October 13, 2004

Cornell Reflects on Derrida's Legacy

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By Prof. Philip Lewis

Philip Lewis is a Professor of Romance Studies and was the host of Jacques Derrida when he was an A.D. White Professor-at-Large from 1982 to 1988. He is the author of Seeing Through the Mother Goose Tales: Visual Turns in the Writings of Charles Perrault.

By conventional measures, Jacques Derrida was perhaps the most successful professor-at-large in the history of the program. His lectures in English drew overflow audiences of hundreds of faculty and students from all over campus. Even when speaking French he would attract 200-300 people prepared to listen for 2-3 hours. He spent endless hours talking with students and colleagues, more about their work than about his. The director of the program extended his term beyond the usual five years in recognition of his exemplary contributions.

In those early years (the Seventies), when Derrida’s ideas and analytic strategies had not been reduced to themes or concepts, his influence on most of us was that of an incredibly rigorous, learned and incisive reader. He changed our understanding of what strong, intensive reading does and how its implications have to be constantly rethought and remobilized on multiple horizons. The least one can say is that Derrida’s analytic practice — probing the great works of the Western canon in their openness, density, and complexity — showed us why we have to read more critically, more respectfully and more patiently. In recent years, my perception of Jacques Derrida’s importance has shifted toward the broad, socio-historical horizon on which his activity as a public intellectual took place. His writings on democracy and on human rights, his dialogue with Habermas on the world after September 11, 2001, and his advocacy for an enlightened European Union constitute an incomparable engagement with political justice that none of us can measure adequately at this juncture.

From the standpoint of the French, their language and their culture, Jacques Derrida’s singularity as one of the twentieth century’s seminal thinkers has much to do with his status as an international or “supernational” intellectual. The risks he took in all aspects of his work, including the reform of French higher education, were often more seriously appreciated in other countries, including the United States, than in France. His experiments in and with language-and-thought were sometimes more efficacious in translation than in his artful and transformative French, which he deployed with dazzling inventiveness. The French are belatedly discovering why their resistances to Derrida make his challenges to them uniquely telling and enduring. As a nomadic intellectual articulating the call of hospitality for all peoples and all places, Derrida has put them and us on trial. He has had and will have no peers. If his passing thus differs from all those deaths we assimilate through mourning and position in the past, it is because it confronts us with his coming, hereafter, into his and our own.

By Prof. Richard Klein

Richard Klein is a Professor of Romance Studies and was selected to the French Order of Arts & Letters in 2003. He is the author of Cigarettes Are Sublime and Eat Fat.

I was remarkably well prepared to encounter Derrida in the late ’60s. I was just finishing graduate studies in French (at Yale), but it was my Cornell undergraduate education (Class of ’62) that had trained me. I had had seminars here and wrote an honor thesis with Paul de Man, who was then Chair of Comparative Literature. I had heard lectures by M.H. Abrams and Vladimir Nabokov. I had taken philosophy classes with Norman Malcom and John Rawls. I was an editor of the Cornell Writer and a budding critic who regularly rejected the poetry of his fellow student, Thomas Pynchon.

Encountering Derrida, I was taken first by the fact that he had developed to a high degree the art of close reading, which I had been taught to appreciate by my Cornell professors — a way of reading they had learned at the feet of the New Critics, whose work focused on the close analysis of short, single lyric poems. Like Derrida, those critics frequently discovered, at the heart of the poem, some unresolved conflict or tension that the text simultaneously displayed and sought to conceal. As if the poem was the performance of the attempt to conceal the contradiction at its origin. But at the same time, Derrida brought to this practice an immensely informed philosophical critique of, say, each one of the terms I just used in the previous fragment: performance, conceal, contradiction, origin. Derrida has written extensively about each one of those notions, bringing the power of his philosophical skepticism to bear on them in order to transform the way we use those categories and think about their concepts.

Deconstructing texts is a form of radical skepticism towards traditional categories, a form of iconoclasm, breaking idols. For me, that’s where his Jewishness resides, not in any secret devotion to God or some Kabalistic mysticism. He was highly suspicious of all claims about human nature or what is natural in general. He was always showing that what seems natural in fact consists of multiple, historically determined, psychologically motivated, social and political choices. Trained at the elite …cole Normale Sup