Etienne Balibar 

See you soon, Jacques Derrida

Just a few hours after the death of Jacques Derrida, I do not want to try to describe his work in just a few lines. I wish even less to enclose him within a label. I just want to go over a few moments of a life and thought that I had the good fortune to encounter as a student, colleague and friend.I remember his arrival at the Ecole Normale Supérieure where we were studying for the aggregation. Preceeded by his reputation as “the best phenomenologist of France”, Derrida was, for us, above all, the author of a brilliant essay on the origin of Husserl’s geometry in which the question of the historicity of truth was plucked out of the debate between sociologism and psychologism. He went straight to the heart of what was most difficult : the question of the conditions of possibility of demonstration, displacing it from being a problem of formal guarantee to a problem of reproduction in time, thus anticipating his grand theme of “trace”, i.e. of the connection between thinking and the materiality of writing. His lectures were eloquent but above all rigorous in the setting out of concepts and in reading texts ( as they will always be : a reading of “Politique de l’Amitié” will suffice to show that. Years later, I discovered that I had memorised whole passages of these lectures, thanks to the clarity and the force of his interpretation.To this practice as a great teacher, I wish to adjoin a more general lesson. Derrida, who has become a prominent media figure throughout the whole world, never stopped working in the University, and saw in it the fundamental venue of philosophical activity ( even though in his own country at least, it has granted him but sparse recognition). Through initiatives such as the “Etats Généraux de la Philosophie”(the States General of Philosophy) in 1979 or the founding of the “Collège International de Philosophie” in 1983, he tried to help the University shed its hierarchical shackles, the isolationism of its different subjects and its nationalism (which has a sterilizing effect when, as in France, it feels certain that it is the bearer of “universal” values). It is true that in a lecture given at Stanford in 1998, he called that kind of university, a university without condition, which, irrespective of frontiers and Power control, ascribes to itself the task of re-thinking all human works and of stating the possible (and even the impossible) – and this in the era of mechanisation and globalisation.I remember when the three manifestos of this new method which was later to be called “deconstruction” were published in 1967 : Speech and Phenomena, Of Grammatology, and Writing and Difference, and the subtle interplay found in them between literature and philosophy. I remember the grand controversies with Levy-Strauss on the reading of Rousseau, with Foucault on the reading of Descartes, which can be re-read today as so many founding “quarrels” of philosophical structuralism, in which its demarcation from metaphysics is at stake, and, already, the virtuality of its transformation into “post-structuralism”. That is to say into an internal critique of the concept of structure (in particular of its claim to represent “totalities”).
      However, this critique was not undertaken from the point of view of humanism or of the freedom of the subject, but from the point of view of the differences which complicate our concept of man (and thus of the aims of man and of his rights), and which stress his ambivalence : consciousness and unconsciousness, body and letter (1), masculine and feminine (and neuter). For these differences all contain a surplus that is irreducible to formal binary oppositions. Such a surplus of meaning (that he calls “the innate surplus”) opens the way equally to a violence of identity mechanisms and strategies of “appropriation” of the world and to making fresh and multiple interpretations. We find there the embryo of the great themes of his maturity, in particular his conception of the “event” as an incalculable “yet to come” in which individual or collective responsibility is carried to its extreme, not because we would be capable of controlling the consequences of our acts “performatively” but because we know already that they will drag indefinitely in their wake the “relaunching” and the reformulation of the problem of law and justice.Finally I remember all the circumstances - from the help given to the Czech intellectual “dissidents” within the Jan Huss association to the stand in favour of the rights of the Palestinian people and the reconciliation of the belligerents in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, as well as the defence of the right to asylum in Europe against security policies and the stigmatising of “foreigners”, and of course other causes – when we, as intellectuals unaligned if not uncommitted, have tried to contribute to the emergence of what he called a “new internationalism”. Not that we were entirely in agreement in our analyses and our historical references.But there again, along with many others, and often on his initiative, we shared the conviction that intellectuals and artists have their own part to play in putting together a multiform and multi-polar resistance to the ascendancy of State or Market sovereignity which engenders mass violence and in return feeds on it - which supposes the deconstruction of their discourse and a constructive dialogue among their opponents (as he just illustrated by joining forces with his old “enemy” Habermas in order to dismantle the endless war-propaganda machine against terrorism and “rogue States”.Without his contribution it is more difficult to reflect on all that, whether concerning the question of the future of the University or the philosophy of the “yet to come”, the responsibility of intellectuals and their place in the world of global communications. But the search for resources of thought, both in his example and in his writings, is not likely to cease for a long time. Adieu, dear Jacques, or rather, see you tomorrow.

This was meant to be published in Intercultural Studies # 2  soon after Jacques Derrida's death.


go back to Art in Society # 15