Daily Archives: October 9, 2004

As Dirk Bogarde ringingly declared in Providence, “Surely the facts are not in dispute.”

Jacques Derrida, the Algerian-born, French intellectual who became one of the most celebrated and notoriously difficult philosophers of the late 20th century, died Friday at a Paris hospital, the French president’s office announced. He was 74. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer, according to French television, The Associated Press reported.

Perhaps there was some sort of struggle, M. Derrida being so “notoriously difficult and all. But Jonathan Kanall has barely begun the ideological autopsy.

Mr. Derrida was known as the father of deconstruction, the method of inquiry that asserted that all writing was full of confusion and contradiction, and that the author’s intent could not overcome the inherent contradictions of language itself, robbing texts – whether literature, history or philosophy – of truthfulness, absolute meaning and permanence. The concept was eventually applied to the whole gamut of arts and social sciences, including linguistics, anthropology, political science, even architecture.

Deconstruction asserts no such thing. A critical method developed to examine all manner of literary and philosophical texts, Deconstruction is at heart very much in keeping with every other critical methodology. “Absolute Meaning” was indeed questioned by Derrida but to say that “truthfulness” and “permanence” were tossed to the four winds is a grotesque parody of what he was actually doing. And what Jacques Derrida was actually doing is the very thing all serious critics, historians, and philosophers should do — examining and questioning what has actually been said, done and written down.

While he had a huge following – larger in the United States than in Europe – he was the target of as much anger as admiration. For many Americans, in particular, he was the personification of a French school of thinking they felt was undermining many of the traditional standards of classical education, and one they often associated with divisive political causes.
Literary critics broke texts into isolated passages and phrases to find hidden meanings.


Advocates of feminism, gay rights, and third-world causes embraced the method as an instrument to reveal the prejudices and inconsistencies of Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Freud and other “dead white male” icons of Western culture. Architects and designers could claim to take a “deconstructionist” approach to buildings by abandoning traditional symmetry and creating zigzaggy, sometimes disquieting spaces.

Aha — a troublemaker! Kind of like Noam Chomsky dressed up in Jean-Paul Sartre drag for Halloween — scaring the neighborhood kiddies by playing Juliette Greco records at full blast while passing out pain au chocolat instead of Snickers and M & Ms !

The filmmaker Woody Allen titled one of his movies “Deconstructing Harry,” to suggest that his protagonist could best be understood by breaking down and analyzing his neurotic contradictions.

And as The Woodman has long been the capo di tutte capi of what the NYT considers worthy one can guess that he not so entitled his film the paper wouldn’t have bothered with such an extensive obit.

Toward the end of the 20th century, deconstruction became a code word of intellectual discourse, much as existentialism and structuralism – two other fashionable, slippery philosophies that also emerged from France after World War II – had been before it. Mr. Derrida and his followers were unwilling – some say unable – to define deconstruction with any precision, so it has remained misunderstood, or interpreted in endlessly contradictory ways.
Typical of Mr. Derrida’s murky explanations of his philosophy was a 1993 paper he presented at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, in New York, which began: “Needless to say, one more time, deconstruction, if there is such a thing, takes place as the experience of the impossible.”

OOooooo – Slippery! Murky! “Unwilling – some say unable – to define deconstruction with any precision” — as if a critical process could be summed up in a sentence. Or better still, a sound-byte. Something suitable that the average television entertainment “news” host (eg. Billy Bush) could mouth without looking more stupid than he ordinarily does.

Mr. Derrida was a prolific writer, but his 40-plus books on various aspects of deconstruction were no more easily accessible. Even some of their titles – “Of Grammatology,” “The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond,” and “Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce” – could be off-putting to the uninitiated.

Or simply of no interest to anyone unfamiliar with the writings of Sassure, Plato, Freud and Joyce — the subjects of the books cited above.

“Many otherwise unmalicious people have in fact been guilty of wishing for deconstruction’s demise – if only to relieve themselves of the burden of trying to understand it,” Mitchell Stephens, a journalism professor at New York University, wrote in a 1994 article in The New York Times Magazine.

A common malady in a culture hostile to intellectual experience of any sort.

