The New York Times Magazine

January 23, 1994, Sunday

NAME: Jacques Derrida and Deconstruction

LENGTH: 3385 words


BYLINE: BY MITCHELL STEPHENS; Mitchell Stephens is chairman of the journalism and mass-communication department at New York University.

To contact Mitchell Stephens

(another article by Mitchell Stephens on Jacques Derrida)


Jacques Derrida has death on his mind. He often does. But the death in question at this moment is one that holds little terror for him: the reported death of deconstruction -- the "theory" or "method" (he prefers "experience") to which Derrida gave birth.

"The structure of the statement 'It is dead' is an interesting one," mused the French philosopher and writer during an extended visit to New York this fall. "It claims to describe a fact, but in a number of cases it is a form of wishful thinking. You say something is dead in order for it to die."

Many otherwise unmalicious people have in fact been guilty of wishing for deconstruction's demise -- if only to relieve themselves of the burden of trying to understand it. This is, after all, a subject that has a reputation for being rather difficult.

Derrida has tried to explain -- many times, in many ways, not always with success. He hazarded a characteristically hesitant definition in a paper he presented recently at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, in New York: "Needless to say, one more time, deconstruction, if there is such a thing, takes place as the experience of the impossible."

This may provide a start. To deconstruct a "text" (a term defined broadly enough to include the Declaration of Independence and a Van Gogh painting) means to pick it apart, in search of ways in which it fails to make the points it seems to be trying to make. Why would someone want to "read" (defined equally broadly) like that? In order to experience the impossibility of anyone writing or saying (or painting) something that is perfectly clear, the impossibility of constructing a theory or method of inquiry that will answer all questions or the impossibility of fully comprehending weighty matters, like death. Deconstruction, in other words, guards against the belief -- a belief that has led to much violence -- that the world is simple and can be known with certainty. It confronts us with the limits of what it is possible for human thought to accomplish.

This experience was widely sought after in American graduate schools in the 1970's and 1980's. In fact, no intellectual movement in the last third of this century created more of a fuss on the campuses than deconstruction (not "deconstructionism," a term that makes it sound too much like an ideology), and no thinker had as much influence and caused as much controversy there as Jacques Derrida. (By 1990 his name had appeared in the title of at least 54 books.) But now arbiters of academic fashion, with a finality usually reserved for tie widths, have taken to pronouncing deconstruction "dead."

Derrida is not convinced. "If one were to analyze the signs," he asserts, "the number of publications that mention deconstruction, the number of conferences that are being held, the number of people who are referring to it, if only to say that it is dead, one could draw exactly the opposite conclusion."

In the past few years, however, most of the academic journals and hiring committees that were once enamored of deconstruction have clearly lost their ardor. And anxious assistant professors have been searching for a new theory, method or experience to which they might consecrate themselves.

"It is not like it was in the 1970's," Derrida does admit. "A certain fashion has probably waned. But," he adds, taking another tack, "psychoanalysis has taught that the dead -- a dead parent, for example -- can be more alive for us, more powerful, more scary, than the living. It is the question of ghosts."

There is no doubt that deconstruction continues to haunt large numbers of students and faculty. They have packed auditoriums and lecture halls at New York University, the Cardozo School of Law and the New School for Social Research in which Derrida has been speaking during his annual monthlong stay in New York.

And off campus the name and spirit of deconstruction continue to be invoked -- with varying degrees of reverence and understanding -- in architecture, art, literature, criticism and even fashion. Thomas Keenan, who teaches English at Princeton, calls all this "the subversive afterlife of deconstruction."

"Deconstruction is dead in the same way that Freudianism is dead," declares Stanley Fish, a literary theorist at Duke, who is far from a Derrida disciple. "It is everywhere."

JACQUES DERRIDA occupies a distinguished position in the cultural world. "He is the French philosopher," says Annie Cohen-Solal, author of a biography of Jean-Paul Sartre and a distant cousin of Derrida's. "He is the last of a line that includes Sartre, [Michel] Foucault and [Roland] Barthes." But, she notes, Derrida has never fit comfortably into that role.

