Los Angeles Times Magazine

July 21, 1991, Sunday


LENGTH: 4539 words

SUBJECTS: Profile of Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction, literary theory, contemporary philosophy, postmodernism, poststructuralism


BYLINE: By Mitchell Stephens, Mitchell Stephens is a journalism professor at New York University and the author of A History of News (Penguin).

(another article by Mitchell Stephens on Jacques Derrida)

THE WORLD'S MOST CONTROVERSIAL LIVING philosopher, arguably its most controversial living thinker, is sitting at a concrete picnic table at an outdoor snack bar at UC Irvine. Few of the undergraduates who stroll by in jams or jeans seem to notice Jacques Derrida, with his carefully tailored gray suit and purple tie. Few would recognize his name if they were introduced. * But as Derrida sips his coffee from a plastic cup, a crowd of world-class graduate students and star professors from as far away as China is already hustling for the best seats in his classroom. In a few minutes, Derrida will present two immensely difficult hours on the latest applications of his renowned method -- deconstruction -- and that room full of scholars will barely allow itself a cough. * Echoes of Derrida's ideas can now be heard in the most unlikely places. The word deconstruction (albeit shorn of much of its meaning) now appears in newspaper reviews and at dinner parties: "Let's deconstruct this scene." It is becoming, like existentialism before it, a part of the language -- to the point where a State Department official can speak of a plan for the "deconstruction" of part of the American Embassy in Moscow, and Mick Jagger can ask, "Does anyone really know what deconstructivist means?"("Deconstructivist" has been the most controversial variety of architecture in recent years.) But the main impact of Derrida's method has been felt on college campuses. * Deconstruction -- which Derrida gave birth to in Paris in the 1960s -- swept through American universities in the '70s and '80s, presuming to remake nothing less than the way professors and students perform their most basic activity: reading.

Deconstructive readings focus -- intently, obsessively -- on the metaphors writers use to make their points. Their purpose is to demonstrate, through comparisons of a work's arguments and its metaphors, that writers contradict themselves -- not just occasionally, but invariably -- and that these contradictions reflect deep fissures in the very foundations of Western culture. In other words, deconstruction claims to have uncovered serious problems in the way Plato and Hemingway and you and I think about matters ranging from truth and friendship to politics and masturbation. Such suggestions have, to say the least, proved controversial. University departments and scholarly associations have split in two over Derrida's complex, often misunderstood method. Friendships have been ruined. His followers tell tales of enlightenment: "It was a little like the moment when Helen Keller first understands the connection between the signing she is being taught and meaning," recalls Harvard English Department's Barbara Johnson of her first encounter with Derrida and deconstruction while a graduate student at Yale. "Keller wanted to go back and sign everything; I wanted to reread everything," Johnson says. But those academics who remain unconverted call Derrida's movement a "cult" or even a "fraud." * "Deconstruction has rather obvious and manifest intellectual weaknesses," writes Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle. "It should be fairly obvious to the careful reader that the emperor has no clothes." * When Irvine displaced Yale as Derrida's main American base four years ago (paying him more than $30,000 a year for an academic quarter compressed into five weeks), there were, along with the proud press releases, predictable outbursts of hard-headed cynicism and fiscal outrage. The shrieks might have been louder if the residents of Orange County understood just how profound a challenge to their thought this distinguished new visiting professor would bring.

DERRIDA'S DARK MEDITERRANEAN skin contrasts with a wide, still full frame of silver hair. "Striking," one of his female graduate students had commented, twice. The word most of his friends use to describe him is "gracious." "Jacques is the mildest of persons," adds Yale professor Harold Bloom. Nevertheless, Derrida is occasionally unwilling or unable to play the roles expected of him. I had been warned that he would not respond well in particular to personal questions of the sort the subject of a magazine profile must face. "Ah, you want me to tell you things like 'I-was-born-in-a-petit-bourgeois-Jewish-family-which-was-assimilated-but . . .' " is how Derrida parried one such query by a French magazine reporter. "Is this really necessary? I just can't do it," he protested to that reporter.

For a celebrity of sorts, Derrida is unusually private and reserved. "There is a certain distance," concedes the avant-garde architect Peter Eisenman, who collaborated with Derrida on the design for a garden in Paris. (Eisenman teasingly accuses Derrida of believing a garden ought to have some benches and trees, a charge Derrida vehemently denies. The design the two of them came up with -- as yet unbuilt -- includes no such reactionary elements.) "He's not the kind of guy," Eisenman notes, "to whom you say, 'Hey, come on, Jacques, let's go have a beer.' We sniff around each other."

