Among all the retrospectives and remembrances of Derrida that are still multiplying like bunnies out there, I’m struck by this frank and thoughtful one by the pseudonymous literary blogger Leonard Bast. Mr. Bast looks at M. Derrida from the perspective of the college English major he was in the heyday, and comes to some sensible conclusions:
What did everyone see in him?
I persisted, and eventually I came to the kind of rudimentary understanding of Derrida that I think many people passing through English departments during that time arrived at. (How strange that time now seems!) He and his friend Paul de Man, the leading deconstructionists, had come up with a method of reading literary texts that was quite simple, even mechanical, if you could decode all the playful punning of the verbiage. To wit: identify a “binary opposition” between two terms in the text. Show how these two terms, despite being opposed, actually depend on each other and are mutually constituted. Then seize upon some obscure moment in the text, use all your ingenuity to show how, if you picked at it long enough, the apparent opposition between the two terms would unravel. Proclaim that the text had deconstructed itself, and that this was a function of language (or, to use the preferred term, “discourse”) itself, not something that you, the reader, were “doing” to the text. This was the underlying “lesson” of all texts, so it could be repeated, ad infinitum.
Sounds disappointing, right? For someone like me, it was. I realized from the start that Derrida was primarily a philosopher and I was not, and that there were other issues at stake in what he was doing (to use the philosophical jargon, the “critique of the metaphysics of presence”). What my teachers were doing with Derrida really was an oversimplification, and philosophers who defended him were not complete idiots. I could, somewhat hazily, get a grasp of the issues at stake in his philosophy, especially on the occasions when I was willing to dig into the philosophical tradition he was commenting upon. But among the people I knew, these strictly philosophical considerations had little to do with why he was “hot.” On the one hand, he provided an easy method of reading. On the other, some people claimed to find radical politics in this method, and enlisted it in the support of various kinds of feminism and identity politics.
This closely resembles my own, admittedly uninformed take on Derrida (my undergraduate study was blissfully theory-free, and by the time I got to graduate school, the historicists had grabbed the spotlight). It has the invaluable added bonus of providing a credible justification for my ignorance. I just didn’t know it was my take until Leonard so nicely articulated it.