Derrida was, to begin with, an outsider. He grew up not in Paris, or even the provinces, but in Algeria, as a Jew. Even now Derrida writes and lives in the suburbs -- how un-Sartre-like -- with his wife of 36 years, Marguerite. He commutes by car to his office at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, in Paris.

For the past two decades Derrida has also -- in another uncharacteristic move for the French philosopher -- been "commuting" back and forth between France and the United States. He's here for a couple of months each year, giving seminars, participating in numerous conferences and presenting his still formidable legions of American fans and friends with new texts to puzzle over. More than 20 of his books have been published in English translations.

"It's not like he goes to America as a Roman Catholic missionary goes to Japan," notes Anselm Haverkamp, director of the Poetics Institute at New York University. "He loves it here." New York in particular. "When I first arrive here each time, I experience a kind of jubilation," Derrida reports.

While in New York, Derrida teaches a graduate seminar at N.Y.U., the subject of which, for the past two years, has been "the secret." Derrida is trying to help his students experience what is "impossible" about secrets -- the way, for example, they have to be revealable in order to be concealed. The reading list for this seminar includes, as Derrida's reading lists often do, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, but the class has also been discussing the story "Bartleby the Scrivener," by Herman Melville. Derrida's romance with America now extends to its literature.

Bartleby -- an "inscrutable scrivener," Melville calls him -- is a clerk who when asked to perform certain expected tasks replies, simply, "I would prefer not to." Derrida -- whose dense, experimental, paradox-laced writings have made him appear something of an "inscrutable scrivener" himself -- loves this phrase. Why does Bartleby "prefer not to"? Melville's character never says.

Bartleby, Derrida tells his students, "was an expert in secrets." Their teacher has learned quite a bit about them, too.

Derrida recently wrote an autobiographical essay, focused on his mother's death, in which he remembers himself as "a child about whom people used to say 'he cries for nothing.' " For nothing? Derrida was born in 1930. About 10 months earlier, an older brother had died in infancy. About 10 years later, a younger brother got sick and died. Derrida makes clear that his mother, "whose anxiety I perceived each time I was ill," made sure these lessons on the frailty of life sunk in. Derrida's first secret may have been a precocious awareness of mortality.

The formidable world of Parisian intellectuals certainly held its secrets, when this young man from Algeria attempted to find a place in it. Knowl- edge of them came at a price. There were scenes of failed or uncompleted examinations and even nervous collapse before Derrida succeeded in gaining entrance to, graduating from and eventually teaching at France's most prestigious college, the Ecole Normale Superieure.

Inspired by the anti-institutional spirit of 1968, the man who was already establishing himself as the French philosopher preferred not to defend a doctoral dissertation until 1980 -- when he turned 50. Inspired by what he calls an attachment to "the image of the non-image," he had preferred not to be photographed for publication until 1979. Even his appearance became something of a secret.

At the end of one of Derrida's N.Y.U. classes, a student asks him where his discussion of secrets is heading. Derrida stares at a point above the crowd packed three or four deep around the seminar table. "What is really at stake in this seminar," he states, seeming for a moment every bit the Gallic philosopher, "is the death of the other or my own death."

Derrida's students, though they're politely nodding their heads, look perplexed. However, this portentous statement is not as impenetrable as it may seem. For Derrida, death -- because it is impossible for us to understand fully, because something singular and impossible to share dies with us -- is wrapped up in secrets.

DERRIDA IS EASY TO SPOT at a conference. His buoyant, almost pure-white hair grabs more than its share of the available light. "The Lenny Bernstein look" is what Naomi Schor, a professor of romance literature at Duke University, calls it. Derrida's halo of hair is set off by dark, Mediterranean skin -- not "the clammy white skin of the library bound" in which novelists, John Updike in this instance, tend to encase characters who practice deconstruction.

