[Paleopsych] NYT: Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74
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Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74
NYT October 10, 2004
By JONATHAN KANDELL
[This obituary does not illuminate what deconstructionism is very well. I
used to think Derrida was a fraud but have moderated since. Too many
people I respect for other reasons respect him. First thoughts often come
Jacques Derrida, the Algerian-born, French intellectual who
became one of the most celebrated and notoriously difficult
philosophers of the late 20th century, died Friday at a
Paris hospital, the French president's office announced. He
The cause of death was pancreatic cancer, according to
French television, The Associated Press reported.
Mr. Derrida was known as the father of deconstruction, the
method of inquiry that asserted that all writing was full
of confusion and contradiction, and that the author's
intent could not overcome the inherent contradictions of
language itself, robbing texts - whether literature,
history or philosophy - of truthfulness, absolute meaning
and permanence. The concept was eventually applied to the
whole gamut of arts and social sciences, including
linguistics, anthropology, political science, even
While he had a huge following - larger in the United States
than in Europe - he was the target of as much anger as
admiration. For many Americans, in particular, he was the
personification of a French school of thinking they felt
was undermining many of the traditional standards of
classical education, and one they often associated with
divisive political causes.
Literary critics broke texts into isolated passages and
phrases to find hidden meanings. Advocates of feminism, gay
rights, and third-world causes embraced the method as an
instrument to reveal the prejudices and inconsistencies of
Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Freud and other "dead white
male" icons of Western culture. Architects and designers
could claim to take a "deconstructionist" approach to
buildings by abandoning traditional symmetry and creating
zigzaggy, sometimes disquieting spaces. The filmmaker Woody
Allen titled one of his movies "Deconstructing Harry," to
suggest that his protagonist could best be understood by
breaking down and analyzing his neurotic contradictions.
A Code Word for Discourse
Toward the end of the 20th
century, deconstruction became a code word of intellectual
discourse, much as existentialism and structuralism - two
other fashionable, slippery philosophies that also emerged
from France after World War II - had been before it. Mr.
Derrida and his followers were unwilling - some say unable
- to define deconstruction with any precision, so it has
remained misunderstood, or interpreted in endlessly
Typical of Mr. Derrida's murky explanations of his
philosophy was a 1993 paper he presented at the Benjamin N.
Cardozo School of Law, in New York, which began: "Needless
to say, one more time, deconstruction, if there is such a
thing, takes place as the experience of the impossible."
Mr. Derrida was a prolific writer, but his 40-plus books on
various aspects of deconstruction were no more easily
accessible. Even some of their titles - "Of Grammatology,"
"The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond," and
"Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce" - could be
off-putting to the uninitiated.
"Many otherwise unmalicious people have in fact been guilty
of wishing for deconstruction's demise - if only to relieve
themselves of the burden of trying to understand it,"
Mitchell Stephens, a journalism professor at New York
University, wrote in a 1994 article in The New York Times
Mr. Derrida's credibility was also damaged by a 1987
scandal involving Paul de Man, a Yale University professor
who was the most acclaimed exponent of deconstruction in
the United States. Four years after Mr. de Man's death, it
was revealed that he had contributed numerous pro-Nazi,
anti-Semitic articles to a newspaper in Belgium, where he
was born, while it was under German occupation during World
War II. In defending his dead colleague, Mr. Derrida, a
Jew, was understood by some people to be condoning Mr. de
A Devoted Following
Nonetheless, during the 1970's and 1980's, Mr. Derrida's
writings and lectures gained him a huge following in major
American universities - in the end, he proved far more
influential in the United States than in France. For young,
ambitious professors, his teachings became a springboard to
tenure in faculties dominated by senior colleagues and
older, shopworn philosophies. For many students,
deconstruction was a rite of passage into the world of
Jacques Derrida was born on July 15, 1930, in El-Biar,
Algeria. His father was a salesman. At age 12, he was
expelled from his French school when the rector, adhering
to the Vichy government's racial laws, ordered a drastic
cut in Jewish enrollment. Even as a teenager, Mr. Derrida
(the name is pronounced day-ree-DAH) was a voracious reader
whose eclectic interests embraced the philosophers
Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert
Camus, and the poet Paul Valéry.
