[Paleopsych] CHE: Derrida, a Pioneer of Literary Theory, Dies

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Derrida, a Pioneer of Literary Theory, Dies
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4.10.22

    French philosopher created concept of 'deconstruction'

    Jacques Derrida, the thinker whose concept of "deconstruction"
    influenced at least two generations of scholarship in the humanities,
    died in Paris on October 8 at the age of 74.
    The director of the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences
    in Paris, Derrida also held a professorship at the University of
    California at Irvine, beginning in 1986. Irvine houses an archive of
    Derrida's manuscripts. His frequent seminars and lectures at American
    universities gave audiences here a sense of eavesdropping on the
    thinker's work in progress.
    Since the 1980s, the time between the publication of his books,
    essays, and interviews in French and their translation has grown ever
    shorter. In some cases, works appeared first in English.
    His recent books have included Arguing with Derrida (Blackwell, 2002),
    Ethics, Institutions, and the Right to Philosophy (Rowman and
    Littlefield, 2002), Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues With
    Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (University of Chicago Press,
    2003), and For What Tomorrow: A Dialogue (Stanford University Press,
    News that the philosopher was being treated for pancreatic cancer had
    been circulating among his students and admirers since the spring of
    In a statement, Jacques Chirac, the French president, announced the
    death "with sadness," calling Derrida "one of the major figures in the
    intellectual life of our time," whose work was "read, discussed, and
    taught around the world."
    The evaluation of Derrida's complex legacy (always a topic of heated
    debate, informed and otherwise) will undoubtedly continue for years to
    come, particularly in the United States. One of Derrida's earliest
    formulations of deconstruction -- the landmark essay "Structure, Sign,
    and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" -- was delivered at a
    now-legendary conference at the Johns Hopkins University in 1966.
    In a paper titled "How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The
    Case of Jacques Derrida" that appeared in the American Journal of
    Sociology in 1987, Michèle Lamont, now a professor of sociology at
    Harvard University, treated Derrida as a thinker with a rather canny
    grasp of the intellectual marketplace. In France, Derrida published
    his early essays in avant-garde cultural journals such as Tel Quel and
    Critique, thereby "targeting his work to a large cultural public
    rather than to a shrinking group of academic philosophers." In the
    United States, by contrast, "professional institutions and journals
    played a central role in the diffusion of his work" -- in particular,
    the institutions and journals in the discipline of literary
    scholarship. "Deconstruction was an answer to a disciplinary crisis,"
    wrote Ms. Lamont. "The legitimacy of literature departments had been
    consistently weakened by the increased pressure for academic research
    oriented toward social needs."
    Derrida's work was neglected by academic philosophers in the United
    States, at least until recently. By contrast, deconstruction
    revitalized literary studies by introducing a challenging new mode of
    analyzing texts -- and the controversy provoked by Derrida's reception
    within American academe boosted his renown to new heights.
    Shrewd player of the intellectual stock market though he may have
    been, Derrida left his mark not just on scholarship but on the
    imagination. Traces of deconstructive influence run throughout the
    essays and novels of Samuel R. Delany, a professor of English at
    Temple University, who has won numerous awards for his science fiction
    as well as the William Whitehead Memorial Award for a lifetime's
    contribution to lesbian and gay literature. Mr. Delany described
    himself as "shaken" by news of Derrida's death.
    "He made us look again, read again," wrote Mr. Delany in an e-mail
    message, "and he made us recontextualize what we read, because he saw
    that context expands infinitely, until, when we are exhausted by that
    expansion's velocity and inclusiveness, we erect some fiction of
    intention, completed and in place, to justify our failure to go on."
    The Birth of a Movement
    Derrida was born in Algeria, then a French colony, in 1930. In
    interviews and autobiographical writings, he recalled when "state
    anti-Semitism was unleashed" in the early 1940s, which led to his
    expulsion from school in 1942. At the same time, he said, he never
    felt "integrated" into the Jewish community in Algeria.
    After he arrived in France in 1950, his academic career was both
    distinguished and a bit rocky. He twice failed the entrance exam for
    the École Normale Supérieure, the hothouse for the country's
    intellectual elite, before gaining admittance in 1952. He spent the
    1956-57 academic year at Harvard University, followed by two years of
    military service in Algeria, where he taught school. Following various
    appointments upon returning to France, he joined the faculty as a
    professor of philosophy at the École Normale in 1965.
