Second lives of Jacques Derrida
More books and articles have been published by and about Jacques Derrida than any other contemporary philosopher. It’s a veritable scholarly industry that has been thriving for five decades, with more to come. Following its first phase, the second archival stage of the French theory renaissance promises decades of future scholarship. The excess of Derrida’s own scholarship matches the excesses of his philosophy and writing. By the time he died at the age of seventy-four in 2004, Derrida had published seventy books, many hundreds of articles, and given an extraordinary number of interviews and guest lectures in fifty countries. He was the world’s most prominent and most traveled philosopher. Yet little is known about his life. Instead the substance and the style of his deconstructive philosophy have attracted all the attention.
But with Benoît Peeters’s Derrida (2010; trans. 2012), we have an extensively researched full-length biography packed with information. The publication of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs of contemporary theorists, so many since the early 1990s, is a distinctive postmodern phenomenon (Franklin). It is connected with the rise of the public intellectual dating from the 1980s as well as with the voracious appetite of the 24/7 media, book publishers included, for real-life material. The second lives of French theorists such as Foucault, Barthes, and Derrida typically reveal scandalous facts, giving added meaning to the term “second lives.” The ongoing implosion of public and private spheres, characteristic of postmodernity, opens private life to ever-expanding exposure. Almost nothing appears private any longer. Social media vastly facilitates exposure. The Derrida biography bears witness to these phenomena. From the perspective of antitheorists who advocate criticism and theory focused resolutely on self-effacing close reading of canonical texts, the recent elevation of leading literary and cultural intellectuals to celebrity status, complete with biographies, autobiographies, and especially memoirs, attests to the corruption of the humanities, not to mention the university and society. Yet the humanization of famous academic figures has a whipsaw effect: it raises lives up and whittles them down. This is the case with the Derrida biography where he is treated as a flawed human being as well as an academic star.
It turns out Derrida was a workaholic, a hoarder, and a seducer. The theme of the life appears to be de trop, in a word, excess. But the biographer tries to avoid any grand thesis, staying close to the facts and remaining impartial. Published in Flammarion’s long-running French series Grandes Biographies, this life story has notable strengths and peculiar weaknesses. Though a mixed success, it makes a valuable contribution to scholarship. We should expect more life writings on French and other theorists.
In place of a master theme or claim about Derrida, the Peeters’s biography offers innumerable petits récits. A sequence of roughly four-page bits takes the overall form of a muted picaresque adventure set atop a chronicle. Summaries of Derrida’s works do not appear; his accomplishments are assumed. Discussions of his publications focus on the editors and publishers involved plus, where of interest, popular and scholarly receptions. This work is neither an intellectual history, nor a hagiography, nor an exemplary life. Instead it combines biography of Derrida’s personal life, professional career, and institutional history. It provides numerous glimpses inside the world of academic theory. The working premise is clear: this subject is a famous person. Much telling information is imparted and secrets are revealed.
The biography orchestrates a veritable flood of information utilizing a three-part structure: (I) Jackie (1930—1962), (II) Derrida (1963—1983), and (III) Jacques Derrida (1984—2004). The initial break, 1962, is the year Derrida published his first book and changed his first name. Also that year his family fled the Algerian revolution and moved from Algiers to Nice. Derrida was a postcolonial subject living in diaspora. The roots of the family in Algeria stretch back five centuries, pre-dating the French colonization of the 1830s. The second break, 1983, marks a handful of significant events. After twenty years of teaching at Paris’s celebrated École Normale Supérieure (ENS), Derrida left it for the nearby École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, where he would teach for the next twenty years. The still thriving antiestablishment Collège International de Philosophie (CIPh) was planned and headquartered in Paris with Derrida as its cofounder and first director. His close friend, colleague, and fellow deconstructor the Belgian American Paul de Man died from cancer in 1983. Around the same time Derrida had also become a major public figure following his arrest, detention, and release in Soviet Prague on trumped-up charges of drug possession. The highest levels of the French government as well as the media got involved. Derrida’s image was splashed all over newspapers, magazines, and television. Before then, although it is hard to believe, he refused to be photographed. From that moment, he was a celebrity.
