Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

By Caputo, John D. | Cross Currents, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)


Caputo, John D., Cross Currents


With the death of Jacques Derrida on October 8, 2004, some thirty-seven years after he first burst upon the scene in 1967 with three explosive books of philosophy, the world lost one of its deepest, most original and most provocative figures. Born of an assimilated French speaking Jewish family in Algeria on July 15, 1930, he emigrated to France to study philosophy in 1950 and in 1957 made his first visit to the United States, to which he would be linked by the stars. Named after the American child movie star Jackie Coogan--his birth name was "Jackie"--he was to achieve here an astonishing and long-standing celebrity perhaps even greater than in France.

His death was greeted with both an outpouring of moving eulogies from his admirers and several sharp attacks on his legacy from both liberal and conservative media. On what passes for an American left these days, the New York Times obituary was so mean-spirited and unfair that it elicited a letter of protest that ended up going on line, and collected the signatures of thousands of academics, architects, writers, artists and other intellectuals, while the Wall Street Journal, on the other hand, simply put a right wing hit man on the job. Scott McLemee's pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education stood out as a glaring and thoughtful exception to this media attack. (1)

Why the controversy? Because the genius of Derrida lay in brushing against the grain. He showed the left that Enlightenment "reason" was to a great extent an historical construction, a more scrupulous account of which would have to include a lot more about faith, contingency and context. He showed the right that "tradition" was also a construction that was a far more complex and polyvalent mix, a more scrupulous study of which would turn up a lot more than family values and proof that God was on your side. He did this, to boot, in a sometimes playful punning style of writing and of thinking--he was a great and early admirer of James Joyce--that violated the protocols of received academic discourse, a transgression that even the Marxists had avoided. Those who knew Derrida know that he always had the devil in his eyes. Pursuing a program calculated to madden everyone, his care for more scrupulous renderings of reason and of tradition was greeted with unscrupulous attack. This is not without precedent. The same of course could have been said for Socrates, who had the same fatal genius for stirring up the great sleeping Athenian steed, for St. Paul, who was run out of more towns than he could count, and for Kierkegaard, at whose burial there was actually a riot.

The fuss was about something Derrida called "deconstruction," a word that has actually made it into high-popular culture and shows signs of making it into the common vocabulary. What everyone has more or less picked up about deconstruction, even if they have never read a word of it, is its destabilizing effect on our favorite texts and institutions. Derrida exposes a certain coefficient of uncertainty in all of them, which causes all of us, right and left, religious and non-religious, male and female, considerable discomfort. That was the side of deconstruction that grabbed all the headlines and made it in the 1970s a kind of academic succes de scandale. Without reading very closely, it all looked like a joyous nihilism. But what his critics missed (and here not reading him makes a difference!), and what never made it into the headlines, is that the destabilizing agency in his work is not a reckless relativism or an acidic skepticism but rather an affirmation, a love of what in later years he would call the "undeconstructible." The undeconstructible is the subject matter of pure and unconditional affirmation--"viens, oui, oui" (come, yes, yes)--something unimaginable and inconceivable by the current standards of imagining and conceiving. The undeconstructible is the stuff of a desire beyond desire, of a desire to affirm that goes beyond a desire to possess, the desire of something for which we can live without reserve. …

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