Derrida: Some Conversation in Memoriam

Frederick David Abraham, © 2006, 2009, 2010

Blueberry Brain Institute (Vermont) and

Silliman University (Philippines)

(modified from 2006 Silliman Journal, 47(2),195-204)

 A conversation among classmates Fred Abraham, Walker Peterson, Larry Morse, Russell Cooper-Mead, and Herb West, from a day, October 10, 2004 on the Internet-listserver of the class of 1956 of Dartmouth College.


Walker:  Jacques Derrida — may he rest in peace, is dead, according to today's L.A.Times online.  For those of you not acquainted with Derrida's work, perhaps this quotation taken from today's NY Times article will help to keep you from ever making its acquaintance:
"Needless to say, one more time, deconstruction, if there is such a thing, takes place as the experience of the impossible." Jacques Derrida
Larry, have you anything to say?

Larry:  Of Jacques Derrida, of Saussure, or Lacan, there is little to say because they are determinedly incomprehensible. My son is taking a course in critical theory at Colby and it turns out to be largely Derrida et al. I tried reading his text, full of Jaques [Derrida], and the jargon is so densely packed and so arbitrary in its intent and construction, that my wife and I found entire paragraphs unreadable.  Try this: Frost's Stopping By Woods contains a criticism of capitalism. The speaker is clearly trespassing. One may arrive at these conclusions only by adopting the absolute postmodern position, that the poem and the poet are entirely separate entities, that once the poem is written, the poet's intent and the poem's context are entirely irrelevant. It becomes clear, then, if one adopts this position, that virtually any translation of any poem is possible, because nothing limits the most radical reading.

So what's his name's poem — the NJ doctor [William Carlos Williams] oh dammit — “Everything depends on a Red Wheelbarrow...” becomes a critical judgment that sets the esthetic world against the world of technology, i.e., the white chickens against the lever and the wheel.

There is no limit to the precious and exclusive world conjured up by Europeans because their world is so thoroughly decadent that the extreme and the bizarre are immediately given credence by virtue of these very qualities. We may correctly say of decadence that its presence is clearly declared by the degree to which the normative is denied.   

Russ:  In freshman English in ‘Stopping By Woods’, Prof. Jensen told us, of the line "His house is in the village, though" that "some critics suggest this is the destruction of the Christian myth."  Anyone else on listserv in that class?

Herb:  !!! Frost had no truck with any of this sort of nonsense.

Larry:  Jaysus! And how does this line do that? God, I love critics! What would they do if they ever had to work?   Or had to defend their propositions with their necks? 

Larry:  Incidentally, I talked twice with Frost and asked him about the last lines. He said it was true that he couldn't think of another and then he decided he liked the repetition. And just think of the poppycock that has been adduced about that doubling.

Russ:  Quite so.  When I started teaching, I realized Jensen was testing us, seeing if we would rise to the bait of that absurdity.  As I recall, most of us made notes.  I was too stunned, wondering where the hell it came from.  I was just a simple lad from a public high school in Denver who had never been assigned an entire book to read.

Fred:  I'm in a rush, so I’ll be brief. True Derrida and Lacan (poststructuralists) and Saussure (structuralist) are difficult reads, but their ideas, some off-the-wall, some profound, can be made comprehensible by reading some of the Americans who summarize and interpret their works, such as Poster and Surap and others.  Theirideas are worth study, taking what is of value and critiquing or disregarding the rest. One of the books that review both the German and French postmoderns is Poster’s (1989). The former he calls the critical theorists, and the latter post-structuralists. He talks about the "vapors over the Rhine" referring to the fact that these two schools had little familiarity with each other despite the communalities between them. The Frankfort school (critical theorists) included such people as Habermas, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Benjamin. Other important post-structuralists besides Derrida and Lacan included Foulcault, Baudrillard, Kristeva (more comprehensible I think than Lacan; they were friends and their ideas have much in common), Lyotard, and many others, of course.

Larry:  And Grumpy and Happy and Sleepy; but how did dance wear get into this? Hummm. Anyway, Fred, tell me a substantive idea that was not already in play that Derrida advanced. 

Fred (10/15/04)  Hey, Larry. Glad to see that you are grumpy, happy, and sleepy. Dancewear? We are all getting a bit curmudgeony (but laced with good humor) in our old age, but not necessarily in dancewear.  Of course, your challenge may well be impossible to satisfy. There are precious few ideas for which some precedence does not exist. I do not think that makes new consideration of those ideas any less profound or substantive, and in fact, often, quite the contrary.  Great ideas bear consideration and evolution.  Originality may play out in the relevance to current cultural context.  And there are at least two flavors of precedents, those that have evolved into the current discussion, a direct lineage, and those of which the contemporary discussion is unaware.