Based on the biographical revelations, Derrida was a democratic socialist quietly critical of Soviet and Chinese totalitarianisms and sympathetic to the Algerian drive for independence. Yet he maintained discrete silence on much of contemporary politics until the 1990s when he emerged as an unambiguous critic of post-Cold War triumphant free-market capitalism and American-style imperialism. Given that his main tutelary figure, early and late, was Heidegger, infamous for his resolute silence on his Nazi past, Derrida’s politics were long suspect and justifiably so. But the shocking 1987 New York Times revelation of Paul de Man’s youthful anti-Semitic journalistic writings during World War II put deconstruction and Derrida’s political sympathies on the public agenda. Behind all these political events lay some long-buried childhood experiences that Derrida, a Sephardic Jew, endured in Algeria. At the age of twelve he was summarily dismissed from school for being a Jew thanks to an anti-Semitic decree of the Vichy government. It was a moment of personal trauma as well as stigma and shame. His family enrolled him in an alternative Jewish school where he was extremely unhappy. According to his own testimony, afterwards he remained forever wary of any and all enforced community, dogma, and authority. This accounts, I believe, for an antinomian if not libertarian streak running through his politics as well as his philosophy.
There is a great deal of additional telling detail in the biography concerning Derrida’s politics. It sheds new light on French poststructuralist circles. For instance, his early 1970s split from the journal Tel Quel and its notable editors Philippe Sollers and Julia Kristeva resulted largely from their turn to Maoism at the time of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Derrida’s leadership role in the Groupe de Recherches sur l’Enseignement Philosophique, especially active in the 1970s, stemmed from his criticism of certain right-wing national educational policies of President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. His co-organizing and directing during the early 1980s of the CIPh came about through the encouragement of newly elected Socialist Party President François Mitterrand’s government. It was this government that facilitated Derrida’s release from jail in Prague. The short lecturing visit to Prague, sponsored by the international Jan-Hus Educational Foundation established in 1980 at the University of Oxford, shared in the organization’s broad anti-Soviet campaign to support samizdat and to fight censorship in teaching and publication. One of the more telling revelations here concerning Derrida’s politics is an unpublished private nineteen-page single-spaced letter of April 27, 1961 that he sent to historian Pierre Nora, author of Les Français d’Algérie (1961). Derrida argues as a self-conscious French Algerian against many of Nora’s generalizations and for a future postcolonial multicultural society in Algeria. This carefully articulated position-taking remained private, and Derrida did not speak out on Algeria until subsequent troubles occurred in the 1990s. This information gives credence to the contentious idea of a late versus an early Derrida. It’s worth noting, though the biographer misses this point, that Derrida was one of the few prominent French male theorists of his cohort publicly to support at various moments feminism, anti-racism, immigrant rights, and other new social movements.
The author bypasses the Anglo-sphere cultural wars of the 1980s, the time of the Thatcher—Reagan regimes and the vociferous conservative condemnations of French theory and deconstruction, which in 1987 had fastened on the de Man affair. Such attacks pressured Derrida to go public and to do so in major media. Not incidentally, this is the moment when the mainstream media were increasingly adopting tabloid-style sensationalism in the context of both the speeded-up news cycle and the proliferation of outlets. The fin-de-siècle transformation of leading academic scholars and theorists like Derrida into public intellectuals and celebrities was often initially a matter of fighting back.
Derrida’s long relationship with French educational institutions remained vexed throughout his life. The biography provides poignant cases beyond the early expulsion and the subsequent uneven school attendance during adolescence. After he left Algeria for the first time at age nineteen and entered Paris’s Louis-le-Grand Lycée in preparation for ENS entrance examinations, Derrida failed twice and ended up spending three years at this famous preparatory institution before finally succeeding. The biographer opines it was and would remain a matter of idiosyncratic creativity versus institutional discipline: Derrida was not fitted by temperament to jump through bureaucratic educational hoops even though he publicly bowed to their necessity. Ironically, his job at ENS as middling “caïman,” along with fellow French Algerian caïman and lifelong close friend Louis Althusser, entailed preparing students for the rigorously prescribed written and oral agrégation examinations. The biography plays down tensions between Derrida, a non-Communist, and dedicated Communist Party member, Althusser, emphasizing instead their long-term personal closeness. It’s a different story, yet only hinted at, with the academic adherents of the two philosophers. Opposing camps came into being at the ENS and elsewhere, including the US and the UK, where it often came down to a yes or no for Marxism, which remains to this day a fault-line among theorists and critics.
