Being endebted to feminism and deconstruction

A brief in memoriam to Jacques Derrida

by Ingrid Hoofd
Singapore, 3 November 2004

What is my debt to Derrida's thought? I find it telling that, while Derrida is everywhere regarded as a 'continental European philosopher', I had to travel thousands of miles outside of Europe to have one of the most stimulating encounters with his thought to date. It is peculiar how in my former university in Europe, which has a humanities faculty of high quality, and which has an excellent women's studies department renowned throughout Europe, did not seek to engage its students at all with Derrida's writings. Deleuze and Foucault, yes; Irigaray, Haraway and Butler, most definitely. But no Derrida. In fact, most professors pronounced explicitly a dislike of his thought and even of his person, although 'deconstructing patriarchy' was the catch-phrase of the day. The relationship between the feminist theory and praxis practised by my former department and Derrida's deconstruction, was and still is one of extreme tension. As of recently, many of my fellow feminist PhDs in Europe call my interest in Derrida's work ridiculous and dangerous - I surely must have fallen into the enemy's hands -, and there was mostly silence around his death on all European women's studies email lists.

It is funny how theories travel, and what unexpected spaces in unforeseen places this may open up. My first confrontations with Derrida's thought initially made me even more persistent in trying to theorise the radical break from phallogocentrism in favour of the feminist or marginalised subject. Surely someone showing the necessary complicity in every posture of such a break, would be the enemy of a life-bearing feminism that dreams of ridding the earth all forms of gendered and raced oppression. And I still find it completely understandable that the essence of deconstruction, in a place like Dutch women's studies that relies so much on the suppression of the aporia of humanism to validate its knowledge-production, gets dismissed as troublesome. But that institutionalised war between deconstruction and feminism in Europe, I came to understand through re-reading Derrida, resides in the fact that feminism at heart requires the rather dirty politics of reclaiming and appropriation; an appropriation and repetition foremost, among other things, of that most problematic notion of subjectivity. The tension between deconstruction and feminism then resides within feminism already; the exorcising of feminism's internal contradiction onto deconstruction en block, is what allowed me to believe in feminist emancipation, and to keep the particular utopian dream of liberation for all oppressed alive. This suppression of the internal contradiction of feminism is therefore as much highly empowering and as thoroughly violent. Derrida's thought has enabled me to tease out my feminist politics of complicity; a complicity which I always felt was there, but which could not be named. The aspiration of the radical break with phallogocentrism that feminism so desperately needs and proclaims in order to function and re-appear as liberatory, is paradoxically also the silent repetition of universalist, sexist and racist violence.

But to focus only on the negativity of such a complicity would be a very lopsided view of deconstruction; one that does not match with Derrida's tone, and one that would just regressively mourn the loss of the fantasy of control of the subject. Instead, to simultaneously affirm complicity as potentially opening up to the other, would be more succinctly to understand how deconstruction works in tune with life-bearing forces, but now accompanied with the modesty that we cannot and should not force those forces. The value of Derrida's thought therefore leads me to the Spinozist and wholly feminist question of sustainability as the necessary antidote to frenzied reproduction and control so lauded these days. So in a sense, deconstruction for me is simply feminism taken to its logical extreme; it is not at all its dismissal. It is exceptionally feminist; more feminist in its gesturing towards alterity than many European feminisms would prefer. My loyalty to feminist theory and praxis therefore remains, but now appears in check by an awareness of its limits. It is perhaps interesting that 'debt' in Dutch translates as 'schuld'; a Germanic word that has not so much pecuniary connotations (as the English debt, stemming from the Latin 'debitum', has), but rather points to issues of responsibility and guilt. The pleasure of being a feminist who is 'verschuldigd' (endebted) to Derrida therefore dwells in the joys of being responsible; and only with a sustained effort and a subtle laughter due to being guilty of the crime of appropriation, this feminist thief can unleash those very forces of life I believe Derrida, in anticipation of his recent and of our future inevitable deaths, sought to address.

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