Jacques Derrida, Dead at 74

Derrida’s passing is probably of interest to almost no one here, and the number of people who will be able to come up with a connection between Derrida and Mormonism is no doubt even fewer. (That is, I think there’s only one: Jim.) Still, though Derrida was ultimately not that important to me either philosophically or spiritually, and though I was never a scholar–or much of fan–of his work, Derrida nonetheless intersected with my life and thinking in an important way. Further thoughts from me here; perhaps, if we are fortunate, Jim will share some Derrida-inspired theological reflections on the man’s accomplishment as well.

36 comments for “Jacques Derrida, Dead at 74

  1. Jim F.
    October 10, 2004 at 1:24 am

    Wow! Two almost simultaneous blogs about JD on a Mormon blog. That is going to strike many as weird.

  2. pete
    October 10, 2004 at 2:03 am

    The movie “Derrida” is a great little uptempo biography that played at Sundance a couple of years ago (‘sure beats trying to wade through Derrida’s translated writings). I was really hoping that it would come to the BYU International Cinema, and thought it would since the English dept. virtually worships the man. But lately I am hearing that the International Cinema program no longer exists. True? Who voted to defund it? Ok, just kidding about defunding. Seriously, though, has anyone seen “Derrida” or the other Derrida film biography? And maybe a better question, in the spirit of “the book is better,” can Jim F. or anyone else recommend 100 pages of Derrida that gives a reasonably clear picture of his core ideas from his own pen (translated to English), or must we only deconstruct them? (Sorry I duplicated my own post from Jim’s thread just so I can be in on the discussion wherever it ends up).

  3. Jim F.
    October 10, 2004 at 2:29 am

    Russell, if the combined number of responses to our Derrida posts comes to more than 314 (perhaps more will be needed, who knows?), I think we should insist that the numbers be combined and that our posts be listed under “Most Popular Entries.”

    Shall we each hold our breath?

  4. October 10, 2004 at 4:16 am

    I’ve wanted to see both the Derrida film as well as the recent Heidegger film. Perhaps I’ll rent them via N*tfl*x soon. I’ll report back, if I ever get around to it. (Something to watch while burping the baby I suppose)

  5. October 10, 2004 at 7:55 am

    Russell, if the combined number of responses to our Derrida posts comes to more than 314 (perhaps more will be needed, who knows?), I think we should insist that the numbers be combined and that our posts be listed under “Most Popular Entries.� Shall we each hold our breath?

    Tell you what Jim; I’ll try to goad Damon Linker into commenting over here–maybe get him to write some controversial thing on Derrida and Mormonism–and then you can line up Ralph Hancock to agree with him, and then you and I and Clark can respond, and we’ll be off the races. Of course, I’d rather it all happen on my blog, but I’ll sacrifice for the greater good of the T&S community.

  6. sid
    October 10, 2004 at 9:47 am

    People in my town of Ann Arbor, are in deep mourning!!! people were mourning ole’ jacque at the popular coffeeshop yesterday, all dressed in black. I betcha folks in the Womens Studies and the gay-Lesbian-Transgender studies Depts and all their disciples will be writing a lot , and doing deconstructionins “performance art” pieces that make no sense very soon!!!!!

  7. Jim F.
    October 10, 2004 at 12:16 pm

    Sid: (1) Jacques, not Jacque. (2) Should they be celebrating rather than mourning?

  8. October 11, 2004 at 6:29 pm

    scrappleface gives derrida just what he deserves. i was fell out of my chair laughing. go here: http://www.scrappleface.com/MT/archives/001871.html

  9. October 11, 2004 at 6:40 pm

    The scrappleface post validates the comment that Jim F. made in the other thread.

  10. Jim F
    October 11, 2004 at 7:30 pm

    Travis, what is your basis for agreeing with scrappleface? Is it what you’ve heard about him or what you know yourself? If the first, then what makes you believe you can rely on that? If the second, I’d be interested in hearing your reasons for thinking, like scrappleface, that Derrida tried to convince anyone that there is nothing worth devoting one’s life to. That will require, however, explaining his own assertions that there are many things worth devoting one’s life to, including (to name only two) religion and political freedom for others.

