New Book By GaschÉ Brings Derrida Into Focus

Release Date: February 13, 1995 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- "Inventions of Difference: On Jacques Derrida," a new book by literary scholar Rodolphe Gasché, explores the work of the consummately difficult French philosopher who initiated the concept of "deconstruction," the wide-ranging critique of the possibility of coherent meaning in language.

Gasché, Eugenio Donato Professor of Comparative Literature at the University at Buffalo, is one of the world's foremost authorities on Derrida and is known for his provocative and detailed analyses of the philosopher's theories. Over the years, Derrida himself has been a regular lecturer at UB and was last here in December.

"Inventions of Difference," published by Harvard University Press, continues the analysis begun in Gasché's 1986 book, "The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection." It addresses the concepts of difference, singularity and alterity, and the affiliated topics of relating and responding, which are the very issues discussed and "performed" throughout the writings of Derrida.

Derrida's theories are seen by Gasché as so singular that they have "most often provoked either a violent hostility or a mechanical imitation that obscures them from our sight." Claiming that many of philosopher's devotees do not know their Derrida, Gasché sets out to challenge both critics and adoring imitators, neither of whom he thinks have read the philosopher's work with the understanding that it deserves.

He says he hopes to illuminate ways of reading works like Derrida's that "do not limit themselves to making a point, but also perform and enact it." It is a task made more difficult, says Gasché, by the fact that Derrida's writings "foil and frustrate given expectations" and "meditate on the rules of breaking the rules."

Henry Sussman, who heads the UB Program in Comparative Literature, calls Gasché one of the most distinguished scholars in his field. He notes that over the last half-dozen years, Gasché has not only published widely, but pursued an exhausting round of lectures and colloquia throughout the United States and Europe, as well as in Thailand.

Sussman points out that Gasché provides the philosophical base for the well-regarded UB Program in Comparative Literature and, since joining the faculty in 1978, has taught a wide contingent of UB students from the departments of English, Modern Languages and Literatures, Philosophy and, more recently, from the School of Architecture and Planning.

Sussman calls Gasché's work "a meticulous reading of some of the gestures made by Derrida in questioning biases common to Western thought." Derrida inaugurated deconstruction, in which a master work chosen as the object of analysis -- always one that has achieved historical recognition and influence -- is searched for contradictions and misunderstandings that undermine its received significance and social value.

In this way, deconstructionism challenged an entire set of attitudes associated with logical proof and scholarly certitude.

Both Derrida and Gasché are particularly interested in the biases of "structuralism," the modern intellectual movement derived from the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure that analyzes cultural phenomena by emphasizing the systematic interrelationships among the elements of any human activity.

"In Gasché's major American work, 'The Tain of the Mirror,'" says Sussman, "he examines the notion of self-reflexivity and ultimately emerges with a notion of "infrastructure." This is something both more and less than a "structure" -- a very subtle mechanism deployed in "deconstructing" or unhinging some of the biases of thought articulated in master works like those of Plato, Kant and Rousseau -- thinkers that the west has chosen as insignias of itself.

"In his new collection of essays, Gasché not only explains Derrida, who is such a difficult philosopher," says Sussman, "but makes a consummate statement about the 20th century's important flirtation with structures and structuralism. His work helps bring to its fullest articulation what Freud, Woolf and Joyce instinctively knew -- that reality is not something "out there" that language merely serves, but that through language, we construct our reality."

Gasché was born in Luxembourg and attended the Free University of Berlin, from which he received a Magister Artium degree with distinctions in philosophy, sociology and history of religions and a doctorate, summa cum laude, in philosophy, sociology and romance languages. Before joining the UB faculty, he taught at the Free University of Berlin and The Johns Hopkins University.

Besides "Inventions of Difference" and "The Tain of the Mirror," his books in English include several in progress: "Wild Cards: On the Rhetoric of Paul de Man," "The Honor of Thinking" and "Essays in 19th Century French Literature."

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