Volume 8, Number 1 (January 2011)
The Africa-Centered, Activist, and Critical Philosophy of Derrida
Dr. Biko Agozino
(Director of Africana Studies Program, Department of Sociology, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, USA)
A Review of Mustapha Cherif (2008). Islam and the West: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida. University of Chicago Press.
I would like to speak today as an Algerian. I was born a Jew in Algeria, from that part of the community which in 1870 had obtained nationality through the Cremieux Decree, and then lost it in 1940… Of all the cultural wealth I have received, that I have inherited, my Algerian culture has sustained me the most… The cultural heritage I received from Algeria is something that probably inspired my philosophical work. All the work I have pursued, with regard to European, Western, so-called Greco-European philosophical thought, the questions I have been led to ask from some distance, a certain exteriority, would certainly not have been possible if, in my personal history, I had not been a sort of child in the margins of Europe, a child of the Mediterranean, who was not simply French nor simply African… (Cherif, 2008:29-31).
When Derrida opened his conversation with this tripling (African-Jew-European) of what Du Bois called double consciousness in the Souls of Black Folk (Dubois, 1903) did he mean to suggest that before that day or the day after, he spoke or ‘would like to speak’ otherwise? Is it not likely that he had always spoken as an Algerian even though he was forbidden Arabic, except as a second language, in school as most colonial administrations tended to forbid the language of the native? Perhaps, Derrida did not always ‘like to speak’ as an African because such a stance might raise unnecessary objections and distract attention (or even attract persecutory attention of the sort that made a French rector expel him at the age of 12 from his school in Algeria just for being a ‘little black and very Arab Jew’, making his parents to carefully warn him to “not openly wear any Jewish sign… they wanted to hide me like a prince whose parentage is provisionally concealed to keep him alive”) (Derrida, 1993:90 in Wise, 2009:28). What he privileged in his work is exactly what scholars in Africana Studies also privilege: critical, centered, and activist scholarship. Islam & the West could have been stronger if Cherif had taken this opening hint to converse with Derrida about his relationship to the whole of Africa instead of focusing exclusively on Arabs, Islam and the West. The other Islamic cultures that are not Arabic and those Arabs who are not Muslims could have complicated the conversation in interesting ways.
Nevertheless, the book dropped enough hints about Derrida’s love for Africa to explain why some establishment philosophers were hostile to his work. It is on record that the Enlightenment philosophers distinguished themselves by denigrating Africa as a land that made no significant contribution to civilization or to the history of philosophy. It must be a shock to their heirs to find someone they thought was one of their own championing an attack on the Enlightenment claims to Truth and celebrating his African heritage as the foundation of his philosophical quest. Derrida was exemplary as a philosopher because he did not concern himself with only academic debates from the past but went beyond those to campaign against apartheid, against the ‘oppression of man by man’, against the Third World debt crisis, against Eurocentrism, against war and against white supremacy. This African-centeredness of his work is relatively unknown in secondary sources about his work but it deserves some attention especially from scholars in Africana Studies to see to what extent Derrida could be claimed as contributing directly and indirectly to the emerging field.
Islam & The West should serve as a welcome introduction to the ideas of this great African philosopher and the commentary by Mustapha Cherif should offer a helping hand to anyone still struggling to penetrate the deeply troubling challenges that Derrida posed for white supremacy. Giovanna Borradori set the stage by introducing the reader to the remarkable friendship between Cherif and Derrida as part of the explanation of why Derrida went straight from the hospital where he had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer to join Cherif in a public forum to discuss the relationships between Algeria and France at the Institute of the Arab World in Paris, Spring of 2003. He told Cherif, given the grave diagnosis: “For any other meeting, I wouldn’t have had the strength to participate”. He was passionate about Africa to the end!
