October 11, 2004

What can it mean? Jacques Derrida dead at 74 . . .


Jacques Derrida, one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th Century, whose theory of literary criticism known as “deconstructionism” famously asserted that an “author’s intent could not overcome the inherent contradictions of language itself, robbing texts . . . of truthfulness, absolute meaning and permance,” has died of pancreatic cancer. The announcement was made by the office of French president Jacques Chirac. As Jonathan Kandell observes in a New York Times obituary, Derrida had an enormous following that was “larger in the United States than in Europe,” but “he was the target of as much anger as admiration.” Kandell stresses heavily that Derrida’s philosophy was “murky” and not very “accessible.” But Kandall does admit that for many young intellectuals, particularly in the academy, “deconstruction was a right of passage into the world of rebellious intellect. ” As for Derrida himself, he described his famous theory in a 1993 presentation in New York thusly: “Needless to say, one more time, deconstruction, if there is such a thing, takes place as the experience of the impossible.”

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