At 74 years old, Jacques Derrida, world-renowned philosopher, pursues his intellectual journey with a singular intensity even as he confronts serious illness. At his home in Ris-Orangis, a suburb of Paris, he talks to Le Monde about his work, his plans, and his legacy.
Since the summer for 2003 you’ve been everywhere. You’ve not only published a number of new books, but you’ve gone around the world attending the numerous international conferences dedicated to exploring your work, from London to Coimbra, back to Paris, and most recently in Rio de Janeiro. You have been the subject of two films, most recently Derrida, by Amy Kofman and Kirby Dick, and Safaa Fathy’s very lovely D’ailleurs Derrida in 2000, as well as the focus of many special editions, notably of the Magazine littéraire and the review Europe, as well as an issue of Cahiers de l’Herne which is particularly rich in unpublished material and which is due to appear this fall . That is a lot in a single year, especially given that – you make no secret of it – you are….
…go ahead and say it, fairly seriously ill. It’s true, and undergoing treatment that poses its own challenges. But let’s set that aside, if you don’t mind, we’re not here to issue a health bulletin, public or private.
Very well. Then let’s go back instead to Specters of Marx [Spectres de Marx] (Galilée, 1993). Key work, landmark work, entirely devoted to a justice to come, and which opens with this mysterious exhortation: “Someone, you or me, comes forward and says: ‘I’d finally like to know how to live.'” More than ten years later, where are you with your wish to “know how to live”?
It is above all about the question of a “new internationale,” the subtitle and theme of the book. Beyond “cosmopolitanism,” beyond the “global citizen” as a new global nation-state, this book anticipates all the antiglobalization imperatives that I believe in and that are coming more clearly into view now. What I was calling then a “new internationale,” I was saying in 1993, would have given us a great number of changes in the field of human rights and in the organizations that effectively manage the world (IMF, WTO, G8, etc., and especially the UN, where many things should be changed: its mandate, its composition, and above all, its location – to as far away from New York as possible…)
As for the turn of phrase finally knowing how to live, it came to me once the book was done. First of all it plays, albeit seriously, with the common meaning of the phrase: to learn to live is to mature, and educate too. To tell someone “I’ll teach you how to live” means – sometimes with an undertone of menace – “I’m going to shape you, I’m going to put you right.” Also the equivocation of this play means even more to me; this sigh is also an opening to another line of questioning: to live: can that be learned? Taught? Can one learn, by method or training, by experience or experiment, to accept – better yet, to affirm – life? This worry over heritage and death resonates throughout the whole book. It is also the torment of parents and their children: When will you become responsible? When will you be accountable for your own life and name?
So to answer your question, without further delay: no, I never learned-to-live. Absolutely not! Learning to live ought to mean learning to die – to acknowledge, to accept, an absolute mortality – without positive outcome, or resurrection, or redemption, for oneself or for anyone else. That has been the old philosophical injunction since Plato: to be a philosopher is to learn how to die. I believe in this truth without giving myself over to it. Less and less in fact. I have not learned to accept death. We are all survivors on deferral (and regarding deferral, from the geopolitical viewpoint in Specters of Marx, the emphasis is especially – in a world that is more inegalitarian than ever – on the billions of living beings – human and otherwise – who are denied not only basic “human rights,” which go back two hundred years old and are continually being amplified, but are denied even the right to a live a decent life. But I remain impervious to learning when it comes to knowing-how-to-die, I have yet to learn anything about this particular subject.
