An Interview with Jacques Derrida

Cardozo Life, fall 1998

Famed philosopher and deconstructionist Jacques Derrida is a professor at École des Hautes Études en Sciences Socials in Paris and has visited Cardozo regularly for the past 10 years. He holds the title of Cardozo Distinguished Scholar and often lectures at the Law School as part of the Law & Humanism Speakers Series, which is co-sponsored with the New School University. When Professor Derrida visited in October, Michel Rosenfeld, Sydney L. Robins Professor of Human Rights, talked with him about his relationship to law and his thoughts on current international political events.

ROSENFELD: Thanks very much, Jacques Derrida, for agreeing to talk to us for publication in Cardozo Life.

I note that Cardozo and you have now had a relationship for 10 years. You first came here when we organized the "Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice" conference, which still ranks as one of the greatest conferences that we have held here. At that time, you delivered a paper, "The Force of Law," which was subsequently published in Cardozo Law Review (vol. 11, 1990).

I want to ask you about your relationship to law.  When did you start getting interested in law as a topic of inquiry?

DERRIDA: My interest in law as an academic discipline started very early, although I never studied law in the strict sense. I first became interested in the question of law as it pertains to literature . . . the legal constraints that have to do with the name of the author, the copyright, etc. Once, a long time ago, I gave a seminar at Yale on copyright-on the Droit d'Auteur (the rights of the author), and on the history of copyright. Of course they're superficially similar. At that time, I studied both the French and English history of copyright. I was particularly interested in the relationship in the 17th century between the King, the librarian (the "Librairie" we call it),  and the owner of the copyright and the changes that then occurred with the French Revolution.

I also became interested in the affinity between literary work and the legal production of law. When a number of ethical and judicial questions impacted on deconstruction, I felt summoned to respond to such questions as I did at the "Possibility of Justice" conference, which for me was a very memorable, precious occasion to address legal scholars on the relationship between constructing law and justice. So, I have had this ongoing interest in law. However, I never acted on my dream to really study law.

Cardozo is for me the place where I can learn, where I can discuss what interests me in the law.

ROSENFELD: I think we at Cardozo are unique among law faculties in that we always have had a great deal of inter-disciplinary interests with training in philosophy, literature, political theory. Many of us had looked at deconstruction to see to what extent it could help us in our legal analysis and legal theory, so it was a particularly important occasion to have you come to talk to us.

DERRIDA: The hospitality at Cardozo has been precious to me. In the last 10 years, all the seminars I gave-and we have mentioned only the one-have brought me close to legal colleagues and have-I just realize-always dealt with the general question of responsibility. The seminars on the secret, on testimony, on hospitality, and now today's on forgiveness-all have to do with a question of responsibility of one person to another.

ROSENFELD: May I suggest that perhaps your own interest in explicit questions of law and justice may have derived from your deconstructive theory? It seems to me that there has been a growing interest in law, legal issues, and legal justice by philosophers in the last 15 or 20 years. Do you agree with that, and if you do, to what do you attribute this interest?

DERRIDA: I remember the first time I addressed the question of the law in a lecture on Kafka's "Before the Law."  I made a distinction between the law in general and the law in the strict sense or legal justice-in French, le droit and la loi. In French when you speak of the law (la loi), you do not necessarily refer to legal issues.

Now to go back to your question. What we see in Western democracy today is the increasing importance of the legal authority on politics-sometimes in an abusive fashion, as is the case in Italy, France, and in this country too. We have a feeling that today the independence of justice is the crucial test for democracy. So a philosopher interested in ethics and/or politics must come back to the question of the law. With democracy becoming truly global, philosophers must be, can't escape, really, looking at law and justice.

ROSENFELD: Your relationship with Cardozo dates back a decade. Can you characterize this relationship that makes us so fortunate to see you every year? Do you have  relationships with other law schools?

DERRIDA: It is me who is fortunate. First of all, my relationship with Cardozo is unique. Perhaps I don't have to mention that at Cardozo I find colleagues who are well-known legal scholars and are also interested in literature, in biblical scholarship, philosophy, and so on and so forth. So for me, these are very rich occasions for discussion. I have worked infrequently with other law schools. Once while I was teaching at Yale, which I did for 12 years, I was invited by a law school to discuss a paper that I had given on Kant. Then, just yesterday, I was invited by Larry Kramer at NYU Law School to organize a workshop. I have been teaching at NYU for 10 years, and this is the first time that I have had an invitation from the law school.

In France we tried to organize conferences, discussions, and debates with a few interested people from the faculty of law, but these efforts didn't succeed as far as I can tell. So Cardozo is for me the place where I can learn, where I can discuss what interests me in the law.

When I read what you write and what Arthur Jacobson writes, this is very important to me. Over the course of the 10 years, there has been growing familiarity and common premises. From my narrow point of view, things are changing at Cardozo and for the best.

ROSENFELD: I don't know if it is well known that you were born and grew up in Algeria as a member of the Jewish community. Could you tell us generally how that experience has influenced your intellectual development?

DERRIDA: Perhaps one of the many things which made me sensitive to law is that I belonged to a minority in a colonized country. The Jewish community in Algeria was there long before the French colonizers. So on one hand, Algerian Jews belonged to the colonized people, and on the other they assimilated with the French.

During the Nazi occupation, there were no German soldiers in Algeria. There was only the French and the Vichy regime, which produced and enforced laws that were terribly repressive. I was expelled from school. My family lost its citizenship, which is a legal event. Even when you're a child, you understand what it means to lose your citizenship. When you're in such a marginal and unsafe and shaky situation, you are more attentive to the question of legal authorization. You are a subject whose identity is threatened, as are your rights.

