It is tempting to say that Jacques Derrida’s death has been greatly exaggerated. The French philosopher was so closely associated with nihilism and metaphysical absence that it’s perhaps worth wondering whether he ever lived at all. But reality contains some incontrovertible truths, and one of them is that Derrida passed away on Saturday in Paris, at the age of 74. He had suffered from pancreatic cancer.
For more than three decades, the dapper Frenchman with bushy eyebrows and a tan that would have made George Hamilton envious ruled the lecture halls of America’s universities. His legions of New World acolytes treated him more like a rock star than a humanities professor. Even politicians admired him, or at least certain ones did. “In him, France gave the world one of the greatest contemporary philosophers, one of the major figures in the intellectual life of our time,” said French president Jacques Chirac, whose office announced Derrida’s death.
When Derrida burst onto the American scene in the 1960s, the reigning idols of academe, Freud and Marx, were losing their luster. The professoriate wanted a new intellectual hero. In Derrida, they found their man. He offered his fans everything they could have hoped for, from his handsome good looks to his knack for academic celebrity. His Garbo-like refusal to have his photograph taken for publication until 1979 only added to the allure.
Born in French Algeria, Derrida quickly became identified with the hip postwar café culture of Paris’s Left Bank. His prose was famously impenetrable; Derrida didn’t shrink from writing sentences that rambled on for two or three pages and his books were abstruse and convoluted in the extreme. None of this put off his tweedy admirers, who regarded Derrida’s density as further proof of his profundity.
But Derrida built no new intellectual edifice. His project was one of destruction–or “deconstruction.” Derrida claimed to have discovered that all texts contain inherent contradictions that fatally compromise their ability to communicate meaning. The upshot was that the entire Western philosophical and literary tradition rested on an enormous fallacy. Fundamental concepts like logic and truth were illusions. Derrida himself wrote more than 50 books attempting to prove that nothing could be said.
Although dismissed by Derrida’s fellow philosophers, deconstruction appealed to literary scholars and others in the humanities who wished to project their own beliefs (political and otherwise) onto the works they studied. It is perhaps revealing that Derrida chose to defend rather than censure the legacy of his most famous student, Paul de Man, after a Belgian scholar revealed that the Yale professor had written anti-Semitic tracts in a French-language, collaborationist newspaper during the Second World War.
Undaunted by the obvious fact that their own works could be deconstructed and thus nullified by the same theory, professors dove headlong into the Western canon armed with what The Economist dubbed the “circumloquacious” writings of the great Frenchman. Derrida seemed at times to recognize the ludicrous implications of his theory: “What deconstruction is not? Everything, of course. What is deconstruction? Nothing, of course.” Yet the true believers failed to understand that the joke was on them.
After deconstruction dethroned art and literature, what remained? Television, apparently. From the perspective of the deconstructionist, almost everything was a “text”–and Professor Derrida simply adored the boob tube. When he wasn’t reviewing his travel itinerary or his lecture schedule, Derrida spent much of his free time riveted to the set. “I watch TV all the time,” he once said. What kind of shows did he watch? “Anything.” But television was not mere passive entertainment–not for a Brilliant French intellectual. “I am critical of what I’m watching,” Derrida insisted. “I am trying to be vigilant. I deconstruct all the time.”
Academic fashions come and go, and deconstruction is now considered passé in many faculty lounges–but that’s mainly because its central insights and prejudices have been so fully absorbed into the intellectual outlook of college humanities departments. Deconstruction is now a part of the modern academic’s critical toolkit.
The Master is now absent. Unfortunately, his leveling children remain a powerful presence on campus.
–John J. Miller is a writer for National Review and Mark Molesky is an assistant professor of history at Seton Hall University. Their new book, Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France, has just been published by Doubleday.