    Three seemingly unrelated influences combined in the work Derrida
    began publishing around that time. The first was his immersion in the
    writings of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger -- two German
    philosophers who offered exacting studies of philosophical questions
    about meaning and how those problems were framed. Derrida's first book
    was a translation and analysis of an essay by Husserl on geometry.
    The second current sweeping through French intellectual life in that
    era was structuralism. Borrowing models from linguistics, thinkers
    such as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roland Barthes tried to work out the
    deepest structures of cultural and social phenomena. If an endless
    variety of sentences can be produced on the basis of some fundamental
    patterns of grammar and syntax, the structuralists thought, the
    diverse forms of mythology or kinship systems also might be the result
    of a deep set of rules. Some of Derrida's early essays are critiques
    of structuralist theory.
    And finally, there was the influence of modernist literature, such as
    the work of Stéphane Mallarmé, whose poetry in French is considered
    virtually untranslatable. Derrida also read the fiction of James
    Joyce, which he recalled discovering during his year at Harvard. And
    he was fascinated by Antonin Artaud, the poet and theater director
    considered too extreme by the surrealists. Derrida not only published
    essays on each of these authors, but borrowed from their stylistic
    experimentation -- in effect, erasing the difference between
    philosophy and literature.
    He offered not so much a theory as a new way of reading. The
    deconstructive analysis of literary or philosophical writings teased
    out nuggets of inescapable complexity. Reading a dialogue by Plato, a
    scene in Shakespeare, or one of Freud's essays, Derrida would locate a
    moment when some concept or image proved impossible to reconcile with
    whatever theme or argument seemed to drive the rest of the work. Then,
    from that interpretive sticking point, he would work his way back
    through the text, patiently revealing intricate networks of meaning
    and otherwise hidden levels of internal conflict.
    It was an approach that could push one's intellectual stamina to the
    limits. In her novel about the French literati of the 1960s and '70s,
    The Samurai, Julia Kristeva, a professor of literature at the
    University of Paris, portrays Derrida as the character Saïda, whose
    seminars "irritated the philosophers and reduced the literature
    merchants to silence." (Both, she writes, "were confronted with their
    own transcendental stupidity.") He "broke down every word into its
    minutest elements, and from these seeds produced shoots so flexible he
    could later weave them into his own dreams, his own literature, rather
    ponderous but as profound as it was inaccessible." Saïda's method is
    called "condestruction," just in case the reader doesn't get the hint.
    "This," the novel goes on, "was how he started to acquire his
    reputation as a guru, which was to overwhelm the United States and the
    American feminists."
    A less sardonic account of this appeal to young American intellectuals
    came from Peggy Kamuf, the translator of numerous works by Derrida,
    including Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of
    Mourning, and the New International (Routledge, 1994) and Resistances
    of Psychoanalysis (Stanford University Press, 1998). Ms. Kamuf, a
    professor of French and comparative literature at the University of
    Southern California, recalled what it was like to read Derrida as a
    graduate student at Cornell University in 1970.
    "There was a sense of urgency when we encountered it," she said,
    "urgency in the context of the American political circumstances at the
    time. It was a few months after Kent State. But we were intellectuals
    who were not willing just to condemn the university, to renounce rigor
    of thought, in order to get out into the streets." Derrida's theory,
    she said, offered a way to perform serious intellectual work in the
    humanities while maintaining "that urgency of response to the abuses
    of power" that fed political engagement.
    Another student of that era spoke of the exhilaration Derrida's work
    provoked in the early years of the deconstructive invasion. "For those
    of us in literature," said Forest Pyle, an associate professor of
    English at the University of Oregon, "it was extraordinarily exciting
    to see a philosopher reading texts in a way that was rigorous and
    careful, that showed things that had remained unseen before." As an
    undergraduate at the University of Texas at Austin in the late 1970s,
    Mr. Pyle studied with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who had translated
    Derrida's book Of Grammatology. The introduction by Ms. Spivak, who is
    now a professor of humanities at Columbia University, offered the
    first comprehensive account of deconstruction available in English.
    Opposing Forces
    If some scholars found deconstruction exhilarating, others found it
    alarming. René Wellek, an eminent figure in comparative literature and
    the author of an eight-volume history of literary theory and
    criticism, denounced the approach in The New Criterion in 1983, saying
    that Derrida had provided "license to the arbitrary spinning of
    metaphors, to the stringing of puns, to mere language games."
    Deconstruction, he wrote, "has encouraged utter caprice, extreme
    subjectivity, and hence the destruction of the very concepts of
    knowledge and truth."
