Controversial French philosopher Jacques Derrida, who died on 8 October 2004, has been justifiably defended against his (often proudly un-knowledgeable) critics by the avuncular literary theorist Terry Eagleton, writing in The Guardian newspaper
The Daily Telegraph, not known for its natural sympathies towards left-leaning wordsmiths, also provided a reasonably accurate and balanced assessment, albeit perhaps confusing its readers about structuralists (those who seek to explore the relationships through which meaning is generated in culture) and post-structuralists (who gravitate towards interpretative plurality and the subversion of traditional hermeneutics).
The Telegraph further observed that ‘Derrida was the embodiment of the philosopher-rebel, admired for his explosive critique of the authoritarian values latent in orthodox approaches to literature and philosophy.’
It went on: ‘The most popular misconception about him, Derrida said, was that he was “a sceptical nihilist who doesn’t believe in anything, who thinks nothing has meaning, and text has no meaning. That’s stupid,” he protested, “and utterly wrong.” ’
In his later years Derrida turned increasingly towards God-talk and religious textuality as sources of corrigibility pointing towards ‘the impossible’; evoking those creative lesions of thought and language which illustrate the necessary failure of all human attempts at ‘closure’.
For Derrida this was a profoundly responsible and ethical task. Deconstruction, the critical movement most strongly identified with him, is not (as its moniker might misleadingly suggest) about destroying texts. In its refusal of dogmatic fixity it is, rather, a conscious antidote to the totalitarian mind.
Derrida’s later works on identity, death and forgiveness are among his most profound and engaging. Particularly towards what turned out to be the end of his life (a script which, he would be the first to say, cannot be finalised, least of all on his own account), he developed a productive, mutually respectful dialogue with Christian and Jewish philosophers and theologians.
In a summary and review article which appeared shortly after his demise, The Chronicle of Higher Education in the US interviewed one of the philosopher’s most important theological interlocutors.
‘ “He acquired a whole new life in the academy in the last 15 years or so,” said John D. Caputo, a professor of religion and humanities at Syracuse University, and the author of The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Indiana University Press, 1997). “He began to talk about what he called ‘the undeconstructable.’ “
‘When Derrida was in vogue among literary theorists, you would not have heard that expression. The idea that deconstruction could be carried out in the name of something undeconstructable — you just didn’t hear [that] from literary folks. But in his later work, he began to talk about the undeconstructability of justice, of democracy, of friendship, of hospitality.”
‘Some scholars have referred to “the ethico-political turn” in Derrida’s work during the 1990s. Interest in his writings increased among philosophers, and also among those in religious studies.
‘In earlier years, some commentators on Derrida’s work had wondered whether his exacting attention to texts might not make him, in effect, a secular practitioner of the reading skills cultivated by centuries of Talmudic scholars. (Indeed, Derrida had hinted as much himself. His book Writing and Difference closes with a quotation attributed to a rabbi named Derrida.)
‘In interviews and autobiographical texts from his final decade, he began to speak about growing up as a Jew in Algeria during the Vichy period. More and more of his writing began to take the form of an overt dialogue with the work of Emmanuel Levinas, a French Jewish thinker who worked at the intersection of Heideggerian philosophy, ethical reflection, and biblical commentary.
‘ “The idea of something of unconditional value begins to emerge in Derrida’s work — something that makes an unconditional claim on us,” said [Professor] Caputo. “So the deconstruction of this or that begins to look a little bit like the critique of idols in Jewish theology.”
‘In 2002 Derrida gave the keynote address at the convention of the American Academy of Religion, held in Toronto. Speaking to a crowded auditorium, the philosopher said, “I rightly pass for an atheist” — a puzzling formulation, by any measure.
‘Caputo recalled that other scholars asked Derrida, “Why don’t you just say, ‘Je suis. I am an atheist’?” Derrida replied, “Because I don’t know. Maybe I’m not an atheist.”
‘ “He meant [by] that, I think, [that] the name of God was important for him,” said Caputo, “even if, by the standards of the local pastor or rabbi, he was an atheist. The name of God was tremendously important because it was one of the ways that we could name the unconditional, the undeconstructable.” ‘
[© The Journal of Higher Education, USA, 2004]
Jacques Derrida’s thought has also been explored, creatively and critically, by such different British theologians as Graham Ward (who examined him alongside Karl Barth — Barth, Derrida and the Language of Theology, Cambridge University Press, 1995) and John Reader (together with Jurgen Habermas — Beyond All Reason, Aureus Publishing, 1997).
