No Exit for Derrida

In 1992 Simon Critchley’s The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas reoriented Derrida studies and helped spur what is sometimes known as the “ethical turn” in continental philosophy. In the follow up to that work, Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity, Critchley expanded his critique of Derrida in search of post-deconstructive approaches to politics, a project that ultimately culminated with his book Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance, which appeared in 2007. Critchley is the author of many other books in addition, notably The Book of Dead Philosophers. Most recently, he has written a work on David Bowie and a piece of experimental fiction titled Memory Theatre. He is Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, as well as professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School.


Jeremy Butman: If there’s one thing probably universally known about Derrida, it’s that he was a polarizing figure, beloved by some and loathed by others. And what’s interesting is that unlike in the case of say Heidegger, where the reasons for that love or hate seem straightforward, in Derrida they seem obscure. So I’m wondering why people had such intense reactions.

Simon Critchley: Why people hated him? This is going to be very free form. I remember Seyla Benhabib telling me a story once, where she was in the canteen refectory at Yale, when she was a graduate student, and she was standing in line behind Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida. And she looked at Derrida, and Derrida was wearing a blue velvet suit and a really nice shirt, and she thought something like, “That can’t be, how can you wear that? How can you be taken seriously? How dare you!” So, a lot with Derrida is that: there’s a sense that he was too well dressed [laughter]. He was the opposite of the image of the philosopher as this rigorous figure, who’s a bleached out, desiccated husk, who can make a thousand wonderful distinctions in the most tedious way and who looks like he died 10 years earlier.

But the hatred is based on — you know, this looks like bullshit, this looks like it’s obscure, all of that stuff, which is just the particular ignorance of the Anglo-American academy. Derrida’s procedures as a writer show clear evidence of his intellectual formation at the École Normale of that period. He does the kind of close textual work that people did, and he produced work in line with this dissertation structure they were taught at the École Normale. So his work is very classical. In the French context the reason why he was successful early on is he was very brilliant, but he was working in a rather classical way, and working in a very classical way on arguably the most important, influential method of doing philosophy, phenomenology in Husserl, in the 1950s. We can go back to the whole animus between continental and analytic philosophy, and all of that, if we get into that can of worms, but I think people wanted to be pissed off by him. And they were. It didn’t correspond to the desiccated canons of rationality that are apparently how philosophy is done in the narrow confines of British and American academia. That’s what’s wonderful about him.

It seems that in the years since he died, the philosophical community has been trying to put to rest a lot of the controversies Derrida came to embody: the continental/analytic divide, the science wars of the ’90s, even questions of textuality and authority. Did Derrida have his moment? Has he been digested and expelled, or is there some other more lasting legacy, in terms of philosophical projects to come?

I sometimes think that with Derrida, it’s like with [Henri] Bergson. Bergson was the most influential philosopher in the world in the first decade of the 20th century. The first record of a traffic jam is on Broadway on one of Bergson’s first visits to New York. Bergson was huge news. Won the Nobel Prize. So until the ’30s, Bergson is the philosopher. The only competition I guess really is [Bertrand] Russell, who’s doing a very different thing, obviously. But then Bergson dies in tragic circumstances, and he’s instantly forgotten. I remember almost 20 years ago I was editing a book and I wanted to include a chapter on Bergson and I could find nobody to write on him. Bergson then eventually comes back through Deleuze, and now there’s a minor little cottage industry on Bergson. With Derrida, I sometimes think it’s a little like that as well. Derrida was such a huge phenomenon. When I was a student in the ’80s, he incarnated whatever the philosophical avant-garde meant. The Cambridge scandal of ’92 [in which the honorary degree awarded him by Cambridge University was protested by prominent philosophers, including W. V. O. Quine] was front-page news — front page of the Independent in London: “Cognitive Nihilism Hits English City.” It really mattered to people, insofar as philosophy can matter to people.

In the US it was different because of the context of Paul de Man. However strong or weak that proximity is judged to be, that link is made in people’s minds. When de Man’s wartime writings are published by Neil Hertz in 1988, it shifts things. The whole “deconstruction industry,” whose headquarters had been at Yale, dissolves very quickly. De Man is dead. Hillis Miller goes to Irvine; Irvine becomes the new US capital of deconstruction, but it never quite had the same influence. So there was a moment of deconstruction, a moment of Derrida, that was vast in a number of different contexts, but it’s fading already in the ’90s. So my worry is that he risks being forgotten in the same way that Bergson was forgotten.

