Structuralism, in various disguises, has been stalking literary studies in England and America for some time. But it usually stalks as a movement, and not in the name of any one of its practitioners. One of the interesting things about Jacques Derrida, who is generally regarded as a post-structuralist, is that he has found a following, at least in America, as an individual figure. It’s not easy to measure the extent of his influence. Is it confined to a handful of English and French departments, or is it more widespread? It does seem fairly considerable in any case, and it raises interesting questions, not least because Derrida is not a literary critic but a philosopher. He teaches at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris and also, for a brief spell each year, at Yale.
Almost all of Derrida’s work records and re-creates acts of reading, not explications de textes so much as interrogations of texts: texts by Plato, Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, Rousseau, Saussure, Lévi-Strauss, Artaud, Bataille, Austin, Genet, Freud, Lacan, and others. “I write and read at the same time,” Derrida said in an interview: “slowly, taking pleasure in writing lengthy prefaces to each term.” Derrida’s name for his method of reading, when it tackles the long conspiracy which Derrida sees in Western thought, is deconstruction. He doesn’t deconstruct his texts, he asks them to help him in the deconstruction of the philosophy in which they are implicated.
Deconstruction has one or two rather lurid strategies, which I’ll return to, but its principal feature, as Derrida practices it, is a patient and intelligent suspicion, which falls less on the meanings and definitions of words than on their associations and affiliations, notably their complicity in the vast metaphysical plot running from Plato to Hegel, or, taking an even wider arc, from the pre-Socratics to Heidegger. The plot is a doctrine of presence, a faith holding that immediacy is value and indirection is evil, and Derrida uncovers it not only in all the predictable places (notions of an immanent God, self-consciousness as the guarantee of identity) but even in the unlikely region of linguistic philosophy, whose ideas of “context” and “ordinary language” conceal “behind a certain amount of confusion, very specific philosophical presuppositions.” There are obvious virtues in a plot you can find everywhere, especially if you enjoy your suspicions, but Derrida’s thinking does at times remind me of those Hollywood movies which insisted on confronting nothing less than the whole human condition.
Derrida attacks the great metaphysical conspiracy through what he calls logocentrism: the belief in the primacy of speech over writing, the claim that speech is in some way a “natural” or direct form of language. The doctrine of presence regularly resorts to a praise of speech or a vocabulary of the voice, and to a scorn, often quite virulent, of writing. In the beginning was the word, and the word was a logos, and logos for the Greeks was a spoken word. Even a science of writing, Derrida…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.