The Politics of Jacques Derrida

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From this point of view it would seem that all Western political ideologies--fascism, conservatism, liberalism, socialism, communism--would be equally unacceptable. That is the logical implication of Derrida's attack on logocentrism, and sometimes he appears to accept it. In Specters of Marx and The Other Heading he denounces the new liberal consensus he sees as having ruled the West since 1989, lashing out hysterically, and unoriginally, at the "New International" of global capitalism and media conglomerates that have established world hegemony by means of an "unprecedented form of war." He is less critical of Marxism (for reasons we will examine), though he does believe that communism became totalitarian when it tried to realize the eschatological program laid out by Marx himself. Marx's problem was that he did not carry out fully his own critique of ideology and remained within the logocentrist tradition. That is what explains the Gulag, the genocides, and the terror carried out in his name by the Soviet Union. "If I had the time," Derrida tells his undoubtedly stupefied Russian interviewers in Moscou aller-retour, "I could show that Stalin was 'logocentrist,"' though he admits that "that would demand a long development."

It probably would. For it would mean showing that the real source of tyranny is not tyrants, or guns, or wicked institutions. Tyranny begins in the language of tyranny, which derives ultimately from philosophy. If that were transformed, or "neutralized" as he says in Politics of Friendship, so eventually would our politics be. He proves to be extremely open-minded about what this might entail. He asks rhetorically whether "it would still make sense to speak of democracy when there would be no more speaking of country, nation, even state and citizen." He also considers whether the abandonment of Western humanism would mean that concepts of human rights, humanitarianism, even crimes against humanity would have to be forsworn.

But then what remains? If deconstruction throws doubt on every political principle of the Western philosophical tradition--Derrida mentions propriety, intentionality, will, liberty, conscience, self-consciousness, the subject. the self, the person, and community--are judgments about political matters still possible? Can one still distinguish rights from wrongs, justice from injustice? Or are these terms, too, so infected with logocentrism that they must be abandoned? Can it really be that deconstruction condemns us to silence on political matters, or can it find a linguistic escape from the trap of language?


Readers of Derrida's early works can be forgiven for assuming that he believes there can be no escape from language, and therefore no escape from deconstruction for any of our concepts. His achievement, after all, was to have established this hard truth, which was the only truth he did not question. But now Jacques Derrida has changed his mind, and in a major way. It turns out that there is a concept--though only one--resilient enough to withstand the acids of deconstruction. That concept is justice.

In the fall of 1989 Derrida was invited to address a symposium in New York on the theme "deconstruction and the possibility of justice." His lecture has now been expanded in a French edition and published along with an essay on Walter Benjamin.7 Derrida's aim in the lecture is to demonstrate that although deconstruction can and should be applied to the law, it cannot and should not be taken to undercut the notion of justice. The problem with law, in his view, is that it is founded and promulgated on the basis of authority, and therefore, he asserts (with typical exaggeration), depends on violence. Law is affected by economic and political forces, is changed by calculation and compromise, and therefore differs from place to place. Law is written into texts and must be interpreted, which complicates things further.


7 The original lecture appears in Drucilla Cornell, et al., editors, Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice (Routledge, 1992).

Of course, none of this is news. Our whole tradition of thinking about law, beginning in Greek philosophy and passing through Roman law, canon law, and modern constitutionalism, is based on the recognition that laws are a conventional device. The only controversial issue is whether there is a higher law, or right, by which the conventional laws of nations can be judged, and, if so, whether it is grounded in nature, reason, or revelation. This distinction between law and right is the foundation of continental jurisprudence, which discriminates carefully between loi/droit, Gesetz/Recht, legge/diritto, and so forth. Derrida conflates loi and droit for the simple reason that he recognizes neither nature nor reason as standards for anything. In his view, both are caught up in the structures of language, and therefore may be deconstructed.

