Deconstructing Jacques Derrida . . .
October 15, 2004
French philosopher Jacques Derrida died last week. If the words “philosopher” or even “French” make you cringe, you might let your eyes roam somewhere else, since I am about to tell you what Derrida meant to one country newspaper editor.
He was called “the father of Deconstruction,” and it was interesting to peruse his obituaries on Sunday to see how writers described “Deconstruction.”
New York Times writer Jonathan Kandell called it “a method in inquiry that asserted that all writing was full of confusion and contradiction.” Edward Rothstein said it is an “interpretive method of making sense out of nonsense (or vice versa).” Terry Eagleton, in The Guardian, wrote it “means not destroying ideas, but pushing them to the point where they begin to come apart and expose their latent contradictions. It means reading against the grain of supposedly self-evident truths, rather than taking them for granted.”
In the National Review, John J. Miller and Mark Molesky said Derrida “claimed to have discovered that all texts contain inherent contradictions that fatally compromise their ability to communicate meaning.” Rod Liddle of The Spectator had a bit of fun with a “deconstructed” obituary:
“Jacques Derrida, the famous French philosopher, is ‘dead.’ But as there is no straightforward, one-to-one relationship between the signifier (‘dead’) and the thing signified (the termination or otherwise of the actual person, M. Derrida), we cannot be entirely sure what has happened. We are faced instead with an endless multiplicity of truths, a string of infinite possibilities … “
But humanities professor Mark C. Taylor believes Derrida will be remembered as one of the most important philosophers of the 20th century. And for all the claims that Deconstruction met its demise long before its creator died of cancer at 74, more than 300 academics, artists, writers and musicians signed a letter to the New York Times this week showing it is still very much alive.
I cannot claim to have a deep understanding of Derrida’s writings; before returning to graduate school in the early ’90s my view of him was like others who hadn’t read his work: A relativist and skeptic, who spouted gobbledygook and negated the need to behave responsibly or ethically.
However, he was one of those I turned to – after years of working within the rigid formulas and conformities of this field called journalism – in an effort to understand the changes taking place all around us. Not only in the press – the cultural framing of stories, the cult of objectivity, the win-lose/black-white world view – but in our society.
Derrida and other thinkers – Marshall McLuhan, Jurgen Habermas, Neil Postman, Vaclav Havel – opened a way of looking at the world in a nonlinear way. They helped me realize that to try to understand the future, we need to break away from looking through the prisms of the past.
Deconstruction’s lesson to journalists is that in a complex and changing world, wisdom is knowing what we don’t know.
Professor Taylor of Williams College, in his op-ed piece in the Times, stressed that Derrida did not believe we must forsake moral principles such as equality and justice. “Rather, it is necessary to recognize the unavoidable limitations and inherent contradictions in the ideas and norms that guide our actions, and do so in a way that keeps them open to constant questioning and continual revision. There can be no ethical action without critical reflection.”
If Derrida’s influence can be judged by how strongly he was loved or hated, then he was very influential indeed – at least in academia. When he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Cambridge University after a brutal argument among the faculty, The Economist observed, “The trouble with reading Mr. Derrida is that there is too much perspiration for too little inspiration.”
True, his prose may have been famously impenetrable. But his individualistic, questioning posture seems to me to be an essential part of every journalist’s toolkit for the 21st century.
Asked in 1994 if Deconstruction were dead, Stanley Fish, a literary theorist who is far from being a Derrida disciple, said, “Deconstruction is dead in the same way that Freudianism is dead. It is everywhere.”
In last week’s column, I made a reference to Alfred E. Neuman, the grinning Mad magazine mascot. But I spelled the last name “Newman” and reader Dave Carter thought I may have confused Neuman with Jerry Seinfeld’s TV neighbor, Newman.
Actually, I Googled for a spelling check, and in error found several Web sites dedicated to “Alfred E. Newman.” What, me worry?
Richard Somerville is the editor of The Union. His column appears each Saturday.
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