“Mr. Derrida’s credibility was also damaged by a 1987 scandal involving Paul de Man, a Yale University professor who was the most acclaimed exponent of deconstruction in the United States. Four years after Mr. de Man’s death, it was revealed that he had contributed numerous pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic articles to a newspaper in Belgium, where he was born, while it was under German occupation during World War II. In defending his dead colleague, Mr. Derrida, a Jew, was understood by some people to be condoning Mr. de Man’s anti-Semitism.

That’s how the stupid “understand.”

Nonetheless, during the 1970’s and 1980’s, Mr. Derrida’s writings and lectures gained him a huge following in major American universities – in the end, he proved far more influential in the United States than in France. For young, ambitious professors, his teachings became a springboard to tenure in faculties dominated by senior colleagues and older, shopworn philosophies. For many students, deconstruction was a right of passage into the world of rebellious intellect.

Intellect being synonymous to rebellion at the NYT.

Or at least certain sections of the NYT. Recently Whittaker Chambers biographer Sam Tanenhaus was put in charge of the paper’s Sunday Book Review, promising to make changes via longer and more thoughtful reviews. And he would appear to be living up to this promise what with Walter Kirn’s thoughful and incisive piece on a new collection of Jack Kerouac’s writings and a review of Kitty Kelley’s book on the Bush dynasty by Ted Widmer that offers a welcome correction to Michiko Kakutani’s smug hatchet job. Consequently one hopes that Tanenhaus will find someone with something serious to say about Derrida in the near future.

Meanwhile. . .

Jacques Derrida was born on July 15, 1930, in El-Biar, Algeria. His father was a salesman. At age 12, he was expelled from his French school when the rector, adhering to the Vichy government’s racial laws, ordered a drastic cut in Jewish enrollment. Even as a teenager, Mr. Derrida (the name is pronounced day-ree-DAH) was a voracious reader whose eclectic interests embraced the philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and the poet Paul Valéry.

But he could be an indifferent student. He failed his baccalaureate in his first attempt. He twice failed his entrance exam to the École Normal Supérieure, the traditional cradle of French intellectuals, where he was finally admitted in 1952. There he failed the oral portion of his final exams on his first attempt.

That’s “Normale” (note the e) And there is no final exam. Only a very tough competitive entrance exam (“concours”) And failing it once or several
times is more the rule than the exception.

After graduation in 1956, he studied briefly at Harvard University. For most of the next 30 years, he taught philosophy and logic at both the University of Paris and the École Normal Supérieure. Yet he did not defend his doctoral dissertation until 1980, when he was 50 years old.

By the early 1960’s, Mr. Derrida had made a name for himself as a rising young intellectual in Paris by publishing articles on language and philosophy in leading academic journals. He was especially influenced by the German philosophers, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. Both were strong critics of traditional metaphysics, a branch of philosophy which explored the basis and perception of reality.

As a lecturer, Mr. Derrida cultivated charisma and mystery. For many years, he declined to be photographed for publication. He cut a dashing, handsome figure at the lectern, with his thick thatch of prematurely white hair, tanned complexion, and well-tailored suits. He peppered his lectures with puns, rhymes and enigmatic pronouncements, like, “Thinking is what we already know that we have not yet begun,” or, “Oh my friends, there is no friend…”

As anyone who has read Derrida’s Politics of Friendship knows, “Oh my friends, there is no friend…” is not a statement made by him, but rather by Aristotle.

Being secure in its absolute authority, the NYT knows its target readership won’t bother to check. After all, they’re reading this obit the better to impress their friends with notion that they know “all about Derrida.”

Many readers found his prose turgid and baffling, even as aficionados found it illuminating. A single sentence could run for three pages, and a footnote even longer. Sometimes his books were written in “deconstructed” style. For example, “Glas” (1974) offers commentaries on the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and the French novelist Jean Genet in parallel columns of the book’s pages; in between, there is an occasional third column of commentary about the two men’s ideas.
“The trouble with reading Mr. Derrida is that there is too much perspiration for too little inspiration,” editorialized The Economist in 1992, when Cambridge University awarded the philosopher an honorary degree after a bruising argument among his supporters and critics on the faculty. Elsewhere in Europe, Mr. Derrida’s deconstruction philosophy gained earlier and easier acceptance.

