciplinary influence over the decades since the 1960s stands as a sufficiently impressive achievement to be worthy of recollecting and reassessing on the occasion of his death. What are the highlights of his contributions to collective culture and the field of communication studies and what makes his work stand out from and recommend itself in relation to other notable work of the period?

    Born to Jewish parents in El-Biar, Algeria in July of 1930, Derrida grew up fully exposed to the caldron of ethnic hatred and violence that ravaged Europe prior to and during World War II. As a colony of France, Algeria fell under the control of the Vichy government in 1940, a regime that became part of the Nazi state-sponsored and bureaucratically implemented program of anti-Semitism. At that time Derrida’s father worked as a traveling sales representative for the Tachet house—a company marketing wines and other alcoholic beverages. Unlike many Jewish men in the region, he was “allowed” to keep his job under the Vichy government. Nevertheless, he endured a profound degree of victimization.

    Derrida witnessed on a daily basis the many ways in which his father “sacrificed” himself for the family. In one of the last interviews before Derrida’s death, he recalls the effect his father’s plight had on him as a child: “I felt humiliated to see him overflowing with respectful gratitude to these people for whom he had worked for forty years and who generously ‘consented’ to ‘keep him on.’ He worked a great deal, he worked all the time… Without going so far as to say I virtually identified with him, I no doubt saw in him an exemplary figure of the victim.” But Derrida’s relation to his father was complex and divided. He recollects further, “With regard to my father, there was an ambiguous mixture of compassion and hostility. My father lacked authority, while also being prone to anger, and I regretted the fact that he always came to me to complain.”

    In 1942 Derrida himself became the target of anti-Semitism when he was expelled, along with other Jewish students, from the Ben Aknoun High School. In the same interview he recounts, “Beyond any anonymous ‘administrative’ measure, which I didn’t understand at all and which no one explained to me, [this] wound was of another order, and it never healed: the daily insults from the children, my classmates, the kids in the street, and sometimes threats and blows aimed at the ‘dirty Jew,’ which, I might say, I came to see in myself.”

    The sense of victimization and misappropriated feelings of self-loathing taken up by the young Derrida became the wound that “never healed” throughout the remainder of his life. In response to the exceptional experience of alienation from a community of others, in response to this forced interiority and imposed self-consciousness, Derrida ultimately arrived at a new sense of himself. He realized, “I am not alone with myself, no more than anyone else is.” And he experienced this insight in a uniquely explicit way: “I am not all-one. An ‘I’ is not an indivisible atom.” This unusual affirmation of self-division in reaction to adversity established the ground upon which Derrida was able to come to terms with being the object of hatred and discrimination and became the primary ground upon which his life and work evolved.

    Derrida saw that every self is always penetrated by the presence of an “other” and this penetration is the source of double-edged and seemingly contradictory bestowals that can generate intense experiences ranging from the tragic to the euphoric. Over time Derrida learned that this penetration, this internal division, this “nonidentity to oneself” is not purely and exemplarily a Jewish experience. It is a condition that is of the essence of being human, although it is not always understood or embraced as such. Derrida explains, “I vindicate this uprooting division; I do not consider it an absolute evil. One suffers from it, but it emancipates. As the condition for a somewhat awakened gaze, it interrupts many a dogmatic slumber. The rupture of belonging often gives me the chance, for example, for a judgment that is more than just, less unjust, on the politics of communities to which I am supposed to belong and concerning which I want to remain more vigilant than ever…. It is also important for me to remain as free as possible in order to criticize them whenever this is necessary.”

    With this acute awareness of belonging without belonging and the reflective interrogative attitude that arises from it Derrida picked up the Socratic javelin and threw it further. He discovered a way to renew and sharpen the Socratic project—the endless critical examination of self and community. But Derrida’s unique contribution to this project fully emerged only when he applied in a particular way his understanding of the significance of the “penetration of the other” to the philosophical tradition.

    The turn in philosophical tradition initiated with Rene Descartes’ famous pronouncement “I think, therefore, I am” made the thinking subject the model for a rationality that transcended the limits of particular minds to become the idealized arbiter of inquiry that launched the Enlightenment. This discovery, or as some would claim, invention of the “I,” the “cogito,” or the modern “subject” underwent further exploration and elaboration through the work of Immanuel Kant and other Enlightenment intellectuals until the Cartesian “I think” encountered Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous contesting rejoinder: “Not ‘I think,’ but ‘it thinks.’”

    In the twentieth century Martin Heidegger applied to Nietzsche’s “it” the label of “being”—by which he meant something like “understanding” in the broadest sense of the term. Heidegger then placed the spotlight so intensely on “being” in his focus on phenomenological ontology (the description of lived experience) that the Cartesian “cogito” and notions of ego consciousness and the subject all but disappear from his account. For Heidegger, language assumed special significance in that it serves as the “house of being.” By placing the emphasis on “being,” Heidegger moved away from the Cartesian grounding of human experience in the unity of a transcendental subject and instead brought into prominence a shared grounding of experience in the unity of a transcendental “other” that becomes, for Heidegger, the truth of being. When properly grasped, this truth of being becomes the measure of authentic human being and the basis for the possibility of modes of genuine interaction and communication that can build vital and meaningful human community.