Cherif is a public intellectual who had served in the government of Algeria as Secretary of Education and as Ambassador to Egypt. After Pope Benedict XVI gave the controversial speech on the alleged violent nature of Islam, he granted audience to Cherif as the first Islamic intellectual to hold a dialogue with a pope. On the other hand, Derrida is introduced as a radical scholar who ‘never fit any institutional cadre’. Derrida defined his goal as that of deconstructing or exposing and dismantling the forces of oppression that he saw in the regulatory roles of institutions. He extended the meaning of institutions beyond education, law, economy and religion to include phenomena such as language, ethnicity, gender, race and class in the sense that they too regulate human interactions in often oppressive ways. Derrida associated authoritarianism with what he called the Abrahamic religions of the book – Judaisms, Christianities and Islams – insisting that there are many versions of each. To him then, the solution to unequal social relations and social injustice lies in secularization of society in the form a ‘democracy that is yet to come’ in which the right of every citizen to differ from authority discourse would be protected and valued as a form of the democratic ‘speech to the other’ or dialogue rather than continue to rely on repression, intimidation, violence and war to subjugate others.
The actual conversation revolved around Derrida’s answers to difficult questions from Cherif on the issues of what it means to have lived as an Algerian, the question of the unity and difference between East and West, injustice and decline, separation or connection, the meaning of progress and the indispensability of the other to our lives. In very lucid answers that throw a great deal of light on his work, Derrida answered that it felt like an identity earthquake for him to be stripped of citizenship as a result of ‘colonial cruelty’ of the Vichy regime. Although he felt this colonial cruelty on both sides, he found more support from Algerians who saw him as a native Jew.
On East-West divisions, Cherif reminds us of the fusing of East and West in the history of philosophy to the extent that what some would celebrate as the West today, say Christianity, originated in the East. According to Cherif, “...one of the primary duties of our intellectual and philosophical memory is to rediscover that grafting, that reciprocal cross-fertilization of the Greek, the Arab and the Jew”. He cautioned against contrasting Algeria with the West because a part of Algerian culture was western just as a part of Western culture was Maghrebean. “There are many Islams and there are many Wests”, Cherif suggested (2008:39).
Derrida answered by emphasizing that democracy is never a finished product but a self-critical system that accepts that there is room for improvement in its historical project, unlike many other models of non-secular political authority that assume absolute infallibility: ‘A democracy is a social organization in which every citizen has the right to criticize, in the name of democracy, the state of things that are called democratic’ (Cherif, 2008: 43). This differs from the consumerist definition of democracy as who gets what, when and how offered by Harold Lasswell (1990) and comes close to the principle of Noam Chomsky (1981) that the democratic freedom of expression should compel us to defend the right of the others to air their views so that we will be better able to respond democratically. Derrida calls for this to be the foundation of ‘that democracy to come’ which should be devoid of force and should not be based on territoriality or citizenship but on peaceful dialogue. Here, he is indirectly echoing the ancient African philosophy of non-violence which Mahatma Gandhi confessed that he learned from South Africans and which was used in the Civil Rights Movement in America as well as in many of the anti-colonial struggles and anti-war protests around the world. He defined dialogue as “speech addressed to the other recognized as other, recognized in his alterity” (Cherif, 2008:.44). Not a Fanonist, ‘Look, a Negro’, but, ‘Hello African’? (Fanon, 1967).
On the question of injustice and decline or about what Cherif called the Western Triptych – Secularism, Scientism, capitalism, Derrida clarified that these are not essentially Western in the sense that secularism is not the same in the European West as in the American West, in the sense that scientism is not a value but a vice associated with the positivistic claim to power and in the sense that the State is not necessarily a bad idea if the democracy to come is allowed to the other recognized as other. What would surprise most readers here is that Derrida found that America differs from most European capitalist states in the sense that public political discourse in America is increasingly less secular and more religious just as is the case in Islamic states.
Most Americans would be shocked to learn that the other that they recognize as the other is a lot like them in the increasing influence of the religious right over social issues and political debates, despite claims that there is a separation of church and state in America unlike in Britain, for example, where there is an official Church of the state whose Bishop is appointed by the Prime Minister. But what Derrida is arguing here is not too different from what President Barrack Obama said in Cairo University when he reassured Muslims: ‘I have come here to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect; and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings’ (Obama, 2009).
