The Politics of Jacques Derrida

Mark Lilla

Source: Hardcopy The New York Review of Books, June 25, 1998, pp. 36-41.

The history of French philosophy in the three decades following the Second World War can be summed up in a phrase: politics dictated and philosophy wrote. After the Liberation, and thanks mainly to the example of Jean-Paul Sartre, the mantle of the Dreyfusard intellectual passed from the writer to the philosopher, who was now expected to pronounce on the events of the day. This development led to a blurring of the boundaries between pure philosophical inquiry, political philosophy, and political engagement, and these lines have only slowly been reestablished in France. As Vincent Descombes remarked in his superb short study of the period, Modern French Philosophy (1980), "taking a political position is and remains the decisive test in France; it is what should reveal the ultimate meaning of a philosophy." Paradoxically, the politicizing of philosophy also meant the near extinction of political philosophy, understood as disciplined and informed reflection about a recognizable domain called politics. If everything is political, then strictly speaking nothing is. It is a striking fact about the postwar scene that France produced only one genuine political thinker of note: Raymond Aron.

The list of important French philosophers who protected their work from the political passions of the day is short but contains some significant figures. One thinks of the Jewish moral philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the misanthropic essayist E. M. Cioran, both of whom have recently died, and the Protestant thinker Paul Ricoeur, now ninety-five, who are all being rediscovered today. One also thinks of Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, a claim that may surprise American readers, given the ideologically charged atmosphere in which Derrida and his work have been received on our side of the Atlantic. Unlike so many of his fellow students at the Ecole Normale Superieure in the Fifties, Derrida kept clear of the Stalinized French Communist Party (PCF), and later adopted a skeptical attitude toward the events of May '68 and the short-lived hysteria for Mao. Over the next decade, as Michel Foucault became the great white hope of the post-'68 left, Derrida frustrated all attempts to read a simple political program into deconstruction. He declared himself to be a man of the left but refused to elaborate, leaving more orthodox thinkers to wonder whether deconstruction reflected anything more than "libertarian pessimism," as the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton once charged.

As Derrida's star began to fall in France in the 1980s, it was rising in the English-speaking world, where questions about his political commitments were raised anew. This must have been awkward for him on several counts. Derrida's thought is extremely French in its themes and rhetoric, and is difficult to understand outside the context of long-standing Parisian disputes over the legacies of structuralism and Heideggerianism. In the United States, however, his ideas, which were first introduced into literary criticism, now circulate in the alien environment of academic postmodernism, which is a loosely structured constellation of ephemeral disciplines like cultural studies, feminist studies, gay and lesbian studies, science studies, and post-colonial theory. Academic postmodernism is nothing if not syncretic, which makes it difficult to understand or even describe. It borrows notions freely from the (translated) works of Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, Jean Baudrillard, Julia Kristeva--and, as if that were not enough, also seeks inspiration from Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and other figures from the German Frankfurt School. Given the impossibility of imposing any logical order on ideas as dissimilar as these, postmodernism is long on attitude and short on argument. What appears to hold it together is the conviction that promoting these very different thinkers somehow contributes to a shared emancipatory political end, which remains conveniently ill-defined.

In America, Derrida is considered a classic of the postmodern canon. But as recently as 1990 he still declined to explain the political implications of deconstruction. Occasionally a book would appear claiming to have cracked the code and discovered hidden affinities between deconstruction and, say, Marxism or feminism. The Sphinx just grinned. But now, at long last, he has spoken. During the past five years Jacques Derrida has published no fewer than six books on political themes. Some are no more than pamphlets and interviews, but three of them--a book on Marx, one on friendship and politics, another on law--are substantial treatises. Why Derrida has chosen this particular moment to make his political debut is a matter of speculation. His thoughts could not be more out of season in France, and his six books met bafflement when they appeared there. But given the continuing influence of postmodernism in the United States, where Derrida now spends much of his time teaching, his interventions could not be more timely. They give us plenty of material for reflection about the real political implications of deconstruction and whether American readers have quite grasped them.