Other telling vexations with the French educational establishment occurred later. When Derrida was nominated in 1980, for example, to replace retiring Paul Ricoeur at Nanterre University, he went through a rigorous process before being turned down. Initially he said no, but Ricoeur, earlier his boss at the Sorbonne, persuaded him. This candidacy prompted Derrida to submit and successfully defend works before a distinguished jury of philosophers and a large public in order belatedly, embarrassingly so, to complete the required doctoral thèse d’État. The sole remaining hurdle was an interview with the national Conseil Supérieur des Corps Universitaires where several members read aloud—sarcastically—passages from the work. By then Derrida had published ten books. Only one person voted for him. The position went to Georges Labica, a comparative unknown. Derrida was humiliated and incensed. But the final straw came a decade later: it was the failure of friend Pierre Bourdieu and ally Yves Bonnefoy, both at the Collège de France, to get Derrida elected to this most distinguished institution where Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes had very recently held posts. The author quotes from his interview with philosopher Dominique Lecourt concerning Derrida as a rising academostar in France: “Many colleagues detested him at the time, for his brilliance, his foreignness, and his total lack of concessions” (401—402; translations mine).
Derrida had much better luck with universities abroad. Despite its dubious status at home, French theory started going global by the early 1970s. Beginning in 1968, Derrida taught compact annual seminars lasting three to four weeks. He commenced this mission at the Johns Hopkins University, then Yale University, followed by the University of California at Irvine. In the earliest years, when he suffered from fear of flying, American students came to Paris, where Derrida offered short supplementary study abroad seminars arranged by Hopkins, Yale, and Cornell. It was during the 1980s that he began to travel copiously, delivering lectures across the world, becoming a veritable globetrotting emissary of theory. From 1992 to 2003 Derrida, by now a recognizable worldwide celebrity, lectured regularly in New York City at the New School for Social Research, the Cardozo Law School, and New York University. Not insignificantly, he switched to lecturing in English in the late 1980s, expanding his outreach far beyond followers and restricted audiences.
Still, all was not smooth sailing at foreign universities, as several nasty cases illustrate. In addition to the de Man affair, there was one especially high-profile international campaign undertaken during May 1992, most notably by philosophers, against Derrida receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge. The biography quotes both an article in Der Spiegel referring to Derrida’s ideas as “a poison for young people” and a famous letter accompanied by twenty-two signatures in the London Times that cast Derrida as a nihilist and Dadaist. From the late 1970s onwards Derrida was a lightening rod among humanities scholars. When the Cambridge faculty put it to a vote in mid-May, Derrida’s award garnered 336 for and 204 against. This is considerable opposition, embarrassingly so, for an honorary degree. Later there was an incident in 2004 at UC Irvine concerning Derrida’s archives. During the early 1990s he had deposited a treasure trove there with the library’s special theory collections, but he angrily decided against augmenting it, leaving a lacuna from 1996 to 2004. This affair spilled over into an ugly posthumous lawsuit of UCI against the Derrida family, which the university withdrew in 2007. As the biographer has good reason to know, the lacuna was then corrected with substantial Derrida archives at L’Institut Mémoires de l’Édition Contemporaine near Caen, where many related collections are housed, for example, those of Althusser, CIPh, Foucault, and Tel Quel. Under duress and in the end, Derrida came “home” in extremely tense and embattled circumstances. And it was a case of scholarly archives.
The consequences of major and minor philosophical disputes, followed often by belated rapprochements—for example, with Foucault, Bourdieu, and Jürgen Habermas—which are scattered across his life, reveal Derrida’s expanding professional networks as well as flashpoints in the theory world. In this regard, Peeters’s biography intermittently frames stories of academe as an elitist subculture from his own populist middlebrow perspective. Younger by five years, Derrida was a student of Foucault’s at the ENS. His first academic lecture in Paris—delivered at the Sorbonne—was a pointed deconstructive assessment in 1962 of Foucault’s Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (1961). Foucault was in the audience. He found the lecture insightful and in several cited letters congratulated Derrida, encouraging him to get it published. Five years later they quarreled as editorial board members of the leading journal Critique about a paragraph in a review essay that in passing praised Derrida’s initial criticism of Foucault. Five years after that, Foucault wrote a critical response to its reprinting in a Japanese revue. That same year, 1972, Foucault also wrote an infamous tough and belittling second response to Derrida as an appendix to the reprinting of Histoire de la folie. He sent an inscribed copy to Derrida. Following that moment, the two philosophers did not converse for a decade. But upon Derrida’s arrest in Prague, Foucault spoke out forcefully on his behalf. And shortly thereafter, Foucault invited Jacques and his wife Marguerite Derrida to his residence for a party greeting a visiting American professor. In the end, there was rapprochement between the two philosophers, but not their many followers.
