[Paleopsych] The Cornell Daily Sun: Cornell Reflects on Derrida's Legacy

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Cornell Reflects on Derrida's Legacy
Monday, October 18, 2004

    Cornell Reflects on Derrida's Legacy
    October 13, 2004
    By Professors Philip Lewis and Richard Klein
    By Prof. Philip Lewis

    Philip Lewis is a Professor of Romance Studies and was the host of
    Jacques Derrida when he was an A.D. White Professor-at-Large from 1982
    to 1988. He is the author of Seeing Through the Mother Goose Tales:
    Visual Turns in the Writings of Charles Perrault.

    By conventional measures, Jacques Derrida was perhaps the most
    successful professor-at-large in the history of the program. His
    lectures in English drew overflow audiences of hundreds of faculty and
    students from all over campus. Even when speaking French he would
    attract 200-300 people prepared to listen for 2-3 hours. He spent
    endless hours talking with students and colleagues, more about their
    work than about his. The director of the program extended his term
    beyond the usual five years in recognition of his exemplary

    In those early years (the Seventies), when Derrida's ideas and
    analytic strategies had not been reduced to themes or concepts, his
    influence on most of us was that of an incredibly rigorous, learned
    and incisive reader. He changed our understanding of what strong,
    intensive reading does and how its implications have to be constantly
    rethought and remobilized on multiple horizons. The least one can say
    is that Derrida's analytic practice -- probing the great works of the
    Western canon in their openness, density, and complexity -- showed us
    why we have to read more critically, more respectfully and more
    patiently. In recent years, my perception of Jacques Derrida's
    importance has shifted toward the broad, socio-historical horizon on
    which his activity as a public intellectual took place. His writings
    on democracy and on human rights, his dialogue with Habermas on the
    world after September 11, 2001, and his advocacy for an enlightened
    European Union constitute an incomparable engagement with political
    justice that none of us can measure adequately at this juncture.

    From the standpoint of the French, their language and their culture,
    Jacques Derrida's singularity as one of the twentieth century's
    seminal thinkers has much to do with his status as an international or
    "supernational" intellectual. The risks he took in all aspects of his
    work, including the reform of French higher education, were often more
    seriously appreciated in other countries, including the United States,
    than in France. His experiments in and with language-and-thought were
    sometimes more efficacious in translation than in his artful and
    transformative French, which he deployed with dazzling inventiveness.
    The French are belatedly discovering why their resistances to Derrida
    make his challenges to them uniquely telling and enduring. As a
    nomadic intellectual articulating the call of hospitality for all
    peoples and all places, Derrida has put them and us on trial. He has
    had and will have no peers. If his passing thus differs from all those
    deaths we assimilate through mourning and position in the past, it is
    because it confronts us with his coming, hereafter, into his and our

    By Prof. Richard Klein

    Richard Klein is a Professor of Romance Studies and was selected to
    the French Order of Arts & Letters in 2003. He is the author of
    Cigarettes Are Sublime and Eat Fat.

    I was remarkably well prepared to encounter Derrida in the late '60s.
    I was just finishing graduate studies in French (at Yale), but it was
    my Cornell undergraduate education (Class of '62) that had trained me.
    I had had seminars here and wrote an honor thesis with Paul de Man,
    who was then Chair of Comparative Literature. I had heard lectures by
    M.H. Abrams and Vladimir Nabokov. I had taken philosophy classes with
    Norman Malcom and John Rawls. I was an editor of the Cornell Writer
    and a budding critic who regularly rejected the poetry of his fellow
    student, Thomas Pynchon.

    Encountering Derrida, I was taken first by the fact that he had
    developed to a high degree the art of close reading, which I had been
    taught to appreciate by my Cornell professors -- a way of reading they
    had learned at the feet of the New Critics, whose work focused on the
    close analysis of short, single lyric poems. Like Derrida, those
    critics frequently discovered, at the heart of the poem, some
    unresolved conflict or tension that the text simultaneously displayed
    and sought to conceal. As if the poem was the performance of the
    attempt to conceal the contradiction at its origin. But at the same
    time, Derrida brought to this practice an immensely informed
    philosophical critique of, say, each one of the terms I just used in
    the previous fragment: performance, conceal, contradiction, origin.
    Derrida has written extensively about each one of those notions,
    bringing the power of his philosophical skepticism to bear on them in
    order to transform the way we use those categories and think about
    their concepts.

    Deconstructing texts is a form of radical skepticism towards
    traditional categories, a form of iconoclasm, breaking idols. For me,
    that's where his Jewishness resides, not in any secret devotion to God
    or some Kabalistic mysticism. He was highly suspicious of all claims
    about human nature or what is natural in general. He was always
    showing that what seems natural in fact consists of multiple,
    historically determined, psychologically motivated, social and
    political choices. Trained at the elite ...cole Normale Supérieure,
    Derrida had devoured the whole history of philosophy. He knew ancient
    Greek, Latin, German, and English, and he read the texts, from Plato
    and Aristotle to Hegel and Kant, from Locke to Searle, in the
    original. Derrida practiced a kind of philosophical close reading of
    texts, paying attention to the works of philosophers and poets, with
    the most acute and scrupulous attention. That kind of reading
    differentiates the style of his philosophizing from the Anglo-American
    style practiced in the Cornell Philosophy Department, where frequently
    one addresses philosophical problems with only passing, perfunctory
    reference to older arguments in the philosophical literature. Derrida
    begins by treating a philosopher's work as a whole, in order to
    discover, criticize and transform the problems and questions that most
    concern it. He was not just a radical skeptic, but an inventor of new
    conceptions, new logic machines, with which to demonstrate the
    coherence of arguments that seem to be flatly incompatible. The
    attention he gave to other texts was reflected in the way he responded
    to individuals. He was the most remarkable responder to questions. He
    was constantly being asked very stupid questions and he always tried
    to discover what legitimate issue could be contained in them or made
    of them. Unlike many philosophers who are in themselves, totally in
    their own head, he was entirely in the world, in relation to Others.
    Unlike many arrogant intellectuals, he was modest, charming, and very,
    very funny.

    He was writing in those years in the wake of existentialism -- there
    is an implicit anti-Sartreanism in Derrida, which appears explicitly
    in several oblique but devastating passages. He came to intellectual
    maturity under the influence of structuralism, that movement, begun in
    the Sixties, which sought to apply the methods and categories of
    structural linguistics, as defined by Ferdinand de Saussure, to the
    analysis of social, psychological, and artistic phenomena. He was
    deeply critical of it, even as he made cautious use of some of its
    premises. But what he conveyed most powerfully was the stake he had in
    trying to think critically about our conventional concepts and
    categories. For him it was necessary not merely to criticize old ways
    of thinking but to elaborate new ways of conceiving old ideas. Derrida
    furiously rejected the notion of the end of history. For him the
    future was always the focus of his speculation, the possibility of
    thinking something new, or anew. I can barely express my anger at the
    New York Times obituary that dismissed his work as abstruse and
    ridiculous, if not sinister. Never was there any evidence that the
    journalist had tried to read Derrida's writing, or even considered the
    possibility that there was something new and valuable in this work
    that has excited so much interest. It would suffice to read one of
    Derrida's essays, and to discuss it with one competent person, to
    understand the value and the implications of his philosophies. It's
    sometimes hard work, as George Bush likes to say. I can't begin to say
    in a newspaper article what is implied and implicated in the task of
    deconstruction. If anyone is interested in finding out, they might
    start by reading Jonathan Culler's On Deconstruction, a book of
    immaculate clarity, or taking a course in which Derrida is taught.

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