  11. October 11, 2004 at 9:58 pm

    Jim, ignore Scrappleface. It’s a purveyor of juvenile and self-congratulatory conservative mockery, nothing more.

    Instead, help me translate this passage (from here):

    “Russell Fox suggère un compliment involontaire de Derrida, en disant que c’était un “herméneute” (ce qui est hélas assez vrai) mais qu’il préfère lui-même la tradition herméneutique “conservatrice” de Gadamer et Ricoeur. Malgré toutes les reproches qu’on peut faire à Derrida, cette distinction est une bonne raison de le lire, car malgré tous les sophismes brillants c’est quand même bien moins insignifiant que du Gadamer.”

  12. Kaimi
    October 11, 2004 at 11:03 pm


    Babelfish (computer translation program) gives this:

    “Russell Fox suggests an involuntary compliment of Derrida, by saying that it was a” herméneute “(what is alas rather true) but that it prefers itself the tradition” preserving “hermeneutics of Gadamer and Ricoeur. Despite everything the reproaches which one can make in Derrida, this distinction is a good reason to read it, because despite everything brilliant sophisms it is nevertheless much unimportant than of Gadamer.”

    I don’t know if that helps.

  13. Ivan Wolfe
    October 11, 2004 at 11:31 pm

    I think Scrappleface was making fun of how Derrida is percieved here in America.

    I’m working on a PhD in English. Baiscally, based ONLY on what my professors have told me (and not considering the insights I have gotten from Clark G.’s website and Jim F.’s comments), Scrappleface has it about right.

    Scrappleface is also fairly funny, when it’s having a good day – which is twice a week on average.

  14. Jim F.
    October 12, 2004 at 12:24 am

    Russell: Scrappleface I don’t care about, but I was curious as to how Travis could be so sure that he gave Derrida what he deserves.

    As for the translation, here’s a rough one (with apologies to those like Steve who actually can do this well): “Russell Fox pays Derrida an involuntary compliment by saying that he was a “heremeneutâ€? (which, alas, is true) but that Fox himself prefers the “conservativeâ€? hermeneutic tradition of Gadamer and Ricoeur. In spite of the reproaches that one could make of Derrida, this distinction is a good reason to read him, because in spite of all the brilliant sophisms, he is much less insignificant than Gadamer.”

    Ivan Wolfe: I’m less inclined to give Scrappleface the benefit of the doubt. He did not make fun of the way some English professors misuse Derrida; he said ridiculous things about Derrida himself.

  15. October 12, 2004 at 12:32 am

    “he is much less insignificant…”

    Was that double negative intended? i.e. are they saying that Derrida is more significant than Gadamer?

  16. Jim F.
    October 12, 2004 at 12:47 am

    I assume that the double negative is intended.

  17. October 12, 2004 at 7:57 am

    “Russell Fox pays Derrida an involuntary compliment by saying that he was a ‘heremeneut’ (which, alas, is true)…”

    Do you agree, Jim? I haven’t stayed current in the literature on postmodernism in quite a few years, and if there were people describing Derrida’s Levinasian turn to religious questions over the last decade or so as “hermeneutical,” I’m unaware of it. My post presumes a real distinction between the deconstructive and the hermeneutic appropriation of Heidegger; this comment (which is really kind of neat; I never dreamed I had readers from France) suggests the contrary: that Derrida’s deconstruction was essentially hermeneutical, but more valuable than the work of Gadamer or Ricoeur exactly because it pushes the boundaries of hermeneutics. I don’t see that, but as I’ve said before, I’m neither a scholar nor really that much of a fan of the man.

    (Maybe I’ll post the comment and a response to my own blog.)

  18. Ivan Wolfe
    October 12, 2004 at 8:45 am

    Here’s something else to make all the Derrida fans mad (I don’t agree with the article I’m about to link to):



    Mr. Derrida (the name is pronounced deh-ree-DAH) was without doubt one of the most famous intellectuals of the past 40 years. His celebrity rivaled that of Jean-Paul Sartre. As the founder, honorary CEO and chief publicist for an abstruse philosophical doctrine he called “deconstruction,” Mr. Derrida was celebrated and vilified in about equal measure. Academics on the lookout for a trendy intellectual and moral high-explosive tended to love Mr. Derrida. The rest of us felt . . . otherwise.

