Derrida Downunder, Michael Peters

I’m an unabashed Francophile when it comes to philosophy. I remember reading Sartre’s Words as a fifth-former, sitting in a Wellington coffee bar when coffee bars first became fashionable. Last year I attended a conference entitled The End of Postmodernism? held at the Australian National University to host the American neo-pragmatist, Richard Rorty. At dinner, I made a remark to him favourably comparing the impact of his work with that of Derrida’s. He responded in his characteristically deflationary style, denying the comparison: “Derrida is a grand intellectual in the tradition of Zola and Sartre.” “The French demand someone of his stature every generation,” he added (or words to that effect).

How does one represent Derrida and his writing? The linguistic notion of representation is central to Derrida’s work and to his critique of Western metaphysics. He is suspicious of the view that language represents the world, at least in any straightforward sense. But “representation” is also important to him as a political principle indicating the ethical and political stakes in presenting an argument or representing a people, a text, an image, or (one’s relation to) another thinker – the so-called “politics of representation”. Not least, the word “representation” captures his concerns for the genres of autobiography and confession, of philosophy as a certain kind of writing, of the “personal voice”, and of the signature. Derrida is also careful of journalists and tends to refuse most invitations for interviews, especially by the popular press. Paradoxically, Points … Interviews, 1974-1994 (1995), a collection of 23 interviews given over the course of the last two decades, provides a good introduction to Derrida. In part, it was due to Derrida’s diffident attitude that his presence in New Zealand in August last year went almost unnoticed in the mainstream media, except for a biographical piece by Gilbert Wong in the Weekend Herald and a few minutes of his videotaped Auckland lecture on Bill Ralston’s Backchat, which appeared with little introduction and no discussion.

It was a surprise to everyone, including the organisers of Derrida Downunder, Laurence Simmons and Heather Worth of Auckland University, that a lecture by Derrida, entitled “Forgiving the Unforgivable”, filled the Auckland Town Hall to capacity. Over 300 academics attended the conference on Derrida’s work the following day, with papers by Stephen Turner, Vicky Kirby, David Wills, Tom Ryan, Nigel Clark, Peter Wood, John Lyall, George Pavlich, Heather Worth, and myself. Derrida himself presented a paper entitled “The Future of the Profession or The Unconditional University (thanks to the ‘Humanities’, What Could Take Place Tomorrow)” that became the basis of a panel discussion. The conference papers, including Derrida’s piece on the University, together with the panellists’ responses, are the substance of a collection to be published later this year.

Rorty was right: a visit by himself would not have resulted in the same massive turnout. I am pressed to think of another contemporary philosopher who might have generated the same public attendance in New Zealand. Popper, or Bertrand Russell in his day, might have; Quine most certainly would not have, nor Davidson or Putnam. (Has the New Zealand public even heard of these philosophers?) Although Foucault, had he ever visited New Zealand, would probably have drawn a similar crowd. In the age of Saatchi and Saatchi, where marketing has taken over the notion of the concept from philosophy, the attraction of a mass audience to a French philosopher seems remarkable, especially in New Zealand where intellectual cultures are still small and very fragile.

Perhaps one reason why Derrida generated so much public interest is because his work, for a philosopher, is enormously wide-ranging. It also speaks to many different audiences and is controversial. His enormous corpus of work spills over the disciplinary boundaries of the entire spectrum of the arts, humanities and social sciences, from literary criticism and philosophy to architecture, cultural studies, and theology. He is also a provocateur, though decidedly less cocky and abrasive in his advancing years, I’m told. At 69 Jacques Derrida, a Frenchman of Jewish extraction who was born and grew up in Algeria, is undoubtedly one of the world’s most distinguished contemporary philosophers. As the Stanford University website ( indicates, his work has been the subject in whole or part of some 400 books and “In the areas of philosophy and literary criticism alone, Derrida has been cited more than 14,000 times in journal articles over the past 17 years.” This proves that his work is well cited though not necessarily universally acclaimed or appreciated. His work has been fiercely attacked by both conservatives and members of the radical left. The former deny he is a philosopher and the latter dismiss his work as frivolous and apolitical.