And to Derrida's natural reserve -- his tendency to sniff around -- has been added a professional suspicion of easy answers and simple categories. Note, for example, the hesitations that accompany one brief attempt to define his method: "Deconstruction," Derrida says, "if there is such a thing as deconstruction -- and I wouldn't say there is just one deconstruction -- is something heterogeneous, complex. Deconstructions are ways of accounting for the main assumptions common to the culture, common to what we call Western culture.

"Again, I don't think there is one Western culture," he quickly adds. "It's plural."

It's not easy even to apply a designation as simple as "philosopher" to Derrida, though he was educated in philosophy and is, at the moment, fingering the traditional token of a philosopher: a pipe. "I never thought I had something to say philosophically," he tells me. The word philosopher sometimes gets relegated to quotation marks in his writings.

Derrida is also suspicious of the standard biographical accounts we append to the work of our writers. In fact, deconstruction (singular or plural) is known for the extent to which it turns attention to "texts" -- the actual words on paper -- and away from such distractions as the lives of the authors of those texts. One of Derrida's best known and most controversial pronouncements was, "There is nothing outside the text." And for a time it looked as though Derrida wanted nothing to appear in print about himself outside the actual texts he and his interpreters had written. For 17 years, from 1962 to 1979, he would not even allow himself to be photographed for publication.

Consequently, Derrida wears, along with his stylish suits, a certain air of mystery. While there are a couple dozen books in English that feature Jacques Derrida's name in their titles or subtitles, it is almost impossible to find such basic biographical information as the fact that he is married (Derrida's wife of 33 years, Margaret, is a psychoanalyst), or that he has two sons, now in their 20s (one of whom has embarked on a career in philosophy).

Derrida is aware of his elusiveness. His fascination with words extends to their sound, and in the name "Derrida" (pronounced Dare-ee-DA) he says he hears the sounds "derriere le rideau" -- behind the curtain. Rather than attempt to yank the curtain back, I was prepared to tiptoe around the personal questions, but that proved unnecessary. Derrida is surprisingly forthright.

"Why did you refuse to allow yourself to be photographed?"

"My surface motivation was political," Derrida says, softly. "I thought that the things I was writing were not compatible with this silly image of the writer in his office with his books. If there was a deep motivation, it had to do with my relationship with my face, my body."

"Why then this change in policy?"

"It's a kind of resignation. I gave up this image of the non-image."

JACQUES DERRIDA WAS BORN, in 1930, into-a-petit-bourgeois-Jewish-family-which-was-assimilated-into-French-life-in- Algeria-but. . . . (The word but appears often in his story.) But not entirely assimilated. "There were insults," he recalls, "and all the usual manifestations of anti-Semitism." Jacques was the middle child ("this explains everything in my life," he quips), always fighting with his older brother, never fighting with his younger sister. His father was a salesman; his brother became a pharmacist. Jacques, who would grow up to be the only intellectual in his immediate family, was a "very good pupil" until the age of 12. "Then things got complicated."

In 1942, a less common form of anti-Semitism reached Algeria. On the first day of school, the principal called Jacques into his office and said, "You're going to go back home. Your parents will explain."

While the young Derrida was feeling some small part of the horror of Nazism, Paul de Man, the late Yale literature professor who became Derrida's friend and most influential supporter, was writing literary articles, one of which seems clearly anti-Semitic for a collaborationist newspaper in Nazi-occupied Belgium.

Inspired in part by this terrible news, which was revealed four years after De Man's death, Derrida recently has been questioning (i.e., reading "texts" on) the concept of friendship -- among the larger stones in the foundation of our civilization. Derrida, characteristically, is investigating the concept's cracks, its contradictions: the extent to which friendship is necessary but impossible, loving but not too loving, caring but competitive, a form of union but, as are all our relations with others, also a form of separation.

For Derrida, many of these contradictions are embodied in the statement, "Oh my friends, there is no friend." For years, each of Derrida's lectures has begun with this enigmatic -- Derrida would say "undecidable" -- quotation attributed to Aristotle but not actually found anywhere in Aristotle's writings.

The problem of friendship was an important theme in Derrida's early life, too. His childhood friends at the lycee in Algeria were put to the test after their Jewish playmate was expelled. They failed. "It was a very, very painful situation," he admits, "something which probably left deep scars."

