Commentary – Derrida 101: Deconstructing Jacques
Over the years, sometimes to my irritation, I have encountered the thoughts of Jacques Derrida, Algerian Jew and elegant French philosopher, whose recent death left behind his influential thought system, deconstruction, full of brilliant but notoriously difficult ideas.
One idea is that the reader-critic knows more about what the writer means than the writer does. The reader frees text from the writer’s words, to be replaced by the reader’s richer thoughts, stirred into life by what is absent, or excluded, from the page. Some of this gave rise to foolishness in academia, such as blaming Jane Austen for not including the Napoleonic Wars in her novels.
What is absent from the page is left out, says Derrida, because it does not fit into the habit of binary thinking. Derrida wanted to “deconstruct” the idea of anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss that societies were based on “binary structures.” Like what? Like cooked and raw. Like male and female. Like good and evil. One element of a binary structure is always elevated, the other denigrated.
Not that Derrida wanted to put evil in place of good. He wanted an opening of possibilities between the opposites—difference, otherness, widening, inclusion. One might almost call it a messianic vision. (Hundreds of years before Derrida, however, Shakespeare, with nothing but his own genius, deconstructed the binary structure of Jew/not-Jew in The Merchant of Venice.)
Deconstruction began to sound to me like commentaries of biblical Midrash, or Talmud, with this difference: The Bible was central to Midrash and Talmud while for the deconstructionist, the writer’s original text was as good as erased.
Some critics felt moved to say that deconstruction’s theories of indeterminate meanings and wavering boundaries between collapsed oppositions were concocted in the first place to obscure some sleazy facts. In the unsettling episode of Paul de Mann, a French star of deconstruction at Yale, news was leaked about de Mann’s early publications in Vichy France that expressed vile anti-Semitic opinions. Derrida, one of de Mann’s academic defenders, cautioned us not to hold that against him because he was then a young intellectual. In a sort of never-never-land finale, Derrida suggested that anti-Semitism on the page surrounded by other such writings implied its opposite, anyway.
Derrida’s ideas revolutionized literary criticism and the academy, possibly by being misunderstood. Intended to induce thoughtful skepticism in students, discoursing on what was left out sometimes resulted in multicultural writings of questionable quality being included in literary curricula and canons. Derrida’s defenders say he is not responsible for the relativism of ideas and values taught in universities today. He did not mean to destroy Western civilization but merely to put its ideas “into play,” to encourage engagement where “everything becomes discourse.”
Could there have lurked behind Derrida’s ideas of play and discourse a “trace memory” (another deconstructionist term) of the workings of Talmud?
He omitted saying so, but in Derrida’s trope what is not on the page is more present than what is. And since what is present is only a means of arriving at what is absent, the rest, Dear Reader, is up to you, n’est-ce pas?
Norma Rosen’s novel John and Anzia: An American Romance(now in paperback from Syracuse University Press) is about Anzia Yezierska and John Dewey, opposites in every way, whose “discourse” takes the form of a love affair.