A post-card guide to Derrida...
1. Derrida is a rigorous philosopher in the tradition of the Skeptics and the phenomenologists. That rigour extends to his presentational process as well as to the content of his writing. This is the first clue to understanding why so many have difficulty with his work.
1.1 As a phenomenologist and skeptic, following Kant, Heidegger, Husserl and the later Wittgenstein, Derrida considers that we can have no unmediated access to "reality". The key word here is "unmediated" - he does not say that there is no reality, merely that our access to it is constantly deferred and displaced by and through language. Hence his use of the term différance - a french conflation of the terms to differ and to defer.
1.2 As a result, for Derrida, it is important to write in a manner that gestures towards, suggests, invokes and evokes an idea, rather than stating it. By stating directly, he would perpetuate the illusion of language as having a one-to-one correspondence with reality. To be rigorous, there is no "clarity" in language, for that implies a seeing-through to something - a centre or core - which does not exist by itself independent of our access to it. So when you read his work you become aware of the idea he is putting forward, but it is necessarily difficult to condense it into a 'pocket Derrida'.
2. Derrida is anti-foundationalist- He is skeptical of those who purport to have found the 'truthiest truth of them all' and in my view, rightly so. He argues, against John Searle and others, that if language/ communicative acts mediate our access to the 'real' then this must hold for truth, beauty and ethics. This is where his critics get caught up in the notion that postmodernism is nihilist and anti-ethical. This is a mistake because Derrida is simply pointing out that there can be no absolute ethic or absolute truth (which Derrida refers to in terms of "presence" - a usage implying the notion of unmedated access to a 'universal'/absolute truth). Ethics and truth are always the product of a particular viewpoint - they can not stand context-free in the manner of Aristotelian "universals" ("rising towards the sun of Presence: it is the way of Icarus"). Ethics and truth are construed in the paths laid by the narratives that invoke them. such foundations as are useful are to found in the historical and discursive traces of the search for an ethical foundation. This word "trace" is important here. Again they are, as it were, by-products of the process of narrative.
2.1 This being the case, Derrida rightly points out that what is unethical/untruthful are discursive practices that seek to cover up the process by which notions of 'truth' have been historically constituted. Such practices systematically 'silence' alternative modalities of truth, and of ethical behaviour. These silences can be observed in 'aporias' of discourse - literally gaps - the articulation of which can reveal much about the processes that 'clear' discourse has sought to conceal.
2.2 Derrida uses deconstruction to explore the traces of the process by which alterity has been systemically silenced in particular instances of discourse. Deconstruction is not, as sometimes construed by critics, synonymous with destruction. In fact Derrida's project is the diametric opposite. For Derrida, deconstruction is more like changing states in physics - it results, not in destruction, but a re-construal which adds to, while to some extent replacing, what has gone before. Deconstruction provides a "supplement" to the act of discourse (supplement of copula - grammatology). There is nothing nihilist in this.
2.3 Deconstruction involves a detailed close reading of text, which includes looking at the etymological derivation of words used. The next step is to look at other words derived from the same root segments of operative words and see how that builds on the meaning of the statement. Derrida then looks for (for want of better terms) parapraxia (slips) by looking at conotative structures arising from words that rhyme/chime like belle/bell (a real ringer) for example looking at phrases with the word "important" and observing the meaning supplements supplied by parenthesising parts of the word eg "impo(r)tant" or international/internotional relations.
2.4 Another deconstructive strategy is to write a word, such as "real" or "thing" and cross it out. This is called placing the writing under "erasure" (sous rature^). The word is written because it is necessary, and crossed out because it is wrong (ie implies unmediated access when mediation is present). This too is an aspect of Derrida's philosophical rigour.
2.5 The aspect of "play"-ing with text horrifies some critics. The grounds are along the lines of "but that's not what the author said originally". The two flaws in this argument/assertion are firstly that it presupposes that the writer of the text is its sole arbiter invoking author-ity and secondly that the word 'originally' implies unmediated access to the origin of the text, which, marked by the presence of the words, signifies the absence of the writer.
2.6 Example: a person decides to play a cruel joke and places a pin on a chair. Later a person comes in and sits down, rising shortly afterward with a yell. To the later person, the sequence is different: s/he entered the room and sat. Upon becoming aware of pain s/he rises with a yell. S/he looks around and finds the pin. Did the pin originate at the end? a narrative of discovery might suggest that. Alternatively the narrative might have begun with the placement of the pin. Alternatively it might have begun with the idea of a practical joke on the part of the first person. Alternatively it might have begun when the second person played a similar joke on the first person some two days before - this then becomes a narrative of revenge. Where then is the origin, and how is our access to it mediated?
2.7 Play, moreover, is performed for reasons of rigour - it is a systematic (re)structuring of the textual elements in order to make apparent points of entry into those places in the text marked by silence. Play, with its connotations of childhood pursuits is serious business. There is also political and ethical importance in this. Should one not point out that "friendly fire" isn't? that "non-lethal weapons" can lead to a life worse than death? or that "collateral damage" means dead people? More recently we have the insidious media use of the term "ethnic cleansing" for genocide. This is why the practice of critique is necessary and valuable.
3. Is Derrida all talk and no action? Derrida, along with other 'trendy Algerians' (Lyotard, Barthes, Kristeva, Cixous and many of the Tel Quel group taught or were taught in Algeria) have been politically active in France. Derrida was at the forefront of education reform. He was also at the forefront of a move to get philosophy taught in high schools where it had previously been restricted to universities. He has since worked on ways of defining the role of the university in a changing (postmodern) world.
