The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive


---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, 14 Oct 2004 07:40:48 -0700
From: charles alexander <chax@THERIVER.COM>
Reply-To: UB Poetics discussion group <POETICS@LISTSERV.BUFFALO.EDU>
To: POETICS@LISTSERV.BUFFALO.EDU
Subject: derrida

The NY Times has done a good service, perhaps helping undo the Jonathan Kandell 
piece on Derrida. This one, by Mark C. Taylor, can be found here if you are a 
subscriber:

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/10/14/opinion/14taylor.html?oref=login&th

or here it is:

What Derrida Really Meant
By MARK C. TAYLOR

Along with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, who died 
last week in Paris at the age of 74, will be remembered as one of the three 
most important philosophers of the 20th century. No thinker in the last 100 
years had a greater impact than he did on people in more fields and different 
disciplines. Philosophers, theologians, literary and art critics, 
psychologists, historians, writers, artists, legal scholars and even architects 
have found in his writings resources for insights that have led to an 
extraordinary revival of the arts and humanities during the past four decades. 
And no thinker has been more deeply misunderstood.

To people addicted to sound bites and overnight polls, Mr. Derrida's works seem 
hopelessly obscure. It is undeniable that they cannot be easily summarized or 
reduced to one-liners. The obscurity of his writing, however, does not conceal 
a code that can be cracked, but reflects the density and complexity 
characteristic of all great works of philosophy, literature and art. Like good 
French wine, his works age well. The more one lingers with them, the more they 
reveal about our world and ourselves.

What makes Mr. Derrida's work so significant is the way he brought insights of 
major philosophers, writers, artists and theologians to bear on problems of 
urgent contemporary interest. Most of his infamously demanding texts consist of 
careful interpretations of canonical writers in the Western philosophical, 
literary and artistic traditions - from Plato to Joyce. By reading familiar 
works against the grain, he disclosed concealed meanings that created new 
possibilities for imaginative expression.

Mr. Derrida's name is most closely associated with the often cited but rarely 
understood term "deconstruction." Initially formulated to define a strategy for 
interpreting sophisticated written and visual works, deconstruction has entered 
everyday language. When responsibly understood, the implications of 
deconstruction are quite different from the misleading clich�s often used to 
describe a process of dismantling or taking things apart. The guiding insight 
of deconstruction is that every structure - be it literary, psychological, 
social, economic, political or religious - that organizes our experience is 
constituted and maintained through acts of exclusion. In the process of 
creating something, something else inevitably gets left out.

These exclusive structures can become repressive - and that repression comes 
with consequences. In a manner reminiscent of Freud, Mr. Derrida insists that 
what is repressed does not disappear but always returns to unsettle every 
construction, no matter how secure it seems. As an Algerian Jew writing in 
France during the postwar years in the wake of totalitarianism on the right 
(fascism) as well as the left (Stalinism), Mr. Derrida understood all too well 
the danger of beliefs and ideologies that divide the world into diametrical 
opposites: right or left, red or blue, good or evil, for us or against us. He 
showed how these repressive structures, which grew directly out of the Western 
intellectual and cultural tradition, threatened to return with devastating 
consequences. By struggling to find ways to overcome patterns that exclude the 
differences that make life worth living, he developed a vision that is 
consistently ethical.

And yet, supporters on the left and critics on the right have misunderstood 
this vision. Many of Mr. Derrida's most influential followers appropriated his 
analyses of marginal writers, works and cultures as well as his emphasis on the 
importance of preserving differences and respecting others to forge an identity 
politics that divides the world between the very oppositions that it was Mr. 
Derrida's mission to undo: black and white, men and women, gay and straight. 
Betraying Mr. Derrida's insights by creating a culture of political 
correctness, his self-styled supporters fueled the culture wars that have been 
raging for more than two decades and continue to frame political debate.
To his critics, Mr. Derrida appeared to be a pernicious nihilist who threatened 
the very foundation of Western society and culture. By insisting that truth and 
absolute value cannot be known with certainty, his detractors argue, he 
undercut the very possibility of moral judgment. To follow Mr. Derrida, they 
maintain, is to start down the slippery slope of skepticism and relativism that 
inevitably leaves us powerless to act responsibly.

This is an important criticism that requires a careful response. Like Kant, 
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Mr. Derrida does argue that transparent truth and 
absolute values elude our grasp. This does not mean, however, that we must 
forsake the cognitive categories and moral principles without which we cannot 
live: equality and justice, generosity and friendship. Rather, it is necessary 
to recognize the unavoidable limitations and inherent contradictions in the 
ideas and norms that guide our actions, and do so in a way that keeps them open 
to constant questioning and continual revision. There can be no ethical action 
without critical reflection.

During the last decade of his life, Mr. Derrida became preoccupied with 
religion and it is in this area that his contribution might well be most 
significant for our time. He understood that religion is impossible without 
uncertainty. Whether conceived of as Yahweh, as the father of Jesus Christ, or 
as Allah, God can never be fully known or adequately represented by imperfect 
human beings.

And yet, we live in an age when major conflicts are shaped by people who claim 
to know, for certain, that God is on their side. Mr. Derrida reminded us that 
religion does not always give clear meaning, purpose and certainty by providing 
secure foundations. To the contrary, the great religious traditions are 
profoundly disturbing because they all call certainty and security into 
question. Belief not tempered by doubt poses a mortal danger.

As the process of globalization draws us ever closer in networks of 
communication and exchange, there is an understandable longing for simplicity, 
clarity and certainty. This desire is responsible, in large measure, for the 
rise of cultural conservatism and religious fundamentalism - in this country 
and around the world. True believers of every stripe - Muslim, Jewish and 
Christian - cling to beliefs that, Mr. Derrida warns, threaten to tear apart 
our world.

Fortunately, he also taught us that the alternative to blind belief is not 
simply unbelief but a different kind of belief - one that embraces uncertainty 
and enables us to respect others whom we do not understand. In a complex world, 
wisdom is knowing what we don't know so that we can keep the future open.

In the two decades I knew Mr. Derrida, we had many meetings and exchanges. In 
conversation, he listened carefully and responded helpfully to questions 
whether posed by undergraduates or colleagues. As a teacher, he gave freely of 
his time to several generations of students.
But small things are the measure of the man. In 1986, my family and I were in 
Paris and Mr. Derrida invited us to dinner at his house in the suburbs 20 miles 
away. He insisted on picking us up at our hotel, and when we arrived at his 
home he presented our children with carnival masks. At 2 a.m., he drove us back 
to the city. In later years, when my son and daughter were writing college 
papers on his work, he sent them letters and postcards of encouragement as well 
as signed copies of several of his books. Jacques Derrida wrote eloquently 
about the gift of friendship but in these quiet gestures - gestures that served 
to forge connections among individuals across their differences - we see 
deconstruction in action.

Mark C. Taylor, a professor of the humanities at Williams College and a 
visiting professor of architecture and religion at Columbia, is the author, 
most recently, of "Confidence Games: Money and Markets in a World Without 
Redemption.

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