Presidential Lecture Series
spacer spacer Jacques Derrida


Jacques Derrida

How Derrida Reads Derrida

Birth and Intellectual Development

Derridean Method

The 'Derrida Affair' at Cambridge University

Politics and Derrida

"To Experience the Future and Welcome the Monster"
"Passages - from Traumatism to Promise", in Elizabeth Weber, ed.:
Points...:Interviews 1974-1994, Stanford University Press 1995, 385-387
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Applied Derrida
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The following interviews were extracted from Points...: Interviews, 1974-1994. Stanford University Press, 1995.

How Derrida Reads Derrida
from "Unsealing ('the old new language')" pp. 115-117

Q.: "An interview with Derrida? At last maybe we're going to understand something about him!" That's what some people said when I announced I was preparing this work with you. It is said your texts are difficult, on the limit of readability. Some potential readers are discouraged in advance by this reputation. How do you live with that? Is it an effect you are seeking to produce or, on the contrary, do you suffer from it?

J.D.: I suffer from it, yes, don't laugh, and I do everything I think possible or acceptable to escape from this trap. But someone in me must get some benefit from it: a certain relation. In order to explain this, it would be necessary to draw out some very ancient things from my history, and make them speak with others, very present, from a social or historical scene that I try to take into account. It is out of the question to analyze this "relation" while improvising in front of this tape recorder, at this speed. But don't you think that those who accuse me in the way you described understand the essential of what they claim not to understand, namely, that it is a matter first of all of putting into question a certain scene of reading and evaluation, with its familiar comforts, its interests, its programs of every kind? No one gets angry at a mathematician or a physicist whom he or she doesn't understand at all, or at someone who speaks a foreign language, but rather at someone who tampers with Your own language, with this "relation" precisely, which is yours...

I assure you that I never give in to the temptation to be difficult just for the sake of being difficult. That would be too ridiculous. it's just that I believe in the necessity of taking time or, if you prefer, of letting time, of not erasing the folds. For philosophical or political reasons, this problem of communication and receivability, in its new techno-economic givens, is more serious than ever for everyone; one can live it only with malaise, contradiction, and compromise.

Q.: In short, you demand for the philosopher what is accorded at the outset to the scientist: the necessity of a translation, of an explanation that will be performed by others.

J.D.: We are all mediators, translators. In philosophy, as in all domains, you have to reckon with, while not ever being sure of it, the implicit level of an accumulated reserve, and thus with a very great number of relays (teaching, newspapers, journals, books, media), with the shared responsibility of these relays. Why is it apparently the philosopher who is expected to be "easier" and not some scientist or other who is even more inaccessible to the same readers? And why not the writer, who can invent, break new paths only in "difficulty," by taking the risks of a reception that is slow to come, discreet, mistaken, or impossible? In truth--here is another complication--I believe that it is always a "writer" who is accused of being "unreadable," as you put it, that is, someone who is engaged in an explanation with language, the economy of language, the codes and the channels of what is the most receivable.

The accused is thus someone who re-establishes contact between the corpora and the ceremonies of several dialects. If he or she is a philosopher, then it's because he or she speaks neither in a purely academic milieu, with the language, rhetoric, and customs that are in force there, nor in that "language of everyone" which we all know does not exist.

Things became virulent (since it's the case, isn't it, and fortunately so, that people do not always complain about those they cannot read) when, after some books on Husserl, I accelerated or aggravated a certain contamination of the genres. "Mixing the genres," people thought, but that's not the right word. So certain readers resented me perhaps when they could no longer recognize their territory, their "being-at-home" or "among-themselves," their institution, or--still worse--when these were being perceived from this angle or this distance...

Q.: In short, in order to read you, one must have an idea not only of philosophy but also of psychoanalysis, literature, history, linguistics, or the history of painting...

J.D. : There is especially the potential that opens up necessarily, whether one wishes it or not, from one text to another, a kind of chemistry..

Q.: To read you, one has to have read Derrida...

