Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Philosophy Weekend: Finding Derrida

By Levi Asher on Saturday, February 16, 2013 06:37 pm

I've been trying for years to get a firm grasp on the work of Jacques Derrida. This philosopher has never fully caught on with the general population in the United States of America (yes, we do have popular philosophers here, but unfortunately they are Aristotle, John Locke and Ayn Rand). However, I know that Derrida has a foothold in academia, and he's vastly respected around the world. I sense a personal affinity with those of his ideas that I've been able to understand, but I've never had much luck reading his books, perhaps because the cultural references of mid 20th-century France are too alien to me, or perhaps because he wrote intentionally in a diffuse and enigmatic style in order to reflect what he saw as the diffuse and enigmatic nature of truth.

Wanting to understand Derrida's ideology simply and concretely (these are the terms on which I like to understand any philosopher), I tried chucking the books and watching a film called Derrida, a "cinema verite" portrait directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering in 2002, just a couple of years before their subject died. This film does a great job of capturing the philosopher's charisma and quick wit, and it also delivers the good news that Jacques Derrida appeared to be happy and well-loved at the end of his life. Perhaps this speaks more positively of his philosophy than any logical analysis could -- still, however, this film fell short for me in one way. It did not attempt to explain his philosophy in top-down terms that I could clearly understand.

Finally, I resorted to a slender summary volume called How to Read Derrida by Penelope Deutscher, edited by Simon Critchley. Sure, it's embarrassing walking up to a bookstore cash register carrying a book that's (let's face it) just a step above Derrida for Dummies. But this is what a seeker of truth must do, and I'm happy to report that Penelope Deutscher's slim paperback did the trick for me. I think I kinda get Derrida now.

Or do I? I'll try to explain four concrete points that I was able to pick up from this book, and I cheerfully invite any Derrida readers or poststructuralists or deconstructionists out there to correct or redirect me, if I've got any of this wrong. Here are the four points I was able to pick up from this book.

1. There is no real distinction between "natural" and "artificial": Derrida doubts that it can be valid or meaningful to speak of any person or thing having any true or intrinsic nature as opposed to what is evident in this person or thing's whole being. Here are a few useful examples from Deutscher's book:

a. The idea that athletes should be prohibited from performance-enhancing drugs rests upon the idea that there are some types of external substances which are unnatural for an athlete. But an athlete is a human being, and as such is constantly ingesting external substances of countless kinds (air, food, coffee, various medical treatments), and it is impossible to conceive of a fully "natural" person who does not ingest external substances. The difference between one external substance and another is only a matter of degree, and so there can be no ideal standard for a "natural" athlete.

b. The idea that modern childbirth assistance methods are less natural than ancient or medieval childbirth methods rests on the idea that there was once a particular set of childbirth assistance methods that were natural. In fact, practices for assisting in the birth of a child have evolved throughout human history, and there is no reason to think that modern technical advances are less "natural" than past advances.

c. The idea that speaking is natural because it is immediate and spontaneous, whereas writing is artificial because it is edited and calculated, rests on the idea that we cannot edit ourselves and calculate for our benefit while we are in the act of speaking. But, Derrida believed, speaking is just as calculated as writing, even though the calculation occurs in real time.

Derrida's attack on the idea of intrinsic nature is intended to stand against the Jean-Jacques Rousseau concept of a natural human spirit, corrupted by the failures of society. (The intention to refute his popular fellow Frenchman Rousseau appears to be the closest thing to a major Oedipal strike in the career of Jacques Derrida.)

2. Deconstructionism is the application of the "no intrinsic nature" idea to literature and textual criticism. Derrida invented the fashionable word "deconstruction" to present a new attitude or approach towards the analysis of written texts. This approach is the application of the above understanding about the false distinction between "natural" and "artificial" to the study of literature. For a deconstructionist, any aspect of a literary text, from the circumstances of the author's life to the author's known mistakes to the author's intentions while writing the text are all considered to be of equal value. A critic should not be concerned with what the author considers essential to the text; rather, a critic should analyze a text the way a psychoanalyst might analyze a patient. An author is not authoritative about the meaning or purpose of his or her own work.

