Jacques Derrida, the Outsider

Photo: Liberation Next

By Prerna Kalbag

I cannot remember the first time I encountered Jacques Derrida, although he was always there, hovering around in books, journals, academic conferences and lectures. The gates of academia often still seem impenetrable to someone like me: a formerly home-schooled nomadic child with long periods of almost no stability. For periods of time I also identified as a woman, and as someone who had (and continues to have) a rather uneasy relationship with personalized writing, the domain that is still primarily accorded to those who identify as ‘women’. Therefore the fascination with philosophy and academia was always present, as something that signified the world of pure, inaccessible steady fact, its gates only readily opened to those deemed capable of being ‘objective’. It also signified a world of escape.

Derrida signified that impenetrable world of hard fact. Generating a kind of adulatory and sycophantic response, the ubiquitous Derrida one encounters within the grounds of problematic academia hardly seems probable.

Tableu vivant of the painting ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’ (1975) In the foreground: Jean, Marguerite and Jacques Derrida

Clearly the obsession with Language and Thought, the impossibility of Structure (especially to those of us viewed in one way or another as ‘outsiders’) is nothing new. These struggles have risen countless times in countless societies. Derrida was an Outsider. Why was this so hard for me to realize? I suppose viewing academia the way I did, as a kind of elite all-males-only club (which in many ways, I suppose it is), I made the common error of homogenizing a rather diverse world with its own conflicts and dissimilarities. And it was only when I began to clarify my own concerns regarding power struggles and hierarchies that he took on a different kind of significance, establishing a sort of kinship across geographical and generational barriers.

Born on July 15, 1930 in El Biar, Algeria, Derrida came from a Sephardic Jewish family that turned French in 1870 when the Crémieux Decree granted full French citizenship to the indigenous Arabic-speaking Algerian Jews. It was the year Algeria celebrated its conquest by the French in great pomp.

Algiers, early twentieth century. (Derrida: personal collection)

The ‘white city’ of Algiers, with its cathedral, museum, broad avenues and 300,000 inhabitants, was a kind of ‘display window’ of France in Africa. Everything there was a reminder of the glaring French presence in the colony. The Muslims or the ‘natives’ – as they were called – were outnumbered by the Europeans, and the Algeria of Derrida was a deeply unequal society.

The Derridas had had a difficult, fraught relationship with Algeria and France. From the beginning of colonization, the Jews as a people had been considered as quite useful by the French colonial forces. This classic divide-and-rule policy did not sit well with the other Algerians, particularly the Muslims. The event on 24 October, 1870, where the French Minister Adolphe Cremieux gave his name to the decree granting French citizenship to 35,000 Jews in Algeria, only served to distance them further from the rest of the population. In the following year, Edouard Drumont, the author of Jewish France, was elected as député for Algiers. One can only imagine the isolation that the Jewish community experienced in Algiers as a consequence of this.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, German historian and intellectual Hannah Arendt famously states, “Terror can rule absolutely only over men who are isolated against each other… Therefore, one of the primary concerns of all tyrannical government is to bring this isolation about. Isolation may be the beginning of terror; it certainly is its most fertile ground; it always is its result. This isolation is, as it were, pretotalitarian; its hallmark is impotence insofar as power always comes from men acting together…; isolated men are powerless by definition.”

This isolation as a community is something the Jewish population has repeatedly and consistently experienced. Traditionally money-lenders and financiers for first the monarchs and then the nation-states, the Jews were separated from the rest of the population by virtue of privileges that their professional status bestowed upon them. This also contributed to the Jews’ political ignorance. Such ignorance made them fit for their ‘special role’ in society and for taking root in the state’s sphere of business, but it also made them blind to the political dangers of anti-Semitism. This blindness however, sat side by side with their oversensitivity towards all forms of social discrimination and that only served to further isolate them from society. Arendt also writes that “political anti-Semitism developed because the Jews were a separate body, while social discrimination arose because of the growing equality of Jews with all other groups.”    

Equality is a rather tenuous subject in modern society. On the surface, humans are politically often taught to confront each other on an equal footing, but this process often brushes under the carpet all the other inequalities that do exist. No conditions of political equality can make the other inequalities less conspicuous. Arendt further states, “It is because equality demands that I recognize each and every individual as my equal, that the conflicts between different groups, which for reasons of their own are reluctant to grant each other this basic equality, take on such terribly cruel forms.”

