By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Andrew Cooper
WHEN PEOPLE TALK ABOUT CRAZY FRENCH INTELLECTUALS and esoteric superstars, when they stumble across the word deconstructionism in Entertainment Weekly and wonder what it could possibly mean, when college kids around the world are forcedto figure out what it means, as they have been for the last 20 years -- it all goes back to Jacques Derrida. One of the reigning figures of intellectual life of the last quarter-century, Derrida is the father of Deconstructionism, a controversial system of analysis designed to dismantle language and reveal the biases and false assumptions embedded within it. Rooted in the belief that language is freighted with things we're either unable or unwilling to bring to full consciousness, Deconstructionism is a flexible methodology applicable to any and all texts -- and indeed, the impact it's had on literary criticism is equal to, if not greater than, the mark it's left on philosophical discourse.
Born in 1930 to a family of assimilated Sephardic Jews in what was then French Algeria, Derrida began questioning intellectual prejudice at the age of 10, when Algeria was overrun by France's collaborationist Vichy regime. At that point Derrida was expelled from school after being informed by a teacher that "French culture is not made for little Jews." He went on to a career as a disruptive, inarguably gifted student, and at 19 he moved to Paris to study philosophy at the école Normale Supérieure. It was there he met Marguerite Aucouturier, a psychoanalyst, whom he married in 1957. Attending the school from 1952 through 1956, Derrida focused primarily on the works of the German philosophers Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, and his writings on their work led to a scholarship to Harvard in 1956. Returning to Paris in 1960 to teach philosophy at the Sorbonne, Derrida declared his independence as a philosopher two years later with a translation of Husserl's Origin of Geometry, appended with a book-length introduction that dwarfed Husserl's essay. In 1967 he laid out his central ideas with the publication of three seminal books -- Speech and Phenomena, Writing and Difference, and Of Grammatology -- which catapulted him to the center of the philosophical discourse. The author of 45 books that have been translated into 22 languages, Derrida was appointed a visiting professor at the University of California at Irvine in 1986. And in a major coup for the university, Irvine began acquiring the Derrida archive in 1990.
Derrida spoke with me recently in his modest office at Irvine. Given the fearlessness and ambition of his work, he's surprisingly approachable in person, and his ideas seem considerably less daunting in conversation than they do on the page. He's a very charming man, and his charisma comes across clearly in Derrida, a documentary directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering Kofman that opens this week.
L.A. WEEKLY: Why did you agree to be filmed forDerrida?
DERRIDA: I didn't immediately agree to it. I proceeded with deep reservations that had to do with the discomfort I've always felt about my image in photographs. I succeeded in publishing for almost 20 years without a single image of myself appearing in connection with my books, and there were two reasons for that. First, I had what you might describe as ideological objections to the conventional author photograph -- a head shot, a picture of the writer at his desk -- because it struck me as a concession to selling and to media. The second reason was that I've always had a difficult relationship with my own body and image. It's hard for me to look at myself in photographs, so for 20 years I gave myself permission to erase my image on political grounds. Over the last decade that became increasingly difficult, because I was constantly appearing in public spaces at conferences attended by journalists, many of whom took pictures. It finally became impossible to control, and as I felt it was time to overcome this resistance, I finally let it go. And I must say, I was pleasantly surprised by how successfully the film intertwines the private everyday life of family with things less private -- a trip I took to South Africa during the filming, for instance -- and reflections on big subjects. The film has a consistent through line in that it continually questions the biography of authors. Should a philosopher have a biography?
How could a philosopher not have a biography?
Of course he has a biography, but the question I raise is whether we should publish it. Should he himself narrate his own biography? Should he let his own life be public and be interpreted?
How can you separate a philosopher's writing from his life?
I don't know if you can, but most classical philosophers did try to separate them, and some of them succeeded. If you read philosophical texts of the tradition, you'll notice they almost never said 'I,' and didn't speak in the first person. From Aristotle to Heidegger, they try to consider their own lives as something marginal or accidental. What was essential was their teaching and their thinking. Biography is something empirical and outside, and is considered an accident that isn't necessarily or essentially linked to the philosophical activity or system.