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  • Historicizing Derrida
  • Steven Helmling

Always historicize!

—Fredric Jameson

Accounts of Derrida stress his work’s diversity, and handle it in various ways; but none that I know of narrativizes this diversity, whether to relate it to its historical period, or to consider it as a corpus with a development, a record of internal tensions or contradictions—in short, a history—of its own. I want in this essay to initiate such an account, and my gambit will be to confront early Derrida with late (or later), which, for my purposes here, means Derrida before 1968 and after. Such a consideration of the whole Derrida phenomenon seems to me long overdue. Apart from the difficulty of Derrida’s work itself, various cultural circumstances have combined to frustrate or discourage such an account: in America, notoriously, we pay little attention to history generally, but a historically informed awareness of Derrida has been further hindered for us because Derrida’s work became available in translation here only in the late ‘70s, so pre-‘68 work mingled with post- in ways that blurred the differences between them. I want here to “historicize” not only Derrida’s oeuvre and career, but also its reception, its success and influence. If Derrida is some sort of sign of the (postmodern) times, what does that say not only about him, but about the times?

One of Derrida’s latest books, Given Time, interrogates a problem that has been a chronic anthropological preoccupation in the West, “the gift”; and it devotes a chapter to Marcel Mauss’s classic “Essai sur le don.” Mauss was attracted to this theme, Derrida notes, because the gift seems to promise an exception to, or a suspension of, the normally inflexible laws of “economy.” In a system of exchange, the gift, the free offering made with no expectation of return, seems to gesture outside the system. Predictably, Derrida deconstructs Mauss’s construction of “economy,” and the binaries of “inside/outside” and “gift/sale” (or “/purchase”) sustaining it; his point is to force on Mauss a question Mauss evades: can the gift actually ever be a gift? For on Mauss’s own showing, gift-giving always implies obligations and paybacks (Mauss’s own preferred phrase, “gift-exchange,” says it all) that thus reinscribe “economy” itself—and only the more forcibly for its terms being implicit, internalized by the participants (here Derrida even deploys a quasi-Lacanian vocabulary), rather than rendered explicitly in the alienated workings of a cold cash nexus. Against the tendency of his own analysis, Mauss idealizes the “potlatch” of savages as a humane and generous alternative to the iron laws by which “economy” reigns over the human condition. (In thus apotheosizing “economy,” Mauss wistfully observes, capitalism and Marxism are one.)

Mauss’s desire for an escape from “economy,” a transit “beyond” the structures that constrain the way we live, act, think, and feel, a break-out from the (to him) Hobson’s choice between Marxism and capitalism is a version of the central problematic of not only Derrida’s work, but of much “theory” generally (pragmatism, hermeneutics, Ideologiekritik, the foundationalist-antifoundationalist argument, and so on): if our language, our belief systems, our very subjectivities, are constructed by social forces, is it possible to get outside them, outside their system (or “economy”), to escape their constraints, to glimpse possibilities they exclude, foreclose, repress?

Much “theory” (though by no means all) answers this question in the negative, especially since the disillusion following the late ‘60s generally, and in France, mai, soixante-huit in particular. Despair is obligatory, a sign of political vigilance, when hope is constructed as “ideological”, a false and politically pernicious consolation—“an imaginary solution to a real contradiction.” Derrida himself is one of the most potent enforcers of this (postmodern) sense of entrapment in a “system” or “economy” of semantemes enforced by the “logocentrism” of “Western metaphysics” since Plato. (For many devotees of Derrida, this sense of a “system” we cannot escape is eclipsed by his potent thematic of that ineradicable differance no system can master; the politics of this reading of Derrida is another thing I will try to “historicize” at this paper’s close.) Constrained and conditioned by the...

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