Derrida’s rise to fame was as romantic and abrupt as that of any pop star. In 1966, at the age of 36, he attended a conference at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and read a paper on ‘deconstruction’. It was a period when American literary criticism had run out of steam, and deconstruction seemed to offer a new breakthrough. The result was what Christopher Norris has called Derrida’s ‘rise to intellectual stardom’. Deconstruction took American literary departments by storm. Its success knocked the breath out of the old guard of ‘New Critics’; it was as shocking as if some musical theoretician had proposed to abolish the study of classical music and replace it with jazz. But it ‘took’, and within a year or two, Derrida was as famous in the universities of Europe as in America.
‘Deconstruction’ is a method of criticism, as it seems to me, that begins with the assumption that the author himself does not understand what he is trying to say, and is as likely to be wrong about it as any critic. The job of the critic is to analyse what the writer thinks are his intentions, to trace the thread of logic until it leads to a self-contradiction, or piece of muddled thinking (aporia) that gives the game away.
What was so astonishing was that Derrida was not a literary critic but a philosopher, and that his philosophy was as impenetrably obscure as that of Heidegger. His style seemed designed to confuse rather than enlighten, as if it was the private language of a small ‘in-group’. And while the