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Sing Doo Wah Diddy With Derrida

ISSUE:  Winter 1994
The real star of the movie (LA. Story) is Los Angeles itself, a place where the worst thing that can happen is to lock your keys in your car, and where, according to (Steve) Martin’s freeway-sign guru, “Sing Doo Wah Diddy” is the meaning of the universe.Gil Reavill: “Introduction to Los Angeles 1992”

Once upon a time, a French academic domiciled in the United States thought it would be a good idea to mark the opening of his university’s newly instituted Humanities Center by holding a conference on Structuralism, the philosophic system which had penetrated most sections of French intellectual life and, in doing so, marginalized Existentialism, the immediate postwar reigning philosophy even while Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were still alive.

The academic was Réne Girard, onetime chairman of the Department of Romance Languages at Johns Hopkins University. With the help of a sponsoring committee he drew up his plans, and the Ford Foundation underwrote them. Thus it came about that for a few days in 1966 Baltimore hosted a gathering attended by more than 100 scholars from the United States and eight other countries.

According to Francois Dosse, the author of the standard history of Structuralism, the Americans had grasped that the new theory (committed to revealing the basic structural patterns in social phenomena from myths to clothing) was “pluridisciplinaire” and, accordingly, had invited representatives of several human sciences from literary criticism to anthropology.

Parisian structuralists dominated the proceedings—which were in English and French—and the audience heard papers by such distinguished figures as Roland Barthes, Tzvetan Todorov, Lucien Goldmann, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. Paul de Man, not yet unmasked as an anti-Semitic Nazi collaborator in wartime Belgium, came down from Yale as a colloquist.

Now the conference had been given the blessing of Claude Levi-Strauss, the leading French anthropologist and the founding father of Structuralism, but he was not himself present. Had he gone to Baltimore he would have completed one of those intellectual circuits which seems to suggest that we live in a world of coincidences. This is because Structuralism had, in essence, been born in the United States nearly 30 years before when Levi-Strauss was on the staff of the New School for Social Research in New York. He had taken up the post within the framework of the imaginative and enlightened program, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, to rescue European scholars, Jews and non-Jews, from Nazi persecution.

It so happened that another refugee scholar, Roman Jakobson, was at the school teaching structural phonology (in French) and the two men met and, in time, attended one another’s lectures and seminars. It is from the interaction of their two disciplines, anthropology and linguistics, that structural anthropology was born.

In his book of memoirs De près et de loin, Levi-Strauss has described this important encounter: “At that time I was a naif structuralist. I was creating structuralism without knowing it. Jakobson showed me the existence of a body of doctrine already constituted within a discipline: linguistics—which I knew nothing about. For me this was a revelation.”

According to Dosse, Levi-Strauss also came under the influence of Franz Boas, then the leading American anthropologist, who drew attention to the importance of the relationship between cultural phenomena and the unconscious structure of the laws of language.

Thus it can be seen that the American connection with the birth of Structuralism was a powerful one and the Johns Hopkins conference continued the tradition of providing the money and the setting for an exchange of ideas.

In later years, however, the name most associated with the Baltimore symposium would not be any of the structuralists present but Jacques Derrida whose contribution was seen then as a criticism of the theory and the beginning of its fall from intellectual chic.

At the time, Derrida was in his late thirties and Girard had invited him to Baltimore because he had been impressed by an essay Derrida had written questioning the work of LeviStrauss. It has never been said whether Girard hoped for a confrontation or whether he invited Derrida in good faith. But David Lehman, whose Signs of the Times is one of the most readable accounts of events during this period, sees the moment when Derrida presented his paper as the one when the new theory was effectively done in and post-Structuralism or Deconstruction took over.

Anyone wishing to read a full account of the conference can do so since the Johns Hopkins University Press brought out a large volume entitled The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man edited by Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donate, both members of the sponsoring committee. But those hoping to find some sort of historical declaration, akin, say, to Luther nailing his theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, are in for a disappointment.

Derrida’s paper was entitled Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences and like most of the other papers presented, used the vocabulary of linguistics, which, by this time had become the fashionable discipline. The paper also gave the first signs of the distinctive Derrida style: the italicized words, the phrases used in phantom quotation marks, and hints of the Joycean word-play that would later take over Derrida’s writing and infuriate the more sober philosophers who could not take such verbal antics seriously.

Lehman sees the critical moment as the one when Derrida spoke of language invading “the universal problematic” and the “moment when, in the absence of a center or an origin, everything became discourse.”

In simple terms, there was no reality apart from the name given to it at any given moment; and with this, in Derrida’s view, went a free play of possibility that could be chaos or, perhaps, freefall.

The audience at the Humanities Center picked up the argument and its implications and Jean Hyppolite, one of Derrida’s teachers and the leading French Hegelian, asked Derrida, in so many words, where he was going; and Derrida replied, “I was wondering myself if I know where I am going.”

Hyppolite saw that Derrida’s ideas were a threat to the natural sciences and pressed on with another question: “What is a structure then? How would you define a structure for me?”

Derrida replied, “The concept of the structure itself—I say in passing—is no longer satisfactory to describe that game. Structure should be centered. But this center can be either thought, as it was classically, like a creator or being or fixed and natural place; or also as a deficiency, let’s say; or something that makes possible “free play.”. . . so I think that what I have said can be understood as a criticism of structuralism, certainly.”

Lucien Goldmann, after noting Derrida’s “catalytic function” in French intellectual life, was not at all convinced by his arguments and described some of his language as “destructive.”

Derrida could not accept this and said, “Nothing of what I said had a destructive meaning. Here or there I have used the word. . . deconstruction. . . which has nothing to do with destruction. That is to say, it is simply a question of. . . being alert to the implications, to the historical sedimentation of the language which we use—and that is not destruction. I believe in the necessity of scientific work in the classical sense. . . but I don’t see why I should renounce or why anyone should renounce the radicality of a critical work under the pretext that it risks the sterilization of science, humanity, progress, the origin of meaning etc. I believe that the risk of sterility and of sterilization has always been the price of lucidity.”

What is not quite clear at this distance in time is why no one heeded what Derrida was saying about the effects of his theories and why those who were shaken by Derrida’s contribution had not grasped that Simone de Beauvoir, back in 1949, had more or less asked the same question about the origin of structures.

