Passing away in a Paris hospital on October 8, philosopher Jacques Derrida (born in Algeria in 1930) has exited a scene in which he was once a conspicuous actor. Prominent in America since his poststructuralist lecture of 1966 and his following books, Derrida was perhaps the best-known literary theorist in the world for a quarter of a century. In the 90’s, his “deconstructionist” mystique began to fade as the cult of “theory” began to diffuse in the fin de siècle. Must we say that his absence is a presence?
In the case of Derrida, there seems to have been a gap between the man and his reputation, a distinction between his technical philosophical achievements and their larger reception. Derrida had every professional justification to explore language as he did, playfully demonstrating the treacherous, slippery quality of semantics and discourse, the abyss that opens between the signifier and the signified. Another North African, Saint Augustine, had filled the gap between the signifier and the signified with faith in a transcendental signified, a.k.a. God. Another saint, Thomas Aquinas, struggled to reconcile the freedom of figurative language with a necessary stability of meaning. Jacques Derrida took aim at those saints, as well as at Plato and Aristotle, when he famously denied that there is a transcendental signified (or Logos), or even any “meaning” at all implied by any discourse, including his own. The deferral of reference could never be overcome, and so “deconstruction” was not destruction but the demonstration that the text necessarily contains its own self-contradiction.
Sometimes it seems we’ve stood and talked like this before, but I can’t remember where or when. No, it’s coming back to me now—a case, perhaps, not so much of the déjà vu but of the already-annoyed-by. Bishop Berkeley, as I recall, “proved” that the world was not really there, but, for him, God filled up the gap between mind and phenomena. Samuel Johnson famously and fallaciously “refuted” him by kicking a stone. David Hume had a lot of fun playing with the idea of causation but never stepped in front of any runaway carriages. Jacques Derrida indicated that language does not refer to reality in any meaningful way, but he expected those checks from the universities to be on time and not to bounce. Was the Crédit Lyonnais the transcendental signified, then, if God would not oblige?
Sometimes Derrida was brilliant, but more often, with his puns, jargon, and surrealistic bent, he was precious and self-indulgent, the philosopher-prince of this, the Third Sophistic. What was worse was the political and cultural interpretation to which Derrida was put, and he was glad to be used. The nihilistic relativism that deconstruction implied fit with the agenda of his day. Strangely enough—or perhaps I should say, familiarly enough—the professors of literature are rarely content with the privileges of their profession. They want to write not analyses or accounts but political prescriptions. The radicalism of the 60’s morphed in the ways that we know, and much of the nonsense we have heard about “hierarchy” and “privilege” and Jane Austen—that colonialist, racist oppressor—was fortified by Derri-dean citations. And this junk thought was hardly rebuked as it emerged from privileged professors, snug in their tenured academic hierarchy, consuming goodies imported from cheap labor in the Third World. Chairman Mao and Mr. Pol Pot had an answer for such people, but the gap between the academic practice and the political theory was too much for such sleek academics to comprehend. Perhaps it was Derrida’s jargon that did the cognitive damage.
So the Derridean moment has passed, and now Derrida has passed on as well. Still, for some people in this world, there is indeed a transcendental signified, Derrida to the contrary notwithstanding. The cult of Jacques Derrida was finally not a philosophical or even a sophistical one but a political one as destructive as it is obsolete. If Americans require for their admiration an ironic Frenchman, they might find more to love in the late Jacques Tati than in the late Jacques Derrida.