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Wednesday, 08 May 2013 21:16

Jacques Derrida

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jacques derrida

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)

I thought long and hard about whether to include Derrida in this list of critical theorists. Wikipedia suggests that:

"His voluminous work has had a profound impact upon literary theory and continental philosophy".

But like  Noam Chomsky, for the most part I have found his writings to be difficult to understand and (again like Chomsky) that he uses "pretentious rhetoric" to obscure the simplicity of his ideas. Chomsky groups Derrida within a broader category of the Parisian intellectual community which he has criticised for, on his view, acting as an elite power structure for the well educated through "difficult writing" and obscurantism. On the other hand, his (Deconstruction) conceptualisations have proved to be immensely helpful to me on a couple of occasions and have helped me to clarify key points in my own critical analysis. So here he is.


Derrida was born in 1930, in Algeria, when that country was still under freench colonial domination. He was, the third of five children. 

On the first day of the school year in 1942, Derrida was expelled from his high school by French administrators implementing anti-Semitic quotas set by the pro-Nazi government. He secretly skipped school for a year rather than attend the Jewish school formed by displaced teachers and students. At this time, Derrida read works of philosophers and writers such as Rousseau, Camus,Nietzsche, and Gide. He began to think seriously about philosophy around 1948 and 1949. He became a boarding student at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, which he did not enjoy. Derrida failed his entrance examination twice before finally being admitted to the École Normale Supérieure at the end of the 1951–52 school year.

On his first day at the École Normale Supérieure Derrida met  Louis Althusser, with whom he became friends. He entered the École Normale at a time when a remarkable generation of philosophers and thinkers was coming of age. Besides Althusser, there were also Deleuze, Michel Foucault,Lyotard, Barthes , and Marin. Merleau-Ponty,Sartre,deBeauvoir, Levi-Strauss, Lacan, and others. The Fifties in France was the time of phenomenology, and Derrida studied closely Husserl's then published works as well as some of the archival material that was then available. The result was a Masters thesis from the academic year 1953-54 called The Problem of Genesis in Husserl's Philosophy; Derrida published this text in 1990. He also became friends with Michel Foucault, whose lectures he attended. He completed his philosophy agrégation on Husserl's "The Origin of Geometry." Derrida received a grant for studies at Harvard University. During the Algerian War of Independence, Derrida asked to teach French and English to soldiers' children in lieu of military service from 1957 to 1959.




From 1960 to 1964, Derrida taught philosophy at the Sorbonne, and from 1964 to 1984 at the École Normale Superieure. Beginning with his 1966 lecture at Johns Hopkins University, "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences", his work assumed international prominence.  In 1967, he published his first three books—Writing and Difference, Speech and Phenomena, and Of Grammatology—which would make his name. He completed his Thèse d'État in 1980; the work was subsequently published in English translation as "The Time of a Thesis: Punctuations."

Derrida travelled widely and held a series of visiting and permanent positions. He was director of studies at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. WithFrançois Châteletand others. In 1983 co-founded the Collège international de philosophie (CIPH), an institution intended to provide a location for philosophical research which could not be carried out elsewhere in the academy. He was elected as its first president. In 1986 he became Professor of the Humanities at the University of California, Irvine.  He was a regular visiting professor at several other major American universities, including Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, New York University, and The New School for Social Research. All of this superstar status flows from his initial conception of Deconstruction, which has proved to be a powerful analytical tool for uncovering the hidden and often ambiguous meanings

Characterising Western knowledge as being grounded upon what he calls a "metaphysics of identity",  Derrida has noted how language organises the world into oppositional categories - body/mind, culture/nature, subject/object, male/female, and so on. 