On or about November 4, 1956, the nature of French philosophy changed. That, in any case, is what the textbooks tell us. In the decade following the Liberation, the dominant presence in French philosophy was Jean-Paul Sartre and the dominant issue was communism. Sartre's L'Etre et le neant (1943) had earned him a reputation as an existentialist during the Occupation, and his famous lecture of 1945, "L'Existentialisme est un humanisme," brought his message that "man is the future of man" to a wide European audience at war's end. Yet within a few years of having spoken out on behalf of absolute human liberty, Sartre became an obedient fellow traveler. In his infamous tract "Les Communistes et la paix," which began to be serialized in 1952, he dismissed reports of the Gulag, and after a trip to the Soviet Union in 1954 declared in an interview that "the freedom to criticize is total in the USSR." Having once extolled man's unique capacity for free choice, Sartre announced a decade later that Marxism was the unsurpassable horizon of our time.

But in 1956 (so the story goes) the myth of the Soviet Union was shattered in France by Khrushchev's secret speech to the Twentieth Party Conference in Moscow in November, and the suppression of the Hungarian revolt. This brought an end to many illusions: about Sartre, about communism, about history, about philosophy, and about the term "humanism." It also established a break between the generation of French thinkers reared in the Thirties, who had seen the war as adults, and students who felt alien to those experiences and wished to escape the suffocating atmosphere of the cold war. The latter therefore turned from the "existential" political engagement recommended by Sartre toward a new social science called structuralism. And (the story ends) after this turn there would develop a new approach to philosophy. of which Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida are perhaps the most distinguished representatives.

The problem with this textbook history is that it vastly overstates the degree to which French intellectuals stripped themselves of their Communist illusions in 1956. What it gets right is the role of structuralism in changing the terms in which political matters generally were discussed. Structuralism was a term coined by the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss to describe a method of applying models of linguistic structure to the study of society as a whole, in particular to customs and myths. Though Levi-Strauss claimed inspiration from Marx, he interpreted Marxism to be a science of society, not a guide to political action.

Sartre's engaged Marxist humanism rested on three basic presuppositions: that history's movements can be understood rationally; that those movements are determined by class relations; and that the individual's responsibility was to further human emancipation by assisting progressive class forces. Levi-Strauss drew two very different principles from reading Marx in light of the French sociological tradition (especially the works of Emile Durkheim) and his own anthropological field work. They were that societies are structures of relatively stable relations among their elements, which develop in no rational historical pattern, and that class has no special status among them. As for man's existential responsibilities, Levi-Strauss had nothing to say. It was a provocative silence. For if societies were essentially stable structures whose metamorphoses were unpredictable, that left little room for man to shape his political future through action. Indeed, man seemed rather beside the point. As Levi-Strauss put it in his masterpiece Tristes Tropiques (1955), "The world began without the human race, and it will end without it."

Today it is somewhat difficult to understand how this austere doctrine could have appealed to young people caught up in the cold war atmosphere of the Fifties. It helps to realize how profoundly Levi-Strauss was attacking the defining myth of modern French politics. Beginning in the Third Republic there developed a shaky political consensus in France, to the effect that the Declaration of the Rights of Man pronounced in 1789 reflected universal truths about the human condition which France had been anointed to promulgate to the world. After two world wars, the Occupation, and Vichy, this myth of universalism in one country struck many young Frenchmen as absurd. Levi-Strauss's structuralism cast doubt on the universality of any political rights or values, and also raised suspicions about the 'man" who claimed them. Weren't these concepts simply a cover for the West's ethnocentrism, colonialism, and genocide, as Levi-Strauss charged? And wasn't Sartre's Marxism polluted by the same ideas? Marxism spoke of each nation's place in the general unfolding of history; structuralism spoke of each culture as autonomous. Marxism preached revolution and liberation for all peoples; structuralism spoke of cultural difference and the need to respect it. In the Paris of the late Fifties, the cool structuralism of Levi-Strauss seemed at once more radically democratic and less naive than the engaged humanism of Sartre.

Besides, structuralist concern with "difference" and the "Other" also had a strong political effect in the decade of decolonization and the Algerian War. Levi-Strauss's most significant works were all published during the breakup of the French colonial empire and contributed enormously to the way it was understood by intellectuals. Sartre was much engaged in anti-colonial politics and saw in Third World revolutions the birth of a "new man," as he put it in his passionate preface to Frantz Fanon's Les Damnees de la terre (1961). Levi-Strauss never engaged in polemics over decolonization or the Algerian War. Nonetheless, his elegant writings worked an aesthetic transformation on his readers, who were subtly made to feel ashamed to be European. Using the rhetorical gifts he learned from Rousseau, he evoked the beauty, dignity, and irreducible strangeness of Third World cultures that were simply trying to preserve their difference. And though Levi-Strauss may not have intended it, his writings would soon feed the suspicion among the new left that grew up in the Sixties that all the universal ideas to which Europe claimed allegiance--reason, science, progress, liberal democracy--were culturally specific weapons fashioned to rob the non-European Other of his difference.

