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Jacques Derrida in Paris, 1993. Photo by François Goudier/Gamma-Rapho
Don’t believe everything you hear, read and watch. To puncture received ideas about culture, start thinking like Jacques Derrida
by Peter Salmon + BIO
Jacques Derrida in Paris, 1993. Photo by François Goudier/Gamma-Rapho
There have been few thinkers in the history of philosophy who have divided opinion as completely as Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). For some, he is one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, whose brilliant analyses of the text of philosophy and literature overturned many of the fundamental assumptions of each. To others, he is a charlatan: his honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge in 1992 was opposed in a letter to The Times that accused him of not meeting accepted standards of clarity and rigour. His work, the signatories argued, consisted in no small part of elaborate jokes and puns, making French philosophy ‘an object of ridicule’.
Handsome, charismatic, pipe-smoking, Derrida looked like everything a French philosopher should. Pop songs were written about him, films were made in which he played himself, while his aphorisms appeared on T-shirts and coffee mugs: ‘There is nothing outside the text’; ‘To pretend, I actually do the thing: I have therefore only pretended to pretend’; and ‘I always dream of a pen that would be a syringe.’
He was born in Algeria on 15 July 1930, and his real name was, in fact, Jackie – named after Jackie Coogan, star of the film The Kid (1921), by his Charlie Chaplin-loving parents. Jewish, French, Algerian, Derrida’s identity was complicated, and he strove to apply this complexity to all he touched. Part of thinking like Derrida involves taking those things we take most for granted – such as our identity, such as our language – and looking for unexplored assumptions, contradictions and absences. Thinking like Derrida is a form of close reading, not just of texts, such as those of philosophy and literature, but of everything – art, religion, politics, even ourselves.
In 1967, Derrida introduced a new method to philosophy, which he called deconstruction. Put simply – and it rarely is, especially by Derrida – this is the idea that if something is constructed, it can be de-constructed. That applies to objects in the world, such as chairs, cars and houses, but it also applies to the concepts we use, such as truth, justice and God. These ‘things’, which we tend to assume are natural, are in fact culturally constructed. There might or might not be an actual God – deconstruction has no opinion on this – but the only ‘God’ we can encounter is a culturally constructed one. As that other controversial philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, put it, if you want to know the meaning of the word God, look at how it is used.
Importantly, deconstruction is not destruction. The concept or object is still there at the end. In fact, for Derrida, what was fascinating was not just the multiple factors that went into constructing a concept, but the actual final act of construction itself; the faith or belief we have that any concept is coherent and enduring. One of the tricks of thinking is to convince us that a word, or a concept, or a text, has a single, fixed meaning. And that this meaning is true, pure, unconstructed – natural, rather than cultural. Derrida called this the ‘metaphysics of presence’: the belief that coherence is a measure of truth.
Derrida’s influence is particularly striking in literature and the arts, where the ‘constructed-ness’ of a text is both obvious and easily forgotten. We’re trained to suspend disbelief when encountering a book or a film or a television programme. Derrida has no problem with this being one way to approach a text, but we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that what we’re encountering happened naturally. Rather, perhaps after we’ve enjoyed that cultural text, it’s time to light our own pipe, sharpen our pen syringe, and deconstruct the thing, to see what’s really going on.
First, get comfortable – you’re planning to overthrow every preconceived idea
Start by closing the door. Derrida did all his work in a study at the top of his house full of thousands of books. (In one interview, he was asked if he had read them all. ‘No,’ he said, smiling, ‘only three or four. But I read those four really, really well.’) You might or might not have changed from your nightwear to daywear – Derrida often worked from the moment he woke, ascending to his office first thing, in his pyjamas (after a coffee, of course). You will also need a pipe, which you might choose to light. If not, you can still chew on it ruminatively.
Next, you need something to deconstruct
This can be anything. Fundamental to deconstruction is the idea that any text can be deconstructed. A poem. A railway timetable. A shopping list. Edmund Husserl’s Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy – First Book: General Introduction to a Pure Phenomenology (1913). Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003). The Bible. The newspaper. This essay.
