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Interpreting Derrida

A philosopher with a celebrity status equal to that of a rock star, Derrida's contribution to intellectual discourse is undeniable. ANANDHI SUBRAMANIAN remembers the French iconoclast who died recently.

AFP

CONTEMPORARY philosophers usually live in obscure anonymity outside academia. Not Jacques Derrida. The dapper, silver-haired Frenchman had a celebrity status akin to a rock star among followers the world over. That even politicians were not impervious to his influence can be gauged from the French President, Jacques Chirac's eulogy to Derrida, who died recently after losing a battle against pancreatic cancer. "In him, France gave the world one of the greatest contemporary philosophers, one of the major figures in the intellectual life of our time," Chirac said.

Trying to encapsulate Derrida who fathered a concept as abstruse as deconstruction would be antithetical to his philosophy. Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman realised this while making "Derrida", a biographical documentary. In this fascinating film, Derrida both illuminates us and teases the filmmakers who try to capture the essential Derrida. Wandering through his library, the filmmakers ask Derrida if he has read all the books there. "No," he answers flippantly, "only four of them. But I read those very, very carefully".

Defining deconstruction

Derrida burst on to the world stage in the 1960s with his recondite theory known as deconstruction. A clear definition of deconstruction that will meet with general agreement is well nigh impossible. Not only is the definition and meaning of deconstruction in dispute between advocates and critics, but also among proponents. A nominalistic approach, though, leads us to a meaning of deconstruction as showing that text, discourse, society, structure, belief and institution do not have definable meanings; every time you try to fix the meaning of a thing, the thing itself slips away. Even this simplification of the concept is absurd as Derrida believed any attempt to simplify things would be a betrayal of the true complexity of things.

He set out his approach to reading text in three influential, but highly obtuse, works — Of Grammatology; Writing Difference; and Speech and Phenomena. However, it has to be emphasised that when Derrida refers to text, he does not restrict its meaning to literature and the realm of ideas alone. He, in fact, implies that the social world itself is constituted like a text and one cannot refer to this real world except in an interpretive experience. Derrida regarded interpretation as fundamental to the constitution of the social world.

Deconstruction radically unsettled what were taken to be stable concepts and conceptual oppositions. Derrida himself was loath to define deconstructionism. Deconstruction in a nutshell? The very idea! "What deconstruction is not? Everything, of course. What is deconstruction? Nothing, of course." This was his sardonic reply. Little wonder then, eddies of controversies swirled around his theories, and traditional schools of thought saw his concepts as a sort of intellectual "computer virus" that destroyed academic programmes and institutional structures. His critics contended he was nihilistic and his concepts relativistic.

Scholarly appeal

His iconoclastic method, however, appealed to literary scholars who adopted it to unveil the hidden biases and meanings in the dominant discourse. Deconstruction, to them, throws up the inconsistencies within a text. His convoluted neologisms and famously impenetrable abstract writing did not deter his acolytes, especially those academics on North American campuses, from swearing by his methods. Opposition to his work crystallised in 1992 when a group of 20 philosophers signed a letter to Cambridge University protesting against the award of an honorary doctorate to the Frenchman.

Derrida, who was born into a Jewish family in Algeria, studied at École Normale Superieure under that great social critic and equally obtuse Michel Foucault. Derrida taught at Sorbonne University in Paris before crossing the Atlantic to teach at American Universities, including Yale. His one big disappointment was not playing professional football. "I wanted to be a professional soccer player, but I had to give it up because I was not good enough," he once said.

The flamboyant Frenchman, who was for long reticent about being photographed by the media, was addicted to the idiot box. He spent his free time channel surfing and, in his own words, watched anything. But, he added, "I am critical of what I am watching. I am trying to be vigilant. I deconstruct all the time."

He might have been loathed and loved in equal measure and many might deem that deconstruction is now passé, but Derrida's contribution to intellectual discourse is undeniable. In the documentary, Derrida tells the filmmakers that the only thing there is to say about any philosopher is "he was born; he thought; he died." That would be an apt epitaph for the man.

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