Obituary: The Infinite Search

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There is much to celebrate in the work of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, says Alex Callinicos.

The death last month of Jacques Derrida at the age of 74 removed the last of that succession of great French intellectuals whose writings decisively shaped avant-garde thinking in the west during the second half of the 20th century. Derrida first burst onto the philosophical scene in 1967, with the publication of no less than three books.

Like other French thinkers of his generation he was strongly influenced by the theory of language developed by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure argued that language is composed of signs and that each sign is a combination of signifier (a sound or mark) and signified (the meaning of the sign). But he also claimed that signs gain their meanings through the differences between signifiers. Thus the sound shift from 'mat' to 'cat' produces a fundamental difference of meaning. 'In language there are only differences,' Saussure wrote.

One implication was that it is best to think of language as a self-enclosed system in which the important relationships are not those between words and the real objects to which they refer, but rather those internal to language and consisting in the interrelations of signifiers. In France in the 1960s this led to what came to be known as structuralism. As practised by Claude Lévi-Strauss or Roland Barthes, for example, this involved treating a 'primitive' society or Paris fashions as a coherent system whose meaning could be decoded as if it were a language.


Derrida sought to subvert structuralism. He pointed out that if signifiers acquire meaning through their differences from one another, there is no reason why this process shouldn't go on for ever. Each signifier points to a signified, its meaning, that is itself another signifier, and so on ad infinitum. There is no stable halting point in language, but only what Derrida called 'infinite play', the endless slippages through which meaning is sought but never found.

The only way to stop this play of difference would be if there were what Derrida called a 'transcendental signified' - a meaning that exists outside language and that therefore isn't liable to this constant process of subversion inherent in signification. But the transcendental signified is nothing but an illusion, sustained by the 'metaphysics of presence', the belief at the heart of the western philosophical tradition that we can gain direct access to the world independently of the different ways in which we talk about and act on it. With this argument what came to be known as post-structuralism first took shape.

Derrida's most famous saying must be understood in this context. It was translated into English (rather misleadingly) as, 'There is nothing outside the text.' In fact, Derrida wasn't, like some ultra-idealist, reducing everything to language (in the French original he actually wrote 'Il n'y a pas de hors-texte' - 'There is no outside-text'). Rather he was saying that once you see language as a constant movement of differences in which there is no stable resting point, you can no longer appeal to reality as a refuge independent of language. Everything acquires the instability and ambiguity that Derrida claimed to be inherent in language.

This applied also to what had been the foundation of European philosophy since the 17th century - the individual human subject. One variation, according to Derrida, of the metaphysics of presence was René Descartes' idea that the individual subject is 'self-present', having direct access to the contents of his consciousness. Like his French contemporaries, Derrida was profoundly influenced by Freud's discovery of the unconscious, and by the implication that the subject isn't even in control of his own mind.

Derrida's intervention took place in the lead-up to the great explosion of 1968, a moment of growing politicisation. Louis Althusser's attempt to reinterpret Marx along 'anti-humanist' lines that denied the importance of individual or collective subjects was then nearing the height of its influence. Derrida was friendly with Althusser, with whom for many years he taught philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris.

But he remained silent about Marx and Marxism till the 1990s. In a later interview he explained that he was intimidated by the dogmatism of Althusser and his pupils. Moreover, as an anti-Stalinist he was afraid that if he openly criticised the Soviet Union and the French Communist Party, which then dominated the left, he would be identified with the right.

This doesn't mean that Derrida's philosophy was purely apolitical. Of Jewish origin, he was born in Algeria in 1930. Brought up under French colonial rule and expelled from school under the Vichy regime, he always felt himself to be an outsider.

He saw his critique of some of the central concepts of the western philosophical tradition as subverting the Eurocentric view of the world that a few years later Edward Said, another intruder into the metropolitan academy from the Arab world, was to denounce in his famous book Orientalism. By decentring language and the subject, Derrida hoped to open a space in which the marginalised and excluded - women, blacks, the colonised - could speak for themselves.

