The time magazine has published a full-page essay on the living French philosopher Jacques Derrida. It is tantalizingly titled ‘Life with the Father of Deconstructionism’. The occasion that called for the essay was the making of a documentary on the life and works of Derrida. The event became news because he is no ordinary celebrity like a rock-singer, a sportsman, not to speak of a film star. Philosophers and philosophy are not the stuff that films are usually made of and Derrida’s brand of philosophy is complex enough to deter rendition in another medium. Even in the midst of growing recognition and popularity that has come late in life, he continues to be derided for his arcane ideas and convoluted exposition. The sharpest criticisms on his thinking have come from philosophers belonging to the analytical tradition in the English-speaking Anglo-Saxon world. The dislike of the analytical philosophers for continental philosophy, particularly the French version, is well known. It did not disappear even after compromises were made in drawing up academic courses in British and American universities. Given this prejudice, the making of a documentary on the most controversial of the contemporary continental philosophers is nothing short of unexpected. The surprise is all the more because the film was made in Hollywood and in English.
Derrida, of course, is not the first philosopher to become the subject of a film. The first was Wittgenstein, who was posthumously commemorated in a documentary directed by Derek Jerman and produced by BBC. It was a wickedly funny film giving generous space to the homo-erotic relationship between Wittgenstein and the economist J. M. Keynes, as if to prove the fashionable point that a celebrity’s life is not complete without a dash of sexual aberration. Like Derrida, Wittgenstein is also difficult to understand, particularly with his cryptic aphorisms, like, ‘the world is all that is,’ that appear in his first book Tractatus in a ledger-like format. But unlike Derrida, he was fortunate to be introduced to the Anglo-Saxon philosophical establishment early in his career. Taken under the wings of the leading British philosopher Bertrand Russel, he could distance himself from the continental philosophical tradition, assuring early recognition by the analytical philosophers. To understand the unfavourable reaction to Derrida’s thinking by the philosophers of the English-speaking world one has to remember the distance that exists between analytical and continental traditions.
Although there is no consensus on the precise origin of continental philosophy it is more or less agreed that it started with philosophical writings after Kant, he being the final great figure common to both the analytic and continental traditions. The distinction was articulated in the gradually unfolding professional self-description used by the departments of philosophy to organize their curricula and course offerings. It also led to the declaration of broad intellectual allegiances under the two schools. This is how professional self-description meant to organize philosophy courses for teaching became enmeshed with ideological prejudice of political geography. This conflation of philosophical tradition with political geography led to the ideological stereotyping and distortions that can be found in such labels as ‘British Empiricism,’ ‘French Rationalism’ and ‘German Metaphysics’. These labels served to widen the gulf between philosophical traditions and hindered the possibility of dialogue between them.
Observing changes in undergraduate and postgraduate philosophy courses in the English-speaking world before the 1970s it is seen that during the post-war period continental philosophy was broadly synonymous with phenomenology (the world as experienced in consciousness) and existential philosophy (a version of phenomenology). The reason why ‘phenomenology’ was replaced by the rubric ‘continental philosophy’ is not clear. It could have been introduced to take account of the various Franco-phone schools of philosophy (e.g. post-structuralism) that asserted their difference from phenomenology. Derrida, along with Lacan and Lyotard, was in minor opposition to it, while Foucault was in complete disagreement. Be that as it may, there is now near-complete professional hegemony of analytic philosophy in the English-speaking world where types of non-analytic philosophy, like phenomenology, is obliged to define their position in relation to this hegemony. Despite this questionable dominance, there are universities in the UK, Ireland, Canada and Australia that specialise in continental philosophy; there are many more in America. The influence of continental philosophy in the English-speaking world, particularly in its more recent Franco-phone versions, is arguably much stronger outside philosophy departments than within them. It has decisively influenced many theoretical expositions in the humanities and social science. For Derrida, recognition in the English-speaking philosophical establishment, however, has not been easy, it having been given grudgingly, even though among students his ideas became widely popular. One has only to look at the Derrida affair in Cambridge in 1992 where certain prominent members of the university opposed his nomination for an honorary doctorate. That he now teaches at British and American universities not only highlights the non-geographical location of continental philosophy but also is a vindication of his ideas that were ridiculed widely not so long ago.
Derrida is an unusual philosopher and hard to categories. He himself said, ‘I am not happy with the word philosopher.’ Are his texts rather to be read and understood as literary? To this his reply was, ‘I will say that my texts belong, ‘neither to the philosophical register, nor to the literary register.’ This brings out the most striking aspect of Derrida’s contribution to intellectual tradition: it is not philosophy in the straightforward sense. Derrida has not so much re-defined philosophy, the traditional task of philosophy, as rendered it indefinite (also difficult). This is the cause of many misunderstandings of Derrida, by both philosophers and non-philosophers. The difficulty in respect of his writings demands a delicacy of reading and is a challenge to readers, which goes some way towards explaining the attraction he has held for students with analytical bent of mind in various disciplines. In over forty books and many more essays Derrida has presented his complex and challenging ideas and continues to do so tirelessly. But his name has become closely associated with the philosophical concept and practice denoted by the term ‘de-construction’. He chose the word from Heidegger and like him, used it to mean ‘dismantling’ and not destruction of the traditional concept of western philosophy. When he chose the word he had little or no idea of the importance it would assume for his later thinking. Although first developed as a philosophical concept, it has spread into literary, arts and film criticism and theory, psychoanalysis and social theory.
To put it in a nutshell, de-construction is the reading of texts in terms of their marks, traces, indistinct features, margins, limits or frameworks and in terms of their self-delimitation as texts. It means that deconstruction is concerned with offering an account of what is constrained in a text not by seeking out its component parts or its implications but rather by marking off its relations to other texts, its contexts and sub-texts. Deconstruction thus seeks to show how a text’s explicit formulations undermine its implicit aspects. It brings out what the text excludes by showing what it includes. The beauty of the concept is that deconstruction can be understood through texts, just as texts can be understood through it. Unlike many philosophical, ideas, it provides a basis for practice, too. In all his books and essays where deconstruction has been used as an analytical tool, Derrida appears as a patient and scrupulous reader determined to bring to light what is concealed in the text. It differs from the standard philosophical technique of finding fault with an argument because the objective is to reveal an underlying incompatibility between what the writer believes to be arguing and what the text itself actually says. The gap between authorial intention and textual meaning is a key focus of deconstruction. The concept has opened a whole new world of intellectual and philosophical inquiry into meaning and truth.
Many have contended that it is not possible today to be a well-educated intellectual without knowing at least something about Derrida and the way of reading most closely associated with him; de-construction. Indeed, the vogue for de-construction has spread from France to England, the United States and far beyond. To-day Derrida may well be more appreciated outside France, than inside it. Critics may grumble about the sheer difficulty of his texts and philosophers may continue to be suspicious of his deliberate attempt to mystify, but the number of readers goes on increasing all over the world. It is most assuring to find that Bangladesh is not lagging behind from this trend. There is no doubt that when the film is available in Dhaka many will see it eagerly. After the experience even the less adventurous in mind may say – who is afraid of Derrida?
The Daily Star, January 10, 2003 (Published under the column, ‘In my View’).