Photo courtesy of Jacques Derrida|
Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida has had an enormous impact on intellectual life around the world. So much so that his work has been the subject, in whole or in part, of more than 400 books. In the areas of philosophy and literary criticism alone, Derrida has been cited more than 14,000 times in journal articles over the past 17 years 1. He was recently featured in a story in The New York Times. More than 500 US, British and Canadian dissertations treat him and his writings as primary subjects. He came into prominence in America with his critical approach or methodology or philosophy of deconstruction, and it is this line of thought that continues to identify him.
Derrida's deconstructionist works are integrally related to the more general phenomenon of postmodernism. Postmodernist theories and attitudes come in a variety of forms. In the realm of social and political theory, what unites them -- from Foucault to Baudrillard, from Lyotard to Derrida and others -- is a challenge to, and largely a rejection of, both the truth value and pragmatic capacity for achieving justice or peace of the modern system of political and economic institutions, as well as the very ways in which we know and act to explain and understand ourselves. Especially in the latter theoretical and explanatory domain, Derrida's deconstructionism is provocative, if not subversive, in questioning the self-evidence, logic and non-judgmental character of dichotomies we live by, such as legitimate/illegitimate, rational/irrational, fact/fiction, or observation/imagination.
During the 1960s Derrida published several influential pieces in Tel Quel, France's forum of leftist avant-garde theory. Among this group were not only those mentioned above in relation to postmodernism, but also Bataille, Barthes, Kristeva, and several others. He later distanced himself from Tel Quel.
He taught philosophy at the Sorbonne from 1960-1964 and the École Normale Superieure from 1964-1984. He currently directs the École des Hautes Études en Science Sociales in Paris. Since 1986 he has also been Professor of Philosophy, French and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine and continues to lecture in academic institutions on both sides of the Atlantic.
Derrida is "perhaps the world's most famous philosopher -- if not the only famous philosopher," in the words of Dinitia Smith, the talented and entertaining author of the aforementioned New York Times feature "Philosopher Gamely in Defense of His Ideas." Ms. Smith confided in the article, "A scholar ... warned against asking him [Derrida] to define 'deconstruction,' the notoriously difficult and widely influential method of inquiry he invented more than three decades ago. 'Make it your last question,' the scholar counseled, because it sends deconstructionists into "paroxysms of rage.'"
If Derrida and deconstruction can not be discussed one without the other, what then is deconstruction? Definitions even vary, from a seven page-explanation to a four page entry or an eleven page reference. How does Professor Derrida himself define it? He says of course a very great deal in numerous writings as well as in published interviews such as Deconstruction in a nutshell: a conversation with Jacques Derrida. What Ms. Smith reported of their conversation at the Polo Grill is the following:
"It is impossible to respond," Mr. Derrida said. "I can only do something which will leave me unsatisfied." But after some prodding, he gave it a try anyway. "I often describe deconstruction as something which happens. It's not purely linguistic, involving text or books. You can deconstruct gestures, choreography. That's why I enlarged the concept of text."
The name Derrida brings up controversies that would normally be reserved for political figures. In 1992 at the ever proper Cambridge University, the granting of an honorary degree to Derrida provoked an impassioned debate among the dons. The end result was the unusual step of putting the issue to vote, the first rift of its kind in twenty-nine years. It was settled by a 336-204 vote in Derrida's favor (a veritable landslide victory in the context of normal politics).
Mr. Derrida did not seem angry at having to define his philosophy at all; he was even smiling. "Everything is a text; this is a text," he said, waving his arm at the diners around him in the bland suburbanlike restaurant, blithely picking at their lunches, completely unaware that they were being "deconstructed."
And in such an atmosphere of keen debate and disagreements, parody is not unknown. Stanford English Professor John L'Heureux, with deconstruction and its critical-theoretical progeny in view, offered the reader this prospect of a brave new academic world in his novel The Handmaid of Desire:
This department [The Department of Theory and Discourse] was his dream; it would revolutionize university studies. It would include Comp Lit, Mod Thought, and all the little language departments -- French, Russian, Spanish, you name it. It would take on all written documents, equally with absolute indifference to the author's reputation or the western canon or the nature of writing itself -- whether it was Flaubert's Bovary or a 1950 tax form or a label on a Campbell's soup can . . .-- and subject them all to the probing, thrusting, hard-breathing analysis of the latest developments in metaphilosophical trans-literary theory. Whatever those theories might be. Wherever they might lead.
However one values Derrida's writings and the philosophical positions and intellectual traditions from which he proceeds, it would be wrongheaded to think of him as an occupant of some "ivory tower". Derrida is the proverbial activist-theorist, who, over the years, has fought for a number of political causes, including the rights of Algerian immigrants in France, anti-apartheid, and the rights of Czech Charter 77 dissidents. True to his own construction of the world and his own autobiography, he has admitted few, if any, strict dichotomies in his life. As he put it in another context, "I am applied Derrida."
1 Based on a search of the Arts and Humanities Citation Index.
By John Rawlings
©1999, Stanford University
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