    This thinly sketched summary of several centuries of philosophical maneuverings permits a glance toward the point of entrance of Derrida’s thought. Derrida believed that Heidegger had gone too far in his elevation of the role of “being” as a ground or field for the gathering and limitation of human understanding and communication. For Derrida the unity of being in Heidegger’s account constitutes a betrayal of what had been exposed in Nietzsche’s insistence on the “it” in “it thinks.” The “it” cannot serve as a universal ground because it includes an incalculable element of disturbance, an endlessly intrusive force of rupture, a difference and discontinuity in the order of being and in the processes of communication. Many who viewed with dismay Heidegger’s association with the Nazi Party glimpsed an effect of this betrayal of difference in the will to radical collectivism at the root of that association.

    For Derrida this “it” is a generative motion so original and so pervasive that it must be seen as co-extensive with and present at the origin of every manifestation of thought, understanding, or being. Derrida distinguishes this force of pervasive differentiation, this differing or rupturing in the unity of being or in the creation and transmission of thought with the word “differance.” This coinage is intended to evoke the quality of difference in a profoundly original and generative capacity. With this move Derrida does not mean to entirely trump Heidegger and the importance he assigns to being and its role in communication and community formation. Instead, he desires to restore to understanding and to being the role of the other—the irreducible and pervasive operations of difference that in his view are by all appearances swept away in the account offered through many of Heidegger’s most important texts.

    In Derrida’s view, both the sameness of unity and the rupture of difference have, overall, equal generative power in the processes of understanding and communication, though not necessarily equal influence in every instance. Derrida concurs with Heidegger in regarding language as “the house of being,” the place where human understanding lives and works. Seeing how language works provides insight into the deepest possibilities, structures, and constraints of human understanding. By making language and its potential for communication and miscommunication a crucial focus of attention, Derrida conforms to a broad consensus regarding the importance of language in twentieth century philosophical opinion. But Derrida’s explanation of the workings of language is able to account for the potential for creativity and for communication and miscommunication through language more thoroughly and effectively than any previous accounts.

    Among philosophers of the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein is often cited as the best philosopher of language and the most prominent in offering an intense and consistent focus on language. Since Derrida’s focus on language has been at least equally intense, it would seem natural to assume that he would have given Wittgenstein’s work considerable attention. However, when I met with Derrida at UC Irvine in 1993, he told me that he had read nothing of Wittgenstein. When in surprise I asked why, he replied that he did not want to begin reading such a demanding body of work without being able to give it the kind of time and attention he knew it would require. Being unable to carve out the necessary block of time, Derrida chose not to even begin the task. While this anecdote conveys the exceptional if not idiosyncratic intensity Derrida attempted to bring to the reading of every well-crafted text, it also places the comparison between his work and Wittgenstein’s in a new light and underscores the unfortunate circumstance that Derrida did not and now will never confront Wittgenstein’s work. Nevertheless, Derrida’s account of language holds up well against and in important ways surpasses Wittgenstein’s account.

    Although the philosophical approaches and the views of Wittgenstein and Heidegger differ significantly, the contrast between the views of Derrida and Heidegger on “being” turns out to be analogous in an important way to the contrast between Derrida and Wittgenstein on language. This contrast also points out the crucial difference between these previous approaches and the postmodern turn. Describing his philosophy of language as “radical operationism,” Wittgenstein argued that in the tension between the written or spoken word (what Derrida calls the material signifier) and the meaning of the word or words (the immaterial signified), the observable “operations” of the signifiers are the only phenomena that need matter to those who are concerned about language as a means of communication. This view is implicit in Wittgenstein’s famous dictum that “the meaning of a word is its use”—where “use” refers to what words perceptively accomplish through responses that can be observed to confirm or disconfirm the occurrence of communication.

    While Derrida does not deny the importance of response in communication, he does not believe that “meaning” can be strictly pinned to the material signifier and observable responses. For Derrida the signifier always exists within a context from which it necessarily receives a measure of influence in the determination of its meaning. While Wittgenstein also acknowledges the role of context, Derrida presses the point further by arguing that context always remains diffuse (unbounded) and divided (never fully manifest)— which then precludes the possibility that meaning can be confined to an arithmetic of the operations of signifiers and responses.

    A sense of the “infinite” nature of context can be roughly conveyed through noting the onion-like layers extending from word, sentence, paragraph, text, temporal and spatial location, community, culture, tradition, history, contents of the consciousness of reader or hearer, and changes introduced as these contextual factors shift while passing from moment to moment in time. The infinite elements and extension of context explode every attempt to strictly delimit, control, and decode the meaning of signifiers. And this exploding of context brings back into play elements of the immaterial signified that Wittgenstein marginalizes in his account of language. The unbounded nature of context insures that there will be many ways to “follow” the meaning of signifiers while still also following in some fashion the cultural “rules” or protocols of interpretation.

