Seldom has an important thinker or writer been as thoroughly abused by those who professed to be his admirers than Jacques Derrida. Both his approach and his assumptions were, for a time at least, held up as the "next big thing" in literary theory, but, unfortunately, few who invoked his name really understand his approach or, ultimately, shared his assumptions. These feeders of the English Department publication maw allowed Derrida's name to be associated with all that was foolish and inane in the literary academy in the name of their own careerist ambitions, and when it became clearer and clearer that what Derrida had in mind didn't really fit well with the next next big thing in academic literary study--multiculturalism, cultural studies more broadly--they abandoned him like a snake his old and useless skin.
(Which makes this letter, signed by some of the very people responsible for helping to create the image of Derrida they're now decrying in the New York Times obiturary, disingenuous in the extreme.)
Although Derrida was very important to me when I was still a budding "literary scholar," I have delayed making any remarks upon his death until surveying some of the many other blog discussions the occasion has provoked. And indeed, some of these have produced comments much like those I would make myself.
Trent Walters, for example, emphasizes that Derrida is actually enjoyable to read. He's an adventurous (but disciplined) and often witty writer who only seems "difficult" or "obscure" if you're expecting him to do philosophy in the supposedly more rigorous style of Anglo-American philosophy. Moreover, Derrida actually cared passionately about literature, something his more ideologically rigid followers finally couldn't tolerate, as Leonard Bast astutely points out: "I think that the people who cared most about politics, not literature, realized that Derrida was unnecessary and might even be an obstacle to their goals. Why go through the trouble of decoding him when you could be much more direct and simply rant against literature as an instrument of oppression?" And as In Favor of Thinking further observes: "What the right wing and the general media never seemed to understand, in characterizing all literary theory, and especially deconstruction, as the Evil Force of Chaos about to Destroy the Canon (remember the so-called Culture Wars?), was that in order to really understand Derrida's work, you had to be steeped in the Western literary and philosophical tradition."
Moreover, Derrida's critical method--and the method that could most efficaciously be adopted from his approach--was not all that radical, at least not in the way that too many of his acolytes wanted it to be. As Miriam Burstein quite correctly has it, deconstruction
In its applied American form. . .generally amounted to hyper-intensified close reading, a practice more amenable to discussions of metafiction than to feminism. Language was the big thing, not cultural criticism. Moreover, because it was in so many ways (again, in its applied American form) a souped-up New Criticism, deconstructionism tended to emphasize not the non-canonical but the very canonical indeed.
Derrida's goal was not to subvert the canonical--although neither was it to exalt it--but finally to illuminate a little further how we might actually read it. "Logocentrism" is not the tyranny of Reason, as so many of both Derrida's critics and his defenders would have us believe, but is the tendency to read texts, especially those philosophical and literary works reflexively assumed to be great, as if their authors were simply speaking to us, pronouncing on whatever subject the text is presumed to evoke. This is not even misreading but a refusal to read at all, and Derrida's project was to insist we attend to the text as a text--which might involve examining those elements that might otherwise seem "marginal," not quite the "point" at all. This was not an attempt to interpret a text in some idiosyncratic or inflammatory way--the usual criticism of Derrida was that he claimed a particular work to be "saying" the "opposite" of what it seemed to say--but to point out that in most cases we hadn't even yet begun the process of interpretation at all.
These criticisms of Derrida's work seem to me to behind Spurious's comment that he "avoided taking issue with [Derrida's] work because he was perpetually under attack from Analytic philosophers. This is my weakness: a kind of paranoia prevents me from being able to turn on those philosophers whose work, it seems to me, needs protecting. Whenever I read a book by Derrida I feel as though I have committed a great transgression, as though I had committed a crime (at the university I studied, Hegel was deemed unphilosophical; we were not allowed near Nietzsche, let alone Husserl. At that university we focused for the most part on texts published in the English speaking world over the last twenty years. Nothing older, nothing French or German, nothing ‘Continental’). Among Anglo-American philosophers, Derrida could not be taken seriously because his work slashed right at the heart of the Analytic assumptions about the goals of philosophy and the status of Reason. Younger philosophers like Lars Iyers had good reason to feel protective of their interest in Derrida's work.
But in the United States, Derrida clearly had the greatest influence in departments of literary study. There too, many people felt themselves to be committing "a great transgression" by reading and adapting Derrida to literary criticism and scholarship. The established forms of literary study were presumed to be rigid and authoritarian--"logocentric"--although for the most part they simply were not. If anything, New Criticism privileged an emotional, almost mystical response to literature, and the emphasis on close reading precisely encouraged the kind of open-ended interpretation Derrida championed. But, as LB points out, Derrida's writing was at first taken as some kind of politically liberatory gesture, and so the era of deconstruction and French theory began.
The great damage that was done both to literary study and to Derrida's reputation is perhaps summed up by Timothy Burke, who correctly notes the way in which during this era what came across most loudly was "the cry of all or nothing at all, that if communication could not be perfected, then there was no communication, if texts could not have a correct meaning, they meant everything, anything, nothing in particular." This was not, I hasten to add, what Derrida himself believed, but unfortunately what was most often represented as "Derridean" was indeed this sort of anti-intellectual nonsense (its anti-intellectualism disguised by much obscurantist theory-ese), the result of which, finally, was the complete loss of credibility on the part of academic literary study and, unfortunately, the labeling of Derrida as the obscurantist-in-chief. (I myself tried to use my own dissertation to show how Derrida's work could be used to elucidate actual works of literature, in my case, American metafiction, but very little of this kind of work was really done. Most academic criticism from that period done in the name of Derrida is now almost completely unreadable.)
Those who would like to know what Derrida was really all about should just read his books, particularly the earlier ones and especially Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, Margins of Philosophy, and Dissemination. The best book about Derrida, bar none, is Christopher Norris's Derrida (1987), which portrays Derrida as the serious student of philosophy and literature--"my most constant interest," he once said, "coming before even my philosophical interest I should say, if this is possible, has been directed toward literature, toward that writing which is called literary"--that he was. Although Derrida had long before his death become passe in academic literature departments, what he has to offer to the appreciation of "that writing which is called literary" has barely begun to be understood.