NEW YORK — Jacques Derrida, the controversial French philosopher often called “the father of deconstruction,” died last Friday at 74. Obituaries over the weekend duly noted not only his influence on literary theory, film criticism, linguistics, anthropology, psychology, sociology and even law, but also the ongoing debate over the ultimate value of his work. The New York Times, for example, pointed out that Derrida “was the target of as much anger as admiration,” adding, “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.”
This is no doubt true. Many traditionalists, in and out of academia, were put off by the political implications of Derrida’s theories — as well as the actual consequences of deconstruction as a critical tool. But such objections miss the point. It’s not my intention to speak ill of the dead, but Derrida’s special significance lies not in the fact that he was subversive but in the fact that he was an outright intellectual fraud — and that he managed to dupe a startling number of highly educated people into believing he was on to something.
For example, there is no more self-evident truth than the law of non-contradiction: P cannot simultaneously be both Q and not Q. It is a sine qua non of rational discourse. When I assert the proposition “Socrates is mortal,” I must simultaneously deny the logical contradictory, “Socrates is not mortal.” If Socrates’ mortality doesn’t rule out his non-mortality, what does the initial proposition “Socrates is mortal” mean? The law of non-contradiction is implicitly invoked in every rationally meaningful proposition.
Yet in Of Grammatology, Derrida describes one of his signature concepts, the arche-trace, as “contradictory and not acceptable within the logic of identity.” Yet the particular “logic of identity” to which Derrida refers is simply logic; it is not one logic among many. And since rational discourse entails accepting the law of non-contradiction, Derrida’s insistence that his concept is unacceptable within the “logic of identity” amounts to a declaration of nonsense. In fact, a reasonable paraphrase of Derrida’s words might be: The concept of the arche-trace makes no sense whatsoever, but play along anyway. (Derrida’s disciples often point to the sense of “play” in his work.) To be sure, Derrida himself embraces the senselessness of the concept: “The trace is in fact the absolute origin of sense in general. Which amounts to saying once again that there is no absolute origin of sense in general.”
The trace is what it is not. It would perhaps be credible to read Derrida’s remarks about the arche-trace as mere rhetorical flourishes, or even burlesques of traditional reasoning, except the context belies such a reading: he builds on the concept of the arche-trace. Nor are his remarks in Of Grammatology isolated instances. In Dissémination Derrida states: “It is thus not simply false to say that Mallarmé is a Platonist or a Hegelian. But it is above all not true. And vice versa.” As the critic John Ellis has pointed out, the key to the Mallarme passage surely lies in the final sentence, in the apparent throwaway “vice versa.” Attempting to make sense of Derrida’s words, a reader might well allow a distinction between saying that a proposition is “simply false” and “not true”: a proposition that is absurd (“The invisible elephant looks pink”) might be deemed “not true” yet not “simply false.” Still, the “vice versa” undermines any attempt to get at what Derrida’s means.
THE PROBLEM OF INTELLIGIBLE meaning in Derrida’s writing arises again in his book Positions. He begins, typically, with a checklist of his “undecidables”: “supplement,” “hymen,” “spacing,” “incision,” etc. These are concepts which, he declares, “can no longer be included within philosophical (binary) opposition, but which, however, inhabit philosophical opposition, resisting and disorganizing it.” Thus, for example, “the supplement is neither a plus nor a minus, neither an outside nor the compliment of an inside, neither accident nor essence.” How any of this resists and disorganizes “philosophical opposition” is never made clear since the phrase itself is never defined. If the “philosophical opposition” Derrida seeks to resist and disorganize is comprised of the rules of logic, such as the law of non-contradiction, then it should be noted that he has not set up logical contradictories in his pairings — as would be the case if the “supplement” were neither accident nor non-accident. That would indeed resist and disorganize logic; it would overthrow the law of excluded middle. (P must be either Q or not Q.)
Still, a reader will necessarily inquire on what grounds Derrida bases his pronouncements in the first place. His method, insofar as it can be delineated, is to free-associate with a given word until he is able to tease out a connotation that belies the original sense of the word; but does this mean that he has undermined traditional logic? Whence the “is” in Derrida’s declaration “the supplement is …”? Finally, however, none of these questions seem to matter. For Derrida winds up his analysis with another logical throwaway: “Neither/nor, that is, simultaneously either or.” In other words, whatever Derrida is affirming, he is also simultaneously denying. From a logical perspective, the only way to read Derrida on his own terms is mentally to insert the phrase “or not” after every one of his statements.
Again, the man is dead. That is an empirical truth of the sort Derrida himself liked to deconstruct; it is an empirical truth the majority of us have been taught to respect. The fact that he achieved, ex nihilo, the stature he did in the humanities speaks to the cognitive capacities of college professors and artists. It does not speak to whether Jacques Derrida was a good man or lived a good life. That is a question better addressed by those who knew and worked with him.
As an observer to the Derrida phenomenon, I only bid him farewell. May he rest in peace.
Mark Goldblatt (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Africa Speaks, a satire of black urban culture. He teaches history of ideas at Fashion Institute of Technology of the State University of New York.