Almost every person of letters has an opinion on Derrida, though few have read his famously impenetrable works. He’s become a touchstone in the culture wars. Your opinion of Derrida both determines and is determined by your social and political position. Either you view him, à la Allan Bloom, as a destroyer of morals and intellect, a philosopher who sought to destroy the idea of philosophy, or your opinion is that he provided valuable tools for breaking down the assumptions and hierarchies that every field of study had taken for granted.
My view, truth be told, has always been closer to the former than to the latter. I’ve usually held to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s dictum that many philosophers are only able to preserve the illusion of rationality by twisting the language in subtle ways, perverting the meaning of words and creating false analogies, and from what I’ve seen of Derrida’s turgid writing style, he’s always seemed a contortionist par excellence.
Peter Salmon’s impressive and well-researched biography, An Event, Perhaps, has gone a significant way toward altering my opinion. I come to Derrida without having read any of his writings: a condition that would embarrass me if it weren’t so common. As recently as fifteen years ago, familiarity with the French literary theorists was sine qua non for a person of letters, but these authors have recently fallen out of vogue, perhaps because their ideas (at least as much as anyone is capable of understanding them) have become so deeply internalized into our academic discourse that we have forgotten their source.
Salmon’s book begins, as is customary, with the author’s birth and childhood as an Arab Jewish boy in French Algeria. It covers his somewhat checkered academic career—even in college, his instructors thought his style was impenetrable and suspected him of being a charlatan—and his early studies. But the book is primarily an intellectual history, and it truly begins at the point when he diverges from other students of his generation, which is when he begins his thesis under the tutelage of the philosopher Louis Althusser.
From here, the book only lightly touches upon the outside world—it lands briefly at the titular “event,” a groundbreaking conference in Baltimore where deconstructionism was introduced to the United States; it mentions an extramarital affair Derrida had with a graduate student; it examines a few of his friendships and feuds—but the bulk of the book’s attention is spent on a chronological, though not comprehensive, description of Derrida’s publications, on the ideas contained therein, on their impact on the world, and on the other thinkers who both influenced and were influenced by Derrida at various points in his life.
This approach is charming and readable. Moreover, it’s an entirely defensible one: the book never strains, as do too many biographies, to exceed the boundaries of what it is possible to know. This is a study in how to summarize a thinker’s life without missing by the point by descending into the quotidian or getting mired in the sensational.
Moreover, the explanations of Derrida’s thinking were so clear and fair-minded that I was left with the almost certainly incorrect impression that I now understood the man’s philosophy. And, far from seeming trivial, deconstructionism, as explicated by Salmon, seems so necessary in its parsing of boundaries and breaking down of assumptions, that it’s impossible to believe there could’ve been a time when it didn’t exist.
As a young professor, Derrida publishes a book, Edmund Husserl’s “Origin of Geometry”: An Introduction, that establishes the concept of differénce. The term refers to the moment before an act of naming, when a thing remains undefined and full of potentialities. Once something is named, its identity is sundered. Each name, by creating a boundary between a thing and not-that-thing, creates a hierarchy, creates a series of implications and meanings that weren’t present prior to the naming. Deconstruction is the act of looking past the violence done by naming and recovering what’s been lost, without discarding the names themselves (something that would be impossible).
The key insight is that names, and indeed all boundaries, involve a hierarchy. Derrida writes:
…to do justice to this necessity is to recognize that in a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of vis-a-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, logically, etc.), or has the upper hand. To deconstruct the opposition, first of all, is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment.
The project of this biography depends on the reader having a clear understanding of what deconstruction, that famously undefinable term, might entail, so Salmon takes several pages to elaborate:
The task of deconstruction is to suspend the hierarchy at this moment and analyse and criticise it, in a sort of productive ambivalence, as each of the terms has a constructed meaning, as all meaning is constructed, why does this opposition exist, why is one term privileged, whom does it serve, what does it fail to acknowledge, convey, or understand? The answer may be political, cultural, philosophical and so on—each analysis may unearth more hidden assumptions—but the task of deconstruction is not then to efface the differénce through synthesis but to mark it, to note its undecidability and explore its complex interplay.