The context, however, had been very different. After Lévi-Strauss returned to France in 1948 and was reintegrated into the university system, de Beauvoir heard that he was about to publish Les Structures Elémentaires de la Parenté and asked (she was just finishing her book The Second Sex) whether she might read the proofs. Lévi-Strauss agreed and as a thank-you gesture de Beauvoir wrote a long and enthusiastic account of the book for Les Temps Modernes, then the leading French journal of ideas. This was the article which made Lévi-Strauss’s reputation, and commentators have seen a certain irony in the way that the existentialist mouthpiece and the Mother Superior of the movement let in the Trojan horse.

It has been assumed, based on de Beauvoir’s own text, that she regarded Levi-Strauss as another existentialist and thought it a mark of his greatness that he did not ask where the structures “whose logic he describes, come from.”

She went on, “Levi-Strauss has forbidden himself to venture on to philosophical ground and never wanders from a rigorous, scientific objectivity; but his thought has its home in the great humanistic current which considers human existence as bringing with it its own reason.”

It could be, of course, that no one asked the question because Levi-Strauss was still at the beginning of his phenomenal career and Parisian schools and salons were still too busy mastering the new existentialist vocabulary to raise queries.

This question of vocabulary is one that crops up all the time in any discussion of French thinkers of the second half of this century. Foucault coined the phrase “verbal terrorism” to describe some of the more outrageously obscure texts by his contemporaries. The Baltimore conference had its fair share of what one person, trying to transcribe the proceedings, called “obscure Gallic noises.”

The worst examples came from Jacques Lacan, who tried to describe how he was rethinking Freud in a mixture of French, which he wrote opaquely, and English, which he hardly knew at all, and sometimes in a composite of the two.

Lacan’s obscure language was criticized from the floor. Angus Fletcher reminded the conference that Freud had been a simple man and he had not tried “to float on the surface of words.”

“What you are doing,” he told Lacan, “is like a spider. You’re making a very delicate web without any human reality in it. For example, you were speaking of joy (joie, jouissance). In French one of the meanings of jouir is the orgasm —I think that is most important here—why not say so? All the talk I have heard here has been so abstract.”

Nicolas Ruwet, a Belgian scholar who was later to teach at Johns Hopkins, expressed forebodings about the problems which literary studies would encounter when based on linguistic data.

“There would be little sense,” he said, “in binding the destiny of literary studies to what is merely a transitional stage of a neighbouring discipline.”

Despite these hard words and warnings the structuralist show had got on the road. Yet this could not have happened had there not been a number of Americans in positions of influence who had been converts to the new theory before the conference.

In his opening address to the gathering, Richard Macksey had gone so far as to apologize for the title given to the whole event.

“Many here,” he said, “would reject, even for the rhetoric of symposia programs, the seductive allure which the word “sciences” borrows from fields alien to our endeavor. . . others. . . would question the legitimacy for this time of the word “man” and the metaphysical approach attached to it by humanistic conventions and titular sponsors such as the Humanities Center.”

All the same, the organizers did not wish to give the impression that they had been promoting a manifesto or trying to arrive at a “fixed and unambiguous definition of structuralism itself.”

A local journalist, overcome by the opaque language and the Gallic flavor of the conference, described it as a “96-gun French dispute.”


Within a short time after the Johns Hopkins conference and despite the critical intervention of Jacques Derrida, those in what we now call the chattering classes in both the United States and France realized that something equivalent to the Big Bang had happened.

Most French chroniclers of the period (notably Elisabeth Roudinesco in her vivid two-volume history of psychoanalysis in France, La Bataille de Cent Ans, and Jean-Paul Aron in his witty and impressionistic Les Modernes, an overview of French intellectual life in the years since 1945) stress the enormous gratification that the French felt at the success of their men in Baltimore; and the word soon spread that now that France had been conquered by the new theory the United States was the promised land.

There had been French scholars at American universities before—of course—but never on such a scale and for such salaries! When had French philosophers been in such demand?

Girard’s initiative had caught the imagination of American universities, and, according to Jean-Paul Aron, any American foreign languages/philosophy department that took itself seriously had its collective ear cocked for what he called “the Parisian siren-voices.”

Aron continued: “Todorov, Ginette, Julia Kristeva disembarked to spread the gospel. There were heartrending lexical conversions: at Madison, at Minneapolis, at Ann Arbor nobody wrote about Flaubert anymore: they “read” him. Columbia. . . was captured and soon it was Yale’s turn: Yale, which under the masterly direction of Henri Peyre had become the frontrunner in French studies in the United States. . . . Without any obstacle, modernity spread across the United States from east to west.”

There was also an element of competitiveness in all this, and Aron wrote of “departmental chairmen ruining themselves to attract the Parisian stars in order to be one up on their neighbours.”

After the fall of Yale, Buffalo, Berkeley, and New York University were taken over, but it was Irvine, “the little campus of the University of California,” which became the “aerial bridgehead uniting theoretical France and American universities.”

Aron found that by 1984 three names dominated the American market: Michel Serres, the historian; Michel Foucault, the archaeologist of knowledge; and Jacques Derrida, the philosopher, literary critic and man for all seasons, best described by the French term maitre a penser.

Aron was especially baffled by Derrida’s success for the simple reason that he could not see how any student who did not have Plato, Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger at his fingertips (“an essential prelude”) could appreciate Derrida’s enormously erudite output. He doubted whether anyone not trained in ontology could question Derrida’s “enigmatic work.” He added, “Some powerful ideas, swiftly vulgarized, had to satisfy their [the students’] appetite.”

This might appear to be an elitist point of view suggesting that French students were better educated than their American counterparts. What it really took into account is the simple fact that in France, as in some other European countries (not Great Britain), philosophy is a subject taught at high-school level, so that nearly any educated French person can play with ideas and deal with abstractions in a way that is foreign to the American (and British) student and can use the vocabulary of abstract discussion. The reader of French newspapers is often surprised—and impressed—by the way journalists can handle these matters. Their education has given them the appropriate critical apparatus.

