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.