Who Was Jacques Derrida? An Intellectual Biography by David Mikics - review by Jonathan Derbyshire

Jonathan Derbyshire

The Joy of Text

Who Was Jacques Derrida? An Intellectual Biography


Yale University Press 273pp £25

The American philosopher Stanley Cavell once observed drily that the reputation of Jacques Derrida deserved a 'finer fate than its detractors wish[ed] for it, if not perhaps the finality that its admirers ... traded on'. That it was Derrida's fate (in the English-speaking world at least) to be both unfairly maligned and lavishly overpraised was demonstrated when he died in 2004. Under the headline 'Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74', the New York Times described Derrida in its obituary as the 'father of deconstruction', a theory that, it alleged, 'asserted that all writing was full ofconfusion and contradiction', not least Derrida's own, which was 'turgid and baffling' and peppered with 'enigmatic pronouncements' such as 'Oh my friends, there is no friend ...' (a pronouncement in fact attributed by Diogenes Laertius to Aristotle, as the paper's obituarist would have known had he bothered to read the book by Derrida in which that phrase recurs).

Derrida's acolytes responded swiftly. A letter signed by students and faculty of the University of California at Irvine, where Derrida taught between 1987 and 2003, expressed 'outrage' at the New York Times obituary, charging it with 'shabbily misrepresent[ing] the life and achievements of a great thinker' (not to

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