    What is deconstruction? Mr. Derrida would never say. It was a question certain to spark his contempt and ire. He denied that deconstruction could be meaningfully defined. I think he was right about that, though not necessarily for the reasons he believed.

    But even if deconstruction cannot be defined, it can be described. For one thing, deconstruction comes with a lifetime guarantee to render discussion of any subject completely unintelligible. It does this by linguistic subterfuge. One of the central slogans of deconstruction is il n’y a pas de hors-texte, i.e., “there is nothing outside the text.” (It sounds better in French.) In other words, deconstruction is an updated version of nominalism, the view that the meanings of words are completely arbitrary and that, at bottom, reality is unknowable.

    Of course, if you put it as baldly as that, people will just laugh and ignore you. But if you dress up the idea in a forbidding vocabulary, full of neologisms and recondite references to philosophy, then you may have a prescription for academic stardom.

  19. Jim F.
    October 12, 2004 at 1:24 pm

    Ivan Wolfe, I won’t repeat what I’ve just posted elsewhere (under “Cheapening Ourselves”–I can’t get the html right), but you are right, such nonsense makes those who know Derrida’s work (which isn’t the same as being a fan) angry. The problem is that il n’y a pas de hors-texte means “the meanings of words are completely arbitrary and [. . .] at bottom reality is unknowable” only if one doesn’t read that phrase in context.

  20. October 12, 2004 at 4:22 pm

    And the fact that the phrase means there is nothing outside of context or that things need to always be contextualized make that misreading quite ironic. (In context)

    I think that phrase actually entails a position fairly close to say Quine’s holism.

  21. October 12, 2004 at 4:24 pm

    Russell, the whole Gadamer issue really is what is interesting in Derrida. Gadamer’s premise of the charity of interpretation really is critiqued by Derrida. In a sense that was behind a lot of the Derrida/Searle debate as well. Once again that Behmer book on Nietzsche and Derrida has an excellent analysis of this.

  22. Rosalynde Welch
    October 12, 2004 at 4:55 pm

    As a representative of the much-maligned English departments of the nation, I must defend our partial interest in Derrida. Turf wars of this sort are inevitable in academia, I think, and because literature implicates so many regions of cultural production, we’re sure to poach on other departments’ hunting grounds: luminaries from economics, psychoanalytics, philosophy, and history regularly make appearances in our bibliographies. This can be done sloppily and poorly, of course; I agree that one should not assume an intellectual accessibility in philosophy (or literature, for that matter) any less than that of quantum physics. But Derrida’s involvement of Tel Quelle along with Kristeva and Barthes. together with the evidence and practice of his own work, surely encourages an erasure of the boundary between literary and critical discourses.

    Jim, you’re exactly right, of course, that Derrida’s work does not endorse “subjective” readings, but, on the contrary, works as part of the generalized post-structuralist critique of the subject itself. Neither does his critique of the metaphysics of presence require one utterly to deny the absent “Trace.” (What was D’s intellectual relationship to Lacan?) When Derrida argues for the inescapability of language, as in “Plato’s Pharmacy,” he claims only that mythemes and philosophemes are inseparable, that the fantasy of escape from myth is philosphy’s blindness.

  23. Jim F
    October 12, 2004 at 6:15 pm

    Rosalynde, I’m certainly not against literature departments, whatever the language, “poaching” philosophers. I’m only against sloppiness and irresponsibility. Much of what has been done with Derrida by English professors and graduate students has been sloppy and irresponsible, but that doesn’t mean that all of it has been nor that there is no alternative.

  24. Rosalynde Welch
    October 12, 2004 at 7:10 pm

    Jim, what specifically are you referring to when you say “Much of what has been done with Derrida by English professors and graduate students has been sloppy and irresponsible”? (If you’re going to require your adversaries to argue with specifics, perhaps I’ll require the same.) Although Derridean deconstruction differs from Yale-variety deconstruction led by Hillis Miller some years ago, I think it’s unfair to call that work “sloppy and irresponsible.” Of course one could find any number of lightweight Derridean dissertations out there, but I would speculate that those dissertations span the disciplines.

