Volume 2, Number 1
Passings: Taking Derrida Seriously
Dr. Gerry Coulter
University, Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada).
am always already absent from my language, or absent from this
supposed experience of the new, of singularity, etc. That would
mean that in order for my pronounciation of the word je to
be an act of language, it must be a signal word, that is, it must
be originally repeated. If it were not already constituted by the
possibility of repetition, it would not function as an act of
language. If the repetition is original, that means that I am not
dealing with the new (l’inédit) in language. You were
reticent about saying “I am dead”. I believe that the condition
for a true act of language is my being able to say “I am dead”.1
* * *
Derrida searched intensely for the motivations of
his thought, writing, and speech and in doing so he raised
many vital questions about how we produce truth. Rather than
criticism, Derrida’s deconstruction took criticism as its object.
He tampered with the code but his was not an anti-philosophy.
Deconstruction was simultaneously structuralist and anti-structuralist.
It could not be reduced to method – it merely disturbed norms,
none more so than those of academic thought and writing. He made
us more aware of things we were protecting our students from and
for this reason some have sought to protect their students from
him. His was more of an example than a message and we were free
to take or leave the example. I chose to leave it but from time to
time there is nothing on earth like reading Derrida and I for one
am glad he will be with us for as long as there are libraries and
students to share his work with.
Since his passing we have observed the sad spectacle
of the media lining up to stab at the corp(se)us to see if it is
To a business devoted to paying its commercial masters with a
diminishing discourse, Derrida’s proliferation of text stood as a
seemingly incomprehensible challenge. Even at his passing his life
and work could not be taken seriously and this tells us a great
deal about the times in which we live.
The only thing Derrida and the media have in common is a love of
repetition, but his was of a different order than profitability.
And ultimately, everything gets lost – “we write in order to keep”
as he was fond of reminding us. Memory is a catastrophe and it is
not merely the opposite of forgetting. “When the norms imposed by
the media demand too high a price”, he once said, “then silent
retreat remains sometimes the most philosophical response”.3
Silence now seems impossible.
Derrida was loathed by the many on the left for his
lack of a politics they could wield. He was hated even more by the
right for not speaking to them in a way that served the demand for
simplicity. So many complained about his prose, but it seems to me
that Derrida’s writing isn’t so much about writing as about
thinking – and thinking about thinking and the hard and joyous
labour that thinking about thinking is (the writing is an
interesting by-product). Cambridge resisted but he did make his
way into a good many other universities and he was a bright star.4
I can only feel a great pity for those who could not take him
seriously. To take Derrida seriously one had to accept him as an
honest person living an honest intellectual life. The worst we can
say about him is that he had a weakness for the real and his
constant efforts at deconstruction worked to expand the very
system he denounced.5
Derrida’s affirming gesture of deconstruction was driven by a
I wish you fond memories of reading Derrida, late a
night when it is quiet, when his prose haunts truth, and I hope
you recall that night when you either fell in love with Derrida or
passed through him. For Baudrillard it was the later,6
and out of
the utmost respect for Derrida and his followers we may pose a
provocation and a challenge to the work which survives him. As Baudrillard pointed out fifteen years ago, little in this world is
more constructive than deconstructionism:
…[it] exhausts itself in passing the world through the sieve of
the text, going over and over the text and the exegesis with so
many inverted commas, italics, parenthesis and so much etymology
that there is literally no text left. There are remnants of a
forced organization of meaning, a forced literalism of language.
Deconstructing is as interminable as psychoanalysis, in which it
finds a fitting partner. Deconstruction has something of the
homoeopathy of difference about it; it is an analytics of trace
Baudrillard is much more interested in the power of subtraction –
Derrida, ironically, in the power of deconstructive addition. In
this, Derrida’s writing is very modern in its accumulation, its
“going for more”. What is important however, is that in the above
criticism Baudrillard pays Derrida the ultimate respect, he takes
him seriously for the singularity he is and he speaks honestly to
his work. In the mediated eulogies following Derrida’s death the
past three months, such integrity has been a very scarce commodity.8
Since his passing people who knew Derrida have spoken often of his
Irvine, Professor Derrida occupied 1/3 of a regular teaching
position… He taught more than his share in the weeks he was with us,
and was a full and valued participant in university life. His
generosity with his time was simply unparalleled.9
I can only relate to the enormity of this loss through my own
experience of the generosity of Baudrillard. Contemptuous obituaries
are not written without purpose – they aim to hurt and the precision
with which they hit their target reveals a certain inhumanity on the
part of their authors. In the case of the passing of Derrida there
is a bitter irony in such inhuman efforts aimed at one who valued
humanity above all else. The generosity and humanity of the so
called “French theorists” are two characteristics so often missed by
left and right and the media.10
Have our agenda setting media passed so deeply into the
posthuman capitalist machine that cynicism and contempt is the best
they can offer to the death of one who thought the human as
passionately as Derrida?11
The media neutralize meaning, they are sites of its disappearance
and this puts them in an especially difficult position in relation
to Derrida. Ironically, Derrida’s death provides the media with an
opportunity to expose an important part of the death of the social
in the passing of the humanity of the media. If the purpose of the
media is indeed to dissuade, they have done a marvellous job of it
in how they have responded to his death.12
And so one wonders if the death of Derrida works in the end to
expose the media living their own death in the separation from the
human. Or is it the spectre of another kind of death that haunts the
media now? One wonders if on any given day in the West more
university students read a French theorist or a newspaper? When the
leading mainstream press embarrass themselves as thoroughly as they
have in this case, can we continue to read them at all? Or do we
read them merely out of a morose curiosity, watching as they
experience their own death and transmigration into ghost like
simulation machines reflecting the reactionary and anti intellectual
The failure of the mainstream media to take Derrida
seriously – even in death – has been, unfortunately, all too
predictable and we will no doubt see more of it. And so it is for
an honest philosopher to live and die in the time of the
transpolitical, transhistorical, transeconomic, and
* * *
A friend has died. The death of a friend finds its own justification
a posteriori: it makes the world less liveable, and therefore
renders his absence from this world less painful. It alters the
world in such a way that he would no longer have his place in it.