The period of deferral is shrinking ever faster. More and more, because most of the thinkers that I am associated with are dead, I have been labeled a “last survivor;” because I am, along with some others, the inheritor of so many things, good and awful alike: the final representative of a “generation,” the Sixties generation in a word. All of which is not, if you want to be rigorous about it, true, and yet I don’t find myself objecting to it entirely; it rather provokes a certain melancholy nostalgia for rebelliousness. What’s more, since certain health problems are becoming more pressing, the question of survival or deferral – which has always haunted me, literally, every moment of my life, tangibly, unrelentingly – takes on yet another color. I have always been interested in the subject of survival, the meaning of which is not supplemental to life ordeath. It is originary: life is survival. Survival in the conventional sense of the term means to continue to live, but also to live after death. Speaking of translation, Walter Benjamin took pains to distinguish between überleben on the one hand, to live after death, as a book can survive the death of its author, or a child the death of parents, and on the other hand, fortleben, living on, to keep on living. All the ideas that have helped me in my work, notably those regarding the trace or the spectral, were related to the idea of “survival” as a basic dimension. It does not derive from either to live or to die. No more than what I call “originary mourning.” It is something that does not wait for so-called “actual” death.
You have used the term “generation.” A problematic concept, which you often take up in your writing. How do you define what is being transmitted by a certain generation in your name?
This word I use a little loosely. One can be an “anachronistic” contemporary of a past generation, or the one to come. To be faithful to those considered of my generation, to be the guardian of a common if diverse heritage, means two things: To adhere, in the face of everything, to certain shared disciplines, from Lacan to Althusser, and including Levinas, Foucault, Barthes, Deleuze, Blanchot, Lyotard, Sarah Kofman, etc.; and that is without naming so many thinkers, poets, philosophers, or psychoanalysts who are happily alive, and from whom I have also inherited, and undoubtedly from others abroad, in even greater number, and who, for all their distance, sometimes feel closer. I thereby designate, metonymically, an ethics of writing and thinking that is intransigent, I would even say incorruptible (Helene Cixous calls us the “incorruptibles”), without compromise even with regard to philosophy, which does not retreat despite the prospect that public opinion, the media, or the fantasies of an intimidating readership might effectively demand that we simplify, or shrink back.
Thus the austere taste for subtlety, paradox, aporia. This predilection is also a fundamental. It brings into focus not only those whom I evoked – a little arbitrarily, and thus unjustly – but also the greater milieu that sustained them. It had to do with a kind of bygone era (at least for the moment), and not simply of this or that person. That has to be saved or reborn, at all costs. And the responsibility today is critical: it calls for a rigorous war against the doxa, against those that we can call from hereon in the “media intellectuals,”against this general discourse pre-formatted by the media, who are themselves under the control of politico-economic lobbies, and often editorial and academic as well. Without being any less European and global, of course. Resistance does not mean that you avoid the media. When possible, you have a responsibility to help them develop and diversify, to call them back to that very same responsibility.
At the same time, it is important not to forget that during this “happy” bygone era it was not all peace and calm. Differences and disagreements raged in this milieu, which was anything but homogeneous; and as if you could contain them, for example, in a lame expression like “Spirit of ’68,” which has become routine in the media and academia, be it as slogan or disparaging term. And even if this faithfulness sometimes still takes the form of unfaithfulness and waywardness, one must be faithful to differences; that is to say, one must go on with the conversation. I continue to have a conversation – with Bourdieu, Lacan, Deleuze, Foucault, for example, who continue to interest me, more than those that the media focuses on these days (with some exceptions, of course). I keep this dialogue alive because it does not become superficial, nor does it degrade into denigration. What I have said about my generation applies also of course to the past, from the Bible to Plato, Kant, Marx, Freud, Heidegger, etc. I do not want to repudiate anything; I cannot.
You know, to learn how to live – this is always narcissistic. You want to live as long as you can, to save yourself, to persevere, and to cultivate all these things that, infinitely larger and more powerful than you, are nonetheless part of this “I,” from which they overflow on all sides. To ask me to renounce what has shaped me, what I have loved so much, is to ask me to die. In this sort of faithfulness there is a kind of instinct for self-preservation. For me it would be an intolerable obscenity to reject a difficult formulation, a fold, a paradox, yet another contradiction, because it is not going to be understood, or because such and such journalist who does not understand it, who can not get even the title of the book, and thinks that the reader or viewer will not understand either, and that therefore management won’t like it or his career will suffer as a result. You might as well ask me to bow and scrape, or to die of stupidity.
