Jacques Derrida was either a genius that changed the way we see the world through novel analysis of the writing cultures produce, or a charlatan hack that almost ruined various academic departments in colleges in America and around the world. As with much of his writing—it is unclear. So it was that on his death The New York Times called him an “abstruse theorist,” while others lamented the loss of a genius. So who was this French philosopher?
Jacques Derrida was born in a suburb of Algiers, Algeria to a Sephardi Jewish family in 1930. “Circumstances dictated that I be an Algerian Jew born before the ‘War of Independence;’ already many distinct attributes even among Jews, and even among Algerian Jews, Derrida told Le Monde.”
“I took part in the extraordinary transformation of the Algerian Jews; my great-grandparents were by language, custom, etc., still identified with Arabic culture. After the Cremieux Decree (1870), at the end of the 19th century, the following generation became bourgeois […] Then it was the generation of my parents: few intellectuals, mostly merchants, modest and otherwise, some of which were already exploiting a colonial situation in making themselves the exclusive representatives of certain cosmopolitan brands. In a ten-meter square office you could be the representative for all of North Africa for ‘Marseilles Soap.’”
At the age of 12 he was expelled from school because of the Vichy government’s racial laws against Jews. This made it all the more difficult for him to win entrance to the elite Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, which he did in 1952. There he was taught among others by Michel Foucault. While many of his fellow students at the Ecole Normale Supérieure were joining the pro-Stalin French Communist Party in the 1950s, Derrida stood apart. He declared himself to be a man of the left without clarifying. In 1964 Derrida began to lecture at the Ecole Normale.
His big break came when in 1966 he attended a conference at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he spoke of a bold new way to approach literary texts—deconstructionism. He caused quite the stir, and published three books the following year including “Writing and Difference” and “Of Grammatology.” He was that rare thing: an academic star.
In France, there is a tradition of the public intellectual. Rather than ghettoize them in campus ivory towers, philosophers have been granted a special place—often on the prominent pages of leading newspapers—to offer comment on the affairs of the day. This meant that French philosophers do not operate in a vacuum, but are exposed to and exponents of politics. It also meant that engaged intellectuals could rally around a cause, as was the case with the Dreyfusards, who between 1896 and 1904 spoke out on behalf of Alfred Dreyfus, the French Jewish army captain falsely accused of treason.
But despite this intellectual tradition, Derrida was more highly regarded in the United States than in his home country. In time he would spend more and more time in the US, where he taught at Yale University. When asked why he was so successful in America, Derrida would always respond with the same quip: “La déconstruction, c’est l’Amérique.” Whether or not America is deconstructionism—whatever that means—the word certainly became something of an Americanism, used liberally at college campuses around the country from the 1960s.
In American college departments of comparative literature, deconstructionism fused with Marxism, feminism and anti-colonialism to become a critical tenet of postmodern thought and analysis. Meanwhile, back in France, academics had pretty much given up trying to deconstruct what Derrida was talking about.
Derrida chose deconstruction as a name for his method of reading texts, which he thought was the way to analyze thought. He did not deconstruct his texts; he used them to help him in the deconstruction of the philosophy in which they were implicated. So it was that he became known as the father of deconstruction—the school of thought that saw all texts as confused and contradictory no matter the author’s intent. For whoever was writing could not escape the contradictions inherent to language, which meant that no text—no poem, essay, story, history or philosophy—could be truthful. Deconstructionism was extended from textual analysis to a range of humanities and social sciences including politics. Woody Allen even made a film titled “Deconstructing Harry.”
However, or perhaps fittingly, Derrida contradicted himself in his work and once said “a critique of what I do is indeed impossible.”
Critics of Derrida pointed out that there is an unresolvable paradox in using language to claim that language cannot make unambiguous claims. But Derrida was unmoved—for him coping with such evident paradoxes was pointless. He saw deconstruction as a way of doubting the entire tradition of philosophy, questioning everything. “Literature, the deconstructionists frequently proved, had been written by entirely the wrong people for entirely the wrong reasons,” wrote the British novelist and academic Malcolm Bradbury. One outspoken critic of Derrida was the linguist Noam Chomsky who wrote that he “found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood.”
Yet despite the criticism, which even included somewhat caustic obituaries in The New York Times and The Economist, Derrida remains one of the few philosophers from the 20th century known to a nonacademic audience. As the President of France Jacques Chirac said after Derrida’s death from pancreatic cancer in 2004 at the age of 74, “ in him France gave the world one of the major figures of the intellectual life of our times.”
And nowhere in the world were Derrida’s many and often hard to understand arguments better received than in the Untied States. In America his ideas live on in a postmodern academic environment in which disciplines like cultural studies, women’s studies, gay and lesbian studies and postcolonial theory exist—disciplines that would not exits at all were not for the confusing mind of Jacques Derrida.