Jews as a community existed between the oscillating positions of the Pariah and the Parvenu, and it easy to see this in the very unique case of the Algerian Jewry. They were often victims of anti-Semitism, but were granted special privileges by the colonial government, who made them representatives of their colony and granted them special citizenship. But such privileges in no way reduced the anti-Semitism that they continued to experience; on the contrary, it could be said, they fuelled them further.

Derrida, aged two

Within Derrida’s family, as a consequence of their citizenship, religion played a rather minor if significant part. One of the ways their unique status set them apart from the rest of the populace was in the manner they assimilated into the French culture. In Derrida’s biography, Benoit Peeters states that Jewish customs were maintained, but in a purely private space. Jewish forenames were often Gallicized, or relegated to a second place, as in Derrida’s case. This was also evident in the way ‘synagogues’ were referred to as ‘temples’ or ‘bar-mitzvahs’ to ‘communions’. In an essay, “Split at the Root: an Essay on Jewish Identity”, American poet and scholar Adrienne Rich delves into this feeling of being an outsider of outsideness that results from an increasing invisibilization of (and repeated stigma around) Jewishness. She recalls her father never mentioning to her her Jewish ancestry until she reaches adulthood, and when confronted with it, brushing it off as saying, “But it’s not important to me. I am a scientist. I have no use for organized religion”, and also “I am a person, not simply a Jew.” Such attempts arose as a result of a desire to distinguish themselves from ‘common’ Jews, or to be considered as ‘civilized’. In a poem written in 1960, which she references in the essay, she describes herself as “Split at the root, neither Gentile nor Jew,/Yankee nor Rebel.” She explains this as attempt to ‘have it both ways’, to be ‘neither/nor’, and to claim both her Jewishness and Gentility.

Such attempts, such occupation of spaces between other already delegated spaces, so unique to Jewish identity, was strikingly evident in Derrida’s case – not just during those crucial years in Algeria, but perhaps until the end of his life. He too was keenly aware of the changes such increasing assimilation into the French culture brought in his life, as he famously said:

I was part of an extraordinary transformation of French Judaism in Algeria: my great grandparents were still very close to the Arabs in language and customs. At the end of the nineteenth century, in the years following the Cremieux decree of 1870, the next generation became more bourgeois: though my maternal grandmother had to be married almost clandestinely in the back courtyard of a town hall in Algiers because of the pogroms, she was already raising her daughters like bourgeois Parisian girls (16th Arrondissement good manners, piano lessons, and so on). Then came my parents’ generation: few intellectuals, some who were already exploiting a colonial situation by becoming the exclusive representatives of major metropolitan brands.

El Biar, the affluent suburb where Derrida was born, was situated “on the edge of an Arab district and a Catholic cemetery, at the end of the chemin du Repos”, a location quite symbolic of his later outlook in life. For several years, Algeria had experienced its fair share of anti-Semitism, perhaps much more than any region in metropolitan France. The far-right had campaigned for the Cremieux Decree to be abolished, and the headlines in the Petit Oranais repeated persistently: “We need to subject the synagogues and Jewish schools to sulphur, pitch, and if possible the fires of hell, to destroy the Jews’ houses, seize their capital and drive them out into the fields like rabid dogs.”

After the crushing defeat of the French Army by the Germans, Marshal Petain called for a ‘National Revolution’ that found favourable ground in Algeria. Even in the absence of any German occupation, local leaders in Algeria began to rapidly apply anti-Semitic measures that spread at once, more thoroughly than in metropolitan France. The law of 3 October 1940 prohibited the Jews from practising a certain number of jobs, particularly in the public service. Even for the liberal professions, a numerous clausus of 2 per cent was established. The measure was made even stricter the following year, and on 7 October the Minister of Interior, Peyrouton, repealed the Crémieux Decree. This came as a serious blow to the Algerian Jewish population, which had lived as French for seventy years. Such drastic measures by the Vichy Government constituted an unexpected catastrophe that turned the everyday lives of the Jews into a living hell, driving them into a sort of ‘inner exile’.

Derrida remembers the changes as a result of the Occupation and the rise of Marshal Petain within his own school and circle of friends. In the schools of Algeria, letters were written to Petain and anti-Semitic insults were not only frequently hurled, but also authorized. It pushed him into a deep place of hurt and confusion:

As for the word Jew, I do not believe I heard it first in my family. I believe I heard it at school in El Biar, already charged with what, in Latin, one would call an insult (injure), injuria, in English, injury, both an insult, a wound, and an injustice. Before understanding any of it, I received this word like a blow, a denunciation, a de-legitimization prior to any legality.