Now, however, he also wishes to claim that there is a concept called justice, and that it stands "outside and beyond the law." But since this justice cannot be understood through nature or reason, that only leaves one possible means of access to its meaning: revelation. Derrida studiously avoids this term but it is what he is talking about. In Force de loi he speaks of an "idea of justice" as "an experience of the impossible," something that exists beyond all experience and therefore cannot be articulated. And what cannot be articulated cannot be deconstructed; it can only be experienced in a mystical way. This is how he puts it:

If there is deconstruction of all determining presumption of a present justice, it operates from an infinite "idea of justice," infinitely irreducible. It is irreducible because due to the other--due to the other before any contract, because this idea has arrived, the arrival of the other as a singularity always other. Invincible to all skepticism . . . this "idea of justice" appears indestructible.... One can recognize, and even accuse it of madness. And perhaps another sort of mysticism. Deconstruction is mad about this justice, mad with the desire for justice.

Or again in Specters of Marx:

What remains irreducible to any deconstruction, what remains as undeconstructible as the possibility itself of deconstruction, is, perhaps, a certain experience of the emancipatory promise; it is perhaps even the formality of a structural messianism, a messianism without religion, even a messianic without messianism, an idea of justice--which we distinguish from law or right and even from human rights--and an idea of democracy --which we distinguish from its current concept and from its determined predicates today.

There is no justice present anywhere in the world. There is, however, as Derrida puts it, an "infinite idea of justice," though it cannot and does not penetrate our world. Yet this necessary absence of justice does not relieve us of the obligation to await its arrival, for the Messiah may come at any moment, through any city gate. We must therefore learn to wait, to defer gratifying our desire for justice. And what better training in deferral than deconstruction? If deconstruction questions the claim of any law or institution to embody absolute justice, it does so in the very name of justice--a justice it refuses to name or define, an "infinite justice that can take on a 'mystical' aspect." Which leads us, without surprise, to the conclusion that "deconstruction is justice."

Socrates equated justice with philosophy, on the grounds that only philosophy could see things as they truly are, and therefore judge truly. Jacques Derrida, mustering all the chutzpah at his disposal, equates justice with deconstruction, on the grounds that only the undoing of rational discourse about justice will prepare the advent of justice as Messiah.


How seriously are we meant to take all this? As always with Derrida it is difficult to know. In the books under review he borrows freely from the modern messianic writings of Emmanuel Levinas and Walter Benjamin.8 But whatever one makes of these two thinkers, they had too much respect for theological concepts like promise, covenant, Messiah, and anticipation to throw these words about cavalierly. Derrida's turn to them in these new political writings bears all the signs of intellectual desperation. He clearly wants deconstruction to serve some political program, and to give hope to the dispirited left. He also wants to correct the impression that his own thought, like that of Heidegger, leads inevitably to a blind "resolve," an assertion of will that could take any political form. As he remarked not long ago, "My hope as a man of the left, is that certain elements of deconstruction will have served or--because the struggle continues, particularly in the United States--will serve to politicize or repoliticize the left with regard to positions which are not simply academic."9 Yet the logic of his own philosophical arguments, such as they are, proves stronger than Derrida. He simply cannot find a way of specifying the nature of the justice to be sought through left-wing politics without opening himself to the very deconstruction he so gleefully applies to others. Unless, of course, he places the "idea of justice" in the eternal, messianic beyond where it cannot be reached by argument, and assumes that his ideologically sympathetic readers won't ask too many questions.


8 Derrida has had a long-standing interest in Levinas, to whom he recently devoted a short volume called Adieu (Paris: Editions Galilee, 1997). On Benjamin's messianism, see my article, "The Riddle of Walter Benjamin," The New York Review, May 25, 1995.

9 "Remarks on Deconstruction and Pragmatism," in Chantal Mouffe, editor, Deconstruction and Pragmatism.