This mental trick, the interrogation of the power structures behind language, has become so embedded in the popular consciousness that nowadays fifteen-year-olds are able to do it effortlessly, as when they call out a teacher for saying someone is “deaf” to criticism. The student recognizes the implicit hierarchy—deafness is inferior to hearing—and tries, perhaps foolishly, to push against that hierarchy.
Indeed, Derrida is often, by conservatives, called the patron saint of “call-out culture” or “Cultural Marxism” or whatever they’re calling it these days in the pages of the National Review. This is slightly ironic since even in 1968, during the student protests, Derrida resisted being identified with Marxism. Indeed, if Derrida stood for anything, it was for what he called “equivocality”—the ability to hold onto nuances and contradictions within systems of thought.
A conference in Baltimore intended to introduce America to structuralism becomes the stage for a confrontation between the ideas of Derrida and those of Foucault. Derrida defends deconstructionism by saying: “Deconstructionism has nothing to do with destruction… it is simply a question of… being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use—and that is not destruction.”
With the publication, in 1965, of Derrida’s most famous work, Of Grammatology, deconstructionism begins its rise to prominence. This is also where he, and Salmon, begins to lose the general reader. Examining various philosophical questions that arise with regards to writing and its relationship to speech, Derrida constructs the term “arche-writing,” which is, essentially, writing and speech in a state of differénce: writing and speech before the violence of being split in two. As Salmon writes, “Derrida seeks an original form of writing that does not participate in the separation of speech and writing, is unhindered by it.” He also defines the trace, which is the “original” of a term, the thing that was scratched out or destroyed by the act of naming: “The trace is not only the disappearance of origin… it means that the origin did not even disappear, that it was never constituted except reciprocally by a non-origin, the trace, which thus becomes the origin of the origin.”
Lovely, poetic language, full of powerful words: “trace,” “naming,” “origin.” The sense of being haunted by what is lost, absent, or suppressed is present throughout Derrida’s writing: it’s even in the name of his philosophy, hauntology: the study of traces, differénce, hauntings, fragments, lost or disappeared meanings.
But does it mean anything? Derrida himself was mystified by the popularity of his ideas, which increases steadily throughout the latter half of his life. His books are abstruse, unread, mischaracterized, and misunderstood. Ultimately, they’re meant for a specialized, highly academic audience, but deconstructionism insists on racing through field after field, generating new insights and new adherents, and in the process the method generates its own mythos. It comes to represent not just the tearing down of the old, but a rebellion by the weak, the overlooked, and the invisible.
Derrida lives long enough to reply to both his critics and his supporters. It’s the latter who often seem to frustrate him the most. When he’s told that Seinfeld is a deconstructionist sitcom, he’s visibly baffled: “Deconstruction the way I understand it doesn’t produce a sitcom and if the people who watch it think that deconstruction is this, the only advice I have to give them is stop watching the sitcom, do your homework, and read.”
As a method for generating insights, deconstructionism does have a bit of a destructive quality—its tendency is to undermine and call into question. But in Derrida’s hands, if in nobody else’s, the technique has a certain gentleness, and we have sympathy for his repeated claims that deconstructionism doesn’t destroy, that while it resurrects lost meanings it doesn’t eliminate, nor should it eliminate, the current meanings.
Deconstructionism is anything but a nihilism or a scepticism. Why can one still read this claim despite so many texts that explicitly, thematically and for more than twenty years have been demonstrating the opposite. Nihilism is an ontological claim that there is no truth. Deconstructionism has no opinion on this. Nor does it on, say, pink elephants. What it does say is that we cannot know whether there is truth or not, which is an epistemological claim. So any assertion that there is truth is unprovable, and therefore whatever truth is offered should be analysed for the reasons why it is being offered.
The difference between this position and skepticism, while discernible, might not be meaningful to most people. Moreover, it’s evident there’s a certain fuzziness in deconstruction: it depends on intuitions about words, about power relations, about how things are experienced. For a discipline based on questioning, it requires a surprising amount of consensus. One only has to deny its insights and they disappear. For instance, one could easily respond, when presented with any of the classical philosophical binaries—real/imaginary, self/other, or the like—that the former is not privileged. One could just easily say, in fact, that the imaginary is privileged over the real. At times, deconstructionism seems like a very abstruse way of privileging one’s own moral and intellectual intuitions.
