WHEN PHILOSOPHER JACQUES DERRIDA DIED IN PARIS at the age of 74 last year, French President Chirac said "France has given the world one of its greatest contemporary philosophers, one of the major figures of intellectual life of our time." On this side of the Atlantic, Time magazine called Derrida "an intellectual demigod" whose influence on Western thought had been "immeasurable." Similarly lofty eulogies appeared around the world, all paying homage to Derrida's best-known invention, a concept called "deconstruction" that became popular in the 1970s, part of the Holy Trinity of postmodern philosophy, alongside Marxism and psychoanalysis. Postmodernism is notorious for its brash assertion that all accounts of the world--scientific, historical, folkloric, you name it--can never be objectively true because they are all just examples of discourse, or "competing vocabularies," as the arch-postmodernist Stanley Fish once said. (1) To this day, the "postmodern turn" retains near-monopoly status in some segments of academia. "It lies like an incubus over the entire humanities curriculum," is how philosopher Raymond Tallis put it. (2) Derrida had even been rumored to be a candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature.
For those who declined a ride on the deconstruction bandwagon, Derrida's legacy is rather different from what President Chirac would have us believe. Traditional scholars in the humanities have felt all along that deconstruction was to philosophy what professional wrestling was to athletics. Its devotees spent a quarter of a century beating their chests and boasting that their radical epistemology would make short work of received ideas in philosophy, literary criticism, and even the natural sciences. English professor Frank Lentricchia had boldly announced a paradigm shift as early as 1980, when he spoke of Derrida's work as "the end of an era" and a time for "summing up, listing debits and credits, for a casting out the old and welcoming the new." (3) The very name post-modern was intended to denote an epoch that would right all the misconceptions of the modern era for which Descartes, Bacon, Galileo and their ilk were responsible. In the end, however, the traditionalists were vindicated. The postmodern revolution degenerated into one of the most embarrassing episodes in the history of the humanities; an episode from which it will not soon recover, and for which Derrida must bear a large share of responsibility.
Speech Degree Zero
Derrida's fortunes started to go south in early 1990, when a 600-word column on deconstruction titled "Construction Site--It May Not Mean What It Was Meant to Mean, and It May Not Mean Anything at All" appeared in the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times. (4) The author, columnist Jack Smith, normally wrote about less airy topics like bird watching and high school football. His contribution to the debate over things Derridean was little more than a sharp elbow to the ribs of a pretentious academic movement whose love of obfuscation seemed to know no bounds. Smith's brief critique of deconstruction is not memorable for what it said so much as for the incandescently vitriolic responses it incited. "Childish, irresponsible, and ideologically dangerous," fumed one of Smith's readers. "Anti-intellectual rot," wrote another. One reader ranted about an "attack on deconstruction by a man who glories in his own purposeful ignorance." Another went so far as to compare the column to the "assaults on the intelligentsia made by Stalin in the 20s, or Hitler in the 30s."
Nearly everyone who defended deconstruction invoked intellectual privilege of some sort. It was said that Derrida's work was too difficult for people like Smith because "it relies on an in-depth knowledge of Western philosophy from Parmenides to Husserl, a set of theoretical gambits that are at odds with those implicit in this same Western culture, a use of language that is intentionally …