As François Dosse shows in his useful new study of structuralism, the movement had a lasting impact on French thought and intellectual politics, even though its doctrines were quickly misunderstood and misapplied in the next generation.1 For Levi-Strauss, structuralism was a scientific method for studying differences between cultures, in the hope of one day achieving a more genuinely universal understanding of human nature. For the tiers-mondistes he inspired, and who were radicalized by the Algerian War, this scientific relativism degenerated into just another primitivism that neutralized any criticism of abuses within foreign cultures. (Not to mention the crimes of Communist totalitarianism, which now could be excused on culturalist rather than Stalinist grounds.) As the Sixties progressed, the children of structuralism came to forget Levi-Strauss's skepticism about the French revolutionary myth and began promoting the Other as an honorary sans culottes. All that was marginal within Western societies could now be justified and even celebrated philosophically. Some followed Michel Foucault in portraying the development of European civilization as a process of marginalizing domestic misfits--the mentally ill, sexual and political deviants--who were branded and kept under surveillance through the cooperation of social "power" and 'knowledge." Others turned to psychology, searching for the repressed Other in the libido or the unconscious.


1 This next generation is usually called "post-structuralist" in English to mark the break with structuralism's original scientific program. This term is not used in French, however, and Dosse employs "structuralism" to refer to the entire movement. I follow him in this.

By the mid-Seventies the structuralist idea had declined from a scientific method informed by political and cultural pessimism into a liberation anti-theology celebrating difference wherever it might be found. In one sense, then, little had changed since 1956. French intellectuals still thought of themselves on the Dreyfusard model, and philosophers continued to write thinly veiled political manifestoes. But the structuralist experience had changed the terms in which political engagements were conceived philosophically. It was no longer possible to appeal to a rational account of history, as Sartre had, to justify political action. It was not clear that one could appeal to reason at all, since language and social structure loomed so large. One could not even speak of man without putting the term in quotation marks. "Man" was now considered a site, a point where various social. cultural, economic, linguistic, and psychological forces happened to intersect. As Michel Foucault put it in the closing sentence of Les Mots et les choses (1966), man was a recent invention that would soon disappear, like a face drawn in the sand.

That surely was not what Levi-Strauss had in mind when he spoke of creation outlasting man, but the die was already cast. What this radical anti-humanism would mean for politics was not altogether clear. For if "man" was entirely a construct of language and social forces, then how was homo politicus to deliberate on and justify his actions? Whatever one thought of Sartre's political engagements, he had an answer to that question. The structuralists did not.


François Dosse describes Jacques Derrida's doctrine of deconstruction as an "ultrastructuralism." This is accurate enough but does not tell the whole story. In France at least, the novelty of deconstruction in the Sixties was to have addressed the themes of structuralism--difference, the Other--with the philosophical concepts and categories of Martin Heidegger. Derrida's early writing revived a querelle over the nature of humanism which had set Heidegger against Sartre back in the late Forties and had many political implications. Derrida sided with Heidegger, whom he only criticized for not having gone far enough. And it is to that decision in favor of Heidegger that all the political problems of deconstruction may be traced.

The Sartre-Heidegger dispute followed Sartre's 1945 lecture on humanism, which Heidegger read as a travesty of his own intellectual position. Sartre had appropriated the Heideggerian language of anxiety, authenticity, existence, and resolution to make the case for man as "the future of man," by which he meant that man's autonomous self-development should replace transcendent ends as the aim of all our striving. In a long, and justly famous, "Letter on Humanism" (1946), Heidegger responded that his aim had always been to question the concept of man and perhaps free us from it. Ever since Plato, he wrote. Western philosophy had made unexamined metaphysical assumptions about man's essence that disguised the fundamental question of Being--which is the meaning of Being apart from man's comprehension of the being of natural entities--and placed man himself at the center of creation. All the scourges of modern life--science, technology, capitalism, communism--could be traced back to this original "anthropologization" of Being. This was a heavy burden, which could only be lifted through the dismantling (Destruktion) of the metaphysical tradition. Only then could man learn that he is not the master but rather the "shepherd" of Being.

