October 13, 2004

Derrida Dies at 74

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Jacques Derrida, the influential French theorist and former A.D. White Professor-at-Large, died Friday in a Paris hospital from pancreatic cancer. He was 74.

As the originator and principal exponent of the literary technique known as deconstruction, Derrida captivated and rankled academic institutions for nearly four decades. The author of approximately 70 books, as well as numerous lectures and articles, Derrida was partially responsible for redefining notions of philosophy and literature in the 1960s and 1970s, guiding intellectuals beyond the early twentieth-century movement known as structuralism. Through his frequent interactions with professors at Yale, Johns Hopkins and Cornell, Derrida successfully integrated deconstruction into American curricula, eventually becoming one of the most cited and respected professors in the world. Derrida’s influence was felt even in academic disciplines traditionally thought of as outside philosophy and literature, such as anthropology, law, political science and gender studies.

Derrida first gained his reputation as a rebellious and profound thinker with a famous speech at Johns Hopkins in 1966 entitled “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences.” The following year he published three influential books: Of Grammatology, Speech and Phenomena and Writing and Difference. In these books, Derrida outlined the methods and concepts of deconstruction.

Deconstruction, a notoriously difficult term, exposes and analyzes the power conferred arbitrarily upon certain centers in all philosophical, political and ethical structures. For Derrida, it was necessary to realize that these centers are social constructions and not innate or impermeable “natural facts.” The goal of his activities, he argued, was to recontextualize or dismantle those structures in order to challenge and alter centers of power. This dismantling was expressed in withering attacks on the foundations of Western philosophy and its production of “common sense.” It also entailed jubilant celebrations of the differences that pervade and divide all meaning and identity in literature.

However, Derrida persistently argued that deconstruction is not a rigid theory but a perpetual activity that must always use its own tools to investigate and subvert its own core processes and beliefs. Prof. Richard Klein, romance studies, said, “For him it was necessary not merely to criticize old ways of thinking but to elaborate new ways of conceiving old ideas. Derrida furiously rejected the notion of the end of history. For him the future was always the focus of his speculation, the possibility of thinking something new, or anew.”

Deconstruction’s advocates suggest that through his technique, one can glimpse Western civilization’s arbitrary and degrading prioritization of, for example, speech (as opposed to writing), nature (as opposed to civilization) and content (as opposed to form).

Although Derrida’s philosophy derived from the erudite texts of German philosopher Martin Heidegger and Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, it was eventually applied to various cases of marginalized cultures throughout history and the contemporary world.

Derrida was often met with derision for his reluctance to succinctly define the term “deconstruction.” However, he contended that it was precisely Western philosophy’s emphasis on immediate definition and clear meaning that deconstruction attempted to interrogate and undermine. Derrida’s texts are generally oblique and dense, teeming with comic neologisms, puns and metaphors in order to demonstrate the absence of an “essence” behind our language.

In his books, Derrida suggests that language resists authors’ efforts to intentionally posit certain beliefs within their own texts. In deconstruction, texts do not only refer to “objects” and “concepts,” but to other texts and references. As he famously theorized, “There is nothing outside the text.”

Prof. Jonathan Culler, chair of the department of comparative literature and the author of On Deconstruction, further elaborated upon this basic element of Derrida’s work: “Instead of thinking of life as something to which signs and texts are added to represent it, we should conceive of life itself as suffused with signs.”

Born on July 15, 1930 in El-Biar, Algeria, Derrida was of Sephardic Jewish origin and was consequently expelled from a French school at the insistence of the anti-Semitic Vichy government. After a failed first attempt at a baccalaureate in 1947, he eventually studied at the …cole Normale Sup