The Jewish community in Algeria reacted by organizing its own school. "But I didn't like it," Derrida says. In his work, Derrida has emphasized the importance of that which does not quite belong: the marginal. He finds many of the ambiguities, loose ends and contradictions for which he is searching buried in the margins of writings -- in the footnotes, parentheses and prefaces other readers overlook. And he sees himself as having lived on the margins -- not quite French, not quite Algerian and also not simply Jewish.

It took four months for the Free French government to repeal the "racial laws" in Algeria, but eventually Derrida was allowed back in the lycee. He returned, he says, as a "very irregular pupil -- very good in some disciplines, not so good in others." Good enough in philosophy and literature, however, to move to Paris at the age of 19 to prepare himself for the Ecole Normale Superieure, France's most prestigious college (where Jean-Paul Sartre met Simone de Beauvoir). And Derrida -- a boy not just from the provinces but from way beyond the provinces -- went on to secure a reputation among Parisian intellectuals that could begin to be compared to Sartre's. But. . . .

But Derrida continued to view himself as something of an outsider: "There is this distance, a distance because I was Jewish" -- a word he pronounces quietly -- "because I wasn't totally French." Although he published widely -- three books in 1967 alone -- and gained notoriety, as a philosopher can only in France, his fame was as a rebel, someone who challenged the dominant culture. (Politically, Derrida inhabits the left margin.) And, although he soon was teaching at the Ecole Normale, Derrida continued to see himself as removed from the academic establishment.

"In the academy there are two images of me," Derrida suggests. "One is of a professor with authority, given honorary degrees, legitimized in so many ways. But the other is of a man who doesn't belong to the university, who is just destroying the norms, who is not an authentic scholar. These images constantly conflict with each other, and I'm in the middle, just traveling between the two. Sometimes I naively ask myself, 'Where am I?' "

JACQUES DERRIDA'S IDEAS first established a beachhead in America in 1966 at a conference on structuralism at Johns Hopkins University. Structuralism is the belief, then all the rage among Parisian intellectuals, that "structures" -- like the rules and relationships that make words into a language -- underlie all forms of "communication," from tribal myths to French fashions. The American literary scholars gathered at that conference had been delighting themselves with their own perspicacity when Derrida, the youngest of the Frenchmen invited to perform for them, took the stage and announced, in effect, that the structuralism the au courant were so proud of having adopted was dead -- hopelessly entangled with the same unsupported beliefs in ultimate meanings and final answers that permeate all of Western thought. That caused some flutters beneath the cardigans.

And the impression that an original and important new thinker had been discovered was furthered when Derrida's writings started drifting across the Atlantic and being translated. They were, to say the least, unconventional: A sentence might begin on page 319 and not end until page 322; a single footnote might run the length of an article; two separate narrations might share the pages of a book.

Still, it was Derrida's reading, not his writing, that won most of the converts. He gave literature professors a special gift: a chance to confront -- not as mere second-rate philosophers, not as mere interpreters of novelists, but as full-fledged explorers in their own right -- the most profound paradoxes of Western thought (which helps explain why he has been accepted in American literature, not philosophy, departments). If they really read, if they stared intently enough at the metaphors, literature professors, from the comfort of their own easy chairs, could reveal the hollowness of the basic assumptions that lie behind all our writings.

Language is an endlessly complex and unwieldy medium, Derrida argued, and writers are never entirely in control of their words. When Plato, the father of Western thought, is trying to explain, for example, why speech is a dramatically more effective way to communicate than writing, he ends up with this justification: Speech "is written in the soul of the listener." The metaphor and the argument conflict. Ernest Hemingway, arguing that bullfighting is "a tragedy, not a sport," continually explains bullfighting with analogies drawn from American sports. Again, the metaphors -- like Freudian slips -- seemingly unconsciously subvert the argument.

Derrida was trying to show that most of the distinctions we attempt to draw can in some ultimate sense be thrown into question: Speech is not closer to our souls than writing; Hemingway's bullfighting is not of a different order than mere sports; sex (to choose another of his examples) is not purer than masturbation. Male/female, human/animal, good/evil -- if we read carefully enough, suspiciously enough, the value-laden comparisons upon which we base our ethical, aesthetic and political behavior can be, to use the lingo, "disturbed."

Derrida's acolytes were convinced that he had presented them with new eyes, new ways of seeing the tangles and dissonances of what was rapidly becoming the postmodern world. His opponents, whose number was becoming legion, saw fog banks, intentional obscurity and a cynicism that threatened to undercut all accepted notions of what is good, beautiful and politically important.

