A concise look at a complex legacy, An Event, Perhaps traces Jacques Derrida’s life and career, providing a clear and fascinating look at the French philosopher and his theories of Deconstruction.
Born and raised in Algeria, Derrida was a member of the middle class pied-noir (ethnically French, but born overseas in Algeria) and was something of a bright child, having read French writers like Rousseau in his early teens, and one who was aware of racism from an early age. His jewish family traced their lineage back to Spain, which meant he felt like an outsider on two levels: first, as a Jew in an Arab-dominated country, and secondly as foreigner when compared to French citizens who lived in Algeria, let alone to the country he’d eventually call home.
However, school was tough for Derrida, who was already writing in a dense, philosophical style. He failed year end exams, getting low grades. Teachers damned him with faint praise: “There’s a philosopher lurking in there somewhere,” wrote one, “despite your over-specialized… language.” He eventually passed, gaining access to a French university where he’d cross paths with famous French writers like Foucault and Althusser, the latter would be a teacher and something of a mentor to the young writer. Foucault, for his part, when grading an early work of Derrida’s said “it’s either a F or an A+.”
Salmon sketches in the early part of Derrida’s life with ease, but what he specializes at is the philosophical ideas his subject would lay out and work at for the rest of his career. Concepts like différance are laid out in clear terms, although to a general reader they may be a little confusing. To wit:
“For anyone approaching Derrida for the first time, différance remains difficult to grasp. This is precisely because différance is not a concept – a ‘thing’, which ‘exists’ – thingness and existence are terms where, as Derrida might have put it, a founding violence has already occured.” (Pg 77)
As Salmon explains next, the act of naming something is this founding violence, a way of exercising power over an object. And différance is the moment before, when one looks at something and is about to make a decision; it alludes to both Martin Heidegger and Ferdinand de Saussure and their respective theories of language. Basically, it’s about how meaning is unstable. This is heady stuff for those interested in structuralism and its associated schools of thought.
Not to say Derrida was part of that school – he fought with nearly everyone part of it, some of whom violently disagreed with him. Foucault, for one, wouldn’t speak to him for years, while Jacques Lacan wouldn’t speak with him at all. Partly this was from misconceptions – it’s surprising how often Salmon quotes from people before he explains why they were wrong – and partly because deconstruction liked to burst bubbles of self importance, too.
A good example comes at the expense of Levi-Strauss, a French writer and anthropologist. In one of his books, he writes of how he gave pencils and paper to an illiterate tribe, who then copied him – making wavy figures in the style of writing, but not actually writing. Soon their king said he was the only one who could read. A lie, sure, but one that gave him power over writing. To Levi-Strauss, this showed how writing was (as Salmon puts it) “a system of domination.” But as Salmon points out:
“This was not writing, it is the imitation of writing. One does not feel the tremor of fear about the future of AI when one sees someone put a cardboard box on their head and dance like a robot. To blame writing is thus… a category error. … Nothing in the character of writing leads to this, only the behaviors he perceives flowing from it.” (pg 138-39)
Throughout the book, Salmon goes into detail not only on Derrida’s works – Spectres of Marx, Of Grammatology, etc – but also on the thinkers who are central to Derrida as well. People like Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger and Emmanual Lévinas are all given ample space and have their lives and major works sketched out. It gives the book some needed context, making lines of thought and influence clearer for the general reader, plus it’s something of a miniature history of 20th century thought.
For a writer who’s been denigrated by people as diverse as Canadian writer John Ralston Saul (“A generalized denial of civilization can’t help but be the voice of evil,” he wrote of deconstruction) to a serial killer (Anders Breivik blamed him for the corruption of youth with feminism, queer theory and Marxism), Derrida has had an interesting legacy. But his concept of deconstruction, and how it’s questioning accepted wisdoms has informed current thought still seems relevant, especially in an age where the White House spins “alternative facts” and news outlets don’t seem beholden to truth. As a biography, it’s not definitive (one imagines what Derrida would make of that idea), but it’s enjoyable and written in an easy, accessible style.