For Anglo-American followers of French theory, the fallout of the Derrida—Foucault quarrel prompted lasting division. From the 1980s onwards, Foucaultians and Derrideans cast one another as opponents. The biographer characteristically does not spend any time on the theoretical stakes of the dispute. But combatants remember it today both in the contending crude shorthand formulations of “discourse” versus “textuality” as well as cultural critique versus deconstructive close reading and in the stark battle lines drawn between celebrated followers Edward Said and Paul de Man plus their students.
Derrida’s relationship with Bourdieu was similarly tumultuous. They started out as friends, but quarreled, finally renewing their friendship later in life. Born the same year and neither one from the Parisian bourgeoisie, they were students together at Louis-le-Grand and ENS. Moreover, they fulfilled their military service in Algeria in the same area and dined weekly there. The biographer does his homework and provides a great deal of detail about Derrida’s early years. Just after military service, Bourdieu turned away from philosophy to embrace anthropology, and then he turned again only this time to sociology, a low status discipline in France at that moment. In championing sociology, Bourdieu increasingly attacked philosophy, especially Heideggerian strands. During the 1970s he criticized Derridean philosophy in his book on Heidegger and also notably in the closing pages of the most famous of his several dozen books La Distinction (1979). Animosity particularly flared up during spring 1988, visible in the pages of Libération, when the newspaper ran an interview with Bourdieu on Heideggerianism, followed a week later by a stinging response from Derrida. The biography convincingly casts as the stakes of this debate not only intragenerational rivalry and preeminence, but also the hierarchy of French disciplines. Insofar as philosophy arrogantly presented itself as the queen of the disciplines and arbiter of acceptable and effective argumentation, it drew fire, especially from social scientists like Bourdieu or, for that matter, Foucault. Eventually, though, Bourdieu and Derrida came to join forces from the 1990s onwards for a range of causes such as establishing the Parlement International des Écrivains, the campaign for Derrida’s election to the Collège de France, and the struggle against triumphant Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism in support of the increasingly embattled Welfare State, a widely shared ongoing common cause among theorists in European and Anglophone countries.
As Anglophone cultural studies and new historicisms came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s—an institutional turn of events the Derrida biographer overlooks—sociology became a central discipline, ensuring a place of eminence for Bourdieu’s groundbreaking sociology of culture. Meanwhile Derrida’s influence during this period was itself very broadly disseminated beyond Yale deconstruction (in disarray since the de Man scandal), most notably to feminism, postcolonial studies, and queer theory. But to this day, deconstruction and cultural studies along with new historicisms remain suspicious of one another. These transformations foreshadow and parallel the disorganization of the field of theory and criticism in the fin de siècle, a phenomenon outside the tightly circumscribed scope of the biography, yet in full flower today.
With challenges to his work mounting, Derrida operated more and more on a friend/enemy basis adjudicated quickly. His adherents often followed suit. He sometimes acted in a paranoid as well as hasty manner. Supporters, friends, and family confirm this pattern. For instance, he distanced himself from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, pioneering translator of his work, early supporter, and student of de Man’s, because in Derrida’s view she did not sufficiently support de Man at the time of the scandal. He fell out with Harold Bloom at the same time. There are many other examples of famous intellectuals and institutions put summarily on Derrida’s enemies list. The biographer believes this dynamic was the flip side of Derrida’s all-encompassing fidelity as friend. But here he tries too hard to balance the scales, a temptation he often finds difficult to resist. A better explanation has to do with the frantic pace of media debates during the culture wars, a time not conducive to slow deliberation, civility, or painstaking scholarly dialogue.