3.1 If you go into a government department what you see is a lot of people who talk to each other, to other departments and to governments in other countries. They also write things down and pass what they have written to each other, to other departments and to other countries. Their business is talk and text. Their activities state the State - this is language as performative act. Some of the best text analysts I have met are in government departments. Text matters. To speak the state is to speak in a particular context - these texts speak through an author function that articulates a boundary between one state and another, and between parts of one state. The speaking subject is a collective one that is itself a function of ways of invoking the state. The author here is not one person, but rather it is that produced whenever the state is invoked as such.
3.2 Each word of each document/text that is author-ised to speak the state is pored over many times, revised and analysed for all the ways it might be read/interpreted - including in some cases how it might be read/interpreted by a translator into another language. Part of the job of those whose role it is to speak the state is to look for the spaces/aporias written into the texts of other states, and to look closely at those text that will state the State in specific ways. They may not know it but they are practicing forms of deconstruction every day. Among them are consumate semioticians.
3.3 When I taught this stuff at Murdoch University I used to concentrate on getting a handle on the key words of his mode of analysis and coupling this with situating Derrida in terms of what he was reacting to, and where he drew on the Continental phenomenological/skeptical traditions. I hope this is helpful - let me know if this or other stuff of his needs clarifying and I'll see what I can do.
4. Finally, Barbara Johnson gives a really good run down on Derrida's work in her introduction to Dissemminations (Chicago UP 1981 pp.vii-xxxiii) Some examples:
4.1 Derrida attempts to show that the very possibility of opposing the two terms on the basis of presence vs. absence or immediacy vs. representation is an illusion, since speech is already structured by difference and distance as much as writing is. ...
4.2 As Saussure pointed out, language is a system of differences rather than a collection of independently meaningful units, indicates that language as such is already constituted by the very distances and differences it seeks to overcome. To mean, in other words, is automatically not to be. As soon as there is meaning, there is difference. Derrida's word for this lag inherent in any signifying act is différance, from the French verb differer, which means both "to differ" and "to defer." What Derrida attempts to demonstrate is that this differance inhabits the very core of what appears to be immediate and present. Even in the seemingly nonlinguistic areas of the structures of consciousness and the unconscious, Derrida analyzes the underlying necessity that induces Freud to compare the psychic apparatus to a structure of scriptural differance, a "mystic writing-pad."
4.3 The illusion of the self- presence of meaning or of consciousness is thus produced by the repression of the differential structures from which they spring. The logic of the supplement wrenches apart the neatness of the metaphysical binary oppositions. Instead of ''A is opposed to B" we have "B is both added to A and replaces A." A and B are no longer opposed, nor are they equivalent. Indeed, they are no longer even equivalent to themselves. They are their own differance from themselves.
4.4 "Writing," for example, no longer means simply "words on a page," but rather any differential trace structure, a structure that also inhabits speech. "Writing" and "speech" can therefore no longer be simply opposed, but neither have they become identical. DECONSTRUCTION IS NOT A FORM OF TEXTUAL VANDALISM DESIGNED TO PROVE THAT MEANING IS IMPOSSIBLE (my emphasis). In fact, the word "de- construction" is closely related not to the word "destruction" but to the word "analysis," which etymologically means "to undo"-a virtual synonym for "to de-construct." The deconstruction of a text does not proceed by random doubt or generalized skepticism, but by the careful teasing out of warring forces of signification within the text itself. If anything is destroyed in a deconstructive reading, it is not meaning but the claim to unequivocal dominarion of one mode of signifying over another.
4.5 This, of course, implies that a text signifies in more than one way, and to varying degrees of explicitness. Sometimes the discrepancy is produced, as here, by a double-edged word, which serves as a hinge that both articulates and breaks open the explicit statement being made. Sometimes it is engendered when the figurative level of a statement is at odds with the literal level. And sometimes it occurs when the so-called starting point of an argument is based on presuppositions that render its conclusions problematic or circular. The deconstructive reading does not point out the flaws or weaknesses or stupidities of an author, but the necessity with which what he does see is systematically related to what he does not see. Deconstruction is a form of critique.
4.6 A critique of any theoretical system is not an examination of its flaws or imperfections. It is not a set of criticisms designed to make the system better. It is an analysis that focuses on the grounds of that system's possibility. The critique reads backwards from what seems natural, obvious, self-evident, or universal, in order to show that these things have their history, their reasons for being the way they are, their effects on what follows from them, and that the starting point is not a (natural) given but a (cultural) construct, usually blind to itself.
5. Every theory starts somewhere; every critique exposes what that starting point conceals, and thereby displaces all the ideas that follow from it. The critique does not ask "what does this statement mean?" but "where is it being made from? What does it presuppose? Are its presuppositions compatible with, independent of, and anterior to the statement that seems to follow from them, or do they already follow from it, contradict it, or stand in a relation of mutual dependence such that neither can exist without positing that the other is prior to it?"
5.1 In its elaboration of a critique of the metaphysical forces that structure and smother differance in every text, a deconstructive reading thus assumes:
Although these sets of strategies can never be pinned down to precise methodologies (to do so would be to read texts as normatively coherent) they can, nevertheless, offer a point of entry into the kinds of processes at work (play) in a deconstructive reading.