We all have our youthful indiscretions, those young and irresponsible things that we did when we were young and irresponsible. Senator Robert Byrd, for example, was in the Klan, while George W. Bush was a cheerleader at Andover, and, most seriously of course, John Kerry was a war hero.
My own modest indiscretion is that I Was A Teenage Derridian. Yes, as a literature major in the early 90’s, I was inundated with the “critical theory” associated with various continentals from Adorno to Deleuze to Foucault and most of all, Jacques Derrida. And let me make it clear that I was not merely the victim of all this theory; in fact, I eagerly sought it out. Indeed, some witnesses even report that I had Derrida’s famous statement “il n’ya pas de hors-text” [“there is nothing outside the text”] stencilled upon my cap at graduation.
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Now, I suppose that I harbor some regrets about this period — I wish that I had been a little less dogmatic and that I’d explored a somewhat more diverse set of ideas about literature and culture rather than clinging to the bandwagon with such tenacity. I guess I wish I’d taken some more classes that involved reading, you know, actual literature, rather than only fancy french theory. And I suspect that many others who were involved in that cultural moment share similar regrets; there was a kind of irrational exuberance surrounding Derrida et al. at the time, and when the theory bubble burst, there was, inevitably, some shamefaced backpetalling by those who had been the fiercest advocates of theory, and no small amount of crowing by those who had always dismissed it as claptrap.
But did Derrida really deserve the harsh reactions that met him in life and even in the wake of his death last weekend? From the dismissive headline of the Times’s Sunday obituary “Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74,” to a sly swipe from that nice young whippersnapper Matthew Yglesias, to a downright mean appraisal from philosopher-blogger Brian Leiter, it seems that Derrida died at a time when his intellectual stock was rather low. I will readily admit that I never really understood Derrida very well, and I will also stipulate without hesitation that I don’t really know much about philosophy in general. Having made that clear, however, I would like to offer a modest defense of the late JD.
My (most likely erroneous) reading of Derrida is that he was concerned with the systems that we create in order to represent the unrepresentable. One example is language; language represents our experience of things in the world, but only imperfectly. Something is always lost in the reduction from experience (which is too complex to be “fully” represented) into language. Derrida used the term “trace” to describe what gets lost, what is missing or absent, and he proposed the method of deconstruction as a way to try and understand the implications of the trace. It wasn’t so much about destruction as much as unraveling, or analyzing (which, as Barbara Johnson pointed out, is etymologically derived from “undoing”). Since enlightenment thought was based on the assumption that reason (through language) could fully and accurately describe experience, deconstruction questioned that assumption, and sought to reveal the denials and the leaps of faith that supported Western thought.
Like Freud, Derrida was concerned with that which was hidden, ignored, or repressed. But Freud thought that the repressed could be positively located in the unconscious; for Derrida, what was absent was really absent. As he wrote in Of Grammatology:
“Writing is one of the representatives of the trace in general, it is not the trace itself. The trace itself does not exist.”
Writing about something that does not exist is hard work; taking care not to commit the errors that he was trying to diagnose often led to a writing style that could be, yes, abstruse. But I don’t think it was without value.
Plus, he had such great hair. And, in the end, I think that accounts for at least some of the spite that he inspired. Rest in peace, JD.