    In reply to such complaints, Derrida loyalists could readily cite
    passages in which the thinker insisted that he respected "all the
    instruments of traditional criticism" -- since otherwise, "critical
    production would risk developing in any direction at all and authorize
    itself to say almost anything." In an interview appearing in Critical
    Intellectuals on Writing (State University of New York Press, 2003),
    Derrida recalled that his high-school and university years were "very
    hard and heavy, very demanding according to classical norms. . . .
    When I take liberties, it's always by measuring the distance from the
    standards I know or that I've been rigorously trained in."
    By the late 1970s, deconstruction itself was setting the standards, at
    least in some quarters of American literary study. A prominent group
    of literary critics at Yale University (including Paul de Man,
    Geoffrey H. Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller) used Derridean methods to
    analyze Romantic and Victorian literature. The "Yale school" of
    critical theorists was also known, not always affectionately, as "the
    deconstruction mafia." (An English department joke of the early 1980s
    involved Paul de Man as the godfather, "making you an offer you can't
    understand.") As Yale graduate students fanned out across the country,
    they met resistance -- and not just from those who rejected
    deconstruction itself. Other currents influenced by Derrida stressed
    his roots in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger or sought to bring
    Derrida together with Marxist, feminist, or postcolonial concerns.
    The field of deconstructionist literary scholarship underwent a severe
    crisis following the revelation, in 1987, that de Man, arguably the
    most influential critic associated with Derrida, had published
    numerous articles in a collaborationist newspaper in Belgium during
    World War II. That same year, a well-publicized book on Heidegger's
    membership in the Nazi party provoked still more soul-searching among
    French deconstructionist thinkers and their American acolytes.
    In 1991, Richard Wolin, now a professor of history and comparative
    literature at the CUNY Graduate Center, translated an interview with
    Derrida for a volume called The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical
    Reader (Columbia University Press). Mr. Wolin had secured permission
    to reprint the interview from the French newsweekly in which it had
    appeared, but Derrida objected. The press withdrew the original
    printing of the book after being contacted by Derrida's lawyer. An
    article about the matter appeared in The New York Review of Books in
    1993, following the publication of a new edition of the book by MIT
    Press, minus the interview. The letters-to-the-editor column soon
    filled up, especially after Derrida and his lawyer began contributing
    to it.
    Whatever the merits of the case, it was a remarkable spectacle. A
    thinker who had repeatedly questioned the institution of authorship
    itself (saying that a writer's name "is first the name of a problem")
    proved vigilant in defending his claim to intellectual property. But
    by then, the dispute seemed an echo of the past -- at least in
    literary studies, where other theoretical approaches had replaced
    deconstruction in setting the central terms for debate.
    Residual Influence
    While his American readers argued over how to understand his work from
    earlier years -- or how to handle the embarrassing disclosures about
    de Man and Heidegger -- Derrida himself continued to publish at a
    bewildering pace, including writings on art criticism, law,
    psychoanalysis, and social theory. He also began to emerge as a kind
    of theologian sui generis.
    "He acquired a whole new life in the academy in the last 15 years or
    so," said John D. Caputo, a professor of religion and humanities at
    Syracuse University, and the author of The Prayers and Tears of
    Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Indiana University Press,
    1997). "He began to talk about what he called 'the undeconstructible.'
    ... The idea that deconstruction could be carried out in the name of
    something undeconstructible -- you just didn't hear from literary
    folks. But in his later work, he began to talk about the
    undeconstructibility of justice, of democracy, of friendship, of
    Some scholars have referred to "the ethico-political turn" in
    Derrida's work during the 1990s, though others see such concerns as a
    continuous strand in his work. Michael Hardt, an associate professor
    of comparative literature at Duke University, says that all of
    Derrida's work contains a "primary political insight": that in "even
    the most seemingly progressive identity, there is always some
    remainder, some people excluded, left out, abject." That creates an
    ethical and moral imperative "to attend to that remainder" that, Mr.
    Hardt says, "has been enormously influential for my generation and
    indeed several generations of political scholars."
    And for a period in the mid-1980s, Derrida "became all the rage among
    some people in the legal community," notes Larry D. Kramer, dean of
    the law school at Stanford University. "Legal scholars applied
    deconstructive theory to show that legal rules had no substance beyond
    the power that they masked." It was not a new idea; similar arguments
    had been made by the legal-realist school and others. "But Derrida
    helped hit the point home," says Mr. Kramer. "His influence faded, but
    it didn't disappear. It left a residue."