A de-legitimization prior to any legality. The fact of Jewishness existed almost as a biological law, an a priori realization. It came to those it held within its reach in fits and starts of shame. Jews hid it between folds of assimilation, of civility, but turned to helplessness when it attained political authorisation. Political authorisation seemed to have merely made visible what had otherwise remained invisible, but largely present.

On September 1941, the General Commissioner for Jewish Affairs, following a visit to Algeria, passed a new law that established a numerous clausus of 14 per cent for Jewish children in both primary and secondary education. This measure had no precedent or equivalent in metropolitan France. Soon, the name of Jacques’ brother René appeared on the list of excluded students – he was to lose two years of school, as were many of his friends and sister. Anxiety and uncertainty over what was to come hung deep in the air.

Derrida attended the first form of his lycée amid continuous chaos and a general air of unpredictability. He coincidently discovered his love for literature that very same year. He made friends and took to his teachers. One day all of a sudden, in October 1942, the first day of his new school year, the surveillant général of the Lycée Ben Aknoun announced to him that he was to be sent home. The percentage of Jews admitted to Algerian classes had been lowered again, from 14 to 7 per cent. Derrida later mentioned this particular exclusion to be one of the ‘earthquakes’ of his life:

…It has to be said that, even in my family, nobody explained to me why this was the situation. I think it remained incomprehensible for many Jews in Algeria, especially as there weren’t any Germans; these initiatives came from French policy in Algeria, which was more severe than in France: all the Jewish teachers were expelled from their schools. For this Jewish community, things remained enigmatic, perhaps not accepted, but suffered like a natural catastrophe for which there is no explanation.

Such events shaped Derrida’s attitudes towards not only the exclusive, segregated world of academia, but also the land that he later made his ‘home’, France. Always pushed to a corner when considering the far more horrendous suffering of the European Jews in comparison, Derrida did acknowledge the trauma that the situation marked in him at the deepest level, making him ‘the person he was’. He often stated that he wished to erase the memory of that morning, when “a little black and very Arab Jew” was expelled from the Lycée Ben Aknoun.

He went on to explain that the trauma went beyond a mere anonymous ‘administrative’ measure, but continued as a ‘wound of another order’ one that never healed: insults and cruelty from other children, classmates, even the kids in the streets. They often pounced on him as the ‘dirty Jew’, which, Derrida often reiterated, was “how I came to see myself.”

Shortly after being expelled, Derrida was enrolled at Lycée Maimonide, also known as Emile-Maupas, on the edge of Casbah. It was an improvised lycée, opened the previous spring by displaced Jewish teachers. Although deeply wounded by his expulsion from Ben Aknoun, he found the whole notion of ‘group identification’ ridiculous. He hated the Jewish school from the very beginning, often ‘skiving off’ as much as he could. Of the few days he spent at the new Jewish lycée, Derrida recalled in dialogues with Elisabeth Roudinesco:

It was there, I believe, that I began to recognize this ill, this malaise, the ill-being that, throughout my life rendered me inapt for ‘communitarian’ experience, incapable of enjoying any kind of membership in a group. On the one hand, I was deeply wounded by anti-Semitism. At the same time, I could not tolerate being ‘integrated’ into this Jewish school, this homogeneous milieu that reproduced and in a certain way countersigned – in a reactive and vaguely specular fashion, at once forced (by the outside threat) and compulsive – the terrible violence that had been done to it.

Later, during a similar association with the Tel Quel, a group of philosophical and literary theorists, for a period of seven years, Derrida subsequently distanced himself from them in 1971 due to his reservations regarding their affinity for Maoism and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. He was uneasy about siding with the Jews, uneasy about siding with the Structuralists, uneasy about siding with the Maoists. At the core of all his work was of course an urge to deconstruct binaries that had come to completely subsume the dominant thought processes, policies and ways of living. At a surface level this seems rather noteworthy. For an outsider however, his concerns come hardly as a surprise.

In April 1943, when he was allowed to go back to the Lycée Ben Aknoun, he realized that “something had broken in him as a result of his exclusion.” A conscientious student up until then, Derrida’s taste for a freer life acquired during his gap year somehow made the surrounding post-war chaos easier to handle. He often bunked classes together with his classmates and indulged in violent ragging. This would not only leave serious gaps in his education, but also, together with his other experiences at the lycée, deeply shaped his later equations with the French university system, from which he always felt excluded.