The matter of the teaching of philosophy in French schools is discussed by Vincent Descombes in his survey of French philosophy from 1933 to 1978. Descombes wrote the book Le Même et l’Autre for Cambridge University Press with an anglophone audience in mind. He described the teaching of philosophy in France as “strongly centralized” and the program taught in schools as a compromise between the differing ideological tendencies and, as such, it had to be revised and readjusted from time to time. This program can also reflect the political forces in the teaching profession and in society as a whole at any given time.

Descombes is specific about this: “That the professor of philosophy in France happens to be a state employee explains the fact that this teaching would inevitably have a political content. If the political inflections are less felt during periods of national stability they are the determining factor when the state seems uncertain of itself. At the beginning of the Third Republic, philosophy at universities found itself given a mission by the state: to teach students the legitimacy of the new republican institutions.”

In addition to their role as national cheerleaders (to use a crude term), many philosophers have seen themselves as the keepers of the national conscience. The role goes back to Voltaire, but the Dreyfus case of the 1890’s gave the tradition a new impetus and, for the first time, the word “intellectual” was used as a noun as well as an adjective.

The period after the war was a golden age for philosophers who had opinions on public events. French intellectual life was dominated by Marxism, and the French Communist Party had the power to make or break reputations. Tony Judt, in his recent study of the period, Past Imperfect, sees the years 1944—56 dominated by the ideological struggle between those who faced up to the realities of Stalinism and those who did not. Sartre, who thought a third world war was inevitable, took a consistently anti-American, anti-colonial stand but was also anxious to distance himself from blind support for the Soviet Union. His convolutions are still hard to follow and even Judt has not succeeded in making the pattern clear.

Judt’s book does make clear the vital role played by Sartre and by Camus and Merleau-Ponty in the debates of the time; but it is left to Descombes to point out that however vocal French philosophers have been in the past, they have failed to produce a coherent theory of the state or any reflection on modern methods of warfare.

But the—to some—crude shorthand of the foregoing paragraphs should not be taken to mean that the teaching of philosophy was in any way debased by these notional roles. A booklet published in 1949 entitled Memento de Philosophie and intended for the use of students presenting themselves for the Baccalauréat makes high claims for the role of philosophy. The author, Paul Foulquié, acknowledges that the purpose of philosophy has changed in the course of time. Until the 18th century, wisdom or philosophy meant disinterested knowledge and took in all the sciences. Gradually (in a tendency that began at the Renaissance) different sciences began to separate themselves from philosophy, whose purpose restricted itself and redefined itself progressively.

The present-day purpose of philosophy (Foulquié meant 1949—the time when structuralism was about to take off) included psychology, logic, morality, and metaphysics, preceded by the problem of value and reason.

The booklet concludes: “Of all the sciences, philosophy is the one which has the highest pretensions: it faces up to the most arduous problems, even those which cause the wise man to pause (not finding any elements of a solution). These problems philosophy claims to resolve and give to all things a systematic explanation. But. . . the multiplicity of systems causes a doubt to hover over the value of each one. We should, however, be able to formulate. . . this final conclusion which all thinkers would subscribe to:. . . man represents an incomparable value superior to all values.”

This declaration of humanism is especially striking at a time when the anti-humanists in France were taking over the commanding heights of philosophy both as discipline and institutionalized profession (as university professors or fashionable authors).

The structuralist bandwagon took a great many by surprise, not least those for whom linguistics was not so much a science d’appui as their chosen discipline, and in 1970 Georges Mounin, the professor of linguistics at Aix-en-Provence University, brought out a book in which he expressed the opinion—with great courtesy—that many of the leading structuralist philosophers had been misusing linguistics and showed a faulty grasp of it.

This was Mounin’s second attempt to get into perspective the way his subject had been taken over by the structuralists. Earlier, he had spoken of the “failed rendezvous” between French intellectuals and linguistics and rightly attributed the new interest in Saussure and his predecessors and the Prague School to Levi-Strauss. In his 1970 book even Levi-Strauss was shown to have manipulated the truth, for his own purposes, in his use of the concept of phonology.

Mounin’s blacklist included Merleau-Ponty (schoolboy howlers); Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault (used linguistic concepts improperly); and Jacques Lacan (faulty response to Saussure’s work and superficial knowledge of linguistics).

Others were also skeptical of the way structuralists had misused specialist fields of knowledge to arrive at their great system. Two examples will suffice: Jean-Francois Revel, in his essay on French philosophy since 1960, referred ironically to linguistics as the “good fairy of the human sciences” and asked whether it mattered that Lacan, in his efforts to make Freud linguistically PC, had based some of his arguments on errors of translation? What value could any system have based on such fundamental misunderstanding?

Much more wounding and troubling was an attack on Roland Barthes by Raymond Picard, the Racine scholar. In 1965, Picard brought out a pamphlet demolishing Barthes’ own book on the dramatist.

Picard took aim, through Barthes, at what he called the new criticism and accused its practitioners of “volatilizing” their subjects. After demonstrating fundamental errors in the Barthes approach to Racine, Picard ended: “What I’ve tried to point out is not so much the absurdities of the “new criticism” as its dangers. My task has become necessary because this criticism has passed from imprudence—which forms the basis of its methodology—to impertinence, which arises from its success.”

It is worth noting as indicative of the introverted, in some ways, parochial nature of the whole structuralist enterprise that during all these debates hardly any reference was made to the work of Noam Chomsky, whose Syntactical Structures, published in 1957, was said by many professional linguists to have had for their subject the same significance that Einstein’s early papers on relativity theory had had on physics.

What is more, in 1964, Chomsky made what Thomas Pavel in his Le Mirage Linguistique called a “devastating attack” on structuralist ideas without seriously interrupting the Parisian debate (or, for that matter, inhibiting those who called the conference in Baltimore two years later).

This apparent failure on Levi-Strauss’s part to take notice of new developments in what he had made the science pilote of the new thinking has given rise to criticism that Levi-Strauss had relied too much on a linguistic model—that of Jakobson—which was no longer viable.

In his lucid monograph on Levi-Strauss, Edmund Leach defends his man against these charges by pointing out that some of Chomsky’s theories “have many points in common with the generative and transformational rules for myth analysis” which Levi-Strauss had developed quite independently on his own.

