Friday, October 15, 2004

What was "Derrida"?

Another of that great generation of (post)structuralists out of Paris (Lacan, Althusser, Barthes, Lyotard, Deleuze, Foucault, et al) has died: Derrida's death was on the front page of many newspapers. I'm starting to feel like an orphan. No more intellectual parents left, except for Baudrillard, and even he complains of having to write "posthumously" nowadays, knowing full well that he has nothing new to say. It seems the end of an era. I don't know any of my peers who can live up to this legacy. Derrida seemed to know this too, as his later work treated "mourning" and mortality.
While the Derrida obituaries made the front page, the news reports struggled to come up with any inkling of _why_ he was famous. Some decided that it's because he is infamous. Everyone mentioned the term "deconstruction" and flailed around at a definition. Some quoted soundbites from experts, the content of which is usually: "No soundbite can convey the meaning of deconstruction" or: "Derrida's importance in the history of philosophy is because . . . ." followed by more flailing around. Most mentioned that the Cambridge faculty was so confused that they almost voted against inviting Derrida for an honorary degree. But such are the biographies of every great thinker -- while the typical academic will die in deserved obscurity on the back page where they belong.
From my study, it is clear that so long as people are still reading Plato and Kant (which might not be much longer given the regress of civilization) then they will still be reading Derrida. His place in the canon is secure because he made it necessary for that place to exist in the history of thought. If you want to know why, you have to do the math. Start reading, but expect to read for about 5 years before this all makes sense. Anything less is just wasting your time.
Meanwhile, if you want to get a better soundbite on Derrida, follow the link above to a philosopher writing in the New York Times about this. Or see this longer review of Derrida's work from The Guardian,3858,5035951-110500,00.html And bring on the wake.


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