Or, if you’re feeling less ‘wordy’, you could watch something online. Or listen to the radio. A podcast. Put a glass to the wall and listen to the people next door talking. For Derrida, sitting there in his pyjamas, all of these ‘things’ are texts. All of them can be pulled apart in various ways. Each of them can be deconstructed.
How? Well, first, it can be useful to know how the text is regarded, the prevailing wisdom. For instance, society has ‘decided’ that Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Finding Nemo (2003) and Sleepless in Seattle (1993) are heart-warming films for the whole family. That The Waste Land (1922) is a difficult poem about the ‘human condition’. That the TV series Downton Abbey (2010-15) is the story of an England that used to be (and things were better then).
In Old Skool philosophical terms, this consensus is called the doxa (from where we get ‘orthodoxy’), and is contrasted with episteme, knowledge. Since Greek times (at least) the two have been in tension. To think deconstructively is to not only call into question accepted truths, but to ask in whose interests it is that they be accepted. These accepted truths might be benign – the result of lazy thinking or genuine consensus – but they can also be malignant.
So the first thing to do, as you light your pipe (or don’t light your pipe), is to think about why these texts are regarded this way, why this is the doxa. How ‘true’ is this assessment? Take the ‘human condition’ that The Waste Land seeks to explore. Whose human condition? Are the poem’s insights applicable across cultures? Genders? If not, why not? If they’re only partially applicable, then why partially, and what are the limits? And what do these limits tell us? The doxa is, for Derrida, only one interpretation, and its dominance is not necessarily because it’s somehow ‘truer’.
Take Downton Abbey. Please!
In fact, for Derrida, there’s no absolutely true assessment of a text, and the idea that one assessment is dominant can tell us more about the conditions around the text than the text itself. A text such as Downton Abbey is marketed as an exploration of a particular section of English history, and purports to tell it like it was. But any such exploration must carry within it any number of decisions about what to include or exclude. So the argument ‘this is how it was’ is false. It can be deconstructed.
For instance, the show has been praised for portraying not only the aristocracy, but the servant class. We follow their emotional journeys and melodramas as we follow those of their employers, and we are nudged to smile ruefully at how similar people are deep down, regardless of class. Both the aristocrats and the servants are mutually ‘humanised’ by this.
In fact, the relationship between the two classes was hugely exploitative. As the historian Margaret MacMillan has pointed out, servants in this era weren’t necessarily well clothed or fed, and in general were up at five in the morning and worked deep into the night. But this would be an inconvenient truth for a show that’s essentially ‘feel-good’. By reinforcing the humanness of the landed class and the, well, chattel class, the class system itself is seen as a product of chance, rather than a rigidly imposed structure of servility.
Also, is it any coincidence that this series, with its sympathetic portrayal of the aristocracy, has appeared at this moment in time? Again, whose interests might it suit? There’s a real culture war happening in the UK now, around such things as race, privilege, gender and Britishness. Is the production and popularity of a programme in which these issues aren’t moot part of that culture war? Is its very ‘escapism’ a reinforcement of threatened norms?
Look for contradictions
Next, look for places within the text that contradict each other, and where the spirit of the text is actually different, or even opposed to, what’s actually going on. Hollywood movies are great for this. For instance, we’ve become increasingly familiar with the idea of the ‘white saviour’ narrative. Films that purport to examine racial stereotypes, for instance, but then use those very same stereotypes to tell their story; they require a white protagonist to go on a ‘journey’ of understanding, with the oppressed characters becoming objectified in the exact same way as what the film purports to be critiquing. Whiteness is normality, to which otherness is explained. We’re trained not to notice this, but Derrida’s thinking attempts to train us to make it our focus – to look for tensions within a text, to see where the heavy lifting is being done.
Thinking like Derrida, then, means looking for these contradictions and exploring what they mean. Derrida himself did it with Karl Marx, in his book Specters of Marx (1993). Marxist thought privileges a materialist conception of being. It argues that everything, including our individual consciousnesses, can be explained by material things (labour, working conditions, class and so on). But Derrida, in his deconstruction, explores the persistence of the immaterial in Marx’s writing: of ghosts, phantoms and spectres. This is there in the first sentence of The Communist Manifesto (1848) – ‘A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism’ – but also in Marx’s use of imagery from William Shakespeare and his discussions of money, that invisible force moving like a ghost through society.
