The Politics of Jacques Derrida

History of Structuralism

by François Dosse, translated by Deborah Glassman
University of Minnesota Press, two volumes, 458 and 517 pp., $85.00

The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe

by Jacques Derrida, translated by Pascale-Anne Brault, by Michael B. Naas
Indiana University Press,, 129 pp., $19.95

Force de loi

by Jacques Derrida
Paris: Editions Galilée, 146 pp., 135 FF (paper)

Moscou aller-retour

by Jacques Derrida
La Tour d’Aigues: Editions de l’Aube, 157 pp., 89 FF (paper)

Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort!

by Jacques Derrida
Paris: Editions Galilée, 58 pp., 66 FF (paper)

The history of French philosophy in the three decades following the Second World War can be summed up in a phrase: politics dictated and philosophy wrote. After the Liberation, and thanks mainly to the example of Jean-Paul Sartre, the mantle of the Dreyfusard intellectual passed from the writer to the philosopher, who was now expected to pronounce on the events of the day. This development led to a blurring of the boundaries between pure philosophical inquiry, political philosophy, and political engagement, and these lines have only slowly been reestablished in France. As Vincent Descombes remarked in his superb short study of the period, Modern French Philosophy (1980), “taking a political position is and remains the decisive test in France; it is what should reveal the ultimate meaning of a philosophy.” Paradoxically, the politicizing of philosophy also meant the near extinction of political philosophy, understood as disciplined and informed reflection about a recognizable domain called politics. If everything is political, then strictly speaking nothing is. It is a striking fact about the postwar scene that France produced only one genuine political thinker of note: Raymond Aron.

The list of important French philosophers who protected their work from the political passions of the day is short but contains some significant figures. One thinks of the Jewish moral philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, the misanthropic essayist E.M. Cioran, both of whom have recently died, and the Protestant thinker Paul Ricoeur, now ninety-five, who are all being rediscovered today. One also thinks of Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, a claim that may surprise American readers, given the ideologically charged atmosphere in which Derrida and his work have been received on our side of the Atlantic. Unlike so many of his fellow students at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in the Fifties, Derrida kept clear of the Stalinized French Communist Party (PCF), and later adopted a skeptical attitude toward the events of May ‘68 and the short-lived hysteria for Mao. Over the next decade, as Michel Foucault became the great white hope of the post-‘68 left, Derrida frustrated all attempts to read a simple political program into deconstruction. He declared himself to be a man of the left but refused to elaborate, leaving more orthodox thinkers to wonder whether deconstruction reflected anything more than “libertarian pessimism,” as the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton once charged.

As Derrida’s star began to fall in France in the 1980s, it was rising in the English-speaking world, where questions about his political commitments were raised anew. This must have been awkward for him on several counts. Derrida’s thought is extremely French in its themes and rhetoric, and is difficult to understand outside the context of long-standing Parisian disputes over the legacies of structuralism and Heideggerianism. In the United States, however, his ideas, which were first introduced into literary criticism, now circulate in the alien environment of academic postmodernism, which is a loosely structured constellation of ephemeral disciplines like cultural studies, feminist studies, gay and lesbian studies, science studies …

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