Monday, October 11, 2004

Judith Butler's Obituary of Derrida: Lamenting the failure to communicate

[UPDATE: The Butler obituary I quoted appeared in the November 4 issue of the London Review of Books. I've cut all but the first paragraph I quoted.]

I received an obituary of Jacques Derrida authored by Judith Butler in an email. The subject line is "Judith Butler on Derrida for the German newspapers." I don't know whether it has already appeared in the papers yet, or where it is likely to come out.

I'm only excerpting the first paragraph, out of respect for the LRB. I like this piece by Butler because she's taking stock of Derrida on his own terms and in his own tone -- a tone I call Derrida's perpetual lament. And, contrary to what is commonly thought, that tone did not first appear in the last few years, though it did become more urgent then. It's there even in the early, major works in the 1960s and 70s.

Q: What was he lamenting? A: Fundamentally -- sort of -- the impossibility of communication. Communication is impossible because of the opacity of language itself as a medium (which is nevertheless inevitable), because of the opacity of subjectivity, and because of the inevitability of death. We never understand each other just right, his argument goes, and therefore we never really understand each other at all. Sometimes Derrida is talking not about the communication attempted between and amongst individuals (whether in private or in public; the two were always intimately intertwined in Derrida's writing), but other times he is talking about a philosophical abstraction referred to as the Other. In his essays, Derrida slipped back and forth between the two.

I myself only saw Derrida speak once, at the American Academy of Religion conference in Toronto in the fall of 2002. Derrida's recent turn to "religion" elicited considerable interest and excitement amongst religious studies scholars, led by a Villanova theologican named John Caputo (who has written two impressive books on Derrida). The room was packed -- probably upwards of 1000 people were there. I responded probably the way most people responded -- intense interest, curiosity, and occasionally a sense of awe. But he went on too long, and was too confusing. I couldn't stay focused; people began filtering and then streaming out of the lecture.

And Derrida sidestepped (would we expect anything else?) Caputo's repeated questions (the "lecture" was technically an "interview") about his -- JD's -- personal relationship with God, and with "faith." It seemed that Derrida was saying that deconstruction and theology are simply not compatible methods of thought; he would not accept God as an ontologically whole entity with whom human beings can "communicate" (and I mean that in the Catholic as well as the linguistic sense). Indeed, to have done so would have been profoundly incongruous with his philosophical project of nearly 40 years. The work of deconstruction is simply not -- and cannot be -- the work of theology, even negative theology.

I should also mention that I taught a class called "How to Read Deconstructively," where I assigned a few Derrida classics, including Of Grammatology and Limited Inc. A bare-bones syllabus is here. I tried to structure it so that students who had had no previous exposure (initiation?) to deconstruction could enter into the arguments. I assigned Levi-Strauss, Barthes, Austin, and even a little Cavell.

* * * * *
So then, here is Judith Butler on Jacques Derrida:

"How do you finally respond to your life and your name?" Derrida raised this question in his final interview with Le Monde, published in August 18th of this year. If he could apprehend his life, he remarks, he would also be obliged to apprehend his death as singular and absolute, without resurrection and without redemption. At this revealing moment, it is interesting that Derrida the philosopher should find in Socrates his proper precursor, that he should turn to Socrates to understand that, at the age of 74, he still did not quite know how best to live. One cannot, he remarks, come to terms with oneâs life without trying to apprehend oneâs death, asking, in effect, how a human lives and dies. Much of Derridaâs later work is dedicated to mourning, though he offers his acts of public mourning as a posthumous gift, for instance, in The Work of Mourning published in 2001. There he tries to come to terms with the death of other writers and thinkers through reckoning his debt to their words, indeed, their texts; his own writing constitutes an act of mourning, one that he is perhaps, avant la lettre, recommending to us a way to begin to mourn this thinker who not only taught us how to read, but gave the act of reading a new significance and a new promise. In that book, he openly mourns Roland Barthes who died in 1980, Paul de Man, who died in 1983, Michel Foucault, who died in 1984, and a host of others, including Edmund Jabes (1991), Louis Marin (1992), Sarah Kofman (1994), Emmanuel Levinas (1995) and Jean-Francois Lyotard (1998). The last of the essays, for Lyotard, included in this book is written six years before Derrida's own death. It is not, however, Derridaâs own death that preoccupies him here, but rather his "debts." These are authors that he could not do without, ones with whom and through whom he thinks. He writes only because he reads, and he reads only because there are these authors to read time and again. He "owes" them something or, perhaps, everything, if only because he could not write without them; their writing exists as the precondition of his own; their writing constitutes the means through which his own writing voice is animated and secured, a voice that emerges, importantly, as an address.

[For the rest of this piece, go to the LRB]


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