- Excess:Second Lives of Jacques Derrida
More books and articles have been published by and about Jacques Derrida than any other contemporary philosopher. It's a veritable industry that has been thriving for four decades, with much more to come. The excess of scholarship matches the excesses of the philosophy. By the time he died at the age of seventy-four in 2004, Derrida had published 70 books, many hundreds of articles, and given an extraordinary number of interviews and guest lectures in fifty countries. He was the world's most prominent and most traveled philosopher. Trained as a historian of Western philosophy, he specialized in unearthing its contradictions and impasses. He was an exuberant connoisseur of the aporia. Yet little is known about his life. Instead, the substance and style of his deconstructive philosophy have attracted all the attention. With Benoît Peeters's Derrida, we now have an extensively researched, full-length biography packed with information. Derrida, it turns out, was a workaholic, a hoarder, and a seducer. The theme of the life appears to be de trop. But the biographer avoids any grand thesis. He stays close to the facts and remains impartial. Published in Flammarion's long-running series Grandes Biographies, this life story has notable strengths and peculiar weaknesses. It's a mixed success. In place of an overarching theme or claim about Derrida, the work offers innumerable petits récits. A sequence of roughly four-page bits takes the overall form of a muted picaresque adventure set atop a chronicle. Summaries of Derrida's works do not appear; his accomplishments are assumed. Discussions of his publications focus on the editors and publishers involved plus, where of interest, scholarly and popular receptions. This work is not an intellectual history, nor is it a hagiography, nor an exemplary life. Instead, it combines biography of Derrida's personal life, professional career, and institutional history.
The biographer orchestrates a flood of information using a three-part structure: I. Jackie (1930-62), II. Derrida (1963-83), and III. Jacques Derrida (1984-2004). The initial break, 1962, is the year Derrida published his first book and changed his first name. Also that year his family fled the Algerian revolution and moved from Algiers to Nice. The roots of the family in Algeria stretch back five centuries, predating the colonization of the 1830s. The second break, 1983, marks a handful of significant events. After twenty years of teaching at Paris's Ecole Normale Supérieure (ENS), [End Page 146] Derrida left it for the nearby Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, where he would teach for the next twenty years. The anti-establishment Collège International de Philosophie (CIPh) was planned and headquartered in Paris with Derrida as its co-founder and first director. His close friend, colleague, and fellow deconstructionist Paul de Man died from cancer in 1983. Around the same time Derrida had also become a major public figure following his arrest, detention, and release in Prague on trumped-up charges of drug possession. The highest levels of the French government as well as the media got involved. Derrida's image was splashed all over newspapers, magazines, and television. From that moment, he was a celebrity.
Based on the biographical evidence, Derrida was a man of the Left, very early a democratic socialist quietly critical of Soviet and Chinese totalitarianisms and sympathetic to the Algerian drive for independence. Yet he maintained discreet silence on much of contemporary politics until the 1990s, when he emerged as an unambiguous critic of post-Cold War triumphant free-market capitalism and American imperialism. Given that his main tutelary figure, early and late, was Heidegger, infamous for his resolute silence on his Nazi past, Derrida's politics were long suspect and justifiably so. But the shocking 1987 New York Times revelation of de Man's youthful anti-Semitic journalistic writings during World War II put Derrida's political sympathies on the public agenda. Behind all these political events lay some long-buried childhood experiences that Derrida, a Sephardic Jew, endured in Algeria. At the age of twelve...