Deriding Derrida

Obfuscatory and certainly overrated he was, but perhaps we are slowly approaching something like an honest appraisal of Jacques Derrida, a midwit philosopher not without nuance, though it was often difficult to identify among the verbiage.

He was, for a time, the king of theory, the verbose form of analysis that gobbled up literary criticism in the Anglophone world in the 1980s and onward, emerging initially from the May 68 generation in France (though intriguingly, Derrida himself sat that one out.) The theory wars of those years have created generations of critics who have learned to theorise but not to criticise, arguably. But perhaps, like all pendula, it has begun to swing back again as that generation ages and a new generation has its own concerns and modes of expressing them.

Undoubtedly, though, literary analysis has suffered at the dead hands of Derridean deconstruction. We have lived in the long shadow of what Anthony Burgess might have termed Frenchified madness for far too long. However, it must be said that, among the anti-semites, paedophilia apologists and spoofers of that era, Derrida (and Cixous, and certainly Arendt) is far from the worst.

Prospect mag features a review of a new biography of Derrida, which is intended to provide some nuance to the polarised perspectives he generates. For some, and I find myself largely in sympathy, he is one of a school of French obscurantists who had little love of language or literature and a significant debt to Marxism, and who did more damage to literary criticism than contributing to its development. For others, he was a key voice in a generation of French theorists who provided new ways of looking at cultural production.

Anyhow, Derrida’s star may have waned, and perhaps not enough, but it seems that he will be with us for some time yet. One waits (in vain) for similar sober reappraisals of others of that era, in particular the preposterous Badiou, the overblown Foucault and especially the charlatan Lacan.