Derrida faces repeated accusations of nihilism through his final decades, and he responds by taking a legal turn in his work, insisting that the ultimate aim of deconstructionism is justice. He lives just long enough to experience—and write a book about—September 11th, before dying of cancer in 2004, at the age of seventy-four.
On a personal level, Derrida’s major flaw is an excess of friendship: he doesn’t denounce his former mentor, Althusser, after the man murders his wife, nor his colleague Paul de Man, after the latter’s Nazi collaboration during WWII is revealed. At times, particularly during the 1968 protests, he’s accused of being silent or being not concerned enough with agitating for real-world justice. Balanced against this, Derrida is one of the few philosophers to embrace feminism and to deal seriously with women and women’s ideas in his writings.
A proper book review about Derrida ought to have some tricky joke in it about deconstruction, as in the preface to the English edition of the book Of Grammatology, where Gayatri Spivak Chakraborty decides to call into question and complicate the notion of a “preface.” Perhaps most productive would be to examine the opposition between a book review and the reading experience itself. The book review names and describes the reading experience, but it is meant to be more fully formed, more thoughtful, more comprehensible than the reading experience itself. However, paradoxically, the book review creates the illusion of a reader who comes to the book already in full possession of everything the reviewer needs to assess it and form a complete reaction. The reviewer appears prima facie to be complete, and yet if they were complete, they wouldn’t require the book itself. The book review creates an artificial experience, wholly distinct from the reading experience, where the reviewer attempts to imagine what the book might mean to someone not so wise and all-knowing.
The perfect reviewer of this new biography would be fully conversant with Derrida’s life, philosophy, and writing, and they’d be able to analyze exactly where it succeeds or fails relative to the actuality of the man and his accomplishments. I’m not that reviewer, though I have at times in this review pretended to be her. I’ve taken up that mantle of omniscience when it suited me, and I’ve put it down when I needed to.
I came off this book very fired up to read some Derrida, and I purchased a copy of his book Of Grammatology. After three minutes, I shut the book. I was confused not by the content, but by how simple the content appeared to be, relative to the obscure and difficult language Derrida used to describe it. For instance, this is taken from the middle of one of the early paragraphs in the first chapter of Of Grammatology:
By a necessity that hardly lets itself be perceptible, everything happens as if, without designating a particular, derivative, auxiliary form of language in general (whether understood as communication, relation, expression, signification, constitution of sense or thought, etc.), ceasing to designate the exterior skin, the inconsistent double of a major signifier, the signifier of the signifier, the concept of writing has begun to overflow the extension of language. In all senses of the word, writing would comprehend language. Not that the word “writing” has ceased to designate the signifier of the signifier, but it appears, in a strange illumination, that “signifier of the signifier” has ceased to define accidental doubling and fallen secondarity. “Signifier of the signifier” describes on the contrary the movement of language: in its origin, to be sure, but one already has the presentiment that an origin whose structure can be expressed thus—signifier of the signifier—flares up and erases itself in its own production. There the signified always already functions as a signifier. The secondarity that it seemed possible to reserve for writing affects all signifieds in general, affects always already, the moment they enter the game. There is no signified that escapes, eventually to fall back, the play of signifying references that constitute language. The advent of writing is the advent of play; today play yields to itself, effacing the limit starting from which one had believed it possible to regulate the circulation of signs, drawing along with it all the reassuring signifieds, reducing all the strongholds, all the out-of-bounds shelters that watched over the field of language. This, strictly speaking, amounts to destroying the concept of “sign” and its entire logic.
Derrida is saying that we view writing as synonymous with language, even though writing came after spoken language and originally was subaltern to it. So then why can’t he just say that? Every paragraph and every sentence of Derrida evokes the same thought: “Either I am stupid, or what Derrida is saying is a very simple idea that could probably be summarized in about twenty-five words.” Ultimately, An Event, Perhaps makes the point that Derrida’s ideas are important, that they govern how we look at the world. But I am not sure that they’re quite as complex or important as Derrida seems to think they are.
I don’t know, though. Perhaps within the loops and skeins of this thinking there exists some mysterious residue that we can only pick up by immersing ourselves in such language. But, for most of us, I think the intellectual summary given in Peter Salmon’s excellent biography will more than suffice.