Jacques Derrida and Post-Structuralism

JACQUES DERRIDA (1921 – 2004)

The Path to Post-Structualism

Jacques Derrida was a notoriously difficult philosopher to comprehend, especially for Americans, who are baffled by his writing style and his purpose. Americans, being pragmatic, prefer ideas that can be applied to the real world and Derrida’s works seems to belong to the realm of the esoteric and untethered from actuality. Certainly, for English speakers, Continental philosophy is challenging. English sentences are relatively brief, constructed in terms of beginning middle and end. German sentences are characterized by their often extreme length–pages in some instances–their many digressions and add-ons–and the oddity of the verb at the end. French writers, that is those who write non-fiction, tend to layer their texts. The writer has a point to make and makes it and then makes it another way and then makes the same point yet another way. Derrida, however, needs to be approached, not was an ordinary philosopher, but as a poet of sorts. Basically, he was a reader who read the works of other philosophers and who then writes about the writings of others. Derrida is also a reader who reads and contemplates words and enjoys playing with words and creates word play. If one wanted to visualize his books, a flock of starlings would be a good analogy: the flock swoops in one graceful direction and then gathers itself together to swarm off in another arc. The reader of Derrida needs only to follow along and enjoy the ride.

In retrospect it is interesting to note how many French philosophers were impacted by Algeria, Jean-François Lyotard taught there, Pierre Bourdieu did his military service there and studied the sociology of the post-colonial nation, and Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida, both Jewish were born there. In the article, Algeria’s Impact on French Philosophy: Between Poststructuralist Theory and Colonial Practice (2011) Muriam Haleh Davis listed these notables:

What were the implications of Algeria’s role in social theory, and how do we make sense of the fact that the list of thinkers directly influenced by events in Algeria — Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Jean-François Lyotard, Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, and Michel Foucault — reads as a canonical list of French philosophers?>

In Out of Africa: Post-Structuralism’s Colonial Roots (2010), Pal Ahuluwalia made the case that the end of (French) colonialism in Algeria also marked an end of all of the promises of Modernism. On one hand, the Enlightenment had high ideas and made extravagant promises, while at the same time its agents busily conquered and colonized non-Western lands in its zeal for imperialism. Modernity was full of contradictions that imploded under their own weight. As Ahuluwalia noted, the attacks on received wisdom came from marginalized outsiders, such as Derrida and Cixous, who were pushed to the fringes because they were Jewish. He stated, “the most vigorous dismantling of the assumptions of Western intellectual orthodoxy comes from its margins” Cixous referred to the generation of French philosophers who came of age in the 1960s as the “incorruptibles.” Indeed, most of this group had outsider status and, having no vested interests in the status quo, proved to be the most trenchant critics of established modes of thought, hence “incorruptible.”

Derrida described himself as “little black and very Arab Jew” and indeed, in some of the pictures of him as a young man, when the light is right, he is notably darker than his companions, but in other images, he is not “little black” at all. It can be presumed that Derrida was expressing his personal feeling of being marginalized. His biographer Benoît Peeters described his intellectual life as an outsider who was at the heart of French thought, a man in the middle who always stood somewhat apart from a society that had named him alien. It is predictable that it would be he, in an act of audacity, who would put Structuralism under an analytic spotlight and would challenge its leading thinker, Claude Lévi-Strauss. It is interesting that one of Derrida’s first forays into the writing of Lévi-Strauss is an oblique accusation of ethnocentric thinking uncovered in Tristes Tropiques (1955). This popular book by Lévi-Strauss is neither fish nor fowl, both biography, memoir, and an anthropological of his time in Brazil that is more anecdotal than scientific. In his essay, “The Violence of the Letter: From Lévi-Strauss to Rousseau,” published in Of Grammatology (1967), Derrida enlarged upon an essay, “Nature, Culture and Writing” published in Cahier pour l’analyse. Indeed, as Benoît Peeters reported in Derrida: A Biography (2012), Lévi-Strauss himself responded to the analysis by writing to the editors,

..aren’t you playing a philosophical farce by scrutinizing my texts with a care that would be more justified if they had been written by Spinoza, Descartes or Kant? Frankly I don’t think that what I write is worth so much fuss, especially Tristes Tropiques, in which I didn’t claim to be setting out any truths, merely the daydreams of an ethnographer in the field–I’d be the last to say there is any coherence in them.