You invented a form, a writing of survival, that conform to this faithful impatience. Writing of the inherited promise, of the safeguarded trace, of the entrusted responsibility.
If I had invented a writing it would have been as an endless revolution. Each situation demands the creation of a suitable mode of exposition, the invention of a law of the singular event, take into account the recipient, imagined or desired; and at the same time it demands the belief that this writing will determine the reader, who will learn to read (or to “live”) this writing, which he is not used to finding elsewhere. One hopes that he will be reformed, otherwise determined; for example, these grafts (short of confusion) of the poetic on the philosophical, or certain ways of using homonyms, the undecidable, ruses of language – into which many people see confusion, while ignoring the properly logical need for it.
Each book is a teaching method intended to educate its reader. The kind of mass writing that currently dominates in the news media and publishing does not educate its readers; it supposes in some phantasmatic way some already programmed reader, so that it inevitably ends in affirming the existence of some mediocre recipient that it has postulated in advance. So that, by an act of faithfulness, as you say, at the moment of leaving a trace, I cannot but make it available for whoever comes along; I cannot even address it singularly, to anyone person. Each time, as faithful as we may want to be, we are betraying the singularity of the other whom we address. A fortiori when one writes a very general book, one does not know whom one is talking to, one invents and creates silhouettes; but at bottom this no longer belong to us. Oral or written, all these gestures leave us, they begin to act independently of us. Like machines, or better yet like marionettes – I explain myself better about this in Paper Machine (Galilee, 2001). At the moment “my” book is published (no one is forcing me to do so) I become an appearance-disappearance, like that unteachable specter that will never learn how to live.
The trace I leave to me means at once my death, to come or already come, and the hope that it will survive me. It is not an ambition of immortality; it is fundamental. I leave here a bit of paper, I leave, I die; it is impossible to exit this structure; it is the unchanging form of my life. Every time I let something go, I live my death in writing. An extreme process; we exert ourselves without knowing whom exactly the thing we leavebehind is confided to. Who is going to inherit, and how? It is a question that one can pose oneself today more than ever. It constantly preoccupies me.
Our techno-cultural era has deeply changed in this regard. People of my “generation,” and at fortiori those of previous generations, had been familiar with a certain historical rhythm; we thought that such and such a work would survive, owing to its qualities, for one, two – or in the case of Plato, 25 – centuries. But today the acceleration of modalities of storage but also the wear and the wearing out changes the structure and the temporal parameters of our legacy. As regards thinking especially the question of survival has become subject to too many unknowns.
At my age, I am ready to accept the most contradictory ideas about this issue. I have, I assure you, a dual feeling that, on the one hand, and I say this with a smile, and rather immodesty, that we have not even begun yet to read me; that even if there are of course some very good readers (a few dozen in the world, maybe), at bottom, it is only later that all this has a chance of emerging; but at the same time, I imagine that fifteen days after my death there will be nothing left, except what is kept in storage by legal mandate. I swear to you, I think that both these things are possible at the same time.