And where is the interest in Derrida now? There’s the circle of the loyal, the true followers, some of whom are brilliant, like Geoff Bennington, some of whom are kind of, you know, followers. The posthumous work is being published with some interest, but I don’t think great interest. The worst thing about the American reception of Derrida, and again it’s different in Britain, is that it became, you know, like: he was the master who would come and visit twice a year, and there would be a laying on of hands, and then he’d go back and everything was alright in the world and new books would appear and they’d be faithfully translated. But it wasn’t clear to me what American Derrideans were actually doing. I think it became an empty mannerism. This is where I think the misfortune of his reception is really important, because to understand what Derrida’s doing you have got to understand his philosophical stakes, otherwise it just becomes a way of speaking. A stupid way of speaking: using “aporias,” beginning every sentence with “if I could only respond to this, but I can’t respond to it,” “if I had the time, knowing I haven’t got the time.” And Derrida did that. He was prolix, long-winded; he was vain, he was far too anxious as a figure for his own good. But on the other hand he was the most brilliant mind I’ve been close to, I mean physically close to. It was extraordinary what he could do.

One thing with Derrida is that he doesn’t give you a lot to push back against. He’s giving readings of texts rather than making positive statements. It’s hard to know at this stage what there is to run with, or to combat.

For me, and my views are very particular, I disagree profoundly with someone like Martin Hägglund. I just don’t see Derrida as offering any kind of positive transcendental philosophy. What Derrida offers is a practice of reading, a practice of reading which is imitable. And that practice of reading is really a practice of double reading: reading with the intentions of the text, reading against the intentions of the text; reading systematically, reading always in terms of the whole structure, or architectonics, in which a text is articulated. So I think Derrida offers a number of exemplary protocols in the manner of proceedings as a reader. Does that mean that there’s a positive content to it in terms of a series of terms, like archi-writing, trace, and so on and so forth, these “nicknames,” as Derrida called them? I see those as incidental, and I’ve never really been persuaded by them.

The other thing about Derrida’s practice of reading — well, a number of things. Firstly, there was a horror of being pinned down. I remember a conversation with Geoff Bennington. Geoff publishes his book in French with Derrida; he was about 15 years old at the time — I mean he was older than that but he was a brilliant young man — and he gets to write a book with Derrida about Derrida, where he lays out Derrida’s work in a series of what we’d now call blogs, he’s using a computer conceit in a very brilliant way, and then Derrida writes a text at the bottom of the book called “Circumfession,” which is allegedly about Augustine, about his circumcision, his prepuce. And what Derrida is saying to Geoff is: you can’t get me. You closed me into this series of categories; I will just piss all over them. So there was a deep ontological unwillingness to be pinned down, or positioned, that I don’t really know the reasons for. It was often irritating. It meant a lot of the text would be: it’s neither this nor that, not this nor the other. And it would be: What do you think! Where does the spade turn for you?

One other thing to say is that Derrida was a brilliant reader of certain philosophers, pretty much every philosopher that I’m aware of — from Condillac to Plato to Hegel, and the best reader of Heidegger, without equal — but there were things that he was really quite bad at reading. For example, the text he writes on Nelson Mandela, you think: what are you doing? You can’t do exactly the same thing to Nelson Mandela. So we have to accept that there have to be judgments of quality with respect to Derrida’s text. I think for example that his book on Marx is not that important because he just didn’t really know Marx.

What Derrideans won’t do, and other people won’t do, is say, “Well this is the really important work.” I think the important question about Derrida is that if the Bergson effect is not going to happen, if he’s not going to just be forgotten, which I hope not, then how is this taught, how is this communicated, how is this inherited? Where do you start with Derrida, and where do you end? Some people will say, “Well, the 1967 books are important.” That’s kind of the Big Bang theory of Derrida: everything is there in the early essays, and the particles just accelerate out further and further. So what, I do a course on the ’67 texts, but what do I then do with the other 80 books that he wrote? Compare it with Foucault. You could do a semester-long course on Foucault and you could have a sense of Foucault’s progress from the late ’50s to the early ’80s, and it would make sense, and it would be contestable. You could say, “Well, actually the early work is important, and the later work on the history of sex is not that important.” Or whatever. It’s inheritable and teachable. And part of my worry with Derrida is that I don’t see that.