This understanding of the meaning of "deconstructionism" calls to mind a public controversy that took place a few months ago, in which novelist Philip Roth complained in a New Yorker article that Wikipedia would not classify him as a sole authoritative source of information about his own novels. Wikipedia refused to allow him to demand edits to their pages about his novels, even regarding matters of simple fact. Many people supported Philip Roth in this public argument, but I thought Wikipedia was certainly right to refuse, and I now see that any deconstructionist would also support Wikipedia's side here.

3. Differance is different from difference. I love it that Jacques Derrida invented words (I occasionally try to do this myself). "Differance" signifies a person or thing's difference with itself. Since we do not have intrinsic natures, we are always changing from ourselves, turning into ourselves, turning away from ourselves. (I'm not completely sure what this "differance" thing is all about, but I like it, and I think Lao Tze, Heraclitus and Nietzsche would like it too.)

4. Violence is the sickness that arises from repressing parts of ourselves. I'm still a little weak on the "violence" concept as used throughout the work of Derrida, but I get the idea he sees philosophy as the cure for many of the frustrations and misunderstandings of modern life, and believes that a more intuitive and reality-driven societal understanding of philosophy would result in a less violent world. (This, as frequent Philosophy Weekend readers well know, is something I agree with very much.)

Now that I've finished and enjoyed How To Read Derrida, I'm going to dive back into the original texts, and I have a feeling I'll be writing about Jacques Derrida more in these pages. If there are any other knowledgeable or semi-knowledgeable deconstructionists out there (my Europe peeps, my college professor friends, I'm looking at you) ... please chime in and let me know if I'm generally on target here.


This article is part of the Philosophy Weekend series. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Derrida and the Essence of Orange. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Comprehending China's Holocaust.


14 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Finding Derrida"

by Nicholas Duron on

I'll go through your points and see if I can add or complicate some of them so far as I understand Derrida myself:

1) There is no real distinction between "natural" and "artificial":
From what I understand, you could probably go further and say more generally that ANY or even ALL distinctions we could try to make can be shown to collapse into one another. Black/White, Up/Down, Boy/Girl, etc. Any definition or distinction that you try to construct somewhere down the line deconstructs itself (I'm even sure that Derrida would be amused by my use of "down the line," or the fact that I'm putting all of this in a parenthesis).

2) Deconstructionism is the application of the "no intrinsic nature" idea to literature and textual criticism.
I don't think Derrida would ever say that deconstruction is "applied" by anyone, rather that it's a kind of condition which a text always finds itself in. What someone does when they "deconstruct" a text is really just articulating what's already occurring. When someone gave those examples about how there's no real difference between artificial and natural, that person didn't really "do" anything to collapse those distinctions; all they did was show how the concepts of artificial and natural were already wrapped up with one another.

3) Differance is different from difference.
Derrida is doing a lot with this term. One thing he's doing is showing how writing isn't necessarily subservient to spoken language. There's a view among some linguists that writing is an imitation of the spoken word; writing stands in for speech, and speech is what really matters in thinking about language--speech is what's "real" whereas writing is mere appearance or it's "fake." He calls this "logocentrism." In French, "differance" with an a and "difference" with an e are almost indistinguishable phonologically. It takes seeing them in writing to be able to tell there's an 'a' in "differance," thus showing how written language is doing something different and is in some ways superior to speech.

With the term "differance," he's also alerting us to both the spatial and temporal features of meaning in language; specifically, the "differening" feature of language and the "deferral of meaning" feature of language.
a) There's this idea in linguistics that words mean what they mean because they're different from meaning everything else that they could mean (whew!). So "red" is red because it's not black or blue or white or everything else that isn't read. Red is DIFFERENT from every other color.
b) When we use the word "red," there's this problem that we can never really fully summon the whole meaning of "red." Let's say I use the word "red" and you ask "What do you mean by the word 'red'?" Well, to explain what I mean by "red," I'd have to use other words that aren't "red," and to explain those words, I'd have to use other words. In that sense, meaning is differed or postponed (that's the temporal feature of the word "differance"); we keep getting pushed along what Derrida calls a "chain of signifiers." It's a really neat concept and pretty central to Derrida's thought.

4) Violence is the sickness that arises from repressing parts of ourselves.
I have no idea. This sounds more to me like Jacques Lacan than Jacques Derrida, or maybe this idea was developed in Derrida's later writing (though one could probably say that it was always "there" throughout his work).

