Politics of Deconstruction: A New Introduction to Jacques Derrida

Politics of Deconstruction: A New Introduction to Jacques Derrida

by Susanne Lüdemann


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The book offers a new introduction to Jacques Derrida and to Deconstruction as an important strand of Continental Philosophy. From his early writings on phenomenology and linguistics to his later meditations on war, terrorism, and justice, Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) achieved prominence on an international scale by addressing as many different audiences as he did topics. Yet despite widespread acclamation, his work has never been considered easy. Rendering accessible debates that marked more than four decades of engagement and inquiry, Susanne Lüdemann traces connections between the philosopher's own texts and those of his many interlocutors, past and present.
Unlike conventional introductions, Politics of Deconstruction offers a number of personal approaches to reading Derrida and invites readers to find their own. Emphasizing the relationship between philosophy and politics, it shows that, with Deconstruction, there is much more at stake than an "academic" discussion, for Derrida's work deals with all the burning political and intellectual challenges of our time. The author's own professional experience in both the United States and in Europe, which particularly inform her chapter on Derrida's reception in the United States, opens a unique perspective on a unique thinker, one that rewards specialists and newcomers alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804784139
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 08/13/2014
Pages: 173
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Susanne Lüdemann is Professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Munich. She was previously a professor at the University of Chicago.

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Politics of Deconstruction

A New Introduction to Jacques Derrida

By Susanne Lüdemann, Erik Butler


Copyright © 2011 Junius Verlag, Hamburg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8413-9


First Approach: Generations, Genealogies, Translations, and Contexts

I believe that this difficulty with belonging, one would almost say of identification, affects the whole of Jacques Derrida's oeuvre, and it seems to me that 'the deconstruction of the proper' is the very thought of this, its thinking affection.

1.1 From the "Three-H Generation" to the "Three Masters of Suspicion"

Jacques Derrida was born July 15, 1930, in El-Biar, near Algiers. His parents were assimilated Sephardic Jews, which inscribed the question of belonging into his life in multiple ways. Having grown up French among Arabs, and Jewish among Maghreb Muslims, Derrida first arrived in Paris at the age of twenty-two, shortly before the Algerian War of Independence; as a French Algerian (or pied-noir —"blackfoot" in colloquial parlance), he did not belong to the establishment there, either. Even when he had achieved worldwide fame, Derrida's position in the French university system remained relatively modest, although ultimately this was due more to his controversial philosophical theses than to his origins. Before relocating to Paris, Derrida—who did not know Hebrew and never attended a yeshiva—experienced his connection to Judaism primarily through anti-Semitic ascriptions from without. Under the Vichy regime, Algerian Jews had lost their French citizenship, and Jewish children had been turned away from schools (as one principal explained: "French culture is not made for little Jews"). Perhaps it is not unwarranted to see in these biographical facts an important motor of Derrida's thought, which can be designated—in an initial, summary fashion—as a thinking of difference in all its forms.

Derrida came to Paris in 1952 as a student at the École Normale Supérieure, where he also taught from 1965 until 1984. The Parisian philosophical landscape was shaped by the so-called "Three-H Generation"—that is, French disciples and interpreters of Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger. At the time, the dominant orientations in philosophy were existentialism (Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus), French phenomenology (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Ricoeur), and structuralism (Claude Lévi-Strauss's structural anthropology and Jacques Lacan's structural psychoanalysis). Politically, engagement with the Algerian War and Stalinist Communism set the tone of the day. Subsequently, especially in the 1960s, a transition occurred from the "Three-H Generation" to the "three masters of suspicion": Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud. This shift is associated with the emergence of what has come to be known as poststructuralism, a grouping that includes—besides Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and others—Jacques Derrida himself. (To be sure, such classifications are not easy: one may rightfully hesitate to call Ricoeur a phenomenologist, and Lacan is every bit as much a "poststructuralist" as he is a "structuralist"—or maybe neither. Roland Barthes, who is counted among poststructuralists in standard reference works, understood himself as a structuralist. Many teachers and fellow travelers of Derrida and his contemporaries—for example, Maurice Blanchot—defy such categorizations altogether.)

It is remarkable that the "triumvirates" French philosophy uses to count its generations consist exclusively of German-language thinkers. However, this in no way means that French philosophy of the twentieth century lacks originality and independence. Rather, it is in France that the most important consequences of the grand philosophical projects of modernity—from Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit to Nietzsche's "transvaluation of all values," Heidegger's fundamental ontology, and Freud's metapsychology—have been drawn. After the Second World War, French philosophers took up radical ways of thinking about modernity that began in Germany and were interrupted—to lasting effect—by National Socialism, and they followed them through to their "postmodern" consequences. Post-war German philosophy, on the other hand, produced Frankfurt School Critical Theory, which drew chiefly on Hegel and Marx, until, in the mid-1980s, readings of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Freud from France introduced changes to the intellectual horizon.