The enigmatic Frenchman’s work was and is a major boost for those who believe that linguistic and phenomenological discourse takes us much further in our understanding of the passion and rationality of faith than traditional metaphysics and epistemology.
Derrida was undoubtedly one of the great public intellectuals of the twentieth century. I believe his legacy for theology, not least for biblical theology, will turn out to be immense; far greater than anyone can now predict.
As a hint of what this might involve, it is worth examining John Caputo’s finely evocative essay on the experience of God and the axiology of the impossible. A piece of reflection thoroughly situated in philosophical reflection post-Nietzsche and post-ontotheology turns out to be full of biblical resonance: a retraditioning of the tradition, if you like.
For those who recognise his value, Derrida’s output is not beyond criticism, of course – rather, it is worthy of it. His density of language and wry (if profoundly moral) perversity can make him and his writing seem overwhelming at times. But those in Cambridge and elsewhere who tried to belittle him as a fraud or a joker when the question of an honorary doctorate was first raised at the University in the 1990s were way off the mark.
What they did recognise, correctly, is that the new wave of continental thought, of which Derrida was one of the finest and most wily exponents, has severely weakened the high priesthood of analytic philosophy, just as it has further demolished the pretensions of logical positivism.
In other words, Derrida was rattling the cages of a long-cherished English academic citadel, and reformulating what counts as logic – but not, as some have alleged, discarding it.
Like Karl Barth in the theological arena, perhaps, Derrida has also been ill served by some of his acolytes and by his less perceptive extrapolators. The approach to language, life and ethics he helped to pioneer has, indeed, risked disappearing up its own fundament at times. Linguistic philosophy has never been a faux-free zone.
Yet we need to make allowance for the fact that any movement of intellectual and political innovation or transition almost inevitably carries over-enthusiasm and over-statement in its wake. That has surely been the case with deconstruction on those occasions when it has been taken as a synonym for arbitrary word play or literary vandalism.
Such distortions can be challenged and corrected, however. For instance, Derrida himself always protested loudly (and quite justifiably) against those who misunderstood the sound bite ‘there is nothing outside the text’ to mean that there is nothing but the text.
What he was saying, he explained, was that all life and thought is inescapably language-bound – even as language itself embodies the incompleteness, excess and difference that necessarily refuses its own closure. The added irony is that he probably never used those exact words.
Some, like Cambridge scholar Don Cupitt, have taken post-modern and Derridean insights into the religious arena. But they have then incorporated them in an inflexible anti-realism that consigns God to an entry in the dictionary, and substitutes for the superabundance of the Word-made-flesh a positivistic ecstasy of subjectivity.
This is nineteenth century rationalism in post-modern clothing. Derrida’s diffidence about the status of his atheism contrasts with Cupitt’s certitude about the inescapability of the void. Yet in his later years Derrida warned against totalising the deconstructable.
Within a quite different intellectual climate, Dietrich Bonhoeffer issued a comparable warning to Karl Barth, who wished to re-inscribe the alterity of the Word at the core of certain theological traditions that had tamed or abandoned it. He said that the Swiss theologian and his followers should beware taking their insights about the universal particularity of Christian narrative too far towards a ‘positivism of revelation’.
Perhaps this demonstrates that thinkers are often more fruitful in what they affirm (create) than in what they rush to deny on the basis of their affirmations. This serves to remind theologians that, while seeking to learn from friendly critics like Derrida, the enterprise of re-describing the world as a gift of God can never be contained, controlled, circumscribed or closed by disciplines of enquiry that fall short of the letting-go which is prayer.
For prayer, perhaps, along with the effusive utterance that makes nonsense of the manipulations of power (glossalalia), is that fully personal way of speaking which places us in the presence of the unconditioned and uncontrollable, thus making our deconstruction a matter of hope not despair.
Derrida might not have subscribed to Christian claims about the nature and impact of ‘the undeconstuctable’ implied by such an understanding of prayer. But he travelled as a friend within the arena of difference that for him constituted the unquenchable possibility of freedom.