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Jacques Derrida was an Algerian-born philosopher remembered for his development of deconstruction, an approach to thinking that seeks to carefully analyze signifying objects in terms of the differences that are constitutive of those objects. Typically, this deconstructive approach proceeds through a close analysis of the ambivalent and marginal terms that help secure the bounded understanding of a text, concept, or phenomenon, but which resist a final, stable meaning intended by the author or by orthodox interpretation.
Derrida worked hard to counter the common conception that deconstruction entails a kind of textual free play that inevitably leads to a moral and intellectual relativism. In fact, his work represents a scrupulous commitment to the practice of carefully reading any text (written or otherwise), which, above all, respects the probity of the text under consideration. Thus, though his work offers a general strategy for thinking about conditions of knowledge and representation, the power of that approach is derived from its attentiveness to how those conditions are manifested in specific contexts. Derrida brought this practice of close reading to bear on examinations of an impressive variety of subjects, ranging across considerations of major figures in the western philosophical canon (e.g., Plato, Kant, Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Freud), literary productions (including the works of Ponge, Genet, Joyce, and Mallarme), and a wide array of social and political themes (education, internationalism, telecommunications, political economy, and the death penalty, to offer a partial list).
In contrast to popular characterizations of deconstruction as positing the impossibility of coherent interpretations, Derrida sought to show how the possible coherence of any interpretation is derived within a specific semantic code and is thus premised upon the possibility of repeating that code, its ”iterability.” In the temporal and spatial movement of a repetition, there is always the possibility of slippage, and thus the recurring possibility of the new and the unforeseen, the possibility that any text might be grafted into new contexts that would begin to reshape its meaning. For Derrida, this iterative inevitability suggests a certain continuity and stability, but it also points to the inherently open-ended status of any text, phenomenon, or representation. Derrida’s thinking does not seek to destroy the conceptual traditions from which it emerges (they are, in fact, its very condition of possibility); rather, it seeks to solicit them in a way that denaturalizes that which might otherwise seem natural and already decided.
Derrida’s approach to reading, therefore, has epistemological, political, and ethical implications, linking an insistence on careful descriptive work with an always present normative orientation. Descriptively, this line of thinking has helped complicate working concepts within a broad range of intellectual disciplines, opening those concepts to an ongoing reconsideration and thus stressing a kind of scientific and intellectual practice that remains open to new perspectives and events. To take but one example, Derrida’s work has provided tools and enacted a disposition for productively troubling liberal, Marxist, structuralist, feminist, and psychoanalytic understandings of the ”human subject” and its relation to its social environment. Normatively, Derrida’s general approach emphasizes a respect for the ”other” that comes from outside of our previously consecrated and currently present understandings, resisting the tendency to reduce that which is different from the interpretive grids that we have inherited. Deconstruction, then, carries an ethical imperative that productively complicates our other-regarding orientations, and it is in this sense that Derrida would insist that deconstruction is always, in the very movement of its critical posture, an affirmative gesture that is capable of saying ”yes” to that which is yet to come.
- Derrida, J. (1974) Of Grammatology, trans. G. C. Spivak. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.
- Derrida, J. (1978) Writing and Difference, trans. A. Bass. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.