Discovering Derrida

The Derrida Research Group presented its research in a Humanities Center Colloquium.

Derrida_mainPROVO, Utah (May 21, 2015)—He has been called the founder of deconstruction, and as he came to change the face of humanities studies, he was as respected as he was controversial. It has been over a decade since his passing, and Jacques Derrida continues to incite discussion among philosophers worldwide – not only among seasoned professors but among the rising generation as well.

At Brigham Young University, both faculty and students meet together as part of the Derrida Research Group, discussing the man and the philosophies that shaped generations of the humanities. Matt Ancell, Nate Kramer, Erik Larson, Greg Stallings and Stan Benfell recently reported on the group in a Humanities Center colloquium.

Though supported by the Humanities Center (HC), the Derrida Research Group predates the center. Ancell, an associate professor of humanities and comparative literature, was approached by students (only a few of whom were majoring in philosophy) who were interested in reading more about the French philosopher. Initially, the students and assorted faculty met together simply to read and discuss works by Derrida. It has since grown to be what HC director Matthew Wickman praised as “a dynamic group for thinking, precisely the type of vital forum for conversation that our Humanities Center tries to support.”

As developed by Derrida, deconstruction is the practice of analyzing the intended and unintended meanings of a work – its structure. Though Derrida’s work on deconstruction has been largely applied to the study of literature and philosophy, the group has seen through discussion how his ideas lend themselves to interdisciplinary application.

Students and professors from various departments have enjoyed the chance to work together. Kramer, in particular, expressed regret that such an opportunity hadn’t been available during his time as a student. As he explained, students in the group have a great deal of say when it comes to deciding discussion topics. “What’s nice about it is that it is such an informal, casual discussion,” he said. “We don’t have a set agenda; we’re pretty democratic about how we choose texts.” This provides a fluid, easy environment for students to exchange ideas.

The group has had a wealth of material to draw ideas from, especially as the field of Derridean study continues to evolve. Towards the end of his life, Derrida was commonly seen as making a strongly political turn, marked by his 1989 lecture, “Force of Law: ‘The Mystical Foundation of Authority,’” a turn that left many of his adherents confused. “A lot of people didn’t know what to do with Derrida the last two decades of his life because he wasn’t the Derrida that they knew,” Ancell explained. The question of whether Derrida turned or not provides even more subject for discussion among the group.

Turn or no turn, the group recognizes that despite his criticisms, Derrida was never anti-structure; criticism does not remove structure, and deconstruction does not destroy it. Instead, the practice is devoted to analyzing and fixing problems with structure. Kramer explained, “What has emerged in our group in reading him is this very honest, sincere and, yes, playful but very sincere effort to engage with the problems of structure.”

For more information on future colloquium presentation, visit the Humanities Center website.

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)

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