Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Trauma of Thought

With apologies for having neglected this blog for a while I'd like to restart it with some preliminary reflections on Derrida: A Biography which I've been reading for the past few days. First of all I'd like to say how profoundly moving this book is. It gives insight into the work of Derrida in a way that enables the life of which they were a part to be seen as reflected in them without merely relativistically demoting his works to local episodes. This is quite an achievement given how easily biographies can produce a reductive treatment of thought. The second point about the book concerns the impossibility of what it attempts and the way this impossibility is understood within the work as part of what enables it to function. The impossibility is that of presenting for the reader a picture of Derrida the man and his life, the relation of this "life" to the "works" that have his name assigned to them, and the relation of both these to a largely 20th century history that is already receding from us. It is naturally impossible to do "justice" to all three of these registers and so Peeters has to emphasize at different points either one or the other of these three axes but he does so in ways that keep reminding one of the other two.

The third point that emerged for me from reading the book, however, even though it is never made an explicit theme within it, concerns the way that the book reveals a relationship Derrida constantly had with trauma and that this relationship structures the nature of his thinking. This topic is not thematised as such within the biography, not least because the literary genre of biography would make such thematisation very difficult. The point of biography in one sense is the presentation of a life in terms of a continuous linear story even though this narration necessarily is, in key senses, fictive. A biography that left such an approach entirely behind would, after all, cease to belong to the genre of "biography" as this is recognised. But it remains the case that following a linear account of a life will prevent some matters from being centred as the passage from one set of events to another will tend to impose itself as the "natural" order.

Despite this problem and clearly having no wish to give a psychoanalytic reading of Derrida the book does, all the same, provide a large amount of evidence for seeing the development of the man and the work as related to an "experience" that can be said to be one of repeated trauma. There are numerous signs of this and in this posting I will simply point to some of the most manifest in order to leave possible room, on some other future occasion, for subtler analyses to be presented.

The epigraph for Peeters' work is taken from "Circumfession" where Derrida refers to the "secret" from which he writes and the inability of anyone to "know" it. As is known the theme of "secrecy" is itself one that Derrida made an object of attention in some of his late works. Alongside this attention to "secrecy" is a passionate engagement with memory and the archive which is revealed in Derrida's reluctance to throw anything away and a kind of sense of each moment of the past as something to be treasured. The oddity of this last point when related to the "secret" is that the preservation of such an archive clearly allows for the publicity of the life that is subsequently given in the publication of a work like that of Peeters. 

The next theme that connects to the question of the kinds of "passion" that inhabited Derrida would be the relation to his "origin" in the sense of the genetic place of his birth and its displacement. The birth was within Algeria as part of a group (Sephardic Jews) who had been granted French citizenship during the lifetime of Derrida's grandparents. Derrida was the third child of his parents but the second died aged only 3 months old less than a year before Jacques' birth. The sense of this element of "wound" is manifested for Derrida himself as he spoke, in "Circumfession" of himself as an "intruder" and one who was loved "in place of another". This first sense of displacement is seconded when Derrida's cousin is run over by a car and killed shortly after Jacques enters school, something made worse by the news being wrongly conveyed to him as the death instead of his older still living brother. This double presence of "death" early in his life is one of the first ways that a theme that is central to his thought emerges. Alongside them is a displacement that is later marked in terms of how institutions operate. The exclusion from school that occurs to Derrida under the auspices of the Vichy authorities in 1942 is the occasion for this next violence. 

One of the effects of the exclusion from school is the response of the Jewish community to create its own schools from which, however, Jacques was alienated from the beginning, an alienation that indicates his refusal to accept a placing within a communal organisation that defensively has to mime the exclusionary operation of the authorities. Derrida's alienation from this logic ensures, in its turn, a sense of a displacement not just brought about by the Vichy regime but also from the response to it, despite the latter's obvious necessity. 

These early traumas, real as they doubtless were, might be thought to be ones that could be located within a definable chronology as is the purport of respectable biography. However Peeters' tale places them in a wider perspective. Let's accumulate the signs. In 1949, aged only 19, Derrida travels to France in order to attempt to enter the Normale Superior. Not only does this repeat displacement but the experience of this attempt is both one of delay (it took three attempts to pass the exam allowing entrance) but also of physical rebellion against the pressures of the occasion manifested in illnesses bordering on, as Peeters states, "nervous collapse". Relations with Algeria itself, intermittent and distracted, also become refracted through a sense of the provincial character of the life there which creates a further displacement. Put together we discern the beginning of a pattern: one of anxiety.