Others outlive themselves into a world which is no longer theirs.
Some know how to slip away at the apposite moment. Their death is a
stroke of cleverness: it makes the world more enigmatic, more
difficult to understand than it was when they were alive – which is
the true task of thought.14
* * *
Jacques Derrida (1930 - 2004)
Coulter is founder and editor of IJBS.
Jacques Derrida. Discussion with Roland Barthes, Georges Poulet,
Jan Kott, Jean Hypolite, Lucian Goldmann, Tzvetan Todorov,
Richard Macksey, Paul De Man, Pierro Pucci, Jean Pierre Vernant,
and Richard Schechner following an address from Roland Bathes:
“To Write: An Intransitive Verb?” given at the symposium: The
Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man. John’s
Hopkins University Humanities Center, October 18-21, 1966. In
Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Eds.) The Structuralist
Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and The Sciences of Man.
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972:155-156.
Sylvere Lotringer and Sandy Cohen point out that this colloquium
is “often said to have been the real beginning of French theory
in America” where “Derrida could postulate that with language,
repetition, not the subject who speaks, is original”. See
Sylvere Lotringer and Sande Cohen. French Theory in America.
New York: Routledge, 2001:3.
Jacques Derrida. “Language (Le Monde on the Telephone)”.
June 20, 1982. In Elizabeth Weber. Points: Interviews With
Jacques Derrida, 1974-1994. Translated by Peggy Kamuf and
others. Stanford University Press, 1995:177.
See Friedrich Nietzsche.
“Jest, Ruse and Revenge: A Prelude in Rhyme”, Numbers 23
“Interpretation” and 63 “Star Morality” in Joyful Wisdom
(Translated by Thomas Common with an introduction by Kurt F.
Reinhardt) New York: Frederick Unger and Sons, 1960:17, 28.
See Jean Baudrillard. For A Critique of the Political Economy
of the Sign (c1972). St. Louis: Telos, 1981:160.
In an April 2003 interview with Paul
Hegarty, Baudrillard said: "I admire Derrida, but it’s not my
thing…". See Paul Hegarty. "Interview With Jean Baudrillard" in
Jean Baudrillard: Live Theory. New York: Continuum International
Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories II. (c1990) Durham, North
Carolina: Duke University Press, 1996:25.
For something else Baudrillard and Derrida share see: Karen
McMillan and Heather Worth. “In Dreams: Baudrillard, Derrida and
September 11” in Victoria Grace, Heather Worth, and Laurence
Simmons (Eds.), Baudrillard West of the Dateline.
Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press, 2003:116-137.
One especially relevant passage that comes to mind:
If death comes to
the other and comes to us through the other, then the friend no
longer exists except in us, between us...
...being-for-death. ...But I can have the experience of “my own
death” by relating to myself only in the impossible experience,
the experience of the impossible mourning at the death of the
other. It is because I “know” that the other is mortal that I
try to keep him or her in me, in memory... being-for-death is
always mediated... in the experience or in the
“non-experienceable” structure of impossible mourning. Mourning
would be more originary than my being for death. Jacques
Derrida. “Istrice 2: Ick bünn all heir: Interview with Maurizio
Ferraris”. Published in Aut Aut 235, January-February
1990. In Elizabeth Weber. Points: Interviews With
Jacques Derrida, 1974-1994. Translated by Peggy Kamuf and
others. Stanford University Press, 1995:319-322.
For myself I can say
that it was reading Derrida’s obituary that brought me to the
New York Times for the first time in over a year. What I
found there certainly dissuaded me from wanting to view the
Times again any time soon.
“Trans” here is used to mark a point after history, economics,
politics, and journalism are knowable as they once were. A point
not yet “post” but riddled with radical uncertainty.
Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories IV
(c2000). New York, Verso: 2003:65.