    Almost a dozen years after his clash with Derrida in the pages of the
    New York Review of Books, Mr. Wolin is skeptical of claims about this
    "ethico-political turn." In an e-mail note, he writes that the
    thinker's work offered "a fitting apologia pro vita sua for those who
    were condemned to spend the majority of their waking hours chained to
    a study carrel in the library." In a chapter of his 2004 book The
    Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance With Fascism From
    Nietzsche to Postmodernism (Princeton University Press), Mr. Wolin
    writes that Derrida's effort at political relevance "threatens to
    collapse under the weight of a series of postmodern banalities and
    Talmudic Traces
    Mr. Caputo, however, insists that Derrida's later thought does move in
    new directions. "The idea of something of unconditional value begins
    to emerge in Derrida's work," he says, "something that makes an
    unconditional claim on us, So the deconstruction of this or that
    begins to look a little bit like the critique of idols in Jewish
    Some commentators have wondered whether Derrida's exacting attention
    to texts might not make him, in effect, a secular practitioner of the
    reading skills cultivated by centuries of Talmudic scholars. Indeed,
    he had hinted as much himself: His book, Writing and Difference, first
    published in 1967, closes with a quotation attributed to a rabbi named
    Derrisa. More and more of his writing began to take the form of an
    overt dialogue with the work of Emmanuel Levinas, a French Jewish
    thinker who worked at the intersection of Heideggerian philosophy,
    ethical reflection, and biblical commentary.
    In 2002, Derrida gave the keynote address at the convention of the
    American Academy of Religion, held in Toronto. Speaking to a crowded
    auditorium, the philosopher said, "I rightly pass for an atheist" -- a
    puzzling formulation, by any measure. Mr. Caputo recalled that other
    scholars asked Derrida, "Why don't you just say, 'Je suis. I am an
    atheist'?" Derrida replied, "Because I don't know. Maybe I'm not an
    "He meant that, I think, the name of God was important for him," said
    Mr. Caputo, "even if, by the standards of the local pastor or rabbi,
    he was an atheist. The name of God was tremendously important for him
    because it was one of the ways that we could name the unconditional,
    the undeconstructible." (It also sounds, in hindsight, like a
    reasonably safe metaphysical wager.)
    French cultural life contains a long tradition of eulogistic essays in
    which one distinguished intellectual pays tribute to another. Derrida
    wrote his share of these memorial tributes over the years. In 2001,
    the University of Chicago Press published a collection of them, The
    Work of Mourning. In 1995, when the philosopher Gilles Deleuze
    committed suicide after several years of deteriorating health, Derrida
    wrote: "Each death is unique, of course, and therefore unusual. But
    what can one say about the unusual when, from Barthes to Althusser,
    from Foucault to Deleuze, it multiplies, as in a series?"
    One of the translators of The Work of Mourning was Michael Naas, a
    professor of philosophy at DePaul University, in Chicago. In an e-mail
    message, Mr. Naas spoke for many other people in calling Derrida "an
    extremely generous and faithful friend to so many scholars and
    students throughout the world -- and especially here in the United
    States." Derrida, he recalled, "often said that at the death of a
    friend what one loses is not simply a part of our world but someone
    who opened up our world -- who opened up the world -- for us."
    Even those who did not admire Derrida, let alone consider him a
    friend, may have the sense that, with his death, an era has reached an
    end. Or a beginning.


    July 1930: Jacques Derrida, son of a commercial traveler for a French
    wine company, is born in Algeria.
    1956: Graduates from École Normale Supérieure. Goes to Harvard
    University for postgraduate work.
    1962: Publishes translation into French of Edmund Husserl's Origin of
    Geometry, with long introduction.
    1967: Publishes three books introducing deconstruction: Of
    Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Speech and Phenomena.
    1972: Publishes another theoretical tripleheader: Dissemination,
    Positions, and Margins of Philosophy.
    Early 1980s: Most early books available in English translation.
    Late 1980s: Writes books and essays on Paul de Man and Martin
    Heidegger, who were accused of Nazi sympathies.
    1994: Publishes Specters of Marx after decades of speculation among
    readers over relationship between Marxism and deconstruction.
    Late 1990s: Produces numerous seminars and books on ethical and
    religious questions.
    2002: Derrida: The Film shows philosopher lecturing, writing, walking
    around his house, having his hair cut.
    Spring 2003: Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. With Jürgen Habermas,
    signs public statement criticizing U.S. invasion of Iraq.
    Spring 2004: Tells American friends that he finds working difficult.
    Translation of Rogues, his recent book on the philosophical
    implications of the contemporary international situation, is under
    October 2004: Dies in Paris.

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