I do think there are ideas of Derrida that warrant consideration, original or not. Perhaps I can give a couple of examples. One of his most important ideas relates to instability in language, where he starts with Heidegger’s concept of ‘sous rature to emphasize the fact that words often cannot adequately stand for that which they reference, that is, they are inadequate to make an exact reference or representation. The word sends us on a long chase for meaning. A friend of mine, Christine Hardy, French but not even then aware of the post-structuralists, has written a book quite postmodern in its nature, Networks of Meaning (1998), about how those networks shift dynamically (we are both into nonlinear dynamics), ideas that are similar to those of Wittgenstein, Korzybski, and many others, and especially similar to Derrida’s views on language. Whether language has instability or not, in Western history, is a discussion that goes back to the Greek Cosmologists. Xenophanes tried “to reconcile the antithetical interpretations of nature, first as an array of ever changing things [the Heraclitian view], and second as an infinite never changing substance [the Parmedian/Platonic view].” (Sahakian, History of Philosophy, p. 6). Philosophy has been debating this issue ever since. The cosmological debate was soon reflected in the concern for language (rhetoric), social action, and everyday and political relevance, exemplified by Protagoras, who sent me a letter via Internet in 1996, in which he said, 

Dear Fred: We certainly tried out best to pursue sophia, which means wisdom and skill, to learn and understand. We applied reasoning and humanitarian concerns as an alternative path to enlightenment to that offered by the mythic-poetic-theistic traditions, which were beginning to give way in our culture. Our efforts were honorably received in our day, but have been tainted in time, largely due to the efforts of that rascal, Plato, who felt that our professionalization of these skills in the pursuit of truth in everyday social life, emphasized the skill as a path to success over the search for truth. In teaching rhetoric and law using the adversarial technique of having students argue both sides of an issue, we sought to place the search for truth above all else, not the pretense to truth by a better argument at the expense of truth. I was following the lead of Heraclitus who made much of unity out of opposition as you well know. Yours, in truth, Protagoras 

Heidegger’s concept of ‘sous rature’ (‘under erasure’) also emphasized extracting meaning from oppositions. A word gets erased but is left visible, i.e., as if crossed out, and one wrestles with the difference in the meaning of its presence and absence. Deconstruction goes further, more Heraclitian in emphasizing the process of extracting meaning by transcending the apparent opposition. Nietzsche also emphasized extracting meaning in opposites in Thus Spake Zarathustra, an interesting discussion that I won’t pursue now. 

“The guiding insight of deconstruction is that every structure—be it literary, psychological, social, economic, political or religious—that organizes our experience is constituted and maintained through acts of exclusion. In the process of creating something, something else inevitably gets left out.  These exclusive structures can become repressive—and that repression comes with consequences. In a manner reminiscent of Freud, Mr. Derrida insists that what is repressed does not disappear but always returns to unsettle every construction, no matter how secure it seems. As an Algerian Jew writing in France during the postwar years in the wake of totalitarianism on the right (fascism) as well as the left (Stalinism), Mr. Derrida understood all too well the danger of beliefs and ideologies that divide the world into diametrical opposites: right or left, red or blue, good or evil, for us or against us. He showed how these repressive structures, which grew directly out of the Western intellectual and cultural tradition, threatened to return with devastating consequences. By struggling to find ways to overcome patterns that exclude the differences that make life worth living, he developed a vision that is consistently ethical.” (Taylor, 2004)

Or according to Surap:

"The method of deconstruction is connected to what Derrida calls the 'metaphysics of presence'. It is Derrida's contention that Husserl, along with almost all other philosophers, relies on the assumption of an immediately available area of certainty. The origin and foundation of most philosophers' theories is presence. In Husserl's case the search for the form of pure expression is at the same time a search for that which is immediately present; thus implicitly, by being present in an unmediated way and present to itself, it is undeniably certain.

"Derirda, however, denies the possibility of this presence and in so doing removes the ground from which philosophers have in general proceeded. By denying presence, Derrida is denying that there is a present in the sense of a single definable moment which is 'now'. For most people, it the present is the province of the known. We may be unsure of what took place in the past, of what may take place in the future, or of what is taking place elsewhere, but we rely on our knowledge of the present, the here and now -- the present perceptual world as we are experiencing it. By challenging access to the present Derrida poses a threat to both positivism and phenomenology." Surap, 1993, p. 35).

Taylor also emphasized the importance of uncertainty for Derrida (passage quoted via contribution to the listserver by J. S. Parke; a great quote, thanks J. S.).

