Jacques Derrida, together with Michel Foucault, was the most prominent philosopher of the late 20th century. For many such an assertion begs the question, that Derrida was truly a philosopher in the way that Aristotle, Descartes, and Quine were philosophers. These critics labelled his writing unintelligible and his ideas incoherent, yet similar charges were made against Peirce, Heidegger, and numerous other philosophers. The contempt some philosophers had towards Derrida was counterbalanced by his popularity in other disciplines, such as law and particularly literary theory. During the 1980s and 1990s, knowledge of deconstruction–Derrida’s most important concept–was considered de rigeur in many English departments.
Deconstruction resembles Hegel’s dialectic, but the resemblance is superficial: Hegel applied the dialectic to history, Derrida to texts; Hegel believed that the struggle of opposing ideologies was resolved by their synthesis, Derrida that opposite meanings or interpretations were never resolved because truth itself is indeterminate. “To be effective,” he said, “deconstruction needs to create new concepts, not to synthesize the terms in opposition, but to mark their difference and eternal interplay.” When people referred to deconstruction as a philosophy, Derrida corrected them, emphasizing that it was simply an analytical tool to reveal the multiple, conflicting meanings inherent in texts.
To facilitate analysis he created new terms, which he called “marks,” or critiqued--and in some cases modified--old ones popular among Structualists and Phenomenologists. Some of these include:
● Différance: a neologism that combines the two meanings of the French word “différer”: “to defer” and “to differ”. Influenced by Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiology, specifically the distinction between signifier and signified, Derrida used “différance” to illustrate the multiple connotations inherent in a single word.
● Aporia: the point in a text where meaning becomes undecidable and must therefore become deconstructed, yielding contradictions.
● Logocentrism: the claim made by Structuralists that spoken words are comprised of two components, the signifier and the signified. The signifier is the word itself, either written or spoken; the signified is the meaning of the word. Derrida rejected the metaphysical implications of this system, arguing that words do not have absolute, unchangeable meanings but are malleable, their meanings dependent upon context and the association a reader brings to them.
● Decentering: the belief that metaphysical language presumes a center--be it god, morality, or truth--that is incontestable. Metaphysical texts, or texts that insist on single interpretations, are targets of deconstructionist critics.
● Trace: the remnants of meaning attaching to a word or experience. A trace might include older, vestigial meanings (such as the word “wit”, which in Shakespeare's time meant “intelligence” and is still present in "half-wit", or quasi-conscious memories, such as the smell of a perfume present at a dinner party, bringing back memories of a first love.
● Under Erasure: a visual signifier, first used by Heidegger, to demonstrate that a word's meaning is always an approximation, suggestive rather than absolute; the signifier referred to is a written word that has a line, or X running through it, as if the word were crossed out, but it remains legible. Example: "Wisdom is not a form of knowledge but of intuition."
Our text for the meeting is A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds. Ed. Peggy Kamuf. Columbia University Press, 1991. It is available from amazon.com for $16.00 (new) and from $7.84 (used). The book is over 600 pages but we will be limiting ourselves to the works below, most of which are abridged. The total number of pages is about 225.
Part One: From Speech and Phenomena, From Of Grammatology, From "Différance", From "Plato's Pharmacy"
Part Three: From "Des Tours de Babel", "Letter to a Japanese Friend"
Part Four: From Glas
Part Five: From "To Speculate--on 'Freud'"
The following resources provide analyses, bibliographies, lecture notes, and videos:
Wikipedia: “Jacques Derrida”, “Différance”, “Deconstruction”, ”Jacques Derrida on Decontruction”, "Glas". “Archi-writing”, “Trace (deconstruction)”, “Phallogocentrism”, “Logocentrism”, "Sous Rature [Under Erasure]", “Phonocentrism”. The following essays examine the intellectual forerunners of Deconstruction: "Structuralism", "Semiotics"
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Jacques Derrida", “Deconstruction” (section of article on “Postmodernism”)
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Jacques Derrida”, “Deconstruction”
Richard Rorty. "Deconstructionist Theory" extracted from The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism -- vol.8 From Formalism to Poststructuralism. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
“Jacques Derrida” (Resources provided by Stanford University in support of 1999 Derrida lecture; includes “Bibliography”, “Excerpts”, “Deconstruction”, “Interviews”, and “Links”)
“Jacques Derrida–Quotes” compiled by The European Graduate School.