It is significant, for the productive appropriation of the German "triumvirate" that occurred in France, that the most important texts often were not readily accessible. In some cases, they had only recently been translated (the first French edition of Phenomenology of Spirit appeared in 1947; the first complete translation of Being and Time did not come out until the 1980s). In other cases, key works had not been published at all—for example, many writings by Husserl. Instead of having complete editions laden with the interpretations of academic authorities, French readers dealt with a quarry of fragments, partial translations, manuscripts, and works in the German original; inevitably, differences of culture and language were inscribed in the fabric of every translation.

Derrida's path through this multi-faceted intellectual and political landscape did not follow a straight line. His first years in Paris were also shaped by profound personal crises. The only constant, from the beginning, was a rejection of Sartre's existentialism, from which Heidegger had also distanced himself in the Letter on Humanism (addressed to the French philosopher and Germanist Jean Beaufret in 1946). The Letter marks a decisive date for the intellectual debate in France, because it not only includes a self-interpretation (Heidegger's account of his so-called turn [Kehre] in the 1930s), but also, immediately "after Auschwitz," initiated the discussion on humanism. Beaufret had asked Heidegger whether, after what had happened, it was still possible to find a new sense for the term. Heidegger responded by roundly critiquing humanism as an essentially metaphysical enterprise that, because of its built-in limitations, missed the "essence" of human existence. His reply was also directed against Sartre, who, in a polemical piece from the previous year—Is Existentialism a Humanism? —had unequivocally answered his own question in the affirmative. This debate stands at the origin of much talk—which has been as popular as it has been mistaken—about the "end of man" and the "death of the subject" (most often attributed to Foucault). In Germany, the discourse has contributed to characterizations of French poststructuralism not only as anti-humanist but as antihuman (i.e., as irrationalist and hostile to Enlightenment).

Among other things, this introduction means to combat such simplifications—at least as far as Derrida is concerned. For the most part, they result from imprecise readings (when they are not a pretext to avoid the work of reading altogether). In a lecture entitled "Finis Hominis"—delivered in April 1968, against the background of Parisian student riots, failed peace negotiations in Vietnam, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.—Derrida brought philosophy and politics together when he took up the humanism debate and distanced himself from both Sartre and Heidegger. This talk also renders idle another allegation often leveled against Derrida—that deconstruction is "aestheticizing" and therefore apolitical. As we will see later on, nothing could be more mistaken.

Derrida's first writings were devoted to Heidegger's teacher, Edmund Husserl. In his 1954 dissertation, The Problem of Genesis in Husserl's Philosophy, Derrida translated Appendix III of Husserl's late work, The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, and provided an introduction considerably longer than the primary text. In 1967, Derrida published Speech and Phenomena: An Essay on the Problem of the Sign in Husserl's Philosophy. This work articulates the critique of phonocentrism, logocentrism, and presence to which Of Grammatology (which appeared the same year and remains Derrida's best-known book) opposes a "science of writing." Two essays on Husserl from the same time warrant mention as well: " 'Genesis and Structure' and Phenomenology" and "Form and Meaning: A Note on the Phenomenology of Language."

However, this introductory chapter concerns not Husserl, but Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Freud, whose projects Derrida inherited inmethodological terms. (Later, Derrida turned away from Husserl altogether; of phenomenological authors, only Emmanuel Levinas remained important to him.) In addition, structuralism and the "linguistic turn" provide immediate preconditions for his poststructuralist critique of the sign. The selection is not arbitrary. While incomplete, it permits us, in brief traits, to sketch the intellectual horizons of deconstruction, both as a philosophical project and as apractice of reading. Against this background, a paradigm shift occurred in the second half of the nineteenth- and the first half of the twentieth centuries. Stated summarily, it may be characterized as a change from thinking in terms of identity to thinking along lines of difference, a move from thinking about sameness to thinking in terms of the other,and reorientation away from the primacy of consciousness toward the primacy of language. The shift occurred as a radical self-critique within the philosophical tradition. Its most conspicuous symptom is a somewhat apocalyptic tone—the end of art and history (Hegel), the end of philosophy (Heidegger), the end of man (Nietzsche, Heidegger), the death of God (Nietzsche), the death of the subject (Foucault), and the death of the author (Barthes). The break is evident when one compares Hegel, the last systematic philosopher (for whom the end of history was synonymous with its fulfillment), and Nietzsche, the first diagnostician of the "rise of nihilism."

Ever since Nietzsche, the philosophical tradition that began with Plato and Aristotle has no longer been understood as a historical progression leading to a final system of knowledge and insight, but as a problematic inheritance whose ontological and epistemological value stands to be questioned. In the years surrounding 1900, representative words of debate are the "transvaluation of all values" (Nietzsche), "crisis of the spirit" (Valéry), linguistic crisis, "crisis of the European sciences" (Husserl), and "decline of the West" (Spengler). The reasons for the heightened sense of collapse are too numerous to be discussed here. Political events, wars (above all, the First World War), economic disaster, and the development of modern mass society play as a great a role as what Max Weber (among others) diagnosed as the increasing rationalization and "disenchantment" of the world. In what follows, we must limit ourselves to the self-critique of philosophical thinking relevant to Derrida.