Like Said, Derrida didn't advocate simply rejecting the western tradition. He believed that it was impossible to escape the metaphysics of presence. Meaning in the shape of the 'transcendental signified' may be an illusion, but it is a necessary illusion. Derrida summed this tension up by inventing the word 'differance', which combines the meanings of 'differ' and 'defer'. Language is a play of differences in which meaning is endlessly deferred, but constantly posed.

Flaws and tensions

The idea of differance informed Derrida's particular practice of philosophy, which he called deconstruction. The idea was to scrutinise texts - particularly philosophical classics - to expose both how they participated in the metaphysics of presence and also the flaws and tensions through which the limitations of this way of thinking were revealed. As a result, these texts would end up very different from how they had seemed when Derrida started on them: they would have been dismantled - deconstructed.

This deconstructive method made reading Derrida heavy going. The last book of his I read, Voyous (Rogues), which appeared on the eve of the Iraq war in 2003, is typical. Some of the book is an illuminating critique of the idea of rogue states that proceeds by a study of the history of the word 'voyou'. But this is mixed up with fairly maddening punning and wordplay, and self-regarding discussions of philosophical fragments.

Derrida was no doubt encouraged in this by the enormous reputation he acquired in the US. He was taken up particularly in English and Cultural Studies, in part because the idea that 'there is nothing outside the text' legitimised minute analysis of literary texts or indeed other cultural artefacts - game shows, reality soaps, or whatever.

But the very fact that Derrida became an intellectual celebrity (although personally he remained remarkably modest and self-deprecating) made what is widely seen as the 'ethical and political turn' of his last years so impressive. In 1993 he finally broke what he had called his 'tormented silence' about Marx. In an ideological climate dominated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the global triumph of liberal capitalism he published Spectres of Marx.

Dedicated to the memory of Chris Hani, a leader of the South African Communist Party murdered in April 1993 by a white fascist, Spectres of Marx lays into the 'new world order' and its chief ideologue, Francis Fukuyama, the prophet of the End of History. Taking as his motto a line from Hamlet - 'The time is out of joint', Derrida lists the ills of the contemporary world - unemployment, exclusion, economic competition, instability, Third World debt, the arms trade, nuclear proliferation, inter-ethnic wars, the mafia and drugs cartels, and the domination of international institutions by capital and the big powers.

In an astonishing anticipation of the anti-capitalist movement, he calls for a 'New International' - 'a link of affinity, suffering, and hope' in response to these evils. And he robustly affirms, 'There will be no future without this. Not without Marx, no future without Marx, without the memory and the inheritance of Marx, in any case of a certain Marx, of his genius, of at least one of his spirits.'

In the debate provoked by Spectres of Marx a number of Marxist commentators - notably Terry Eagleton and Aijaz Ahmad - pointed out that Derrida seemed to be counterposing 'a certain Marxist spirit' to the actual Marxist tradition in its theoretical substance and political reality ('Marx without Marx', as Eagleton put it).

But this perfectly correct criticism doesn't alter the significance of Derrida's intervention, coming as it did at a historical moment when Marx had been proclaimed a dead dog. Daniel BensaÏd in his obituary to Derrida argues that, along with Pierre Bourdieu's The Weight of the World, Spectres of Marx announced 'the renaissance of social resistance' in France that exploded in the 1995 public sector strikes.

Last year I took part with Derrida in a conference in Paris devoted especially to the debate on Spectres of Marx. It was a few days after the huge anti-war protests of 15 February 2003, and Derrida was as excited as the rest of us. He also seemed eager to engage in a dialogue on issues such as imperialism with Marxists like BensaÏd.

In my view, Derrida was much more successful in exposing the contradictions of Saussure's theory of language than he was in founding a new philosophical method. But in his later years he undoubtedly sought to promote the development of the 'New International' for which Spectres of Marx so eloquently called.