Fortunately, he also taught us that the alternative to blind belief is not simply unbelief but a different kind of belief — one that embraces uncertainty and enables us to respect others whom we do not understand. In a complex world, wisdom is knowing what we don't know so that we can keep the future open.” (Taylor, 2004).

Uncertainty of the present, of course, (I would add the present is not just the perceptual world, but is also the domain more of the activity of the mind) sounds a bit original, but the idea of the uncertainty of the present has plenty of roots. It is the psychological world that therapists try to penetrate, so interestingly popularized by Freud and Jung. Depth psychologists usually admit there is no area of certainty. This uncertainty is also of what most authors and artists are about. Russ just sent me a detective novel set in 1926 Shanghai (Bradby's Master of Rain ; a good one, just finished it this morning) in which the intrigue is so great that the protagonist can never be sure of the present.

In discussing Derrida’s relationship to Heidegger’s concept of Being, Habermas reflects, relevant to Larry’s challenge concerning originality:

“We shall have to see whether the concept of history of Being changes along with the tenor, or whether under Derrida’s hand the same idea merely takes on a different coloring.” (Habermas, 1987, p. 162.)

We can see that these subtleties of language exist in everyday life. For example take the rhetoric of politics when it comes to every issue, such as homosexual marriage, prayer in the schools, the rights of Palestinians and Jews in the Mideast. There are linguistic polemics related to political and economic exploitation and domination. Most of these are linked to cosmological issues. There is appeal to absolute truth emanating from Xenophanic-Parmedian infinite unchanging God behind all things, Plato’s hidden ideal forms, versus those who root their arguments in a pragmatic changing cultural context (Heraclitus, Protagoras). The program of the postmoderns are to place dialogue rather than ideology as the vehicle for cultural improvement, which respects difference and change (see Taylor above).

[Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard claim] that the quest for certain truth and the claim of having attained it are the greater dangers. The logocentric philosophical tradition, with its strong assertions about truth, is complicit, for them, in the disasters and abominations of the twentieth-century Western history. On this difficult, even tragic issue of the relation of politics to truth, poststructuralists in general strive for a cosmopolitan position that makes every effort to recognize differences, even uncomfortable or disagreeable ones, and for a theory of truth that is wary of patriarchal and ethnocentric tendencies that hide behind a defense of reason as certain, closed, totalized. Above all, poststructuralists want to avoid forms of political oppression that are legitimized by resorts to reason, as this kind of legitimation has been, in their view, one of the paradoxical and lamentable developments of recent history.” (Poster, 1989, 16).

Let me briefly examine ideas from this wonderful friendly interchange on our listserver, first with respect to the discussion of Derrida and Frost, and then concerning the ideas of originality that Larry’s challenge brought in. 

I want to start with Larry’s introduction of Frost. While I am about to critique some aspects of it, I want to point out that I consider his response to Walker’s prodding, despite being a quick reply, was, quite brilliant, and established some basic, legitimate, oppositions, right away that relate to the concepts of linguistic stability to which I have just alluded. He implies that, in contradistinction to Derrida, there is an area of certainty, of presence, in Frost’s poem. He claims that postmodernists adhere to an absolute relativism that admits any interpretation as legitimate, and these could be unintended by Frost, and therefore unallowable. Would the postmodernist wince at being called an absolutist? Even an absolute relativists; a resolvable paradox. There is some legitimacy to this contention of Larry’s. If deconstruction were simply the iterative stripping away of meaning then you get to a complete, or absolute nihilism. But as Taylor noted, this is not what deconstruction is about. It is more like philosophical hermeneutics, which combines analysis with rhetoric, critique with reconstruction (Crucius, 1991). If there is any fallacy here, it is in implying that to allow more than one interpretation means to allow any interpretation. I don’t think the postmodernists would say that. Frost clearly works from some area of certainty (but probably not perfect even for him; I would suspect he gets additional meanings upon rereading his own poems), a part of which we can share, part of which we cannot. The reader’s experiences will borrow some images from their own memories; some may just have to imagine a snowy wood, never having seen one other than in movies and pictures. Are some interpretations completely off the wall, or can they have some meaning for the reader, even though seeming absurd to another (capitalism, Christianity in the discussion?) Just because Frost may not have considered or intended them, are they not legitimate excursions for the reader? Of course, when the reader claims that their interpretation is that which is true and intended by Frost, then they have ‘trespassed’ and this is clearly the claim of Larry’s, which is certainly a legitimate point of view. 