This could be so; it is significant, all the same, that in the nearly 500 pages of Dosse’s first volume of his history of Structuralism, covering the period 1945—1966, there are only two passing references to Chomsky.

Two years after the Baltimore event Paris was brought to a standstill by the “events” of May 1968 when the Sorbonne was the center and debating ground of a huge, and ultimately successful, revolt against the French government and the university authorities. Elisabeth Roudinesco believes that the effervescence of the structuralist assault on many disciplines brought about the student revolt. Others believe that the events of May also marked the end of the structuralist hold over French intellectuals and that, henceforward, there would be a movement into a no-man’s land called post-Structuralism.

Even the high priests of the movement denied they had ever been structuralists and modified their approach and, in the case of Foucault, their prose style. The huge enterprise to create a universal philosophical theory able to embrace Freudianism, Marxism, anthropology, literary criticism, and aesthetics, which had taken on the trappings of a fashionable crusade with Tout Paris attending debates in the Sorbonne, died away and out of this dispersal, which involved many more names than have been given in this short resume, eventually only Derrida has survived into the present day as an éminence grise in his own right.

We can now see how easily, in the end, Derrida brought down the pillars of the uncompleted structuralist temple. Although he was closely involved with Tel Quel, more or less for a time the structuralists’ house journal, and published some of his first works in it, he was never totally committed to its “party-line” and avoided being associated with its more spectacular changes of direction.

His relationships with the other names associated with the movement were variable. He could not resist pointing out their flaws: he opposed Lacan on Freud’s use of language; he had a famous spat with Foucault over a misreading of Descartes; he had made his name with a critical foray against Lévi-Strauss. Barthes was soon influenced by Derrida. As for Louis Althusser and his attempt to make Marx relevant at a time when Marxism was losing its hold over French intellectuals, Derrida kept his own counsel. He was able, with good conscience, to give his support to the non-Communist left and later enjoyed a close relationship with the Socialists when they were in power.

Two main points emerge from the wreck of the structuralist enterprise. The first is how much it was tied up with the narrow but intense world of Parisian intellectual life. The jostling for position within the state-financed academic institutions (so vividly described in Didier Eribon’s biography of Foucault) was matched, outside the universities and grandes écoles, by the need to create a band of followers (see Roudinesco’s hilarious account of Lacan trying to recruit Derrida at the Baltimore conference: “We must talk, Derrida; we must talk”) and to have an outlet—either a magazine or a well-known publishing house—avid to print the latest convoluted turn of your thought or your latest quarrel with a rival over some small point which (naturally) undermined his elaborately dovetailed structure. In other words: a society sealed off from the outside world, a bell-jar in which brilliant and ambitious men (and women) like molecules of gas united, divided, reunited and all in the name of their own careers. The Death of the Author? Forget it; how many copies have we sold?

The final twist of the structuralist idea that the subject is a worn-out concept was provided by Eribon when, at the start of his life of Foucault, he apologized for even attempting the enterprise since, in theory, Foucault did not exist even though his death from AIDS in 1984 had been a matter of universal account and regret.

The second aspect of the structuralist enterprise that is now evident is how much it resembled the existentialist fashion in the late 40’s and 50’s. Both periods were marked by—dare anyone say such a thing?—a retreat from common sense and a refusal to listen to those who had the courage to say that the emperor had no clothes. The big difference, of course, is in the attitude to communism. The existentialists refused to accept the witness of those who had escaped from the Stalinist concentration camps; the structuralists had no illusions about the Soviet Union but for a time Tel Quel was Maoist and thus anti-Soviet; but both existentialists and structuralists, when faced with abuses of human rights in the real world, were selective in their support.

This is unfair to the latter since, apart from Althusser grinding away on his revised-Marxist violin, the structuralists were much less involved in what might be called the everyday world. Only Foucault carried on, in a new form, Sartre’s sense of public duty to be seen protesting against what he saw as injustice (and on at least one occasion the two men joined forces).


So far, Derrida has been like a cork bobbing about among the debris-strewn waters of French philosophy, now a part of the structuralist bandwagon, now a virus in the structuralist computer, but always the center of interest, the man to be watched. It is time to examine in more detail the career of this extraordinarily gifted and protean man.

The facts about his life and works can be obtained from Christopher Norris’s study of his work, published in 1987, and the more recent collaboration between Derrida and a young English scholar, Geoffrey Bennington, which came out in 1991.

Norris is Derrida’s leading British apologist with a style that is often as obscure as that of the man he is trying to elucidate. Bennington’s text is equally dense. Both have compiled chronologies.

From these we learn that Derrida was born in Algeria, at that time a French colony, in 1930. His parents were “assimilated” Sephardic Jews. The family circumstances appear to have been comfortable (Bennington’s book is illustrated by shots of the family’s car).

Derrida enrolled in a local French lycée but was banned from attending after the French authorities, without pressure from the Germans (who never occupied Algeria), brought in anti-Jewish legislation. Derrida then moved to a specially created Jewish school but aware of the mounting hostility in the community “skipped classes for a year.” In due course Derrida resumed a normal education and obtained his baccalauréat in 1948.

He had been an athletic boy who dreamed of becoming a professional footballer; his interest in philosophy was awoken by a radio talk on the work of Camus, a fellow Algerian, and the existentialists. In time, Derrida fell under Sartre’s influence and was, for a period, in love with the notion of political engagement although he believed such activities were “ill-fated and catastrophic” for an intellectual.

From 1950 onward, Derrida studied in Paris, where, at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, he worked under the Hegel scholar, Jean Hyppolyte (the man who asked the $64, 000 question at the Baltimore conference). During this time he read German philosophy, including the three Hs, Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger, and contemporary French philosophers such as Blanchot and Bataille. His master’s thesis was on meaning, structure, and genesis in Husserl. This was later published in the form of two essays in Writing and Difference in 1967.

In 1956, Derrida was at Harvard on a one-year visiting scholarship and on his return to France planned a thesis for a state doctorate on The Identity of the Literary Object. This was abandoned because (according to Norris) “Derrida moved toward the deconstructive standpoint enounced in Speech and Phenomena.”

In 1960, Derrida began to teach at the Sorbonne and continued there until 1965 when he moved to the Ecole Normale Supérieure where he taught the history of philosophy.

