Seminar - October 11, 2004
:Deconstruction and Criticism
Remembering Jacques Derrida:
3. NY Times
-“Being nihilistic” Incorrect -Philos. The belief or theory that the world has no real existence; the rejection of all notions of reality. -Nihilism actually an effort to establish individuality, rather than/as well as the total rejection of prevailing religious beliefs, moral principles, laws, etc., often from a sense of despair and the belief that life is devoid of meaning. -Where Kandell’s meaning is primarily drawn from: Also more generally (merging with extended use of sense of psychiatric “delusional belief that the patient's self, the outside world, or parts of either have ceased to exist or to function”): negativity, destructiveness, hostility to accepted beliefs or established institutions. (Definitions drawn from Oxford English Dictionary, OED Online,
-“Deconstructive analysis” Incorrect
-Kandell: “Who’s Afraid of Deconstructionism?”
9. The Chronicle of Higher Education
-Monday, October 11, 2004 <http://chronicle.com/free/2004/10/2004101102n.htm>
Jacques Derrida, Thinker Who Influenced and Infuriated a Range of Humanistic Fields, Dies at 74
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 Friday 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.
News that the philosopher was in treatment for pancreatic cancer had been circulating among his students and admirers since the spring of 2003. In a statement from the office of 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."
Discussion 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, where his work has had a devoted following. 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.
By the early 1970s, a few American scholars had taken up deconstruction as one of the most challenging approaches to emerge in the wake of "the structural revolution" in French critical thought. Derrida offered not so much a theory as a new way of reading.
The deconstructive analysis of literary or philosophical writings involved teasing out the nuggets of inescapable complexity. Reading a dialogue by Plato, a scene in Shakespeare, or one of Freud's essays, Derrida would locate a moment in the text 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 mental stamina to the limits. In her novel about French intellectual life in the 1960s and '70s, The Samurai, Julia Kristeva, a professor of literature at the University of Paris, portrays Derrida as the character Saida, 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 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."
"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 American feminists."
A much less sardonic account of the thinker's appeal to young American intellectuals of the early 1970s 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 on Saturday what it was like to read Derrida's work 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 (originally published in 1967). The practice of deconstructive analysis "engaged our interpretive skills, and pushed our reading beyond any prescribed boundaries."
"It was intellectually exciting and politically hopeful," he said.
It was also alarming, at least to some literary scholars. 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."
Someone loyal to Derrida 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."
By the 1980s, deconstruction had grown into a phenomenon much larger than Derrida's own work. A prominent group of literary critics at Yale University (including Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller) used Derridean methods to analyze Romantic and Victorian literature.
As their 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 the "Yale school," 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. And other theoretical approaches began to displace deconstruction from its former eminence in American literary scholarship.
That was not, however, the end of the story.
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.' When Derrida was in vogue among literary theorists, you would not have heard that expression. 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 hospitality."
Some scholars have referred to "the ethico-political turn" in Derrida's work during the 1990s. Interest in his writings increased among philosophers, and also among those in religious studies.
In earlier years, some commentators on Derrida's work had wondered whether his exacting attention to texts might not make him, in effect, a secular practitioner of the reading skills cultivated by centuries of Talmudic scholars. (Indeed, Derrida had hinted as much himself: His book Writing and Difference closes with a quotation attributed to a rabbi named Derrisa.)
In interviews and autobiographical texts from his final decade, he began to speak about growing up as a Jew in Algeria during the Vichy period. 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.
"The idea of something of unconditional value begins to emerge in Derrida's work --something that makes an unconditional claim on us," said Mr. Caputo. "So the deconstruction of this or that begins to look a little bit like the critique of idols in Jewish theology."
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 atheist."
"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.
10. The Washington Post -<http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A21050-2004Oct9.html>
Jacques Derrida Dies; Deconstructionist Philosopher
By Patricia Sullivan Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page C11
Jacques Derrida, 74, originator of the diabolically difficult school of philosophy known as deconstructionism, died Oct. 9, the office of French President Jacques Chirac announced. French media reports said that the cause was pancreatic cancer and that he died at a Paris hospital.
