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Outside the Text

Jacques Derrida resists easy canonization in a new hagiography for the Left

An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida by Peter Salmon. Verso, 320 pages.


A charming depressive with David Lynch hair and shirt collars unbuttoned to the nipple, Jackie “Jacques” Derrida was named after the child star of Charlie Chaplin’s film The Kid by middle-class Jewish parents in El Biar, a suburb of Algiers, in 1930. Thirty-seven years later he wrote two books that would establish the style of reading he called “deconstruction”: Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology, each published on either side of the Summer of Love. By the end of 1983, Derrida had been the subject of polemics in The New York Review of Books, a Scritti Politti song, and a set-up drug bust in Communist Prague. A monolingual philosopher of language who cracked polyglottal puns about his own penis in print, “Derrida” is mentioned in more than eighty thousand articles on JSTOR, an occasional punching bag of Right and Left alike whose own partisans are most likely to be found postponing retirement in literature departments of American universities. Few modern philosophers have been as willfully misread, demonized, canonized, and imitated.

Six years after his death in 2004, Flammarion published the 750-page Derrida: A Biography by Benoît Peeters, who was given full access to Derrida’s archive and survivors. Peeters admits that it was not his intention “to provide an introduction to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, let alone a new interpretation of a work whose breadth and richness will continue to defy commentators for years to come.” For Peeters, an “intellectual biography,” which would necessarily omit “childhood, family, love, material life,” could not accurately portray a man who once said of Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger, “I’d like to hear them talk about their sexual lives.”

Translated into English by Andrew Brown for Polity in 2013, Peeters’s book “refused to exclude anything.” Its reader learns, for instance, of Derrida’s protracted affair with philosopher Sylviane Agacinski, a onetime pupil, yielding a son out of wedlock in 1984; friendships broken (with philosopher Julia Kristeva and her husband, novelist Philippe Sollers) and maintained (with mentor Louis Althusser even after the Marxist philosopher strangled his wife to death in 1980); and Derrida’s daft reaction to the revelation several years later that Paul de Man, a friend and acolyte, had been an anti-Semite and collaborationist in Belgium prior to his fraudulent ascent of the French department at Yale, where, having doctored his transcripts from the Free University of Brussels to gain admission to graduate study at Harvard, he was hired in 1970 without an undergraduate degree. Derrida himself would teach at Yale, visiting for semesters here and there between stints at the University of California, Irvine, and New York University, which recently reinstated Derrida’s advisee Avital Ronell following a suspension for sexual harassment of a student of her own four decades after a romance with Derrida’s other son, Pierre, when he was sixteen and she was twenty-seven, Peeters reports. Laundry this dirty, transgressing the “borders between public and private life” so zealously defended by the French since Voltaire, presents “the most delicate questions which a biographer encounters,” Peeters writes, but he handles them with an open mind, doing justice to a thinker for whom philosophy “has always been at the service” of autobiographical memory.

A monolingual philosopher of language who cracked polyglottal puns about his own penis in print, “Derrida” is mentioned in more than eighty thousand articles on JSTOR.

A new biography attempts to grapple with the “conscious intellectual life” Peeters views with wise circumspection, but it dwells, somewhat ironically, on the same purview as Peeters’s “biography of a philosophy”: “readings and influences, the genesis of the principal works, their turbulent reception, the struggles in which Derrida was engaged, and the institutions he founded.” Peter Salmon’s An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida cites Peeters’s book, on average, once for every eleven endnotes, exercising professional restraint. It is less salacious than Peeters’s book, prudery being an occupational hazard of the intellectual biographer, but An Event, Perhaps is far from dry. Salmon proceeds with the enthusiasm of a passionate teacher, treating his subject’s life and work as parallel columns in a single, coherent text. To Salmon, Derrida “was a philosopher first and foremost” whose oeuvre “displays a meticulous consistency of thought and method.”

At times, Salmon is a little too defensive, almost paranoid, in anticipating the objections of Derrida’s critics and detractors, for whom “the father of deconstruction” appears, alternately, as “slippery and slick operator,” “gadfly,” “cause célèbre,” “charlatan,” or as Michiko Kakutani wrote in The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, impresario of a “free-floating nihilism” whose “relativistic arguments” have been disastrously appropriated by the contemporary Right.

