Editorial introduction: Derrida, business, ethics



This special issue contains papers first presented at a conference that was held 14–16 May 2008 at the Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy at the University of Leicester. Each of the papers takes up ideas from the works of Jacques Derrida and seeks to apply these to questions of business, ethics and business ethics. The papers take up quite different parts of Derrida's works, from his work on the animal, narrative and story, the violence of codification and the limits of responsibility to the aporias of decision. As a whole, the papers offer a dangerous gift to business ethics, of which the stakes are here laid bare – if business ethics is to shrug off its philosophical immaturity and take seriously the work of major European thinkers such as Derrida, then many of its assumed categories, concepts and practices will be shown to shudder and tremble, as it becomes possible to demonstrate how they, one by one, unhinge themselves.

On 12 October 2004, at the Ris-Orangis cemetery just south of Paris, Jacques Derrida's son Pierre read a final farewell written by his father, who had died less than a week earlier on 8 October. In this short text, the son spoke on his father's part:

Il me demande de vous remercier d'être venus, de vous bénir, il vous supplie de ne pas être triste, de ne penser qu'aux nombreux moments heureux que vous lui avez donné la chance de partager avec lui.

Souriez-moi, dit-il, comme je vous aurai souri jusqu'à la fin. Préférez toujours la vie et affirmez sans cesse la survie … Je vous aime et vous souris d'où que je sois.

(Derrida 2005: 6–7)

Which can be translated thus:

He asks me to thank you for coming and to bless you. He beseeches you not to be sad, to think only of the many happy moments you gave him the chance to share with him. Smile for me, he says, as I will have smiled for you until the end. Always prefer life and constantly affirm living on … . I love you and am smiling on you from wherever I am.

(Derrida 2007: 462, translation modified)

Derrida's death has been marked in many ways, and over recent years, a series of considered commemorations and farewells have appeared (see e.g. Naas 2008, Miller 2009, Royle 2009). The purpose of this special issue, though, is not to commemorate something that has passed, but rather to invoke a meeting that might have taken place, or might be in the course of taking place. It is a welcoming of something new, a stranger that might have been in our midst all along.

I propose to take as a watchword for this issue the injunction to not be sad. Readers of Derrida will perhaps not find this surprising, at least those who have encountered the bristling joyfulness and humour that bursts through almost every page of his writings. To not be sad here also means to not be angry, or at least to tame one's anger with a demand that is at once philosophical and ethical to think through passions such as sadness and anger and with this to turn them into something other than themselves, something that can institute new possibilities.

Of course, when it comes to business, there is something of a challenge in taking Derrida's advice. For many today it is very hard indeed not to be sad when faced with the state of the world. Our world certainly bears the marks of what Derrida (1994, ch. 3) referred to some years ago as the ‘Wears and Tears’ that are the signs of so much injury, pain and suffering today. If one is human, then one must of course cry. One cries for the suffering of the Other, for the needless hardship that traverses the lives of so many. But as Derrida was so often able to find the opposite in what is apparent, through a remarkable strength of will, the task of thinking and of criticism remains one of finding a way of seeing through one's tears.

One might wonder whether it is any easier to not be sad when one keeps one eye on the ethics of business and turns the other to the kind of academic pursuit bearing the name ‘business ethics’. In the narrowness and insularity of business ethics, the question is whether it is possible to locate anything other than an insipid palliative for business as usual. Disconnected from the most probing philosophical considerations of ethics and largely auto-immunised against the now burgeoning social justice movements and appeals for thinking beyond and through the current capitalist crisis, can one with any seriousness look at ‘business ethics’ as more of a solution than a problem?

The responsible subject also faces difficult questions about how to respond to the things that have been said about Derrida, both in our culture generally and in the more localised sites of discourse on business and business ethics. Consider, for instance, the responses that were made in management studies and business ethics by Steven Feldman in the Journal of Management Studies (1998), by Richard Weiss in the Journal of Management Inquiry (2007) and by Richard De George in this journal in 2008. Together, these are arguably the three most substantial criticisms of Derrida and the use of his work in management studies and business ethics.

