Derrida’s Roots

Image by Mathilde Roussel

APRIL 1, 2014


IMAGINE the following scene. Seventeen-year-old Jackie is seated on a bench in Algiers’ Laferrière Square immersed in the “ecstatic bedazzlement” of reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. At times, he would tear his gaze from the book, raising his “eyes toward the roots, the bushes of flowers or the luxuriant plants, as if to verify the too-much of existence, but also with intense movements of ‘literary’ identification: how to write like that and, above all, not write like that?”[1]

The scene is full of mirrors. On the one hand, the excess of human existence is reflected in the luxuriance of vegetable growth, as ecstatically bedazzling as the book and its subject matter. On the other hand, the young Jackie literarily identifies with, and instantly rebels against, the style of the French maître.

The teenager reads two things at once: the text composed by Sartre and the world of plants, which supplements the existential insights of Nausea. The Book of Nature and a book of philosophical literature absorb him, vying for his attention, which is, as always, torn between two objects and thus, at the height of its concentration, slips into distraction. Despite Jackie’s impression that he has found a confirmation of existential excess in the exuberance of plants, to read one of these is to neglect, if only for a split second, the other. It is impossible to establish an absolute correspondence between the terms in a comparison, brought together, here and elsewhere, by a fictional “as if” (“as if to verify”). The process of verification, aiming at verity, is fraught. The mirror is broken, even when it seems to be reflecting most faithfully.

Come think of it, the mirroring effect is more than double. Besides Sartre’s text, the existence of plants, and the reader on the bench, there is also Jacques Derrida who retrospectively reflects on the bench episode and we, the readers of another book, namely Negotiations, with its flashbacks to the time in Algiers, where Derrida’s roots are to be found. Reflection — spatial and temporal, physical and intellectual — both separates and interrelates the reflecting and the reflected. The marginal, auxiliary, contextual complexities of the reading scene parachute us right into to the thickets of deconstruction.

Not all the mirrors are set up on the same level, though. The quasi-cinematic sequence, commencing with the traveling shot of the gaze, reveals that the reader of Nausea, who looks up to and at the same time distances himself from Sartre, also looks up to plants. Strangely, he raises his eyes to the roots of the square’s lush vegetation. A position at once humble and subversive, this is the deconstructive stance par excellence. To assume it is to underlie and undercut what is deconstructed, not by taking the place of the foundation, of the ground, or of the soil that sustains concepts and systems of thought, but by pointing out how the foundation destabilizes itself all by itself and thus proves to be unfounded, abyssal. Such is, no doubt, also the preferred standpoint of twentieth-century French poet Francis Ponge, who was the subject of a little-known book by Derrida: to place oneself in one’s writing practice a little below the surface, and, from there, to stretch up and down simultaneously. In a word, to become a germinating seed of sense.

Derrida would agree to turn himself — his work, his words, or his neither-words-nor-concepts (e.g., différance) — into seeds solely on the condition that the passage from sowing to germination is not assured. Instead of inseminating meaning, deconstruction disseminates it, “spills” it “in advance,” spreads it for nothing, without the expectation of yields or returns.

In most cases, Derrida will encrypt at least as much as he makes appear in his writing and, occasionally, he will conceal bits of meaning in the very moment of disclosing it. This strategy, which we might mistake for capricious extravagance, sheds light on the routine operation of any text, where countless semantic bits are hidden (including from the author herself). Deconstruction plugs into the unconscious stratum of textuality, where words, phonemes, and expressions unexpectedly and surreptitiously work as shibboleths — restricted passwords or codes. Their sense is not merely buried in the semantic ground like a seed or a root, whose hiddenness facilitates the rest of plant growth. It is (or it could be) lost on us, irretrievably. To the excess of existence and of vegetal growth in the Algiers episode we must add the excess of meaning that borders on meaninglessness.


[1] Jacques Derrida, Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews, 1971-2001. Trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 264.

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