1.2 The "Destruction of the History of Ontology" and Dasein as "In-Between" (Heidegger)

Derrida first used the term "deconstruction" in the book that made him famous: Of Grammatology. Although he observes that the word already existed in the French language, it was rarely used. Derrida employed it to translate two other concepts: first, Heidegger's program calling for the "destruction" of the history of ontology, and, second, Freud's concept of "dissociation." Thereby, he invoked two very different predecessors, whose very different concepts his project simultaneously combines and interprets. We shall begin with the first.

In Being and Time (1926), Heidegger had declared the "task" of undertaking the "destruction of the history of ontology." Since Aristotle, Heidegger wrote, ontology—a term comprised of two Greek words: on ("being," the present participle of einai ["to be"]) and logos ("reasoning," "word," "speech")—has been understood to concernbeings alone. Therefore, he argues, philosophical tradition has missed—and obscured—the question of the sense of Being itself. For Aristotle, ontology represents "first philosophy" (prote philosophia) or "theological science" (episteme theologike). Elsewhere, Aristotle calls ontology "general metaphysics," which he defines as follows:

There is a kind of science whose remit is being qua being and the things pertaining to that which is per se. This science is not the same as any of the departmental disciplines. For none of these latter engages in this general speculation about that which is qua that which is. Rather, they delimit some section of what is and study its accidental features (a prime example is mathematics). We, however, are investigating principles and fundamental causes, and these must evidently pertain per se to a kind of nature.

Thus, ontology or metaphysics represents the most general of intellectual disciplines. It does not investigate a specific realm of Being (as, for example, biology and physics do—or, more recently, psychology and sociology); instead, it explores the attributes characterizing all that exists, insofar as it exists. For Aristotle, these attributes include "substance," "quantity," "quality," "relation," "where," "when," "having," "doing," and "being-affected" (the so-called "categories," or, in Latin, "predicates"). However, Being itself does not represent a category, since the concept of mere existence counts as empty. For Aristotle and the entire tradition that follows after him, the concept of Being adds nothing. Whatever we imagine, we picture as already existing. In this way, Being is implicit in beings, but it cannot be separated from them nor can it stand on its own. Linguistic usage reflects that it only represents the copula ("link") of judgment—something connecting the subject of a sentence and its predicate. If I say, "The sky is blue," "Socrates is a human being," or "Deconstruction is a philosophical method," all these sentences have the form: A (subject) is B (predicate). The existence of the subjects ("sky," "Socrates," "deconstruction") is expressed—it lies in the tiny word "is"—but only has the function of tying together A and B. An utterance of the type "A is" ("The sky is," "Socrates is") would, in a standard, ontological conception, be either meaningless or superfluous, since it expresses nothing that is not already contained in A. In this view, referring to something and referring to it as something in existence mean the same thing, even if what is being referred to no longer exists (like Socrates, who has died) or does not, in fact, exist yet (like the sky tomorrow): past and future are modalities of Being conceived in terms of the present.

Here, Heidegger stresses that the "sense of Being" should by no means count as something as self-evident as metaphysical tradition claims. His philosophy does not address beings as beings, but focuses instead on what "is"—the unthought basis of Being that the occidental tradition does not explore, yet which determines our understanding of beings. Heidegger calls his project in Being and Time "fundamental ontology"; it represents the attempt to get behind ontology as the supposed first philosophy and to uncover its preconditions. This uncovering requires "destruction"—not wholesale annihilation, but rather, following the Latin verb destruere, the act of undoing or takingapart—the patient removal of layers of philosophical inheritance, back to pre-Socratic fundamentals:

If the question of Being is to have its own history made transparent, then this hardened tradition must be loosened up, and the concealments which it has brought about must be dissolved. We understand this task as one in which by taking the question of Being as our clue we are to destroy the traditional content of ancient ontology until we arrive at those primordial experiences in which we achieved our first ways of determining the nature of Being—the ways which have guided us ever since.

In thus demonstrating the origin of our basic ontological concepts by an investigation in which their "birth certificate" is displayed, we have nothing to do with a vicious relativizing of ontological standpoints. But this destruction is just as far from having the negative sense of shaking off the ontological tradition. We must, on the contrary, stake out the positive possibilities of that tradition, and this means keeping it within its limits; and these in turn are given factically in the way the question is formulated at the time, and in the way the possible field for investigation is thus bounded off. On its negative side, this destruction does not relate itself toward the past; its criticism is aimed at "today" and at the prevalent way of treating the history of ontology.... But to bury the past in nullity [Nichtigkeit] is not the purpose of this destruction; its aim is positive; its negative function remains unexpressed and indirect.


Excerpted from Politics of Deconstruction by Susanne Lüdemann, Erik Butler. Copyright © 2011 Junius Verlag, Hamburg. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Preface: Derrida's Legacy,
First Approach: Generations, Genealogies, Translations, and Contexts,
Second Approach: The Metaphysics of Presence and the Deconstruction of Logocentrism,
Third Approach: There Are "Undeconstructibles" (Are There?),
Fourth Approach: Deconstruction and Democracy,
Epilogue: Deconstruction in America / America in Deconstruction,
Appendix: Biography of Jacques Derrida,
Selected Bibliography,

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