Get a good night's sleep. Have a hearty meal. Turn off your cell phone. Trust us—it's about to get real. Studying Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) isn't for those prone to easy irritation, unwilling to wallow in confusion, or likely to get welty skin rashes by having to pay close attention. Translation: Derrida is confusing.
Is it on purpose? Is it because he's French? Or is he just so freakin' smart that we can only hope to glimpse his brilliant and philosophically revolutionizing insights? No matter the reason, Derrida usually provokes one of two responses: total hysteria or full-blown hero worship. Either way, he is the closest thing 20th-century philosophy has ever had to a celebrity, so he's worth a few minutes of your attention. After all, Derrida—who called himself a historian and not a theorist (God forbid) or even a philosopher—aimed to achieve nothing short of challenging every belief that upholds and sustains Western philosophical tradition… and pretty much Western culture as a whole.
So yeah, let's baby step on this one.
Step 1: deconstruction. Derrida is the deconstructionist. His book Of Grammatology is basically the Bible of the movement. Okay, let's define: deconstruction is a way of reading and understanding a "text" with the full acceptance that it's a big messy contradiction in the first place. Surrender! But here's the thing: according to our beloved (or not so) French thinker, everything is a text. And no author—not even Derrida himself—can ever determine one truth, absolute meaning, or stability in any text.
Still with us?
Let's deconstruct a text so you can see that it doesn't hurt much more than a tetanus shot. There's this little book called Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—you may have heard it. When we first think of Twain's masterpiece, we think of it as a critique of racism and slavery, the story of young Huck's moral education and eventual realization of the harsh conditions of Jim's life as a black man in the Confederate South. That Huck is such a swell guy! But wait—not so fast. Fast forward to the end of the book. Along comes that sneaky Tom Sawyer, and he and Huck, knowing that Jim has been freed, orchestrate a game that involves imprisoning and starving Jim for fun and games. So Huck is just as immoral as any given slave owner. And hey, maybe even worse, given that he previously showed a glimmer of recognition that slavery is wrong. That Huck is such a villain! Boom. Now you have two very different, even oppositional interpretations. We'd give you a third, but we're short on time.
Derrida would never explain it that clearly, of course. In fact, unless you have working familiarity with the writing of Rousseau, Foucault, Nietzsche, Freud, Heidegger, Hegel, and the rest of the gang, just accept that you probably won't get all of his references. (We sure don't.)
So if we can't understand half of what he writes, what's the point? Great question. Let's talk about what Derrida did that might just put a little skip in your step.
Here's what we know so far: Derrida rejected absolutes and adamantly believed (in that cool French way)that a text could uphold many possibilities at the same time. (Huck as hero/Huck as villain, right?). This is where différance comes in. Derrida coined this word—baller, right?—and for all your Francophiles, it's kind of a fun mashup of the words defer and differ.
The différance, for Derrida, means you cannot ever reconcile the multiple meanings held in a text. So just learn to deal with the endless possible meanings; and of course, remember that no one meaning is better than the other. Seeing both the defer and the differ now?
Ultimately, deconstruction isn't just about finding multiple meanings; it's about peeling back the onion on all of those covert ethical and political ideas sneaking around in those meanings. Activist of feminism, gay rights, and third-world causes embrace deconstruction, enlisting it to reveal all of the undisclosed prejudices in works by Plato, Aristotle, and even Shakespeare. (That's right, even the Immortal Bard himself.) The catchy titles of Derrida's books can only help his cause: Ulysses Gramophone: Hear Say Yes in Joyce, anyone? No clue what it means, but we kind of want to read it.
So was this charismatic, tailored-suit wearing dude a messiah of complex, pioneering, hyper-intellectual thought or a villain who opposed all clear thinking? Embarrassment to the humanities, or demi-God of post structuralism? The jury's still out.