But politics on the left, no less than on the right, is not a matter of passive expectation. It envisages action. And if the idea of justice cannot be articulated, it cannot provide any aim for political action. According to Derrida's argument, all that remains to guide us is decision, pure and simple: a decision for justice or democracy, and for a particular understanding of both. Derrida places enormous trust in the ideological goodwill or prejudices of his readers, for he cannot tell them why he chooses justice over injustice, or democracy over tyranny, only that he does. Nor can he offer the uncommitted any reasons for thinking that the left has a monopoly on the correct understanding of these ideas. He can only offer impressions, as in the little memoir he has published in Moscou aller-retour, where he confesses to still being choked with emotion whenever he hears the Internationale.

This nostalgic note is struck time and again in Specters of Marx and Moscou aller-retour, which deserve permanent places in the crowded pantheon of bizarre Marxist apologetics. In the latter book Derrida declares that "deconstruction never had meaning or interest, at least in my eyes, than as a radicalization, that is to say, also within the tradition of a certain Marxism, in a certain spirit of Marxism." Not, of course, that he wishes to defend anything Marx himself actually wrote or believed. He declares Marx's economics to be rubbish and his philosophy of history a dangerous myth. But all that is beside the point. The spirit" of Marxism gave rise to a great heritage of messianic yearning, and deserves respect for that reason. Indeed, in a certain sense, we are all Marxists now simply because Marxism, well, happened.

Whether they wish it or know it or not, all men and women, all over the earth, are today to a certain extent the heirs of Marx and Marxism. That is, as we were saying a moment ago, they are heirs of the absolute singularity of a project--or of a promise--which has a philosophical and scientific form. This form is in principle non-religious, in the sense of a positive religion; it is not mythological; it is therefore not national --for beyond even the alliance with a chosen people, there is no nationality or nationalism that is not religious or mythological, let us say "mystical" in the broad sense. The form of this promise or of this project remains absolutely unique....

Whatever one may think of this event, of the sometimes terrifying failure of that which was thus begun, of the techno-economic or ecological disasters, and the totalitarian perversions to which it gave rise, . . . whatever one may think also of the trauma in human memory that may follow, this unique attempt took place. A messianic promise, even if it was not fulfilled, at least in the form in which it was uttered, even if it rushed headlong toward an ontological content, will have imprinted an inaugural and unique mark in history. And whether we like it or not, whatever consciousness we have of it, we cannot not be its heirs.

With statements like these Jacques Derrida risks giving bad faith a bad name. The simple truth is that his thinking has nothing to do with Marx or Marxism. Derrida is some vague sort of left democrat who values "difference" and, as his recent short pamphlet on cosmopolitanism shows, he is committed to seeing Europe become a more open, hospitable place, not least for immigrants. These are not remarkable ideas, nor are they contemptible. But like so many among the structuralist generation, Derrida is convinced that the only way to extend the democratic values he himself holds is to destroy the language in which the West has always conceived of them, in the mistaken belief that it is language, not reality, that keeps our democracies imperfect. Only by erasing the vocabulary of Western political thought can we hope for a "repoliticization" or a "new concept of politics." But once that point is achieved, what we discover is that the democracy we want cannot be described or defended; it can only be treated as an article of irrational faith, a messianic dream. That is the wistful conclusion of Politics of Friendship:

For democracy remains to come; this is its essence in so far as it remains: not only will it remain indefinitely perfectible, hence always insufficient and future, but, belonging to the time of the promise, it will always remain, in each of its future times, to come: even when there is democracy, it never exists.


Things have changed in Paris. The days when intellectuals turned to philosophers to get their political bearings, and the public turned to intellectuals, are all but over. The figure of the philosophe engage promoted by Sartre has been badly tarnished by the political experiences of the past several decades, beginning with the publication of Solzhenitsyn's books, then the Cambodian horrors, the rise of Solidarity, and finally the events of 1989. For structuralism in all its forms, it was the disappointments of le tiers monde that did most to call into question the philosophers' notion that cultures are irreducibly different and men simply products of those cultures. To their credit, some of the French intellectuals who became structuralists in the Fifties began to see that the vocabulary they had once used to defend colonial peoples against Western tyranny was now being used to excuse crimes committed against those peoples by homegrown, post-colonial tyrants.

