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  • Remembering Derrida
  • Mario Perniola (bio)
    Translated by Deborah Amberson


I both read and met Jacques Derrida in 1966, and immediately judged him to be a thinker of great importance. I was also among the first to write about him in the Rivista di Estetica (1966 no. 3), in an article entitled "Grammatology and Aesthetics." De la Grammatologie would come out the following year, but I had read and studied the essay (published in two parts in Critique, December 1965 and January 1966), which anticipated the central thesis of the work. During this period, he and I used to meet at the café "Aux Deux Magots" in St-Germain-des-Prés in Paris. He was unhappy for many reasons. He felt both underappreciated by the philosophical establishment, and behind in his academic career. What is more, he was aggrieved that Critique hadsold only 3,000 copies. I remember a man who was very angry with the world. I, too, shared this sentiment, but the fact of being eleven years younger than he allowed me to feel part of the wave of student protests which, coming from the United States, had reached France.

The events of 1968 separated us, but I continued to read his work in a systematic manner, and indeed to receive from him affectionately dedicated copies of his publications until 1972. His influence on my thinking grew significantly during the 1970s and '80s, as is evident in my books Ritual Thinking: Sexuality, Death, World, (New York: Humanity Books 2001), Sex Appeal of the Inorganic (Continuum: London-New York 2004) and Art and its Shadow (Continuum: London-New York 2004). In particular, the central ideas of "ritual without content" and "inorganic sexuality" may be seen as developments of Derrida's polemic against logocentrism and vitalism.


I saw Derrida again after many years, in Trento, Italy, toward the end of the 1980s and, afterwards, on various occasions in Paris during the 1990s. He seemed finally tranquil both in himself and with the world. In the meantime, I had never completely stopped reading his work, albeit in a fragmentary and irregular way. I realized that, with respect to his earlier works, some changes had occurred in the development of his [End Page 48] thought. These developments proved very evident among the youngest of scholars and admirers. Two things astonished me: the presence of a decided emphasis on ethical topics, and a certain tendency on his part to engage in a sort of mimetic rivalry with media-based communications by means of an immense production of conference papers and articles. Furthermore, in the work of his most recent followers, I no longer recognized the Derrida I had studied 20 years previously, especially when these adherents used deconstruction as a type of sophistry, an end in itself. It is from precisely this period that I have the memory of a generous man who, after a dinner with friends in Paris, had to walk in the rain to his car in order to drive miles to his home in the suburbs. It seemed a real scandal that a philosopher of such deserved worldly renown did not have a driver.


The third point at which I thought intensely of Derrida was a short time before his death, when I read his response to the question, "Who do you think you are?" ("Pour qui vous prenez-vous?") asked by La Quinzaine Littéraire (n. 882, 1-31 August 2004) of a hundred or so writers and thinkers. Derrida's answer entitled "Le survivant, le sursis, le sursaut," may be considered as a type of last will and testament. What struck me most was the sense of dissatisfaction and unhappiness that pervades this text. Having written and said so much, Derrida here has the impression of not having been understood. After so many essays, books and conferences dedicated to his thought, he tends to believe that we have only just begun to read him. He writes: "I am grasped before I get to grasp myself"—a sign of his generosity, of his tendency to give of himself to others, to seek to conform to the image they have of him. Nevertheless, one can sense...


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