Here’s a lovely summary of Derrida’s contribution by Dan Green. Although I never warmed to Derrida’s writings, I came away with a totally different impression when I attended one of his public lectures at JHU. His points and arguments were not esoteric at all, once they were explained slowly and methodically. He was very charismatic; I couldn’t help comparing him to a used car salesman. I found that he got too caught up in etymology and linguistics, though that was part of the fun, I guess. His book, Glas, (which a coworker reviewed and ardently admired) was innovative and anticipated the intertextuality of cybertext.
I think his main contribution is enshrining the study of literary theory for its own sake. It drove us undergrads batty. But I went back a few years after graduating and reread those essays I once found so “hard.” Our main complaint was the impersonality and abstract nature of the criticism. When dealing with texts on a purely textual level, it was boring to leave aside dramaturgy, characterization and literary gossip (oops, I mean “context”). In retrospect, a text-centered approach seemed increasingly irrelevant as the rest of the world drifted into visual and interactive genres (and where semiotics seemed a little more relevant).
The problem with putting Derrida into the literary classroom (as well as Eagleton, deMan, Barthes, Foucault and Lacan) is that discussions seemed to lose their humanity, and texts seemed to be mere jumping points for almost irrelevant discussions of epistemology or social science. At least with Fish or Frye we could talk about authorial voice and irony (and indirectly pay homage to romanticized notion of the author as sage).
With Derrida, it’s hard for students to assign any privileged status to literary texts (as opposed to philosophic tracts or random rantings of a lunatic). It begin to seem that the whole point of literary discussion was criticism for its own sake and not to indicate some evaluation of morality, aesthetics and human concerns. In graduate literary theory classes, the critics (and their critical methods) became the superstars instead of the artists or masterworks they were trying uncover or undermine.
I should repeat that these remarks are off the cuff; my recollections are not good, and I’m sure if I went back to their works, I would find Derrida’s investigative method to be ingenious (even if I grow bored of it easily).
On another note, I was recently reading three critics from a different time period: Colin Wilson (The Outsiders), Martin Seymour-Smith (Fallen women: A sceptical enquiry into the treatment of prostitutes, their clients and their pimps, in literature (The Natural history of society) and Eliseo Vivas (Artistic Transaction and Essays on the Theory of Literature). All three are distinguished critics (influenced by existentialist thought) whose manner of writing and analysis seemed quirky and quaint to a contemporary reader (though still engaging and thoughtful). It left me thinking that the manner of criticism is often more affected by prevailing academic conventions than a person’s individual insights. Perhaps someday we’ll look at Lacan, Derrida et al and see more similarities than differences (and perhaps blogcriticism will seem just as dated and just as obsessed with narrow parochial interests).
For a starting point about Derrida’s writings, see the Wikipedia article.