If one reads such published works, which are variously critical or outright dismissive of Derrida and of ‘deconstruction’ more broadly, it is hard to see how anyone with more than a faint inkling of the contents of Derrida's books could not be sad or angry. Of course, these articles do not emerge in isolation but are indeed part of what could be called an entire genre of Derrida dismissal. They indeed share the tropes of that genre, referring often implicitly to certain alleged commonplaces about Derrida, and on the basis of such evidence, placing themselves in a position from which to judge. What is perhaps most notable as a sign of the level of scholarship displayed in such criticisms is the way that Feldman, Weiss and De George all write in what appears to be an academic fashion, providing evidence and references for their claims, but that all three fail entirely to cite even a single work by Derrida.

More comedy than tragedy then, if it were that such things only and universally produced laughter. While there is certainly some egg on the faces of those responsible for the journals that sanction such work, such incidents take place within a broader context in which many, very many indeed, have licensed themselves to remark on the works of Derrida without seeming to have inclined themselves to actually cast their eyes inside the pages of his books.

It is in the context of this quite justified outrage that we must again insist that we must not be sad. Instead, we must learn to smile for Derrida, and to recall as he once put it in another context of insult: this is also extremely funny. That being said: ‘The fact that this is also extremely funny doesn't detract from the seriousness of the symptom’ (Derrida 1995: 404). Personally affronted, Derrida still insisted on the double nature of the demand: ‘we must stay sensitive both to the comedy and the seriousness of intellectual and ethical-political responsibility’ (Derrida 1995: 404).

Whether or not one has displayed such a sensitivity is not something that can be decided in advance or pre-programmed by a rule. It is something that must retain a proper singularity, as any act must, that goes beyond any preparation in advance. As the papers in this issue articulate, there is always something in the practicalities of acts that exceeds formalisation in advance, a certain reserve that makes knowing in advance impossible.

All of which goes some way to saying that in the world of practice, as it is so complacently referred to, rules and formalisms disarticulate themselves; they come apart in our hands, heads and hearts and, because of the apparently more pressing demands that are put on us by time and the demands of other Others, the most proper of rules are thrown in the dustbin. Derrida gives us ways of thinking through such difficulties, and so it must be insisted here that above all, Derrida's is a thinking that is immanently and immediately practical. It is always a thinking that is applied, and in this sense makes no sense without knowing what it is applied to, but above this, it is not applied in the abstract sense of imposition of presumed knowledge from outside in advance.

This makes Derrida both enormously difficult at the same time that he is one of the most straightforwardly practical thinkers. Derrida insists on taking time, of giving time to matters that are indeed vexing. This is perhaps the reason for a certain ‘theoreticist’ temptation with respect to Derrida, a temptation to get him right before one can say anything. The goal with the papers here, however, is not to introduce Derrida again, something that I have done far too often already (Jones 2003, 2004, 2007a, b). What readers will find here is a doing of and with Derrida. If some have been searching for practical applications that will articulate Derrida, business and ethics, then here they are.

All of the papers in the issue make clear this application of Derrida to practical questions. They take as their starting points the animals that we are and the animals we encounter (Desmond), the stories we tell when we begin to speak of ethics in business (Jørgensen and Boje), the difficulties we encounter when we seek to codify ethics (Painter-Morland) or implement standards (Rasche) and the troubling consequences that we encounter when keeping to, or going back on, our decisions (Munro).

Each of the papers has as its focus both these domains of practice but each has also carved up Derrida in different ways. John Desmond, for instance, works principally in explicating the consequences of Derrida's works on the animal while Andreas Rasche focuses on the aporias of justice articulated in Derrida's paper ‘Force of Law’. In doing so, the papers in combination show the breadth of Derrida's work. They also see beyond the idea that Derrida might be reduced to a trope of a technique of ‘deconstruction’; rather, all engage in the more taxing task of comprehending how specific concepts can illuminate specific acts, even if these concepts and acts bear traces of others.