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Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Arts & Letters

In Memoriam: Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)


When, surviving, and henceforth deprived of the possibility of speaking to the friend, himself, one is condemned to merely speaking about him, about what he was, thought, wrote, still, it is about him that one should speak. It is of him we mean to speak, solely of him, on his side only.
—Jacques Derrida
A friend of mine recently said there are two things today that can’t be deterritorialized or virtualized: They are Jerusalem—nobody wants virtual Jerusalem, they want to own the actual soil—and the other thing is oil. The capitalistic nation states live on oil, and although that could be changed, the whole society would collapse if it did. That’s why oil is a problem. It’s more of a problem in America than it is in Europe, but we share the same concerns. Everything is always more in America, for obvious reasons.
—Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida, perhaps the most influential philosopher of the second half of the twentieth century, died recently in Paris at the age of 74 after a two-year battle with cancer. It is impossible for me, at this moment, to properly reflect on the magnitude and impact of Derrida’s writings on so many different fields and disciplines. As a number of critics have already noted, no name has been more polarizing in the field of humanities than that of Derrida, which has become synonymous with such terms as deconstruction, post-structuralism, negative theology, and nihilism, to name just a few on a long list.

It is not accidental, therefore, that even Derrida’s passing has not been free of controversy. One only needs to look at the reaction to his death as documented in newspapers, magazines, and over the Internet, including the mean-spirited obituary that appeared in the New York Times and the overwhelming response to it by academics and others. And so much has already been written about deconstruction, and Derrida’s influence on philosophy and literary studies, that I am not going to spend any time here either trying to explain Derrida’s method of reading or defending his name. No matter what one might think of Derrida’s deconstructive enterprise, or the objections one might have to specific aspects of his thought, no one can deny the intellectual force and rigor he brought to the humanities. Above all, Derrida was a great teacher who taught us how to approach a text and carefully read and interpret it, tracing all of its ambiguities, its exclusions and inclusions. This is, perhaps, his greatest contribution: rigorous and intense reading and examination of a text and all that such actions represent for ethical behavior and political action.

I was lucky, on a number of occasions, to hear Jacques Derrida deliver a lecture (sometimes lasting up to three or four hours) in which he analyzed very complex texts dealing with difficult subjects of ethical import, such as the problem of testimony, the nature of forgiveness, the role of hospitality, and the impossibility of mourning. I do not pretend that I was always able to follow or understand everything he said, but that was also what made Derrida so attractive. The fact that he was dealing with difficult and complex issues motivated his listeners to be active thinkers, to leave the lecture hall and spend the time necessary to work through the implications of his reading, or to try to trace some of his reading back to its sources. I particularly remember one of his lectures on testimony and remembrance, and the profound effect it had on my own work and intellectual development, because that lecture helped me see how to use ancient texts appropriately in order to address and understand the ethical and political implications of testimony nowadays. Derrida carefully navigated through a number of texts and languages so as to expose readers to the meaning(s) and contradiction(s) of the concept of testimony. I remember him moving from one tradition to another in order to explain how witnessing relates not only to our memory and understanding of the past but also to our current social, political, and cultural moment in the present.

Having had the opportunity to sit in on a number of Derrida’s seminars at the University of California at Irvine, I was always struck by his modesty and unpretentiousness, as well as by how generous he was with his time. Although I did not know him that well, I once contacted him in Paris, in an effort to locate one of his unpublished essays; and I was struck by how quickly he got back to me and by the fact that he apologized for not responding right away. I still vividly remember some of our short exchanges about soccer, about Derrida’s last visit to Greece, and about European politics. Most important, I will always remember his reply when I asked him which books I needed to read about a particular subject: one does not have to read that many books, he said; rather, what one did read should be read slowly and carefully—“read them well” was his expression.

For those of us who knew Derrida, either personally or through his work, his death has been a great loss. His love of reading, his energy, and his dedication to philosophy, education, human rights, and the enlightenment of the human spirit will surely be missed. As einai elafro to choma pou ton skepazei.

Apostolos Vasilakis teaches literature and philosophy at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
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