Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1143, 11 - 17 April 2013
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1143, 11 - 17 April 2013

Ahram Weekly

Algerian Derrida

The publication of new biographical material on the French philosopher Jacques Derrida has illuminated his relationship to Algeria, writes David Tresilian

Al-Ahram Weekly

The recent publication of the first full-length biography of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida by journalist Benoît Peeters has drawn renewed attention to a thinker whose writings seemed to be everywhere in the 1980s and 90s, spilling over from academic philosophy into areas as various as literary criticism, art history and even architecture. One effect of Peeters’s biography, published in French two years ago and now available in English translation, has been to fill in the details of Derrida’s childhood in Algeria, helped by the publication of a previously unpublished essay by Derrida on Algeria’s war of independence in Paris late last year.
While there has never been controversy over the facts of Derrida’s Algerian childhood – he was born in the Algiers suburb of El-Biar in 1930, leaving to study in Paris some 20 years later – his relationship to his country of birth has been more open to interpretation, as have his views on the exceptionally bloody war that France fought in Algeria in the 1950s before negotiating the country’s independence in 1962. Derrida himself published a perhaps surprisingly large number of autobiographical writings that often refer to his Algerian childhood, and these became both more frequent and more extensive in his later years.
Derrida’s Algerian childhood will also not come as a surprise to long-term readers of the Weekly, since the philosopher’s origins in an Arab country were explicitly debated during his visit to Cairo in February 2000 and mentioned in the newspaper’s subsequent coverage of the event.
However, it would be difficult to claim that Derrida’s autobiographical writings have anything very direct to say about the Algerian war of independence or about his views on post-independence Algeria. One of the achievements of Peeters’s biography, entitled simply Derrida, is that it goes some way towards filling such lacunae. Taken together with an essay Derrida wrote in 1962 in response to a book entitled Les Français d’Algérie by the French historian Pierre Nora, now made public in a reissue of Nora’s book, it is sure to be mined by all those interested in the afterlives of French Algeria.
As Peeters explains in his biography, there was little in Derrida’s early life to indicate that he would grow up to become an important European philosopher of the last century. Derrida, Jackie to his family, originally wanted to become a footballer. There were also other things halting his early school career, since in 1942 the government of what was then French Algeria decreed that Jewish pupils were to be expelled from schools across the country, and Derrida, like thousands of other children, was abruptly sent home.
This situation lasted until the war began to turn definitively against the Hitler regime in Germany and its allies in Vichy France. Derrida refers to it in his autobiographical writings, among them parts of La Carte postale, Circonfession, and, perhaps at greatest length, in Le Monolingualisme de l’autre, where he describes the relationship between “a black and very Arab Jew,” as he describes his 12-year-old self in Circonfession, and the French culture learned at school and the Arab culture of colonial Algeria. Access was forbidden to the surrounding Arab and Berber culture, and as a result of the wartime decrees for a time it was also forbidden to French at school.
“Given all the colonial censorships, especially in the suburban milieu in which I lived, and given all the social barriers… the only option [to learn Arabic] was at school,” Derrida writes in Le Monolingualisme de l’autre, originally a lecture on mother and other tongues delivered in the United States. “The study of Arabic was restricted to school, but in an alien language, a strange kind of alien language as the language of the other, but then of course, and this is the strange and troubling part, the other as the nearest neighbour…For I lived on the edge of an Arab neighbourhood on one of those hidden frontiers that are at once invisible and almost impassable.”
Meanwhile, Derrida, a teenager when the war ended and attending a French secondary school in Algiers, had discovered literature and through literature philosophy. The two subjects were less well differentiated in French schools than they are elsewhere, and so it may have seemed natural that he should want to study both in preparation for further study at prestigious schools in Paris.
Peeters says of Algiers at this time that it “had become a sort of second capital of French culture,” partly because of the German occupation of much of France during the war and partly because of the recent emergence of Franco-Algerian writers like Albert Camus and of Algerian writers like Kateb Yacine and Mohammed Dib. Derrida says the same thing in Le Monolingualisme de l’autre, when “after the landing of the Allied forces in North Africa in November 1942, we witnessed the constitution of a sort of literary capital of France in exile in Algiers – a cultural effervescence, the presence of ‘famous’ writers.” But it was a strange kind of cultural capital, given the Mediterranean Sea, “a chasm and an abyss,” Derrida says, that separated Algeria from France.
At school in Algiers, there was “not a word about Algeria, not a word about its history and geography, though we could draw the coast of Brittany and the Gironde estuary [both in France] with out eyes closed,” Derrida writes. French literature and philosophy, “the first thing I received from French education in Algeria, the only thing that I enjoyed receiving,” gave access “to this unique mode of writing called ‘French literature’… [But it was] the experience of a world without any continuity with the one in which we lived, with almost nothing in common with our natural or social landscapes.”