It is those who advocate violence that both Obama and Derrida would disagree with whether they are Christians, Muslims or Jews – the African philosophy of non-violence is the way to proceed in a secular democracy. Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace award announcement stated that: “Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts” (Nobel Peace Prize Committee, 2009). Although hawkish diplomats would question such a preference it echoes the view of Derrida that:
One doesn’t stop war for a moment, one commits to peace forever. I am thinking here of the ongoing wars in the Middle East, I am thinking of Israel and Palestine, and I am also thinking of the more or less virtual wars. I could give a thousand examples, unfortunately, too many examples of wars; in each instance, the difference between an opening up and a closure depends on the risk taken, on the responsibility taken in the midst of risk, by someone who knows that, if he is not the first to address the other, if he is not the first to offer his hand, the war will not end. If one waits, if one always places a precondition on the ceasing of hostilities, then there will be perpetual war (Cherif, 2008:60).
Cherif quoted from Derrida’s Spectres of Marx to critique the idea of globalization or what the French call mundialization: “Never have violence, inequality, exclusion, famine and thus economic oppression affected so many people on the earth, so much of humanity” (Derrida, 1994). It is interesting to note that Derrida wrote that book as a reaction to the fact that he was invited to a ‘Futures’ of Marxism conference in Riverside, California, a conference that was supposedly global in its search for a new international but without a single black African invited. Derrida started that book that resulted from his lectures at the conference by commenting on the fact that Chris Hani, the anti-Apartheid hero, was assassinated by a Polish immigrant for the simple reason that he identified himself as a member of the Communist Party of South Africa, that is to say, for his political and not just for his racial identity but not without reference to his blackness given that the anti-communist Polish immigrant did not assassinate any white officials of the SACP. With that opening, Derrida was underlining his own anti-apartheid stance while celebrating his African roots as usual to deconstruct why African people are oppressed just for being the Other.
This African identity is one area where Cherif failed in his conversation with Derrida. Cherif’s gaze was Northwards towards Europe (thanking Derrida profusely when he hinted that North Africa should be considered a part of the new Europe). But Algeria is located on the continent of Africa and is part of the African Union. Derrida’s notion of democracy to come that will not be tied to a particular state could have been examined in relation to the emerging African Union Commission rather than simply in the longing for the West. In fact Cherif never used the word ‘Africa’ once in the conversation even after Derrida prompted him by claiming not just an Algerian, but also, an African identity from the start. The only exception is in the chronological note where Cherif indicated that in 1979, Derrida took the initiative to convene the Estates General of Philosophy but curiously added: “And he always remains attached to his ‘elsewhere’, Africa. First trip to Black Africa for the Cotonou meeting (111).
Maybe Africa was not just an “elsewhere” to Derrida, it was also his homeland and the source of his philosophy. This is not simply because Derrida said so but also because his system of thought is exactly the type of thinking that Ron Eglash (1999) identified as non-linear thinking or the system of African Fractals which is in use today in modern computer engineering and has been adopted by postmodernists. The only difference is that Derrida is rare in giving credit to his African background while almost every other chaos theorist keeps silent about this root. Unlike ancient Greek philosophy which had its roots in ancient Egypt but rarely acknowledged such roots, it is reassuring to know that a great thinker like Derrida maintained his obligation to pay the debts of gratitude that he owed to African (not just Algerian or Arab) origin throughout his life and work.
