I am generally disappointed with what’s been written on the occasion of philosopher Jacques Derrida’s death because so much of appears to be just plain wrong or poorly informed. I’m not just talking about people who refer to his writing as “drivel” or “nonsense.” Those people are either stupid or intellectually lazy, and I’ve never been very interested in interacting with people who display those qualities. My mama didn’t raise me that way.
I would never take a strong, public stand for or against some intellectual movement about which I am not very knowledgeable. If I don’t understand something, my strategy is to defer extensive or ostensibly definitive commentary. This is what scholars are supposed to do. If you are irritated with Derrida because you read an essay or two in grad school that rubbed you the wrong way, or because someone told you what he stands for and you don’t like the sound of it, then you are not qualified to pass judgment upon his work or its influence. I am as impatient as the next person with Derrida’s often-opaque writing style, but comprehension is as much a function of the abilities of the reader as of the clarity of the writer.
If a student were to ask me to define deconstruction, the movement that Derrida is credited with founding, I would say something like this, “All seemingly coherent and self-contained systems actually contain within themselves the seeds of their own undoing. Something that seems to be one thing could actually be said to be its exact opposite.” However, I would also acknowledge that this two-sentence description is probably violently reductive, and smart people have written reams on the subject. I would then help that student find some of that writing.
Here’s something I did like, something that provides as accurate (to me) a summation of Derrida’s intellectual project as we might ask for. Scott McLemee links to a 2003 piece by Terry Eagleton, who writes:
[Derrida] did indeed comment that “there is nothing outside the text”, but he did not mean by this that Mme Derrida or the Arc de Triomphe were just thinly disguised pieces of writing. He meant that there is nothing in the world that is not “textual”, in the sense of being made up of a complex weave of elements which prevents it from being cleanly demarcated from something else. “Textual” means that nothing stands gloriously alone. He has never argued that anything can mean anything, rather that meaning is never final or stable. No system of meaning can ever be unshakeably founded. “Decentring” human beings does not mean abolishing them, but denying that they can ever be independent of the forces that went into their making. To deconstruct does not mean to destroy, but to show that terms which seem to be opposites (say, “man” and “woman”) violently suppress the ways in which they are secretly in collusion. Or, more generally, to show how every coherent system is forced at certain key points to violate its own logic. It is, Derrida has insisted, a form of political critique, not just a literary method. Indeed, he has recently described deconstruction as a kind of radicalised Marxism – a claim which is hardly likely to endear him to the killjoys of King’s Parade, but which is scarcely consistent with claiming that he believes in nothing but writing.