An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida by Peter Salmon
Omar Sabbagh on a biography of Jacques Derrida. Philosophy Now, 2021
Peter Salmon, An Event, Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida, Verso Books, 2020, 320 pages, £11.99 hb, ISBN 978-1788732802
Deciding to write a biog raphy of Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), even a predominantly intellectual biography like Peter Salmon’s, must, perhaps, involve a dilemma. As Salmon himself suggests in his Introduction, the temptation to mimic Derrida’s own ‘gnomic, allusive, elusive’ manner of writing can be overwhelming. Yet while saying that Salmon has written a superb intellectual biography that does a terrific job of humanizing a man and thinker often seen or imagined as arcanely inaccessible, we can also mention the more approachable way in which Salmon mirrors for his readers’ benefit some of the gnomic tics of his subject (or is it object?). If there really is, as Derrida says, ‘nothing outside the text’ – meaning that all meaning is text-based, and so susceptible to plural interpretations – then writing a biography in a predominantly plain-spoken manner might seem to be conceptually problematic, no? The book, however, hardly ever fails to intrigue, picking out and deploying moments of Derrida’s life and work, text and context, with a novelistic rhythm.
Michel Foucault, of course, is also a repeated presence. As one of Derrida’s doctoral examiners, he wonders whether, given the abstruseness (but brilliance) of Derrida’s work, he should be given an ‘F’ or an ‘A+’. This is the kind of paradox that typified Derrida’s public career. Later, Derrida, calling himself a ‘disciple’, critiques Foucault’s 1961 work Madness and Civilization ; but his criticisms are acknowledged by Foucault and duly applied by the early 1970s, by which time Derrida had already achieved wide fame.