... the fact that Clinton allowed himself to be trapped suggests that he failed in his responsibility.

ROSENFELD: I know that you have visited South Africa and familiarized yourself with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the work that it has done. Can you tell us how you got interested in the subject of forgiveness and mercy?

DERRIDA: Last year I started a seminar on forgiveness and mercy, a subject which has several legal dimensions to it. Then, last summer I went to South Africa, at which time the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was just beginning to write its report. Discussion on the work of the Commission was everywhere. I gave a number of lectures on forgiveness and reconciliation and read a lot on the subject. I had the opportunity to meet many people who were on the Commission, and I was introduced to many aspects of the process: the way it was instituted, the way it became controversial (no one on either side totally agrees with it), the way this Commission had to solve problems which could have at any moment really destroyed relations between the A.N.C. and the white government. The Commission was really an agreement between the A.N.C. and the white government to resolve the situation through amnesty rather than revenge.

I became especially interested in the process they called "healing away," which was a form of political therapy. I became interested in how and to what extent such a political therapy was compatible with the idea of pure forgiveness. I had the opportunity to meet and hear from witnesses from both sides, as well as members of the Commission. So I learned a lot, and I learned about the history of South Africa.

In South Africa, as you know, there are 11 languages that are officially recognized by the Constitution. Anyone speaking before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could choose to speak any one of the official languages. This presented a huge problem since the testimony was then translated into English, a Christian and Western language. For example, I was told that the word "forgiveness" has no strict equivalent in a number of the officially recognized languages. So people challenged the use of just one particular language for the final translation. I became very interested in the linguistic issues presented by the Commission and the idea of a language of repentance. What does it mean when I say, "I beg your forgiveness" or you respond, "I forgive you"?

ROSENFELD: This is fascinating. So as an English-speaking person, I may understand the Commission's findings and testimony in a way that is totally or slightly different from the way one of the native language speakers may understand it.

DERRIDA: Exactly. It was primarily black people who were the victims in South Africa, but the A.N.C. had also to appear before the Commission. The black people were disappointed with the Commission because they were not interested in forgiveness-they wanted justice or, at the very least, to know what happened to their loved ones. They wanted to go on with the work of mourning. While the Commission was in session, the regular judicial courts continued to work. Although people were granted amnesty for political misdeeds, criminal offenses were not forgiven. So people appeared before the Commission and would often argue that since it was a political war and they were given and then acted on orders, they were not guilty.

ROSENFELD: Is it fair to say that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission allowed each person, for different personal reasons, the ability to have closure on this part of South African history?

DERRIDA: That's obviously the goal-closure. To put an end to what might be otherwise an endless process of revenge; to put an end to the mourning and to get on with the future. Mandela and his associates and his allies wanted South Africa to survive. They understood that if they wanted to live together-black and white-both groups had to share the work of mourning in order to share a common destiny.

ROSENFELD: You mentioned Nelson Mandela, and I wonder if you would comment on what you think his role has been in all of this. He was a prisoner, a victim of the apartheid regime, and then became the country's leader. Was it through example or through persuasion that he played his particular role? Was he a unique figure? Might this healing process not have been possible had there been a leader other than Nelson Mandela?

DERRIDA: This is a good question and I have no short answer. Of course, the individual Nelson Mandela played a major role. What would have happened without him, I don't know. But the fact is that this man, who had been in jail for 27 years, left jail without any visible resentment. It was he who decided that reconciliation should be the goal of the Commission. I read that at some point he disobeyed his own group, his own party, when he started negotiating with the government. He did this without the approval of his colleagues. He lent a strong individual signature to the proceedings.

ROSENFELD: Now may I bring you to a more mundane subject which is arousing a lot of interest, commentary, and debate in the United States. I refer here to the issues concerning President Clinton, impeachment, and the president's responsibility for his actions. As someone from a different country, a different culture, and looking at this philosophically rather than politically, do you have some insights into this American phenomenon?

DERRIDA: This would require a long time. However, let me give a couple of quick answers. The first is my spontaneous reaction-shared by many outside of the United States, particularly in France-one of outrage and disgust with the politicization of, and the attention from the press to, the sexual parts of the story. We found it to be not only outrageous, but so obviously orchestrated by the Independent Counsel and organized by a larger group of politicians. In Europe, we never thought that this kind of thing could happen in the United States.

Then, I would pay attention also to a more complicated issue: the question of perjury in the Paula Jones case. There, the question seems to be not simply one of sexual privacy but the idea of sexual harassment. Harassment really is about the dignity of the human person. Also, the fact that Clinton allowed himself to be trapped suggests that he failed in his responsibility.

Additionally, the fact that the president had to testify and confess not only in front of American citizens but in front of the world is indication of the new globalization, and our entering a new phase in international law and the rights of man.

ROSENFELD: Before we close, I want to ask you generally about your current work on forgiveness. Are you planning to write a book on the subject?

DERRIDA: You know, each time I give a seminar, in a certain way I write everything and there is material for a possible book. But I don't have enough time to revise or to write. I would love to if I have time, but I have no current plans to do so.

ROSENFELD: I want to thank you very much and let you know that the Cardozo Law Review would be eager to publish any of this material.

DERRIDA: Thank you, and let me take advantage of this situation to thank Cardozo formally and officially and sincerely for the hospitality. I am very grateful.

This compilation © Peter Krapp 1994 - 2004

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