It seems especially true if you’re going to de-emphasize the “nicknames.” The things people grasp onto when it comes to Derrida, like différance, which would be one of the “master terms,” seem to be inheritable. What’s your understanding of that and what’s your …

It’s of no interest to me! As like a big philosophical idea, I think it’s been overstated. I take it in the following way: if you look at Derrida’s introduction to The Origin of Geometry from 1961, he makes two claims about Husserl: on the one hand Husserl is committed to the value of presence, the “principle of principles,” Husserl says in Ideas I; on the other hand he’s committed to what he calls “the idea in the Kantian sense.” The idea in the Kantian sense is an idea which is not reducible to presence but is actually a differential idea, it’s something that we have to orient ourselves toward without it ever becoming revealed in presence. So it would appear there’s a contradiction in Husserl’s work between its “principle of principles” and its ideal. That is différance at work in a particular textual formation, and for me that makes sense and there are other examples like that. I’ve got an extreme view, but the nicknames are always contextually specific, they’re always parasitically dependent on the text that is being commented upon. And for me they’re less important than the demonstration. So Derrida is demonstrating something through a practice, rather than the practice leading to say a series of quasi-ontological claims.

Right, the method of reading doesn’t result in the revelation of this quasi-ontological idea of différance, but it does seem that in order for that kind of double reading to get off the ground there has to be a commitment to something like a quasi-ontological idea like différance.

Well, yeah, a commitment to … I mean, Derrida is a Heideggerian. Again, a huge problem in the reception of Derrida in the United States is that people just don’t understand Heidegger, or the people that understand Heidegger just don’t like Derrida. So it’s a disaster. Derrida is a Heideggerian. So the structure of Derrida’s work is the structure of the history of metaphysics, which is defined by a structure of sending — which Derrida complicates in The Post Card — and a claim about completion, about having not the end of metaphysics, but the closure of metaphysics. So, my claim in The Ethics of Deconstruction, which I can just about remember, was that deconstruction is a practice of double reading, but in order for that not to be reduced to a textual formalism it has to be attached to a specific and very general claim about our situation with respect to the history of metaphysics. All that Derrida does with metaphysics is to shift the vocabulary from “metaphysics” to “logo-centrism,” and shift a whole number of Heideggerian concerns onto this speech-writing matrix, phonocentrism and all the rest. But what’s at stake for the early Derrida is a very large historical claim about where we are and how we got to where we are.

And we are in the period of the closure of metaphysics, and that closure of metaphysics — again this comes straight out of Heidegger, “Overcoming Metaphysics” from 1946 — may last longer than the previous history of metaphysics, Heidegger says. For Derrida, there’s no end. Remember the text “Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy”: Derrida is always against apocalyptic tones, always against “end” discourse, against “post-” discourse. So metaphysics has reached a period of completion, where the structures of the determination of Being have been realized as technology, as the structures of social and political life. So if you’re a Heideggerian, which Derrida was, you believe that the history of metaphysics gives you the deep determining structure of the technological world that we live in. And when Derrida is engaged in his discussion of technology in Of Grammatology, his practice of reading is a way of reading the epoch, of reading where we are, the institutions that we’re in, the whole shebang. But that only becomes possible if you accept a number of Heideggerian premises, and I think Derrida accepts those and then qualifies each of them, he deconstructs each of them. But the framework is a Heideggerian framework; it’s an epochal framework.

And then the question is what happens to that epochal framework in the later work. It becomes a multiplicity of sendings. It’s not the sending of Being from Parmenides to Heidegger; it becomes a number of sendings of postcards between Derrida and his lover, or his lovers. And this is where — and this is also going to piss people off — you either go with Rorty’s reading or you don’t. American Derrideans don’t like Rorty, because Rorty is on the wrong side of the tracks or whatever. Rorty was a brilliant philosopher and a very attentive reader of Derrida. And he resolves this problem with a move from Derrida I to Derrida II, a bit like Bill Richardson and Heidegger I and Heidegger II in the ’60s. So we have Derrida with big philosophical claims, transcendental claims, and the other Derrida becomes this ironist, and that’s what takes place in a book like The Post Card. Now I think that reading can be criticized, and I did criticize it in debates with Rorty in the early ’90s. It can be systematically dismantled, but it’s still an interesting claim, because that Heideggerian framework falls away.

One other way to understand that shift in the late ’80s is through the [Victor] Farías book, and the revelations about Heidegger’s Nazism. Derrida felt the need to distance himself. He was very obviously following in Heidegger’s footsteps in a lot of ways. And this is one instance in which your book [The Ethics of Deconstruction], in ’92, offers a useful intervention: to read Derrida not just as coming out of a Heideggerian framework, but also coming out of a Levinasian framework.

