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Derrida and Jelinek



Two major events in the world's intellectual landscape this week -- Elfriede Jelinek's Nobel Prize for Literature and the death of Jacques Derrida -- have meant a lot to me. I've read Jelinek's 'The Piano Teacher' (the prize is great news for her British publisher, Serpent's Tail) and even wrote a song-sketch in the early 90s called 'Wonderful, Wonderful Times' after her 1990 novel of the same title (it's about her nation's participation in the crimes of the Third Reich). For me personally, what's important about Jelinek is her political engagement, her bloodhound-keen nose for cant, and her elliptical, stubborn prose style. I see her as a direct descendent of Brecht, but also a colleague of spiky, desurgent, intractable Austrians like Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke. Her drama is more direct and political than her novels -- she's written a play attacking the current Iraq war, Bambiland. (To see the Brechtian influence, check out these pictures of the production of her play 'Stecken, Stab und Stangl' at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg. Her website has a lot of polemical writings and production photos.)

Derrida's death made the front page of the New York Times. It will certainly get the front page of tomorrow's Liberation, which provided far and away the best coverage of Jelinek's Nobel Prize, including an interview with her french translator entitled 'An almost unbearable darkness'.

The British coverage of both these events has been much more superficial, focusing on incidentals rather than the actual concerns of their work. Jelinek is seen as a feminist by BBC World Service (a propaganda station which tends to use human rights as a stick to beat muslim, communist and developing nations with) and, between the lines, her prize is presented as a token 'gesture to women writers' on the part of a guilty Stockholm. The Observer article reporting Derrida's death was even worse. Instead of giving an account of deconstruction, it told us that Derrida had invented post-modernism (untrue: the term was first used by architectural writers like Charles Jencks and Robert Venturi), and, instead of giving any kind of account of Derrida's ideas, told us funny stories; how Derrida had found a rabbit stew described on a menu as 'deconstructed', how his big ambition had been to be a professional soccer player, how twenty philosophers had tried to veto his honorary degree at Cambridge.

This reaction is, I have to say, typically British. Anecdote is empirical, and therefore 'trustworthy' in a culture which distrusts big ideas, and especially French ones. But anecdote is also part of the glitzy, superficial world of celebrities and surface which the anglo-saxon world mostly calls 'culture' these days. In a kind of anorexic-bulemic cycle, periodic self-criticism for these tendencies does nothing to stop them. In the same Observer which reports Derrida's death, David Aaronovitch reviews Frank Furedi's book 'Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?' in an article headlined 'The Thinking Classes: Too Clever By Half?' You can actually see stasis and the status quo returning in the space of the article: Aaronovitch tells us that Furedi (a Marxist) thinks education has suffered from being too inclusionary, then calls Furedi exclusionary. Back to where we started! Aaronovitch, writing in a Sunday paper, quotes Furedi telling us that intellectual life in Britain has a 'Sunday supplement feel', then accuses Furedi of being 'an example of what he himself decries. His list of publications reads like a Sunday supplement flat-plan.' Back to where we started again!

There's been a series of articles in the London Review of Books recently by Perry Anderson describing the fall of France as an intellectual avatar -- Aaronovitch mentions it in his article, speaking of 'a France that now produces zip. Or, in Anderson's opinion - in the shapes of Bernard-Henri Lévy and Michel Houellebecq - worse than zip.' Well, France only produces zip if you look in the wrong places. I refer to, and disagree with, Anderson's thesis in an article on the Paris music scene I've written for the November issue of Index magazine. France may be losing its generation of philosophical giants (only Levi-Strauss, Virilio and Baudrillard now remain of a generation which included Barthes, Lacan, Foucault, Aron, Braudel, Debord, Deleuze, Lyotard, Bourdieu and Derrida) but in music and fine art it's currently very strong. What's more, French coverage of literature, cinema, philosophy and other cultural stuff is, as Jelinek and Derrida show, far ahead of anything British journalists seem able to manage.

Since my brother is one of Britain's leading writers on deconstruction, I thought I'd try and correct the poor reporting of Derrida's ideas by reproducing a passage from 'Difference', Mark Currie's book in Routledge's series 'The New Critical Idiom' (2004). Giving an account of the shift from structuralism to post-structuralism, Mark describes 'the liberation of difference from opposition':

'To oversimplify the case for a moment, it could be said that the binary opposition was for people who could only count to two. For example, the idea that the meaning of the word 'day' inhered entirely in its relation to the word 'night' was somewhat reductive because it excluded consideration of the many gradations between night and day, excluded the difficult relations on the margin between them, such as dawn and dusk.'

I'd add -- and I might be confused here -- another complication to the binary opposition that Mark leaves out: that the opposite of a word can change with context. The opposite is not fixed. 'Day' can be, according to context, the opposite of other semantic units than 'night'. What about 'week' (as in 'Some are paid by the day, some by the week'), or what about 'never' (as in 'He'll be famous one day.' 'No, never.')?

Mark continues: 'In Derrida's work, and in that of many cultural and literary critics who followed his ideas, there is always a sense that an opposition is no innocent structural relation but a power relation, in which one term dominates another. Even in the case of an opposition as apparently rooted in nature as night/day, there is a hierarchy which ascribes privilege, priority and positive value to one term at the expense of the other. Indeed the very idea of otherness comes to signify this power relation, this secondary and derivative position that one sign acquires in relation to another... Poststructuralist approaches to the binary opposition produce a kind of critique that unmasks power relations, that seeks to oppose hierarchy, that refuses to isolate the sign from the discourse in which it operates, or for that matter that refuses to isolate the opposition from the more general discursive context in which its associative and suggestive potential is formed. If we take these two developments together, the liberation of difference from opposition on one hand, and a kind of critique that exposes hierarchy as it operates in discourse, we have a useful preliminary account of the characteristics of what came to be known, in the 1970s, as deconstruction.'

'In Positions (1981), Derrida describes deconstruction's approach to binary opposition as having three phases. The first phase is the exposure of a hierarchy, of the assumed superiority of one term over the other; the second phase is the reversal of that hierarchy, that is, the promotion of the secondary and derivative term to the position of superiority for strategic reasons; and the third phase is the reinscription of that opposition, which involves the disruption or reconfiguration of the difference between the two terms.'

Mark's account of Derrida points out something the British obituaries haven't -- his subtle but persistent political engagement, something he shares with Jelinek. I leave you with a Quicktime movie of Derrida talking on the subject of politics and friendship at the University of Sussex (in English):

Jacques Derrida on Politics and Friendship (Size: 47MB, duration: 80 mins.)

If you want to load the video directly into Quicktime and play it bigger, the direct path to the .mov file is here. It's worth watching to the end if only for the Question and Answer session in which Derrida quips 'We won't change the world before two o'clock!'
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