ALGIERS TO PARIS: Egyptian director Safaa Fathy’s 1999 film D’ailleurs, Derrida, shown in Cairo during Derrida’s visit in 2000, presents the now elderly French philosopher on a journey back to the land of his birth, where he is shown meditating on the mystery of origins and personal identity.
Owing to the peculiar situation of colonial Algeria, politically a part of France but in other respects quite distant from it, the question of belonging or not belonging to a national or linguistic community had always struck him with a special force, Derrida says in the film. “I am a sort of colonial or post-colonial product,” he adds. “I belong to the history of French colonialism.”
Derrida is not the only originally North African writer writing in French to have been struck by the contrast between his education and the opportunities to which it gave him access and the origins that this education in many respects left behind, raising nagging questions of personal identity. The theme has been explored by writers as various as Assia Djebar and Albert Memmi, both writing in French and originally from North Africa, and it has become something of a cliché of academic post-colonial criticism.
Derrida seems to have felt such problems throughout his life, the sense of being perpetually “out of place,” the late Palestinian-American critic Edward Said once called them, even using the phrase as the title of his own memoirs. They reemerge in Derrida’s late autobiographical writings as if having waited patiently until then before they could find literary expression. However, as Peeters’s new biography of Derrida reveals, the sense of being out of place, of failing to fit in despite an eventual avalanche of professional achievements and much philosophical recognition, seems never really to have left him.
Derrida seems to have had difficulty adjusting to the grueling programme prescribed to boarding pupils at the Louis-le-Grand secondary school in Paris, to which he was sent immediately after leaving Algeria. After the Mediterranean sunshine of Algiers, the climate was appalling, the atmosphere unwelcoming, and there was the Gradgrind-like quality of the instruction, bordering on caricature even by the unenlightened standards of early 1950s French education.
According to the teachers’ remarks recorded in Peeters’s biography, Derrida managed to fail his exams, being awarded a mere two-and-a-half out of 20 in Latin, and in the history of philosophy exams at the Sorbonne he was awarded a mere five out of 20, very definitely a fail, having “not followed the regulations and invented things where he should have spent his time learning about them.” The pompous tone of these remarks and their concern above all for conformism were typical of those working in French universities in the 1950s and 60s, Peeters says, and “they introduced an attitude that was long to remain that of French academics towards Derrida.”
Meanwhile, the Algerian war of independence against France had started, with an uprising against colonial rule in November 1954 being met with savage reprisals from French forces. A watershed was crossed with the massacres in Philippeville, now Skikda, in the summer of 1955, and soon the country had entered into a spiral of escalating violence, with French forces increasingly resorting to the use of extra-judicial killings and torture.
As the situation became more and more polarised and the possibility of a political solution seemed to be fading, members of all the communities in Algeria – French, Arab, Berber and Jews – came under increasing pressure to take sides in what seemed to be an increasingly Manichean conflict, with the self-styled independence movement, the Front de libération nationale (FLN), pushing aside all other Algerian voices and increasingly beleaguered governments in Paris losing the initiative to military and extremist colonist movements.
Though Derrida could not have failed to follow the situation in his native country closely, his family continuing to live in the same Algiers suburb until 1962 when they left along with hundreds of thousands of Jewish, French, and Arab and Berber Algerians, unlike members of a slightly older generation he was not called upon to speak out about the crisis. Camus, for example, some 15 years older than Derrida and winner, in 1957, of the Nobel Prize for Literature, made various attempts to intervene before eventually falling silent, apparently overwhelmed by the violence.
PARIS TO ALGIERS: However, if Derrida was not called upon to comment publicly, this did not stop him from formulating his own views. Peeters quotes from a letter he sent to the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, his former academic supervisor, in the summer of 1956 during holidays spent in Algeria, for example, in which Derrida comments on the “dreadful stagnation” of the situation despite the “daily attacks and the deaths that one gets used to talking about as if discussing the weather.”
One year later, Derrida found himself doing military service in Kolea, a small town 38 km south of Algiers. “For a little over two years, he taught the children of former Algerian military personnel, among them a number of orphans,” Peeters writes, “living the life of a village schoolteacher” in lieu of serving directly in the French army. While in Kolea, Derrida was able to observe the developing situation in Algeria at first hand, as well as the attitudes of the French soldiers now being sent in increasing numbers to Algeria and those of the French Algerians.
