- The Différance of the World: Homage to Jacques Derrida
With the death of Jacques Derrida, the world has lost one of its greatest philosophers, as well as one of the most controversial and misunderstood. But then, controversy and misunderstanding are part and parcel of philosophical greatness. Plato is still controversial and misunderstood, and is still our contemporary. So are René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, to name, by way of an Einsteinian metaphor, arguably the heaviest philosophical masses that define and shape, curve, the space of modern philosophy. Derrida is no exception, especially because his work in turn transforms the fabric of this space by its own mass and by its engagement with these figures. Modern physics no longer thinks of space as ever empty but instead as a kind of fabric or, to use the Latin word, textum of energy, or (once we think of the quantum fabric of this never empty space) that of energy and chance. So one might as well use this rather Derridean idea—of a textum of energy and chance—as a metaphor for the field of philosophy. The fortunes of Derrida’s philosophy, or “his chances,” lie partly in the controversy surrounding his work (“My Chances” 1).
Derrida’s greatness, like that of Plato, Descartes, Kant, and Hegel, lies in the originality and power of his ideas, his lucidity and precision in expressing them, and in the rigor of his analysis—qualities his detractors often unjustly deny him. These are the qualities that primarily define his chances, in the play “of chance and necessity in calculations without end,” as Derrida said in 1967 in assessing the chances of différance, his most famous term, “neither a word nor a concept,” with which he was taking considerable philosophical risks at the time (Margins of Philosophy 7; emphasis added). Derrida has been appreciated for these qualities by a great many of his readers, his admirers and his fair-minded critics alike. It would only be faithful to the spirit and the letter of Derrida’s work and deconstruction to question, incessantly question his argument. But to be faithful to the spirit of true intellectual inquiry, one must do so in a fair-minded way in order, with and against Derrida, to move our thought forward.
Derrida’s works are complex because they explore the ultimate complexity (intellectual, ethical, cultural, and political) of our world. One might even argue that a refusal to engage seriously with his thought and writing is often a refusal to confront this ultimate complexity, perhaps in particular insofar as this complexity is also that of the world that has moved from modernity to postmodernity and is defined by this transition. I would argue that, although extraordinary in many other respects, Derrida’s thought reflects, and reflects on, this movement wherever it occurs in our culture. “What has seemed necessary and urgent to me, in the historical situation which is our own,” Derrida said in 1971, in describing his earlier work, “is a general determination of the conditions for the emergence and the limits of philosophy, of metaphysics, of everything that carries it on and that it carries on” (Positions 51; emphasis added). Derrida’s concerns and domains of investigation change and extend to literature, ethics, politics, and elsewhere, although Derrida continued the philosophical project just described as well, a project that already involves many of these concerns and domains. The sense of what is “necessary and urgent . . . in the historical situation which is our own” was, however, to define the nature of all of his work for decades to come, decades we now see as the era of postmodernity.
I am aware that it is difficult to assign an origin to or to demarcate either modernity or postmodernity, or their passing into each other, and indeed it is impossible to do so unconditionally, once and for all. I am also aware that Derrida expressly dissociated himself from some postmodernisms, even though he commented on the postmodern world itself on many occasions, for example, in The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe and in Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of...