[Sigcrit-l] Derrida

Ron Day ronday at wayne.edu
Sat Oct 9 14:52:58 EDT 2004

In the hopes that the ASIS&T SIG-CRIT List that I'm sending this too (and copying those who may be interested not on the List) doesn't appear as a funeral oration, nonetheless I feel obliged to post the sad news that the philosopher Jacques Derrida has died of pancreatic cancer : http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=1503&ncid=1503&e=5&u=/afp/20041009/ts_afp/france_derrida_obit .  I saw Derrida speak twice in Cornell and once at Sonoma State in California.  At the last, I had a chance to go up and say hello and to thank him for giving my young self a certain possible way of knowing the"unspeakable."  When I was younger his work was a great influence on me, particularly the notions of aporia and the ability of deconstruction to touch upon the unspeakable and thus, the religious and the ethical (and with that, an alliance with Wittgenstein).  He was a great speaker--at Sonoma he spoke on the work of Paul De Man (whose reading of Mallarme' in his book, _Allegories of Reading_ gave me the rhetorical insights into the functions of the discourse of "information" during the 1990s and earlier in the 20th century that were presented in my own book).  In Sonoma, Derrida spoke for five hours on De Man's work, with only one break of 10 minutes.  There were about 100 people of many different backgrounds--not all of them the rather sad American 'Derrideans' (and Derrida, the times that I saw him, didn't seem to know what to do with them).  Only a few people left that talk--he was that engaging, even in his later 60s.  The earlier times that I saw him at Cornell, he spoke on Reaganism and the arms race with the then Soviet Union and on Heidegger's work.

>From those Americans I knew who knew him more closely, he seemed remarkably generous.  Even more particularly in light of the voracity of the attacks upon him (and upon students influenced by him) from the American liberal press  (particularly the NY Times) and academe during the 1980s, which were truly unbelievable in their shallowness and especially stunning in their intentional violence--even more so than from the conservative press and academe, I must say.

Derrida wrote that we are "never done with Hegel," though his own work inverted the dialectic and (like Wittgenstein, again), reason itself, finding in reason its social and linguistic production.  Derrida's work pushed the Enlightenment project to its furthest point: the ultimate irreducibility of acts at the edge of time, done within the necessity of those conditions that are not yet easily narrated or "known."  The Enlightenment was thus redefined as an historical project, rather than as a condition of a transhistorical rationality or of political, organizational, or self policy, a project in which history is enacted.  Where his liberal critics saw relativism, irresponsibility, and were content in settled moral, professional, and historical narratives, Derrida's work saw individual hope, faith, and actions given that the promise of the Enlightenment--and of persons--did not lie in a rationalist sense of historical progress, but rather in the ethical sense of agents who make the actions of history, as well as make the narratives of history, and thus, who make the present and the future _possible_.  The irreducibility of agency takes place on the hinge between the speakable and the unspeakable, the knowable and the religious.  This is the site of the ethical, though perhaps not always moral or viewed as moral.  In the place of the Cartesian subject, Derrida pointed to persons as agents, within the demands of Enlightenment history.

One of Derrida's central concepts was taken from psychoanalysis and even, in part, from Heidegger's work--that of deferred action (in Freud, Nachtraglichkeit).  Deferral--differance (not difference)--characterizes the ability of a work or action to be meaningful in the future, though its meaning may not be certain, and certainly not, 'complete,' at the present. Its later meanings thus trace an impact that is historically marked as earlier
 (sometimes despite the attempts of history to bury it) though its meaning really lies in an anxiety toward the future made manifest in the present.  Certainly, without always knowing it, so much critical thought owes a _debt_ to Derrida's own writings and actions, which, in turn, owed a debt to others.  This type of debt is, in part, what characterizes us as human beings, that is, in part, as particularly historical animals.  The bond to readings of pasts made present toward the future is what binds us together as living human beings.  The secret of the trace underlies many rationalist projects as well as as the identity of the self.  I suspect that the impact of Derrida's work will continue to be explicitly or implicitly traced and retraced in the work of living and being.

"l'ora del tempo e la dolce stagione" (Dante, Inferno, Canto I)

Ronald Day,
Assistant Professor
Library and Information Science Program
Wayne State University
ronday at wayne.edu
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