Deconstruction was conceived in the spirit of Heidegger's Destruktion, though Derrida had no intention of making man the shepherd of anything. In a remarkable lecture in 1968, "The Ends of Man," Derrida pointed out that by anointing man the "shepherd of Being," Heidegger had returned to humanism "as if by magnetic attraction." He then claimed that the metaphysical tradition could only really be overcome if the very language of philosophy was "deconstructed," a language in which even Heidegger was snared. At the root of the metaphysical tradition was a naive notion of language as a transparent medium, a "logocentrism," as Derrida dubbed it. The Greek term logos means word or language, but it can also mean reason or principle--an equation of speech with intentionality that Derrida considered highly questionable. What was needed was a radical "decentering" of the implicit hierarchies imbedded in this language that encourage us to place speech above writing, the author above the reader, or the signified above the signifier. Deconstruction thus was described as a prolegomenon to--or perhaps even a substitute for--philosophy as traditionally conceived. It would be an activity allowing the aporias, or paradoxes, imbedded in every philosophical text to emerge without forcing a "violent" consistency upon them. The end of logocentrism would then mean the end of every other wicked "centrism": androcentrism, phallocentrism, phallologocentrism, carnophallologocentrism, and the rest. (All these terms appear in the books under review.)

As a specimen of normalien cleverness, Derrida's attack on his intellectual forefathers could hardly be bettered. He accused both structuralists and Heidegger of not having pushed their own fundamental insights far enough. Structuralists destabilized our picture of man by placing him in a web of social and linguistic relations, but then assumed that web of relations-- structures--to have a stable center. Heidegger's blindness to his own language led from the Destruktion of metaphysics to the promotion of man as the "shepherd of Being." Derrida's contribution, if that is the correct term, was to have seen that by pressing further the anti-humanism latent in both these intellectual traditions, he could make them seem compatible ways of addressing logocentrism.

But having done that, Derrida then found himself bound to follow the linguistic principles he had discovered in his campaign against logocentrism, especially the hard doctrine that since all texts contain ambiguities and can be read in different ways (la difference), exhaustive interpretation must be forever deferred (la differance). That raised the obvious question: How then are we to understand deconstruction's own propositions? As more than one critic has pointed out, there is an unresolvable paradox in using language to claim that language cannot make unambiguous claims.2 For Derrida coping with such evident paradoxes is utterly beside the point. As he has repeatedly explained, he conceives of deconstruction less as a philosophical doctrine than as a "practice" aimed at casting suspicion on the entire philosophical tradition and robbing it of self-confidence.


2 See, for example, John Searle, "The World Turned Upside Down" The New York Review, October 27, 1983.

Anyone who has heard him lecture in French knows that he is more performance artist than logician. His flamboyant style--using free association, rhymes and near-rhymes, puns, and maddening digressions--is not just a vain pose (though it is surely that). It reflects what he calls a self-conscious "acommunicative strategy" for combating logocentrism. As he puts it in the interview published in Moscou aller-retour:

What I try to do through the neutralization of communication, theses, and stability of content, through a microstructure of signification, is to provoke, not only in the reader but also in oneself, a new tremor or a new shock of the body that opens a new space of experience. That might explain the reaction of not a few readers when they say that, in the end, one doesn't understand anything, there's no conclusion drawn, it's too sophisticated, we don't know if you are for or against Nietzsche, where you stand on the woman question....

It also might explain the reaction of those readers who suspect that the neutralization of communication means the neutralization of all standards of judgment--logical, scientific, aesthetic, moral, political--and leaves these fields of thought open to the winds of force and caprice. Derrida always brushed aside such worries as childish, and in the atmosphere of the Sixties and Seventies few questions were asked. But the Eighties proved to be trying times for deconstruction. In 1987 a Chilean writer named Victor Farias published a superficial book on Martin Heidegger's involvement with the Nazis and its alleged roots in his philosophy. While the book contained no revelations, it was taken in France and Germany to confirm the suspicion that, to the extent that philosophy in the Sixties and Seventies was Heideggerian, it was politically irresponsible. Jacques Derrida rejected these associations out of hand, as readers of this paper will recall.3

But that same year it was also revealed that the late Yale professor Paul de Man, a leading champion of deconstruction and close friend of Derrida's, had published collaborationist and anti-Semitic articles in two Belgian newspapers in the early Forties. These might have been dismissed as youthful errors had Derrida and some of his American followers not then interpreted away the offending passages, denying their evident meaning, leaving the impression that deconstruction means you never have to say you're sorry.4 It now appeared that deconstruction had, at the very least, a public relations problem, and that the questions of politics it so playfully left in suspension would now have to be answered.