Mr. Derrida (pronounced "deh-ree-DAH") inspired and infuriated a generation of intellectuals and students with his argument that the meaning of a collection of words is not fixed and unchanging, an argument he most famously capsulized as "there is nothing outside the text."
An immensely influential thinker, Mr. Derrida's seminal idea permeated college campuses during the 1960s, '70s and '80s. "Deconstruction" has become one of the few terms that, like "existential" a generation or two earlier, has escaped from dense philosophical and literary papers to pepper modern culture, from movie reviews to government policy pronouncements.
"With him, France has given the world one of its greatest contemporary philosophers, one of the major figures of intellectual life of our time," Chirac said in a statement.
The lack of fixed meaning in a text did not keep Mr. Derrida from publishing hundreds of books. The fact that there is no single meaning does not mean there is no meaning, he said, and it doesn't excuse writers, thinkers and speakers from trying to be as clear as possible about what they think they mean.
For 17 years, from 1962 to 1979, he refused to be photographed for publication, in an effort to keep his face --square, with a strong nose, thick eyebrows, dark skin and bushy white hair --from becoming part of the investigation for meaning in his work. He also rejected the characterization of him as a dandy for his snappy dress, even as he said he liked the description.
Deconstruction, which he introduced in the 1960s, both electrified and polarized those with the intellectual muscle to unwind its implications. The language he and others used in discussing it was deliberately dense, complex and, some said, circular. He bristled when confronted with the difficulty of his work.
"Why don't you ask a physicist or mathematician about difficulty?" he told a New York Times reporter in 1998, "a little frostily," she said. He continued: "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."
Language, he said, is inadequate to provide a clear and unambiguous view of reality. In other words, the fixed meaning of an essay, a book, a personal letter, a scientific treatise or a recipe dissolves when hidden ambiguities and contradictions are revealed. These contradictions, inevitable in every piece of writing, he said, reveal deep fissures in the foundation of the Western world's civilizations, cultures and creations.
Supporters said this insight into the layered meanings and incompleteness of language subverts reason and rationality, stripping centuries of assumptions from words and allowing fresh ideas to emerge.
Critics called it nihilism (the denial of the meaning of existence, or denial of the existence of any basis for knowledge and truth), a charge he vehemently denied.
His work, to be sure, has attracted greater enthusiasm from literary critics and language professors than from formally trained philosophers or scientists. Some Cambridge University faculty members, objecting to their school's plan to award Mr. Derrida an honorary degree in 1992, derided his work for "denying the distinctions between fact and fiction, observation and imagination, evidence and prejudice."
He also was drawn into debates about a friend, Yale professor Paul DeMan, who wrote anti-Semitic articles in Nazi-occupied Belgium, and about an intellectual forebear, Martin Heidegger, whose amoral attitude led him to embrace Nazism.
In his own life, he was part of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, in favor of freedom of expression in pre-1989 Czechoslovakia and for the rights of Algerian immigrants in France. He told several interviewers that he really wanted to be a soccer player but didn't have the athletic talent.
Mr. Derrida was born in El Biar, Algeria, the middle child in a Jewish family whose father was a salesman. At age 12, he was dismissed from school as the Vichy government's anti-Semitic laws emerged.
He was a good enough student later to be admitted to Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, where he earned an advanced degree in philosophy in 1956. He taught philosophy at the University of Paris at the Sorbonne and at the Ecole des Hautes Etude en Sciences Sociales.
He also taught at Johns Hopkins University, Yale University and the University of California at Irvine. Survivors include his wife, Marguerite Aucouturier, a psychoanalyst; and two sons, Pierre and Jean.
11. The Wall Street Journal -LEISURE & ARTS, WSJ.com, Opinion Journal, from The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page
The Meaninglessness of Meaning
Jacques Derrida is dead, but his baneful ideas live on.
BY ROGER KIMBALL
Tuesday, October 12, 2004 12:01 a.m.
