– Supriya Chaudhuri
In an essay called ‘How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida’, published in the American Journal of Sociology in November 1987 (AJS 93:3, November 1987: 584-622), the sociologist Michèle Lamont asked the all-important question, ‘How can an interpretive theory gain legitimacy in two cultural markets as different as France and the United States?’ She went on to examine the social contexts of legitimation of Derrida’s work in the two countries, and put forward certain hypotheses regarding the legitimation of interpretive theories, that is, their fitting to institutional and cultural structures which may be quite antithetical in origin. At the core of her study is a single important event, which I will use to debate the issue of transnational, or travelling theory as Edward Said called it. This is the conference organized at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 1966, a conference on structuralism called ‘The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man’, to which leading structuralist philosophers and intellectuals from France were invited: Roland Barthes, Tzetan Todorov, Lucien Goldmann, Serge Doubrovsky, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. Yale French Studies brought out a special issue on structuralism in the same year, 1966.
The purpose of the conference was to introduce structuralism to the US academy, which was experiencing something of a critical vacuum after the assault upon New Criticism indirectly mounted by Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism (1957). To some extent this effort was successful, since structuralism gained adherents, and the early 1970s saw the publication of books like Fredric Jameson’s The Prison-house of Language (1972) and Robert Scholes’s Structuralism in Literature (1974), followed by Jonathan Culler’s Structuralist Poetics (1975), though each of these critics came to structuralism through different routes. Jameson studied under Erich Auerbach at Yale, and became deeply interested in Marxist literary theory as well as in Russian Formalism (Marxism and Form was published in 1971). Culler was an undergraduate at Harvard, after which he went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and wrote his DPhil thesis on structuralism. I was Culler’s student in a class he taught at Brasenose in 1974, and much of what we discussed reappeared in Structuralist Poetics, though by then he was already flirting with deconstruction. This was the same year that Pierre Machery appeared at a radical students’ workshop also organized at Oxford, in a completely different setting, and spoke on post-structuralist Marxist literary theory in the context of his work with his mentor Louis Althusser on Reading Capital (1965). Meanwhile, Roman Jakobson visited the English Faculty to lecture on linguistics. I was probably unusual in attending all these events, in addition to more radical feminist meetings and political campaigns. In those years, Oxford was shaken only by the politics of the women’s and students’ movements, and came reluctantly and belatedly to theory.
But what is particularly interesting about that historical moment at Johns Hopkins in 1966, when structuralism was launched in the American academy, was the fact that Jacques Derrida used the occasion to offer a scathing critique of structuralist methodology, particularly in the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, in a paper titled ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’. In a sense Derrida was cutting away the ground on which structuralism stood, even before it had found a place in the American academy. It is true, of course, that there had been a structuralist phase in American linguistics, but Bloomfieldian structural linguistics, developed in the 1930s, was quite different from its European cousin. In 1966 American literary criticism was in a state of disarray, divided between the Chicago Neo-Aristotelians, the Stanford moralists, the straggling New Critics, and the adherents of myth criticism. Interestingly, reception theory, inaugurated by E. D. Hirsch in his influential Validity in Interpretation (1967) drew upon phenomenological sources very similar to Derrida’s, but to diametrically opposite effect, since Hirsch argued for the primacy of the author’s intention, and Derrida, as we all know, urged that the text never ‘means’ what it says. Structuralism was a welcome addition to this flagging critical climate, as testified by the number of books published on the subject in the early 1970s, but it was already a latecomer, and made no new inroads into anthropology and linguistics, fields it had colonised in Europe. That deconstruction should arrive at almost the same time suggests a kind of lag in the American market for French theory, a market which is suddenly saturated with an abundance of Parisian goods.
By contrast, in France, as Lamont analyses with great care, Derrida’s appearance on the intellectual scene was very carefully timed. Born an Algerian Jew, he had been a student of philosophy at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure and at the Sorbonne, though in a carefully calculated act of resistance he did not write his doctoral thesis (Thèse d’état) until 1980. However, he began a friendship with Louis Althusser, and did his philosophy agrégation on the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, after which he visited Harvard and read Joyce’s Ulysses in the Widener Library. In the early 1960s, he was teaching at the Sorbonne and publishing in the journal Tel Quel in the company of theorists and psychoanalysts like Barthes, Sollers and Kristeva. There was a public falling-out with Michel Foucault after Derrida attacked both him and Levi-Strauss in ‘Force and Dissemination’ in 1963, which led not only to Foucault’s direct response in 1972, but a permanent distancing. Derrida was certainly building up an academic presence, cemented by the appearance in 1967 of three books: Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena, and Of Grammatology. The visit to Johns Hopkins took place the year before, the student revolts of May 1968 the year after. While the first internationalized his reputation, the second linked the philosophical anarchism of his project to a fashionable form of political radicalism. In France, Derrida was mainly known as a philosopher up to the 1960s, but there were clearly elements in his work that could appeal to a larger bourgeois intelligentsia – especially the destruction of philosophy itself, through the questioning of the ‘logocentric’ basis of Western metaphysics, as Derrida called it. In a sense this class is consuming philosophy as a luxury good, a cultural capital available only to the elite. As Lamont notes, it was easy to recognise his principal ideas through the operation of key terms like différance, trace, mark, margin, erasure, supplement, arche-writing and so on, terms that served to ‘label’ and sell his theoretical ware. Moreover, though his rhetorical style was deliberately obscure, its erudition and dialectical complexity was characteristic of high French academic prose, and helped to acquire prestige for his work. Most of all, of course, Derrida inserted himself at a critical time in French intellectual life to offer a rereading of Husserl, Heidegger and Nietzsche, rather than Hegel or Marx (despite his friendship with Althusser), rejecting the idea of structure itself for textual indeterminacy and infinite play. Like Foucault though not so directly, Derrida interrogates the relationship of knowledge and power, but he does so by exploring the nature of language itself. Many of these notions, and especially the whole project of deconstruction, set out more clearly in his next set of three books published in 1972, Dissemination, Margins of Philosophy and Positions, appealed to a restive upper middle-class intelligentsia anxious to challenge accepted hierarchies and critique the operation of power in culture, though without necessarily embracing a Leftist position. (In fact, Derrida distanced himself from the Tel Quel group in the 1970s when they began to embrace Maoism, but in later life his work became more politically and socially engaged).