Later, after entrance to the Ecole Normale, relations begin with Althusser and reading starts of Husserl, two elements that are not at ease with the institution he has entered. Derrida's romantic life subsequently centres on a gentile who he marries "secretly" whilst in the US. The late 1950s and early 60s include the Algerian War which wrenches Derrida's family from its original environment and entails that he loses any possible further relation to his own "origin". This is all prior to the writing and publication of any of the texts that would later become ones that we would all learn of and some of us would attempt to study. 

The beginning of Derrida's serious publication history with the translation of Husserl's Origin of Geometry and the writing of an "Introduction" to it which is much longer than the original text involves him changing his first name from the way it was given (as "Jackie") to the "official" Jacques. This further displacement would appear to be compensated by the arrival of the man in the terrain of the institution as witnessed by the positive response of Ricoeur to this work. However no sooner is this text published, in a somewhat "conventional" style, than Derrida begins publications that already mark a diversion from it, including works on Foucault and Levinas. Alongside a divergence from institutional norms comes the pressure of political alignments, first with regard to Althusser and second with regard to Tel Quel, that introduce tensions and dissonances that mark the development of Derrida's work and the relation of him to the personnel of French intellectual life.

The blossoming of Derrida's life from 1967 on with the arrival of a mature sense of his own style and the formation of the ability to decisively shape his own sense of intellectual work occur against political backdrops that were, in late sixties France, extremely difficult (as indeed was the case elsewhere but France in 68 is, after all, a by-word for the whole period). The distance Derrida himself felt towards the exigencies of these moments is recorded well by Peeters and the difference  between their tempo and that announced in Of Grammatology is evident enough. The further displacement involved in teaching at US universities begins from this period even though it was to develop more intensely later.

From this time on the proliferation of texts mounts at a pace that gets more and more frenetic for the rest of his life. It includes, however, the formation of works whose form was as avant-garde as that of Glas and The Post Card, the latter of which is later cited by Peeters as putting Derrida beyond the pale for many self-declared "philosophers" and this despite the way the defence of philosophy itself is carried out by the formation of GREPH in the seventies. Attempted alliances to extend philosophy in the educational system subsequently were not supported by others employed in teaching the subject. 

The next thematic of displacement occurs around the relationship Derrida had with the "mass media", an area that Peeters traces from the arrival of the nouveaux philosophes in the 70s through to interviews carried out right towards the end of his life. Although Derrida shifts away from initial outright hostility to the media to attempting to play his own game with it the relation is always for him marked by suspicion, not least at the simplification the media performs on thought. 

The failure of Derrida consistently to win secure institutional recognition within France is detailed convincingly in the work with recurrent snubs and refusals of different institutions to award him a role. Similarly, the success he had in the US was one that produced a significant backlash against him, particularly in departments of philosophy that consistently produced his most vicious detractors and some of whom would even attempt to intervene in the workings of French intellectual institutions. The "Cambridge affair" in the UK was also initiated and pursued by philosophers. So the problem with institutions is again and again played out as a problem with "philosophy" despite the opposite accusation, consistently hurled at Derrida from figures as diverse as Foucault and Bourdeiu, that Derrida was "too" philosophical or only really engaged with philosophy.

The recurrence of a connection with death that is striking in so many of Derrida's later works is also connected to the traumas around the deaths of so many friends and colleagues whose funerals he not only attends but at which he is often asked to provide a funeral oration (works gathered together at the end of his life though not by himself). Alongside this we should note the way that Derrida attempted to care for Althusser after the latter's breakdown culminated in the murder of his wife. 

If the connection to death is an insistent theme it is also connected to superstition, including a view of ghosts that Derrida makes thematic not only from the time of the film Ghost Dance as Peeters suggests but as early as the Introduction to the Origin of Geometry where "haunting" already appears as a motif. That death and life are interlaced and that survival is about a sense of this is one of the ways that Derrida consistently articulates a view of his own self-relation. 

Other elements of displacement: the connection to Heidegger's work always being one of vigilance and distrust even despite the way the "inheritance" of this work was part of his most lasting engagement. A further wound: the discovery of the past of Paul De Man, a discovery that complicates a relation to a friend that had been one of his closest. 

These many ways in which displacement can be traced across Derrida's life and working practice are supplemented by the way that Peeters again and again reveals anxiety, sadness and a certain distrust etched into Jacques' connection to the presence of his own life. These points multiply across the volume despite the recurrent sense also of a man who loved life and was capable of great fun. If the effect of Peeters' biography is to at least partly make it possible to see the man in and through the edifice of the work then it will have been very valuable. But it also produces a view of great work as having often a connection to a life that needn't be one that is at all "easy" to have to live. Peeters himself is a fine writer and what it seems to me he makes manifest is the trauma at the heart of Derrida's thought: a trauma that was "original" and which is nonetheless part of the "secret" of its future.