What Was Deconstruction?

Timothy Brennan in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

In 1990, at the Humanities Research Institute at University of California at Irvine, I found myself sitting next to Jacques Derrida at a lecture given by Ernesto Laclau. The topic was Antonio Gramsci. At the end of the talk, of which I understood frustratingly little, Derrida asked a question that took about 20 minutes to formulate. Laclau’s response was of equal length. This mattered, because the event was the only one open to the public (it was to be followed by an invitation-only seminar). Graduate students and professors packed the lecture hall and, like Laclau himself, deferentially hung on Derrida’s every word. But they never had time to speak. The episode struck me as symbolic of the reverence deconstruction commanded at the height of its influence — and also of the hierarchies, buoyed by awestruck puzzlement, upon which it rested.

At a private reception the next day, I approached Derrida to press him on his comments, for his intervention at Laclau’s lecture had, as far as I could tell, nothing to do with Gramsci. As I cited studies and quoted passages to support my point, Derrida looked up at me with quizzical eyes and a faint, perhaps condescending, smile. I was aware that my questions violated academic politesse, since to press the philosopher on issues about which he seemed ill-informed was impertinent. The underlying “joke” (which I also got, although I pretended not to) meant knowing that what Gramsci actually wrote, or why, hardly mattered — at least here.

Now, 30 years down the road, it is surprisingly hard to remember why Derrida’s “deconstruction” — a theory of reading with the unlikely catchphrase “the metaphysics of presence” — swept all before it in English departments of the American heartland, prompted Newsweek to warn of its dramatic and destructive power, and moved prominent scholars like Ruth Marcus to denounce its “semi-intelligible attacks” on reason and truth.

More here.