J.D.: But that's true for everyone! Is it so wrong to take account of a past trajectory, of a writing that has in part sealed itself, little by little? But it is also interesting to undo, to unseal. I also try to begin over again in proximity to the simplest thing, which is sometimes difficult and dangerous.

You know, the "thinking" that has it out with [s'explique avec] philosophy, science, or literature as such does not totally belong to them. It calls for a writing that sometimes can be read with an apparent facility..

Birth and Intellectual Development
from "A 'Madness' Must Watch Over Thinking" pp. 339-343

Q.: Let us imagine your future biographer. One may suppose he will write, in a lazy repetition of the public record: Jacques Derrida was born July I5, I930, in El Biar, near Algiers. It is up to you perhaps to oppose this biological birth with your true birth, the one that would proceed from that private or public event in which you really became yourself.

J.D.: For starters, that's a bit too much. You go so far as to say: "it is up to you [il vous revient] " to say when you are born. No, if there is anything that cannot be "up to me," then this is it, whether we're talking about what you call "biological birth" transferred to the objectivity of the public record, or "true birth." "I was born": this is one of the most singular expressions I know, especially in its French grammatical form. If the interview form lent itself to it, I would prefer, instead of answering you directly, to begin an interminable analysis of the phrase "je, je suis, je suis nè" in which the tense is not given. Anxiety will never be dispelled on this subject, for the event that is thereby designated can herald itself in me only in the future: "I am (not yet) born," but the future has the form of a past which I will never have witnessed and which for this reason remains always promised--and moreover also multiple. Who ever said that one was born just once? But how can one deny that through all the different promised births, it is a single and same time, the unique time, that insists and that is repeated forever? This is a little what is being recounted in Circumfession. "I am not yet born" because the moment that decided my nameable identity was taken away from me. Everything is arranged so that it be this way, this is what is called culture. Thus, through so many different relays, one can only try to recapture this theft or this institution which was able to, which had to take place more than once. But however iterable and divisible it remains, the "only once" resists.

Q.: Do you mean to say that you do not want to have any identity?

J.D.: On the contrary, I do, like everyone else. But by turning around this impossible thing, and which no doubt I also resist, the "I" constitutes the very form of resistance. Each time this identity announces itself, each time a belonging circumscribes me, if I may put it this way, someone or something cries: Look out for the trap, you're caught. Take off, get free, disengage yourself. Your engagement is elsewhere. Not very original, is it'?

Q.: Is the work you do aimed at refinding this identity?

J.D.: No doubt, but the gesture that tries to refind of itself distances, it distances itself again. One ought to be able to formalize the law of this insurmountable gap. This is a little what I am always doing. Identification is a difference to itself, a difference with/of itself. Thus with, without, and except itself. The circle of the return to birth can only remain open, but this is at once a chance, a sign of life, and a wound. If it closed in on birth, on a plenitude of the utterance or the knowledge that says "I am born," that would be death.

Q.: What relation should one see between the first birth and this other birth that would be your arrival in France, your studies at the lycée Louis-le-Grand, the khâgne, an inscription in a completely other world.?