During these years, which Derrida later looked upon as the high summer of French Structuralism, he continued work on what Norris, in his chronology, calls “the problematic interface of phenomenology, structuralism and literary theory” and began his publishing career. He was also closely involved with what might be called the structuralists’ house journal Tel Quel, which was, at that stage, “open to the influences of semiology, Marxism, psychoanalysis and the structuralist “sciences of man.”“

Derrida’s first major publication was a translation of Edmund Husserl’s The Origin of Geometry with a book-length introductory essay; this won the Prix Cavaillès. But the great breakthrough came in 1967—the year after the Johns Hopkins conference—with the appearance of three books: Speech and Phenomena (on Husserl), Of Grammatology, and Writing and Difference.

Five years later, in 1972, another four works appeared: Positions (a collection of interviews), Dissemination (which contains the essay on Plato and writing), Margins of Philosophy, and Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles.

By this time, Derrida had become an international figure, dividing his working life between France and the United States. He accepted regular visiting appointments at Johns Hopkins and Yale, which soon became known in academic circles as the home of the three “boa-deconstructors”— Derrida, Paul de Man, and J. Hillis Miller.

David Lehman believes de Man and Miller were crucial figures in giving Derrida an American foothold (even before the first translations of his work in English began to appear in 1973), and he cites, as being of especial significance, de Man’s 1971 book Blindness and Insight, which gave de Man a chance to criticize Derrida’s reading of Rousseau while praising him as a great teacher.

Lehman goes on: “Adapting Derrida to the field of literary studies, de Man obtained for deconstruction what it never fully or only fleetingly enjoyed in France: an institutional base of operations and a home in the academic disciplines devoted to English and comparative literature.”

To go ahead a decade or more, it is possible to see how important this Yale sponsorship was for Derrida. So much so that in 1986 Miller claimed that the “appropriation of deconstruction in the United States is producing something that is specifically American.” He also quoted Derrida as saying that Deconstruction was really an American concept and that he—Derrida—had more power and influence in the United States than in France.

Long before Miller made his statement, Derrida had become a troubling figure in his own country, and a mist of doubt and suspicion had gathered about his name. His cleverness was never in doubt nor his capacity for work, but his lectures were not the usual ones and baffled many of his students. The noun “byzantinism” cropped up more and more when his work was discussed.

The main problem was in deciding whether Derrida was really a philosopher at all although he taught philosophy and his first works had been on philosophical subjects as understood in the classical sense. What troubled many of his confreres was Derrida’s ambivalent attitude to his own discipline. He seemed to despise philosophy and want to deglamorize it.

The situation was summed up by Catherine Clement— who later wrote a life of Jacques Lacan—in a special number of the journal L’Arc devoted to Derrida in 1973. Clement wrote: “What interests Jacques Derrida, in his complex relationship with philosophy, is to be able to reject it, to give it up, to spew it up. To spew up philosophy is to put it back in the common or garden world which it has always tried to dominate and from which it is always trying to extricate itself; it is also to confront it with fiction and other forms of the written word.”

Clement maintained that philosophy has always aimed to be “the logic of logic, the discourse of discourse” and so, in “decapitating” it we take away from the discipline its preeminence.

Derrida, according to Clement, believes that philosophical writing needs to be “thrown back into the sea of texts, as Jonah was spat out by the whale. It is this work of rejection (of philosophy’s special place) that Derrida highlights in Glas (the deathknell of philosophy).”

Ignoring the hyperbolic language of vomiting and deathknells, the ordinary reader of Derrida (is there such a person?) finds himself in not necessarily unfamiliar territory. The idea that philosophical systems are supreme fictions is not a new idea; any Marxist can provide the correct quotes on this subject. The problem was not so much in trying to decide what kind of fiction philosophy might be as in wondering whether Derrida’s own philosophical ideas might be a form of fictional creation, too.

If the barriers surrounding philosophy are destroyed from within by one of the most erudite and stimulating practitioners, those who are already outside cannot be sure what they are dealing with.

This, presumably, is what Catherine Clement meant by the “deathknell of philosophy,” the moment when it seems hardly worthwhile taking the subject seriously. It would be an acute problem in dealing with Derrida’s own writings, given his thesis that any text is open to a myriad of equally valid readings or interpretations. A further problem arises from this: if he is right, can the ordinary reader or the most rigorous student have any right to claim he or she knows what Derrida is talking about? Paradoxes and unanswered questions abounded, but the show went on.


A brief index test can show the evolution of Derrida’s interests in the vital years from the publication of De la Grammatologie in 1967 to La Dissemination in 1972.

The first work—probably Derrida’s most influential one— is mostly devoted to an examination of Rousseau and Lévi-Strauss’s theories about the origins of language and there are references to the work of Plato, Condillac, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Jakobson, which, presumably, those philosophers who wish to keep a fence round their subject would accept. In the second book the barriers have been taken down and the range of reference and quotation extends from Descartes, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, and Feuerbach via Novalis, Lautréamont, Mallarmé, Alexandre Dumas fils to Freud, Lacan, Kojève, Althusser, and Francis Ponge.

The result, for an anglophone reader, is a certain amount of exclusion; we do not have many of these poets and novelists at our fingertips so that much of what Derrida says has to be taken on trust.

At the same time, Derrida’s prose style had become more mannered, more baroque in its obscurity and many of the irritating tricks—the manic use of italics, the quotes in Latin, Greek and German (even English)—create a kind of fuzz over the page. Although it is clear that Derrida is trying in his emphases and instant translations to imitate his style when speaking to students or in academic gatherings, their presence on the page suggests overwroughtness; and the final effect is of someone trying to draw attention to his own cleverness, his own mastery of the phrase that dissolves as it is being read (or heard).

There is also a typographical carnival: black type from time to time and word-games on the page such as George Herbert might have imitated. Naturally, the footnotes are as dense and as full of cross-references as the main text. The question has to be asked: is this what Foucault meant when he wrote of Derrida’s petite pédagogie, which might be loosely translated as “nitpicking scholasticism?”

