Finding the break
J. Derrida, rest in peace, 1930 - 2004
I was wearing a jean jacket over a sweater over a flannel shirt, naked hands jammed in my pockets and knit cap toque cap pulled down down and I was as cold as I’d ever been without knowing how cold it was, since I couldn’t read the Canadian thermometer. Whatever the thermometer read though, it was colder than that. The wind came over the lake and tunneled in down through the streets with a frozen fierceness and I said, why the hell isn’t hell frozen over?
I wanted to see Derrida. I’d skipped school and come to Toronto for a philosophy conference in ’02 with a few loonies and twonies, was living on falafels and sausages from the corner vendor and staying in the cheap and rickety hostel half heated behind the Hooters and wandering around cold as hell and I wanted to see Derrida and I was standing in the back of conference rooms taking notes (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) in a journalism notebook pulled from my back pocket and listening to real philosophers with suits with nametags talk philosophy, talk together in ivory lingo as old friends and old enemies in esoteric little sub-studies, plan meetings in hotel bars and shopping trips up town with shop talk turning to tenures and publishings. I was conspicuously undergrad, in the back suitless nametagless, jean-jacket wearing, too cheap too young too uneducated to be one of them but excited that these people existed in these jobs talking about these things.
I stood with them waiting for Derrida, bunched up in un-lines outside the doors waiting for the opening, waiting for the little wrinkled man rightly passing for an atheist and talking about prayer. You had to have a $100 nametag to get in and there were guards at the doors watching the badges held up as the profs bunched through the doors in finding-a-seat herds and stood there wondering how I was supposed to pass, wondering how I could expect a breach, stood there and threw myself to the hope of an opening in the closed, and the guards looked at the mobbing push pouring through and shrugged, motioned they didn’t care, it wasn’t their problem, motioned break and left.
I walked in, like the uninvited guest at the feast or the lame man who’s friends cut a hole through the roof, depending on your point of view.
Do you know what you’re getting into, the priest asked me and I guess you never do, but sometimes you can hear the air pressure building before you hear the sound of the orchestra’s music.
Things I learned from Derrida:
1. Look twice, look closer: take an idea, stand it on its head, and think it again.
2. Philosophy is like Calvinball.
3. Love the impossible, especially the impossibilities of prayer, justice and forgiveness.
4. Look for the poor, the parenthesized, the marginalized, the hidden.
5. Be attentive to absences, doubts and aporias.
6. Don’t be afraid of the joke, of play.