An Interview With Jacques Derrida

by Nikhil Padgaonkar


N.P.: Let me begin this interview by asking you what has been retained today from the word "philosophy" as the Greeks understood it nearly three thousand years ago - that is, as love of wisdom. Are either "love" or "wisdom" issues today?

J.D.: Well, when we teach philosophy in France, at the beginning of every academic year, we recall this etymology. We remember that philosophia in Greek means the love or friendship towards Sophia which is wisdom but also cleverness or skill or knowledge. So then we ask what is Philia - what is love or friendship or desire? In this way, we begin defining philosophy on the basis of this etymology. And there are a number of texts today concerned with love and friendship. I myself wrote a book on the politics of friendship. Deleuze was interested in friendship, and so was Foucault. I would agree that in fact we often lose this etymological definition of philosophy: every philosopher has his own definition of philosophy, and this is one of the typical features of discussions among philosophers about the essence of philosophy - when and where does it start? What is the origin of philosophy? And you cant of course rely simply on the word to define the concept of philosophy. The word by itself is not enough. And when one agrees that philosophy is a Greek noun and that philosophy as such was born in Greece, then there are so many interpretations of what happened then - when did it occur and why, and is every thinking a philosophy? As you know, Heidegger claimed that there was a Greek thinking before philosophy, that philosophy was putting an end to something, to some thought by Parmenides or Heraclitus. So philosophy was in a way, the beginning of an end to thinking...

N.P.: Over the years, you have repeatedly defended the view that deconstruction is not an inherently negative term, that it is not to be understood as criticism or destruction. And indeed in an interview you gave in 1982 and which was subsequently published in Le Monde, you even said that deconstruction is always accompanied by love. Could you comment on this "love". Is it the same love as in "philia"?

J.D.: This love means an affirmative desire towards the Other - to respect the Other, to pay attention to the Other, not to destroy the otherness of the Other - and this is the preliminary affirmation, even if afterwards because of this love, you ask questions. There is some negativity in deconstruction. I wouldn't deny this. You have to criticise, to ask questions, to challenge and sometimes to oppose. What I have said is that in the final instance, deconstruction is not negative although negativity is no doubt at work. Now, in order to criticise, to negate, to deny, you have first to say "yes". When you address the Other, even if it is to oppose the Other, you make a sort of promise - that is, to address the Other as Other, not to reduce the otherness of the Other, and to take into account the singularity of the Other. That's an irreducible affirmation, its the original ethics if you want. So from that point of view, there is an ethics of deconstruction. Not in the usual sense, but there is an affirmation. You know, I often use a quote from Rosensweig or even from Levinas which says that the "yes" is not a word like others, that even if you do not pronounce the word, there is a "yes" implicit in every language, even if you multiply the "no", there is a "yes". And this is even the case with Heidegger. You know Heidegger, for a long time, for years and years kept saying that thinking started with questioning, that questioning (fragen) is the dignity of thinking. And then one day, without contradicting this statement, he said "yes, but there is something even more originary than questioning, than this piety of thinking," and it is what he called zusage which means to acquiesce, to accept, to say "yes", to affirm. So this zusage is not only prior to questioning, but it is supposed by any questioning. To ask a question, you must first tell the Other that I am speaking to you. Even to oppose or challenge the Other, you must say "at least I speak to you", "I say yes to our being in common together". So this is what I meant by love, this reaffirmation of the affirmation.

N.P.: To many of your readers, one of the important consequences of reading your works is the realization that criticism from an "outside" position is no longer possible, that one is always working with inherited language, and because one inherits language, one inevitably works within a shared framework. Now, if one seeks to question or to displace without seeking recourse to an outside position, does one not run the risk of conservatism?

J.D.: Well you see, everything depends on this concept of inherited. When you inherit a language, it does not mean you are totally in it or you are passively programmed by it. To inherit means to be able to, of course, appropriate this language, to transform it, to select something. Heritage is not something you are given as a whole. It is something that calls for interpretations, selections, reactions, response and responsibility. When you take your responsibility as an heir, you are not simply subjected to the heritage, you are not called to simply conserve or keep this heritage as it is, intact. You have to make it live and survive, and that is a process - a selective and interpretive process. So no doubt, there is a temptation simply to repeat and to take up conservative positions. But it is not absolutely necessary, and I would even say that in order to make something new happen, you have to inherit, you have to be inside the language, inside the tradition. You would not be able to transform or displace anything without in some way being inside the tradition, without understanding the language.

N.P.: There is no difference without repetition...

