Derrida among the dingos

August 27, 1999

MELBOURNE. Jacques Derrida, the famed French philosopher and cultural theorist, drew crowds in their thousands when he visited Melbourne and Sydney last week.

The powerful proponent of deconstruction received the sort of celebrity welcome the media normally accords pop stars. He was on the front page of newspapers and the subject of interviews by the press and television.

Professor Derrida came to Australia at the invitation of Monash University poet and English professor Kevin Hart. His visit created an unprecedented demand for tickets to attend his lecture while 2,000 people went to hear him speak at Sydney town hall.

His talk at Monash was titled "Forgiving the Unforgivable" - a reference to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

But the packed theatre rapidly emptied. The audience seemed dazed by comments such as: "We must rethink the possibility of the impossible and the impossibility of the possible."

One Melbourne writer described deconstruction as a kind of secular religion of which Professor Derrida is the high priest. The Algerian-born philosopher is author of more than 40 books and hundreds of articles. His ideas have spawned an academic industry. More than 500 dissertations in English alone have been inspired by his thoughts.

The great man also accepted an invitation from the Victoria College of the Arts to judge its first "Derrida Exhibition and Prize". More than 70 college students submitted entries for the exhibition and they covered most of the artistic spectrum - from paintings to live performances.

Professor Derrida paid particular attention to a young painted nude woman whose body was covered with inscriptions written in Texta pens. He read every one.

The prize-winners included two Singaporean students who came first in the Aus $1,000 (Pounds 400) undergraduate award. They had created a representation of a cigarette packet in the style of Marlboro except the packet carried the name Derrida.

"Professor Derrida was uncertain about awarding this the prize because he thought it was a bit narcissistic but his fellow judges persuaded him it was deserved," a college spokeswoman said.

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