But Derrida, never one to rest on his laurels, was already about to flout the philosophical “norms” again when, in 1974, he published Glas, the text referred to obliquely by Catherine Clement in her article in I/Arc. This work, translated into English in 1987, has been described as an intertextual commentary on the “problematic borderline between literature and philosophy.” Philosophy is represented by Hegel (“Whatever is rational is real and whatever is real is rational”) and literature by Jean Genet, whose work was largely inspired by the beauty and abusive treachery of the male criminals he met while held in French reformatories and prisons.

The interface is not only ideological or in the mind but physical, throughout the book. On the left hand, as boxing commentators might say, is Hegel, one of the last great flagbearers of German philosophical idealism, and on the right is Genet, the master of squalor and viciousness. In effect there are two essays here working against and, perhaps, complementing the other and this juxtaposition is a further irritation to the reader who finds it hard to concentrate on one without glancing sideways at the other. In addition, to complicate matters, Derrida often inserts a third column of quotation or commentary (mostly in the Genet pages) so that there is, finally, a real confusion between what is commentary and argument and what is quotation from the novels. There is some relief when the text on the Genet side is held up, as it were, for the Hegelian contrapuntal text to “catch up.”

The enterprise is brilliantly silly and almost selfdestructive, for no ordinary literary critic would have dared to suggest counterpointing Hegel’s seriousness and devoted family instincts with steamy novels such as Notre Dame des Fleurs. And yet is this what Derrida is really about? The paperback edition of Glas carries the question: Que reste-t-il du savoir absolu?— “What’s left of absolute knowledge?” An answer would have been easier had the text not been so impenetrable on both sides and if Derrida had not given the impression that he was skating over the surface of language while, in places, overindulging his passion for Joycean wordplay. This last habit—Joyce has been a powerful influence throughout Derrida’s career—involves what Donald Davie, elsewhere, has called the winkling of “extra meaning out of the most unlikely concatenation of sounds” unhampered by “commonsense on the one hand and of context on the other.”

Whether his readers understood him or not, Derrida’s progress continued. Special numbers of learned journals devoted to his work appeared all over the world; he was a guest speaker at international gatherings. Everything he said and wrote was an event. Yet in 1980 he decided to defend a thesis at the Sorbonne nearly 25 years after he had first registered his subject as The Identity of the Literary Object.

In French universities, the defence of a thesis is a public event to which family and friends of the candidate are invited. Before the examination begins the candidate is allowed to make introductory remarks and Derrida has reprinted these. (In English they appear in the Cambridge University collection of essays Philosophy in France Today.)

No doubt there was a certain unreality about the whole event, given Derrida’s international reputation and he said as much in his own prolix style: it was, he said, impossible for him not to find the proceedings taking on a “slight character of fantasy or irreality, an air of improbability, of unpredictability, even an air of improvisation.”

These remarks, full of what the French philosopher Jacques Bouveresse called “narcissistic self-celebration,” clear up one big question: “For I have to remind you, somewhat bluntly and simply, that my most constant interest, coming, I should say, even before my philosophical interest, if that were possible, has been directed towards literature, towards that writing which is called literary.”

He also spoke of his own theory of “deconstruction” and said it was a word “I have never liked and one whose fortune has disagreeably surprised me.”

Referring to Jean Hyppolyte’s remark in Baltimore “I really do not see where you are going,” Derrida added, “This also means, perhaps, that, concerning this place where I am going, I in fact know enough about it to think, with a certain terror, that things there are not going very well and that, all things considered, it would be better not to go there at all.”

He also cleared up his relationship with Structuralism in the years 1963—68: “What I proposed at that time retained an oblique, deviant, sometimes directly critical, relationship with respect to everything that seemed then to dominate the main, most visible, the most spectacular of sometimes the most fertile outcrop of French theoretical production, a phenomenon which, in its various different forms, was known, no doubt abusively, as “structuralism.”“

Derrida also mentioned his doubts about the “uncertainties, the hesitations, the oscillations by way of which I sought the most fitting relationship with the institution of the university, on a plane that was not simply political and that concerned not only the thesis.”

He also shared his doubts about his direction: “For not only am I not sure, as I never am, of being right in taking this step, I am not sure that I see in all clarity what led me to do so. Perhaps because I was beginning to know only too well not indeed where I was going, but where I had not so much arrived as simply stopped.”

It could be, of course, that Derrida was speaking here merely of the long-gestated thesis, but it seemed to many who had followed his career that it could also apply to his work as a whole.

There can be no doubt that the publication of Glas marked some sort of watershed in his career. The classical philosophers would have said that, at this point, Derrida could no longer be taken seriously and became a sort of intellectual Figaro, ready to dabble in anything.

The academic routine continued, of course. Derrida took part in academic gatherings in West Africa, South America, Japan, the (then) Soviet Union, Israel, as well as fulfilling his duties as visiting professor in a number of American institutions, among them Cornell, City University of New York, and the Cardozo Law School. A clandestine seminar in Prague in 1981 resulted in Derrida being arrested on trumped-up charges of trafficking in drugs. He was released thanks to the intervention of President Mitterand.

This full calendar was a tribute to Derrida’s growing influence and his tireless energy. In addition, he began to involve himself in the fine arts and the cinema. In 1975 he wrote introductions to the work of two artists, Adami and Titus-Carmel. The year before, Bernard Tschumi asked him to collaborate with Peter Eisenman, the American architect, on a project for the new park being created at la Villette, in northeast Paris. Since then, Derrida has written many texts on architecture. In 1990, the directors of the Louvre Museum invited him to organize an exhibition and for this he wrote an almost impenetrable introduction entitled Memoirs of a Blind Man. Those in the know found this very witty.

To Derrida, as patron and connoisseur of the arts, must be added Derrida the film star. In 1982 he played in Ken McMullen’s film Ghost Dance and, in 1987, took a role in a work by the video-artist Gary Hill (Disturbance). He has also collaborated on a feature on Caryl Chessman.

Nor was his civic role as philosopher forgotten. Derrida was active in a number of moves to strengthen the institutional standing of philosophy and this culminated in the late 80’s with his appointment to a state commission to advise on the future place which philosophy might occupy in the curriculum of French lycées.

Possibly because of his globetrotting and the demand for his presence at conferences and seminars and, of course, his other activities, Derrida’s writing after Glas seems less “driven” than the works on which his reputation was founded; and the texts since 1974 include many which are introductions to the works of others, some angry responses to criticism of his theories, and attempts to clarify earlier positions.

