[Paleopsych] NYT: (Derrida) The Man Who Showed Us How to Take the World Apart

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The Man Who Showed Us How to Take the World Apart
NYT October 11, 2004

The way I recall the lecture archaeologically digging
beneath a quarter-century of accumulated intellectual
detritus in my mind is as a kind of highfalutin
entertainment, an embrace for the initiate, a coy
extravaganza of pyrotechnics and puns and peculiarities. In
a lecture room at the University of Chicago, Jacques
Derrida drew an enormous circle on the blackboard. As he
spoke, he dramatically added lines and curves, each
signifying another form of textual interpretation,
intersecting or glancing off the circle. A Venn diagram of
Deconstruction seemed to be taking shape. And
Deconstruction was, of course, Derrida's much-vaunted
interpretive method of making sense out of non-sense (or
vice versa).

That diagram also turned out to be an enormous eye -
complete, if I remember correctly, with pupil and cornea. A
cartoon. But the eye, Derrida explained, as if mentally
winking in our direction, was really an "I." And the "I"
was how we come to see. Another cartoon, this time in
words. Or was the point something else that I would be able
to discern only by studying further, trying to pin down his
mercurial weaving and wobbling while juggling allusions to
Rousseau, the Talmud and Heidegger?

It hardly seemed worth the effort, because by that time,
despite the presence of the charismatic figure himself,
despite the fact that his work still carried the promise of
esoteric knowledge and that he had yet to reach his peak of
influence in the American academy, the seductive lure was

But what a lure it was! And how many still feel its pull!
Now, with Derrida's death last week and the promise of
accumulating assessments and reconsiderations, I can almost
summon up a bit of nostalgia for the initial encounter with
the Algerian-born French philosopher's works, the thrill of
learning his language, piecing together paradoxes to get at
his idiosyncratic vision, his eye's "I." Here is a writer
of almost impenetrable obscurity who nevertheless managed
to overturn traditions in American literary teaching, feed
the postmodernist maw of relativism, redefine the
acceptable limits for academic prose and even give popular
culture one of its most overused words: deconstruction.

Derrida partly provided the thrill of sheer nerve: daring
to write something that wouldn't just modify
interpretations but challenge the entire philosophical and
literary enterprise. His was an imperial ambition, one
inherited from Nietzsche and Heidegger: don't reinterpret.
Uninterpret. Show not just that some formulations are
mistaken, but that all are. And that, moreover, they have
to be. Show how all of Western thought is based on a type
of ignorance or incompleteness, that everyone who claimed
to get the point was missing the point.

We have all learned that great works of art and literature
may contain ideas and assumptions that their creators may
not have been entirely aware of. There is the Freudian
unconscious, the Marxist theory of superstructure, the
learned dissections of metaphor and allusion in literary
criticism. Who would be surprised to learn that things are
seldom what they seem?

But for Derrida, things can also never be what they say.
Any attempt to explain or reason or demonstrate or
communicate already contains the seeds of its undoing; any
statement must conjure up its opposite. Pay close attention
and it becomes clear how much energy is being expended on
pretending to make clear what really cannot be. Look even
more closely and there is always a small point in the text
- a paradox, an unexplained word, a knotty phrase - that
when properly probed can undermine the pretense, pull aside
the curtain of ideology and show what indeterminacy and
uncertainty lie beneath the surface.

There is a great appeal in this promise, because it is, in
part, a familiar part of ordinary experience. We already
know that all cannot be as it appears. Perhaps it is also
the case that it is impossible to make a seamless system.
Perhaps there is no way to tie up all loose ends. We know
that this is often the case: few human activities can be
tidily organized by orthodoxies. Why not endorse a kind of
radical suspicion, one that would be particularly useful in
challenging traditions and orthodoxy?

Such were the secrets and lures promised in Derrida's
texts, a dizzying undermining of presuppositions. Take any
received opinion, aesthetic judgment, historical analysis
or cultural activity, find its hidden premises, its
unacknowledged preferences, its knots and feints, and its
authority is undone. Applying this method to the works of
the West, Derrida became a kind of prophet for
counter-Western thought. He found his intellectual
liberation by closely reading works by Rousseau and
Lévi-Strauss. If these works could seem to break down the
pretense of Western civilization while heralding the
virtues and values of a pre-civilized world, for Derrida
they did not go far enough: they too embodied Western

But, of course, one reason for the extraordinary success of
Derrida's ideas is that they also followed an orthodoxy in
which rebellion is privileged over tradition and iconoclasm
over authority. Independence is declared; obeisance is
dismissed. This devotion to autonomy, accompanied by a
spirit of play, is partly what gave Derrida a following in
America far more enduring than that in France. His radical
anti-authoritarianism and counter-Western ideas also gave
him an empathetic reception on the international political

But this orthodoxy, too, can be as ruthless and demanding
as any other. This may have been why Derrida could often
become mannered and puerile, endlessly turning rebellion on
itself. And late in his life, Derrida, bristling at charges
that he was a relativist, tried to find some sort of firm,
unshakeable ground upon which to stand a notion of
political activity and justice that might justify his
triumphant orthodoxy. To no avail. In the recent book,
"Philosophy in a Time of Terror," here is what he said
about 9/11:

"We do not in fact know what we are saying or naming in
this way: September 11, le 11 septembre, September 11. The
brevity of the appellation (September 11, 9/11) stems not
only from an economic or rhetorical necessity. The telegram
of this metonymy - a name, a number - points out the
unqualifiable by recognizing that we do not recognize or
even cognize that we do not yet know how to qualify, that
we do not know what we are talking about."

The rest is silence.


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