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The Politics Of The Undecidable:
On Jacques Derrida

Liam O Ruairc • May 8, 2003

Jacques Derrida is the most important French philosopher still alive. He is perhaps more influential abroad - in the United States in particular - than in France. He is the author of more than fifty books published over the last forty years, but his most important works were written mainly during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Exactly ten years ago, in April/May 1993, he gave a series of lectures in California that were published the same year under the title “Spectres of Marx”. Derrida’s engagement with Marx’s thought had been long awaited, however it is questionable whether some form of concrete politics can be deduced from Derrida’s project.

Derrida’s main contribution is what became known later as “deconstruction”. If examined more closely, deconstruction is not some new exciting world view, it is rather a highly technical close reading of philosophical texts, more akin to the protocols of analytical philosophy than some apocalyptic versions of “postmodernist” and “poststructuralist” theories. Deconstruction is not a method, but a way of uncovering rhetorical strategies at work within texts. Derrida has been able to combine Husserl’s methodological prudence and reserve with Nietzsche’s genealogical critique and Heidegger’s radical questioning. Derrida’s central concern has been to think the limits of philosophy. In an interview, Derrida once declared: 'My central question is: from what site or non-site can philosophy as such appear to itself as'other than itself, so that it can interrogate and reflect upon itself in an original manner?' The philosophy of deconstruction is thus the deconstruction of philosophy. For Derrida, literature and language can provide this non-philosophical site from which western metaphysics can be radically questioned. More specifically, Derrida is interested in certain radical movements within literature, writers like Blanchot, Bataille, Jabes, Artaud, Mallarme, whose work questioned the limits of literature and language.

Deconstruction typically expose the textual strategies at work within philosophy, it uncovers rhetoric behind “logic”, metaphors behind “concepts”. Derrida describes metaphysics as “white mythology”, that is a sort of palimpsest of metaphors like “logos” “eidos”, “telos”, “ousia”, and myths like “return”, “home coming”, transcendence” etc which are covered over and forgotten as soon as philosophical concepts are construed as pure and univocal abstractions, as totalizing universals devoid of myth and metaphors. But there are always “traces” of those metaphors that the violence of the concept is not able to repress. “Logocentrism” or the “metaphysics of presence” as Derrida calls it, is philosophy’s quest for purity, for forgetting its literary Other. Deconstruction shows how any attempt to define concepts or meanings as self sufficicent is incoherent, and thus how any attempt to determine the relationships between concepts as oppositional breaks down. As opposed to “pure philosophy”, deconstruction is interested to uncover what makes philosophy “impure”. Deconstruction is therefore a critique of “pure” reason (logos). Derrida is not privileging literature over philosophy, for deconstruction philosophy is not just “one kind of writing”. For him, philosophy and literature are two poles of an opposition, and none of the two can be privileged, The limits of philosophy are also those of literature. The logic of deconstruction, “differance” (with an “a”), cannot be defined in terms of oppositional predicates (such as “philosophy” and “literature”); it is neither this nor that, but rather this and that (e.g. the act of differing and of deferring). Differences are never absolute, and neither therefore identities.

Derrida’s close reading of philosophical texts has generated enormous controversies. Critics have in particular seized upon Derrida’s statement that “there is nothing beyond the text”. Deconstruction is not a suspension of reference, it is always concerned with the “Other” of language, but it challenges and complicates common assumptions about it. What deconstruction tries to show is that the question of reference is much more complex and problematic than traditional theories supposed. It also asks whether our term “reference” is entirely adequate for designing the “other” beyond language. Derrida has also been accused of trying to dispense with human subjectivity. Derrida in fact acknowledges subjectivity, but questions whether the subject is what it says it is. Deconstruction does not destroy the subject, it simply tries to resituate it: the subject is not some meta-linguistic substance or identity, some pure cogito or self-presence; it is always inscribed in language. Deconstruction is not some form of nihilism, but rather openess towards alterity. Derrida’s thought has in fact little to do with the sort of caricatures that have been made of it. Those caricatures also includes some left wing writers that have since the 1970s tried to incorporate deconstruction in a left-wing if not Marxist political agenda. It is difficult to understand how they can draw any political conclusions from such close readings of the nature of language in Rousseau, Husserl's account of the origins of geometry or Levi Strauss’s analysis of the relation between the spoken word and writing for example. This was Derrida’s answer to the question as to whether the theoretical radicality of deconstruction could be translated into a radical political praxis:

This is a particularly difficult question. I must confess that I have never succeeded in directly relating deconstruction to existing political codes and programmes. I have of course had occasion to take a specific political stand in certain codable situations, for example, in relation to the French university institution. But the available codes for taking such a political stance are not at all adequate to the “radicality” of deconstruction. And the absence of an adequate political code to translate or incorporate the radical implications of deconstruction has given many the impression that deconstruction is opposed to politics, or is at best apolitical. But this impression only prevails because all of our political codes and terminologies still remain fundamentally metaphysical, regardless of whether they originate from the right or the left.

So Derrida is stuck between the fact that he takes specific political stances (see his standard liberal views on feminism, the threat of nuclear war, Europe or Mandela), and the fact that he is not able to rely on any political theory to justify or explain those stances given that they are metaphysical or not adequate to the theoretical radicality of deconstruction. One of the problems with deconstruction is that by escaping binary thinking and oppositions, it leaves an undecidable space. Traditional political theory has always tried to domesticate the dimension of the indecidable, whereas deconstruction affirms it. The politics of deconstruction are based on ungrounded decisions, and Derrida's politics are not possible to be grounded theoretically. For that reason, deconstruction cannot be annexed to recognisable political theories or programmes like Marxism.

The difficulty is to gesture in opposite directions at the same time: on the one hand to preserve a distance and suspicion with regard to the official political codes governing reality; on the other, to intervene here and now in a practical and engaged manner whenever the necessity arises. This position of dual allegiance, in which I personally find myself, is one of perpetual uneasiness. I try where I can to act politically while recognising that such action remains incommensurate with my intellectual project of deconstruction.

Derrida is a very cautious, prudent thinker, and is not ready to engage in the sort of revolutionary politics some of his left wing supporters ascribe him. In political terms, Derrida’s thought is more about challenging assumptions and radically questioning things than positive prescriptive solutions. That is the political significance of deconstruction.


Note: the interview referred to is to be found in Richard Kearney, “Dialogues with contemporary continental thinkers”, Manchester University Press, 1984 pp.105-126



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8 May 2003


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