The range of Derrida’s interests is impressive. During this period since Glas have appeared commentaries on thinkers such as Condillac, Neitzsche, and Heidegger as well as essays on Paul Célan, Francis Ponge, Antonin Artaud (as graphic artist), and James Joyce, a writer Derrida first read when he was at Harvard in 1956/57 and was doing research on Husserl.

To this post-Glas period belongs his public debate with the American philosopher John Searle. This had begun in the late 70’s in the pages of Glyph, a philosophical magazine published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. In October 1983, Searle made a full frontal attack on Derrida and Deconstruction in The New York Review of Books. The article, “The World Turned Upside Down,” created a sensation and already several accounts of it have been written, basically attempts to arbitrate in this first serious clash between the French philosophical school and the Anglo-American one. The matter of contention was Derrida’s reading of J.L.Austin, the Oxford philosopher, on the topic of speech-act theory.

Christopher Norris, in his book on Derrida, says that at one level this exchange can be read as “just another example (albeit an extravagant case) of Anglo-American “commonsense” logic up against the high gyrations of French poststructuralist theory.”

Norris says Derrida does not think any “encounter” took place given the huge gaps in understanding between himself and Searle. Norris goes on: “A careful re-reading of Limited Inc— Derrida’s response to Searle’s critique of his (Derrida’s) text on Austin—should be enough to question the idea that analytical philosophy has all the “rigor” and deconstruction nothing more than an overdeveloped taste for elaborate verbal games.”

If Derrida and his supporters feel he came out of this academic joust without being seriously affected, Searle’s criticisms had touched a chord in many American campuses where Deconstruction had, within a few years, become a sort of orthodoxy. David Lehman notes in his book on de Man that by 1979 Derrida had become the most frequently cited authority in papers submitted to the MLA and the spread of deconstruction across America was an accomplished fact: “deconstruction had become a routine part of the curriculum.”

Derrida agreed. In his Mémoires: for Paul de Man, published in 1986, he wrote: “Were I not so frequently associated with this adventure of deconstruction I would risk, with a smile, the following hypothesis: America IS deconstruction.”


In his chronology of Derrida’s life, at the end of his detailed study of his work, Norris comes to 1984 and writes: “Publication of several texts (including the Principles of Reason) which attempt to re-focus the interests of American Deconstruction on issues of politics, teaching and ideological criticism. Signs of an increasing convergence between Derrida’s work in France and America.”

Norris is not specific about what this “convergence” entailed but it cannot have been long-lasting as Derrida’s position in the United States was soon under attack not only over his teaching (which was being blamed for the excesses of feminism and political correctness, among other things) but also over the revelations about his friend and codeconstructor, Paul de Man.

The timetable is as follows: de Man died in December 1983. Three years later, Derrida published his Mémoires: for Paul de Man, recently quoted. That same year—1986— Derrida followed Hillis Miller to Irvine, thus ending the long relationship with Yale. In December 1987 The New York Times published the revelations about de Man’s pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic past. The next year, Derrida brought out an expanded version of his Mémoires and followed it with an essay on the whole controversy entitled “Like the Sound of the Sea Deep within a Shell: Paul de Man’s War.” This took up 62 pages of the journal Critical Inquiry and showed how the deconstructive method, applied by its founder, could reverse the argument and make black white and white black.

What is more, the “war” referred to in the title was not the one against the Nazis (in which de Man collaborated), but the controversy over his wartime articles, as reflected and commented upon in the American press. Other apologists took their line from Derrida, and a number of indefensible and ridiculous statements were made in trying to polish up de Man’s tarnished and no longer entirely credible image.

Derrida, who had shown in earlier controversies that he was nothing if not a street-fighter, published a further text on the matter entitled “Biodegradables: Seven Diary Fragments” in the summer 1989 number of Critical Inquiry. The tone of the piece shocked even Derrida’s supporters. If Khrushchev had condemned the West and its ideas to the rubbish dump of history, Derrida—no doubt ecologically PC—consigned his opponents to the compost heap: hence the title.

Was this the language of dispassionate investigation and the search for truth? Was this the moment when, suddenly, Derrida’s whole public persona changed or the mask slipped or the deconstructor deconstructed himself? Impossible to say in matters of ideas and theory exactly when a notion reaches its sell-by date, but there can be little doubt that since this de Man controversy Derrida has been on the defensive and his tendency to over-react become more pronounced.

In 1989, George Steiner published his Real Presences, in which he praised Derrida for having “seen so plainly that the issue (of his theories) is neither linguistic-aesthetic nor philosophical in any traditional, debatable sense. . . . The issue is, quite simply, the meaning of meaning as it is re-insured by the postulate of the existence of God.”

At the same time, Steiner berated the “portentous banality” of most deconstructive readings of texts and stated his preference for Empson’s Structure of Complex Words or Kenneth Burke’s studies in rhetoric, motive and grammatology. He accused the deconstructionists of working on marginal texts (Sade or Lautréamont) or on a secondary work by a great writer (S/Z by Barthes).

Deconstruction, Steiner added, had nothing to tell us of Aeschylus or Dante or Shakespeare or Tolstoy and summed up: “The central dogma, according to which all readings are misreadings and the sign has no underwritten intelligibility, has precisely the same paradoxical, self-denying status as the celebrated aporia whereby a Cretan declares all Cretans to be liars. Immured within natural language, deconstructive propositions are self-falsifying.”

Shortly after this the Derrida excitements shifted from Paris and the United States to England where, until this moment Derrida had hardly been a household name and where philosophy of what might be called the continental type is taught in only three universities (Essex, Sussex, and Warwick).

In January 1992, the Times Higher Education Supplement decided to examine the notion of the literary canon and invited a number of eminent writers and scholars to name the “works in the humanities which are essential reading for an “educated” person.”

The organizer of the inquiry, Ms. Sian Griffiths, had assumed a Eurocentric—maybe, even, Anglocentric—emphasis so that Shakespeare and the Bible were taken as read. She asked for a further ten titles.

