Shortly after Jacques Derrida’s death in October 2004, the editors of Critical Inquiry began discussing the possibility of a special issue in his honor. The question was, of course, not whether to do this, given CI’s long relationship with Derrida, but what form it should take. How could we hope to do justice to Derrida’s body of work, his contributions to philosophy and the entire range of the human sciences? The task seemed impossible in both its quantitative and qualitative requirements. Thousands of intellectuals across the world have been, in Gayatri Spivak's words, “touched by deconstruction,” and that word has now become part of everyday vernacular across many languages. And the range and variety of Derrida’s work seems to make any thematic emphasis immediately collapse in the face of the almost infinite topicality of Derrida's own capacious intellect from A to Z, from the Animal to Zoographia.
W. J. T. Mitchell is editor of Critical Inquiry. His most recent book is What Do Pictures Want? (2005). His forthcoming book is entitled Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to Abu Ghraib.
Having read more than a dozen volumes of Derrida’s late works, not to mention many of the early works, I am most appreciative, particularly with De quoi demain, Negotiations, Voyous, and Philosophy in a Time of Terror in mind, of his originality and inventiveness, manifested readily in such suggestive, though spectral, quasi‐transcendental political concepts as hospitality, justice, the messianic, and democracy to come, all created in the course of his deconstruction of their ordinary forms. The well‐known Derridean critique of traditional binary concepts and the eccentric focus on margins remain today powerful tools of analysis. Derrida’s commitments to democracy, justice, and internationalism showed him a political optimist, while his ubiquitous nuances and qualifications displayed a seasoned skepticism alert to conscious and unconscious deceptions.
Vincent B. Leitch is Paul and Carol Daube Sutton Chair in English at the University of Oklahoma, where he teaches criticism and theory. He is author of Cultural Criticism, Literary Theory, Poststructuralism (1992), Postmodernism—Local Effects, Global Flows (1996), and Theory Matters (2003), and served as the general editor of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2001). The present article is part of a book nearing completion entitled A Defense of Theory.
For Derrida, as opposed to Heidegger, it seems that only one kind of community exists, something quite close to Heidegger’s das Man, the they. Derrida gives it, in the English translation at least, the dyslogistic name of “the herd.” No glorification of the nation’s folk in Derrida. Every community, moreover, for Derrida, is inhabited by that self‐destructive autoimmunity he describes so eloquently in “Faith and Knowledge,” written more or less at the same time as he gave the interviews in A Taste for the Secret. Who would want to participate in something doomed to self‐destruct? It would seem reasonable to want to hold oneself aloof from such a Mitsein, even though some people might argue that we should make the best we can with what we have. We are all in the same boat and should love our neighbor as best we can, within the context of whatever community we have. Derrida, however, refuses to belong to any family or community because it is only in isolation from such belonging that a responsible, responsive ethical relation to another person can take place.
J. Hillis Miller is distinguished research professor at the University of California at Irvine. His recent books include Others (2001), Speech Acts in Literature (2002), On Literature (2002), and Zero Plus One (2003). A J. Hillis Miller Reader was published in 2005. He is currently at work on books about communities in literature and about Jacques Derrida’s late work, of which the present essay is a part.
The coincidence is worth pondering: an Algerian Jewish philosopher and a Palestinian Christian literary critic turned out to be the most influential figures in the American academic humanities in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Both were engaged intellectuals, not just in the promotion of their ethnic or political communities and constituencies but in the critique of the very intellectual movements they inspired: postcolonial and deconstructive criticism. Both were utopian, futuristic thinkers, urging on us the possibility of a radical mutation of human thought—for Said, a commitment to the beginnings of a democratic and unified nation of Israel/Palestine; for Derrida, a global vision of justice and democracy to come. Both were accused of being professors of terror, the favorite canard of the militant ignorance and stupidity that passes for thinking in some quarters of American culture today.
W. J. T. Mitchell is editor of Critical Inquiry. His most recent book is What Do Pictures Want? (Chicago, 2005). This essay is part of a book in progress, Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to Abu Ghraib.
As the heirs of these discourses, Europeans—like all inheritors—are in mourning. But, according to Derrida, Europe must also assume these traditional discourses, particularly those aspects of them that are of acute concern today. The Europeans’ capital, their first and most current duty is to take responsibility for that heritage. Derrida writes: “We bear the responsibility for this heritage, right along with the capitalizing memory that we have of it. We did not choose this responsibility; it imposes itself upon us” (OH, p. 28). This responsibility is ours insofar as (qua Europeans) we are heirs of the discourses in question.
