« should the draft be an issue? | Main | why the questions were good in Friday's debate »

October 10, 2004

Derrida (the death of the author)

Jacques Derrida died on Friday. All the obituaries I have seen have fundamentally mischaracterized his thought and the movement he inspired, “deconstruction.” (The Times gets the biographical facts right but avoids defining deconstruction by stressing its obscurity.) I found Derrida annoying when, as an undergraduate, I watched him sign students’ t-shirts and then cross out his name to put it “under erasure.” I criticized him in my Nietzsche and the Modern Crisis of the Humanities (pp. 175-181). After I finished that book in 1992, I ignored him. So did many others, for he became increasingly irrelevant—a fate that may have bothered him much more than angry criticism. So I don’t think much of Derrida; but we ought to associate his name with views that he actually held, not with the vaguely Marxist (materialist and historicist) opinions that are often pinned on him.

Derrida claimed that certain prejudices, which he called “logocentric,” are to be found in “all the Western methods of analysis, explication, reading or interpretation” [Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, 1974), p. 46.] These prejudices include a preference for the world over language, for reality over fiction, for sounds over letters, for the signified over the signifier, and for masculinity over femininity. A classic deconstructionist reading of a text involves (a) demonstrating that the text presumes these dichotomies and (b) calling the distinctions and value-judgments into question. For instance, one might very plausibly argue that Dante combines irrationality, verbosity, femininity, and falsehood in the figure of Francesca da Rimini, whereas God is male, rational, silent, and true. Drawing attention to this dichotomy would be deconstructionist criticism.

Derrida went beyond standard deconstruction, however—starting at the latest with Glas (1974). He knew that any argument against logocentrism would itself be logocentric, just because it would be an argument. He wanted to get outside a form of thinking that was, according to him, universal. To achieve “exorbitant” effects (ones that went outside the normal orbit), he played with styles of writing. For example, Glas consists of two parallel columns, one inspired by Hegel and the other by Genet. Hegel was a great systematic thinker who could incorporate all alternative views within his comprehensive system. Criticizing Hegel would be playing the philosopher’s own game. So Derrida analyzed a completely different author in the same book, discussed disgusting bodily functions, stretched puns beyond any reasonable limit, and said, in effect, “Philosophize this.”

Everything depends upon the universality of the “logocentric” prejudices that Derrida identified. If they are omnipresent and important, then Derrida was engaged in a radical project of some interest (but of doubtful value). I think, however, that calling the West “logocentric” was a massive oversimplification. There are binary oppositions in our thinking, but also trinities and unities. Some of us believe that written text is merely a representation of sounds, which are “primary”; but others disagree. If the thinking of the West is deeply diverse, then there is no way out of its “orbit.” In that case, Derrida invented a rather easy game for himself: escaping prejudices that plenty of people had always disagreed with. Some deconstructionist readings are trenchant and plausible, but Derrida’s own works mainly look ridiculous.

Jack Balkin has a nicer take, as does Michael Bérubé.

Posted by peterlevine at October 10, 2004 04:14 PM


Like many my age (I am in the neighborhood of forty), Derrida and the Derrideans were all about me in college. I was one of them, and studied literary theory with some of his disciples. At Berkeley, if you were into literary criticism, you were into Deconstruction.

As I got older and worked in the world, the thoughts and ideas that consumed my mind in the mid-80's became difficult to recall, seemingly irrelevant, and appeared downright dangerous at times. In a world where there's lots of bad, "destablizing the concept of truth" didn't seem so benign anymore.

Eventually, I rediscovered the attraction of Kant and Hegel and (even more so) learned of the usefulness of philosphic writing that tries to be *clear* instead of denying that clarity is possible. Now, E.B. White is my stylistic mentor, not Helene Cixous.

But, Derrida (as separate from many of those who followed him and derived their ideas from his) himself was by all accounts playful and humane. Unlike, say, Lacan (with whom he is sometimes compared) who was prickly on purpose -- the Miles Davis of post-Freudian thinking.

The humanities have lost a big heart in Derrida, a heart that was often obscured by what may have been an overlarge intellect.

Posted by: Brad Rourke at October 11, 2004 10:59 AM

Well put Brad. I'm not sure if you have read the recent article in The Nation, but it gives a truly sympathetic view of Derrida as an individual and a humanitarian. While I agree that his philosophical works, like everything else in this world, were flawed, it seems a bit harsh to conclude that they look ridiculous, no?


Posted by: Robert Samet at December 1, 2004 06:29 PM

Post a comment

This blog is under attack from comment spammers, who are causing a problem for the server. I believe I can block them by upgrading to a recent version of MoveableType. However, I do not have time to do that until late December. Therefore, I have temporarily disabled comments. Please feel free to email me feedback at plevine@umd.edu.

Site Meter