Jacques Derrida 1930-2004

The news of Jacques Derrida's death is currently being reported in a variety of ways, some more irritating than others. The NYT obituary, for instance, twice detours into allegations surrounding Paul de Man's Nazi involvement -- which ultimately have very little to do with Derrida's life and work. I'm glad to see that various news sources are at least taking note of his passing -- and some are trying to be neutral in their appraisal of his contribution to 20th-century philosophy. But others are just rehearsing the same old tired claims that his writings are "absurd" or "difficult" or "controversial." (Actually, it's sort of fascinating to read several of these news clips -- most of them clearly derived from one never-to-be-located Ur-text, but each recombining the sentences in slightly different ways.)

Every week or two, famous actors and public figures pass away -- but at this point in my life, most of them have not yet been actors I identified with or saw as part of my own formative imaginative life. Musicians are a different category, of course; but I'm thinking here less of the tragic early deaths than those at the end of a long glorious career -- I'm not really familiar with actors from the 40s and 50s, so their passing registers less strongly with me.

But Derrida had a huge impact on my intellectual development and my drive towards the academy. I was introduced to his work as an undergraduate, in two different classes in one amazing semester: a mixed grad/undergrad course on literary theory and a modern philosophy course (also mixed grad/undergrad, now that I think about it). Quite simply, his work turned me on, caught my imagination, opened up new horizons for me in a way that other writers hadn't. Reading Derrida in the context of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Gadamer, Sartre, and others meant I came to his work from a different perspective than many literary scholars. It demonstrated to me that philosophy wasn't dead, and wasn't inaccessible -- that instead there were people committed to the exploration of new ways of thinking about the most basic ingredients of human thought and communication.

The late 1980s were an amazing time in the American academy -- by the time I started my PhD work, my cohort understood theory as an integral part of the study of literature. At no time were we ever taught that there was only one right way of reading a text, or developing an interpretation -- instead we were handed an amazing toolbox to use in figuring out for ourselves which methods and paradigms seemed most interesting and most useful for our particular questions. What the right wing and the general media never seemed to understand, in characterizing all literary theory, and especially deconstruction, as the Evil Force of Chaos about to Destroy the Canon (remember the so-called Culture Wars?), was that in order to really understand Derrida's work, you had to be steeped in the Western literary and philosophical tradition. And, of course, Derrida's goal was never to produce a "reading" of a single literary text. To read any text is necessarily to participate in an endless process of creation, misunderstanding, and re/creation -- the play of the text is what allows for the free play of the mind. To watch Derrida's mind at work in his essays is still an awe-inspiring performance for me -- and has the effect of strong espresso on my brain cells. It wakes me up, makes me think in new ways, helps me see the larger horizons and stakes in what we do as readers and teachers of texts.

My own published work rarely draws on Derrida's, because my goals and procedures are rather different. And yet I credit his work as one of my formative influences. Although I didn't know him personally, I had the privilege to see him lecture twice (in English, at US universities) -- I found him completely captivating, exhilirating, and funny. His quirky personality was legend in certain academic circles -- yet the sweet side of him showed through, I thought, in the documentary film released two years ago. Sure, he was sort of a rock star for geeky academics -- there was some kind of thrill in watching him butter his toast in the morning, to see the room where he wrote, to see him putter around the house with his wife. But the film also nicely captured the complexity of his life -- his early life experiences, his intellectual trajectory, his commitment to political causes -- and even, in some well-selected quotes, gestured at the rich emotional tones in his work on nostalgia, memory, and loss. Reading Derrida, I never lost sight of the individual man behind the text -- playful and serious together, unafraid to swerve, to alter course midway through an essay -- in just the way the human mind and its languages invariably lead us to do. He was a great thinker, a complicated person, and a wonderful writer who pushed our boundaries about what serious texts could and could not do. I know my own intellectual life is richer and more free because of his work.

Update 10/10/04 2:30 pm: Others too around the web are recollecting Derrida's impact. A few worth reading:
I know there will be many more over the next few days.