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Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) was an Algerian-born French philosopher. He is considered the founder of deconstruction, an approach to textual analysis (used mainly in the fields of philosophy and literary theory but also in the study of political discourse) that seeks to understand the meaning of texts by unveiling the inherent oppositions between the apparent features and the essential message. Issues such as sovereignty, otherness, and decision making are present in many of his works, but his political criticism went beyond theory, actively questioning and engaging in issues such as the Vietnam War (1959–1975), apartheid, and the death penalty.
Born in El-Biar (close to Algiers), Derrida grew up in a Sephardic Jewish family. In 1952 he was admitted to the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, France, where he defended his master’s dissertation (“The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy”) in 1954. His 1966 lecture at Johns Hopkins University was followed by a long list of visiting appointments in renowned institutions, and he presented his doctoral thesis in 1980. In 1982 he cofounded and served as first director of the Collège Internationale de Philosophie in Paris, and a year after that he joined the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. In 1987 he also started lecturing at the University of California.
In 1967 Derrida published three works that introduced the concept of deconstruction: Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena, and Of Grammatology. The basis of deconstruction is that any text always has more than one possible interpretation, making interpretative reading a complex task constantly limited by the simultaneous existence of incompatible but at the same time closely woven meanings. Derrida, in his literary approach, suggests than it is by prioritizing appearance over essence that deconstruction operates and is able to unveil these textual oppositions. Deconstructive strategies include the diachronic or genealogical study of conceptual term usage and the critical identification of the aporias (contradictions or paradoxes) and ellipses contained in writing and thought.
Significant applications of deconstruction to political phenomena can be found in Derrida’s Force of Law (1989), Specters of Marx (1993), and Rogues (2003), in which the tensions among democracy, sovereignty, and power are explored. Derrida argues that in a democracy, power is always abused, as it inevitably requires force, freedom, decision making, and, ultimately, sovereignty. But as democratic universalized decision making is necessarily a slow process, and many governmental decisions need to be made immediately, there is always a tendency to concentrate and unify power, to move toward imperial hegemony, excluding others from the process of decision making.
The most recurrent criticisms of Derrida and his works are usually linked to his lack of clarity and, in some instances, what has been viewed as intentional obfuscation (intent to confuse). His style was often more literary than analytical, leaving argumentation aside and opening the doors for contradictory interpretations. Derrida himself admitted that his notion of deconstruction was not easy to explain through discourse, as its object of critique is writing itself.
- Beardsworth, Richard. Derrida and the Political. London: Routledge, 1996.
- Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology, translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.
- Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.Translation of Voyous, 2003.
- Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, translated by Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1993.
- Thomas, Michael. The Reception of Derrida: Translation and Transformation. London: Palgrave, 2006.
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