"OH MY FRIENDS, THERE IS NO friend. . . ." Derrida, a short man with a square face, strong nose and thick eyebrows, sits in front of an overcrowded class at UC Irvine.

While they still attract a throng of intellectual heavyweights, Derrida's lectures are no longer so clearly the place to be for academe's trailblazers. Deconstruction has lost a little of its newness and glamour. In fact, some trendsetters in the universities already have a new theory with which to perplex their students: the "new historicism," which reasserts (in an unexpected, provocative kind of way, of course) the importance of historical circumstances -- circumstances outside the "text" -- on works of literature.

The fact that the cognoscenti are losing some of their excitement, however, is often a sign that a fashion is establishing itself with a larger public, and in a sense this is happening with deconstruction. Derrida himself -- with his increasing willingness to step out from behind his texts -- has appeared in a movie, "Ghost Dance," and even inspired a rock song by the English group Scritti Politti: "I'm in love with Jacques Derrida/Read a page and I know what I need ta/Take apart/My baby's heart. . . ." (Derrida had lunch with band leader Green and described him as "a very intelligent young man, really knows his Wittgenstein.")

Deconstructivist architects acknowledge Derrida as an inspiration for their work: uncentered, marginal, committed to mocking expectations -- gardens without benches and trees. And Derrida's name has begun showing up in non-academic publications and broadcasts -- as the scourge of the author, as the epitome of the incomprehensible intellectual, as the postmodern era's "post man" and, most recently, as a patron saint of that controversial "multiculturalism" (though those Derrida favors with his deconstructions are almost exclusively white, male, European authors: Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Husserl, Freud, Mallarme, Genet).

In France, where deconstruction fell in and out of fashion about half a decade earlier than it did here, Derrida remains an important force, a public figure who has involved himself in such political causes as the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and in favor of freedom of expression in pre-1989 Czechoslovakia. (Derrida was jailed in Czechoslovakia in 1982 after meeting with some dissident writers.) He breaks the stereotype of the French leftist intellectual by living not in Paris but in a suburb, Ris-Orangis -- on the margins of Paris. He does not spend his evenings in Left Bank cafes.

In the United States, Derrida first began giving his dense, iconoclastic lectures and seminars as a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins, then at Yale, where in the late '70s and early '80s he played the role of guru to some members of the influential "Yale School" of literary criticism, which included De Man, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman and J. Hillis Miller.

DERRIDA'S SQUARE HANDS are folded in front of him. A pair of clear-framed half-glasses rests on his nose. He is reading, or rather translating, from his French notes, notes that themselves are spotted with citations in German and Greek. Derrida began lecturing in English for the first time at Irvine, but English words still escape from his mouth slowly.

After 30 minutes, we reach what the professor says will be his starting point. After 43 minutes he announces, "That's where we are beginning today." Not that he could be accused of wasting time. Like most of those rare individuals endowed with gravity, Derrida seems to circle but not drift. Fifty minutes into the lecture, Derrida's investigation of some sentence from a great philosopher becomes particularly obtuse, and his audience allows itself a collective fidget -- its first and last.

"One often, if not always, speaks too fast, too early," Derrida is explaining. "One often speaks without seeing, without knowing, without meaning what one says." One often speaks without . . . meaning what one says? You can see why Derrida drives those accustomed to more cautious statements batty. Not only is he arguing that we contradict ourselves, occasionally switching positions in mid-thought -- "Oh my friends, there is no friend" -- but also that it is impossible for us to communicate with friends, or even with ourselves, with perfect clarity, that it is impossible to achieve some sort of ultimate, unambiguous understanding.

The problem, Derrida contends, is that meaning is always dependent on context. " 'There is nothing outside the text,' " he explains in a recent book, "means there is nothing outside context." And since the context in which words might be read or heard can always shift, meanings are impossible to completely pin down -- and the distinctions we base on them ultimately rest on sand.

Remember that one magic moment -- perhaps you were in a garden, on a bench, under a tree -- when the meaning of existence suddenly came into focus? Well, Derrida has bad news, especially for those who have devoted their lives to the truth of such magnificent, all-encompassing visions: The world, he maintains, can be viewed from a limitless number of different perspectives. There is no one true answer. Aha! But doesn't deconstruction itself pretend to be such an answer? No, says Derrida, who presents deconstruction not as a conclusive theory but as a method for uncovering the contradictions at the heart of attempts to formulate such conclusive theories.

