The Dangerous Perhaps: The Reception of Derrida and Politics of Différance in the Federal Republic of Germany, 1967 to the Present

Michael Williams

With the generous support of the Division of the Social Science’s Research Travel Grant, I was able to travel to Berlin in the summer of 2015 and make use of the vast holdings of the city’s Staatsbibliothek (state library) to complete my dissertation proposal and gather material for several chapters.   

My project treats the reception of the postmodernist French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the Federal Republic of Germany, spanning from the time of the publication of Derrida’s first three monographs in 1967 to the present.  Using an adapted version of Alexander Kluge’s and Oskar Negt’s model of multiple, conflicting public spheres, I examine Derrida’s reception among what I have identified as four vocal and notable “publics” all vying with one another for significance in the broader public sphere of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG).  These publics are the left-liberal bloc that emerged out of the turmoil of 1968, led by the philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas and, more broadly, by the second generation of Critical Theorists; the left-alternative milieu; the New Right; and a group of academics attracted to the emancipatory potential of deconstruction and post-structuralism.  While the left-liberal bloc tended to portray itself as challenging the hegemony of the “culture industry” and mainstream norms of “traditional” German society and capitalism, the other publics in question, to one degree or another, all took up positions against the left-liberal bloc, which they saw as threatening to establish a cultural hegemony of its own. One of the aims of my project is to understand how these publics constituted themselves, conducted their struggles against one another, and communicated across idiomatic boundaries. 

The theory of Jacques Derrida, generally linked to the watchword “deconstruction,” presents a particularly apt instrument for undertaking this task due to its radical nature and the divisiveness that this could and did help to engender.  For second-generation representatives of the Frankfurt School, dedicated to reconstructing an understanding of reason capable of advancing universal norms without doing violence to diversity, deconstruction seemed a monstrous atavism, harkening back to the prewar “destruction of reason.”  By contrast, to the New Right, alternative milieu, and German post-structuralists, deconstruction’s thoroughgoing commitment to difference and différance, a concept whereby Derrida describes a perpetual incompleteness of language and reality, offered tools for resisting what they saw as the homogenizing project of second-generation Critical Theory.  Deconstruction thus offers an interesting case-study for examining how the idioms of different publics each appropriate and reiterate a “given” text or set of texts, especially considering the labyrinthine arguments and avowedly open nature of these particular texts. 

Among the central issues at stake in these texts are the nature, consistency, and transparency of reason, language, and reality and the question of the coherence of the subject and a common human frame for subjectivity.  Derrida and deconstruction profoundly interrogate and challenge claims to both a universal reason and a universal subjectivity.  On the level of political theory, my project seeks to critically reconstruct the debates between Derrida and German enthusiasts of deconstruction, on the one hand, and opponents of it, on the other, over the issues of deconstruction’s political implications, the problems of universalism versus particularism, and how one does politics in general, and “emancipatory” politics specifically, in a supposedly “post-metaphysical” age.  What interests me is not politics or political theory per se but rather the epistemological foundations, patterns, and limits of political and philosophical thought, as well as the dynamics of intellectual and aesthetic exchange, interaction, and conflict – the terms, methods, assumptions, and fallacies of “justification.”  The epistemological politics of political debate is what interests me.

On the level of historiography, my dissertation will offer interventions in the intellectual histories of the late Federal Republic of Germany and the contemporary Western world.  In the first place, I want to argue for postmodernization, rather than democratization or normalization, as a paradigm for understanding contemporary Germany, or, rather, for the postmodernization of Germany as normalization.  By “postmodernization” I mean a diversification of political narratives and political subjectivities, or, perhaps, a recognition of diversity as the norm in politics.  On a more global scale, I wish to argue for the continued relevance of postmodernism and post-structuralism as the intellectual motif of the contemporary world.  That is to say, no intellectual paradigm has successfully answered the challenges that the movements known as postmodernism and post-structuralism posed and continue to pose to the epistemological coherence of theory and politics.  The resulting incoherence, I will argue, remains one the most remarkable features of contemporary thought and politics.

I start from the premise that, despite the Seventies’ discourse of crisis, liberal democracy is, and has been for some time, as secure in Germany as it is anywhere else in the world due to the joint efforts and circumstances of the Cold War, war weariness, ideological exhaustion, consumerism, the leadership of Adenauer and other republican elites in the 1950s, and the commitment to republicanism of both left-liberals and liberal-conservatives throughout the 1960s and 1970s, in the face of student revolt, far-left terrorism, and calls from the right for more autonomy of state.  What is more central for me than the democratization of Germany per se is the question of what German anxieties about the meanings of “democracy,” “normality,” and “politics” betray about the very ordinariness of German democracy in an age in which Western intellectuals and publics overwhelmingly take for granted the actuality and desirability of liberal democracy despite the pronounced lack of a common theoretical understanding of democracy or its bases. 

My dissertation will emphasize the continued intellectual fragmentation that underlies the political stability of the contemporary Western world, with Germany not as exceptional but rather as emblematic.  Even during the heady days of the 1970s and the German Autumn, liberal democracy persisted in West Germany despite fundamental disagreement over the meaning of such basic categories as reason, language, the subject, and intersubjectivity and despite the lack of an accepted method for achieving consensus on matters of theoretical and political conflict.  The major historiographical intervention of my project is that of shifting focus from German democratization as a matter of “normalization” or resisting “normalization” and toward democratization in the context of, and perhaps as, postmodernization – the coming into an age marked by basic theoretical and ethical uncertainty and multiplicity, in which republican democracy is, nevertheless, taken as the norm.  

This uncertainty has been fruitfully characterized, celebrated, or decried as the closure of metaphysics, the collapse of grand narratives, the age of micro-economic thinking and fracture, the privatization or decentering of moral authority, and as a decadent retreat into a self-involved play of self-reference in the wake of the disappointments of 68.  What I wish to stress is the basic fact of this ongoing uncertainty and multiplicity in characterizing contemporary Western democracy and thought. 

The meeting between the apparently antipodal theories of Derrida and Habermas perfectly encapsulates this theme.  And Derrida’s receptions among the left-alternative milieu and the New Right will expose some of the tensions, and, perhaps, the fragility of the postmodern republican consensus.


Michael Williams is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History.