When Jacques Derrida died on 8 October 2004, it marked the demise of one of the most famous academic voices of the past 30 years. If proof of his greatness is required, one only has to note the number of times he is cited in the fields of philosophy, literary criticism and essay writing. I saw Derrida on two occasions – once at a conference in the students' residence, Madrid; and later at a congress at the University of Valencia. From these two events, it was clear that Derrida belonged to an elite group of people who have made a significant impact on contemporary culture.
Derrida's name is inextricably linked to the theory of deconstruction: a mode of critical thought in which any concepts that dictate a way of thinking are identified and taken apart. In Derrida's eyes, there is no common belief system for this would imply that there is an objective truth that functions outside of the individual. To think this way, according to Derrida, would steer us into a "theological prejudice" for it would lead us to the conclusion that God exists. Instead, he believed, like Woody Allen, that "God is dead, man has died, and I'm not feeling too good myself'
Derrida was born in 1930 in Algeria, where he encountered anti-Semitism from birth. He moved to Paris when he was 19 and quickly secured a reputation among the intellectual elite. Yet, he still considered himself an outsider because he was Jewish.
During the 1970s Derrida went on to greatly influence literary criticism in the United States. Many students eagerly embraced Derrida's theories and cashed in on his revolutionary philosophy. They went on to make careers for themselves by incorrectly and indiscriminately deconstructing any text they could get their hands on from the classics to tabloid articles.
Umberto Eco treated such absurd behaviour with a sense of humour in his work, The Limits of Interpretation (1990). In it he refers to a letter that Derrida sent him in 1984 outlining plans for a new International School of Philosophy. Derrida goes on to ask Eco for a letter of support for this venture. However, Eco believes that there is a message in this plan and if he interprets the message, he will not send the letter…
But it is the critic and philosopher George Steiner who gives us the best "take" on the intellectual movement Derrida personifies. At the beginning of his book Real Presences: Is There Anything in What We Say? (1989), Steiner represents deconstructionist thinking as follows:
"We speak still of 'sunrise' and 'sunset'. We do so as if the Copernican model of the solar system had not ineradicably replaced the Ptolemaic. Vacant metaphors – eroded figures of speech – inhabit our vocabulary and grammar. They are caught, tenaciously, in the scaffolding and recesses of our common parlance. There they rattle about like old rags or ghosts in the attic. This is the reason why rational men and women, particularly in the scientific and technological realities of the West, still refer to 'God'. This is why the postulate of the existence of God persists in so many unconsidered turns of phrase and allusion. No plausible reflection or belief underwrites His presence. Nor does any intelligible evidence. Where God clings to our culture, to our routines of discourse, He is a phantom of grammar, a fossil embedded in the childhood of rational speech."
Steiner continues, "This essay argues the reverse. It proposes that any coherent understanding of what language is and how language performs, that any coherent account of the capacity of human speech to communicate meaning and feeling is, in the final analysis, underwritten by the assumption of God's presence."
It seems to me that Steiner's summary eloquently evokes and gives credit to the late Derrida, although he does not directly mention the man. Instead he blazes quite a different path for the crisis of the conflict of conscience at the beginning of the third millennium.
Miguel Angel Garrido is a Spanish journalist. Translation by Maria Brown.