For those political or intellectual conservatives who insist on the validity of simple truths, straightforward values and a single cultural tradition, Derrida is indeed the enemy. He sees instead a world that is complex, contradictory and plural. Derrida is no friend to doctrinaire leftists either. His views allow too much room for doubt. Even those of us who are simply trying to hang our beliefs on one or two solid principles will find Derrida's work troubling.

Nevertheless, as he and his friends emphasize and re-emphasize, Derrida is not a nihilist. The fact that, in Derrida's view, there is no one meaning does not mean that there is no meaning at all. We can, of course, determine whether statements are true or false within the specified contexts of, say, science or magazine profiles. And this does not mean, as Derrida notes in this lecture, that we are freed of responsibility to try as hard as we can to say what we think we mean. It does mean that we can never know all there is to know about a sentence attributed to Aristotle, about our existence, about what is good, even about the words we are saying -- all of which will always remain open to interpretation and reinterpretation.

It is no coincidence that deconstruction has arrived as this self-conscious century totters, coughing and wheezing, into its last years. One of the last great attempts to impose a single perspective upon human societies has crumbled before our eyes in Eastern Europe. Our "great war," the Cold War, was fought with interpretations of weapons, not weapons. Our businesses sell by placing their products in finely worked contexts. Our politicians triumph by manipulating the interpretation of the events in which they participate. Our governments are run as much by "spin doctors" as by policy makers. Derrida might be dubbed a "spin scholar."

"What marks Derrida's work," Tom Keenan of Princeton explains, "is this incredibly serious thinking of the idea that communication is not something transparent" -- that meaning does not simply shine through, that messages arrive bearing a variety of spins, that there is no one correct interpretation. This is an idea that has marked the work of other 20th-Century thinkers -- from Marshall McLuhan to Roland Barthes to Republican media-strategist Roger Ailes. It is perhaps the idea of the century, and Derrida -- with his attempts to think the limits of our ability to communicate, even with ourselves, his attempts to think the limits of thought -- may be following it to its most extreme, most disturbing, conclusions.

One often speaks without . . . meaning what one says.

WE ARE DINING AT A RESTAURANT called Hemingway's (his choice) -- a warm and dimly lighted place, since closed, near Newport Beach -- when Derrida says, with unexpected wistfulness, that he dreams of writing something naive, something straightforward, something -- of all things -- simple.

"Derrida is able to surprise you even when you think you know his thoughts," notes Jonathan Culler, whose book "On Deconstruction" provides one of the clearest introductions to Derrida's work.

Derrida write simply? It is pretty to think it possible, but this is the thinker who seems always ready to strike off in a disconcerting new direction. (Derrida's ongoing seminar on friendship, for example, has been metamorphosing of late into an investigation of "the rhetoric of cannibalism" -- the ultimate attempt to become one with a friend.) This is the thinker who seems always eager to substitute a new ramification for a mere restatement, who refuses to settle for the more straightforward forms of prose, who has earned a reputation for being perhaps the most complex writer of our time.

And the density, the complexity of Derrida's writing is no mere accident. It seems central to his thought -- to his circling, suspicious way of responding. (Indeed, Derrida has been attacked recently for his inability to offer a simple condemnation of De Man's wartime writings.) Derrida is the prophet of complexity -- the person who continually takes responsibility for noting the difficulties, the inescapable contradictions; the person who has finally accepted the impossibility of simplicity. "The world is complex," he tells me, "and I'm afraid -- or I hope -- it will remain so."

Nevertheless, this dream -- the simple book (not text) that rests unborn within him -- will come up again and again in our conversations. It would be a novel, perhaps. And in place of the great philosophers whose work he has so often deconstructed, the book's subject would be: a 12-year-old boy in Algeria, French but not French, Jewish but not Jewish, with friends but no friends; a 19-year-old boy in Paris struggling to cross the "psychological/sociological borders" into and out of the world of Parisian intellectuals.

"I have the deep feeling of not having written what I would like to write and what I should have written," Derrida says, adding that in a sense he views all that he has written -- and Derrida has been remarkably prolific -- as a "preliminary exercise" for "the one-and-only project," which he suspects he will never write. "I know it's not possible to write in an absolutely naive fashion, but that's my dream."

Which may be where we stand after deconstruction: Derrida has been demonstrating the extent to which our dreams -- of naivete and simplicity, of perfect friendship, of indisputable meaning, of God, for that matter -- are impossible. But he also knows that we remain incapable of not dreaming.

To contact Mitchell Stephens