October 12, 2004

Jacques Derrida: Still dead, but getting more interesting . . .


Obituaries on Jacques Derrida were quick to focus on his most famous theory—deconstructionism—and the fact that it was difficult, and especially on the fact that it sparked a certain amount of hostility . . . but not so much on an actual definition. But in his remembrance for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Scott McLemee declares that “Derrida offered not so much a theory as a new way of reading,” and he details exactly how it worked: “Reading a dialogue by Plato, a scene in Shakespeare, or one of Freud’s essays,” McLemee writes, “Derrida would locate a moment in the text when some concept or image proved impossible to reconcile with whatever theme or argument seemed to drive the rest of the work. Then, from that interpretive sticking point, he would work his way back through the text, patiently revealing intricate networks of meaning and otherwise hidden levels of internal conflict.” McLemee also asks some who were inspired by Derrida to say why. University of Oregon associate professor Forest Pyle tells him, “it was extraordinarily exciting to see a philosopher reading texts in a way that was rigorous and careful, that showed things that had remained unseen before . . . It was intellectually exciting and politically hopeful.”

RELATED: In a note on his personal home page, McLemee talks about his reasons for writing about Derrida: there was the fact that he cared about Derrida and, well, the fact that “The piece at the New York Times [see yesterday’s MobyLives] was particularly awful.�The guy who wrote it derived his entire knowledge of deconstruction from reading the back of�the video box for a Woody Allen movie with the word in the title.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.