Most infamous is the occasion in May 1992 when some twenty analytic philosophers, including Quine, David Armstrong, Ruth Barcan Marcus, and Keith Campbell, signed a letter to The Times protesting at the prospect of Cambridge University conferring an honorary degree upon Derrida. The signatories claimed that his work “does not meet accepted standards of clarity and rigour” and that he is not a philosopher. In elaborating these two charges, they argued, first, that while Derrida has shown “considerable originality” (based upon a number of “tricks” and “gimmicks”) he had, at the same time, stretched “the normal forms of academic scholarship beyond recognition”, employed “a written style that defies comprehension”, brought contemporary French philosophy into disrepute, and offered nothing but assertions that are either “false or trivial”, in a series of “attacks upon the values of reason, truth and scholarship.” Second, they submitted, the fact that the influence of his work has been “almost entirely in fields outside philosophy” was sufficient grounds for casting doubt on his suitability as a candidate for an honorary degree in philosophy.

Derrida’s measured response to what he called “the Cambridge Affair” was to focus upon the “journalistic” style of the letter itself and to understand it as “another demonstration of [philosophical] nationalism” which violated the very principles of “reason, truth and scholarship” that it claimed to represent. He suggested that his inquisitors “confuse philosophy with what they have been taught to reproduce in the tradition and style of a particular institution.”  The degree was conferred.

Perhaps, more than any philosopher before him, and from his earliest beginnings, Jacques Derrida has called attention to the form of “philosophical discourse” – its “modes of composition, its rhetoric, its metaphors, its language, its fictions,” as he says. This was not in order to assimilate philosophy to literature but rather to recognise the complex links between the two and to investigate the ways in which the institutional authority of academic philosophy, and the autonomy it claims, rests upon a “disavowal with relation to its own language.” (His doctoral thesis investigated “The Ideality of the Literary Object”.) The question of philosophical styles, he maintains, is itself a philosophical question.

“Deconstruction”, the term most famously associated with Derrida, is a practice of reading and writing, a mode of analysis and criticism that depends deeply upon an interpretation of the question of style. In this Derrida follows a Nietzschean-Heideggerian line of thought that repudiates Platonism as the source of all metaphysics in the West from St Paul to Kant, Mill and Marx. He agrees with Heidegger that the most important philosophical task is to break free from the “logocentrism” of Western philosophy that clouds our view and manifests its nihilistic impulses in Western culture. And yet “breaking free” does not mean overcoming metaphysics. Deconstruction substitutes a critical practice focussed upon texts for the ineffable or the inexpressible. It does so, not by trying to escape the metaphysical character of language but by exposing and undermining it: by fixing upon accidental features of the text to subvert its essential message and by playing off its rhetorical elements against its grammatical structure. Heidegger’s strategy for getting beyond “man” will not do the trick: Derrida suggests that “a change of style” is needed, one which will “speak several languages and produce several texts at once”, as he says in an early essay, “The Ends of Man” (1982).

His Auckland lecture, “Forgiving the Unforgivable”, was an exemplary and unforgettable live performance of deconstruction, mapping the line between the conditional and unconditional use of “forgiveness”, its limits and possibilities, its conceptual history in Judaeo-Christian ethics, and its contemporary juridical and political contexts, focussing upon the “radical evil” of the Nazi death-camps. He began with the simple repetition of a single word  pardon – shorn of all context; he ended with the same repetition, but, having traversed its semantic space, with the performative (the speech-act) “pardon,” as in “I beg your pardon (for keeping you so long)”, “pardon”, “thank you”, “merci”. He started with a series of preliminaries of what “forgiveness” is or might mean, noting the globalisation of the use of “apology” in the political dimension with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, Bill Clinton’s public apologies for Monicagate and American (CIA) politics in South America, and the deliberate withholding of an apology for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He traced the genealogies of the lexical family of “forgiveness”, “apology”, and “pardon”, sensitising the audience to the pragmatics of context. He explored the Latin origin of “pardon”, its meanings and usages in French, English, and German, and the way they carry over notions of “the gift”, “giving”, “forgiving”, “forgiveness” (donner, le don, pardon).

With great seriousness and understanding, he played off their ambiguities and multiple meanings, exploring their meanings in various texts, and their valencies in contemporary contexts: the Holocaust, decolonisation, ethnic conflict, crimes against humanity. While he refrained from any direct comment, there were, of course, many resonances to the political and juridical contexts of “forgiveness” in Aotearoa between Maori and the Crown. As he suggested, “forgiveness is an impossible truth or an impossible gift”; and as he pondered, “Can one only forgive when speaking or sharing the language of the Other?”

Michael Peters teaches in the School of Education at the University of Auckland. Two collections he has edited, Critical Theory, Poststructuralism and the Social Context (1996), and Cultural Politics and the University in Aotearoa/New Zealand (1997), have been reviewed in New Zealand Books.

Tagged with: ,
Posted in Comment
Search the archive
Search by category