Derrida’s seminars and an interview with Peggy Kamuf

March 10, 2014
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Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jan Mieszkowski reviews The Death Penalty: Volume I, the latest collection of Jacques Derrida’s seminars to appear in print. Drawn from the first half of a two-year seminar he gave from 1999 to 2001, the book postulates the American position on capital punishment as complicit with a logic in which a sovereign state has the right to take a life. In this takeaway from his review, Mieszkowski positions Derrida within today’s academy:

Derrida’s prominence in North American universities has waned, at least superficially, in the decade since his death. A new group of European philosophers has supplanted him as the must-reads of the moment, including Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, and the Slavoj Žižek. In the intellectual circles in which Of Grammatology and Specters of Marx were once standard fare, the works of Gilles Deleuze or Giorgio Agamben are now more likely to enjoy pride of place. Perhaps most striking for those who remember a time when Derrida’s oeuvre was viewed as a fount of productive positions on virtually every philosophical topic, there is an increasing tendency to refer to his “one or two” major ideas, as if his thought were distinguished not by its range but by its lack thereof. Of course, fashions in academic citation practices may be poor measures of Derrida’s abiding influence, which makes itself felt in numerous contexts in which he is never mentioned by name, not least because so many of his strategies and positions are now widely taken for granted.

Taking off from this, it’s worth pointing the reader toward Arne De Boever’s interview with the translator and coeditor of Derrida’s seminars in English, Peggy Kamuf, which accompanies the review:

One other thing that struck me reading this course — and you’ve gestured to it already in several of your answers—is how US-focused it is. Derrida was of course teaching the course in both France and the US. But there’s more to it than that: he repeatedly states in the lectures that his topic, the death penalty, is particularly pertinent to the US and its demographic. Reading the course I wonder if we still think of Derrida too much as a “French” philosopher—he’s almost just as much an “American” philosopher, wouldn’t you say? Focusing on issues that are central to contemporary American life? “America” is certainly a recurring theme in his work.

Yes, it is, but nowhere perhaps as insistently as in The Death Penalty, for reasons that are obvious. As for Derrida being an American or “American” philosopher, I would say no. Which doesn’t mean he is therefore a French or a “French” philosopher. (Although his passport would have said otherwise.) True, he wrote in the language called French, but he also wrote in or with an idiom that would have been his own, all the while treating and translating texts from both other languages (German, Greek, Latin, or English) and other idioms. Insofar as philosophy passes itself down in writing, it has to contend with the problem of couching the universal in a particular language/idiom. The solution cannot be a set of philosophical nationalisms, “American” and “French” or even analytic and continental. On the contrary, philosophy has to suppose the possibility of translation. Either that or, as Hegel tried to show, all philosophers would have to learn to speak German. But is translation indeed possible? Derrida more than once has defined “deconstruction” as “plus d’une langue,” a phrase that English has to translate twice in order to capture the sense of “more than one language” but also “no more of just one language.” You could say that deconstruction is philosophy in the wake of the commandment at Babel to translate what is impossible to translate.

To read more about The Death Penalty: Volume I, click here.

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