To Mr. Jacques Derrida

I first learned of the name Derrida in an article about my work, but I forget in which year. Since then I’ve found that many foreign scholars, art critics and students love using Derridean theory to analyze my work, especially Tianshu, or Book from the Sky, the piece in which I dismantle Chinese characters into pseudo-characters that are unreadable. During the decade intellectuals ascribe to Derrida, indiscriminately applying deconstructionist theory to Tianshu became almost too easy, being at once both chic and profound. For intellectuals, the sound of the word “Derrida,” its Chinese Déilǐdá, had completely lost meaning as a man’s name, having become already a well-known, enigmatic symbol of a theory whose familiarization made its very contents inaccessible.

With so many given to combine my works with this seemingly unrelated “Derrida,” the time came when I thought: enough’s enough, if I don’t take this “Derrida,” this “deconstructionism” and make sense of it all, I’d be amiss. Yet, frankly speaking, even I, at present, haven’t read one of his books from start to finish. What on Earth this theory was became less and less clear to me over time. When at times I felt I understood it, I’d read on for a few more pages and that clarity would then fog up. 

Sometimes a knowledgable person will ruminate and find: oh, such and such phenomenon has come about this way or that, and so as time goes on that knowledgable person will come across Derrida and ask his or herself: what exactly is Derridean thinking? Besides “presence,” “trace,” “the return to différence,” and “the language of the other,” other such Derridean concepts don’t come to my mind. Derrida’s resolution of the establishment and Heidegger’s subversion of Western academia and conformity seem one in the same thing. Derrida writes, “Deconstructionism is the affirmation of life.” What then, is the difference between that phrase and “Zen is the affirmation of life”? I know it’s not that simple, but the two seem paradoxical to me.

Forget it, perhaps my thinking doesn't fit this strict, inverted, former methodology of the West, which takes original, simple concepts and makes them complicated, for I believe I’m truly a person of the East, raised on Chinese philosophy and Zen thinking, both of which I am so comfortable with now. Of course there are mysteries in both of them, but I was born afraid not of mystery but confusion. Confusion is not bad; it’s just that I’m simply not used to it. Confusion everywhere is just a mess. Mystery, at least, can yield solution. 

I love reading D. T. Suzuki’s books, especially his little introductory books on the nature of Zen. Whatever page your hand opens upon, the reader is privy to experience many various sensations. Those sensations don’t arise because they are some concepts you learn in a book, but because they are sensations of inexpressible things made expressible by the author. That makes people feel good. There was a time when I took with me one of Suzuki’s books each time I walked out the door, as though that year I were carrying around with me a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book. My unease with Western philosophy started to relieve itself after reading the following passage of Heidegger’s. Heidegger, upon reading Suzuki’s work, wrote: “This is all I have to say in my own work.” Ever since then I have felt much more reassured. 

In the year 2000, I received a letter from New York’s Albany Public Library informing me they were preparing a Fall exhibition, along with research activities, titled “Book Ends.” The event would have six artists, including Gary Hill, and proposed an exhibition by me because I had created many works related to the event topic. For this exhibition they would invite Derrida to lead a symposium. I didn’t believe this was the symbolic Derrida, for they just said it was, “Derrida.”

The discussion activity took place on a day in October. It was separated into two lecture groups, one about my artwork, the other on Derrida’s theory. I was to speak in the afternoon. The lecture spokesman, Professor Bernstein, made a speech about my work and me, including, with much description, why Derrida and I were presented jointly. Then I gave a presentation called, “In Between Sight and the Written Word: About My Art.” Afterwords, three scholars of my work each read their thesis. Derrida’s presentation was in the evening. Professor David Will gave the introduction about his new book. Then Derrida made a speech titled, “The End of Books: The Arrival of the Modern Digital Archive.” Soon thereafter, another three scholars gave presentations on the speech. Nancy, a graduate student from U. C. Berkeley (also a speaker from my group) said to me, “So many people have come here today because you and Derrida are in the room.” What she said, put that way, embarrassed me. I, surely more unimportant, replied: “No, entirely because of Derrida.”

I sat in the very first row looking attentively ahead, noting with particular appreciation the style with which Derrida spoke. Nancy asked if I understood. I replied, “No.” She said, “It doesn’t matter, nor do I.” On stage Derrida gave off an air of what young people would consider being “cool”: a head of white hair, hard flesh on his face and a mouth suitable for a large number of abstruse words and English spoken with a strong French accent. At times when he spoke, a phrase of French would just pop from his mouth, regardless of whether or not the crowd would understand, his firm voice just going on to talk as before. In short, listening to Derrida made me feel, above all, just how horrible my listening skills really were.

After the discussion ended I went to the front to greet him. As I neared Derrida, I found that his aura on and off stage weren't that much different. He belonged to that ilk who don’t like talking nonsense, always with something to say but feeling never quite knowing what to say. His tone familiarized to me and my listening skills greatly improved. He said, “I saw your works and the exhibition from the introduction; they were very special. I liked the silk-wrapped laptop piece; it speaks a lot of meaning. Would it be possible if I could obtain a video clip of the piece? I want to write about it in my book.” I said, “The laptop piece is called Power Book, and it’s also a sort of book.” He nodded. I understood that the curators of my exhibition had arranged for Derrida to personally teach local primary students my Square Word Calligraphy, but he didn’t even mention this project to me, nor even mention my piece that was constantly being applied to his “deconstructionism”: Tianshu. I guess, given my English constructed with Chinese grammar, he didn’t much understand what I said in my speech either.

I told him, “Many critics use your theory to discuss my work, especially the piece called Tianshu.” I added, “That’s the one carved with a lot of fake characters.” He just nodded his head. It seemed he had long been accustomed to others citing his theories. I went on to say, “But at that time I hadn’t read your books, nor did I understand your theory. Perhaps if I had, I wouldn't have made these works at all.” He just continued to nod his head but then began to crack a few smiles. Some people then came up to take our photo. In that moment I became aware that he needed only to face the camera, that his facial expression and gesture remained the same in the shot. I began to feel that “Derrida” wasn’t a philosophical symbol at all, but a self-respecting man with high aspirations. However, as time passed, when I continued to read “Derrida… Derrida…” in various essays, when I received our photo with his unchanged gesture and facial expression, “Derrida” seemed to go back into hiding behind the symbol of a name.

Not long ago, while cleaning out our office, one of my assistants handed me an envelope with the words “To Mr. Jacques Derrida” written on it. The assistant’s eyes seemed to ask: “How could this be?” I said, “He has since passed away, but he had asked me once to send him some materials.” The assistant asked, “Why didn’t you send them?” I replied, “I don’t know why I continued to never send the things.” Really, I’m a bit sluggish at getting work done, and sometimes the things that are the most important to get gone are accorded the greatest cares, making them the hardest to carry out. Indeed, I believe that it was because of “Derrida,” the weight of this word, that I didn’t send the materials.

Written by Xu Bing, December 20, 2005
Published in Today Literary Magazine, Summer 2014, No. 105

Translation by Samuel Moore, July 22, 2015