Rodolphe Gasché is Eugenio Donato Professor of Comparative Literature at the State University of New York, Buffalo. His books include Die hybride Wissenschaft (1973), System und Metaphorik in der Philosophie von Georges Bataille (1978), The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection (1986), Inventions of Difference: On Jacques Derrida (1994), The Wild Card of Reading: On Paul de Man (1998), and Of Minimal Things: Studies on the Notion of Relation (1999). His latest book is The Idea of Form: Rethinking Kant’s Aesthetic (2003), and he has two new books forthcoming: America’s Deconstruction (2006) and The Honor of Thinking (2007). Currently, he is completing a study of the idea of Europe in phenomenological and postphenomenological philosophical thought.
For lately rereading some of Derrida’s books and essays and reading others for the first time has reminded me of the importance I attach to his sense of the complexity with which we construct our thinking lives and to his eminently practical challenge to the ways in which we talk about it. Deconstruction, as he practiced it, did not counter Enlightenment rationalism by frontally contesting the power of reason. Instead, Derrida’s deconstruction engaged him in thinking about the omnipresence of rational structures in our writing and our thought and the way in which we employ them to lure ourselves into methods, however imprecise and unmethodical, that substitute the anticipation of value for the apprehension of it. Such rational arrangements encourage us to think that we can know a writer’s contribution in advance of having read his or her work and to think we can rely on criticism or intellectual history to single out the essential ideas and use a description approaching a mere name to designate importance.
Frances Ferguson is Mary Elizabeth Garrett Professor in Arts and Sciences and professor and director of graduate studies in English at Johns Hopkins University. She is author of Wordsworth: Language as Counter‐Spirit (1977), Solitude and the Sublime: Romanticism and the Aesthetics of Individuality (1992), and Pornography, the Theory: What Utilitarianism Did to Action (2004). She is currently working on a study of education in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and a discussion of recent accounts of reading.
What Derrida’s remarks urge is a rewriting of the university and of authority within it. It’s because nothing will count as such a rewriting that cannot also show itself persuasively as a reading of the university that Derrida is inclined to turn the question of some mutation in the essence of the university back toward the university’s permanent nonconformity with its own most fundamental claims. (It is of course far from irrelevant that the terms in play here are also those in play in our imaginations of some postmodernity; it is the same problem, the same history, at stake.) It would be up to those of us who have the university as our concrete institutional fact to carry out this reading and rewriting within the terms of its dailiness (its classrooms and curricula, the terms through which we recognize one another’s work, the means of our governance). To do this might be to discover—to recognize or acknowledge, to invent—within the infinite ruin of the university, even as that ruin, the university in deconstruction, as if there were no university apart from its reinvention at every moment in each of its parts or as if the responsibility for what one might call la chose universitaire were never other than singular.
Stephen Melville is professor of history of art at Ohio State University. He is the author of Philosophy beside Itself: On Deconstruction and Modernism (1986) and Seams: Art as a Philosophical Context (1996) and is currently completing a set of essays on Hegel and recent art.
To thank Derrida, to celebrate his time among us, is not difficult. He was the most genial genius I have known. His intellectual generosity to students and faculty, his giving of himself, which I first experienced during his appointment at Yale, every university he visited has known. His more than ten years at Yale drew attention to a group dubbed the Gang of Four, or even the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as if we were a charismatic religious sect trying to terrify our profession locally and nationally.
In the press, and by many alarmed colleagues who should have known better, Yale was identified as the command center of a satanic legion out to destroy the humanities. In truth, there was little fire and brimstone in us and not even unity; when, together with Derrida, we published Deconstruction and Criticism, Harold Bloom quipped that four of us were Deconstruction, and he was Criticism.
Geoffrey Hartman is Sterling Professor of English and Comparative Literature Emeritus and senior research scholar at Yale University. The Geoffrey Hartman Reader (2004) was awarded the 2006 Truman Capote prize. He is also cofounder of the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies and continues as its project director.
At bottom I think that the relationship that one has to the body of one’s name is, in effect, something decisive, more or less important according to the name or the person, but always important. For my part, even though I have done some amount of work on the body of this name, by putting it into play in my writing, cutting it up, decomposing it, recomposing it, trying to understand what happens to it, I have remained in what is for me a preliminary and insufficient stage of the work. And all of those semantic lines that you have brought up seem to me at once possible and insufficient lines of explanation, since I live out this relationship to the body of my name, as others do. I think that when either I or another hears or even reads that name in silence the relation to the verb dérider is not a part of the affect. There is something else. I ask you what that may be; I don’t know.
