Watching people write about Jacques Derrida -- his theories, his passing on October 8 -- has been a fantastic sight, much like watching a man shinny shimmy up a rope while simultaneously trying to unravel it with his legs. Because how does one write about the so-called father of deconstruction, who helped unmoor text from authorial intent and dismantle notions of black-and-white absolutes, and whose insistence on reading against the grain of a piece yielded unnerving contradictions and unseen possibilities for interpretation? Writing about Derrida can be a treacherous exercise: You are writing, but also reading against yourself, trying to pick out echoes of trace meaning; you are writing, but also aware that you are being erased from the very text you are creating.
My head hurts.
I spent much of my undergraduate career in a similar state. I majored in both comparative literature and religious studies, which meant that I far exceeded the daily recommended allowance of theory. At first, I had no idea what people were talking about -- it was like another language. I read some Derrida and found myself thinking, “What an ass!” Who crosses out words in the middle of his piece and leaves them there, like stinking dead bodies? What is this? Say what you mean, dude! I left falafel crumbs and grease splotches in Of Grammatology, like my own angry signifiers of resistance.
But I had to read Derrida for my classes, so I persevered, rageful grease stains and all. And then … strangely, through the thicket of his writing, I could begin to glean something -- his meaning, my meaning, who knows what it was. But something rather beautiful began to emerge out of the shit-whiff of his words, like the favorite Buddhist image of the lotus, whose muck-mired roots create an otherworldly, serene bloom. I loved the idea of play in language, that I wasn't confined to trying to discern an author's intent, that I didn't have to read literature with an eye toward drawing a one-to-one correlation between the author's life and times with the text. And I became especially enamored with the way Derrida confronted the absolutism of structuralism, that he was able to locate contradiction in the primary narrative of a text -- the Other meanings. A beautifully holistic way to read.
In typically nerdy fashion, I went overboard. I began speaking in tongues in my classes, wrote papers in opaque, outlandish language. I Derrida'd everything, wrote papers on semiotics and Zen koan, about literary images of tattoos and the body in pain as metaphors for the act of reading, about ritual theory and the construction of textual space, about erasure, metonym, mimesis in everything from Kierkegaard to Soseki to Novalis. There were a lot of words ending in “–ology,” buckets of Latin and French. It was gross. So gross, in fact, that I stopped writing poetry (yes, I had wanted to be a poet, put that eyebrow down). The problem was, I was so busy theorizing -- or mimicking theoretical language out of insecurity, rather -- that I had forgotten what my own voice sounded like. I had become a professional reader, and I couldn't figure out how to transition back into writing.
So I wound up hating Derrida again. I was sick of the way theory became a sort of shibboleth in my classes -- either you knew the lingo or you didn't. The emperor was totally starkers, I thought. Mad as hell, I ran away from the academy, despite my professors' attempts to push me into it. Derrida gathered dust on my bookshelves.
And here I am, a writer again, of a sort, and definitely still a nerd. I was dreading writing about Derrida, revisiting my tawdry little affair with a pomo theorist. But over the course of this week, I realize that my relationship to him has been utterly transformed by my ostensible abandonment of him. I think I love him again, but this time as one would an old friend. He has colored the way I look at text, film, the world, in ways I never saw until I started thinking about him again. His devotion to complexity, to looking at the white space around the intended meaning, to unearthing what is excluded and what is different and what isn't supposed to be there but is -- I find myself obsessed with trying to achieve these things in my writing, these aspects of his ideas that I find deeply ethical and liberating.
Part of this surely has to do with my own personal makeup, someone who has lived in Asia and America, felt out of place and at home in both, struggled with other languages and then felt something was missing when I reverted back to English. How can we express our totality, the contradictory (but not unharmonious) aspects of our selves? Others on the left -- among them, feminists, gender outlaws, postcolonials -- have also embraced Derrida for his love of difference, of so-called marginalia, of the impossible to classify. But I also wonder if some of his supporters have turned his ideas toward the task of creating something that he might have sought to shake down: the divisive and hard-and-fast categories of identity politics. Perhaps in discovering our differences, some of us have ossified them -- and, in the process of doing so, lost some of that egalitarian, radical fluidity Derrida suggested in his work.
To his detractors, Derrida is a cheap nihilist who is seeking to topple the pillars of morality, truth, and values. The resulting cacophony of voices, of relativism, of armchair-critic skepticism -- these are threats to acting with clarity, swiftness, moral responsibility. Anything goes in Derrida's world. Or maybe nothing does, because you're too busy making bad puns. Wordplay, indeed.
I'd argue, however, that Derrida is not advocating moral lassitude or an ethical free-for-all. While he does question the existence of absolute truth and knowledge, he does not say that we should toss aside cognitive, religious, and social values wholesale, but that we should question them, seek out those whose opinions may differ, be cognizant of our ideas' potential limitations and contradictions. He argues for a certain humility, a deeply attentive attitude toward our philosophies and those of others. For Derrida, faith can only be strengthened by doubt, action with contemplation; they are inseparable.
Derrida's ideas animate the very heart of a democracy -- the continual flow of ideas, the movement and collision and resolution of difference in an ongoing process. It's a deeply relational and solitary movement -- the way we formulate ideas in our minds, articulate them to others, argue them out, mull them over again -- the same way reading is. Reading is static and dynamic, unmoving words unreeling in our minds. And if we attempt to read as Derrida would, we enter into a simultaneous communion and catechism with the text.
One of the things I love best about Derrida is the way he stressed that reader-text relationship. The author, instead of reigning over the hermetic little kingdom he or she has created, is not dethroned exactly; put aside, perhaps. The text is not a closed, unchanging system; the words are written, but all the narratives are not. They are created through the act of readerly devotion and skepticism. It's a subversive, power-to-the-people thing that Derrida is pushing, something that flies in the face of the attempt to declare or create a single narrative or mythology or truth, which seems crushingly authoritarian … and futile. Because as both Derrida and history would bear out, there is always resistance. It is up to us whether we will listen or not.
As I write this, I'm very aware that Derrida tells us that when we write and create, we necessarily leave things out. We make one choice, and a multiplicity of others go unmade. Derrida himself -- his biographical details, quotations, his personal meaning -- isn't really in this piece, even though I spent years chasing the man, then spurning him, and only just now realizing that he had somehow taken up residence in my mind without my knowing it. I'm not really here, either, despite the confessional form of much of this piece. How can one write everything about a theoretical love affair? And who would want to? Something must be left to the imagination.
So after I've finished writing this, gone on to eat Pringles, loll around on the floor, whatever odd activities we writers tend to do in the middle of the day, there will only be these words, and you, dear reader. Derrida is gone. I am, too, having only left this pile of unfinished text for you to play with. I don't often think about the inevitable relinquishing of (the illusion of) authorial control that happens every time I write something; it is a bit scary, to tell you the truth. But … I'm finally stepping away from this one. Perhaps you'll love it or hate it, or think, “What an ass!” Maybe you'll be bored or indifferent or find meanings I could never have fathomed. I've done what I can. Now it is, as Derrida might say, what you make of it.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.