3 See Thomas Sheehan, "A Normal Nazi," The New York Review, January 14, 1993, as well as letters from Derrida, Richard Wolin, and others in The New York Review, February 11, March 4, and March 25, 1993.

4 For a full account, with references see Louis Menand, "The Politics of Deconstruction," The New York Review, November 21, 1991.

Yet how would that be possible? Derrida's radical interpretations of structuralism and Heideggerianism had rendered the traditional vocabulary of politics unusable and nothing could be put in its place. The subjects considered in traditional political philosophy--individual human beings and nations--were declared to be artifices of language, and dangerous ones at that. The object of political philosophy--a distinct realm of political action--was seen as part of a general system of relations that itself had no center. And as for the method of political philosophy--rational inquiry toward a practical end--Derrida had succeeded in casting suspicion on its logocentrism. An intellectually consistent deconstruction would therefore seem to entail silence on political matters. Or, if silence proved unbearable, it would at least require a serious reconsideration of the anti-humanist dogmas of the structuralist and Heideggerian traditions. To his credit, Michel Foucault began such a reconsideration in the decade before his death. Jacques Derrida never has.


The most we are ever likely to learn about Derrida's understanding of strictly political relations is contained in his most recently translated work, Politics of Friendship--the only one of his books with the word "politics" in the title. It is based on a seminar given in Paris in 1988-1989, just as Europe was being shaken to its foundation by the rapid collapse of the Eastern Bloc. As it happens, I attended this seminar and, like most of the participants I met, had difficulty understanding what Derrida was driving at. Each session would begin with the same citation from Montaigne--"O mes amis, il n'y a nul ami" ("O my friends, there is no friend")--and then veer off into a rambling discussion of its possible sources and meanings. The published text is much reworked and gives a clearer picture of what Derrida has in mind.

His aim is to show that the entire Western tradition of thinking about politics has been distorted by our philosophy's peccatum originarium, the concept of identity. Because our metaphysical tradition teaches that man is identical to himself, a coherent personality free from internal difference, we have been encouraged to seek our identities through membership in undifferentiated, homogenizing groups such as families, friendships, classes, and nations. From Aristotle to the French Revolution, the good republic has therefore been thought to require fraternite, which is idealized as a natural blood tie making separate individuals somehow one.5 But there is no such thing as natural fraternity, Derrida asserts, just as there is no natural maternity (sic). All such natural categories, as well as the derivative concepts of community, culture, nation, and borders, are dependent on language and therefore are conventions. The problem with these conventions is not simply that they cover up differences within the presumably identical entities. It is that they also establish hierarchies among them: between brothers and sisters, citizens and foreigners, and eventually friends and enemies. In the book's most reasoned chapters, Derrida examines Carl Schmitt's conception of politics, which portrays the political relation as an essentially hostile one between friends and enemies.6 Derrida sees Schmitt not as a mere Nazi apologist with a thirst for conflict, but as a deep thinker who made explicit the implicit assumptions of all Western political philosophy.


5 In case the reader failed to grasp the real target of Derrida's campaign against the idea of fraternite, in Politics of Friendship he emphasizes that "this book set itself up to work and be worked relentlessly, close to the thing called France. And close to the singular alliance linking nothing less than the history of fraternization to this thing, France--to the State, the nation, the politics, the culture, literature and language."

6 On Schmitt's concept of politics, see my article, "The Enemy of Liberalism," The New York Review, May 15, 1997.



September 30, 2007 at 7:34 AM

Ce monsieur n’a vraiment rien compris, ni du côté français, ni du côté américain. Ni du côté philosophique, ni du côté politique. Ne reste que cette suffisance, d’ailleurs très peu ‘libérale’, si répandue chez les ‘intellectual historians’.

  Dr. kold_kadavr_flatliner, MD

January 29, 2013 at 9:07 AM

Only 2 realms after our demise, friend, and 1 of 'em ain't too cool. Repent and believe. God bless you.