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October 10th, 2004

DECOMPOSING DECONSTRUCTION

Jacques Derrida, the closest thing to a "founder" Deconstructionism has, passed away yesterday. He is often identified as "French" but he was actually an Algerian Sephardic Jew, born at El-Biar July 15, 1930, one of many who left. He taught at Johns Hopkins, Yale, UC-Irvine, and divided his time between the U.S. and France.

Derrida defied definition, quite literally, since he essentially maintained any definition was biased and subjective. He developed a skepticism about Western values in general and French educational values in particular early in life, when he encountered the pre holocaust antisemitism sweeping over Europe right down to the school he was attending as a boy, where he was informed that "French culture" was not for Jews. He has been variously described as a nihilist, a Jewish mystic or the successor to the Existentialists. People who defy definition *by* definition interest me.

Derrida's most popular quotation is probably "To pretend, I actually do the thing: I have therefore only pretended to pretend." It is a bit less in-your-face than much of what he had to say. I'm more inclined to remember an anecdote from the film they finally got around to making about him late in life:

Edward Guthmann gives the anecdote. Now, in almost every school of literary analysis or philosophy, the last thing a 'true scholar' would be interested in would be the gossipy personal details of the philosopher's life -- but inquiring minds want to know.

"If you were to watch a documentary about a philosopher -- Heidegger, Kant or Hegel -- what would you like to see in it?" an interviewer asks Derrida.

"Their sex lives," Derrida replies.

"Why?" the interviewer wants to know.

"Because it's something they don't talk about."

And there it is, in a nutshell. I could hardly be said to "agree" with Derrida on everything. I think he would have been appalled by anyone who did, and would be more interested in what they thought he was saying and why than in the supposed "agreement". Finite beings are inclined towards hubris; Derrida saw this as folly.

He'd want to know why I said he "passed away". He died a doubtless painful death of Pancreatic Cancer, which happens to be the way my own father died. It isn't pleasant, or quick, or heroic. Perhaps I softened just saying "he died horribly" because of my own experience with my dad, who still haunts my dreams. I dreamed of my dad being critically ill today, awoke, and Sheila told me Derrida had died.

Excuse the petty personal anecdote, doubtless of no interest to the Dogs of Reason.

Derrida is gone. He is survived by Deconstructionism, which, I fondly wish, could be applied to the order I am affiliated with, right down to its most basic documents and texts.

A contemporary Deconstructionist, Thomas Oden, said "... psychoanalysis has taught that the dead—a dead parent, for example—can be more alive for us, more powerful, more scary, than the living. It is the question of ghosts."

"The dead are all around us," Mulder said in one of the best episodes of the X-Files. In more ways than one.

Think on these things.

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