You’re reading against the grain
Derrida saw this kind of reading as reading against the grain. Take a text, find what it seems to advocate, and look in the opposite direction. G W F Hegel wrote about spirit, untainted by the mess of life – so Derrida explored his relationship to family. Husserl wrote about subjectivity by describing the surrounding world, so Derrida looked for moments where Husserl invoked God. This doesn’t eliminate the text or the thinking, but it problematises them, it finds the limits. In a sense, we’re to treat every text with suspicion, although Derrida himself called this an act of ‘hospitality’. To read a text this closely is to treat it with seriousness, to really look at what’s going on.
This reading against the grain can also be more subtle than just looking for the opposite. As all readings are interpretations, one is able to explore radically different ways into a text. What, we think as we light our second pipe, happens if we look at The Waste Land through queer theory? What role does race play in the Marvel movies? What are the economics of the Bible?
This has all made Derrida an influential thinker in areas such as feminism, postcolonial studies and queer theory. He calls on all of us to examine our most fundamental ideas, even those – especially those – that seem least open to question. Like Sigmund Freud and his idea of the repressed (and its return), for Derrida, our certainties are the sweet spot, the fissures in our beliefs and those of our culture. Our cultural biases are often least stable at precisely the points where we feel them to be most natural.
But this is anarchy…
Some critics have accused Derridean thinking of allowing for any interpretation or, worse still, of saying any interpretation is equally valid. The first is perhaps true, the second is not. Derrida was always clear that there were more effective and less effective ways of reading a text. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with analysing the novels of Leo Tolstoy through, say, modern dance. But the result is more likely to be ineffective or trivial. Some critics of Derrida and his followers have argued that this is precisely the sort of free-for-all that deconstruction leads to. But, ultimately, any philosophical idea pushed to its extreme allows for nonsense. Derrida would be – was – as appalled by the misuse and misunderstanding of his work as any of his critics. Far from being an anarchic process, Derrida called for a very close reading of the text at hand and, as with anything, the closer you look at something, the more fissures you see.
Don’t listen to what the author says
Finally – and, by now, it might be time to get dressed and have a spot of lunch – thinking like Derrida means trusting one’s own analysis of a text – even, or perhaps especially, if it contradicts the authors’ idea of what they’re doing. For Derrida, the author’s interpretation of her or his text is no more valid than the reader’s. Again, Freud is a useful reference point here. Patients in analysis reveals their truth not simply in the words they use, but in the words they don’t, in the stutters and repetitions, in the times they try to laugh things off, and when they contradict themselves. The ‘self’ being whole and coherent is an act of will. For Derrida, the ‘text’ being whole is the same.
One of the barriers to engaging with deconstruction is Derrida’s own fearsome prose style. Having argued that all words and concepts are suspicious insofar as they declare a stable meaning, his writing enacts this position by avoiding simple declarative sentences and ‘definitions’. As he put it, ‘once quotation marks demand to appear, they don’t know when to stop.’ The founding text of deconstruction, Of Grammatology (1967), is a wonderfully bonkers book, ranging across all of language and language systems, all of history, all of literature. Its main argument, that speech has been privileged over writing, draws attention to the fact that the words and concepts we use, including those in our own heads that we mistake for our thinking – or even our soul – are inherited from the culture around us.
So, some of the best ways to learn about deconstruction are to engage with works that have been influenced by Derrida, or that anticipate his work: works that draw attention to their own status as having been constructed. In literature, this includes books such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), a key work for Derrida, that foregrounds its ‘novelness’ by switching between genres – from sections written like newspaper reports to those written exclusively in dialogue. More recently, books such as Landscape With Landscape (1985) by Gerald Murnane constantly draw the readers’ attention to the fact that they’re reading a novel, and that they can’t just get lost in the story. When an author such as Murnane writes about ‘a man walking down the street’, the last thing he wants you to do is visualise a man walking down the street.
