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Our debt to Derrida

Monday October 11, 2004
The Guardian

Jacques Derrida, the French scholar who died on Friday, had a dramatic impact on the study of literature in the postwar period. His theory of deconstruction has influenced – consciously or unconsciously – a great deal of modern scholarship and seeped inexorably into other arenas and media, from George Bush’s election advertising to architectural criticism. Yet his theories remain controversial. For many, Derrida personified the worst type of “French fraud”, in the manner of Jean-François Lyotard and Michel Foucault, impenetrable theorists who spouted nonsense. Yet much criticism of Derrida’s work was cheap anti-intellectualism or a wilful distortion of his ideas. He should be remembered as a profound thinker who made a lasting contribution to intellectual discourse.

Deconstruction, in terms of literary theory, springs from a simple idea that originated with Friedrich Nietzsche: that any text is open to an infinite number of interpretations. That makes it possible to ignore the author’s intentions, stated or otherwise, and examine a text for meanings that would otherwise be uncomfortable or hidden. This thought is little different to some of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas, but by concentrating on epistemology he avoided the obloquy heaped on Derrida.

Part of the problem for Derrida’s critics is that they sought to hang upon him all their fears of postmodernism and relativism. Much of this was unfair, since he could not be held accountable for the journeys to the wilder shores of theory by some of his supporters and fellow travellers. What was important was that deconstruction held that no text was above analysis or closed to alternative interpretation. It is no coincidence that it came into vogue in the 1960s and 1970s, when many cultural and social institutions were being challenged. As a result, Derrida became popular among those willing to question the sterile idea of a “western canon” who wanted to expand literary discourse so that writers such as Mary Elizabeth Braddon could sit alongside the Brontes. Thanks to Derrida, many new voices were heard.

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