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Jacques Derrida, 74; Intellectual Founded Controversial Deconstruction Movement

October 10, 2004|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Jacques Derrida, the influential French thinker and writer who inspired admiration, vilification and utter bewilderment as the founder of the intellectual movement known as deconstruction, has died. He was 74.

Derrida died Friday at a Paris hospital of complications from pancreatic cancer, French radio reported.

"With him, France has given the world one of its greatest contemporary philosophers, one of the major figures of intellectual life of our time," French President Jacques Chirac said in a statement Saturday. "Through his work, he sought to find the free movement which lies at the root of all thinking."

Derrida, who divided his time between Paris and the United States, where he lectured annually at UC Irvine and other universities, was perhaps the most controversial and daring philosopher of the late 20th century.

He rocked the American academy in a 1966 speech that introduced deconstruction to the United States as a mode of analysis that sought to turn Western philosophy on its head.

Deconstruction gained a following on college campuses across the country, most famously at Yale University in the 1970s and later at UC Irvine. A notoriously difficult theory, it left an imprint on a number of fields, particularly literature, where scholars seized on deconstruction as the basis for radical reinterpretations of classic works of literature and philosophy. Gradually, disciplines as disparate as business, architecture, law and religion showed the influence of Derrida's ideas.

Although deconstruction's influence has waned, it even penetrated popular culture, where the avant-garde in seemingly everything from couture to cuisine has been described, rightly or wrongly, as "deconstructed."

"Of all the philosophers of our time," eminent Stanford University philosopher Richard Rorty once said, Derrida "has been the most effective at doing what Socrates hoped philosophers would do: breaking the crust of convention, questioning assumptions never before doubted, raising issues never before discussed."

His detractors were just as vociferous. Some labeled him a nihilist for his subversion of traditional principles, while others charged him with deliberate inscrutability.

John Searle, a Mills professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley and one of Derrida's most eloquent critics, once said that what he found most deplorable about Derrida and deconstruction was "the low level of philosophical argumentation, the deliberate obscurantism of the prose, the wildly exaggerated claims, and the constant striving to give the appearance of profundity by making claims that seem paradoxical, but under analysis often turn out to be silly or trivial."

Critics saw nothing silly about Derrida's defense in the late 1980s of Paul de Man, a Yale professor and a leading American proponent of deconstruction who had died earlier that decade. Derrida issued a 60-page essay supporting De Man after reports that De Man, a native of Belgium, had written for a pro-Nazi Belgian newspaper in the early 1940s. Derrida's critics seized on his defense of De Man as evidence of deconstruction's apolitical and nihilistic nature.

In 1992, when Cambridge University proposed giving Derrida an honorary degree, the anti-Derrideans on the faculty raised strenuous objections, pronouncing his work "absurd," "disabling" and so perverse as to "make complete nonsense of science, technology and medicine." Their dissent triggered the first full faculty vote on an honorary degree in 30 years, but Derrida's supporters prevailed, 336 to 204.

Stimulating, Stupefying

The father of deconstruction was a dapper man with a dark Mediterranean complexion, bushy brows and a fluffy crown of white hair. The subject of rock paeans and guidebooks with names like "Derrida for Beginners" and "Derrida in 90 Minutes," he packed lecture halls with erudite audiences, who were alternately stimulated and stupefied by his arcane ramblings, which often lasted hours.

The author of more than 50 books, he tended to convey his ideas in the most confounding language possible, playing with words and writing sentences that ran two or three pages long. Critics declared some of his essays and books unreadable. But what some found unfathomable others extolled as embodying the elusiveness of meaning, a central tenet of Derridean thinking.

Derrida rarely satisfied those who sought a straightforward explanation of deconstruction. When asked by the New York Times some years ago for a definition, he declined, saying the attempt would only result in "something which will leave me unsatisfied."

Other times he was more willing to explore, rather than close, the cognitive abyss. Handing out copies of a particularly confusing poem to an audience in Irvine a few years ago, he said he wouldn't even attempt to explain the poem, but he would explain why he wouldn't explain it.

On another occasion, he wrote: "What deconstruction is not? Everything, of course! What is deconstruction? Nothing, of course!"

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