[Paleopsych] CHE: Derrida, a Pioneer of Literary Theory, Dies
checker at panix.com
Tue Oct 19 17:02:12 UTC 2004
Derrida, a Pioneer of Literary Theory, Dies
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4.10.22
French philosopher created concept of 'deconstruction'
By SCOTT McLEMEE
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
DERRIDA: SIGNS OF HIS LIFE
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
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.
More information about the paleopsych