The idea that “postmodernism,” pundit shorthand for Derrida’s generation of French philosophers, a handful of British and American Marxists, and the artists, academics, Hollywood filmmakers, and advertising executives who mostly misread them, is responsible for fascism’s latest reunion tour says more about journalists’ willingness to read than it does about Of Grammatology. Still, there is no doubt that the central tenet of deconstruction, which proposes the existence of a parasitic tendency in language to defer meaning indefinitely, is just radical and idealist enough to be popularly bowdlerized: you can win a Top Chef challenge by cooking a deconstructed omelet so long as the ingredients are taken apart and put back together again. Were Derrida’s methods aimed at history and politics, as in 1993’s Specters of Marx, with more frequency, less handwringing over his leftist credentials might be necessary on Salmon’s part to neutralize the glares of his neighbors in the Verso catalog.

One “event” referenced in Salmon’s title was a conference held at Johns Hopkins University in October 1966, “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man,” where Derrida read a sort of meta-paper, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences,” later published in Writing and Difference. Organized by Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato, the colloquium has been characterized for decades as a Last Supper for structuralism, the interdisciplinary method of analysis that blossomed in France only a few years earlier. Influenced by turn-of-the-century Swiss semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure and the Russian formalists of the interwar era, the French structuralists approached culture through its systemic relations. Fredric Jameson summarized structuralism as an attempt “to rethink everything through once again in terms of linguistics”; consequently, the traditional objects of study in the humanities and social sciences were reevaluated as signs abstracted from the things they signified, whose initial pairing, Saussure argues, is arbitrary anyhow: “cat” refers to a furry quadruped not because there is any special bond between the animal and the word, but only because “cat” is not “cab,” or “cot,” or “bat.” For Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Pierre Bourdieu, Althusser, and the early Michel Foucault, the world became a matrix of code waiting to be processed and categorized.

In Baltimore, Derrida poked a hole in the structuralist balloon. With Barthes, Lacan, Jean Hyppolite, Lucien Goldmann, de Man and other Yale disciples, and only two women in attendance, Derrida took aim at Lévi-Strauss to argue that structuralism’s reliance on a stable center was an invalidating fiction. Because we are all bricoleurs, the term used by the anthropologist to describe those who fashion tools out of “the means at hand,” there is no closed system, and the center cannot hold. This insight would lead Derrida to further develop the neologism he had already coined, upon which rests much of his reputation today: différance, a double entendre on the French verb différer and its simultaneous signification of difference and deferral. If to differentiate is to mean, communicating identity through dissimilarity, then so it is to postpone, revealing a “signifying chain,” as Lacan described it, that produces limitless variation and forever delays the gratification of sense. This infinite putting off leaves behind a trace, borrowing a concept from Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious (Derrida’s wife, Marguerite, was a renowned psychoanalyst and translator of Melanie Klein), what Derrida calls “the origin of the origin,” “the absolute origin of sense in general” which reveals that “there is no absolute origin of sense in general.” Derrida’s philosophy is one not of ontology but “hauntology,” the notion that, like Hamlet’s ghost and Marx’s “specter of communism,” the present is “always already” absent.

Revolutionary as this might have been to the Frenchmen assembled and their admirers in the English department, it was infuriating to the analytical school that has been mostly successful at gatekeeping academic philosophy in the Anglophone world. The prominence of Derrida’s growing list of haters—the now disgraced John Searle in one camp, and culture warriors like Allan Bloom and Camille Paglia, who achieved crossover success by attacking poststructuralism, in another—did nothing but elevate his profile. And because the French university system was less receptive to his work than its counterparts abroad (a source of lifelong discontent, Salmon notes), Derrida was welcomed into academia’s cosmopolitan elite, a murky because infinitesimal target ripe for satire—9/11 found Derrida touring China.

Salmon gives his subject’s ideas the room they need to breathe.

