A new biography explores the life of the renowned French philosopher
|Jacques Derrida. Photograph: Richard Melloul/Sygma/Corbis|
In addressing a philosopher of the importance of Jacques Derrida, whose massive output – about 60 volumes not including his as yet unpublished seminars – has been translated and debated the world over, Benoît Peeters has quite rightly chosen not the origins or content of the work itself, but the life of the man behind it. In short, he has written an excellent biography entirely in keeping with Anglo-Saxon traditions. He is the first to have gained access to the writer's records at France's Institute of Contemporary Publishing Archives and the Langson Library at the University of California, Irvine. He also interviewed around 100 essential figures.Also at A Piece of Monologue:
He has reconstructed the events that prompted a young, non-practising Jew, born in 1930 in Algeria and banned from his lycée in 1942 by the Vichy government, to move to Paris in 1949 to study at the Lycée Louis le Grand, subsequently graduating to the Ecole Normale Supérieure.
In 1966, after acquainting himself with the work of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, Derrida took part in the celebrated symposium on structuralism organised by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore that brought together Roland Barthes, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Jean Hyppolite, René Girard and Jacques Lacan, among others. A year later he met Paul de Man, a theorist of modernist literary criticism, who introduced him to several US universities. He was soon rewarded with considerable success, particularly after the publication of De la Grammatologie (Of Grammatology) and L'Ecriture et la Différence (Writing and Difference). Over the next 10 years he found his place between two generations of brilliant thinkers, engaging in constant dialogue with Emmanuel Lévinas, Maurice Blanchot, Jean Genet, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and Louis Althusser.
Meanwhile, he worked hard on research, teaching and publication. In 1983, with several fellows, he founded the International College of Philosophy, then took up a post at the Graduate School of Social Sciences. His fame spread and his virulent critique of Marxism, structuralism and a certain ideal of overturning the established order – mistakenly seen as "1968" thinking – percolated down through French public opinion. From 1986 he increasingly came under attack. The tide of hatred grew so strong as to dash any hopes of election to the Collège de France.
In fact, Derrida remained a social democrat opposed to colonialism and capital punishment, a feminist, a true Enlightenment scholar, attached to republican values, and an admirer of De Gaulle and Mandela. But from around 1987, as Peeters points out, he was successively depicted as an anti-democratic nihilist and an adept of two Nazi theorists – Carl Schmitt and Martin Heidegger – whose work he had investigated, then as an extreme leftwinger, on account of Spectres de Marx (Spectres of Marx), a major work on the concept of revolution. Finally he was accused of being a Nazi, after making a clumsy attempt to defend his friend De Man, whose murky past working on an antisemitic Belgian newspaper had emerged after his death.
Peeters sheds light on all this nonsense while revealing the many facets of a passionate thinker who travelled widely and invented a new language of philosophy. This explains his interest in a wide range of subjects (literature, law), social situations (exclusion, homosexuality) and struggles against suffering and discrimination (racism, antisemitism). [Read more]