These oppositions provide a vast array of categories which order the entire domain of philosophy, each category being conceptualised as a totality. The necessity for enclosure which is required to circumscribe any meaning requires the creation of exclusions - that some things are "left outside" the categorical boundary of any conceptual classification. The existence of hidden conceptual pairings is therefore paradoxically related to the need to create whole bodies of knowledge which have clear and precise meanings. Derrida demonstrates how the second component of the pair is therefore always implied by the first, and is always reduced by it to a secondary or inferior status. 
  • Within any paired hierarchy, the lesser of the pair remains invisibly cast as an inferior form, always already implied, and therefore confirming and legitimating by its absence, a particular yet illusory totality which then stands ipso facto as the reality. This binary contradiction flows into the structure of the entire common stock of knowledge where, as Berger and Luckmann note, it operates to foster conditions of hegemony by creating a whole world of invisible exclusions which by virtue of their invisibility, render particular clusters of meanings pre-eminent:
    "... every institution has a body of transmitted recipe knowledge, that is, knowledge that supplies the institutionally appropriate modes of behaviour. Such knowledge constitutes the motivating dynamics of institutionalised conduct. It defines the institutionalised areas of conduct and designates all situations falling within them. It defines and constructs the roles to be played in the context of the institutions in question. Ipso facto, it controls and predicts all such conduct. Since this knowledge is socially objectivated as knowledge, that is, as a body of generally valid truths about reality, any radical deviance from the institutional order appears as a departure from reality.(emphasis added). Such deviance may be designated as moral depravity, mental disease or just plain ignorance. While these fine distinctions will have obvious consequences for the treatment of the deviant, they all share an inferior cognitive status within the particular social world. In this way, the particular social world becomes the world tout court.."

    Using textural readings of Kant, for instance, he has investigated the truth claims of art and aesthetics. In his investigation of Kant's Third Critique, he develops Kant's notion of parergon, literally "what we call ornaments" i.e. those things which "do not belong to the complete representation of the object internally as elements, but only externally as components".  Derrida shows how Kant's parergon or frame of reference cannot be separated from the otherwise essential quality of the art itself. He reveals the internal contradictions in Kant's classification system by showing that what is essential to a particular work of art or architecture remains ambiguous in Kant's own terms. In seeking which aspects can be left out without detracting from the whole, he isolates elements whose marginality defies classification.

    These become the parergon, the frame of reference for the work, being neither inside nor outside its qualitative field. They both define its quality and are defined by it. Thus, claims Derrida, the work of art can only be defined by elements which are extrinsic to itself. From this it follows naturally that the work has no wholly intrinsic value. Once the relational quality of art has thus been established, it is only a small step to locating its "essential" qualities within the medium of social discourse itself with all of the consequent relativistic implications for the influence of class, race, culture, personal history and the power relationships which they represent and reproduce. In other words, a great work of art is a great work of art not because it contains immutable and transcendent aesthetic qualities, but because it is defined as a work of art by society through a process of social discourse mediated by relationships of power.  The implications of this philosophy are extensive for a politicisation not just of knowledge, but also of aesthetics.
    This has consequences within the whole domain of aesthetics which has always tried, in the tradition of Kant, to stand above and beyond the "impure" domain of ideology. The status of Art (and Architecture) in this light, is dramatically altered, with ramifications for professional work as well as for education. To the extent that art (which in rejecting the scientific paradigm) identified itself as a Fine Art, it meant, for in¬stance that if there was no essential quality which describes or defines that which is Art or Architecture, then the issue of what to teach as Art or Architecture is open to radical debate. In other words, the whole conception of a disciplinary core is undermined.
    Thus it is that the deconstructive work of Derrida, particularly, attacks the neat boundary demarcations between disciplines and opens up the issue of knowledge to questions regarding its social construction and its reproduction. Like all culturally determined phenomena, art is a site of social and political struggle,  as well as being a powerful instrument of oppression in the struggle for voice and social emancipation, maintaining as it does the social and political status quo through a series of concentric mystifications which mask both its own agenda of social distinction as well as the very mystification by which it is maintained. While the cartoon of Dot (below) undoubtedly suggests that she is not very intelligent to mistake a fire alarm for a work of art, it also points to the role of art as an instrument of mystification and social and cultural discrimination.
  • dot.1
     Dot Inspects the Fire Alarm in the Art Gallery
  • The surface structure of the category art as a superior form of knowledge, conceals the principle of superiority itself, which is accepted by default: 
    "The material or symbolic appropriation of works of art functions to reproduce social superiority: knowledge or possession of works of art is a mark of distinction, rather than merely a distinguishing mark. This for two reasons. First, since works of art are taken to embody timeless values, an understanding of them is taken as confirming the intrinsic worth, and thus the right to social dominance, of the comprehending beholder. Second, because sympathy with works of art gives vicarious access to the world of self-determining and self-defining activity, and such sympathy confirms the status of the comprehending beholder as one fit to determine and define. Failure to understand art, to participate in the culture which it defines, operates hegemonically in two ways. If understanding art is seen as a good, then failure to understand is humiliating. Learning to understand, in as much as it  involves accepting authority, reinforces subordination for one's own good, and in particular reinforces the notion that cultural authorities articulate not particular forms of social hierarchy but eternal values, the values of aesthetic worth. If rejection of art as a good is based on exclusion through cultural and economic deprivation, then it hides the mechanisms of that exclusion, which is perceived by the dominated not as a necessity but as choice. If such a rejection is based not on necessity, but on familiarity, it is itself an expression of cultural dominance."(Gretton in Rees and Borzello )
  • This critical analysis of art precipitated by Derrida's concept of the parergon (and suupported by Bourdieu's concepts of cultural codes and cultural capital ) reveals a world of elitism, of cultural dominance, of silencing. This cultural dominance through Art, developed over four centuries and finally given a philosophical seal of approval by Kant, was finally consolidated by the rising hegemony of the British in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in particular through the Romanticism of Keats, Byron, Constable, Turner and Blake and a host of artists and poets who embodied the detached, aristocratic ambience of eccentricity so beloved of the nineteenth century Englishman. Here was consolidated the myth of the universal man, the Grand-Tourist, the consummate coloniser, the true cultural aristocrat, the determiner of taste in an environment of manufactured scarcity in a burgeoning market in which he was that essential direct connection, an anchor to that which was not transitory, but which was permanent and timeless.

