Sunday, October 10, 2004
Derrida is dead.
[from The New York Times, Jonathan Kandell, Oct. 10. “Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies in Paris at 74”}
He could be an indifferent student. He failed his baccalaureate in his first attempt. He twice failed his entrance exam to the École Normal Supérieure, the traditional cradle of French intellectuals, where he was finally admitted in 1952. There he failed the oral portion of his final exams on his first attempt. After graduation in 1956, he studied briefly at Harvard University. For most of the next 30 years, he taught philosophy and logic at both the University of Paris and the École Normal Supérieure. Yet he did not defend his doctoral dissertation until 1980, when he was 50 years old.
As a lecturer, Mr. Derrida cultivated charisma and mystery. For many years, he declined to be photographed for publication. He cut a dashing, handsome figure at the lectern, with his thick thatch of prematurely white hair, tanned complexion, and well-tailored suits. He peppered his lectures with puns, rhymes and enigmatic pronouncements, like, “Thinking is what we already know that we have not yet begun,” or, “Oh my friends, there is no friend.”
A 1993 paper he presented at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, in New York, began: “Needless to say, one more time, deconstruction, if there is such a thing, takes place as the experience of the impossible.”
Mitchell Stephens, a journalism professor at New York University, wrote in a 1994 article in The New York Times Magazine: “Many otherwise unmalicious people have in fact been guilty of wishing for deconstruction's demise—if only to relieve themselves of the burden of trying to understand it.”
As a young man, Mr. Derrida confessed, he hoped to become a professional soccer player. And he admitted to being an inveterate viewer of television, watching everything from news to soap operas. “I am critical of what I’m watching,” said Mr. Derrida with mock pride. “I deconstruct all the time.”
Late in his career, Mr. Derrida was asked, as he had been so often, what deconstruction was. “Why don't you ask a physicist or a mathematician about difficulty?” he replied, frostily, to Dinitia Smith, a Times reporter, in a 1998 interview. “Deconstruction requires work. If deconstruction is so obscure, why are the audiences in my lectures in the thousands? They feel they understand enough to understand more.”
Asked later in the same interview to at least define deconstruction, Mr. Derrida said: “It is impossible to respond. I can only do something which will leave me unsatisfied.”
So, see the movie: at a window near you.
-- 4:52 PM