It's not every French intellectual whose death is commemorated by an announcement from the office of Jacques Chirac, the French president. But Jacques Derrida, who died Friday at age 74, was not just any French intellectual. His work, as Mr. Chirac's office noted, was "read, discussed, and taught around the world."
Whether Mr. Derrida was also "one of the major figures in the intellectual life of our time," as Mr. Chirac's office asserted, is a point that has been fiercely contested ever since Mr. Derrida burst onto the intellectual scene in the mid-1960s.
Mr. Derrida (the name is pronounced deh-ree-DAH) was without doubt one of the most famous intellectuals of the past 40 years. His celebrity rivaled that of Jean-Paul Sartre. As the founder, honorary CEO and chief publicist for an abstruse philosophical doctrine he called "deconstruction," Mr. Derrida was celebrated and vilified in about equal measure. Academics on the lookout for a trendy intellectual and moral high-explosive tended to love Mr. Derrida. The rest of us felt . . . otherwise.
What is deconstruction? Mr. Derrida would never say. It was a question certain to spark his contempt and ire. He denied that deconstruction could be meaningfully defined. I think he was right about that, though not necessarily for the reasons he believed.
But even if deconstruction cannot be defined, it can be described. For one thing, deconstruction comes with a lifetime guarantee to render discussion of any subject completely unintelligible. It does this by linguistic subterfuge. One of the central slogans of deconstruction is il n'y a pas de hors-texte, i.e., "there is nothing outside the text." (It sounds better in French.) In other words, deconstruction is an updated version of nominalism, the view that the meanings of words are completely arbitrary and that, at bottom, reality is unknowable.
Of course, if you put it as baldly as that, people will just laugh and ignore you. But if you dress up the idea in a forbidding vocabulary, full of neologisms and recondite references to philosophy, then you may have a prescription for academic stardom.
Stock in deconstruction has sagged a bit in recent years. There are basically two reasons for this. The first has to do with the late Paul de Man, the Belgian-born Yale professor of comparative literature. In addition to being one of the most prominent practitioners of deconstruction, Mr. de Man--as was revealed in the late 1980s--was an enthusiastic contributor to Nazi newspapers during World War II.
That discovery, and above all the flood of obscurantist mendacity disgorged by the deconstructionist brotherhood--not least by Mr. Derrida, who was himself Jewish--to exonerate Mr. de Man, cast a permanent shadow over deconstruction's status as a supposed instrument of intellectual liberation.
The second reason that deconstruction has lost some sheen is simply that, like any academic fashion, deconstruction's methods and vocabulary, once so novel and forbidding, have gradually become part of the common coin of academic discourse, and thus less trendy.
It is important to recognize, however, that this very process of assimilation has assured the continuing influence of deconstruction.
Once at home mostly in philosophy and literature departments, the nihilistic tenets of deconstruction have cropped up further and further afield: in departments of history, sociology, political science and architecture; in law schools and--God help us--business schools.
Deconstructive themes and presuppositions have increasingly become part of the general intellectual atmosphere: absorbed to such an extent that they float almost unnoticed, part of the ambient spiritual pollution of our time. Who can forget the politician who, accused of wrongdoing, said in his defense that "it all depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is"?
Although the language of deconstruction is forbidding, the appeal of the doctrine is not hard to understand. It is the appeal of all intellectual radicalism.
Because deconstruction operates by subversion, its evasions are at the same time an attack: an attack on the cogency of language and the moral and intellectual claims that language has codified in tradition. The subversive element inherent in the deconstructive enterprise is another reason that it has exercised such a mesmerizing spell on intellectuals.
Deconstruction promises its adherents not only an emancipation from the responsibilities of truth but also the prospect of engaging in a species of radical activism. A blow against the legitimacy of language is at the same time a blow against the legitimacy of the tradition in which language lives and has meaning. By undercutting the idea of truth, the decontructionist also undercuts the idea of value, including established social, moral, and political values.
There is a lot to be said for the old adage de mortuis nil nisi bonum. Jacques Derrida is dead. Let us not speak ill of him. But his ideas are still very much alive. They deserve unstinting criticism from anyone who cares about the moral fabric of intellectual life.