At the heart of these hopes there is language, and above all the French language. When I read you I feel the deep passion you have for the language. In The Monolinguism of the Other [Le Monolinguisme de l’autre] (Galilée, 1996), you went so far as to offer yourself, ironically, as the last defender and illustrator of the French language…
Which does not belong to me, much as it is the only one “I have” to use (to the extent I use it well!) The experience of language is of course vital; and therefore mortal at the same time, nothing new about that. Circumstances dictated that I be an Algerian Jew born before the “War of Independence;” already many distinct attributes even among Jews, and even among Algerian Jews. I took part in the extraordinary transformation of the Algerian Jews; my great-grandparents were by language, custom, etc., still identified with Arabic culture. After the Cremieux Decree (1870), at the end of the 19th c., the following generationbecame bourgeois. Even if she got married almost clandestinely in some back courtyard of an Algiers municipal office, all because of the fear of pogroms (this was in the time of the Dreyfus Affair), my grandmother was already bringing up her daughters like good middle-class Parisians, (with the good 16th arrondissement manners, the piano lessons…)
Then it was the generation of my parents: few intellectuals, mostly merchants, modest and otherwise, some of which were already exploiting a colonial situation in making themselves the exclusive representatives of certain cosmopolitan brands. In a ten-meter square office you could be the representative for all of North Africa for “Marseilles Soap.” I am simplifying things a bit…
Then it was my generation (a majority of them intellectuals: liberal professions, teaching, medicine, law, etc.). And almost everyone of these in France by 1962. For me, it was earlier (1949). It is with me – I only exaggerate a bit – that mixed marriages began, in a manner that is quasi-tragic, revolutionary, rare and risky. And even as I love life, and my life, love what has made me, the constituent of which is language, this French language that is the only language that I was taught to cultivate, the only language as well that I can call myself more or less accountable for
That is why there is in my writing a – I would not say perverse, but a somewhat violent manner of working with the language. Out of love. Love in general passes through love of language, which is neither nationalist nor conservative, but which demands proof. And labors. You don’t do anything you want with language, it was here before us and it will be here after we are gone. If we have an impact on language in some way, this has to be done carefully, respecting even in disrespect its secret laws. This is unfaithful faithfulness: when I cause the French language violence, I do it with the careful respect of what I believe to be an injunction of the language, into its life, its evolution. I cannot read without smiling, sometimes with contempt, the writing of those who believe to be violating, without love, the classic orthography or syntax of the French language, like virgins ejaculating prematurely, while the great French language, ever impervious, watches them do their business and awaits the next one. I describe this ridiculous scenario, rather cruelly, in The Postcard [La Carte postale] (Flammarion, 1980).
To leave traces in the history of the French language, this is what is interesting to me. This is my passion, if not in the name of France, for something that the French language has embodied for centuries. I suppose that if love this tongue as I love life itself, and sometimes more than I love such and such a French person of French origin, it is because I love it like a stranger who was received and who appropriated this language as the only one possible for him. Passion and excess.
All the French in Algeria share this with me, whether they were Jews or not. Those that came from the urban centers were strangers: oppressors and rule-setters, normalizers and moralizers. It was a model, a norm, a habitus, to which you had to conform. When a professor arrived in the city with his French accent, we thought he was ridiculous! The excess comes from this: I have only one language, and at the same time this language does not belong to me. A singular and exacerbated history, this universal law; a language is now owned. Not naturally, by some essence. This is the source of fantasies of property, of colonialist appropriation and imposition.
You have trouble saying “we,” usually – “we the philosophers,” or “we the Jews,” for example. But in view of the new and growing global turmoil you seem to be less and less hesitant to say “we the Europeans.” Already in The Other Cape [L’Autre Cap] (Galilée, 1991), a book written at the time of the first Gulf War, you presented yourself as an “old European,” as a kind of “European mongrel.”
Two things: I do indeed have a hard time saying “we,” but it does happen. Despite all the issues that torment me in this regard, starting with Israel’s disastrous and even suicidal policies, and a certain kind of Zionism – because for me Israel no more represents Judaism than it does the diaspora nor even the global or originary Zionism, which was diverse and often in conflict with itself; there also are in fact fundamentalist Christians in the US who call themselves Zionists. The power of their lobby – and not to speak of the Saudi influence – counts for more than the American Jewish community in influencing the dynamic of US-Israeli politics.
Despite all that, and so many other issues that I have with my Jewishness, I would never repudiate it. I would always say, in certain situations, “we the Jews.” This tortured “we” lies at the heart of what is troubling to me, the idea of what I have called with a faint smile “the last of the Jews.” This thought is akin to what Aristotle profoundly said about prayer (eukhè): it is neither true nor false. It is, literally, a prayer. In certain circumstances, therefore, I will not hesitate to say “we the Jews,” or “we the French.”
