Sunday, 2 December 2007

Derrida French Nationalist and Conservative Europeanist

Loyal Derrideans will now doubt be perturbed to see Derrida accused of positions he rejected at the most explicit level. However, we cannot spare Derrida from the kind of reading that he brings to other people.

Derrida, Hegel and Algeria
The issue of Derrida the French nationalist first occurred to me after a class in which I was teaching 'Onto-Theology of National-Humanism' (available in Oxford Literary Review 14 1992, pages 3 to 23; or in Jacques Derrida: Basic Writings, Routledge, London, 2007). The text is devoted to the discussion of the Germanic tradition of identifying German Nationalism with Philosophical Humanism. Fichte, Heidegger and Adorno feature as might be expected. The less well known figure of Karl Grün features strongly. Grün must be best know for being criticised by Marx in the German Ideology, and that is what Derrida discusses. Bringing in Marx might appear to some people, possibly including Derrida himself, to neutralise anything nationalist looking in his work. However, Marx is full of German-European nationalist universalism. For Marx, Germany is the country furthest from revolution and therefore the closest philosophically. For Marx, European colonialism brings the colonised countries into a world community formed by Europeans.

Grün strongly criticises the French on philosophical and national grounds. He condemns the French interpretation of Hegel, a topic that is of great importance to Derrida when writing about the institution of philosophy in France, and which obviously forms a large part of the background to Derrida's own philosophical formation. He takes a critical view of French colonialism in Algeria, referring to the desirability of Algeria becoming a part of Morocco. The consequence of French colonial policies in North Africa was that the Moroccan monarchy continued to exist but was effectively reduced to a French satrapy.

In my class ( part of a course on Derrida based on the texts I selected for Jacques Derrida: Basic Writings), an International Relations students, in a group that was predominantly philosophy students) was very determined to takes this in the terms of IR Realism. Realism in IR refers to the view that states pursue their own interests and state interests conflict. He picked up on thew territorial issue and the issue of reading Hegel, and argued that Derrida's text was a reaction against both. Derrida was a pied-noir, a colon, in Algeria. That is be was born into a colonial family. As it was a Jewish family, no doubt their position in the pied-noir community was no doubt in some respects marginal, nevertheless they were part of that community, a community of a million white Europeans with roots going back to the 1830 annexation.

Derrida of course never identified with French colonialism but he did identify with his Algerian origin. There is a difference between justifying colonialism and valuing origins in a colonial community, but this can be a tangled issue particularly when we consider the pied noirs, who wished to stay in Algeria and wished for Algeria to be treated as part of France. They were not just a colonial addition on the top of a native community, that was what made their resistance to decolonisation and then de Gaulle (their saviour turned traitor) so bitter, and what made decolonisaiton of Algeria so trauamtic in France and so protracted and bloody in France.

Derrida and Tocqueville
Behind the pious image of progressive Derrida, let us admit there is someone with some French nationalist impulses with regard both to philosophical institutions and to colonial history. Rather tantaslisingly Derrida refers to a coming lecture on Tocqueville. 'Onto-Theology of National Humanism' is a lecture Derrida gave at the Ecole des hautes études en sciences sociales. All of these lectures will be published but it will necessarily be a protracted process. The last I heard Geoffrey Bennington and Peggy Kamuf will edited the collected Derrida, but the publisher was unclear. Tocqueville was a enthusiast for French colonialism in Algeria and regarded Islam as clearly inferior to Christianity, on the basis that Mahgreb Muslims were less developed than European Christians (on religious-cultural grounds not racial-ethnic grounds). This is invariably the issue with which Marxist, or Marxisant, critics of Tocqueville like to attack with him, and to attack liberalism. Of course in this context they like to forget that Marx supported European colonialism, the rights of great nations and thought that Jews (like himself) should all give up all elements of Jewish identity. What did Derrida have to say about Tocqueville? Would it bring us any close to an understanding of the relationship between Derrida's own French philosophical universalism and the particularistic world view of the pied-noirs.

Europeanism: Plato and Christianity
On the issue of Europeanism, Derrida criticises Husserl's idealistion of Europe as the place of philosophy, and therefore of human goals in Introduction to the Origin of Geometry. What do we see in The Gift of Death in the discussions of Jan Patocka? Patocka was a Phenomenologist oriented to Plato and Christianity, influential on Czechoslovak anti-totalitarians, lie Vacllav Havel, and Catholic theologians including Karol Wojtyla (Pope John-Paul II). Derrida emphasises the Europe of Plato and Christianity in Patocka, a Europe that is identified with Christian spirituality and philosophical truth. Derrida emphasises heresy in Patocka and European responsibility, but the end result is still a taking up of an idea of Europe as a unified entity with a specific philosophical role.

It all looks very much Derrida thinks that Europe is the land which contains the spiritual and philosophical goals of humanity. Derrida would have denied such an ambition. Occasionally he makes gestures to the non-European origins of European culture, as when he refers to 'hetera' (other) as a word of Sanskrit origin in 'Signature Event Context' (though as far as I know it is a word which appears both in India and Europe and could with no clear indication of where it appeared first). Despite himself, no doubt, did not Derrida give way to a Eurocentric form of universalism, a universalism defined by the European philosophy (including Marx) and high literary tradition which forms the basis of his texts.


Multisubj Yb TruthSeeker said...

Well written piece.
suggestion: PL. add a little glossary of explanation for phrases like 'pied noir', for less knowledgeable readers like us.

Barry Stocker said...

Thanks for your comment. Pied-noir is a term for French colonialists in Algeria. The term apparently comes from natives who were startled by the sight of people in black shoes. Pied=foot in French; noir=black. Sorry I can't give a general glossary, but if you are anyone else has a similar question about this post, or any other post, I'm happy to deal with it.