    The interrogation has also been particularly helpful in my own analyses of architecture and architectural education. It was precisely this transcendent legitimation of the material exigencies of power and wealth which gave art its power to forge and sustain social hierarchies from the 18th century to the present, and it was the very reason why, to the fledgling architectural profession, the paradigm of architecture-as-art (achieved through design) proved so alluring then as it still does today, and why the profession is so reluctant to share the concept, let alone the activity of design. We can now see that art, along with science is equally susceptible to the critical interrogation of its political and ideological instrumentality. No longer can we accept the simple model of design as a socially and culturally neutral construct. Its exclusions, whether  economic - those associated with manual vs. intellectual labour, whether political - operating as a mechanism of social exclusion, whether cultural -  operating as a cover for dominance, whether geopolitical - as a front for and an instrument of capitalist expansion, or whether epistemological - in maintaining a false dichotomy between rational and empirical realities, or whether ideological - maintaining its ideological nature behind a mask of ideological neutrality - in all of these cases, design is no longer an innocent bystander to exploitation and domination. Yet Derrida's influence in architecture has also been significant in other areas -having been adopted in the form of Deconstructivism - a particular formal treatment of Postmodern Architecture which stresses visual fragmentation. Deconstructivism in architecture, began in the late 1980s. It is characterized by ideas of fragmentation, an interest in manipulating ideas of a structure's surface or skin, non-rectilinear shapes which serve to distort and dislocate some of the elements of architecture, such as structure and envelope. The finished visual appearance of buildings that exhibit the many deconstructivist "styles" is characterised by a stimulating unpredictability and a controlled chaos.

    Proponents and theorists of Deconstructivist architecture include Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi'. The movement was given prominence by  the Museum of Modern Art’s 1988 Deconstructivist Architecture exhibition in New York, organized by Philip Johnson and my ex-colleague from Auckland University, Mark Wigley.  New York exhibition featured works by Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind, Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelb(l)au, and Bernard Tschumi. Since the exhibition, many of the architects who were associated with Deconstructivism have distanced themselves from the term. Nonetheless, the term has stuck and has now, in fact, come to embrace a general trend within contemporary architecture.(Wikipedia )

    The contradiction of the Deconstructivist movement will be readily apparent. Its proponents have taken Derrida's radical social analysis and turned it around for their own ends to foster and promote yet another elitist and oppressive aesthetic. While theoretically holding to his thesis of the mythology of a unifying truth in the name of architecture, the omissions inherent in their designs and their statements of theory point to a deeper parergon - the exclusion of the social, the political, the just, the inclusive

  • Derrida's work and concepts have had a profound influence in a wide range of fields - not always in ways that he would have supported or which are internally consisten. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2004.

    To download an critical analysis of Deconstructivist architecture in three PDFs click here

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