What’s more, since the beginning of my work, and this would be deconstruction itself, I have remained very critical with regard to Eurocentrism, to its formulation in modernist form, in the work of Valery, Husserl, or Heidegger, for instance. Deconstruction in general is a project that many have taken, rightly so, as an act of defiance toward all Eurocentrism. When I do say, these days, “we the Europeans,” it is conjunctive and very different. Notwithstanding everything about the European tradition that can be deconstructed, it nonetheless remains that, precisely because of everything that has happened in Europe – because of the Enlightenment, because of the retrenchment of this little continent, and of the enormous legacy of culpability that it bears (totalitarianism, nazism, genocides, Shoah, colonization and decolonization, etc.), today in the current geopolitical conditions in which we find ourselves, Europe, an entirely other Europe but with the same set of memories, could – or so I would wish – unite against the politics of American global dominance (see Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc.) and at the same time also against Arab-Muslim theocratism, unenlightened, and without a political future (but let’s also take note of the diversity even in these two blocs, and let us ally ourselves with the opposition within them.)
Europe finds itself under the obligation to undertake a new responsibility. I am not talking about the European community as it currently exists, or as it the currently neo-liberal majority imagines it, and literally menaced by so many internal conflicts, but of a Europe to come, and that is still in the process of seeking itself. In the geographic Europe and elsewhere. What is algebraically called “Europe” has to assumer certain responsibilities, in the name of the future of humanity, in the name of international law – this is my faith and my religion. And there I do not hesitate to say “we the Europeans;” it is not a question of wishing for the creation of a Europe as military superpower, protecting its markets and acting as a counterweight against other geopolitical blocs; but rather of a Europe that would sow the grain of a new post-globalizationpolitics. That to me is the one and only possible issue.
This movement is coming. Even if the outlines are still forming, I think that nothing will stop it. When I say Europe, this is it: a post-globalization Europe, transforming the concept and the conventions of sovereignty and international law. And availed of a real military force, independent of NATO or the UN, a military power, neither offensive nor defensive, which would firmly enforce the resolutions of a reconstituted UN (for example, and with utmost urgency, in Israel, but also elsewhere). It is also the site from which we can reflect best on certain aspects of secularity, for example, or social justice, which are European legacies as well.
(I have just spoken of “secularity.” Allow me an extended digression, which has to do not with wearing the veil in school but the veil of “marriage.” I gave Noel Mamere’s brave and welcome initiative my support with my signature, even if gay marriage stands as an example of this noble tradition inaugurated in the previous century that Americans call “civil disobedience:” not defiance of the law, but disobedience of a legislative stance in favor of a better law – a law yet to come or already inscribed in the spirit or the letter of the constitution. Well, I added my signature in this current legislative context because it struck me as unjust – with respect to gay rights – hypocritical and equivocal in both spirit and letter.
If I were a legislator, I would simply propose the abolition of both the word and the concept of “marriage” in the civil and secular code. “Marriage,” religious, sacral, heterosexual value, with its procreative intent, for eternal fidelity, etc., is the State’s concession to the Christian church, particularly in its monogamous dimension which is neither Jewish (this was imposed on Jews by Europeans only in the last century and among North African Jews was not an obligation as recently as a few generations ago) nor Muslim, as is well known. In doing away with the concept and the word “marriage,” this religious equivocation or hypocrisy, which has no place in a secular constitution, would be replaced by a contractual “civil union,” a kind of generalized, improved, flexible pact between partners without limitation to gender or number. As for those who want to be untied in marriage in the traditional sense – for which by the way I have the utmost respect – they could do it before the religious authority of their choosing – and that is in fact how it is done in other countries that consecrate marriage between homosexuals. Some people could enter into relationships in either one of these ways, some in both ways, and others could do so without regard to either civil law or religious tradition. So much for the digression on marriage.
