Who Was Jacques Derrida?: An Intellectual Biography

Will be out soon from Yale University Press. David Mikics is someone I don’t know, but a brief look at a copy of this yesterday does not inspire confidence. At several points, Mikics takes Derrida to task, well, for being a philosopher. Read it, I’m not kidding. For example, Derrida famously asks a series of questions in Philosophy in Time of Terror (an interview, by the way) about what makes an event evental. Must it conform to some essence if it is to be an event? The implicit answer is, no, though Mikics says Derrida doesn’t answer the questions, leaving them inponderable. But as anyone who has thought about the “event” knows, he’s asking the precisely right questions. But Mikics suggests then that this, added with Derrida asking another series of questions about the meaning of “terrorism,” namely about where we put the line between terrorism and non-terrorism, somehow suggests that by not giving to charities, Mikics would be guilty of terrorism.

There are a lot of good Derrida critics (you might be one!). But there is a heavy load of anti-intellectualism in a lot of them, suggesting that because Derrida doesn’t cop to common sensical notions of the event or of terrorism, he’s somehow not an ethical thinker (p. 229). It may appear, I think, emotionless in the wake of the events of 9/11, but isn’t that a philosophers job to ask questions? To ask the classic question “what is X?” Yes, ultimately here he is trying to upset easy distinctions between continuous history and the event, between terrorism and non-terrorism, but that’s not a bug; it’s a feature. This is what philosophers do. We ask questions. We try to answer them in some way (what is an answer is also a big question), but the worst thing one could have done after 9/11 is accept all that the U.S. government had to say about what counted as an event and what counted as terror.


  1. I picked up a copy recently and am halfway through… so far, I think the book is embarrassing for Mikics. Unfortunately, others seem to be impressed.

  2. I concur with Drew. In many ways, Mikics seems to think that is you cannot boil Derrida down to some clear-cut point, he’s somehow failed in his task. The role of the philosopher as outlined in the post above is in no way operative and the book should be considered not only an embarrassment for the author, but for Yale U. Press as well.

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