But he could be an indifferent student. He failed his
baccalaureate in his first attempt. He twice failed his
entrance exam to the École Normal Supérieure, the
traditional cradle of French intellectuals, where he was
finally admitted in 1952. There he failed the oral portion
of his final exams on his first attempt. After graduation
in 1956, he studied briefly at Harvard University. For most
of the next 30 years, he taught philosophy and logic at
both the University of Paris and the École Normal
Supérieure. Yet he did not defend his doctoral dissertation
until 1980, when he was 50 years old.
By the early 1960's, Mr. Derrida had made a name for
himself as a rising young intellectual in Paris by
publishing articles on language and philosophy in leading
academic journals. He was especially influenced by the
German philosophers, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger.
Both were strong critics of traditional metaphysics, a
branch of philosophy which explored the basis and
perception of reality.
As a lecturer, Mr. Derrida cultivated charisma and mystery.
For many years, he declined to be photographed for
publication. He cut a dashing, handsome figure at the
lectern, with his thick thatch of prematurely white hair,
tanned complexion, and well-tailored suits. He peppered his
lectures with puns, rhymes and enigmatic pronouncements,
like, "Thinking is what we already know that we have not
yet begun," or, "Oh my friends, there is no friend..."
Many readers found his prose turgid and baffling, even as
aficionados found it illuminating. A single sentence could
run for three pages, and a footnote even longer. Sometimes
his books were written in "deconstructed" style. For
example, "Glas" (1974) offers commentaries on the German
philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and the French
novelist Jean Genet in parallel columns of the book's
pages; in between, there is an occasional third column of
commentary about the two men's ideas.
"The trouble with reading Mr. Derrida is that there is too
much perspiration for too little inspiration,"
editorialized The Economist in 1992, when Cambridge
University awarded the philosopher an honorary degree after
a bruising argument among his supporters and critics on the
faculty. Elsewhere in Europe, Mr. Derrida's deconstruction
philosophy gained earlier and easier acceptance.
Shaking Up a Discipline
Mr. Derrida appeared on the
American intellectual landscape at a 1966 conference on the
French intellectual movement known as structuralism at
Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. Its high priest was
French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who studied
societies through their linguistic structure.
Mr. Derrida shocked his American audience by announcing
that structuralism was already passé in France, and that
Mr. Lévi-Strauss's ideas were too rigid. Instead, Mr.
Derrida offered deconstruction as the new, triumphant
His presentation fired up young professors who were in
search of a new intellectual movement to call their own. In
a Los Angeles Times Magazine article in 1991, Mr. Stephens,
the journalism professor, wrote: "He gave literature
professors a special gift: a chance to confront - not as
mere second-rate philosophers, not as mere interpreters of
novelists, but as full-fledged explorers in their own right
- the most profound paradoxes of Western thought."
"If they really read, if they stared intently enough at the
metaphors," he went on, "literature professors, from the
comfort of their own easy chairs, could reveal the
hollowness of the basic assumptions that lie behind all our
Other critics found it disturbing that obscure academics
could presume to denigrate a Sophocles, Voltaire or Tolstoy
by seeking out cultural biases and inexact language in
their masterpieces. "Literature, the deconstructionists
frequently proved, had been written by entirely the wrong
people for entirely the wrong reasons," wrote Malcolm
Bradbury, a British novelist and professor, in a 1991
article for The New York Times Book Review.
Mr. Derrida's influence was especially strong in the Yale
University literature department, where one of his close
friends, a Belgian-born professor, Paul de Man, emerged as
a leading champion of deconstruction in literary analysis.
Mr. de Man had claimed to be a refugee from war-torn
Europe, and even left the impression among colleagues that
he had joined the Belgian resistance.
