Why The Economist Got It All Wrong

Training for Vietnamese Translators in Social Sciences and Humanities,
a project funded by EUNIC Global.


A review of Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning,  University Of Chicago Press, 2001.

By Etienne Rolland-Piègue, Director of Institut français du Vietnam

Original edition in English.

I usually hold The Economist magazine in high esteem. But on the occasion of Jacques Derrida’s death in 2004, they did something disgraceful that I will never forget, nor forgive. Breaking all conventions, they wrote an obituary that was treacherous, wicked and mean. They collected all the usual clichés against Derrida and deconstruction, and turned them into a vicious attack against the deceased. They reproduced the charge, most infamously held in 1992 during the Cambridge controversy over the award of a honorary title, that « Mr Derrida’s work was absurd, vapid and pernicious. » They accused him of self-aggrandizement, of obscurantism, and of sophistry. In a deliberate case of forgery, they attributed to him nonsensical puns (« logical phallusies ») that never appeared under his signature. They referred to the case, first raised by the New York Times, that Paul de Man had written anti-Semitic articles for a pro-Nazi Belgian newspaper in 1940, and labeled Derrida’s defense of his friend, and of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy, as « disastrous. » « Deconstruction means never having to say you’re sorry, » was how they summed up the debate. The closing line that « God help » those theologians who had developed an interest in the late Derrida’s writings about religion, was as close to a damnation call as one could get.

A last farewell to the deceased

Why all this hatred? one may ask. In the case of The Economist’s anonymous obituarist, the answer seems simple: he or she never had read even a single page of the author’s works that were commented upon. In my opinion, a good way to start would have been by opening this volume. Although The Work of Mourning does not provide the best introduction to Derrida’s work, it carries on a reflection on the literary genres inspired by the sentiment of mourning: obituaries, eulogies, funeral orations, memorial essays, or just messages of condolence. It does so by not only speaking of or about mourning, but by enacting the very gesture of saying a last farewell to the deceased. Illustrating a time-honored genre and tradition, this volume published in 2001 binds together texts written by Derrida after the death of friends and colleagues to recall their lives and work and bear witness to a relationship with them. At the very least, it could have been used by The Economist‘s indelicate editor as a manual of good manners and social etiquette that people use in circumstances when they often feel at a loss to express their heartfelt condolences.

The first rule of proper manners our editor would have learned is that, as Derrida remarks in a text written in memory of Michel Foucault, « one does not carry on a stormy discussion after the other has departed. » For it may be recalled that the discussion that Derrida conducted with Foucault over a course of more than twenty years was nothing less than stormy. The starting point was given by the publication in 1961 of Foucault’s first great book, translated in English in an abridged version as Madness and Civilization. The object of controversy was Foucault’s reading of Descartes’ Méditations métaphysiques, and in particular of the passage where Descartes envisages the possibility that the thinking subject could be in the middle of a dream, subject to an illusion, or in a state of madness. Descartes’ dismissal of the last eventuality as unthinkable was read by Foucault as a highly significant gesture, marking the exclusion of madness out of the realm of classical reason, as the absolute other that had to be locked away and confined into a madhouse.

Reading Descartes’ Méditations métaphysiques

In one of his first essays of note, Derrida offered his own commentary leading to a radically different conclusion. Descartes’ text is more ambivalent and contradictory that a Cartesian reading would first assume, and the thought that life may be just a dream is a hyperbolic gesture that drives reason to the point of madness. Derrida’s response, which « deconstructs » the text by suggesting that what it performs exceeds what it states, can also be read as a defense of the classical tradition against the attack of historicism. This is the position that Foucault took, seeing in his contradictor a guardian of the temple whose main concern was to keep the philosophical faith intact. Nobody had the last word in this debate, and in his essay written on the thirtieth anniversary of Foucault’s book, Derrida tactfully avoided the subject and chose to speak about Freud, not Descartes.