Mr. Kimball, managing editor of The New Criterion, is author of "The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art" (Encounter Books).
12. The New Republic -http://www.tnr.com/docprint.mhtml?i=online&s=wolin101304
THE APPROPRIATE DECLINE OF DECONSTRUCTIONISM: The Death of the Author
by Richard Wolin Only at TNR Online Post date: 10.13.04
Anyone who tries to account for Jacques Derrida's success in North America is faced with a paradox. During the early 1980s, when his fortunes began to ebb precipitously in France--articles on his philosophy had slowed to a trickle of two or three per annum--in the United States deconstruction became something of an academic cottage industry. Translations of his books, conferences devoted to his thought, as well as endless commentaries trying to explicate the obscurities of "so-called deconstruction" proliferated.
The irony is that American academics--most of whom were clustered in comparative literature departments--attempting to ride the crest of the Parisian theoretical avant-garde were "always already" (to employ a pet Derrideanism) behind the times. For, by the mid-'70s, Derrida's exotic brand of "post-structuralism"--which had proclaimed that the ends of metaphysical "closure" pursued by first-generation, hard core structuralists like Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault, could never be achieved--had become a dead letter.
Nineteen sixty-seven was Derrida's breakthrough year. He published three successful books and, for a brief, shining moment, became the toast of the Left Bank. Structuralism had become intellectually hegemonic. The claims of Derridean "différance"--viz., that all claims to determinate meaning were self-undermining--appeared revolutionary and refreshing. Yet, already by the following year, his hermetic, "negative semiotics"--a semiotics of "absence" rather than "presence"--had become an object of satirical derision. In Structuralist Mornings, the novelist Clément Rosset subjected deconstructionist pretense (specifically, the Derridean habitude of writing sous rature or crossing out words) to biting parody: "I write a first sentence, but in fact I should not have written it, excuse me, I will erase everything and I'll start over again; I write a second sentence, but after thinking about it, I should not have written that one either."
In France, the Derridean gambit foundered quite soon. Like the structuralists, Derrida prided himself on his discursive "illisibilité," or "unreadability." But after the breakthrough of the May '68 revolt, when structuralist platitudes concerning the "end of history" and the "end of man" were refuted on the streets of the Latin Quarter, "unintelligibility" had become a distinct liability. In the eyes of the May generation, Derrida was associated with the structuralist old guard. Deconstruction was perceived, not unjustly, as part and parcel of an elitist, self-enclosed, mandarin academic idiom. In the eyes of his critics, Derrida was never able to live down his famous bon mot, "There is nothing outside the text." The exclusive emphasis on "textuality" in his work, combined with the studied indifference to the political exterior or "outside," constituted a final nail in deconstruction's coffin.
Toward the late '80s, deconstruction also underwent a major crisis in North America. In the eyes of his acolytes, the Master's frequent proclamations concerning the "death of the subject" seemed to malign and belittle the idea of human agency itself--and, thus, the prospect of progressive political change. If all meaning were, as Derrida claimed, indeterminate, if moral and epistemological questions were ultimately "undecidable," what was the point of political commitment? When all was said and done, wasn't deconstruction merely an elaborate and convoluted prescription for political quietism?
In 1987 the Paul de Man and Martin Heidegger scandals broke--coincidently, within months of each another. In a stroke, deconstruction's key North American benefactor (de Man) and its leading philosophical inspiration (Heidegger) were exposed for their compromising associations with Nazism. Derrida did nothing to enhance deconstruction's credibility when he claimed: 1) that Heidegger had become a Nazi due to a surfeit of "metaphysical humanism" and 2) de Man's 1941 newspaper articles endorsing the deportation of Europe's Jews were actually the work of a closet résistant. Could it be that the claims and suspicions of deconstruction's vigorous detractors were true after all?
