Derrida’s essay “Racism’s Last Word” was written for the catalog for the Paris 1983 exhibition Art Against Apartheid. He begins the piece with a single word: “apartheid.” Apartheid, the word and the thing itself, is shrouded in negativity: “by itself the word occupies the terrain like a concentration camp. Systems of partition, barbed wire, crowds of mapped out solitudes” (Derrida 292). By appending a single word to this “ultimate racism,” he makes it tenable, not easily forgotten. In fact, this special form of racism has, until now, defied definition, “as if all the languages of the world were defending themselves […] Here, then, is an immediate response to the obsessiveness of this racism, to the compulsive terror which, above all, forbids contact” (Derrida 292). For the sake of his essay and its audience, concentrating on this one word is effective. As if cornering an opponent, he separates the word apartheid from all others, enabling him to focus his efforts on deconstructing both its history and its future. Derrida, however, is caught between two identities in this essay: first, as a political observer, one who has an emotional investment in the eradication of racism; and second, as a philosopher who by necessity analyzes that which appears to be beyond reason.
We see the tension between Derrida’s training as a philosopher and his political stance in his deconstruction of naturalistic justifications of racism. By showing that natural divisions between humans do not exist, however, he also exposes the idea of natural rights to scrutiny. Understandably, he uses textual analysis to show that racism is an arbitrary construct: “There is no racism without a language. The point is not that acts of racial violence are only words but rather that they have to have a word. Even though it offers the excuse of blood, color, birth – or, rather, because it uses this naturalist and sometimes creationist discourse – racism always betrays the perversion of a man, the ‘talking animal’” (Derrida 292). Like Catherine Zuckert says in “The Politics of Derridean Deconstruction,” Western egalitarian politics are based on the same naturalist distinction: that all men are created equal, or, in more current terms, that all people are born with the same natural rights (Zuckert 343). While deconstruction can help eradicate racism by calling its “natural” foundations into question, human rights themselves must also be questioned by that same logic. Anti-apartheid arguments based on natural human rights, therefore, must be re-evaluated. Instead of providing a provisional, re-evaluated version of human rights, Derrida leaves the question out in the open, forcing the reader to devise her own conclusions.
The text, to Derrida, is necessarily tied to racism – “There is no racism without a language” (Derrida 292). One must discriminate in order to reach a definition. By attaching a word to an idea, we instantly limit that idea’s meaning. The focus of Derrida’s essay, apartheid, is a word that contains multiple ideas. He goes to great lengths to give the ideas their due attention, but his thesis is ultimately stunted because he focuses on that single word. Michel Foucault agrees with this point to some extent, saying, “[Derrida’s theory] is a pedagogy which teaches the student that there is nothing outside the text, but that in it, in its interstices, in its spaces and its omissions, reigns the reserve of the origin; that it is thus not at all necessary to seek elsewhere, but that in this very place, not in the words to be sure, but in the words as erased, in their grid, is spoken ‘the sense of being’” (Sprinkler 77). Being, or the sense of being, is not exclusively tied to the text.
As Derrida says, apartheid is based on exclusion. It detects differences among people, based on race, religion, or sex, and separates them from one another. Apartheid “institutes, declares, writes, inscribes, prescribes” in order to create borders among people (Derrida 292). Yet Derrida takes a separatist stance in his essay, excluding the word apartheid from all others, giving it a name. By separating apartheid from the rest of the “text,” or historical context, he limits himself to deconstructing only the word itself, not the systems of power leading up to racism. Foucault similarly critiques Derrida’s reverence for the text: “Derridean deconstruction closes off many avenues of thought; it excludes certain kinds of statements and certain kinds of inquiry, claiming absolute priority for exegesis, for reading and interpretation which are produced by no other forces than the collision of text with reader” (Sprinkler 77). Derrida is not concerned with history; that is, he is not looking at the social structure of South Africa, or the interactions between the West and South Africa that ultimately lead to apartheid.
One must remember the context of his essay: it was meant to be read alongside an art exhibition about apartheid. Specifically, the exhibition was meant to mark the end of apartheid, to celebrate “the first free and democratic government of South Africa to be elected by universal suffrage” (Derrida 290). Apartheid is, therefore, a thing of the past, or so it had been declared. His essay is a confirmation of the exhibit’s statement, that apartheid might be behind us. The paintings in the exhibit silently cast a “gaze” onto “that which is not, that which is not yet, and on the chance of still remembering some faithful day” (Derrida 299). Is the purpose of the exhibit to stare passively at what has been done in the name of racism, or do the paintings glare in accusation? Derrida seems to find their silence progressive, for a dialogue would only result in more ideologies to develop.
Apartheid is racism’s last word, le dernier mot. Derrida’s courageous declaration of racism’s finality shows his staunch belief in the sovereign power of words. Derrida seems convinced that once we understand a system’s underpinnings, its hidden structures, we can overcome it. The text, however, is not all there is: especially in a system such as racism, there are countless historical factors at play. He exposes theory to history, thereby placing it on shaky ground. That is not to say that Derrida ignores the history of apartheid; in fact, he points out the tenuous position in which the West has placed itself: ever since the 1960’s, Europeans have cited apartheid as the ultimate evil, yet it was the West’s supply of ammunition that sparked the culture wars in South Africa to begin with, and Western nations still participate in trade with African where racism is still rampant. Yet Derrida does not give history the same treatment as Foucault, for example, who explores history of power in order to spark questions about social control. Derrida’s personal feelings on racism aside, his philosophical background is not conducive to social change.
Deconstruction, while effective in revealing the politics of language, cannot entirely account for the politics of a people. If Derrida calls everything into question, then nothing is stable. If Derrida fears that new ideologies will develop from discourse, then he expects to achieve nothing; by subscribing to his own ideology, deconstruction, his essay does nothing to progress the actual eradication of apartheid. Criticism, which is meant to induce change, is instead a tool for rumination, “conceal[ing] the real basis of power and the social structures which enable its functioning in modern society, thereby dismantling criticism from any active political role” (Sprinkler 92). While social commentary is not to be despised, Derrida asserts that racism is in decline, but he does not ask the reader to think critically about their own hand in racism, nor does he offer political action. Thus, Derrida places himself in a perpetual state of questioning, while never arriving at an answer.
Derrida, Jacques. “Racism’s Last Word.” Critical Inquiry. Vol. 12. 1985.
Sprinkler, Michael. “Textual Politics: Foucault and Derrida.” boundary 2. Vol. 18 No. 3. 1980.
Zuckert, Catherine. “The Politics of Derridean Deconstruction.” Polity. Vol. 23 No. 1991.