This Descartes controversy is worth recalling because, contrary to the charge waged by casual readers, Derrida’s deconstruction was not an attack against the Western canon yielded by a disheveled anarchist bent on the suppression of classical education, common decency, and footnotes. It was a close reading of texts in the rigorous and disciplined manner that students of the Ecole Normale Supérieure are taught to perform. Derrida was very consistent in affirming the value of the legacy we call Western thought, philosophy, or literature, and even many of the traditions and institutions that have carried them down to us, such as the humanities or the university. To become a master, the disciple first has to incorporate the rules and learn the cannon before being able to create his own brand of philosophy. Putting one’s own claim to originality under the sign of Descartes is a sure way to bow down to a learned tradition as one breaks free from the fetters of acquired scholarship. The radicalism of Derrida’s deconstruction, and of Foucault’s archeology of knowledge for that matter, has to be replaced into its French academic context. And the accusation that Derrida’s numerous epigones on US campuses carried deconstruction to its absurd excess should also be substantiated: it could be argued, on the contrary, that Derrida introduced in American comparative literature departments habits of intellectual rigor and of theoretical creativity that could only stem from the French philosophical tradition.

Derrida’s reception in the United States

The editor’s introduction to this book illustrates this point: it is a carefully crafted essay that really adds value to the volume by identifying its main themes and putting them into context. It acknowledges that Derrida’s eulogies and acts of mourning contain many contradictions: admitting how difficult to speak at such a moment of grief while at the same time choosing words over silence; participating in the codes and rites of mourning while putting into question the very conventions of the genre; striking a balance between quotations and testimony at a point when one may no longer let the deceased speak nor address him directly. Essays of mourning are texts fraught with danger. « Political calculation, personal retaliation, narcissism, attempts at achieving a good conscience »: these are just some of the risks, identified in the introduction, that Derrida meticulously tried to avoid, and that The Economist’s obituary illustrated in the most tactless manner.

« He who has many friends, has no friend, » wrote Aristotle. The Ancients believed that one can only have a limited number of friends. Similarly, they held that the number of ideas was finite, and that is why they were worth repeating in maxims or quotations. Derrida’s texts of mourning are written around a single idea: friendship and mourning are closely related, because to have a friend is to know, with inescapable certitude, that « one of the two of you will inevitably see the other die. » It was Derrida’s misfortune, as well as his blessing that only a long and fruitful life could procure, to see many of his friends pass away. These friends were limited in number but, as the editors justly point out in their introduction « To reckon with the dead », one can not really reckon, recount or account for their death. One cannot settle scores with the dead, and this is why the debt and obligations owed to them will remain forever pending.

The shadow of death

The shadow of death transforms a relationship, putting things into their proper perspective, and calling for hospitality and forgiveness. Writing in homage to Jean-Marie Benoist, a right-wing intellectual, Derrida notes that « what might appear to be ideologico-political divisions » were in fact « little more than petty infightings, » « things that did not concern us. » Similarly, he conjures those too prompt to judge and categorize Althusser (« the unique adventure that bears the name Louis Althusser ») to « take the time to listen to our time (for we had no other.) » In the context of his eulogies, the author of Specters of Marx was able to refer to Althusser’s Pour Marx and to Benoist’s Marx est mort, with equal consideration. To hold Derrida responsible for the sins of others, as The Economist does with reference to Paul de Man’s and Martin Heidegger’s Nazi past, proceeds more from an intention to do harm than from a will to do justice.

Derrida took great care in choosing the titles of his interventions. The title of this book, The Work of Mourning, nor the decision to bind his « works of mourning » into a single volume, were not of his own making. It was the editors’ choice. Derrida himself seldom uses the expression, « the work of morning » and, when he does, it is often with quotation marks. It is, he notes, « a confused and terrible expression », in which « this so-called ‘work’ remains here the name of a problem. » Mourning is at work in these texts, and, as Derrida would add, mourning is at work as long as there is friendship, for the law of friendship is that one friend must always go before the other. But there is no work in mourning, and these texts of mourning belong more to the gift economy than to the logic of labor. One is always free to refuse a gift or a present, as The Economist did with regard to Derrida’s inheritance. But it is a terrible thing to do.

Catégories : Book reviews