J.D.: Of course, of course, some repetition, some kind of repetition. But the choice is not between repetition and innovation, but between two forms of repetition and two forms of invention. So I think there are inventive forms of respecting the tradition, and there are reactive or non-inventive forms. But I would not say that in order to invent something new, or to make something new happen, you have to betray the tradition or to forget the tradition. If I may say something about the way I try to work within the French tradition, I have the feeling that the more I understand from within a poet or a writer, the more I am able to, let us say reproduce what he is doing, the more I am able to write something else, or to counter-sign. That is, to sign another text which encounters the generic text. When I write on authors such as Genet, I dont write like them, I try to incorporate what they give me in order to perform something else which bears my own signature -which is not simply mine but which is another signature. And this happens not only in philosophy or literary theory; it happens all the time. To speak with someone else, you have to understand what the Other says, you have to be able to repeat it - thats what understanding means - and to be able to answer, to respond, and your response will be different, it will be something else, and the response includes the possibility of understanding what youre responding to. So I would put all this in terms of response - and responsibility -towards your heritage.

N.P.: You have argued that language is subject to a generalized "iterability" - that is, it can be grafted into new and unforeseen contexts...

J.D.: I have a vague idea of the Sanskrit etymology of "itera" which means again, the same, repetition, and something else, some alteration...

N.P.: language reproduces itself in new contexts, in new frames, and it becomes impossible therefore to limit the range of possible meanings it thus produces. Significantly enough, iterability suggests that one cannot attempt to delineate the meaning of a text by referring to the intentions of its author. This much said, is there any possibility of holding an author responsible for the fate of his or her book? I am of course thinking of your discussion of Nietzsche, but more generally, can a writer be held to account for the way his or her writings are interpreted or could possibly be interpreted? Is there any way for an author to regulate, in advance, the range of possible interpretations?

J.D.: If you expect an answer in the form of a "yes or no", I would say no. But if you give me more time, I would be more hesitant. I would say that a philosopher or writer should try of course, to be responsible for what he writes as far as possible. For instance, one must be very careful politically, and try, not so much to control, but to foresee all possible consequences some people might draw from what you write. Thats an obligation - to try to analyse and foresee everything. But its absolutely impossible. You cant control everything because once a certain work, or a certain sentence, or a certain set of discourses are published, when the trace is traced, it goes beyond your reach, beyond your control, and in a different context, it can be exploited, displaced, used beyond what you meant. And this is the question I asked about Nietzsche since you mention him. Of course, there was an abusive interpretation of Nietzsche by the Nazis. No doubt, Nietzsche didnt want that, it is sure. But, nevertheless, how can we account for the fact that the only philosopher or thinker that was referred to as a predecessor by the Nazis was Nietzsche? So there must be in Nietzsches discourse, something which was in affinity with the Nazis, and you can say this and try to analyse this possibility without of course, concluding that Nietzsche himself was a Nazi, or that everything in Nietzsche was in affinity with the Nazis. But we have to account for the fact that there was a lineage, there was some genealogy. So, we are all exposed to this - I am sure that some people could draw reactive or reactionary or right-wing conservative positions from what I say. I struggle, I do my best to prevent this, but I know that I cant control it. People could take a sentence and use it...let us take the example of what I was telling you this afternoon: of course, I am in favour of, let us say, the development of idioms, the differences in language so as to resist the hegemony or the monopoly of language. But I immediately added to this statement that I was also opposed to nationalism. That is, to the nationalistic reappropriation of this desire for difference. Now, maybe someone can say, "well, youre in favour of divisions against a universal language, then we would use your discourse in favour of nationalism or reactionary linguistic violence" and so on and so forth. So, I cant control this. I can only do my best, just adding a sentence to my first sentence, and to go on speaking trying to neutralize the misunderstandings. But you cant control everything, and the fact that you cannot control everything doesn't mean simply that youre a finite being and a limited person. It has to do with the structure of language, the structure of the trace. As soon as you trace something, the trace becomes independent of its source - thats the structure of the trace. The trace becomes independent of its origin, and as soon as the trace is traced, it escapes. You cannot control the fate of the book totally. I cant control the future of this interview (laughter)...You record it, but then youll re-write it, re-frame it, build a new context, and perhaps, my sentence will sound different. So, I trust you but I know that it is impossible to control the publication of everything I say.

N.P.: But there is an implicit faith, an implicit relationship...

J.D.: Its a matter of faith, of good faith, but its faith, its faith...


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Other interesting interviews: [1] [2] [3] [4]