The German Receptions of Derrida, 1967 to the Present

Michael Williams

My research focuses on the receptions of the postmodernist French philosopher Jacques Derrida in the Bonn Republic, the German Democratic Republic, and the Berlin Republic.  The literature on contemporary German intellectual history tends to focus on a left-liberal block of thinkers who have been influenced by left-Hegelianism and see themselves as the bearers of the modernist project of human liberation through the advance of reason.  The intensity of the historiographical focus on these left-liberal intellectuals has resulted in the marginalization of other German intellectual currents that are also of significant importance.  I will use the German receptions of Derrida, the foremost postmodern interrogator of the rational foundations of modern thought, as a means for correcting this imbalance.  My examination of Derrida’s reception in Germany will amplify neglected voices and enrich our knowledge of contemporary German intellectual history.

From the later stages of the generational revolt in the 1960s to at least the debate on German Reunification in 1989-90, a remarkably cohesive front of left-liberal public intellectuals wielded enormous influence in West German political and cultural discourse.  Many leftist intellectuals saw themselves as heirs to both the liberal republicanism of the 1848ers and to the Marxist legacy of economic, cultural, and social liberation.  This self-understanding synthesized two of modernity’s grandest narratives.  Some prominent leftist intellectuals continued to work under the Marxist notion of the false consciousness of an acclamatory, mediatized public and aimed to dispel this nascent public of its “illusions.”  In their attempts to do so, the West German leftist intellectuals sometimes argued in a manner that some have seen as stifling discourse through shaming and moralizing.  In short, despite its many contributions to deepening democracy in the FRG, the left-liberal intellectual consensus threatened to calcify into a source of intellectual authority and orthodoxy rather than to function as an engine for open debate.

My project will explore the reception of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in Germany, swimming against the dominant current of the Bonn Republic’s left-liberal intellectual culture to reveal sub-currents, counter-currents, and eddies.   Among postmodernists, Derrida posed the greatest threat to rational reconstructions of the project of modernity because of his insistence on particularism, as opposed to the ultimately universalist aspirations of many German Critical Theorists.  Derrida’s deconstruction insists on the self-undermining of the subject and, with it, of the very grounds of social critique, which even a thinker as radical as Michel Foucault tends to take for granted.  It is his insistence on particularity, even in critical reason itself, that makes Derrida so uniquely threatening to all universalist claims.  Derrida’s philosophical connection to the erstwhile pro-Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger—the intellectual bête noire of the postwar German left—adds another dimension to my project. 

The first part of my project will trace Derrida’s reception among those West German public intellectuals who are indebted to the Frankfurt School’s tradition of social critique.   It will ask how, through whom, and in which manners deconstruction has decentered, complicated, and challenged the attempts of German Critical Theorists to articulate new grand narratives and ethical-philosophical systems.  What has been Derrida’s influence on the third and fourth generations of the Frankfurt School?  Must deconstruction and the discourse ethics of sociologist Jürgen Habermas and philosopher Karl-Otto Apel be read as mutually antagonistic?   Have left-

liberal views of Derrida changed over time?  If so, when, why, and how?  How are these shifts in the intellectual current connected with shifts in the course of political events?

Having examined the mainstream reception of Derrida in the Bonn Republic, my project

will turn to his receptions in East Germany.  How did orthodox Marxists respond to Derrida?  Did Derrida have any impact on East German literature?  Most importantly, I will explore the role that Derrida played among the GDR’s diverse oppositional groups.  Did the skeptical and anti-authoritarian aspects of deconstruction play any part in the Revolution of 1989?   

Some critics have dismissed Derrida as a “neoconservative,” and my project will also explore the German neoconservatives’ and New Right’s receptions of Derrida.  On the one hand, Derrida proffered intellectual tools that might have proved valuable to the right in dismantling the rationalizing projects of their political opponents.  On the other hand, Derrida’s championing of plurality and his blurring of conceptual boundaries tend to make him a distrusted figure among conservatives.  Did anti-Semitism play any role in the right’s reception of Derrida? 

The final part of my project will ask whether Derrida’s embrace of aporia makes him a particularly attractive figure among intellectual nonconformists.  I will concentrate on German interpreters of postmodernism who have received relatively little attention in the historiography, including, but by no means limited to, the philosopher Wolfgang Welsch, the playwright Gisela von Wysocki, the sociologist Stephan Moebius, and the activist Gabriel Kuhn.  How did the avant-garde and punk movements of East and West Germany greet Derrida?  How has Derrida affected German new social movements?  In sum, my project will seek to shift historiographical attention from a left-liberal block of German intellectuals closely associated with the Frankfurt School to a number of other constellations of intellectuals and their publics.

Ultimately, I would like to gain a sense of the influence and thought of these fissiparous publics.  Since German Reunification and the accompanying “Failure of the Intellectuals,” as Columbia University’s Andreas Huyssen deemed it, the left-liberal profile in the German public sphere has weakened a bit.  My hypothesis is that this situation has allowed for deconstruction to gain traction in public discourse and that deconstruction had something to do with the shifting mentalities that allowed for this development in the first place.  The crisis of the intellectuals was due not just to their “failure” to keep pace with public opinion on German reunification, as the historiography contends, but also to the subterranean influence of postmodernism and Derrida on public discourse.

With the SSD Summer Research Grant, I was able to use the 2014 summer to gain a better footing in the historiography of contemporary German intellectual history and to improve my language skills.  Though I did not conduct original research with the funding, the grant was vital in providing me with the time and resources I needed to frame my project and to put myself in a position to do meaningful research for my dissertation.