Special Report

Derrida’s Bluff

The Rube Goldberg of Philosophers is dead, but his work lives on -- in a way.

By 10.15.04

Send to Kindle

The most charming and practical thing about the obituary is that the writer has at most a thousand words to sum up the life of the deceased. He must be concise. This fact provided especial relief when the French philosopher Jacques Derrida died this week. Most of us, I'll wager, have heard of Derrida, some of us even had heard of his brainchild deconstruction theory, but few of us could have said what all the fuss was about.

Even in death Doc Derrida continued to baffle and confuse, in particular the poor journalists used to more mundane subjects as they tried to sum up the man and, more importantly, his philosophy in a few column inches. Tellingly, no two definitions of deconstruction theory were similar, an outcome that would have delighted Derrida, who insisted definitions were always elusive, and certainly not possible in a simple declarative sentence (which Derrida also found elusive). If Derrida were correct, the definition of deconstruction would have had multiple, perhaps endless meanings anyway. So if, say, President Chirac writes in his eulogy that in his work Derrida sought "to find the free movement which lies at the root of all thinking," it may mean exactly that or it may mean something else entirely. Perhaps what Mr. Chirac was really saying was "As usual, I have no idea what I am talking about." It seems plausible. In a way.

The Washington Post delivered one of the first stabs at the corpse of Derrida's infamous philosophy, suggesting deconstruction meant that "the meaning of a collection of words is not fixed and unchanging, [in other words] 'there is nothing outside the text.'" The Telegraph wrote that deconstruction saw different kinds of human thought and knowledge as ambiguous "texts" with multiple and apparently endless layers of meaning. And the Guardian suggested Derrida argued that "understanding something requires a grasp of the ways in which it relates to other things, and a capacity to recognize it on other occasions and in different contexts -- which can never be exhaustively predicted."

But confronted with Derrida's 70 monolithic works of incomprehensibility, most journalists simply threw up their hands and made for the saloon. Editors were forced to turn to Derrida's former associates to try to make sense of his life's work. Writing in the Guardian, Prof. Derek Attridge managed to come off as nearly incoherent as his hero: "Derrida's starting point was his rejection of a common model of knowledge and language, according to which understanding something requires acquaintance with its meaning, ideally a kind of acquaintance in which this meaning is directly present to consciousness. For him, the model involved 'the myth of presence,' the supposition that we gain our best understanding of something it-and it alone-is present to consciousness." (At which point I lost consciousness.)

BUT PERHAPS THE SECRET of comprehending Derrida -- if not his texts -- lies in the one force that in the 20th century has trumped all of the arts combined, by which I mean science. There does seem to be a certain conceit and smugness about scientists and physicists that has always eluded the literati. If only the arts could be as vast and incomprehensible as, say, theoretical astrophysics. Like physics there would be at bottom a sort of logic and soundness, but only for the initiated, for the academically trained, for the elite, for those "in on it."

In Of Grammatology Derrida sought to turn literary theory into a force as impenetrable to the bourgeoisie as quantum mechanics. And largely succeed. But then confronted with the circularity and incomprehensibility of his theories Derrida lashed out. "Why don't you ask a physicist or mathematician about difficulty?" he asked a perplexed New York Times reporter in 2001. "Deconstruction requires work. If deconstruction is so obscure, why are the audiences in my lectures in the thousands?" Well, perhaps it was his good looks. More than one writer noted Derrida's pop star status, his snappy dress, his wicked sense of humor and his pretty boy looks. Others noted that his ideas were anything but new, but were reflected in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, the nominalists and in particular his hero Heidegger.

But even if the ideas behind deconstruction were not that original or difficult, the language was. It was guaranteed to confuse and frustrate all but the most tweedy of Yale English Lit professors. Derrida's ponderous prose guaranteed that few would bother reading him, which in a perverted way also guaranteed that he would be talked about. And not always favorably. Many a poor graduate student has wondered why the author of so many books didn't spend more time working on his style and less time criticizing the works of others. If Derrida's works are not widely read it is because of a ponderous style that makes them all but unreadable. Reading Derrida is akin to reading the contents of the Clinton Library; even if it were possible to plod through the endless volumes it hardly seems worth the effort. After only one round of Derrida one heads back to the corner on wobbly legs, badly shaken, ready to throw in the towel. What in God's name is the man getting at, and why on Earth doesn't he just say it and have done with it?

Not everyone was taken in by the mod professor. In 1992, 20 philosophers, including the renowned logician, W. V. Quine, protested plans by Cambridge University's English department to award him an honorary degree, classifying his writings as "absurd doctrines that deny the distinction between reality and fiction, observation and imagination, evidence and prejudice." Conservative critics like Rene Wellek, author of an eight-volume history of literary theory, also called Derrida's bluff denouncing the philosopher in The New Criterion and accusing him of providing "license to the arbitrary spinning of metaphors, to the stringing of puns, to mere language games. It has encouraged utter caprice, extreme subjectivity, and hence the destruction of the very concepts of knowledge and truth." In its summation of the man, the website Spike noted that Derrida's "erudition was bent towards a destructive aim. In him the unreason of the age found its cunning articulator." Inarticulator, some would say.

PERHAPS THE KEY TO understanding Derrida lies in the literary movements of the early 20th century when artists turned their attentions towards making strange and impenetrable works that left the bourgeoisie totally mystified: the Dadists with their urinals, the cubists with their, well, cubes. Writers too began to turn out books that nobody would read, like James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. The formula was simple enough: make something new, make something incomprehensible.

Yet despite all his verbosity and obfuscation, Derrida couldn't quite talk himself out of hot water when his friend and deconstructionist colleague, Yale professor Paul DeMan, was found to have written anti-Semitic diatribes in Nazi-occupied Belgium, this at about the same time that his intellectual forebear Heidegger was found to have courted Nazism, and links were discovered between his philosophy and politics. Not that these embarrassments prevented the literary theorist from intervening regularly in political debates, from supporting the '68 radicals to embracing Marxist politics. In one such debate on global terrorism, reported in the Guardian, Derrida refused to describe September 11 attacks as an act of "international terrorism," arguing that "an act of 'international terrorism' is anything but a rigorous concept that would help us grasp the singularity of what we are trying to discuss."

It is perhaps too easy to dismiss Derrida and his many imitators as mere quacks. Certainly much easier than plowing through his texts. Perhaps buried beneath the ponderous prose there is an original idea that we can celebrate. If so, it is a shame that it has never been eloquently expressed. Had the Frenchmen Sartre, Camus, or Rousseau made such a hash of their writings one suspects their ideas would be as foreign to us now as Derrida's are today. But then perhaps Derrida's style was merely a cover for a want of ideas. Either way, radical ideas are no excuse for dreadful prose. I trust I've made myself clear.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.