He comments in letters sent at the time of the “idiotic views” of the French soldiers he was obliged to work with, many of whom welcomed the attempted coup d’état carried out by French generals in Algiers in May 1958 that ultimately led to the collapse of the French fourth republic and the personal rule of de Gaulle. “We are living here in an absolutely pre-fascist situation and in a state of complete powerlessness,” Derrida wrote. “And here I am, alone and without friends, with no possibility of getting out of here, doing military service in a paralysed country that, as can now be seen, has never had any experience of democracy and does not have any traditions or last redoubt that could resist a dictatorship of colonists supported by the army.”
Analysing Derrida’s attitudes during this period, Peeters says that his views, though to the left by the standards of the time, did not necessarily favour Algerian independence. Instead, Derrida, like Camus and other French Algerians before him, seems to have hoped that it would be possible for the country to retain its links to France and for the different communities living in Algeria to “continue to coexist in a radically changed country” despite the growth of Algerian nationalism.
These convictions seem if anything to have grown as the date of Algerian independence drew nearer. When the historian Pierre Nora, a former college friend, published his Les Français d’Algérie in March 1961 in the lead up to the referendum on Algerian independence and the last attempts by the military leadership in Algiers to frustrate it, Derrida wrote a long letter in response that, Peeters says, “set out his convictions regarding the situation in Algeria in a way that he had never done before and that he would never do again.”
It is this letter, kept at the Institut mémoires de l’édition contemporaine in France, that has now been published as an appendix to a new edition of Nora’s book. In the introduction to this, Nora says that the book’s original publication had “touched a nerve” in Derrida, causing him to try to “bring himself up to date with the land of his birth, the war and himself.” Derrida, Nora says, “my former classmate at Louis-le-Grand, the two of us sitting side-by-side, he, uncomfortable in the grey uniform worn by boarders, inward-looking, rather melancholic and intense, I, a Parisian and already a bit of a know-all,” had “found something of himself in the portrait of the French population of Algeria presented in my book that had not been sufficiently emphasised in what I had written.”
According to Peeters, some of Derrida’s reservations had to do with Nora’s blaming of the French Algerians for their present situation, while others had to do with Nora’s analysis of the colonial system in Algeria. Regarding the former, in his letter Derrida says that while the “massive responsibility” of the colonists “could neither be denied nor diluted…, if, as you say, the French Algerians have been the ‘makers’ of their history and of their distress, this is only true if at the same time one adds that all the governments and the army as a whole (meaning the French people on whose behalf they have acted) have always been their masters.”
Regarding the latter, Derrida argues with Nora’s characterisation of the French Algerians as personally benefiting from the colonial system, and by extension he argues with what he implies is Nora’s “dogmatic Marxist” view of the essentially exploitative character of French colonialism. “You have written a remarkable book, one of the best that I have ever read on what might be called the ‘French population of Algeria,’” Derrida writes, but one question that is never clearly answered is “who exactly you are writing about.”
Nora, Derrida implies, has reinforced a stereotype of wealthy colonisers exploiting a colonised population. “But why not make it clear – which would have been fairer – that the average income of the French Algerians is less than that of the French of France,” he asks. Moreover, in a long footnote to the main text liberally sprinkled with italics Derrida asks whether “the notion of the ‘colonial system’ can always and essentially be understood in terms of the idea of profit alone, whether in the short or long term…. Even if one wanted to make profit the essential and exclusive motive behind the colonial enterprise, this notion (of profit) is quite a complex, if not a contradictory, one.”
In his book, Nora had written that the colonial system in Algeria, like European colonialism elsewhere, was based on the dispossession of the original population and a racial hierarchy that installed the European colonisers above it. While not exactly contesting this characterisation of the way the system worked, or the fact that at base it was fundamentally a matter of economic exploitation, Derrida seems to want to introduce the idea that French colonialism had also benefited Algeria, even saying that the introduction of “education and other forms of generosity of the same kind can sometimes be explained as part of a logic [of the colonial system?] and not of a [simple] incoherence in the search for profit.”