Bruno Mazzoldi studied philosophy at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana and is a member of the Cátedra Juan Marinello at the Universidad Central de Las Villas, Cuba. Freddy Tellez is the author of, among many works, De la praxis (1985), La sexualidad del feminismo (1987), Mitos: Filosofía y práctica (2002). He lives and works in Switzerland. Tupac Cruz studied film and philosophy at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia and Universidad de los Andes at Bogotá. He is currently a PhD student at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
To all appearances he is the seal herdsman of the great deeps. He is endowed with the power to change himself into every shape: into water, into fire, into all that crawls on the ground beneath bushes or in cardboard boxes. He can become animal or element. He can be seen changing into a lion with a mane, then into a dragon, a panther, and a giant pig. The “then” lasts only the blink of an eyelid. He turns himself into running water, division of the spring and large plumed tree beneath which passes a hedgehog ruffling its twigs, and when he’s come to the end of all his magic, here he is speaking to me and interrogating me, saying: What then? But it’s I who want him to answer me. For he possesses the gift of prophecy, although he refuses to supply information to mortal questioners. Who?
Hélène Cixous is Emeritus Professor at the Université de Paris 8, Vincennes‐Saint‐Denis, where she founded France's first women’s studies doctoral program in 1974. She is the author of more than fifty works of fiction, theater, and criticism, including Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint (2000) and Insister à Jacques Derrida (2006). Peggy Kamuf is Marion Frances Chevalier Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California. The author most recently of Book of Addresses (2005), she has also edited and translated numerous works by Derrida. She is presently completing translations of two recent texts by Hélène Cixous, including Insister à Jacques Derrida.
Somewhere in the north, a vast lake, partly frozen. Snow covering the ground, on the fir trees, in the distant hills. The sky a deep, radiant, metaphysical blue. Cold wind blowing in gusts. A magnificent day.
I think just such a realization was evident in the scope and intensity of the reactions provoked by the disappearance of Jacques Derrida. It’s as if, with Derrida, it was not just a great or even a very great philosopher who had passed away but, as you say, an entire epoch, that is, an entire chance for philosophy. Indeed, the chance of philosophy or else philosophy as chance. But let me clarify right away, before developing this answer any further, that this feeling of closure has two sides: there are those who regret or deplore it and those who celebrate it or are at least are pleased by it. That is, on the side of these latter, there are those who considered Derrida to represent not philosophy and not even just a philosophy but a sort of aberration (at best) or else a kind of charlatanism (at worst) in which a certain verbal ability replaced conceptual analysis. These are the people who think that with Derrida an entire epoch of soothsayers has passed, one to which they would no doubt claim Deleuze, Lacan, and, behind them, Heidegger, Freud, Bataille, and a few others also belonged. They are now going to feel free to flaunt the certainty of their good conscience, which is assumed to be clear, rigorous, and exempt from all metaphysical or prophetico‐poetic illusions.
Jean‐Luc Nancy taught philosophy at the University of Strasbourg from 1968 to 2004. He is the author of, among other works, A Finite Thinking (2003), The Speculative Remark (2001), and Being Singular Plural (2000).Lorenzo Fabbri is a visiting scholar in the Department of French and Italian at the University of California, Irvine and author of L'addomesticamento di Derrida (2006).
I’d say that these thoughts on the possible‐impossible, the fact that it was necessary to answer “Is saying the event possible?” by at once yes and no, possible, impossible, possible as impossible, should move us to rethink the whole question of this value of possibility that marks our Western philosophical tradition. The history of philosophy is the history of reflections on the meaning of the possible, on the meaning of being or being possible. This great tradition of the dynamis, of potentiality, from Aristotle to Bergson, these reflections in transcendental philosophy on the conditions of possibility, are affected by the experience of the event insofar as it upsets the distinction between the possible and the impossible, the opposition between the possible and the impossible. We should speak here of the im‐possible event, an im‐possible that is not merely impossible, that is not merely the opposite of possible, that is also the condition or chance of the possible. An im‐possible that is the very experience of the possible.
Smile for me, he says, as I will have smiled for you until the end.
Always prefer life and constantly affirm survival…
I love you and am smiling at you from wherever I am.
The editors would like to announce that Jeffrey A Rufo, after six years of service, has decided to leave the staff of Critical Inquiry in order to complete his dissertation at the University of Chicago.