    Derrida’s most often quoted and most misunderstood maxim that “there is nothing outside the text” can be adequately understood only alongside the notion of infinite context. Since, in Derrida’s view, there is a very real sense in which every text exists without boundaries, every text extends outward into every other text as well as every historical and nonlinguistic aspect of context. Since any element of context can potentially affect meaning, every text functions as a limitless (con)text thereby making it impossible to get to a vantage point “outside” the text. It becomes impossible to draw a decisively final line between text and context that will be capable of coercing universal agreement in self-evident clarity. In this sense the text also remains infinitely divisible, capable of endless fracturing through the different ways in which the boundaries of context may get drawn in particular instances on the way toward practical applications of meaning. This potential for endless fracturing of the text opens the door to the “deconstruction” of the text—the uncovering of new and perhaps unexpected interpretations. These interpretations nevertheless require, contrary to what some critics of deconstruction’s relativistic slant have suggested, rigorous justification, evidence, and argument in their presentation.

    This circumstance of infinite divisibility bears analogous comparison with the quandary faced by two Enlightenment celebrities, Newton and Leibnitz. In the attempt to find a means of mapping the path of moving or accelerating bodies they devised a new method of calculation that has been recently discussed in connection with rhetorical implications by G. Mitchell Reyes (in QJS, Vol. 90, May 2004). Newton’s and Leibnitz’s independently invented solution, the “calculus” branch of mathematics, introduced the logical problems of the “infinitesimal”—a quantity so minute in having passed through infinite divisions (through dividing the area swept out by the arc of a moving body into a series of infinitely thin rectangles) that it essentially functions as a quantity of zero. The “infinitesimal,” in its infinite minuteness, functioned as an immaterial signified, which was not an entity well received in a calculus designed to deal with material quantities. Nevertheless, neither Newton nor Leibnitz—or any of their detractors—could deny the practical value of the notion of the “infinitesimal” in the calculus for understanding and tracking the movement of objects and celestial bodies. Similarly, many of Derrida’s detractors find the notions of infinite context and the infinite divisibility of the text to be logically unacceptable. But the ability of such notions to account for the difficulties confronted in using language and in understanding problems of communication arising from the shifting of interpretation and the movement and instability of meaning has so far given these odd notions the kind of irreplaceable value they have had in physics.

    By reducing language to pragmatically finite “operations” of material signifiers or by tying human understanding to the ground of an elusive yet ultimately transcendental “being,” Wittgenstein and Heidegger respectively attempt to sidestep or overcome the problem of the “infinitesimal” while essentially consigning decisions of interpretation to the rule of argument by authority. Whether in the case of signifier, being, or subject, Derrida finds infinite divisibility (and its correlate of infinitely variable context) to be an irreducible factor and a manifestation of the continuous intrusion of the “other” into the selfsame. This continuous intrusion of the “other” necessitates a routine vigilant questioning—an endless opening and reopening, interpretation and reinterpretation, of the evidence of “texts” through the course of their divided or shifting trajectories in changing contexts. Through this practice of vigilance no text has a chance of becoming “sacred” and no person has a chance of becoming sacrosanct. And, by the same token, every text retains a chance of holding out something new and valuable.

    This phenomenon of the ongoing and pervasive intrusion of the other is so irreducible and makes its force so evident in so many different areas of experience and inquiry that Derrida believed it to be an essential condition for the possibility of life. As such, the other of difference—despite its potential to introduce or inaugurate the worst as well as the best—must never be conceptualized as accidental, inessential, superficial, or essentially corrupt.

    If Derrida is right, a fundamental—but not passively embracing or uncritical— affirmation of the intrusions of difference may become the essential step in achieving nonviolent diverse community. By acknowledging the necessary presence of the other as an essential part of ourselves and as an inescapable element of difference and variation in our modes of communication, it becomes much more difficult to radically exclude, negate, or violently eliminate the other in our communities.

    What Derrida learned about himself through his childhood experiences in Algiers came full circle for him. He was not “all-one” and his writings effectively make the case that there may be considerable truth and benefit in the recognition that no one person, thing, signifier, or being is “all-one.” Although many have wrongly interpreted Derrida’s saying that “there is nothing outside the text” as yet another indication of how postmodern thinkers have dismantled the subject as the “author” of the text, Derrida in fact restores the authorial subject to a healthier context. As he said in one of his first appearances in America, “I do not destroy the subject. I resituate it.”

    It has occurred to many who find Derrida’s deconstructive affirmation of difference as authorizing little more than a postmodern brand of revolutionary nihilism that Derrida sadly overlooked Lincoln’s great truth that a house divided cannot stand. But Derrida understood and to great effect demonstrated that division is inevitable in every facet and dimension of life. And he also showed that this division need not be understood, as it most often is, as essentially antagonistic and condemned to polarized violent resolution. Divided elements can be seen as locked in a tension of essential relation and dependency through which difference, when adequately structured and understood, can be relied upon to function as a source of strength and creativity. Derrida believed this insight regarding division to be the only path to a future of human community that will systematically preclude the worst responses to conflict and difference—the culturally programmed scapegoating responses evident in World War II. His philosophy and the way in which it carefully identifies and values the crucial role of difference in every aspect of life is well worth remembering and disseminating in the present circumstances of global terror and conflict.

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