But in 1987, four years after Mr. de Man's death, research
revealed that he had written over 170 articles in the early
1940's for Le Soir, a Nazi newspaper in Belgium. Some of
these articles were openly anti-Semitic, including one that
echoed Nazi calls for "a final solution" and seemed to
defend the notion of concentration camps.
"A solution to the Jewish problem that aimed at the
creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would
entail no deplorable consequences for the literary life of
the West," wrote Mr. de Man.
The revelations became a major scandal at Yale and other
campuses where the late Mr. de Man had been lionized as an
intellectual hero. Some former colleagues asserted that the
scandal was being used to discredit deconstruction by
people who were always hostile to the movement. But Mr.
Derrida gave fodder to critics by defending Mr. de Man, and
even using literary deconstruction techniques in an attempt
to demonstrate that the Belgian scholar's newspaper
articles were not really anti-Semitic.
"Borrowing Derrida's logic one could deconstruct Mein Kampf
to reveal that [Adolf Hitler] was in conflict with
anti-Semitism," scoffed Peter Lennon, in a 1992 article for
The Guardian. According to another critic, Mark Lilla, in a
1998 article in The New York Review of Books, Mr. Derrida's
contortionist defense of his old friend left "the
impression that deconstruction means you never have to say
Almost as devastating for deconstruction and Mr. Derrida
was the revelation, also in 1987, that Heidegger, one of
his intellectual muses, was a dues-paying member of the
Nazi Party from 1933 to 1945. Once again, Mr. Derrida was
accused by critics of being irresolute, this time for
failing to condemn Heidegger's fascist ideas.
By the late 1980's, Mr. Derrida's intellectual star was on
the wane on both sides of the Atlantic. But he continued to
commute between France and the United States, where he was
paid hefty fees to lecture a few weeks every year at
several East Coast universities and the University of
California at Irvine.
Lifting a Mysterious Aura
In his early years of intellectual fame, Mr. Derrida was
criticized by European leftists for a lack of political
commitment - indeed, for espousing a philosophy that
attacked the very concept of absolute political
certainties. But in the 1980's, he became active in a
number of political causes, opposing apartheid, defending
Czech dissidents and supporting the rights of North African
immigrants in France.
Mr. Derrida also became far more accessible to the media.
He sat still for photos and gave interviews that stripped
away his formerly mysterious aura to reveal the mundane
details of his personal life.
A former Yale student, Amy Ziering Kofman, focused on him
in a 2002 documentary, "Derrida," that some reviewers found
charming. "With his unruly white hair and hawklike face,
Derrida is a compelling presence even when he is merely
pondering a question," wrote Kenneth Turan in The Los
Angeles Times. "Even his off-the-cuff comments are
intriguing, because everything gets serious consideration.
And when he is wary, he's never difficult for its own sake
but because his philosophical positions make him that way."
Rather than hang around the Left Bank cafés traditionally
inhabited by French intellectuals, Mr. Derrida preferred
the quiet of Ris-Orangis, a suburb south of Paris, where he
lived in a small house with his wife, Marguerite
Aucouturier, a psychoanalyst. The couple had two sons,
Pierre and Jean. He also had a son, Daniel, with Sylviane
Agacinski, a philosophy teacher who later married the
French political leader Lionel Jospin.
As a young man, Mr. Derrida confessed, he hoped to become a
professional soccer player. And he admitted to being an
inveterate viewer of television, watching everything from
news to soap operas. "I am critical of what I'm watching,"
said Mr. Derrida with mock pride. "I deconstruct all the
Late in his career, Mr. Derrida was asked, as he had been
so often, what deconstruction was. "Why don't you ask a
physicist or a mathematician about difficulty?" he replied,
frostily, to Dinitia Smith, a Times reporter, in a 1998.
"Deconstruction requires work. If deconstruction is so
obscure, why are the audiences in my lectures in the
thousands? They feel they understand enough to understand
Asked later in the same interview to at least define
deconstruction, Mr. Derrida said: "It is impossible to
respond. I can only do something which will leave me
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