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Before he ever puts pen to paper, the biographer of Jacques Derrida is faced with an immense stumbling block: a body of work which is in many ways anathema to the art of biography. For David Mikics's Who Was Jacques Derrida? - which claims to be the first objective account of the life and work of 'the most famous North African thinker (along with Albert Camus) since Augustine' - the stakes are dauntingly high. Derrida spent the greater part of his philosophical career demonstrating the dangers inherent in simplifying or unifying the meaning of a text or a corpus; the same holds true, no doubt, for the art of biography.
David Mikics surmounts this difficulty by largely jettisoning biographical detail from the pages of Who Was Jacques Derrida? The reader looking for the standard staples of biography - a robust genealogy, the drama of intellectual apprenticeship, lurid details of trysts and other romantic entanglements - will be for the most part disappointed. Mikics's primary focus is the structural and genetic relationship between Derrida's texts: a task he takes up with admirable skill and scholarly rigour.
At least given its scope, Mikics's confrontation (for it is, ultimately, a confrontation) with the Derridean corpus is certainly impressive. His analysis ranges across the forty or so years of Derrida's mature philosophical thinking, encompassing a vast array of texts in the course of the book's slight 250 pages. The book's opening mise en scène provides the backdrop against which the originality of Derrida and his new approach to textual analysis (deconstruction) first emerged. Mikics's description of Derrida's early intellectual and philosophical milieu hovers between the dominance of Husserlian phenomenology and a Kojève-infused Hegelianism - both of which are naturally unified in the figure of Sartre, whose psychological philosophy proves here (perhaps too hastily) to be utterly antithetical to deconstructive reading.
The book's second section, by far its longest, conducts a nuanced reading of two of Derrida's best known texts, Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology, arguing that both works exemplify the philosopher's arch-skepticism, his questioning of empiricism and 'its possible relation to an outside of philosophy'. Related to this anti-empirical strain in Derrida's writings is, according to Mikics, Derrida's ingrained, allergic mistrust of all forms of psychology. The book's later chapters - which focus on Derrida's readings of such diverse thinkers as Plato, Nietzsche, Celan, Marx, and Gadamer - relentlessly pursue this thesis, arguing that Derrida's suppression of 'the most palpable sign of our existence, our inner life' ultimately damages the persuasiveness and credibility of his own philosophy. Derrida's distaste for psychology is epitomised in his denigration of the value (and indeed possibility) of biography; this link is pivotal for Mikics precisely because it provides him with an escape route from the heavy contradictions and ironies of writing a deconstructible narrative about the father of a 'supremely nonnarrative (or even antinarrative)' philosophy.
Who Was Jacques Derrida? offers a refreshing and convincing case for a reading of Derrida as an anti-psychologist, though Mikics's argument is dampened somewhat by the way in which it prioritizes the interpretation of what Derrida's readings ignore or leave out, rather than the words which Derrida actually wrote. Indeed, if Derrida held to a deep suspicion of psychology, it was precisely because of the interpretive hazards which Mikics's book does not entirely succeed in avoiding.
Though Mikics sets out to show why Derrida 'was neither so brilliantly right nor so badly wrong as his enthusiasts and critics respectively claimed', the portrait of Derrida which emerges is far more deflationary than defensive. Mikics continually paints a portrait of Derrida as a grasping, celebrity-seeking oracle, who in the 1960s 'assumed the stance of a prophet rather than just a careful analyst of intellectual history' and who plotted in the late 1980s 'to steal back the audience he had forfeited to the engaged Foucault'.
In his determination to pick-apart the Derrida-legend, Mikics often adopts the tone of a point-scoring prosecutor. He can claim in passing, for instance, that Derrida's discussion of the relationship between Judaism and polygamy in a dialogue with Elisabeth Roudinesco provides clear evidence of the 'disdain for marital fidelity' which he manifested during his own life. At times Mikics's sharp critical edge descends to the level of professional muckraking, implying, for example, that if Derrida did not actively criticise China's political administration (as he did in the case of France and the US), it was because he received several honorary degrees from Chinese universities. Journalistic lapses such as these are rare enough, however, in a work which prides itself on scholarly rigor and the requisite objective distance of the biographer. At the very least, they indicate what remains the most appealing and compelling virtue of Who Was Jacques Derrida?: its insistence on the need for redressing the hagiographical aura which all too often surrounds Derrida's life and work.
© 2010 Paul Earlie
Paul Earlie is a doctoral student in French at Balliol College, University of Oxford. His research explores the intellectual links between deconstruction and Freudian psychoanalysis.