The biography makes public many personal matters, for example, concerning Derrida’s health. In this it has a tell-all quality. During adulthood Derrida’s physical health was good, despite persistent bouts of melancholy sometimes slipping into depression, plus a tendency to hypochondria and fear of dying. As a student at Louis-le-Grand and ENS, he suffered serious bouts of test anxiety and insomnia, perhaps contemplating suicide. He used sleeping and pep pills to get by. In these years he survived on a special diet. For five years early in his career, he could not endure air travel. But the one thing that stands out across his 50 years in the academy is nonstop personal complaining about overwork, burnout, and lack of time for reading and writing. Derrida was evidently an obsessive-compulsive workaholic, we are left to conclude. While the author states in his brief introduction that Derrida was a “fragile and tormented man,” the biography does not bear out the claim. At most there were moments, apparently justified, of complaint, but his voluminous work and travel seem clearly to override fragility. It is characteristic of leading intellectuals today to be productive in seemingly superhuman ways. Derrida leads the pack in this regard.
Although Peeters’s account is resolutely not a psychobiography, it does provide considerable background on Derrida’s family, close relationships, and personality, yet without elaboration or assessment. Derrida’s father, a traveling beverage salesman, worked hard for very little. As a teenager, Derrida came to sympathize with his limited success. It turns out it was his father who arranged a two-year teaching position for Jackie at a school for the children of French military personnel in Algeria following ENS completion and a year abroad in the United States. At the time, Derrida was military personnel (non-uniformed at his request) stationed at the edges of the Algerian War. Very little is said about his mother, a traditional housewife, although Derrida’s finest autobiographical writing, Circonfession (1991), records with pathos her final two years and demise in that year from Alzheimer’s disease following a stroke. Nothing much is offered on Derrida’s older brother and younger sister, though both were interviewed. However, the memory of the early death of his younger brother, Norbert (1938—1940), remained with him. The brother’s picture along with his father’s held a prominent place on Derrida’s work desk. It appears to be a case of lifelong mourning, a theme he would later often revisit. Since he vacationed every summer with his extended family throughout his life, we are left to infer that family was very important to Derrida, though he himself did not address it head-on in his writings.
Of Derrida’s wife and children we get truncated sketches. Born two years after Jacques, future wife Marguerite Aucouturier, a Catholic with maternal family in Czechoslovakia, met Derrida while he was at ENS. They spent the academic year 1956—1957 on an exchange appointment at Harvard University. Fearing separation once military service in Algeria began in the autumn, they married in June 1957 in Massachusetts. It appears neither one held the institutional rituals of marriage in high regard. She earned money as a translator from Russian and English and from the mid-1970s as a child psychoanalyst, an admirer as well as translator of Melanie Klein. The biographer is uncharacteristically vague here, doubtlessly because he needed Marguerite Derrida’s cooperation and, based on the acknowledgments, he received it in the form of multiple interviews with her and access to archives and to others. That being the case, Benoît Peeters’s book should be regarded as an authorized biography written amidst the crosscurrents of Derrida’s friends, family, and followers with occasional brief nods to his enemies. The wide world of theory is ever-present yet on the outer fringes of the spotlight.
Concerning the rest of the immediate family, the sons Pierre and Jean Derrida, born several years apart in the mid-1960s, both went on to complete philosophical studies at the ENS and both published first books: Pierre Alféri, Guillaume d’Ockham, le singulier (1989) and Jean Derrida, La Naissance du corps (Plotin, Protius, Damascius) (2010). The older son, now a writer, changed his name not wanting to compete with his father, who we learn was initially unhappy about the change. As he goes along, the biographer indicates that Marguerite Derrida stuck by her man through thick and thin, assuming traditional wifely duties, even when Jacques strayed.
Derrida had a twelve-year relationship with philosopher Sylviana Agacinski, a generation younger (born 1945). She gave birth to their child Daniel in 1984, the year the relationship ended. A few years later Agacinski joined and then married Lionel Jospin, who raised Daniel. When Jospin ran for President in 2001—2002, the French media publicized the Derrida—Agacinski affair to Derrida’s utter dismay. He tried to keep it a secret and would not discuss it with anyone. As one of his book titles reveals, Derrida had a taste for the secret, which he considered a key feature of democracy against the omniscience sought by totalitarianisms as well as media and national security states. The biographer guesses Derrida sent Agacinski a thousand or so letters that will some day presumably enter the archives. Agacinski did not make herself available for interviews, but did confirm a timeline. Son Pierre regrets that his half brother, Daniel, did not attend their father’s funeral, although he was not invited. Derrida was buried in a private secular ceremony in the Paris suburb of Ris-Orangis, site since 1968 of the family home. For his part, Daniel Agacinski, who never properly met his father, earned his agrégation in philosophy in 2007 at ENS. Marguerite Derrida, it turns out, counseled her husband to recognize this child officially, which he quietly did in 1986. During an interview, Pierre offered a frank assessment of his father: “There was in the temperament of my father, however open and audacious on the majority of things, some very archaic elements which we could not discuss” (580). Derrida evidently had other extramarital relationships hinted at but undocumented in the biography. We are left to speculate Derrida was perhaps a critic of monogamy. In the biographer’s uncharacteristically bold words, Derrida “remained a grand seducer” and a person “capable of numerous fidelities” (516).