J.D.: In Algeria, I had begun, let's say, to "get into" literature and philosophy. I dreamed of writing--and already models were instructing the dream, a certain language governed it, and certain figures and names. It's like circumcision, you know, it begins before you do. Very early I read Gide, Nietzsche, Valéry, in ninth or tenth grade. Gide even earlier no doubt: admiration, fascination, cult, fetishism. I no longer know what remains of all this. I remember a young teacher, a redhead, whose name was Lefèvre; he came from the Mètropole, which, in the eyes of us young pieds-noirs who were a little tough, made him somewhat ridiculous and naive. He sang the praises of the state of love and Les nourritures terrestres. I would have learned this book by heart if I could have. No doubt, like every adolescent, I admired its fervor, the lyricism of its declarations of war on religion and families (I probably always translated "I hated the home, families, every place where man thinks he can find rest" into a simple "I am not part of the family"). For me it was a manifesto or a Bible: at once religious and neo-Nietzschean, sensualist, immoralist, and especially very Algerian, as you know. I remember the hymn to the Sahel, to Blida, and to the fruits of the Jardin d'Essai. I read all of Gide, and probably L'immoraliste sent me to Nietzsche, which I doubtless understood very badly, and Nietzsche, oddly enough, led me in the direction of Rousseau, the Rousseau of the Rêveries. I remember I became the stage for the great argument between Nietzsche and Rousseau and I was the extra ready to take on all the roles. I loved, precisely, what Gide says about Proteus, I identified naively with him who identified, if that's possible, with Proteus. It was the end of the war ("my" Algeria was basically almost constantly at war, because the first uprisings, and thus first portents of the Algerian war, were suppressed at the end of the Second World War). Paris being occupied in 1943-44, the liberated Algiers became a sort of literary capital. Gide was often in North Africa, Camus was talked about a lot, new literary journals and new publishers sprang up everywhere. All of this fascinated me. I wrote some bad poetry that I published in North African journals, I kept a "private diary." But even as I withdrew into this reading or other solitary activities, well, in a dissociated, juxtaposed way, I also led the life of a kind of young hooligan, in a "gang" that was interested more in soccer or track than in studying. In my last two years at the lycée, I began to read Bergson and Sartre, who were very important to me for what could be called a philosophical "training," in any case at its beginnings.

Q.: Was it you or your parents who wanted you to go to the Ecole Normale?

J.D.: My parents didn't know what it was. Neither did I, even when I enrolled in hypokhâgne. The next year, when I began khâgne at Louis-le-Grand, it was quite simply the first trip I made in my life, at nineteen years of age. I had never left El Biar, in the suburbs of Algiers. The boarding-school experience in Paris was very hard, I didn't put up with it very well. I was sick all the time, or in any case frail, on the, edge of a nervous breakdown.

Q.: Until you got to the Ecole Normale?

J.D.: Yes. Those were the most difficult, most threatening years. In part, it had to do with a kind of exile, in part with the monstrous torture of the national competitions in the French system. With competitions like those of the Ecole Normale and the agrégation, rnany who found themselves in my situation had the impression of risking everything in this horrible machine or of awaiting a life or death sentence. Failure meant a return to Algiers in a state of absolute precariousness--and I didn't want to go back to Algeria once and for all (both because I felt that I could never "write" while living "at home" and already for political reasons; from the early '50s colonial politics and first of all colonial society had become unbearable for me). These years of khâgne and the Ecole Normale were thus an ordeal (discouragement, despair-failures on the exams themselves: nothing was handed to me on the first try).

Q.: And yet you remained for a long time at the Ecole Normale?

J. D.: This paradox has not escaped you; there would no doubt be a lot to say about that. I have always had "school sickness," as others have seasickness. I cried when it was time to go back to school long after I was old enough to be ashamed of such behavior. Still today, I cannot cross the threshold of a teaching institution (for example the Ecole Normale, where I taught for twenty years, or the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, where I have been teaching for six years) without physical symptoms (I mean in my chest and my stomach) of discomfort or anxiety. And yet, it's true, I have never left school in general, I stayed at the Ecole Normale for almost thirty years altogether. I must suffer also from "school sickness" in the sense this time of homesickness.

Derridean Method
from "There is No One Narcissism" pp. 199-201

Q.: [ ... ] you have often repeated that deconstruction is not a method, that there is no "Derridean method." How, then, is one to take account of your work? How do you evaluate its effects? To whom is your work addressed and, finally, who reads you?

