Book review: Derrida: A Biography, Benoît Peeters, translated by Andrew Brown

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Polity, £25

AS FAR as I’m concerned, Jacques Derrida is the single most important thinker of the latter half of the 20th century. There is hardly a field in the humanities – philosophy, literature, art, jurisprudence, politics, history, gender studies, architecture, psychiatry, theology – which has not been influenced by his writing; no other figure redefined so radically what it is we do when we read.

Derrida’s intellectual career is inextricably linked to the concept of deconstruction, a term which he first used in his virtuoso study of writers as diverse as Rousseau, Lévi-Strauss, Husserl and Saussure, Of Grammatology in 1967 and which has been so debased and misunderstood I’ve seen it applied to a trifle which comes as three separate dishes of cream, custard and fruit-juice soaked sponge-cake.

In its simplest form, deconstruction involved analysing binary oppositions (day/night, man/woman, speech/writing) in a text, and realising that they are not equal and opposite: one term is always privileged. Rather than putting the boot of prominence on the other foot, Derrida invoked the imbalance as a supplement, an evasive quality which, being both the inferior which nevertheless completes and the rival that might supplant, disrupts the whole idea of hierarchies and binaries.

To take an example from Derrida’s life, from Benoît Peeters’ exhaustive and exhilarating biography, rather than his work, in 1989 Derrida contracted a viral infection which caused the paralysis of the left side of his face. Unable to blink, he realised that “sight” is guaranteed by a series of imperceptible blindnesses: this would eventually be fully explored in Memoirs Of The Blind.

Since Derrida’s death in 2004, there have been two “intellectual biographies” – by David Mikics and Jason Powell – charting the development of his thought; Peeters’ book is, however, the first full biography. Peeters has had access to Derrida’s voluminous correspondence, and though this sometimes slows the pace of the book, it amply rewards the reader’s patience.

Peeters begins by justifying writing such a biography. Readers may be familiar with the theory of Derrida’s contemporary, Roland Barthes, put forward in The Death Of The Author, that the author’s life cannot provide the prime interpretation of their work (an idea first raised by Proust in Against Sainte-Beuve).

Derrida was obsessed with biography and autobiography, and at times claimed his entire work was a prelude to writing a “naive” account of his life. In Glas, Derrida wondered why we don’t treat Hegel’s money worries in his correspondence with the same rigour and reverence as his theories in The Phenomenology Of Spirit. Peeters prefaces the work with a haunting epigraph from one of Derrida’s sly memoir-like books, Circumfession: “No-one will ever know from what secret I am writing and the fact that I say so changes nothing.” By the end of the book, the reader will have many possible candidates for that secret.

Derrida was born in the French Jewish community in Algiers in 1930. Algeria is in some ways the crucible in which what became known as “French theory” was born. Many of the most prominent thinkers of the period – ­Camus, Cixous, Lyotard, Althusser, Bourdieu – were born or lived in Algeria; and the ­experience of both the Second World War and then the War of Independence must have made the Enlightenment ­universalism of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” seem rather hollow.

Derrida went to the prestigious École Normale Supériere (there’s a lovely factoid that he was the first normalien to own a car: it was, of course, a 2CV).

Although Anglophone critics have often portrayed “continental philosophy” as a monolith, Peeters is very good at how fractious and combative these individuals and groups were (although the accounts of faculty in-fighting are less thrilling than the actual thought of these thinkers). When visiting academics in Czechoslovakia, he was framed for drug-dealing by the security services. His mistress, Sylvaine Agacinski went on to marry the future Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, who brought up Derrida’s third child as if it were his own.

In the 1990s, to the surprise of many who assumed he was apolitical at best, he wrote Spectres Of Marx, provocatively bringing Marx back as an influence just when conservatives like Fukuyama were proclaiming the final triumph over Marxism. Derrida was always a contentious figure, and he was central to the so-called Theory Wars in academia: Cambridge famously put his honorary doctorate to a vote (which he won: another lovely factoid, which shows how his fame spread, has Prince Philip giving him the doctorate in 1992, the Queen’s annus horribilis, and saying the Royal Family had started to be affected by deconstruction).

Derrida is often accused – usually by people who have only read books about Derrida – of obscurantism. I prefer the term poetic. The undergraduate tactic against his work (how can you show the unreliability of language in language?) is answered by his allusive, punning, portmanteau, beautiful style.

The last pages of “Plato’s Pharmacy” in Dissemination runs through variations on French idioms with the word “coup”, almost untranslatable in effect. But his later work – the more politically outspoken work on human rights, forgiveness, mourning and terror – is limpid and exact. On Forgiveness is an especially accessible and rewarding essay for readers new to Derrida’s thought.