PROBLEMS WITH NATIONALISM: Nora comments in the introduction to his book that in his letter Derrida had wanted to reintroduce “something of the complexity of a situation that I had wanted exactly to cut through.”
He had reproached a “sheltered and middle-class Parisian” for lumping together “a population that only circumstances had brought together and of describing it as being fixed according to some eternal essence the better to blame it for a tragic chain of events in which all parties, including the army and France itself, had in reality played a part.”
  This concern for “complexity”, Peeters writes, or at least the idea that things were not as black and white as they could be made to appear, characterised Derrida’s attitude towards the Algerian war. He was also concerned by the implications of the victory of the FLN, since this independence movement, wedded to an Arab and Muslim conception of Algerian identity, was in his view unlikely to be sympathetic to minority rights and particularly not to the rights of those who, rightly or wrongly, were associated with French colonialism.
Algerian nationalism, Derrida seems to have feared, could turn out to be intolerant and exclusionary, especially of those not conforming to its version of the country’s identity. There are some tortured paragraphs expressing fears of this sort in Derrida’s 1961 letter to Nora, where he defends the idea, expressed by Camus, that “without in the least denying the legitimacy of the [Algerian] uprising,” certain “undeniable international factors” such as “the new Arab imperialism” and the influence of Nasser’s “Egypt and Russia,” had somehow distorted demands for Algerian independence, leading it in the direction of “intransigent nationalism.”
There was nothing “unreasonable or criminal” in thinking, he wrote, that some alternative outcome could have been found aside from the one which, at the time of writing, was looking inevitable, with the FLN eradicating dissent from its nationalist programme and members of Algeria’s European population forced to choose between “the suitcase,” if they chose to leave, or “the coffin,” if they chose to stay. Derrida, Peeters wrote, had hoped, like Camus, that the future of Algeria could be a “Franco-Muslim” one, and as a result he had “advised his parents to stay in El-Biar” even after the signature of the Evian Accords that led to Algerian independence and the exodus of much of the European population.
However, a few weeks later things had changed, and Derrida’s family left for France with whatever they could take with them. The family business was abandoned, and the house, “on which they had just finished paying the mortgage, became the property of the Algerian state.”
According to Peeters, Derrida later avoided speaking in public about Algeria, given the controversy that surrounded the subject, and it was perhaps for this reason that his 1961 essay had to wait until late last year for publication. However, he told an interviewer in 1987 that, while he had supported the Algerian struggle for independence, he would have preferred another outcome, one “that would have allowed the French population of Algeria to continue to live in the country,” a “new form of political solution that would have been different from what in fact took place.”
This desire, Peeters suggests, may also have affected his view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, since Derrida was apparently not in favour of the so-called “two-state solution,” wanting to see instead a single state with a mixed population, perhaps rather like the solution he had at one time hoped to see in Algeria. It may, too, have explained his later interest in questions of forgiveness, homecoming and reconciliation, seeing in the national reconciliation brought about in South Africa after the end of apartheid the possibility that the “outcome he had earlier wanted to see in Algeria had not necessarily been simply an illusion.”  

Pierre Nora, ‘Les Français d’Algérie, avec un document inédit de Jacques Derrida’, Paris: Christian Bourgois, 2012.

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