I recommend this book to anyone who has trouble understanding the political implications of the work of Derrida as a theorist of diversity and democracy. His bold challenge of ethnocentrism started in Of Grammatology where he challenged Claude Levis-Strauss’ and Hegel’s white supremacist ideas that the Western forms of writing based on alphabets were more ‘civilized’ or more ‘intelligent’ compared to the depiction of objects by ‘savage people’ and the depiction of words and propositions by ‘barbarians’. Derrida successfully challenged this Eurocentric idea by maintaining that the science of writing “is meaningful to us only in terms of an origin and a world in which a certain concept of the sign…and a certain concept of the relationship between speech and writing, have already been assigned” (Derrida’s emphasis, 1974:4; a hint at his African origin?). He went on to indirectly defend Africa the birthplace of writing by attacking vulgar white supremacy in the same book:
If writing is no longer understood in the narrow sense of linear and phonetic notation, it should be possible to say that all societies capable of producing, that is to say of obliterating, their proper names, and of bringing classificatory difference into play, practice writing in general. No reality or concept would therefore correspond to the expression “society without writing”. This expression is dependent on ethnocentric oneirism, upon the vulgar, that is to say ethnocentric, misconception of writing (Ibid.:109).
To underscore his Africa-centered, critical and activist philosophical engagements, when Derrida was asked to contribute to the Routledge series, ‘Thinking in Action’, he wrote Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (Derrida, 2001). The first half was focused on the plight of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers in Europe with enough indication that the plight was worst for the poor immigrants from Africa. To make this implication more explicit, he used the second part on ‘Forgiveness’ to stress the uniqueness of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission and to theorize unconditional forgiveness in the absolute sense that one should not forgive only what is forgivable (some say that something like the Shoa is unforgiveable, although people of African descent appear – but only appear given the demand for reparations – to have forgiven many apparently unforgivable historical wrongs, including the abolition of capital punishment while the killer of Chris Hani was in jail). He also underscored the principle of individual ‘autonomy without sovereignty’ that allows individuals to forgive or not to forgive after the state has adjudicated or failed to adjudicate on rights and wrongs. When a widow refused to forgive the torturer who murdered her husband, Derrida questioned the English translation from her native tongue by the ‘Anglo Anglican’ Bishop Desmond Tutu who tried to Christianize forgiveness by making it conditional on repentance.
The African roots of the Philosophy of Derrida should be explored in greater depth and Islam & the West prompted me to make a tentative effort in that direction, along with Christopher Wise who observed that:
In the case of South African Apartheid, Derrida took an admirable stand against an obviously racist government, using his considerable gifts to deconstruct the word ‘apartheid’ in a widely read and discussed essay published while Nelson Mandela still languished in a South African Prison (Wise, 2009:11).
However, Wise managed in his book to marginalize Africa and focus primarily on the Arab-Israeli question which he claims that Derrida neglected. I endorse the view of bell hooks that: “To change the exclusionary practice of postmodern critical discourse is to enact a postmodernism of resistance. Part of this intervention entails black intellectual participation in the discourse” (hooks, 1990). The importance of such an intervention would be to see what Africana Studies could teach postmodernism and what the discipline could learn from postmodernists since Africana Studies is far from the business of searching for pity, as Derrida implied, the one who pities the other actually enjoys the feeling of pity at the expense of the suffering of the other (Derrida, 1974:190).
W.E.B. Du Bois (1903). The Souls of Black Folk. Chicago: A.C. McClurg and Company.
Noam Chomsky (1981). “His Right to Say It”. The Nation (February 28).
Jacques Derrida (1993) ‘Circumfession’ in Jacques Derrida, Jacques Derrida and Geoffery Benningtom. University of Chicago Press.
Jacques Derrida (1974). Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Jacques Derrida (1994). Spectres of Marx. London: Routledge.
Jacques Derrida (2001). Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. New York, Routledge.
R. Eglash (1999). African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Franz Fanon (1967). Black Skin White Masks. New York, Grove Press.
bell hooks (1990). “Postmodern Blackness” in Postmodern Culture. Volume 1, Number 1.
H. D. Laswell (1990). Politics: Who Gets What When and How. New York: Peter Smith Publisher.
Nobel Peace Prize Committee (2009). Press Release (October 9): http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2009/press.html
Barack Obama (2009). Text of Speech in Cairo. In New York Times (June 4).
Christopher Wise (2009). Derrida, Africa and the Middle East. London: Palgrave Macmillan.