Their abandonment of structuralism and deconstruction was not philosophically motivated, at least at first; it was inspired by moral repugnance. But this repugnance had the hygienic effect of reestablishing the distinctions between, on the one hand, pure philosophy and political philosophy and, on the other, committed engagement. There is today a new French interest in rigorous moral philosophy, epistemology. philosophy of mind, and even cognitive science. The tradition of political philosophy, ancient and modern, is also being studied intensively for the first time in many years, and there is some original being done by younger French political thinkers who are no longer contemptuous of politicians or the state. This all could change tomorrow, of course. But it is difficult to imagine the French stepping into the structuralist river twice.

The persistent American fascination with Derrida and deconstruction has nothing to do with his current status in French philosophy, which is marginal at best. This raises a number of interesting questions about how and why his work has been received with open arms by American post-modernists, and what they think they are embracing. Derrida is often asked about his American success and always responds with the same joke: "La deconstruction, c'est l'Amerique." By which he apparently means that America has something of the decentered, democratic swirl he tries to reproduce in his own thought. He may be on to something here, for if deconstruction is not America, it has certainly become an Americanism.

When continental Europeans think about questions of cultural difference and the Other, they are thinking about many deep and disturbing things in their own past: colonialism, nationalism, fascism, the Holocaust. What makes these historical events so difficult for them to grapple with is that there is no moderate liberal intellectual tradition in Europe that addresses them, or at least not a vigorous and continuous one. The continental philosophical tradition makes it difficult to think about toleration, for example, except in the illiberal terms of Herder's Romantic theory of national spirit, the rigid French model of uniform republican citizenship, and now, most improbably, the Heideggerian messianism of Jacques Derrida's deconstruction .

When Americans think about these issues of cultural difference they feel both pride and shame: pride in our capacity to absorb immigration and shame in the legacy of slavery that has kept black Americans a caste apart. The intellectual problem we face is not that of convincing ourselves that cultural variety can be good, or that differences should be respected, or that liberal political principles are basically sound. These we absorb fairly easily. The problem is in understanding why the American promise has only been imperfectly fulfilled, and how we should respond. About this we are clearly divided. But the fact that some political groups, such as those claiming to represent women and homosexuals, portray their moral enfranchisement as the logical extension of the social enfranchisement given to immigrants and promised, but never delivered, to American blacks, speaks volumes about the social consensus that exists in this country about how to think and argue about such questions.

In light of these contrasting experiences, it is a little easier to understand why the political reckoning structuralism faced in France during the Seventies and Eighties never took place in the United States. The souring of the post-colonial experiments in Africa and Asia and the collapse of Communist regimes nearby induced enormous self-doubt in Europe about the ideas that reigned in the postwar period. These same events have had no appreciable effect on American intellectual life, for the simple reason that they pose no challenge to our own self-understanding. When Americans read works in the structuralist tradition today, even in its most radicalized Heideggerian form in deconstruction, they find it difficult to imagine any moral and political implications they might have. People who believe it is possible to "get a new life" will not be overly concerned by the suggestion that all truth is socially constructed, or think that accepting it means relinquishing one's moral compass. That the anti-humanism and politics of pure will latent in structuralism and deconstruction, not to mention the strange theological overtones that Derrida has recently added, are philosophically and practically incompatible with liberal principles sounds like an annoying prejudice.

No wonder a tour through the post-modernist section of any American bookshop is such a disconcerting experience. The most illiberal, anti-enlightenment notions are put forward with a smile and the assurance that, followed out to their logical conclusion, they could only lead us into the democratic promised land, where all God's children will join hands in singing the national anthem. It is an uplifting vision and Americans believe in uplift. That so many of them seem to have found it in the dark and forbidding works of Jacques Derrida attests to the strength of Americans' self-confidence and their awesome capacity to think well of anyone and any idea. Not for nothing do the French still call us les grands enfants.