J.D.: By definition, I do not know to whom it is addressed. Or rather yes I do! I have a certain knowledge on this subject, some anticipations, some images, but there is a point at which, no more than anyone who publishes or speaks, I am not assured of the destination. Even if one tried to regulate what one says by one or more possible addressees, using typical profiles, even if one wanted to do that it would not be possible. And I hold that one ought not to try to master this destination. That is moreover why one writes. Now, you mentioned idiom. Yes, but I also do not believe in pure idioms. I think there is naturally a desire, for whoever speaks or writes, to sign in an idiomatic, that is, irreplaceable manner. But as soon as there is a mark, that is, the possibility of a repetition, as soon as there is language, generality has entered the scene and the idiom compromises with something that is not idiomatic: with a common language, concepts, laws, general norms. And consequently, even if one attempts to preserve the idiom of the method--since you spoke of method--of a system of rules which others are going to be able to use, so even if one wants to preserve, then, the idiom of the method... well, by the fact that the idiom is not pure, there is already method. Every discourse, even a poetic or oracular sentence, carries with it a system of rules for producing analogous things and thus an outline of methodology. That said, at the same time I have tried to mark the ways in which, for example, deconstructive questions cannot give rise to methods, that is, to technical procedures that could be repeated from one context to another. In what I write, I think there are also some general rules, some procedures that can be transposed by analogy--this is what is called a teaching, a knowledge, applications--but these rules are taken up in a text which is each time a unique element and which does not let itself be turned totally into a method. In fact, this singularity is not pure, but it exists. It exists moreover independently of the deliberate will of whoever writes. There is finally a signature, which is not the signature one has calculated, which is naturally not the patronymic, which is not the set of stratagems elaborated in order to propose something original or inimitable. But, whether one likes it or not, there is an effect of the idiom for the other. It is like photography: whatever pose you adopt, whatever precautions you take so that the photograph will look like this or like that, there comes a moment when the photograph surprises you and it is the other's gaze that, finally, wins out and decides. So, I think that in what I write in particular--but this is valid for others--the same thing happens: there is idiom and there is method, generality; reading is a mixed experience of the other in his or her singularity as well as philosophical content, information that can be torn out of this singular context. Both at the same time.

The 'Derrida Affair' at Cambridge University
from "Honoris Causa: 'This is also very funny'" pp. 409-413

Q.: Your work has, to put it mildly, always stimulated a great deal of controversy, but more than this, you have been attacked in exceptionally violent ways, and denounced as undermining the very nature of intellectual inquiry itself. How do you account for the ferocity and exaggeration of these attacks on your work?

J.D.: If it were only a question of "my" work, of the particular or isolated research of one individual, this wouldn't happen. Indeed, the violence of these denunciations derives from the fact that the work accused is part of a whole ongoing process. What is unfolding here, like the resistance it necessarily arouses, can't be limited to a personal "oeuvre," nor to a discipline, nor even to the academic institution. Nor in particular to a generation: it's often the active involvement of students and younger teachers which makes certain of our colleagues nervous to the point that they lose their sense of moderation and of the academic rules they invoke when they attack me and my work. If this work seems so threatening to them, this is because it isn't simply eccentric or strange, incomprehensible or exotic (which would allow them to dispose of it easily), but as I myself hope, and as they believe more than they admit, competent, rigorously argued, and carrying conviction in its re-examination of the fundamental norms and premises of a number of dominant discourses, the principles underlying many of their evaluations, the structures of academic institutions, and the research that goes on within them. What this kind of questioning does is modify the rules of the dominant discourse, it tries to politicize and democratize the university scene. If these blindly passionate and personal attacks are often concentrated on me alone (while sometimes maintaining that it isn't me but those who "follow" or "imitate" me who are being accused--an all too familiar pattern of argument), that's no doubt because "deconstructions" query or put into question a good many divisions and distinctions, for example the distinction between the pretended neutrality of philosophical discourse, on the one hand, and existential passions and drives on the other, between what is public and what is private, and so on. More and more I have tried to submit the singularity that is writing, signature, self-presentation, "autobiographical" engagement (which can also be ethical or political) to the most rigorous--and necessary--philosophical questioning. Not that I intend putting the subject (in the biographical sense) at the center or origin of philosophical discourse (indeed, I would normally be accused of doing the opposite), but I do try in each case to put these questions in their primary terms, to relate them with themes which no doubt must irritate or disturb certain colleagues who would prefer to repress them (for example questions of sexual difference and femininity, the "proper name," literature and psychoanalysis--but it would be necessary here to review so many other themes, scientific, technical, or political). All of this probably explains why my most resolute opponents believe that I am too visible, that I am a little too "personally" "alive," that my name echoes too much in the texts which they nevertheless claim to be inaccessible. In short, to answer your question about the "exceptional violence," the compulsive "ferocity," and the "exaggeration" of the "attacks," I would say that these critics organize and practice in my case a sort of obsessive personality cult which philosophers should know how to question and above all to moderate.