In fact, Derrida is usually the most elegant man in the room. As he steps to the podium to deliver the keynote address at a recent Cardozo conference, he wears a well-tailored, soft-blue suit and a patterned light gray tie that carries on a complicated dialogue with his hair. Derrida's body is compact and trim, his face square and handsome -- though he is also now, at age 63, often one of the oldest people in the room. He begins his talk by suggesting, "I deserve less than ever to give a 'keynote address,' because I want to recall that a 'key' can always get lost and an 'address' always fail to reach its 'address.' "

Such plays on words are serious business for Derrida. Although he is often accused of being an apostle of meaninglessness, what is truly disturbing about Derrida is that he finds too much meaning lurking in the roots, etymologies, connotations and sounds of words. His readings focus on these excesses of meaning and the ways the points we are trying to make invariably get tangled up in them, leading to contradictions and misunderstandings -- statements that reach the wrong addresses or fail to open the proper locks.

And an odd thing happens when our culture is read with an eye for such tangles: "Hierarchies" that had been taken for granted -- that speech is more central than writing, to choose an example that has been crucial for Derrida -- get upended. These hierarchies are tripped up by the swarms of meanings that circle around the words used to support them. The now classic example, pounced upon in Derrida's book "Dissemination," is a declaration Plato once made. Attempting to state the advantages speech has over writing, Plato proclaimed that oral discourse "is written in the soul of the listener." Written? Yes. This is only a metaphor, but Plato's reliance upon it, Derrida argues, demonstrates the essential impossibility of the distinction he is trying to make.

This is the sort of aggressive, contradiction-uncovering reading for which deconstruction is known. It has imbued some philosophers with a new humility, made many literature professors wary of expounding on such things as an author's intent, alerted some law professors to cracks in the foundations of law and inspired groups of architects, artists and fashion designers to create works that display and make a virtue of contradictions in the way they were constructed.

This sort of reading, however, is now supposed to be dead.

"It had a problem," notes Leo Damrosch, the chairman of Harvard's English department. "It's hard to do it well. What it wants is a kind of intense struggle with a text to dig out things the text doesn't know it's saying. People with average imaginations and no particular fascination with literature couldn't do it. You have to be really smart."

It helps, too, if you know your way around Western culture. Derrida's address at Cardozo includes references to Jacques Lacan, Sigmund Freud, Edgar Allan Poe, Edmund Husserl, G. W. F. Hegel and, of course, Heidegger. In the audience is a graduate student who has traveled down from Yale -- once the center of deconstruction in the United States. When Derrida's talk ends, the student confesses to the person sitting next to him, "I understood maybe 10 percent of what he was saying." That's a common reaction.

Cynthia Chase, an old friend of Derrida's who teaches English and comparative literature at Cornell, is one of the more accomplished of deconstruction's practitioners. Her half brother is a successful movie star and a failed talk-show host. "The kinds of things she's written," Chevy Chase told an interviewer last summer, "I just can't understand." Derrida and his friends and disciples have produced works, rich and important as they may be, that cannot easily be understood by every "reader of nice perceptions," to borrow another phrase from Melville. You have to do some homework.

In 1987 it was discovered that Paul de Man, an English professor at Yale and one of deconstruction's foremost American proponents, had written a series of articles as a young man for two collaborationist newspapers in wartime Belgium. Despite the fact that Derrida was himself a victim of anti-Semitism during the Nazi era and did not conceive of deconstruction until decades later, these revelations made it easier for some academics to dismiss the movement.

Deconstruction had another problem: the widely held belief that reading in search of contradictions and misunderstandings is foolish, if not insidious. John Updike has attacked what he has called "deconstruction's fatiguing premise that art has no health in it." Critics on the right are outraged by the implication that there is something tangled or "impossible" about such important concepts as "reality" and "truth," which they are committed to extricating from the grip of quotation marks.

"Derrida's influence has been disastrous," Roger Kimball, a conservative critic and author of "Tenured Radicals," proclaims. "He has helped foster a sort of anemic nihilism, which has given imprimaturs to squads of imitators who no longer feel that what they are engaged in is a search for truth, who would find that notion risible."

Though Derrida considers himself a member of the democratic left, critics on the left haven't necessarily been any kinder. Some have charged that all this emphasis on the "impossible," on what we can't know, threatens to leave us paralyzed, "standing" -- like poor Bartleby -- "mute and solitary" before the world's injustices. Derrida's response -- "needless to say, one more time" -- is that if the world were as simple, untangled and uncontradictory as his critics on both the left and the right want it to be, political and ethical decisions would be so straightforward as to have no interest or meaning. Tangles, in other words, are the health of politics -- and the health of art, too, deconstructionists would argue.

