I love humor, even when it’s aimed at my heroes. Jacques Derrida was hopelessly misunderstood by much of the American audience, but there is a grain of truth in much of this:

Fair enough. But really… let’s think about intellectual courage

Yeah, Derrida has a lot going on. He is sometimes very difficult to read. And it’s easy to make fun of Derrida and deconstruction, and to think what it means is that there is no basis for justice or ethics. Many so-called religious leaders make this mistake, and far too many academics do as well.

There is no more careful reader than Derrida was – and to start to understand what is at stake, you have to develop the skills to read and to think in ways that are a little different than what you might be accustomed to, but it’s worth it.

A careful reader can easily discern that not only does his work *not* discard or undermine ethics and justice, but it really demands better forms of both than what many of his detractors can offer or (in many cases) care to offer.

The following is probably as clear as Derrida gets on these issues in a short space. Read slowly and carefully, and then try to argue that Derrida was proposing that we have no obligation to pursue (and construct, and deconstruct, and reconstruct) our truths in the light of ethics and justice….

I do not believe that the whole ‘left’ in general is more occupied with cultural identity than with social justice. But if some who call themselves leftists had done so they would deserve Rorty’s critique. On this point and to a certain extent I would agree with him, for then two grave risks would have been neglected: first, though legitimate in certain situations and within certain limits, the demands of cultural identity (and this word comprises all ‘communitarisms’, of which there are many) can often feed into ‘ideologies’ of the right – nationalist, fundamentalist, even racist. Secondly, the left may relegate to the background and gravely neglect other struggles, social and civic solidarities and universal causes (transnational and not merely cosmopolitical, because the cosmopolitical supposes again the agency of the state and of the citizen, be it the citizen of the world – we will return to this). But why must one choose between the care for cultural identity and the worry about social justice? They are both questions of justice, two responses to anti-egalitarian oppression or violence. No doubt it is very hard to lead both of these debates in the same rhythm, but one can fight both fronts, cultural and social, at the same time, as it were, and one must do so. The task of the intellectual is to say this, to mediate the discourses and to elaborate strategies that resist any simplistic choice between the two. In both cases, the effective responsibility for engagement consists in doing everything to transform the status quo in the two areas, between them, from one to another, the cultural and the social, to establish a new law, even if they remain forever inadequate for what I call justice (which is not the law, even if it determines its history and progress).

There is no ‘politics’, no law, no ethics without the responsibility of a decision which, to be just, cannot content itself with applying existing norms or rules but must take the absolute risk, in every singular instant, or justifying itself again, alone, as if for the first time, even if it is inscribed in a tradition. For lack of space, I cannot explain here the discourse on decision that I try to elaborate elsewhere. A decision, though mine, active and free in its phenomenon, cannot be the simple deployment of my potentialities or aptitudes, of what is ‘possible for me’. In order to be a decision, it must interrupt that ‘possible’, tear off my history and thus be above all, in a certain strange way, the decision of the other in me: come from the other in view of the other in me. It must in a paradoxical way permit and comprise a certain passivity that in no way allays my responsibility. These are the paradoxes that are difficult to integrate in a classical philosophical discourse, but I do not believe that a decision, if it exists, would be possible otherwise.

In my eyes what you call ‘a kind of political metaphysics’ would be exactly the forgetting of aporia itself, which we often try to do. But the aporia cannot be forgotten. What would a ‘pragmatics’ be that consisted in avoiding contradictions, problems apparently without solution, etc.? Do you not think that this supposedly realistic or empirical ‘pragmatics’ would be a kind of metaphysical reverie, in the most unrealistic and imaginary sense one gives these words?

One has to do everything to see the laws of hospitality inscribed in positive law. If this is impossible, everyone must judge, in their soul and conscience, sometimes in a ‘private’ manner, what (when, where, how, to what extent) has to be done without the laws or against the laws. To be precise: when some of us have appealed to civil disobedience in France on behalf of those without identifying papers (and for a small number among us – for example in my seminar, but publicly – more than a year before the press began to discuss this and before the number of protesters grew to be spectacular), it was not an appeal to transgress the law in general, but to disobey those laws which to us seemed themselves to be in contradiction with the principles inscribed in our constitution, to international conventions and to human rights, thus in reference to a law we considered higher if not unconditional. It was in the name of this higher law that we called for ‘civil disobedience’, within certain limited conditions. But I will not reject the word ‘grace’ (of the unconditional gift and without return) that you offered to me, provided that one does not associate it with obscure religious connotations which, though they can sometimes be interesting, would call for quite different discussions.

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  1. Posted 2010/01/15 at 5:52 AM | Permalink

    Completely agree with your comments on this – thanks for taking the time to post.

  2. Laureth
    Posted 2010/04/12 at 3:15 PM | Permalink

    Brava! Yes, my beloved Derrida is a little obscure, but I never found him hard to read. But I couldn’t agree more with this entry!

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