Because thoughtful and attentive readers discovered just how much fun Derrida could be — Glas being a perfect example. It’s a philosophical-literary vaudeville, much on the order of a Frank Tashlin or Joe Dante movie.

Mr. Derrida appeared on the American intellectual landscape at a 1966 conference on the French intellectual movement known as structuralism at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. Its high priest was French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who studied societies through their linguistic structure.

Mr. Derrida shocked his American audience by announcing that structuralism was already passé in France, and that Mr. Lévi-Strauss’s ideas were too rigid. Instead, Mr. Derrida offered deconstruction as the new, triumphant philosophy.
His presentation fired up young professors who were in search of a new intellectual movement to call their own. In a Los Angeles Times Magazine article in 1991, Mr. Stephens, the journalism professor, wrote: “He gave literature professors a special gift: a chance to confront – not as mere second-rate philosophers, not as mere interpreters of novelists, but as full-fledged explorers in their own right – the most profound paradoxes of Western thought.”
“If they really read, if they stared intently enough at the metaphors,” he went on, “literature professors, from the comfort of their own easy chairs, could reveal the hollowness of the basic assumptions that lie behind all our writings.” Other critics found it disturbing that obscure academics could presume to denigrate a Sophocles, Voltaire or Tolstoy by seeking out cultural biases and inexact language in their masterpieces. “Literature, the deconstructionists frequently proved, had been written by entirely the wrong people for entirely the wrong reasons,” wrote Malcolm Bradbury, a British novelist and professor, in a 1991 article for The New York Times Book Review.

You can see where this is leading. Interdisciplinary madness I tell you! Literature teachers having as much authority as philosophy professors!
Students asking questions! Dogs and cats living together!

Mr. Derrida’s influence was especially strong in the Yale University literature department, where one of his close friends, a Belgian-born professor, Paul de Man, emerged as a leading champion of deconstruction in literary analysis. Mr. de Man had claimed to be a refugee from war-torn Europe, and even left the impression among colleagues that he had joined the Belgian resistance.

But in 1987, four years after Mr. de Man’s death, research revealed that he had written over 170 articles in the early 1940’s for Le Soir, a Nazi newspaper in Belgium. Some of these articles were openly anti-Semitic, including one that echoed Nazi calls for “a final solution” and seemed to defend the notion of concentration camps.

“A solution to the Jewish problem that aimed at the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would entail no deplorable consequences for the literary life of the West,” wrote Mr. de Man.

The revelations became a major scandal at Yale and other campuses where the late Mr. de Man had been lionized as an intellectual hero. Some former colleagues asserted that the scandal was being used to discredit deconstruction by people who were always hostile to the movement. But Mr. Derrida gave fodder to critics by defending Mr. de Man, and even using literary deconstruction techniques in an attempt to demonstrate that the Belgian scholar’s newspaper articles were not really anti-Semitic.

This was indeed a great scandale. Derrida’s enemies felt that (like Ken Starr with that blue cum-stained dress from the GAP) they at last “had him.” But in his Memoires for Paul de Man Derrida declined to denounce his dead friend the long-accepted neo-Stalinist manner of American anti-intellectual thuggery — which would have required him to “renounce” his ways and confess like other “troublemakers” deemed by these characters to be a “witch” or “sorcerer.”

“Borrowing Derrida’s logic one could deconstruct Mein Kampf to reveal that [Adolf Hitler] was in conflict with anti-Semitism,” scoffed Peter Lennon, in a 1992 article for The Guardian. According to another critic, Mark Lilla, in a 1998 article in The New York Review of Books, Mr. Derrida’s contortionist defense of his old friend left “the impression that deconstruction means you never have to say you’re sorry.”

“Confess Grandier! Confess!”

Almost as devastating for deconstruction and Mr. Derrida was the revelation, also in 1987, that Heidegger, one of his intellectual muses, was a dues-paying member of the Nazi Party from 1933 to 1945. Once again, Mr. Derrida was accused by critics of being irresolute, this time for failing to condemn Heidegger’s fascist ideas.

