More than a week after the death of Jacques Derrida, renowned philosopher and a professor at UC Irvine, colleagues and students are only just beginning to realize the extent of their loss.
On Oct.8, at the age of 74, Derrida died of pancreatic cancer in a French hospital. He is survived by his wife and three sons.
Widely acknowledged as ‘the father of deconstructionism’, Derrida is credited for heralding a philosophical revolution that has influenced scholars and artists in virtually every field of study, from literature, to politics, and even to architecture.
‘He was one of the most original thinkers of the 20th century,’ said Karen Lawrence, dean of the School of Humanities. ‘He had a profound influence in the way people think about their own disciplines.’
Derrida taught at Sorbonne University in Paris during the 1960s. He then traveled to the United States and spent several years teaching at Yale University. In 1986, Derrida came to UCI where he gave a seminar every spring until 2003. His seminars helped propel UCI’s critical theory program into the national spotlight, and attracted numerous admirers and students to the campus.
‘Part of the reason I came to UCI was that he was here,’ said Jeff Atteberry, a former graduate student and current Humanities Core Course TA. ‘I wanted to study with [Derrida] because he had been very important to my intellectual development as an undergrad.’
Atteberry, who attended three of Derrida’s seminars at UCI and also studied with him in France, recalls a ‘constant intellectual engagement’ that characterized Derrida’s lectures.
‘There was a real excitement and energy in his seminars,’ said Atteberry. ‘He was never just going through the motions or resting on his laurels.’
On the contrary, Derrida was known for a meticulousness that made his lectures rewarding, if rigorous.
‘He would do everything justice,’ said Matthew Ancell, a graduate student of comparative literature who attended two of Derrida’s seminars. ‘He treated [the material] very carefully, very ethically.’
Derrida’s tendency for tireless consideration extended beyond the lecture hall and into his personal interactions with students and colleagues, despite the constant demands on his time.
‘It wasn’t as if he’d only engage you as, ‘I’m this great philosopher and you’re here to learn everything from me,” Atteberry said. ‘You’d walk into his office, and maybe he’d just gotten back some pictures from something, and he’d sit there and show them to you and go, ‘Oh, look, that’s my house, that’s my son.”
The cornerstone of Derrida’s teachings is the theory of deconstructionism, which brought him both admiration and a fair amount of criticism from traditionalists who often dismissed the theory’s complexity as smoke and mirrors. The New York Times obituary, in particular, which was published immediately after Derrida’s death, was seen by his supporters as inaccurate and defamatory.
According to Atteberry, deconstructionism is ‘a way of thinking that basically means … one cannot understand something in isolation from its relations with everything else in the world. Meaning is not stable, which is not to say that there is no truth or meaning, but that meaning is a result of a dynamic process.’
Derrida’s supporters do not deny that the theory is an intricate one, but appreciate it all the more for the questions it raises.
‘He had to be complicated because he was talking about complicated things,’ Ancell said. ‘If he had reduced it to something more consumable, he would’ve done violence to his own methodology and to what he was trying to say.’
Derrida’s supporters believe that the reason for much of the criticism he received was that his teachings challenged many of the tenets of Western thinking.
‘He meant to be provocative and raise fundamental questions, and those are always unsettling,’ Lawrence said. ‘But that’s what teaching is about, raising important questions … That’s why I say he’s a true teacher.’
A frequent complaint among Derrida’s detractors was that he was often an obscure teacher, an opinion which Atteberry also believes is ‘terribly misguided,’ as indicated by the consistent popularity of Derrida’s seminars and the wide variety of people they attracted.
‘There was something [in his seminars] for everybody to learn,’ Atteberry said.
What made Derrida’s lectures more enjoyable was the fact that despite his worldwide fame and a large body of work that includes over 70 books and numerous essays, Derrida was remarkably humble and congenial.
Atteberry, who admitted to feeling intimidated the first time he attended Derrida’s seminar, soon grew more comfortable with having a famous philosopher for a teacher.
‘He did a very good job of not letting his stature get in the way of his teaching, which he easily could have done,’ Atteberry said.
Derrida’s approachability became apparent to Ancell after his first encounter with the philosopher, which didn’t take place inside a classroom but outside the men’s room of the Spanish department where, inside one of the bathroom stalls, someone had scrawled the words: Derrida es Dios, or, Derrida is God.
‘I walked out after having read that and there he was out on the patio. It just startled me,’ Ancell said.
Considering Derrida’s almost mythic reputation among supporters and critics alike, it was a reasonable reaction. But what was even more startling to Ancell, and to many others who knew Derrida, was that his modesty seemed to surpass his fame.
‘It was someone larger than life, and there he was,’ Ancell said. ‘I think he would’ve enjoyed the irony.’