Derrida and the New Left

A CHARMING DEPRESSIVE with David Lynch hair and shirt collars unbuttoned to the nipple, Jackie “Jacques” Derrida was named after the child star of Charlie Chaplin’s film The Kid by middle-class Jewish parents in El Biar, a suburb of Algiers, in 1930. Thirty-seven years later he wrote two books that would establish the style of reading he called “deconstruction”: Writing and Difference and Of Grammatology, each published on either side of the Summer of Love. By the end of 1983, Derrida had been the subject of polemics in The New York Review of Books, a Scritti Politti song, and a set-up drug bust in Communist Prague. A monolingual philosopher of language who cracked polyglottal puns about his own penis in print, “Derrida” is mentioned in more than eighty thousand articles on JSTOR, an occasional punching bag of Right and Left alike whose own partisans are most likely to be found postponing retirement in literature departments of American universities. Few modern philosophers have been as willfully misread, demonized, canonized, and imitated.

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