    By training, I’m of the lineage of Foucault, so I have no strong professional affiliation to literary deconstruction (in other words, I’m not just defending myself here.)

  25. October 12, 2004 at 7:17 pm

    Rosalynde, I don’t mind the easing of the boundaries between literature and philosophy. Indeed I think there a long history of that. However I think the implication is that literary criticism has to improve in rigor and carefulness, not that philosophy can be taken at the level of much contemporary literary criticism.

    As Jim says, the problem isn’t that English departments engage Derrida (or any other figure — I’ve seen literary use of speech act theory, for instance) The problem is that what is “acceptable” in such departments doesn’t seem to demand much of writers. Those in more rigorous disciplines, such as the hard sciences and perhaps philosophy, tend to get upset at what they see. By the same token the use and abuse of the notion of the second law of thermodynamics is typically embarrassing when found in such fields.

    But clearly we ought not have guilt by association. Christopher Norris, who’s written some good stuff on Derrida is in an English department. There are others in literature, English or other such departments in the humanities who have taken the time to come to grips with phenomenology.

    BTW – with respect to “Plato’s Pharmacy” I think you’ll find that a lot of the notions Derrida brings up are actually part and parcel of the Platonic tradition, especially in neoPlatonism. (The Platonism of late antiquity) There the problem of escape from language was quite a topic of conversation. There’s a great book on the topic, Reading NeoPlatonism which is clearly informed by Heidegger and Derrida. (I can’t recall if the author is in the field of literature, history, or philosophy, but clearly she did a fantastic job)

  26. Rosalynde Welch
    October 12, 2004 at 9:58 pm

    Clark, when you wrote, “Those in more rigorous disciplines, such as the hard sciences and perhaps philosophy,” it reminded me of something I overheard in church one day. Two people in front of me were talking about a third woman who was working on a PhD, and one said, “And it’s even in molecular biology, so she’s actually pretty impressive.” The universe of sexism and science-elitism implied in that comment might have gotten me really steamed if I’d let it, since I was completing my PhD in literature at the time. Your tone is not condescending in the way that comment was, but you do seem to dismiss the criticism of literature as somehow non-rigorous. I realize that many people have this impression of English departments, particularly those in the sciences, but I would have expected a friendlier assessment from a philosopher! (teasing you a little here) Rigor is required to read texts and to understand them as culturally-constitutive, and I believe philosophers could learn from our techniques of close-reading just as we have (tried to) learn from your conceptual frameworks. And as for disciplinary cross-borrowing, I always get a little amused when philosophers or scientists get huffy about our using their things, since they regularly slaughter Shakespeare for their own purposes–and we don’t put up the same kind of fuss. (Most of us would probably *like* to see Shakespeare taken down a peg or two, truth be told!) I realize you probably concede all this readily; my point is simply that there may be a bit of disciplinary arrogance hiding in the defense of Derrida being mounted here.

    As for “Plato’s Pharmacy,” yes, of course the argument draws deeply from Plato, being a reading of the _Phaedrus_. I’ll have to check out the book–thanks for the recommendation.

  27. October 13, 2004 at 2:19 am

    Rosalynde, I didn’t intend to imply that all English criticism wasn’t rigorous. However having done a fair bit of study in literature, semiotics, philosophy and physics, I’m fairly confident that physics is more rigorous and difficult. (Well some of the really abstract work in logic theory in philosophy comes very close) I do think that in many areas you can get away with a lot in literature that simply you can’t get away with in physics. There is more style and subjectivity that simply isn’t acceptable in the sciences. (Which is not in the least to say that the subjective isn’t present in science)

    Also note that by rigor I don’t mean difficulty. Writing a good poem is enormously difficult. But it clearly isn’t rigorous in the sense of logic that I think mathematics or physics is.