I’m a graduate student between ’85 and ’88, working in France initially. What also happened in those years was the Heidegger affair, largely in Paris, but also elsewhere — Germany, Britain — and then the de Man affair, which was largely an American event. I think Derrida saw both those events as attacks on him, which I think they both were. What’s his response to that? Well, the charge is usually a charge about nihilism. Deconstruction is kind of value nihilism — it has no politics, it has no sense of responsibility, it take us nowhere. What about democracy, freedom, human rights? The nouveaux philosophes of the late ’70s, Bernard-Henri Lévy and Alain Finkielkraut will bring that, so the context really changes in France in the ’80s, and so does his work. The way I think about it is that for me there are two poles of Derrida’s work: a Heideggerian pole and Levinasian pole, and those two poles of attraction have been constant throughout his work.

After the late ’80s, the Levinasian pole of attraction gets stronger, and his work moves further and further in that direction. There’s no doubt in my mind that that’s because of what fell out of the Heidegger affair and the de Man affair. And it just so happened that my idea for writing something on the ethics of deconstruction occurred in ’86, ’87, and apart from the work of Robert Bernasconi, there was nothing. And if you even said the word “ethics” to people back then they would have laughed in your face. The Derrideans for sure. Because ethics was kind of a bourgeois matter, it was humanistic whatever. Or the whole Marxist discourse, which was opposed to any notion of ethics. So ethics wasn’t on the map, and people didn’t know Levinas.

And it’s specifically a Levinasian ethics that you have to read into Derrida.

Yeah, we’re not going to get a utilitarian ethics, a virtue ethics, or a Kantian ethics. We get something crypto-Kantian, in the sense in which there is a notion of duty in Derrida. He used to say, “il y a du devoir dans la déconstruction” — there’s duty in deconstruction. And then in the work that follows the Heidegger affair, the de Man affair, you see a number of different terms appearing: responsibility, unconditional imperative, the idea that deconstruction isn’t just the text, the text is the world. Democracy to come, all these terms begin to appear. And then in the ’90s he’s able to defend himself against those attacks more coherently.

Briefly then, what would you say is the ethics of deconstruction? Is it the practice of reading you’re talking about?

There’s an ethics of reading, for sure. But I would say that what’s driving that ethics of reading, at the core of Derrida’s practice, is an unconditional imperative of a Levinasian kind: a responsibility which always finds difficulty in being philosophically articulated. So the way Derrida will often argue it will be — for example, unconditional forgiveness. On the one hand, there’s something absolutely unforgivable, an absolute violation, call it Auschwitz, apartheid, whatever, and at the same time we have to engage in actual concrete, pragmatic acts of forgiveness. There’s always that double logic. So for Derrida there’s that kind of unconditional moral imperative, which is bound up with a relation to the Other, usually the singular Other. That’s the Levinasian component.

But that’s always going to get dirty in the details of institutional political life, and increasingly in the late work he turned more and more toward those details: the logic of the death penalty; the logic sovereignty. Derrida’s book The Politics of Friendship is like that. So, the ethics of deconstruction is manifested in the practice. But you’ve got to remember, in Derrida’s text “Violence and Metaphysics” — and I think this, for me, is the insight which really structures Derrida’s work over the subsequent decades — the intuition Levinas has into infinite responsibility for the other is deemed absolutely right, it just cannot be articulated philosophically. When it’s articulated philosophically, it slips back into forms of Hegelian conceptualizing, Heideggerian ontologizing, and Husserlian ego/alter-ego relations. So, what’s driving Derrida’s project is this heterology of an ethical relationship to the Other which can only be articulated philosophically at the cost of a betrayal. And it’s that aporetic structure that you find constantly at work in Derrida. Whereas Levinas will just say, “That’s how it is: don’t kill.”

So there’s something about Derrida — this is something that Dominique Janicaud said to me in 1986, I remember this very clearly: “You know, Derrida is a very Hegelian thinker.” Every exit from metaphysics, every exit from a closed economy, from the episteme of modernity, whichever structure he works on, every exit is going to be recouped back within the structure that it tries to leave behind. Every blow against dialectics is, as Derrida says, un coup de plus, a further blow for dialectics. So the best we can ever hope for in our thinking and reading is for a momentary halt of the machine, the dialectical machine that will conceptualize or philosophize or produce this world of technology that we inhabit. We can interrupt that. Antigone, say, is an interruption of that for Derrida; [Jean] Genet’s writing is an interruption of that. But the whole thing will continue. So there’s no escape. There’s no exit for Derrida. That’s the lesson of the work.


Jeremy Butman is a graduate student in philosophy at the New School for Social Research.