Politics and Derrida
from "The Almost Nothing of the Unpresentable" pp. 86-88

Q.: As regards the political field, you have never taken up noisy positions there; you have even practiced what you call a sort of withdrawal.

J.D.: Ah, the "Political field"! But I could reply that I think of nothing else, however things might appear. Yes, of course, there are silences, and a certain withdrawal, but let's not exaggerate things. Provided that one has an interest in this, it is very easy to know where my choices and my allegiances are, without the least ambiguity. No doubt I don't manifest it enough, that's certain, but where is the measure here and is there one? It often seems to me that I have only typical and common things to say, in which case I join my voice or my vote to that of others, without claiming some authority, credit, or privilege reserved to what is so vaguely called an "intellectual" or a "philosopher."

I have always had trouble recognizing myself in the features of the intellectual (philosopher, writer, professor) playing his political role according to the screenplay that you are familiar with and whose heritage deserves to be questioned. Not that I disdain or critique it in itself; I think that, in certain situations, there is a classical function and responsibility there that must not be avoided, even if it is just to appeal to good sense and to what I consider to be the elementary political duty. But I am more and more aware of a transformation that renders this scene today somewhat tedious, sterile, and at times the crossroads of the worst procedures of intimidation (even when it is for the good cause), having no common measure with the structure of the political, with the new responsibilities required by the development of the media (when, that is, one is not trying to exploit the media for some small profit, a hypothesis not easily reconcilable with the classical typology of the intellectual).

This is one of the most serious problems today, this responsibility before the current forms of the mass media and especially before their monopolization, their framing, their axiomatics. For the withdrawal you spoke of does not at all mean in my view a protest against the media in general; on the contrary, I am resolutely for their development (there are never enough of them) and especially for their diversification, but also resolutely against their normalization, against the various takeovers to which the thing has given rise, which has in fact reduced to silence everything that does not conform to very determinate and very powerful frames or codes, or still yet to phantasms of what is "receivable." But the first problem of the "media" is posed by what does not get translated, or even published in the dominant political languages, the ones that dictate the laws of receivability, precisely, on the left as much as on the right.

It is for this reason that what is most specific and most acute in the research, the questions, or the undertakings that interest me (along with a few others) may appear politically silent. Perhaps it is a matter there of a political thinking, of a culture, or a counter-culture that are almost inaudible in the codes that I have just mentioned. Perhaps, who knows, for one can only speak here of the chances or the risks to be run, with or without hope, always in dispersion and in the minority.

Q.: This brings us back to your political activity with the group GREPH, the Research Group on the Teaching of Philosophy.

J.D. : GREPH brings together teachers, high school and university students who, precisely, want to analyze and change the educational system, and in particular the philosophical institution, first of all through the extension of the teaching of philosophy to all grades where the other so-called basic disciplines are taught. François Mitterrand has made very precise commitments in this direction. We were delighted by that and will do everything possible to see that they do not get shelved, as we have begun in the last few months to fear they might. In any case, these problems will not go away and neither will those who are fully aware of their seriousness and who have to deal with them.

All of this calls for a profound transformation of the relations between the State, research or teaching institutions, at the university level and elsewhere, science, technics, and culture. The models that are now collapsing are roughly those that, at the dawn of industrial society, were discussed by Germany's "great philosophers," from Kant to Heidegger, passing by way of Hegel, Schelling, Humboldt, Schleiermacher, Nietzsche, before and after the founding of the University of Berlin. Why not reread them, think with them and against them, but while taking philosophy into account? This is indispensable if one wishes to invent other relations between the rationalization of the State and knowledge, technics, and thinking, if one wants to draw up new contractual forms among them or even to dissociate radically their duties, powers, and responsibilities. Perhaps it would be necessary now to try to invent places for teaching and research outside the university institutions?

©1995, Stanford University Press


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