Whether or not Tristes Tropiques was “serious” enough to bear the weight of Derrida’s analysis is perhaps immaterial for the younger philosopher found a contradiction, unrealized by the anthropologist at the heart of this book. In Lévi-Strauss chapter, “The Writing Lesson,” there is an assumption of the superiority of writing illustrated when the anthropologist handed out pencils to the supposedly untouched native tribe in Brazil. But this move against Tristes Tropiques was not the serious attack on Lévi-Strauss, that would be a paper given by Derrida, not in France, but on the shores of provincial America, at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. This now famous paper, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourses of Human Sciences,” would deliver a coup de grâce to Structuralism on the very day when this relatively recent philosophical trend was being “introduced” to America.

The year was 1966 and Derrida was a young upstart, looking to make his mark. Writing in Johns Hopkins Magazine in 2012, Bret McCabe discussed this famous event. “Structuralism’s Sampson” is about how and why such an important event took place in, of all places, America. The conference was organized by René Girard, Chair of the Romance Languages Department, Richard Macksey, and Eugenio Donato as “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” symposium. A number of philosophical notables, such as, according to McCabe, “Roland Barthes, Lucien Goldmann, Jean Hyppolite, Jacques Lacan, Charles Morazé; former Johns Hopkins faculty Georges Poulet, Guy Rosolato, Nicolas Ruwet, Tzvetan Todorov, Jean-Pierre Vernant, and Johns Hopkins faculty Neville Dyson- Hudson, Donato, Girard, and Macksey.” The Belgium scholar, Luc de Heusch, would not attend and Derrida was a last minute fill-in. Although very junior to most of the speakers, he came well armed. McCabe recounted how J. Hillis Miller missed Derrida’s paper, given on the last night of the symposium, and heard from his colleague Georges Poulet: “I have just heard the most important lecture of the conference—it’s against everything that I do but it was the most important lecture.”


Jacques Derrida

This statement by Poulet proved to be prophetic, for, in retrospect it seemed evident that a single paper took the “structuralist” turn and diverted it to “post-structuralism,” which in the case of Jacques Derrida would become a branch of philosophy called “Deconstruction. In America all of these French tendencies were lumped together into a rather reductive version called “theory.” In his book From the New Critics to Deconstruction. The Reception of Structuralism and Post-Structuralism (1988), Art Berman noted the uneven and un-chronologial publications of French philosophy. Berman explained, in part, that

Culler’s Structuralist Poetics was published in the United States in 1976, by which time the publication in France of Derrida’s De la grammatologie, which inaugurates post-structualism, is an even seven years old. Of Grammatology was published in the United States in 1976; yet de Man’s Blindness and Insight, which relies upon Derrida, was published in 1971, the year before Jameson’s The Prison-House of Language (1972), analysis of basic structuralist assumptions and preceding post-structuralism.

Today’s students are fortunate to have access to most of the philosophical works of this and the pre-war period, translated from French, German, Russian, Czech, and so on but it is important to have a sense of chronology and context. In order to understand the break announced by Derrida it is important to understand just what it was about Structuralism that left it so vulnerable to attack. Part of its vulnerability was Structuralism’s claim to “science” and “empiricism”and it is this very aspiration towards certainty and rigor that Derrida would target. The next post will discuss The Metaphysics of Structuralism.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Hegel and His Impact on Art and Aesthetics


Hegel and his Impact on Art and Aesthetics

Like any aesthetician, G. W. F. Hegel does not get involved in any particular movement or style or work of art, but, that said, he was very definite about the kind of art where Beauty could be found. Like Emmanuel Kant, Hegel brings art and freedom together and anticipates the idea of art-for-art’s sake. For Hegel, the Idea is always opposed to Nature. The mind is contrasted to the mindlessness of matter or nature. The mind creates art, which gives an idea to nature. This idea is the unity of the externality or objectivity of nature and the subjectivity or personal vision of the artist. As with Kant, the spectator of the work of art is as important as the art maker for Hegel. Beauty in art is the emanation of the Absolute or Truth through an object. Beauty can be shown only in a sensuous form called the Ideal, which transcends the Idea to become a special form. Like all of Hegel’s triads, nothing is lost: nature and idea are the Other to one another but together they create an organism, the work of art.

The contemplative mind strives to see the Absolute. In order to see Beauty, this detached mind must transcend nature. By freeing itself, the mind perceives the spiritual content of the work of art, which must also be free in order to be Beautiful. Kant insisted that the higher form of beauty had to be free and independent and Hegel followed suit. Hegel insisted that, to manifest Beauty, art must expel all that is external or contiguous or unnecessary. Remember, in Hegel’s system, each part of the triad must be “pure” and can contain only its dialectical opposite. For art to reveal Beauty is to reveal Truth, which can only be pure. This is why art can never imitate nature, which is, mindless and irrational. Nature must be reversed with its antithesis, the idea, which brings about the inner unity necessary for spiritual content: nature, idea, spirit = art.