What of America? As I have noted, the phenomenon of Derrida’s sudden popularity in the United States was founded on a quite different set of premises. It had nothing to do with highly institutionalized structures of academic legitimation and the ideological struggles in philosophy departments that helped to establish his reputation in France. Rather, his lecture at Johns Hopkins produced a sense of oppositionality within the fledgling academic discipline of structuralist criticism at the moment of its inception, and suggested to American academics that Derrida was the ‘latest’ and most fashionable type of structuralist ‘le hip de hip’ as Lamont puts it quoting an unnamed interlocutor. At Baltimore, Derrida met Paul de Man (and Jacques Lacan) and this was to prove extremely important. Together with J Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman and Harold Bloom, the controversial de Man formed a group of pro-Derrideans in the American academy known as the Yale Gang of Four (in imitation of the celebrated Gang of Four who ruled over the Chinese Communist Party, but this audience is too young to have heard of them). Lamont offers a set of closely analysed statistical data to show that while in France Derrida was still being published in philosophical journals, in the US he was translated and published in journals of literary criticism. Apart from Richard Rorty and Stanley Cavell, the American philosophical establishment, still under the grip of the British analytical tradition, did not warm to him. In the late 1970s and 1980s he had a public dispute with the analytical philosopher John Searle over his reading of a passage in J.L. Austin.
Arguably it was the American reading and popularization of Derrida that made him influential in literary theory. There is nothing really surprising about this, because it is a central part of Derrida’s theory that all writing can be read as a rhetorical exercise, but Derrida might have remained a provocative but minor French philosopher had he not acquired this American following. The persuasive and influential adaptation of Derrida’s deconstructionist methods in the reading of poetry and fiction, as illustrated by the ‘post-structuralism’ of de Man and Hartman, constituted a decisive intervention in Anglo-American critical practice. Here again, a certain academic politics came into play. The Francophone de Man (later accused of being a Nazi collaborator during his youth in Belgium) led from the front in producing for the American market a kind of commodity that could be labelled as French theory (like French feminism a little later, ie Irigaray, Cixous, Kristeva and Wittig). In some respects – not so much in de Man as in some other critics – this led to a loss of the more difficult and philosophically interesting elements of Derrida’s theory. Moreover, as Lamont again notes, the fact that Derrida’s philosophical work consisted in reading, with massive erudition and care, the works of major European philosophers from Plato to Levinas, made him popular with university students who could then talk about these great masters of the Western philosophical tradition without actually having read them. Largely insensitive to the politics as well as to the philosophical dialectics within which Derrida’s work was embedded, American literary critics found him a useful instrument for a formalist project that begins at some point to look suspiciously like New Criticism redivivus. In a celebrated attack, not on Derrida himself, but on the ‘soft formalism’ of Hartman and company, A. D. Nuttall lamented that this form of reading does a disservice both to traditional notions of representation and to the theory of the sign.
In America Derrida acquired not only admirers but commentators, who published on his work in journals like Glyph, Sub-Stance, and Diacritics. The Yale critics were an extremely influential group who ensured that his work remained in the public eye. It might also be argued that their support for him was grounded in their need to find a high-end cultural property which would establish their access to European intellectual capital while bypassing their old rivals, Britain. By 1980, Frank Lentricchia could write: ‘Sometime in the early 1970s we awoke from the dogmatic slumber of our phenomenological sleep to find that a new presence had taken absolute hold over our avant-garde critical imagination: Jacques Derrida’. By the middle of the next decade, that hold had slackened. In his old age, Derrida returned to reading Marx and Levinas, thought about religion and interrogated the politics of friendship. He became, not just more French, but more Algerian, like Cixous. His mother had named him Jackie, because the name sounded American (possibly after the child star of Chaplin’s The Kid, Jackie Coogan). If Derrida had not renamed himself Jacques, it is unlikely that he would have acquired the prestige he undoubtedly did in France. His Jackie role was a limited one, and in the end he became Jacques again.