Of the 32 chapters composing the biography, one stands out dramatically from all the rest. Titled “Portrait of the Philosopher at 60,” it suddenly stops following chronology and compiles a portrait of Derrida in the round. It takes 25 chapters and 500 pages to arrive at this summative account of distinctive features, eccentricities, and quirky personality traits done up very much in the style of popular biographies of great men. Derrida, for example, was a reckless car driver, unmindful of money, fond of ocean swimming, avidly watched television, was a doting parent and a jealous husband, had superstitions and phobias. He was extremely punctual and expected the same from others. Early in his career (but not before), he became something of a dandy in dress. One of his acquaintances depicts this trait as “radiant narcissism.” About the time he got his first computer in 1986, a Mac which his children helped him master, Derrida’s fame was such that his characteristic copious and attentive letter writing became nearly impossible; he relied more and more on the telephone. He no doubt found it increasingly difficult to keep up with requests for recommendations, project deadlines, complimentary works received, invitations, and so on. He had neither a regular secretary nor assistant. While he was an extremely fast keyboardist, Derrida tended to handwrite first drafts. His handwriting was almost indecipherable so much so that two of the 70 photos in the biography picture his scribbles, one early one late. From a private diary we learn Derrida fretted about his Algerian accent. Whatever else he might have been, Derrida was a mortal with flaws, quirks, and complexes including lousy handwriting and a regional twang.
Though buried, the central motif in this biography is de trop: Derrida as a person of too much, too many, outright excess. This trait pertains perhaps most notoriously to his scholarly articles, often extending to 100 printed pages, as well as his guest lectures lasting two or more uninterrupted hours of reading with rare eye contact. In short, there were too many books, articles three times normal length, marathon lectures, too much travel, innumerable contacts to maintain, endless situations requiring a response, and continuous overwork. The excess over the decades only increased. It’s worth recalling that Derrida launched his career with three books in 1967, not the usual one or the unusual two: La Voix et le phénomène, De la grammatologie, and L’Écriture et la différence. He repeated the performance in 1972 with La Dissémination, Marges—de la philosophie, and Positions. In retrospect, such excess was the norm with Derrida. This remains an undeveloped yet amply illustrated major theme in his life and work that puts to rest the vestigial image of philosophy as a leisure activity.
The odd title of the first chapter is “Le Négus.” It was a family term of affection given to Jackie in early childhood: his skin was then so dark, especially after sun exposure, almost like a Negro’s skin. Right from the outset the author quietly and convincingly portrays Derrida as an outsider in this case like Ethiopian royalty (négus). But he offers no commentary on the African theme and too little on the outsider motif. He allows himself very few moments of broad speculation and judgment, adhering closely to a policy of just the facts based on very extensive interviews and archival research. The biographer rarely goes out on a limb and when he does so such moments are more like indulgences than slips. At the end of Part I, for instance, he ventures, “Beyond familial and personal wounds, the Algerian War constitutes also one of the sources of all his political thinking” (157). The problem here is not the conjecture, but the nearly complete absence of such suggestive observations and inferences. The ratio of detail to generalization is disproportionate in this enormous biography. It sometimes reads like a courtroom document surreptitiously fending off potential counterclaims from critics and enemies.