But the ultimate paradox besetting deconstruction lies elsewhere. It hinges on the fact that a methodology that promoted itself as "critical"--as the exemplar of political and textual criticism--quickly degenerated into a variant of run-of-the-mill academic corporatism. Each time deconstruction was exposed to criticism, the Derridean faithful predictably circled the wagons. Deconstruction had become a new Scripture or Holy Writ. And in the eyes of true believers, its progenitor could do no wrong. Anyone who dared to criticize the credo was branded as a heathen or non-believer. Deconstruction had its moment in the intellectual limelight. But, appropriately, that moment was fleeting.
Richard Wolin is the author of The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzche to Postmodernism (Princeton University Press).
13. The New York Times
-October 14, 2004, Op-Ed, <http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/14/opinion/14taylor.html>
What Derrida Really Meant
By MARK C. TAYLOR
Along with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, who died last week in Paris at the age of 74, will be remembered as one of the three most important philosophers of the 20th century. No thinker in the last 100 years had a greater impact than he did on people in more fields and different disciplines. Philosophers, theologians, literary and art critics, psychologists, historians, writers, artists, legal scholars and even architects have found in his writings resources for insights that have led to an extraordinary revival of the arts and humanities during the past four decades. And no thinker has been more deeply misunderstood.
To people addicted to sound bites and overnight polls, Mr. Derrida's works seem hopelessly obscure. It is undeniable that they cannot be easily summarized or reduced to one-liners. The obscurity of his writing, however, does not conceal a code that can be cracked, but reflects the density and complexity characteristic of all great works of philosophy, literature and art. Like good French wine, his works age well. The more one lingers with them, the more they reveal about our world and ourselves.
What makes Mr. Derrida's work so significant is the way he brought insights of major philosophers, writers, artists and theologians to bear on problems of urgent contemporary interest. Most of his infamously demanding texts consist of
careful interpretations of canonical writers in the Western philosophical, literary and artistic traditions -from Plato to Joyce. By reading familiar works against the grain, he disclosed concealed meanings that created new possibilities for imaginative expression.
Mr. Derrida's name is most closely associated with the often cited but rarely understood term "deconstruction." Initially formulated to define a strategy for interpreting sophisticated written and visual works, deconstruction has entered everyday language. When responsibly understood, the implications of deconstruction are quite different from the misleading clichés often used to describe a process of dismantling or taking things apart. The guiding insight of deconstruction is that every structure -be it literary, psychological, social, economic, political or religious -that organizes our experience is constituted and maintained through acts of exclusion. In the process of creating something, something else inevitably gets left out.
These exclusive structures can become repressive -and that repression comes with consequences. In a manner reminiscent of Freud, Mr. Derrida insists that what is repressed does not disappear but always returns to unsettle every construction, no matter how secure it seems. As an Algerian Jew writing in France during the postwar years in the wake of totalitarianism on the right (fascism) as well as the left (Stalinism), Mr. Derrida understood all too well the danger of beliefs and ideologies that divide the world into diametrical opposites: right or left, red or blue, good or evil, for us or against us. He showed how these repressive structures, which grew directly out of the Western intellectual and cultural tradition, threatened to return with devastating consequences. By struggling to find ways to overcome patterns that exclude the differences that make life worth living, he developed a vision that is consistently ethical.
And yet, supporters on the left and critics on the right have misunderstood this vision. Many of Mr. Derrida's most influential followers appropriated his analyses of marginal writers, works and cultures as well as his emphasis on the importance of preserving differences and respecting others to forge an identity politics that divides the world between the very oppositions that it was Mr. Derrida's mission to undo: black and white, men and women, gay and straight. Betraying Mr. Derrida's insights by creating a culture of political correctness, his self-styled supporters fueled the culture wars that have been raging for more than two decades and continue to frame political debate.
To his critics, Mr. Derrida appeared to be a pernicious nihilist who threatened the very foundation of Western society and culture. By insisting that truth and absolute value cannot be known with certainty, his detractors argue, he undercut the very possibility of moral judgment. To follow Mr. Derrida, they maintain, is to start down the slippery slope of skepticism and relativism that inevitably leaves us powerless to act responsibly.