I hope this was helpful. I'll leave it to people who know Derrida better than I do to disagree and "correct" what I added. I found Nicholas Royle's "Jacques Derrida" from the Routledge Critical Thinkers series to be especially helpful, though it's also written in a way that's similar to that playful Derridean style that most people find so frustrating. Best of luck!

by Levi Asher on

This is extremely helpful, Nicholas, thank you!

by Anthony on

I can't recommend Benoît Peeters' Derrida biography highly enough. Not only is it well-written and well paced, but I finally grasped what Derrida meant by the slippery concept of deconstruction. Niall Lucy's A Derrida Dictionary is useful to have alongside any study of Derrida.

by Disorientalia on

"I've been trying for years to get a firm grasp on the work of Jacques Derrida."

Yes, that's the problem. The essence of his message is that there's no such thing as a grasp, much less a firm one.

by Jeff on

The book that helped me the most was Derrida's own book "Limited Inc" (Northwestern UP, 1988), especially the sections of the title essay "Limited Inc a b c ..." beginning with letter "l". Derrida gets downright clear at times. Concerning the movement of conceptual idealization operative practically everywhere, and esp. in Speech Act Theory (the immediate topic of this book), he says, "A corruption that is 'always possible' cannot be a mere extrinsic accident supervening on a structure that is original and pure, one that can be purged of what thus happens to it. The purportedly 'ideal' structure must necessarily be such that this corruption will be 'always possible'. This *possibility* constitutes part of the *necessary* traits of the purportedly ideal structure." (p. 77)
"Thus, although [I] never suggested beginning with theatrical or literary fiction, I do believe that *one neither can nor should begin by excluding* the possibility of these eventualities: first of all, because this *possibility* is part of the structure called 'standard'. What would a so-called 'standard' promise or a statement be if it could not be repeated or reproduced? ... This *possibility* is part of the so-called 'standard case'. It is an essential, internal, and permanent part, and to exclude ... a *constant* possibility from one's description is to describe something other than the so-called standard case." (p. 89)

by slog on

Derrida is a cliche..What are you a novice debater? I expect more from you Ashman...

by Bill_Ectric on

I've been interested in Derrida for a long time. I've always thought that I generally understood his philospohy, but have been peeved at times by the vagueness of it. It's almost as if he and others who write about his work don't want to admit what a simple idea it is.

by slog on

Discourse=reality. I would expound further but using a smart phone makes typing difficult. Ttyl

by Melissa Randall on

I think there are very good points here. I was able to read some of his works and I'd say t's worth reading.

by sean on

i really dig derrida...after a lit criticism course i found his approach very enlightening in a common sense way. for me the everything is context thing boils down to language, where everything we say, all words, signs, etc that we use, is a metaphor for an idea -- an idea that is in itself constantly and by definition in flux.

i find a lot of connections between derrida/deconstructionism and buddhism, which i appreciate. there is a sense of balance in there, and of competing influences which themselves (as opposed to the "center" itself) define the center.

i agree with mr duron above in regards to the literary criticism stuff -- i dont think derrida would say that we "should" do anything. it's more of a natural condition, that we CAN only understand things in a certain way. the only "true" understanding can be attained by first recognizing that "true" depends on our definition of it, and then that the understanding itself is, again, by definition and intrinsically, dependent upon the context in which we place it.

by Bill_Ectric on

Well said, Sean. I'm with you.

by Greg Severance on

Yea! Derrida on Litkicks! Check out Gregory Ulmer's work. ~Applied Grammatology: Post(e)-Pedagogy from Jacques Derrida to Joseph Beuys~ (1985) etc. ~Applied Grammatology~ has a chapter on Lacan. I don't pretend to have read this whole book, although I own a copy, but it sets the stage for a fuller articulation of the concept of "electracy". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electracy

by michaelamichael on
Everything influences everything but there are still observable patterns we might work with, nearer, clearer patterns, but sure, you can expand ever outwards, push the thing along into infinity. Just it won't get you anywhere but lost. So while I find Derrida smart and fun, I think he liked to stare at things too long sometimes, but for no reason. Just because he could. Or maybe he is the brilliant wizard of modern living and we should all follow his model.

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