And what does raising the ownership of the woods in ‘Stopping by Woods’ or the blueberries in ‘Blueberries’ mean? What is worth exploring there even if claim cannot be made as to exactly what is Frost’s meaning?  I remember that I had a totally wrong (was it?) interpretation of both ‘The Road Not Taken” and ‘Mending Wall’, and I was happy to reject my misinterpretation of them when I heard Frost speak to the Great Issues course in 1956, and when I spoke to him afterward about them. Does ‘Mending Wall’ have anything to do with oppositions? Does it have some communality with Derrida? We will never be certain, but it is worth thinking about. And was my thought that Frost’s ‘Road Not Taken’ may have had a twinge of autobiography in it, more than just a letter to a friend urging him to become a war poet. I had thought he referred to his own short stay as a student at Dartmouth, which I learned about during our initial week or orientation and which I thought was so admirable. Maybe there was a touch of that in the poem anyway. Maybe part of his being too old to go off to war himself was in there also? I cannot say. I only know that it is the most meaningful of his poems to me as a consolation of my own paths in life. And I named my institute, the Blueberry Brain Institute, an institute of one person, its own contradiction, for its personal political meanings for myself, derivative from ‘Blueberries’. Poetry is built with metaphoric ambiguities to make reference to experiences (in contradistinction to precise scientific/technological meanings?). Are experiences found in reading poems mostly beyond words? Can they have exact meanings? Can those experiences actually felt in a snowy wood have permanently etched meanings? For me that is one of the meanings of the poem is the transitory nature and the immediacy of the experience in the moment. I wouldn’t foist that off on anyone else though. At any rate, I would amend Larry’s criticism that postmodern implies that any interpretation of a poem is legitimate. It may be more to the point that ‘interpretation’ may be the wrong word, lets put it under sous rature; maybe ‘experiencing’ is the better word. Maybe it is uncertain as to what words best explain what a poem is.

Larry’s next proposition I wish to mention is that ‘Stopping by Woods’ ‘sets the esthetic world against the world of technology’. I just concurred in a sense by mentioning a difference between poetry and science, but I created a false distinction, one of degree more than substance. Science seems to look for absolute truths, but science, despite rules for objectivity, usually has trouble with definitions, and laws found are temporary. It too is fluid, ever changing. We scientists may be less sure of our domain than the poet. But is certainty or uncertainty or both what Frost is doing with his poem? It be more appropriate to start thinking of the absent owner as in a position of objectivity toward his or her distant property, in contradistinction to the immediate experiencing of the snowy woods, but that still does not resolve the certainty issue. But that again is my interpretation, and interpretations are also objective, not subjective. When I read the poem I think of the coming winter when I will be out alone cross-country skiing (when younger it included being on horseback) through the woods here in Vermont. This is an important distinction. And what does aesthetic mean? Should we put that word ‘sous rature’? Meanings in words may be more elusive than apparent. I like Larry’s points, and want to make sure that we do not have a contentious difference, but a mutual searching for some meaning and value in our lives. We should not feel threatened by our differences. We should revel in them.

So, are Derrida’s ideas original? Not entirely, of course, but to a large degree, I think they are. There is no “immediately area of certainty” (Surap, 1993), but Derrida’s presentation of them is decidedly unique and useful, provocative, with many original extensions of the concepts, and leads to the further evolution of ideas. Do these ideas have relevance to social change and the improvement of the human condition? I think that the Paris revolts of May 1968 (at which he spoke; I saw similar ones in Germany in 1967), in which workers and intellectuals united, shows that many think it possible.


Crucius, T. W. (1991). A Teacher’s Introduction to Philosophical Hermeneutics. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English.

Derrida, J. (1967). Of Grammatology. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins.

Derrida, J. (1967). Speech and Phenomena. Evanston: Northwestern.

Derrida, J. (1967, 1978). Writing and Difference. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Habermas, J. (1987). VII. Beyond a Temporalized Philosophy of Origins: Jackques Derrida’s Critique of Phonocentrism. In, J. Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity: Twelve Lectures. F.G. Lawrence, trans. Original in German, 1985. Cambridge: MIT.

Hardy, C. (1998). Networks of meaning: A Bridge between Mind and Matter. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Poster, M. (1989). Critical Theory and Poststructuralism. Ithica: Cornell.

Sahakian, W.S. (1968). History of Philosophy. New York: HarperCollins.

Surap, M. (1993). Post-structuralism and Postmodernism, 2nd ed. Athens: Georgia.

Taylor, M. C. (2004). “What Derrida Really Meant.” [Thanks to Herb West for forwarding this article.]

latest edits: 11/16/2009; 12/8/2010