    Others may disagree, of course. And by that I don’t intend to devalue other disciplines. (Although I recognize that some might see me doing that) Perhaps an analogy is apt. Etudes are quite difficult compared with a lot of other music. They require more skill, technique and effort. Yet I think, given the chance, most people wouldn’t like to listen to the most rigorous etudes over more simple but enjoyable music. In the same way solving nasty equations with colliding vibrating black holes may be enormously difficult and require amazing rigor, but I don’t think most people would find the effort enjoyable leisure activity.

    Put more simply, I think we are equivocating over rigor.

    With regards to Plato’s Pharmacy I didn’t mean Plato but rather the many later philosophers like Iamblicus, Plotinus and others who were Platonists.

  28. October 13, 2004 at 7:45 am

    I suppose I could have put this under any of the extant Derrida threads, but since I started this one I’ll put it here. The fellow who first got me involved in philosophy–Matt Stannard, whom I mentioned in my original post–has written his own very thoughtful and detailed consideration of Derrida here. Matt was trained in philosophy, but then later in rhetoric, and his tribute makes clear the contribution which Derrida’s project made to the study of communication, as well as interpretation. Definitely worth reading, especially for those few of us who remember Matt.

    Also Jim: you still haven’t given us your opinion about the question regarding Derrida and hermeneutics. What have your been doing, helping students, teaching classes, that sort of thing? My heavens, where are your priorities?

  29. Jim F.
    October 14, 2004 at 11:24 pm

    Rosalynd, you’ve caught me with my pants down. Not a pretty picture. I was doing something very much like what I have been complaining about. But let me say something about where my impressions that many concerned with theory in literature departments–not only English–are not close and careful readers, though I admit in advance that this impression may be little if any better informed than the impressions others have of Derrida.

    The first relevant “data point” is my experience with a number of BYU faculty in various literature departments. We have many faculty members in those departments who are responsible and careful. I’m not trying to give a characterization of the faculty, just a report of my experience with some. More than once one of them has come to me to talk about Derrida, often to ask for help understanding this or that, often with a request that I read and comment on a scholarly paper they are working on. When, in response, I have made the argument that (1) Derrida’s work has to be understood against the background of Nietzsche and Heidegger (and, in particular, Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche, to which Derrida is responding) and (2) that his work is not a subjectivism of some kind and is, indeed, a turn to ethics, the most common response is “That isn’t what I’ve always heard.” They aren’t just making a remark, they are rejecting my opinion solely based on the fact that it doesn’t agree with what they’ve previously heard from others. Those particular individuals have been considerably more interested in a quick-and-easy way to be able to talk about Derrida than they were in understanding him.

    The second is related to the first: When I have discussed Derrida or other relevant philosophers with people like these–and I want to repeat that I have no reason to believe that they are representative of their departments or of the discipline as a whole–they have consistently refused to read either the primary works of Derrida or the works of those, like Heidegger, who constantly hover in the background of his writing. I certainly understand someone whose commitments to other things preclude his or her taking up a new scholarly interest. I regularly refuse to get involved in interesting things because I don’t have time for them. But if one is going to use Derrida (or some other philosopher) in a scholarly way–either to criticize him or as support–then one is obligated to have at least a modicum of knowledge of the relevant texts and background.

    So, out of that experience, I made a too-broad statement about English professors and graduate students in general. My embarrassed apologies.

  30. Jim F.
    October 14, 2004 at 11:26 pm

    Russell, I’m keeping my nostrils above water. I’ve got something to say, though I’m not sure it will be about deconstruction and hermeneutics, though it may get to that as well. But I’m dreadfully slow right now. I ought not to be commenting on T&S as much as I have been.

  31. Rosalynde Welch
    October 15, 2004 at 12:14 am

    All’s well, Jim. And I wholeheartedly agree that no professor of anything ought to be using a theorist without having read and understood the primary theoretical sources. If some faculty at BYU are doing this (and I take you at your word), it’s a shame, and it will show in their work.

  32. October 21, 2004 at 6:51 am
  33. Fluxus
    December 6, 2004 at 3:18 am

    Very sad to see it claimed that only one person sees any importance of Derrida to Mormon theology. I can’t imagine being a Mormon or a Christian without Reading scripture through Derrida.

  34. Anonymous
    December 22, 2004 at 3:10 am

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