To anyone with any knowledge of what was actually fairly recent history this was no overnight “revelation” at all. But then Derrida’s enemies were in the habit of conflating his interest in Heidegger’s writings with an uncritical embrace
of them and him which was scarcely the case as anyone who has bothered to read Derrida well knows.

By the late 1980’s, Mr. Derrida’s intellectual star was on the wane on both sides of the Atlantic. But he continued to commute between France and the United States, where he was paid hefty fees to lecture a few weeks every year at several East Coast universities and the University of California at Irvine.

Gee somebody should have told those universities that Derrida was over !

In his early years of intellectual fame, Mr. Derrida was criticized by European leftists for a lack of political commitment – indeed, for espousing a philosophy that attacked the very concept of absolute political certainties. But in the 1980’s, he became active in a number of political causes, opposing apartheid, defending Czech dissidents and supporting the rights of North African immigrants in France.

Mr. Derrida also became far more accessible to the media. He sat still for photos and gave interviews that stripped away his formerly mysterious aura to reveal the mundane details of his personal life.

A former Yale student, Amy Ziering Kofman, focused on him in a 2002 documentary, “Derrida,” that some reviewers found charming. “With his unruly white hair and hawklike face, Derrida is a compelling presence even when he is merely pondering a question,” wrote Kenneth Turan in The Los Angeles Times. “Even his off-the-cuff comments are intriguing, because everything gets serious consideration. And when he is wary, he’s never difficult for its own sake but because his philosophical positions make him that way.”

The results are on view in the delightful film Kofman Ziering co-directed with Kirby Dick He is also the subject of another documentary entitled Ghost Dance Ken McMullen’s Rivette-inspired jape on cargo cults with Pascale Ogier and Leonie Mellinger.

Rather than hang around the Left Bank cafés traditionally inhabited by French intellectuals, Mr. Derrida preferred the quiet of Ris-Orangis, a suburb south of Paris, where he lived in a small house with his wife, Marguerite Aucouturier, a psychoanalyst. The couple had two sons, Pierre and Jean. He also had a son, Daniel, with Sylviane Agacinski, a philosophy teacher who later married the French political leader Lionel Jospin.

As a young man, Mr. Derrida confessed, he hoped to become a professional soccer player. And he admitted to being an inveterate viewer of television, watching everything from news to soap operas. “I am critical of what I’m watching,” said Mr. Derrida with mock pride. “I deconstruct all the time.”
Late in his career, Mr. Derrida was asked, as he had been so often, what deconstruction was. “Why don’t you ask a physicist or a mathematician about difficulty?” he replied, frostily, to Dinitia Smith, a Times reporter, in a 1998. “Deconstruction requires work. If deconstruction is so obscure, why are the audiences in my lectures in the thousands? They feel they understand enough to understand more.”

Asked later in the same interview to at least define deconstruction, Mr. Derrida said: “It is impossible to respond. I can only do something which will leave me unsatisfied.”

And the NYT can’t leave its target readers dissatisfied.

Everyone else, meanwhile, would do well to read Derrida. Along with Barthes, Foucault and Lacan, who preceded him en route to void, Jacques Derrida was one of France’s signal intellectual figures to emerge from the 60’s and impact world-wide in the 70’s. Reading a virtual novel like The Post Card is as entertaing as it is intellectually challenging. But for me most impresive of all is “Plato’s Pharmacy,” the central section of Dissemination.

Discourse on Plato’s Dialogues was in and of itself no new thing. But only Derrida elected to do so via its juxtaposition with a brief, mysterious text by Mallarme. The result is a piece of critical literature I find myself returning to time and time again. Partly for its intellectual rigor, but mostly for its sheer fun. Like the fun of I Heart Huckabees, a comedy about philosophy that I’m sure Derrida would have loved. Indeed it resembles nothing so much as a Derrida remake of Frank Tashlin’s Who’s Minding the Store? — which doubtless explains why its made so many critics nervous.

Almost as nervous as the NYT obituary of Jacques Derrida that you’ve just read.

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