In film, the work of the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is fascinating in the way it shows its own working. The opening words spoken in Through the Olive Trees (1994), a film about making a film, are ‘I am the actor who plays the director,’ while Close-Up (1990), recently voted one of the best 50 films of all time by the British Film Institute, tells the real-life story of a man who pretended to be the real-life film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf – and stars the actual man who did so, and Makhmalbaf, both playing themselves, with Kiarostami himself intervening at one point to ask the impersonator questions. You can find all of Kiarostami’s films online.
In music, Derrida’s work spawned a whole genre called ‘hauntology’, a pun on the word ontology. Ontology is the philosophical investigation of what there is. Hauntology is the philosophical investigation of what there isn’t. Lost futures, distant pasts, gaps and fissures in our reality that can’t be closed over. Hauntological music tends to foreground the technology that produces it. The sound of needles on records, tape hiss and noises-off remind the listener that there’s an ‘outside of the frame’. Exemplary here is William Basinski’s series of albums The Disintegration Loops (2002-03). Basinski, while attempting to transfer his old tapes to digital, found that, by looping a small piece of music and letting it run, you could actually hear the tape deteriorating, producing an unworldly – haunting – effect. That he finished this project on the day in 2001 when he watched, from the rooftop of his Brooklyn apartment, as the Twin Towers collapsed adds a layer of mourning to the listening experience.
Of course, while these are all works that overtly deconstruct themselves, for Derrida, as we acknowledged at the outset, all works do this. No work can be pure – and present – in itself. Deconstruction is always happening in any work of art, and by looking very closely we can see not only how it’s happening, but also how the creator has pretended that it isn’t. As Derrida once said: ‘To pretend, I actually do the thing: I have therefore only pretended to pretend.’
Perhaps the most accessible introduction to Derrida and deconstruction online is the documentary Derrida (2002), which is available on YouTube. It’s a fascinating exploration of Derrida’s work, and includes a section on his return to his childhood home of Algeria, the place where his questions of identity – as a Jewish, French, Algerian boy – began to be formed. There are also many bite-size clips from the film, including this one of him being funny in his library about the number of books he’s read.
There are also a number of introductions to deconstruction on YouTube – one of the best is this, from the history channel Then & Now. And if you haven’t encountered the work of the US philosopher Rick Roderick, I would highly recommend it: his are old-style philosophy lectures – even down to a lecturer who wears braces! – but deal with some of the most up-to-the-minute philosophers, including Derrida, Michel Foucault and Martin Heidegger. Here he is on Derrida.
For something more, well, mad, there is the film Ghost Dance (1983), which features – sort of – two Derrideans tracking down their hero. Derrida himself makes an appearance, playing himself – can one say badly? The film would actually come to have a profound effect on Derrida. In one scene, he is asked by the actress Pascale Ogier: ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ Ogier died the following year, aged 25, and Derrida later recalled how when watching the film after her death he found himself profoundly shaken – cinema, he said, is the science of ghosts, and here he was, watching his past self being asked by a ghost if he believed in them…
For a good introduction to deconstruction, Jonathan Culler’s book On Deconstruction (1982) is perhaps the gold standard, while Christopher Norris’s Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (1982) takes a wider look at the effects of Derrida’s work outside of philosophy – its impact on literary studies, for instance. If you want a highly entertaining attack on Derrida and his followers, then Colin Campbell’s article ‘The Tyranny Of The Yale Critics’ (1986) in The New York Times is tremendous fun, or you can explore the arguments between Derrida and the philosopher John Searle – neither pulling any punches.
Finally, to read Derrida himself, some of his later work is his least rebarbative, and it often introduces his thinking in ways that he eschewed earlier on. Of special interest is Circumfession (1993), his long ‘footnote’ to a book by Geoffrey Bennington, based on Augustine’s Confessions. The footnote runs for the entire length of Bennington’s book. Or there is Specters of Marx (1993), his meditation on the ‘end of Communism’ via Hamlet, and the book that introduced the term ‘hauntology’. Finally, there’s his experimental book Glas (1974), which is presented in a two-column format: the left is on the philosophy of Hegel, the right on the writing of Jean Genet.