If art must be free, then art should show, not just Beauty and Truth, but Freedom itself, which is the property of the free mind. Hegel, true to his age, is a child of Neoclassicism and, like many Germans, was looking back to a Golden Age when human beings were free. Part of being “modern” is being un-free. Society has demands, which are placed upon people who have lost their sense of wholeness and self-actualization. Thinking along the same lines as Friedrich Schiller’s “alienation,” Hegel felt that his own age was a diminished one. Therefore, the artist should take subject matter from the past, a heroic age populated by characters that were free of the social restrictions so prevalent of the industrial age.

Ancient peoples, Hegel assumed could determine their own destinies and could make their own lives on their own terms. While the current times were particular to the modern period, the primeval era could manifest life in its universal and essential form. By stripping the process of living down to its basics, one is nearing the first cause of life, the logic of existence in which one is in the process of becoming. One can “become” only if one is free, linking the rational with the free to the universal. Hegel explained art’s predilection for the depiction of the high-born because those individuals are free, assuming that the lower classes are unsuited to being represented because, being subservient to their masters, they can never be free and therefore, never universal. Stripping away the elitist assumptions that princes are preferential to peasants as subject matter in art, it is possible to note that Hegel was insisting that the artist attempt to reach the universal through art.

But Hegel was a also creature of history. The idea of “princes” should not be taken so literally in the modern era, an era badly suited to the classical art of the past. Hegel understood that the antique forms were indissolubly linked to their own time. Greek and Roman sculpture expressed the ideal in universal poses of repose, rather than with active poses linked to a particular action. But in the modern age, the new society did not lend itself to rest and repose, which could be found only in the spirit of the artist or in his personality. The modern age has come to realize that any hope of freedom or infinity is impossible and the human mind has no escape, except into itself. The new subjectivity of the spirit produces a new kind of art in which the artist imprints him or herself upon the art. the result is Romantic art which is the art of modern Europe. Unlike ancient art which needs the sensuous manifestation of the classical statue, Romantic art gives rise to an independent spirituality or mind which leaves behind its traces as sensuous remnants. It then logically follows that sculpture is not the appropriate receptacle for the spirit of the Romantic artist. Clearly, Hegel could not conceive of a form of sculpture that was allowed to transcend its traditional role of starting with and then transcending nature into idealism. Sculpture was, despite its attempt at perfection of form, too bound to the “real.”


Painting, in its two-dimensional flatness, is the most suitable manifestation for the spirit, mind, and personality of the artist. Painting is appearance, rather than actuality or matter and, as a mental process of the artist, is subjective. The external world is allowed to enter into the subjective world of art because concrete reality is transformed through art. Hegel allows for the ugly, the grotesque, suffering and evil in Romantic art as the other necessary element in his dialectic. Beauty must contain ugliness, just as Truth conceals Lie, and for reconciliation to take place beauty and ugliness must be reconciled into a concrete unity that is a higher form of Beauty, which is also Truth.

Although Hegel’s ideas on art and aesthetics were inspiration for those who believed in “art-for-art’s-sake” or the avant-garde, his deterministic philosophy was politically very retrograde and repressive. There is another way to view Hegel’s “princes.” As with his colleague at the University of Berlin, Johann Gottleib Fichte, Hegel believed that Germany’s destiny was to become the dominant power in Europe, due to the forces of history, which had passed England and France and had progressed to Germany. A snob and a social climber, the consummate academic ego, Hegel was enamored of power and, during the French occupation of Germany, was thrilled by Napoléon. Like Fichte, he believed that Germany was a chosen nation and that it had the moral right to pursue its hegemonic dominance ruthlessly with “absolute privileges over all others. It should behave as the spirit willed it and will be dominant in the world…” With Hegel, war and dominance as historical tools of historical progress entered into European thought. Because his philosophy was based in history, Hegelian aesthetics also impacted upon art history and art criticism. The basic structure of art history has followed his model of successive and contrasting movements.

The history of art has been told as a succession of conflicting styles by Heinrich Wölfflin and as a tale of successive and contrasting movements by history based upon formalist models. The ancient produced the modern, the universal produced the particular, the timeless produced the contingent and modern art is the synthesis of these conflicting forces. As a synthesis, Romantic art must be independent and begins to exist on its own. Hegel’s aesthetics inspire the theory of the avant-garde: thesis, antithesis, synthesis—Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, and so on. One avant-garde movement, assigned the positive position, opposed another avant-garde movement, the negative or counter position, resulted in a dialectic, which pushed art ever forward and towards an absolute of purity. The result of the influence of Hegel, art criticism, especially under the American art writer, Clement Greenberg, was model of artistic progression from representation towards abstraction. By using the avant-garde and its oppositional stance as the engine of change, art history in the Twentieth Century has been Hegelian in structure.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]