Jacques Derrida Est Mort

Hang your head and put on your black beret: the infuriating, impish, and dazzling Jacques Derrida has passed away.

His was the first really tough and rewarding writing I encountered in graduate school, and like a lot of other people, I think I really learned how to read from him. I’m sure there’ll be many remembrances and encomia in the next few days; I just think of that passage about “the shadow of the book, the third party between the hands holding the book.”

Jacques Derrida Est Mort

5 thoughts on “Jacques Derrida Est Mort

  • October 10, 2004 at 4:13 pm

    i remember getting a derrida book from the library at one point (i don’t remember which — book, i mean, not library) and just reading the first page on the metro over and over again, thinking to myself, i completely understand none of this, none of it whatsoever.

    i also read an article of his once, “seven missiles, seven missives,” that i found difficult but accessible with some head scratching; i thought it was fascinating and referred to it many times afterward. later i learned that it was an adaptation of a speech that he’d given at an american university and that he’d watered it down, because he apparently thought americans were generally more daft than the french and so needed the cliff’s notes version. oh, well. that’s why they call them “freedom fries” these days, i guess.

    i’ll leave it to others to make the inappropriate remarks about how surely derrida isn’t really dead, since he probably thought death was some sort of social construct. you know it’s coming.

  • October 10, 2004 at 10:05 pm

    Yeah, well, like I said, I’ll agree that he’s tough, and often infuriatingly silly.

    But the many facile public responses to his work largely tend to be from secondhand knowledge of his texts. John M. Ellis, in Against Deconstruction, usefully points out that Derrida’s anti-essentialism is neither new nor radical, and I’ll agree with that, but Ellis’s subsequent arguments — and those of many of Derrida’s other critics — tend to slip into their own profound silliness, as with the often-noted contention that it’s methodologically unsound to use Western metaphysics in order to kick the legs out from Western metaphysics. And it’s really dismaying to see how the written/spoken thing is so hugely misunderstood.

    I do get a little impatient with the “he’s too hard to read so his writing must be puffed-up nonsense disguising a dearth of ideas” line. People don’t often accuse Hegel and Spinoza of having nothing to offer the tradition of philosophy just because they’re hard.

    Course, I write this having only read Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, part of Dissemination, and a few loose essays, lectures, and interviews. From what I hear, his later Marxian-influenced work is interesting, but I’m coming from a position of limited knowledge myself. I will say, however, that my intensely difficult reading of Of Grammatology gave me many useful and startling insights on how reading and writing work, and has shaped the way I teach in pretty significant ways.

  • October 11, 2004 at 12:08 pm

    yeah, i try to steer clear of saying about anything, i don’t get it, so it must be meaningless. i remember also grooving out on julia kristeva in grad school, at about the same time i found myself flummoxed by Derrida (which, by the by, i pronounced “dur-eeda”, like “dorito,” at my graduate school entrance exam way back in the day, and oddly they took me anyhow) — but kristeva i found, though also difficult, difficult in a way i could get with, much more psychoanalytic and associative rather than, well, whatever it was derrida was trying to do. (7 missiles really gave me a sense that he WAS about something tangible, not just yanking around big words to look cool, and i just wasn’t getting it, or didn’t feel like doing the work, with the secondary sources et c., to get to where i needed to be… my destiny lay along a different path.)

    ANYway, so i wrote a little two-pager on kristeva for an assignment (i’ve since forgotten what her argument was, or my response, and in any case it (kirsteva) was too speculative to be an argument really) and referenced how hard she was to get your head around and the professor wrote back, “maybe she’s just being obfuscatory.” and i was like, man, way to be totally closed-minded in an institute of supposed higher learning. (i say “like” because i never actually said this; it’s something i wish i HAD said.)

    sorry about the digressions and parentheticals, by the way. i’ve been emailing a lot with the McG (sorry, “MaG,” since she’s british) lately and her loosey-goosey online writing style is positively infectious! maybe if derrida used more emoticons (“What do these limits and presuppositions signify? First that a linguistics is not general as long as it defines its outside and inside in terms of determined linguistic models; as long as it does not rigorously distinguish essence from fact in their respective degrees of generality. :P”) i’d have caught more of the wave.

  • October 24, 2004 at 1:55 am

    Down in Nueva York, the Film Forum was playing this unfortunately not-very-good documentary on the man. While I’m unfamiliar with Derrida’s work, I had hope to get a grasp on what he might be about by watching it. No such luck: a lot of footage is wasted on tracking shots of Paris, over which the film’s director, Amy Kofman, reads—or rather intones—selections from Derrida’s works. Derrida himself came off as personable, straightforward, insightful, and generous to a fault—no matter how many ass-backwards, trite, unphilosophical questions he’s asked (by the director again, I might add), he always tried to answer them and raise the level of the discussion.

    In some of the remembrances of the man that I have come across following his death, that same quality is noted again and again: he would entertain any question, and try to find a philosophical kernel in it. Watching him, I remembered a line from Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser: “Wertheimer had an artistic temperment. Glenn Gould didn’t need one.” Whether or not his work was original, Derrida—at least from what I could see in the film—simply was philosophical; he naturally seized upon the abstract implications of a statement or question the way a kid at Thanksgiving wants the drumstrick.

    I know it’s ironic that the filmed image of a man associated with the idea that there is tacit proiritization of the spoken over the written word should have this sort of impact on me. Maybe it’s akin what Hegel’s students said of him: even though what he actually said was opaque, he was always struggling for clarity.

    All I know is that now I’ll never get to hear the man himself. And I count that as a great loss.

    Jacques Derrida, RIP.

  • October 25, 2004 at 3:00 am

    I’m a little surprised, nice doggie, to hear that you’re unfamiliar with the man’s work. If you have a chance, some of the essays from Writing and Difference (I’m thinking “Force and Signification” and “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”) might least test your impatience — and, well, as I said, I like him a lot. I haven’t yet read his stuff on Marx, but yes, the notorious difficulty of his work is in those abstract implications. Of Grammatology is the big one, of course, and I watched a professor on a search committee smirkingly remark during an interview how surprising it was that the citations of the book outnumbered the editions printed by about a hundred to one, and then wonder out loud about the candidate’s thoughts on the book.

    I resolved at that moment to never be that deer-in-the-headlights candidate.

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