This is an important criticism that requires a careful response. Like Kant, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Mr. Derrida does argue that transparent truth and absolute values elude our grasp. This does not mean, however, that we must forsake the cognitive categories and moral principles without which we cannot live: equality and justice, generosity and friendship. Rather, it is necessary to recognize the unavoidable limitations and inherent contradictions in the ideas and norms that guide our actions, and do so in a way that keeps them open to constant questioning and continual revision. There can be no ethical action without critical reflection.
During the last decade of his life, Mr. Derrida became preoccupied with religion and it is in this area that his contribution might well be most significant for our time. He understood that religion is impossible without uncertainty. Whether conceived of as Yahweh, as the father of Jesus Christ, or as Allah, God can never be fully known or adequately represented by imperfect human beings.
And yet, we live in an age when major conflicts are shaped by people who claim to know, for certain, that God is on their side. Mr. Derrida reminded us that religion does not always give clear meaning, purpose and certainty by providing secure foundations. To the contrary, the great religious traditions are profoundly disturbing because they all call certainty and security into question. Belief not tempered by doubt poses a mortal danger.
As the process of globalization draws us ever closer in networks of communication and exchange, there is an understandable longing for simplicity, clarity and certainty. This desire is responsible, in large measure, for the rise of cultural conservatism and religious fundamentalism -in this country and around the world. True believers of every stripe -Muslim, Jewish and Christian -cling to beliefs that, Mr. Derrida warns, threaten to tear apart our world.
Fortunately, he also taught us that the alternative to blind belief is not simply unbelief but a different kind of belief -one that embraces uncertainty and enables us to respect others whom we do not understand. In a complex world, wisdom is knowing what we don't know so that we can keep the future open.
In the two decades I knew Mr. Derrida, we had many meetings and exchanges. In conversation, he listened carefully and responded helpfully to questions whether posed by undergraduates or colleagues. As a teacher, he gave freely of his time to several generations of students.
But small things are the measure of the man. In 1986, my family and I were in Paris and Mr. Derrida invited us to dinner at his house in the suburbs 20 miles away. He insisted on picking us up at our hotel, and when we arrived at his home he presented our children with carnival masks. At 2 a.m., he drove us back to the city. In later years, when my son and daughter were writing college papers on his work, he sent them letters and postcards of encouragement as well as signed copies of several of his books. Jacques Derrida wrote eloquently about the gift of friendship but in these quiet gestures -gestures that served to forge connections among individuals across their differences -we see deconstruction in action.
Mark C. Taylor, a professor of the humanities at Williams College and a visiting professor of architecture and religion at Columbia, is the author, most recently, of "Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World Without Redemption."
15. University of California, Irvine
Remembering Jacques Derrida
ABOUT THIS SITE
Jacques Derrida died in Paris on Friday, October 8, 2004. The first occasion for this site was an obituary published by the New York Times on October 10, 2004, deemed by many of Jacques' colleagues, friends, and supporters to be unjust, disrespectful, and unbalanced. A LETTER written by Samuel Weber and Kenneth Reinhard to the New York Times quickly gathered so many signatures that we realized a web site was needed to record the names of those who wished to be heard.
October 13, 2004 To the Editors of the NY Times:
Jonathan Kandell’s obituary for Jacques Derrida is mean-spirited and uninformed. To characterize Derrida, one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, as an "Abstruse Theorist" is to employ criteria which would disqualify Einstein, Wittgenstein, and Heisenberg.
With scarcely concealed xenophobia, Kandell describes deconstruction as another of those "fashionable, slippery philosophies that ... emerged from France ... undermining many of the traditional standards of classical education." In fact, Derrida wrestled with central works of the Western tradition, including Plato, Shakespeare, and the Declaration of Independence -none of which he slighted.
