Recently, an old friend of mine, Bill Macomber, wrote to me asking me to explain Jacques Derrida to him. Bill has been out of the philosophy business for over thirty years (no need to retell that sad story here) and he must have assumed that I would be well informed about the latest developments, and able to wise him up with a minimum of effort: always bad assumptions where I am concerned!
Here is my reply:
My Dear Bill,
You asked me to explain Jacques Derrida. I always tell my students when they say I should include, eg., some text from Eastern philosophy or post-modernism in my class: you are really better off to ask someone who, unlike me, believes in that stuff and thinks it is important. I would have to go back to school to understand it at all, and then I would not be as good at explaining it as the other guy already is. Meanwhile, the thing that I can do better than they can, would go undone!
Anyway, as I understand it, Derrida really had two ideas. First, works of literature, which seem to be attempts to entertain you with beautiful or at any rate interesting images, are actually mind-traps: the author in each case is trying to trap you inside his or her own belief-system. What you need to do is to deconstruct the author’s would-be mind-trap. This is of course his other idea. Deconstructing the work basically means realizing that the author is really a bungling fool who, in trying to throw a net over you, has already tripped over his or her own shoelaces.
I have to say that I really have very little patience for this sort of thing. Isn’t it a little obvious what Jacques’ motives were? That this is just one more attempt to make critics, like himself, more important than creative writers?
More importantly, as Camille Paglia has pointed out, his message is much less applicable in America than it is in France. Over there, the masses may well be dangerously in awe of the literary set, which does have a dangerously authoritarian attitude. They even have an Academy (or did recently) that decides whether new words should be allowed in the language or not! Now that is real power! Here, the writing set has no such influence at all. In democratic America, the arts are drowning in a flood of popular culture, and languishing without friends among the powerful. In such a context, to tell people that they should view literature with Derridean wariness is to send the very worst sort of message. Just exactly the opposite of what people need to hear.
Now Paglia, there’s someone you should be thinking about: she may save us yet!