What I call “deconstruction,” even when it is directed against something European, is European, is a product of Europe, a reflection of Europe on itself as experience of a radical otherness. Since the days of the Enlightenment, Europe has been in a permanent state of self-critique, and in this tradition of perfectibility there is a hope for the future. At least I hope so, and this is what fuels my indignation before utterances that condemn Europe utterly, as if it were defined only by its crimes.
With regard to Europe, are you not at war against yourself? On the one hand, you have noted that the events of 9/11 have done away with the old geopolitical vocabulary of sovereign powers, indicating a state of crisis for a certain idea of the political, that you define as properly European. On the other hand, you maintain an attachment to this European spirit, and above all to the “cosmopolitical” ideal of international law, the decline of which you were in fact talking about. Or is it its survival –
One has to “raise” (Aufheben) the cosmopolitical (see Cosmopolitans from all countries, yet another task! – Galilee, 1997). When one says “political,” one uses a Greek word, a European concept that has always presupposed the State, the concept of polis that is linked to the concept of national territory and autochthony.
Notwithstanding the interruptions in the flow of this history, this remains the dominant concept of the political, even as numerous forces attempt to dislodge it: the concept of state sovereignty is no longer tied to the land, and neither are communication technology or military doctrine, and so this dislocation throws old European ideas of the political into crisis. As well as ideas of war, and the distinction between civilian and military, and of national and international territory
But I don’t think that we need to set ourselves against the concept of the political. That goes also for the concept of sovereignty, which I think retains its validity in certain circumstances, for example in resisting certain forces of a global market. Here again it is a matter of a European heritage being both safeguardedand reformed. That is also what I argue in Hooligans [Voyous] (Galilee, 2003), about democracy as European idea, which in fact has never existed in perfect form, and which is yet to come. And in fact you will always find me making such efforts, for which I have no ultimate justification, except that it is me, it is where I am.
It is true, I am at war with myself, and you have no idea to what extent, more than you can guess, and I say things that contradict each other, that are, let’s say, in real tension with each other, that compose me, that make me live, and that will make me die. This war, I see it sometimes as a terrifying and painful war, but at the same time I know that it is life. I will not find peace except in eternal rest. Therefore I cannot say that I assume this contradiction, but I know too that it is what allows me to live, and to pose the question, effectively, that you posed, “how to learn how to live?”
In two recent books, The End of the World, Always Unique, and Rams [Chaque fois unique, la fin du monde et Béliers] (Galilee, 2003), you come back to this major question of salvation, of the impossible mourning, of survival in fact. If philosophy can be defined as “the anxious anticipation of death” (see Giving Death, Galilee, 1999), can one imagine “deconstruction” as an interminable ethos of survival?
As I already said, from the outset and long before the experience of survival that are actually my own, I noted that survival is an original concept, which defines the structure itself of what we call existence, the Da-sein, if you will. We are, structurally speaking, survivors, marked by this structure of the trace, of the testament. That said, I would not endorse the view according to which survival is defined more by death, the past, than by life and the future. No: deconstruction is always on the side of the affirmative, the affirmation of life.
Everything I have said at least since Steps (in Vicinities) [Parages], Galilee, 1986) about survival as a complication of the opposition death-life proceeds with me from an unconditional affirmation of life. Survival is life beyond life, life more than life, and the discourse I undertake is not death-oriented, just the opposite, it is the affirmation of someone living who prefers living, and therefore survival, to death; because survival isnot simply what remains, it is the most intense life possible.
I am never more haunted by the necessity of dying than in moments of happiness and joy. To feel joy and to lament the specter of death, for me is the same thing. When I go over my life, I tend to think that I had the chance to love even the unhappy moments of my life, and to cherish them. Almost all, with almost no exception. When I think of the happy moments, I cherish them too, of course, at the same time that they guide me toward thoughts of death, toward death, because it’s over, finished…