Jacques Derrida (b. 1930–d. 2004) is a French thinker most often associated with what came to be known after him as deconstruction. In the 1960s he became world famous for his contestation of the metaphysics of presence, which he showed to have dominated Western thinking from Plato to Martin Heidegger and the French Structuralists. His early work was focused on Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology, but since the beginning of the 1960s he started writing on various topics, including literary criticism, linguistics, psychoanalysis, 18th-century philosophy, speech act theory, as well as Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Artaud, Lévy-Strauss, Levinas, and Foucault. His work was soon noticed by American literary critics and theorists, and his ideas gained currency in the literary departments. Beginning in the mid-1970s he started teaching in the United States as well and became increasingly popular in the field of theory and comparative literature. Together with the texts of the philosophical tradition, literature seems to have been indeed a privileged object of study for Derrida, who insistently demonstrated how the singularity of the literary work escapes the conceptual schemes one uses to grasp it. Thus, whether discussing the gift, or testimony, or sacrifice, or sovereignty, he often offered careful and insightful readings of literary texts. However, it would be impossible to reduce his work to a form of literary criticism just as it would be imprecise to describe it simply as philosophy. Derrida’s itinerary appears to have led him from deconstruction, understood as questioning the unquestioned presuppositions of every system under consideration, philosophical or otherwise, to deconstruction as experience of the impossible. The latter incorporates the former but also changes the perspective and adds a different dimension that makes it hard to see it just as a specific way to read texts. This explains the different manner in which Derrida began to address problems associated with everyday life, politics, religion, animality, and mourning. This article will present major titles of the primary and secondary literature on some of the most important topics in Derrida’s work. Emphasis will be on the questions concerning literature and literary studies. In order to more effectively map out the resources, each section offers no more than four citations of primary sources (i.e., Derrida’s texts) and at least four citations from secondary literature.
Jacques Derrida’s work covers different fields and is relevant with regard to various disciplines. His first writings were dedicated to phenomenology, but since the beginning of the 1960s, he broadened the scope of his researches, including the whole history of Western philosophy and also literature and literary criticism, psychoanalysis, linguistics, semiotics, ethnology, and education. Through the 1970s and the 1980s, in his seminars and writings he also discussed visual art and aesthetics, biology, speech act theory, theory of the gift, nationalism, Judaic thinking, justice and law, architecture, politics, and ethics. Each of the questions that occupied him in the last fifteen years of his life—questions of responsibility, hospitality, promise, testimony and perjury, forgiveness, sovereignty and unconditionality, religion, the event, democracy, etc.—was a crossing point between different approaches. Therefore, it is hard to point to a single work that would propose an exhaustive general overview of his thought. His early collection of interviews Positions (Derrida 1982) published in 1972, offered a first overview of his work and is still recommendable as a good starting point for those unfamiliar with Derrida. Here one will find an accessible presentation of deconstruction, grammatology, difference, writing, and dissemination. It is a book containing a long conversation that perhaps gives the best account of his work after the 1970s. The dialogue with Elisabeth Roudinesco (Derrida and Roudinesco 2004) not only offers a reconstruction of Derrida’s relation to his contemporary thinkers (Foucault, Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, etc.) but also traces his theoretical work on the concept of family, violence and politics, the question of the animal, and hospitality. One of the best systematic presentations of Derrida’s work is Geoffrey Bennington’s “Derridabase” (Bennington and Derrida 1993). In the book can also be found the first biographical overview of Derrida’s life. Benoît Peeters gives an account of the trajectory of Derrida’s thought and the way it interweaves with his life (Peeters 2013). An invaluable investigation of the way Derrida’s ideas are connected to the way he writes can be found in Hobson 1998. There are many collections of essays on Derrida that try to offer a general overview of his work, but the most exhaustive are Direk and Lawlor 2002 and Norris and Roden 2002, and one of the most succinct presentations is offered in Reynolds and Roffe 2004.
Bennington, Geoffrey, and Jacques Derrida. Jacques Derrida. Translated by Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Bennington’s “Derridabase,” included in this book, is still the most complete and concise general overview of Derrida’s work. Derrida’s text, called “Circumfession,” interweaves the autobiographical and theoretical questions of his own work in an inventive commentary on St. Augustine.
Derrida, Jacques. Positions. Translated by Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
A collection of three early essays, this book is probably the best general overview of the so- called early Derrida. Important also for the light it throws on the philosopher’s early attitude toward Marxism, Lacan, materialism, and the concept of matter, which was rarely discussed by him at the time.
Derrida, Jacques, and Elisabeth Roudinesco. For What Tomorrow. . .: A Dialogue. Translated by Jeff Fort. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.
This series of dialogues between Derrida and the famous French historian offers one of the best general overviews of his later work. One will find here discussions on the notion of family, death sentence, animals and animal rights, Israel, among other subjects.
Direk, Zeynep, and Leonard Lawlor, eds. Derrida. Critical Assessments. 3 vols. London and New York: Routledge, 2002.
Direk and Lawlor have gathered important responses to Derrida’s work by Foucault, Irigaray, Lyotard, Ricoeur, and others, as well as critical essays from reclaimed scholars that try and cover all aspects of Derrida’s thought.
Hobson, Marian. Jacques Derrida. Opening Lines. London: Routledge, 1998.
One of the best books on Derrida in that it elucidates through careful and meticulous analyses of the most difficult texts the relationship between Derrida’s modes of writing and his theoretical arguments. Hobson demonstrates the rigor of Derrida’s thought throughout his works.
Norris, Christopher, and David Roden, eds. Jacques Derrida. 4 vols. New York: SAGE, 2002.
Norris and Roden have collected a number of essays on Derrida. The themes of some of the sections, as well as the choices made concerning the selection of the texts, seem to reveal the interests of the editors rather than the specifics of Derrida’s thought.
Peeters, Benoît. Derrida: A Biography. Translated by Andrew Brown. Cambridge, MA: Polity, 2013.
An exhaustive biography of Jacques Derrida, this book also traces the theoretical directions the thinker has followed. Peeters’s book is also useful because he has consulted the large archive of still unpublished notes, letters, and diaries of Derrida.
Reynolds, Jack, and Jonathan Roffe, eds. Understanding Derrida. New York and London: Continuum, 2004.
Offers a concise and helpful overview of Derrida’s involvement in different fields and problematics. Each chapter ends with annotations of Derrida’s important texts on the topic. The last chapter is dedicated to the encounters between Derrida and important philosophical figures from Hegel to Levinas.
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