Remains to be Seen

By Peggy KamufOctober 9, 2014

Remains to be Seen

PRINCETON UNIVERSITY recently negotiated to buy Jacques Derrida’s library. In the course of these negotiations, it seems that questions were raised about the expensive acquisition of duplicates of so many books the university already owned. It was thought better to buy only the volumes that had been annotated by Derrida, which were the most valuable of the collection. Eventually, however, this objection was set aside and Princeton could go ahead with the purchase; Princeton would proceed, too, with a long-planned conference commemorating the 10th anniversary of Derrida’s death, titled “Unpacking Derrida’s Library: Secrets of the Archive.”

I tell this anecdote because it says something about the condition of Derrida’s remains. Are they still holding together, standing up to the force of time, or are they scattering, breaking up, and disappearing? And which side of this alternative is the better one, the fate more to be wished for, at least by someone like myself who wants for them, if possible, the better fate?

No doubt it’s a good thing that such a super-wealthy university was willing to house this archive as a whole, thereby preserving its richness for researchers and students of Derrida’s work, of which there are many and no doubt a growing number of them now even at Princeton. With its resources and cultural capital, that university has speculated on the force of Derrida’s name to hold together, a force that would extend even to the very books that used to surround their owner in his study and his home. In return, the name, his name, has been fortified by this marketplace evaluation, so as better to resist the scattering, erosion, and degradation of what remains of his work. So that’s on the one side.

But, on the other side, who’s to say that the fate of being dispersed, sent coursing through the veins and the loam of a culture, unrestrained by the capitalizing, appropriating ambitions of its most privileged institutions would not be better, that is, more nourishing, more disseminating, more forceful, more — dare one say it? — deconstructive?

I’ve read many a dissertation prospectus and grant proposal that mobilize terms or concepts Derrida once put into circulation whose authors felt no obligation to credit the inventor. Half the time the writer was probably not even aware that the original spin Derrida gave to so many terms of now shared critical discourse — “messianic,” “autoimmune,” “spectrality,” “democracy to come,” etc. — had had manifestly sufficient force to carry over onto their own thought screens, like pool balls set in motion at some now distant location.

Such uses are an interesting symptom of the erasure of Derrida’s name from his own verbal-conceptual inventions. Take “deconstruction,” as just the most obvious example. It circulates everywhere freely, and long ago slipped out of the tether to its inventor, even though, or rather, precisely because it was his most famous invention, the one with which his name will always be associated in encyclopedias and the like (e.g., “Derrida is best known for developing a form of semiotic analysis [sic] known as deconstruction,” Wikipedia). It would appear, then, that the condition for this general dispersion (or “success”) of the invention is the erasure somewhere of the proper name. It can then circulate without patents, without royalties, with unlimited free use.

Derrida, it’s no surprise, thought a lot about this condition under which inventive works irrigate and cultivate, feed and fertilize our language-cultures. In this regard, he once tried out the metaphor of a written text’s “biodegradability,” its capacity to disintegrate entirely into the fibers of a cultural landscape. But in the attempt, he kept coming up against something like a paradox or a double bind. Here’s one way he described it:

The worst but also the best that one could wish for a piece of writing is that it be biodegradable. And thus that it not be so. As biodegradable, it is on the side of life, assimilated, thanks to bacteria, by a culture that it nourishes, enriches, irrigates, even fecundates but on the condition that it lose its identity, its figure, or its singular signature, its proper name. And yet, is not the best way to serve the said “culture” […] to oppose a certain resistance to living biodegradability? Is it not the case that, as “nonbiodegradable,” the singularity of a work resists, does not let itself be assimilated, but stays on the surface and survives like an indestructible artefact or in any case one which is less destructible than another? 

(“Biodegradables: Seven Diary Fragments,” Critical Inquiry 15, 4, p. 824)

It need hardly be said that Derrida’s work, its singularity, has resisted this assimilation or biodegradation. There are journals, conferences, university courses, academic books that reinscribe his name repeatedly in their titles, not to mention 10th-anniversary publications like this one. This reinscription or re-entitling is obviously a counterforce — a resistance — to the erasures of all sorts that are happening elsewhere.

But, before this and first of all, there is the resistance posed by the work itself, the hard kernel formed when the intelligibility of a universal “message” is joined to the unintelligible secret of a singularity.

All of Derrida’s writings force us to reflect on this joint. They frequently describe and analyze it, and they are always flexing it, while testing the resistance of the general circuits of meaning. There are places in the oeuvre where this testing reaches such a high poetic pitch that the hard kernel can appear to contract to an elliptical dark hole. In texts like Cinders, “Envois,” Circumfession, A Silkworm of One’s Own, “Che cos’è la poesia?,” the hermeneut reading for transposable, general meaning is going to run into the resistance of elliptical, cryptic figures and phrasings that are manifestly holding something in reserve. And yet, even such encrypted, poetic texts are always articulating general propositions about any number of things and thus doing eminently philosophical work — the work of what Derrida first called the deconstruction of metaphysics.

This work continues in numerous ways. There is, to be sure, the ongoing mobilization of Derrida’s writings, which constitute an immense resource for research of many sorts, in the humanities, but also in law, international relations, anthropology, and still many other disciplines, including, as I discovered a while ago, a strain of self-proclaimed deconstructive accountants! There is also the work of preserving Derrida’s archive — manuscripts, typescripts, printed matter, computer files, etc. — and of making it available to researchers. Seeing to that are two institutions, UC Irvine Special Collections and, in France, IMEC, Institut Mémoires de l’Édition Contemporaine. Work goes on as well editing the unpublished seminars, publishing, and then translating them, so that more people can do more work on them. It all adds up, in other words, to a lot of work.

But I would also say that wherever art is getting purchase on the times and resisting something there, it is doing deconstructive work: a general structure is being displaced by a singular resistance that signs itself in a work.

At one point in “Biodegradables,” Derrida feigns to confess the secret of deconstruction’s longevity when he conjectures that “the secret without secret of resistance, for deconstruction, is perhaps a certain connivance with ruin.” This seems tantamount to saying that it holds up because it falls down — which pretty much ruins the chances anyone ever had of choosing the better fate for Derrida’s inventions. For what calculation could ever compute the success of ruin?

Whatever it is, the future of all this — Derrida’s work, deconstruction — is incalculable. All the same, I will go on desiring to know which is the better fate, at least for a little while yet.


Peggy Kamuf lives in Los Angeles and teaches French and comparative literature at the University of Southern California where she is also director of the Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture Doctoral Program. Her latest book is To Follow: The Wake of Jacques Derrida.

LARB Contributor

Peggy Kamuf lives in Los Angeles and teaches French and comparative literature at the University of Southern California. Her latest book is To Follow: The Wake of Jacques Derrida.


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