CERTAINLY, DERRIDA himself has not been paralyzed. He was active, for example, in the struggle against apartheid as well as the struggle before 1989 to help dissident Czechoslovak intellectuals. Words like "responsibility," his critics might be surprised to learn, come up often in Derrida's talks. "Sometimes you have to do what you prefer not to," he says, smiling. "That is what is meant by a 'duty.' "

The latest fashion in literature departments -- "cultural studies" -- is, as Roger Kimball is quick to note, more overtly political than deconstruction is. Many of its practitioners admit to communing with the ghost of deconstruction, but their emphasis is on the relationship of works of literature to other, less elite, forms of culture and to social movements. Academic departments that in the 1980's might have been looking to recruit a specialist in deconstruction now might be trying to outbid one another for some well-credentialed expert in "gender studies" or "gay studies."

Derrida seems able, for the most part, to watch the turnings of academic fashion with equanimity. "The fact that other methods have appeared is simply normal," he says. "Why not? But" -- and this is the key point Derrida wants to make about the reported death of deconstruction -- "I don't think deconstruction can be reduced to simply a method or even a theory. I think there is some element in deconstruction that belongs to the structure of history or events. It started before the academic phenomenon of deconstruction, and it will continue with other names."

When Derrida looks at historical events, particularly after World War II, he sees contradictions and tangles popping up all over. He sees "hierarchies" -- European over non-European, male over female -- being "disturbed," if not overturned. He sees political and economic systems growing unstable -- being revealed as "impossible." And he sees scientific and technological change causing such "deconstructions" to occur at an accelerating rate.

"I was in Russia three years ago," Derrida recalls, "and some of my colleagues there told me that the best definition for perestroika, which was a way of dismantling and at the same time democratizing a previously rigid system, was 'deconstruction.' And, you know, such phenomena are today happening everywhere. The academic phenomenon -- what we call 'deconstruction' -- is only a symptom of this."

JACQUES HAS THE MOST extraordinary eyes I've ever seen!" exclaims Naomi Schor. "When he's really concentrating and serious, they're piercing." Enunciating sentences in front of Derrida, consequently, can seem a bit like placing a 1040 form in front of an I.R.S. agent; you wonder what contradictions he's going to spot. New acquaintances approach with a certain wariness.

But Derrida is known for being gracious and kind. That piercing gaze is aimed at himself more than others -- particularly on the frequent occasions when his thoughts turn to mortality. Peggy Kamuf, who has translated a number of Derrida's books into English, stresses that this preoccupation with death is not so much "a quirk of his psychological makeup" but a major philosophical concern.

But is it also a psychological quirk? "Probably," Kamuf concedes.

Once the word "quirk" is explained to Derrida -- his English is strong but not perfect -- he concurs: "It is true that I'm obsessed with death. I am at every minute attentive to the possibility that in the following hour I will be dead, and the person I am with will say, 'I was just in the room with him, and now he is dead.' This film is constantly in front of my eyes. Each time I drive back home, which is about once a day, I watch my car getting into an accident, as if I am at a movie theater, and I hear them say, 'He just left the crossroad, and then he. . . .' I can't avoid watching it.

"It is something in me," he says, with echoes of a young boy's voice faintly audible in his tentative, melodic English, "that I try to understand but I don't understand."

Is Derrida plagued by similar movies on the death of deconstruction?

"When I think of finitude, of the fact that it will all have an end -- and I have no illusions about that -- then deconstruction is not the thing the end of which makes me most anxious," he responds. "But I am wondering what shape all that will someday take in the view of historians of ideas." His eyes twinkle for a moment. "That is one of my movies."

The more personal of Derrida's mental movies about mortality cause him, he says, "deep anxiety." It would be unfair to suggest that all of deconstruction, with its many permutations, is a response to that anxiety, but it certainly has helped motivate Derrida's own explanations of the tangled and contradictory.

"All my writing is on death," he acknowledges. "If I don't reach the place where I can be reconciled with death, then I will have failed. If I have one goal, it is to accept death and dying."

Might that, for someone whose eyes see what Derrida's see, be impossible?