Brendan Sweetman. “Postmodernism, Derrida, and Différance: A Critique.” International Philosophical Quarterly 39.1 (March 1999): 5-18.
Ann B. Dobbie. “Deconstruction.” In Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. Cengage Learning, 2011, pp. 149-174.
Craig G. Bartholomew. "Babel and Derrida: Postmodernism, Language and Biblical Interpretation." Tyndale Bulletin 49.2 (1998): 305-328.
Jane Marie Todd. Autobiography and the Case of the Signature: Reading Derrida’s Glas.” In Jacques Derrida: Critical Thought. Ed. Ian MacLachlan. Ashgate Publihsing, 2004, pp. 67-85.
Eric W. Anders. “To Speculate on ‘Freud’ and Beyond” (scroll down to Section 3 on the web page). An excerpt from his doctoral dissertation, “Disturbing Psychoanalytic Origins: A Derridean Reading of Freudian Theory,” submitted to the English Department at the University of Florida, 2000.
Barbara Foley. “The Politics of Deconstruction” (author is Professor of English, Rutgers University).
Kenneth Kierans. “Beyond Deconstruction”. Animus 2 (1997).
“An Exchange [between Derrida and Searle] on Deconstruction” The New York Review of Books (February 2, 1984).
Ben Agger. “Postmodernist Gibberish: Derrida Dumbfounds the Positivists.” New York Journal of Sociology 1 (2008): 187-206.
Michele Lamont. “How to Become a Dominant French Philosopher: The Case of Jacques Derrida.” The American Journal of Sociology 93 (November 1987): 584-622.
Mitchell Stephens. “Deconstructing Jacques Derrida; the Most Reviled Professor in the World Defends His Diabolically Difficult Theory.” Los Angeles Times Magazine (July 21, 1991)
"Interviews with Jacques Derrida" (excerpts provided by Stanford University in support of 1999 Derrida lecture)
“An Interview with Professor Jacques Derrida” conducted by Dr. Michal Ben-Naftali, January 8, 1998 (Derrida’s reflections on the Holocaust)
"An Interview with Jacques Derrida" by Nikhil Padgaonkar, graduate student in the Dept. of Communication Studies, California State University at Northridge
Jonathan Kandell. “Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74." The New York Times (October 10, 2004); rebutted by Ross Benjamin. "Hostile Obituary for Derrida." Nation (December 13, 2004).
Patricia Sullivan. "Jacques Derrida Dies: Deconstructionist Philosopher." Washington Post (October 10, 2004): C11.
Derek Attridge and Thomas Baldwin. "Jacques Derrida: Controversial French Philosopher Whose Theory of Deconstruction Gave Us New Insights Into the Meaning of Language and Aesthetic Values." The Guardian (October 1, 2004).
"Some General Characteristics of Deconstructive Readings” by Professor Misty G. Anderson, Dept. of English at University of Tennessee.
“Derrida/Deconstruction: Seminar Notes Tracing Derrida, Post-Structuralism, and Deconstruction” by Professor Martin Irvine, Communication, Culture & Technology Program, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Georgetown University.
“Jacques Derrida ‘Différance’” by Professor Richard L. W. Clarke, Dept.of Language, Linguistics, and Literature, University of West Indies.
"Derrida's Signature Event Context" by Jeffrey Tobin, Professor of Critical Theory & Social Justice, Occidental College (invaluable for summarizing Derrida's key ideas in this essay).
"On Jacques Derrida’s Signature/Event/Context: Or, "Why Meaning Can Never Be Guaranteed" by Professor Larry Gaga, Dept. of English, Mesa State College.
"Deconstructive Analysis" by Professor Gregory Eiselein, Dept. of English, Kansas State University (the author required his students to analyze a literary text from a deconstructivist perspective; these notes provide excellent, detailed guidelines).
"Derrida: What Comes Before the Question?"
"Derrida--Defining Deconstruction" (from the documentary Derrida)