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It’s hard to say what’s more remarkable: that the so-called father of deconstruction was already hatching his apostasy while just barely out of his teens, or that the undertaking involved so much suffering. Peeters’ Derrida is a nervous wreck: “a fragile and tormented man,” prone to nausea, insomnia, exhaustion, and despair. By the summer of 1960, after failing to get a promised post as a maître assistant at the Sorbonne and having spent the year teaching in a provincial capital instead, he was on Anafranil, one of the original anti- depressants, which had just appeared on the market. During another bout of the blues, he wrote to a friend from his infirmary bed, “I’m no good for anything except taking the world apart and putting it together again (and I manage the latter less and less frequently).”

That’s not a bad description of deconstruction, an exercise in which unraveling—of meaning and coherence, of the kind of binary logic that tends to populate philosophical texts—is the path to illumination. In Derrida’s reading, Western philosophers’ preoccupation with first principles, a determination to capture reality, truth, “presence,”—what he called in reference to the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl “the thing itself”—was doomed. He traced this impulse in thinkers from Aristotle to Heidegger, famously arguing, for example, that a tendency to favor the immediacy of speech over the remoteness of writing was untenable. (Aristotle’s formulation: “Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words.”) Through a series of deft and delicate maneuvers, Derrida sought to show that speech is inextricable from writing, no more or less authentic. The difference between the two depends, as all differences do, on a process of enforced absence or repression: a is a only because it is not b, and thus b is never entirely out of the picture.

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