In his final year at school, at the time he took his baccalaureate, Derrida had only a vague idea of what he wanted to do. He had had a love for writing ever since he turned fourteen or fifteen, but did not for a moment imagine that he could make a living that way. That same year, he discovered his love for philosophy. In attempting to combine his love for literature and philosophy, he decided to become a philosophy teacher. In an interview from 1989 titled “This strange institution called literature”, he recalled his life-defining moment of decision that did not seem far from his lifelong concern:

No doubt I hesitated between philosophy and literature, giving up neither, perhaps seeking obscurely a place from which the history of this frontier could be thought or even displaced – in writing itself and not only by theoretical or historical reflection. And since what interests me today is not strictly called either literature or philosophy, I’m amused by the idea that my adolescent desire – let’s call it that – should have directed me toward something in writing which was neither the one nor the other.


Derrida saw the constructed world from the position of an Outsider. He was perpetually on the outside, looking in, analysing the concept of language and consciousness from a place of inbetweenness; a man not quite Algerian and not quite French. His worldview was also affected by his Jewishness, a burden he often felt himself thrown into. Like Rich, Derrida’s position came from a place that was outside of outsideness, a position he often proclaimed for himself as a result of his dislike for communitarian experiences. In reality, such a yearning for the outside of Jewishness arose due to the specificity of his experiences as an Algerian Jew, a ‘Negus’ that he could never quite escape towards the end of his life.

In a way, Derrida thought the way he did because he was an Outsider; his criticism of the arbitrary dichotomous categories and logocentrism within Western philosophical tradition as “phallocratic, patriarchal and masculinist” “by which an order is imposed on reality and by which a subtle repression is exercised, as these hierarchies exclude, subordinate, and hide the various potential meanings” came primarily because of his inbetweenness. This inbetweenness was tied to his identity as one on the in-betweens of his own society. It provided a certain vantage point that is often essential to those seeking to look in, a perspective that was the hallmark of the deconstruction theory.

In his later years, Derrida immersed himself into a host of other issues, most importantly the legacy of Marxism and the question of Jewishness, particularly in Shibboleth and the autobiographical Circumfession (1991). I look at these attempts as manifestations of his lifelong struggle against being boxed in, and with being the ‘Other’. In 1991, he published The Other Heading, where he discussed the impossible questions related to the concept of identity, in the name of which, he argues, “the worst violences” and “the crimes of xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, religious or nationalist fanaticism” had been unleashed in Europe.

How do we form odd and unfamiliar connections along familiar pathways? Perhaps the answer to the question might be found within the concept of Deconstruction itself. Looking at the familiar in unfamiliar ways and dismantling its preconceived assumptions are efforts that must not remain time-bound. In a way, Derrida remains relevant across temporal and spatial boundaries, but he too needs to be dismantled and reread in newer ways.

Here was a man in a conflict-driven world who not only came from its margins, but also from the inbetweenness of those margins.

Too much analysis has focused on the caricature of Derrida that sort of floats across barriers, but also allows for greater misrepresentation. How do we encounter the real Derrida (or was there ever one?), the one who was apprehensive about being identified in public, the one with layered insecurities, the one who had lifelong reservations about being boxed in? How do we understand the inbetweenness that not only made his preoccupations possible, but inevitable? What is this Outsider status that allows for greater objectivity (perhaps), but also forces in a perpetual barrier between the Outsider and the institutionalization of ideas? Why are his ideas still relevant, and rightfully so, in an age where newer kinds of hierarchies sit perched beside the old ones even as they gather dust? The answer might just be found in his early years in Algeria: the day he was expelled from his lycée perhaps, an incident that was to mark him in significant ways. Or perhaps it was his Jewishness that really translated into his inability to integrate.

Too much focus comes from within the world of academia itself – and outside it – of the need to integrate, and of the need to find unities and trace back origins. Figures like Derrida point also to the need to distance, to sort of step back into a vantage point of ambiguity. And from such vantage points we even begin to understand the shortcomings of unity and integration, and the impossibility of ever truly attempting them.

Prerna Kalbag has just completed a Master’s degree in Literary Arts from Ambedkar University Delhi. She is interested in diverse fields such as art history, sociology, sociology of law, critical theory and media studies. She feels writing, far from being a spontaneous, whimsical activity, is a responsibility and a conscious act.


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