At a few turns, the author defends and at others he criticizes his subject, yet always rarely, quietly, and only in passing. They are peculiar instances. For example, to the mid-1980s growing complaints from French intellectuals about Derrida’s increasing hermeticism and unreadability, he responds by citing an obscure reviewer in a small magazine, soon defunct, defending Derrida (Catherine David in L’Autre Journal, May 1986). While the biographer sympathizes with the reviewer’s defense of Derrida’s excessive close reading in our era of Attention Deficit Disorder and distracted reading, he does so only indirectly. An unprecedented event occurs when the author near the end of the final chapter proffers his personal opinion of a work by Derrida: “Apprendre à vivre enfin (2005) is a superb and limpid text, perhaps the best of introductions to his oeuvre” (655). This is a first, a firm personal judgment, plus an enthusiastic one at that, though of a minor work. At one point in a footnote, the author crosschecks and corrects a small error in Derrida’s memory by citing a letter he had written twenty years earlier. Otherwise Derrida goes uncorrected in a book with over 1,300 footnotes. About Derrida’s recognition and admission of de Man’s anti-Semitism, expressed in the latter’s most notorious wartime article, the biographer castigates very mildly “That does not prevent Derrida from undertaking ’close reading’ of the article in question with somewhat excessive ingenuity and generosity” (484). “Somewhat.” If you’re looking for ideology or culture critique in this book, you’ve come to the wrong place.
Benoît Peeters’s Derrida is a very broadly researched narrowly focused biography accessible to the educated non-specialist reader. It recounts the main and innumerable minor facts of Derrida’s life without theatricalizing or idealizing or belittling. Derrida emerges as a singular human being rather than a representative man, or exemplary character, or genius-hero. The biographer appears a fair-minded outsider, who does not take sides, moralize, or blame. Readers should perhaps be grateful for this reserve. Nor does Peeters seek for an identity theme or the inner being or soul of Jacques Derrida. No, his two main interests reside in Derrida’s long and rich professional life and in academic institutions and their folkways as experienced from Derrida’s perspective. He shows very little interest in Derrida’s philosophy or in its interpretation. Of course, many such inquiries already exist, more than enough doubtlessly in the biographer’s view.
However, the biographer unfortunately does not delve into some of the expected spheres of life and academe. Although he does provide telling glimpses of Derrida’s family life, he omits, for instance, family finances. Like Derrida himself, he does not talk about personal finances or money: this much of privacy remains. Did Derrida ever experience class-consciousness? I for one suppose so. What kind of sales did his works have? Apparently, not many books sold well except for the 100,000 threshold gradually exceeded by De la grammatologie. Nor is much offered about religion. From the 1970s onwards deconstruction was a transnational phenomenon, and Derrida was a global figure supported by inner and outer circles. Since Peeters writes unselfconsciously from a metropolitan Parisian perspective, he offers only the tiniest cameos in passing of Derrida’s French and occasionally of his Anglophone coteries. Moreover, they are treated as influential individuals rather than academic networks.
John Updike once quipped that a biography is a “novel with index.” Peeters’s biography of Jacques Derrida is more like a sequence of numerous news stories minus a concept index. It holds back on empathy and vividness. This is odd coming from Peeters, a mid-career novelist, comic strip author, and cultural critic. There is no humor in the biography except once and inadvertently when wife Marguerite, in the course of an interview with the author, depicts husband Jacques’s jealous temperament: “He wasn’t happy when he failed to reach me right away. At every moment he wanted to know where I was, what I did and with whom. But if I had the misfortune of asking him a similar question, he replied: ’Ah, always this reciprocity’” (518).
It turns out Jacques Derrida was a hoarder, excessively so, saving every scrap of paper over the course of his life, starting in adolescence. This material includes innumerable letters, graded school papers, personal notebooks, drafts of work, seminar lectures, plus documents about him like reviews, newspaper items, and scholarly texts. The biographer consulted this material, interviewed 100 or so people, and examined audio and videotapes. He explains the process of immersion in a fast-paced side project, Trois ans avec Derrida: Les Carnets d’un biographe, published simultaneously with the biography by Flammarion. Not at all incidentally, Derrida’s main publisher, Galilée, announced plans in 2008 to publish the 40 plus volumes of his yearly seminars covering the period from 1960 to 2003. A distinctive feature of the theory renaissance is this archival turn. Another symptomatic element is the many celebrity-style biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs of recent decades. Given the revelations in the Derrida biography, there will be a massive future flood of his publications beyond the seminars. In this wave it will be letters, notebooks, and tapes. Other leading French theorists will almost certainly be subjects of similar treatment.