Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 411

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The eclectic nature of Derrida’s work, borrowing from recognized academic disciplines and using these borrowings in (to say the least) untraditional ways, places him in the grandly vague tradition of postmodernism. Though Derrida rejects all classifications of his work, including “deconstructionism,” he is clearly an important member of the group of avant-garde intellectuals, mostly but not exclusively French (Derrida is himself a Sephardic Jew, born in Algiers), who challenged the tedium of traditional French criticism, known as explication de texte, in the politically, socially, and intellectually violent 1960’s. Others in this tradition, each very distinctive in his methods and conclusions, include Jacques Lacan, Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey H. Hartman, and, more popularly, Harold Bloom and Umberto Eco. Eco’s Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983) presents sign theory in the form of a detective novel set in the Middle Ages. Another Italian, Italo Calvino, uses deconstructionist ideas in his novels Il castello dei destini incrociati (1969, 1973; The Castle of Crossed Destinies, 1979), Le citta invisibili (1972; Invisible Cities, 1974), and Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (1979; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, 1981). These popular works are an indication of the degree to which what had been a radical and esoteric movement has found expression in popular culture.

It is easy to overlook the essential playfulness of Derrida. Caught up in the welter of metaphysical, philosophical, and psychoanalytic studies it presumes, an uninitiated reader might easily conclude that Derrida is a species of campus radical who prefers to destroy books rather than buildings. Nothing could be further from the truth. As he mischievously disentangles the verbal tapestries of philosophers as different as Plato and Rousseau, he simultaneously binds them together by using the phenomenological tool he identifies as “grammatology.” The universal element of all texts is the gramme, the sign which seeks identification of the signifier and the signified.

It is also difficult to know what time will make of Derrida’s ideas. From its publication, Of Grammatology was heatedly criticized, Derrida loving every harsh word as proof that writing is violently and passionately destructive. That whole departments of literature (most notably at Yale University, where Derrida has regularly been a visiting professor) have employed Derrida’s ideas as important constituents in their curricula indicates their immediate importance in academic circles. If grammatological deconstruction ultimately travels the same road as French existentialism, Derrida can still argue that this oblivion merely proves the immutability of the gramme.