Cultural Revolutions

Jacques Derrida, R.I.P.

Passing away in a Paris hospital on October 8, philosopher Jacques Derrida (born in Algeria in 1930) has exited a scene in which he was once a conspicuous actor.  Prominent in America since his poststructuralist lecture of 1966 and his following books, Derrida was perhaps the best-known literary theorist in the world for a quarter of a century.  In the 90’s, his “deconstructionist” mystique began to fade as the cult of “theory” began to diffuse in the fin de siècle.  Must we say that his absence is a presence?

In the case of Derrida, there seems to have been a gap between the man and his reputation, a distinction between his technical philosophical achievements and their larger reception.  Derrida had every professional justification to explore language as he did, playfully demonstrating the treacherous, slippery quality of semantics and discourse, the abyss that opens between the signifier and the signified.  Another North African, Saint Augustine, had filled the gap between the signifier and the signified with faith in a transcendental signified, a.k.a. God.  Another saint, Thomas Aquinas, struggled to reconcile the freedom of figurative language with a necessary stability of meaning.  Jacques Derrida took aim at those saints, as well as at Plato and Aristotle, when he famously denied that there is a transcendental signified (or Logos), or...

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