In a letter addressed to “Mr.” Griffiths (a pardonable error: Sian is a Welsh girl’s name) Derrida refused to comply. The matter was far too serious to be treated so lightly and he added, “I would have to analyse in a critical fashion almost every word (in Ms. Griffiths’s letter). I shall do so elsewhere on the first occasion and will then perhaps publish the result.”

This reply was carried by the journal and illustrated with a photograph of Derrida which showed to good effect his fine head of hair, the super-intelligence of his expression and a shirt-collar and tie askew in the best French maitre à penser tradition.

Later in the year British television viewers with a taste for late-night debate were to become familiar with Derrida as he spoke about freedom and interpretation. This was a replay of his appearance at an Oxford event, a series of lectures organized as a fund-raising exercise by Amnesty International. A galaxy of French “names”—Paul Ricoeur, Hélène Cixous, and Julia Kristeva as well as Derrida—had been invited to speak. (It should be noted that Edward Said, the odd man out in this gathering, was generally considered to have been the best value).

Derrida chose to be interviewed instead of giving a presentation. Alan Montefiore, who had edited the Cambridge book on modern French philosophy, was the one to engage Derrida in “conversation.” An account of the event, written by James Wood, the chief book reviewer of The Guardian, was published in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS).

Wood remarked that Derrida’s “rather subdued conversation. . . exposed theory’s grosser weaknesses. First its alienating language. . . . There was something unconvincing about literary theory’s attempt to link itself with Amnesty International and human bondage. Every so often Derrida or Cixous would wrench themselves back to Amnesty and human rights like one of those over-sponsored American television shows reminding you yet again of its sponsor. But it didn’t wash. There was something shamefaced about these theorists’ attempts to be humanly relevant.”

Wood was especially hard on Kristeva (“of 12 people in my row, three were napping, one was reading a newspaper, two were doodling.”), but Derrida was the most offended when Wood wrote that he was the only speaker to accept a fee. The angry letter from Derrida and the embarrassment of the lectures’ organizers seemed to prove L.P. Hartley’s remark (on being faced with a libel action) that few professions are so risky as literary ones.

In his defense, Wood pointed out that he had noted the prolonged applause from the 1, 400 people—many schoolchildren—present at Derrida’s lecture and thought they had been thanking him for “bequeathing a new language of reading, for showing how texts may be read against themselves.”

This phrase about a “new language” offended an Oxford don, John Bayley, who marveled that a “new generation is awed and delighted by the flourish with which Franco-American conjurors produce from the hat the rabbit that our older critics always knew was there.”

A few weeks later, it was reported that Derrida, Wood, and Bayley had become “the best of mates”—unlikely term—but by this time Derrida had become the center of a new and more exciting controversy: would he be given an honorary degree by Cambridge University?

The saga began when the members of Cambridge University’s French department put Derrida’s name forward for the honor. This was regarded by some as a solecism since Derrida was said to be a philosopher so should not the appropriate faculty have been consulted? This was a sterile argument for, as it soon became clear, Cambridge philosophers, in the main, did not regard Derrida as one of them and pointed out that his theories had had the greatest influence in the field of literary criticism; and even there many wellknown figures disputed his claim to greatness.

The story really broke when four dons got up in the University Senate House, at a meeting which was expected to allow the honors list to go through on the nod, and cried out, in approved fashion, “Non placet” (“It does not please me!”) and set in motion the university electoral system, open to about 2, 500 dons.

To a public nourished in the past on C. P. Snow’s novels about academic feuds, all this seemed to be a storm in a very small teacup. Why, correspondents asked, did academics enjoy such vitriolic arguments especially since Derrida had no effect on educational funding, unlike Mrs. Thatcher or Lord Hailsham, who had run into similar objections in the past? The Times reporter thought the bile was a symptom of something like cabin-fever created by having to dine so often with people the dons detested. The spat would give academics a chance to “flex their muscles and say exquisitely rude things about each other that have been brewing gently all winter.”

Then the fly-sheets appeared—for and against. Those for seemed to suggest that an honor should go to Derrida because he was famous for being famous; the opponents brought out what by this time had become the usual arguments: Derrida’s contribution to linguistics was unimportant and he and his followers had, by using his approach to texts, transformed them “virtually beyond recognition.”

“Derrida himself neither has disavowed nor could consistently disavow such application of his texts, since they themselves assert both the irrelevance of the author’s views and the impossibility of distinguishing correct from incorrect interpretations,” charged one such sheet.

The objectors listed what they saw as Derrida’s bad influence in the fields of literature, law, historical research, and in politics. Even scientific inquiry was threatened by “denying the distinctions between fact and fiction, observation and imagination, evidence and prejudice.”

The literate British press followed the debate closely. One paper deconstructed the writing on a five-pound note; one had a jaunty article entitled “What’s it all about, Jacques?” but the most unexpected anti-Derrida shot came from 19 philosophers (resident in ten countries) who wrote to The Times objecting to what they called Derrida’s “tricks and gimmicks.”

The signatories, including the Americans Quine, Willard, and Marcus, did not think Derrida was a philosopher at all since his work did not meet “accepted standards of clarity and rigour.”

They claimed that Derrida was a child of “the heady days of the sixties” who had become a cause for “silent embarrassment” to his collagues in France since he had contributed to the widespread impression “that contemporary French philosophy is little more than an object of ridicule.”

The letter went on: “M. Derrida’s voluminous writings in our view stretch the normal forms of academic scholarship beyond recognition. Above all—as every reader can easily establish for himself (and for this purpose any page will do)—his works employ a written style that defies comprehension.

“Many have been willing to give M. Derrida the benefit of the doubt, insisting that language of such depth and difficulty of interpretation must hide deep and subtle thoughts indeed. When the effort is made to penetrate it, however, it becomes clear, to us at least, that, where coherent assertions are being made at all, they are either false or trivial.”

The election went ahead, a minority of dons voted and the honor to Derrida was approved. When he arrived in England, he gave a press conference and was asked what he meant by Deconstruction.

He said, “First, it is a way of remembering, recollecting what culture is made of, a way of re-analysing our Western philosophy and the different layers and strata of assumptions which have made it what it is.”

He defended the right of philosophers to ask such questions and attacked those who had, through oversimplification, cliché, and inaccurate description, falsified his ideas.

He received his degree, along with seven other distinguished personalities, and the controversy shi


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