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  • A Discussion with Jacques Derrida
  • Jacques Derrida (bio)

The following Questions and Answers are extracted from the transcript of a panel discussion with Jacques Derrida at The University of Sydney in August 1999. They form part of Paul Patton and Terry Smith eds., Deconstruction Engaged: The Sydney Seminars, to be published in 2001 by Power Institute Publications and the Research Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Sydney, and by a corresponding University Press in the United States (The manuscript is currently being considered by Chicago University Press). The first two questions were from members of the panel and had been given to Derrida in advance. The last three questions were from the floor and his answers were entirely improvised.

Paul Patton

One of the most powerful examples of deconstructive affirmation appears in your essay ‘Force of Law’. In summary form, this affirmation is the statement that ‘deconstruction is justice’.[1] In its more developed form in that paper, it is the claim that deconstruction corresponds to a double movement which involves, firstly, a responsibility towards the history, origins and therefore the limits of our concept of justice; and secondly, it involves a responsibility toward the very concept of responsibility, and therefore towards the network of concepts in which our concept of responsibility is embedded, concepts like the notion of the will, of freedom, of property, the self, and consciousness, and so on. Already in that second movement — responsibility toward the very concept of responsibility — there is more than a hint of paradox.

Now, my question is about justice in the context of colonial social relations, and I want to raise a number of issues which have the form of a series of nested questions going from the less specific to the more specific. I should say that I was encouraged to ask this question about how we might think of justice in a colonial context not only by your willingness to make comments about ‘apology’ in a press conference in Melbourne, but more generally, before that, by Monolingualism of the Other, a text which you gave at a conference on language and its relation to culture and cultural identity.[2] One of things that struck me in that text was your account of your own experience of coloniality, in particular in your relation to metropolitan France and to the French language. Reading that account, I thought that not only was this an appropriate question but also that, since many Australians share a similar relation to Britain and to the English language, this might be an occasion to reassure you that here, too, you are among colonials.

In ‘Force of Law’, you contrast the law, which is deconstructible, and justice, which is indeconstructible. This distinction has particular pertinence in Australia, at present, since a recent decision by the High Court which recognised, for the first time, a form of title, a form of ownership of land, based on indigenous law and custom.[3] This decision overturned the non-recognition of any form of ownership based on indigenous law which had become embedded in British and then Australian law since the establishment of the colony in 1788. So, it provides a striking example of a partial deconstruction of an established and historically contingent body of law, in the name of justice towards indigenous people. But, of course, at the same time, and to the extent that this involves a judgment formulated in the law of the colonising power, this act of justice toward colonised indigenous peoples presupposes the perpetuation of a fundamental injustice.

So it seems that at issue here is the aporetic character of all justice, the sense in which — as you say — justice, even when it is realised, is inseparable from the non-realisation, the non-attainment, of justice, or the perpetuation of injustice, we might say. It is for these reasons, among others, that in ‘Force of Law’ you describe justice as ‘the experience of what we are not able to experience’ or as ‘an experience of the impossible’.[4] Now, some readers and commentators will no doubt remain dissatisfied by this negative and apparently indeterminate mode of affirmation, by the fact that affirmation is...

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