Salmon is right to point out that Derrida’s insights are “fundamental” to swaths of scholarly discourse: “literature, feminism, (post-)colonialism, law, psychoanalysis, politics, film theory, theology, even architecture, friendship, gift-giving, and hospitality.” By dismantling the master narrative, Derrida is, for Salmon, “like Madonna” in that his ideas sent a message of de-essentializing empowerment to feminism and postcolonialism as “potent” as seeing the popstar “dry her armpits with the hand-dryer in a bathroom.”

With flourishes like these and the pains he takes to situate Derrida’s work in an intellectual genealogy, Salmon’s book surpasses Peeters’s in accessibility. His reader doesn’t need to know the circumstances that led German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl to write “The Origin of Geometry,” an obscure essay that became the focus of Derrida’s dissertation (published thirty-six years later, in 1990), or the impact that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s 1976 translation of Of Grammatology had on postcolonial thought (its disputed accuracy notwithstanding). Salmon gives his subject’s ideas the room they need to breathe.

Despite the wide scope of his bibliography and reception, Derrida was a specialist in a subfield of his own design, more or less: the philosophy of writing, which upends the privileging of speech over writing that has dominated Western metaphysics since Plato. This “phonocentrism” (which Derrida yarns into “logocentrism,” and eventually, “phallocentrism”) starts from a false premise, that the moment of utterance in Aristotle’s view is somehow more rhetorically “present” than the kairos of writing, the occasion whose own being is interrogated by the name of Salmon’s book. In the spirit of the times, Derrida cites a section on masturbation in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Confessions to argue

There is nothing outside of the text . . . What we have tried to show by following the guiding line of the ‘dangerous supplement’, is that in what one calls the real life of these existences ‘of flesh and bone’, beyond and behind what one believes can be circumscribed as Rousseau’s text, there has never been anything but writing; there have never been anything but supplements, substitutive significations which could only come forth in a chain of differential references, the ‘real’ supervening, and being added only while taking on meaning from a trace and from an invocation of the supplement, etc.

Et cetera indeed. Three years earlier, in 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre had renounced literature by refusing the Nobel Prize, but to Derrida, that was all there was. Salmon makes as much of Derrida’s youthful love of Albert Camus and James Joyce as the influence of Heidegger and Emmanuel Levinas, and the case for his work as an instance of late modernist experimentation is convincing. But as a writer of prose, Derrida has done more harm than good, which Salmon’s high regard does not allow him to see, or at least to acknowledge. It is true that Derrida’s writing is a performance of his ideas, and were anyone to attempt to prove the impossibility of meaning without stretching language to its absolute limits, the argument would stop in its tracks. For a less ambitious writer, the opacity that has become Derrida’s trademark is not clever, nor is it serious, and the rapacity with which generations of academics have imitated his style constitutes the grossest misreading of them all. His star has faded some since critique has lapsed into postcritique, sociology of literature, and pseudoscientific phenomenologies of reading, but it can be difficult to penetrate the jargon of a museum catalog even with a doctorate in theory, and that belongs to Derrida’s legacy along with the rest.

Just as Derrida argued, in 1987, that “no one has ever been able to reduce the whole work of Heidegger’s thought to that of some Nazi ideologue,” his own thought need not be contained by its vessel. Derrida’s rise to eminence in the wake of the 1960s was due, without question, to an ideological promiscuity that felt seductively in sync with the excesses of the “Me” Decade. At a time when our means of signification are more intricate, layered, and alienated than ever before, deconstruction is likely the most valuable theoretical instrument for sorting through bullshit to be suggested in the last half-century, even if it is easily mistaken for more of the same. His refusal to recognize anything outside the text may disqualify Derrida from many conversations on the Left, but like proletarian revolution, the text itself is a messianic ideal: it is “not that the letter never arrives at its destination,” he wrote to Agacinski in 1977 (published in 1980’s The Post Card), “but it belongs to the structure of the letter to be capable, always, of not arriving. And without this threat . . . the circuit of the letter would not even have begun.” Derrida continued the revaluation of values announced by Friedrich Nietzsche in 1895, standing language on its head, but his work, at this stage, can only be said to exist. As yet unrealized, it has infected the biographer’s voice when he writes, of 1994’s The Politics of Friendship, “Perhaps the impossible is the only possible chance of something new.” Perhaps.