Thinking outside the text

In a documentary made a couple of years before his death, the celebrated philosopher Jacques Derrida was asked whether he had read all the books in his library. He replied that he had read only four, but that he had read them very, very carefully. Derrida, of course, was into close reading. So it is ironic that his fame and notoriety are based on a vague, usually second-hand impression of his work.

While Derrida was a celebrity of sorts, he was not a “public intellectual”, or at least his “public” was limited to academia, especially graduate students in cultural studies. Derrida did write occasionally for newspapers, but his journalism had little to do with his philosophy. In the wider world, he became an icon of francophone cultural theory, canonised by people who like that sort of thing, demonised by those who hate it, and read by hardly anyone.

What of it? The assumption of Granta’s How to Read series is that readers will go on to read at least some of the works discussed. Including this author in a series of this sort, aimed at a “general reader”, invites an interesting question: should one read Derrida? Is his work important, something with which any intelligent person should be familiar? In the grand scheme of things, perhaps not, but the question is complicated. What might it mean to say that an author is important, not just in a particular field, but for society as a whole.

Derrida’s work is not political in a conventional sense. Though he was loosely associated with a “cultural left”, some regard him as an enemy of progressive thought as embodied in the Enlightenment tradition he and his followers are wont to “deconstruct”. In How to Read Derrida, Penelope Deutscher, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University in the United States, explains that deconstruction, the idea most closely associated with Derrida, is a way of reading that focuses on hidden contradictions, “deconstructing” the text, and often confounding the intentions of the author.

This applies to radical and alternative ideas as well as established ones. While Derrida was sympathetic to feminism, the logic of deconstruction makes it impossible to cohere to feminism intellectually, pointing instead to its own contradictions. As Deutscher makes clear, the consequence for politics is an ethic of negotiation and prevarication. The deconstructionist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues that deconstruction can “supplement” political programmes rather than overturning them – for example, highlighting problems in the rhetoric of “human rights” while continuing to endorse its use in limited ways. To suggest that people should read Derrida, then, is to warn against simplistic or one-sided ideologies, and insist that “things are more complicated than that”.

Marxism has often been seen as the kind of one-sided ideology that Derrida warns against. As Peter Osborne, the author of How to Read Marx, explains, Marxism is practical as well as intellectual. Whereas Derrida emphasised the contradictions inherent in language, for Marx “the contradictions of capitalism” and its consequent political conflicts were rooted in the material world. Understanding capitalism does not make it disappear in a puff of logic: only a revolution can do that. Hence Marx’s dictum that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”.

The prospects of revolution today are rather dimmer than in Marx’s time, and in the absence of a movement that might give force to his analysis, reading Marx is a very different experience. Osborne argues that some of the trends described in Marx’s work, especially on alienation, are more prevalent today than ever. But, whatever satisfaction we may derive from Marxism’s power to explain, if Marx’s work is merely another text to be read it loses much of what he intended.

For theory to “grip the masses”, as Marx put it, there has to be at least the foundation of a mass movement for it to address. Without such a movement, theory lacks direction, discipline even. Consequently, the obscurity of contemporary philosophy as exemplified by Derrida and his followers is not a purely intellectual phenomenon. Disconnected from political engagement, reading lacks urgency, and how we read, and what, becomes almost arbitrary. But the question of how to read any author cannot be entirely separated from the question of how to live, and that is a question that never really goes away. A good reader looks up from the page between chapters.

First published in the New Statesman.