Kandell reports that "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." Whether Mr. Kandall's article is "unmalicious" we will leave to others to decide. There can be no question, however, that it does everything it can to "relieve" readers "of the burden of trying to understand" Jacques Derrida and deconstruction, by celebrating the demise of both. The New York Times has done its readers an injustice in publishing such a dismissive article as its official obituary. Sincerely Samuel Weber Avalon Foundation Professor of Humanities, Northwestern University Kenneth Reinhard Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature, UCLA
REMEMBERING JACQUES DERRIDA If you would like to add your name to the In Memoriam page, please register here: <http://www.humanities.uci.edu/remembering_jd/letter.php> (It may take 24 hours before your name appears publicly.) If you have questions, please contact Julia Reinhard Lupton, firstname.lastname@example.org, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, UC Irvine.
OTHER LETTERS SENT TO THE NY TIMES
14. Film Forum Newsletter -FILM FORUM E-NEWSLETTER ALERT: One of the most influential and iconoclastic figures of the 20th century, French
philosopher and father of Deconstruction Jacques Derrida died last week in Paris at age
74. In tribute to his memory, Film Forum is presenting a 5-day return engagement of DERRIDA, the critically acclaimed documentary portrait by filmmakers Kirby Dick (SICK: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF BOB FLANAGAN, SUPERMASOCHIST) and Amy Ziering Kofman. Friday, October 15 -Tuesday, October 19 only
DERRIDA Directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman USA, 2002 85 Minutes Color In English and French with English subtitles Original score composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto ZEITGEIST FILMS
WINNER -GOLDEN GATE AWARD -SAN FRANCISCO FILM FESTIVAL OFFICIAL SELECTION -SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL
Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida: 20th century French philosophers who have revolutionized the way we think. Derrida --Jewish, Algerian-born --was kicked out of school at age 10 as part of an anti-Semitic purge. As the father of Deconstruction, a school of thought that confronts the basic assumptions underlying our thinking, he has perfected the role of outsider and iconoclast. In this wry, often funny slice of his life, Derrida helps deconstruct his own image: at one moment he ‚s the playful, sartorially elegant Paris professor, at another the wily subject who refuses to be pinned down --and then he‚s the rigorous thinker who counters with a brilliant, in-depth response to a question he initially disdained.
Also featuring a mesmerizing score by Oscar-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (THE LAST EMPEROR), DERRIDA is a playful and provocative glimpse at a visionary thinker as he ruminates on everything from SEINFELD to the sex lives of ancient philosophers.
Film Forum's presentation of this film made possible with support from the Joan
S. Constantiner Fund for Jewish and Holocaust Film.
PRESS: Click here to read Kenneth Turan‚s review from the Los Angeles Times -
Click here to read Elvis Mitchell‚s review in The New York Times -
Click here to read J. Hoberman‚s review in the Village Voice -
Click here to read V.A. Musetto‚s review in The New York Post -
Click here to read Elizabeth Weitzman‚s review in the Daily News -
Derrida’s Acts of Literature: Franz Kafka’s Before the Law
The Title as Supplement:
-Thinking about the title as Derrida often does because of its marginality, is it included in the text? -The title as sign for or supplementary to text
-The title as supplement: what is added on, neutral supplementary -For example, Heidegger’s prefaces as titles
The Text and the Title:
-What is the relationship/difference between the text and the title, as well as the text and
the footnote? Strategy: Different ways of thinking the functionality -First postulate the text, then the title, then the function of the bar -For example, what is the function of the running line in “LIVING ON: Border Lines”, does it connect or separate?
From the Supplement to the Trace:
-Trace: Functions differently than the supplement, a track or print in the snow that corresponds to what is absent, the prints are present, the prints are a trace/mark of that which is absent, something left over and supplement-like.
-Tracing: What is happening in between, that which follows the trace of the two sides.
Questions: In between what: that which is being traced and the trace itself What are the two sides: that which is being traced and the trace itself
The trace itself
That which is being traced
-Tracing Paper: Hinge linking the door and the wall, that which is being traced and the trace itself.
-Hymen: Membrane that separates inside and outside.
The Door in Franz Kafka’s Before The Law: -The door in Before the Law, the marked/delineated line that separates -The door in Before the Law is the supplement -Before the Law is a declaration of deconstruction -Going through the door is “crossing the bar”
-The door is a hinge and is an indecidability