Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Penelope Deutscher: How to Read Derrida

My review will appear in Practical Philosophy.

Penelope Deutscher
How to Read Derrida
London: Granta Books, 2005
ISBN: 1-86207-768-1 (pb), pp. xii + 132.

Although it has been years since he occupied the pinnacle of academic fashion, it is doubtless that many aspiring intellectuals across the world would be thrilled to be taught How to Read Derrida by a short book of 132 pages, including a chronology, bibliography, and index. Unfortunately, while Penelope Deutscher does begin each of her chapters with a short passage from Derrida’s writings, she does not really offer much in the way of practical help to those who would like to trudge through, say, Of Grammatology on their own. Instead, she has written a reasonably lucid exposition of several of Derrida’s main themes. In a way, this may only serve to further exasperate those who attempt to read the original texts; if Deutscher can explain his ideas in a fairly straight-forward fashion, why did the Master himself have to torture us with his idiosyncrasies and neologisms?

Deutscher divides Derrida’s ideas into roughly two periods. The earlier of these spans the 1960s and 1970s, during which he produced the classic documents of deconstructionism. It was then that Derrida set out to expose the tensions inherent in any attempt to divide things up into a hierarchical dichotomy. For instance, while the Western tradition, as epitomized by Plato, favors “living” speech over “dead” writing, Derrida tries to demonstrate that speech itself may be characterized as possessing those very qualities that lead us to devalue writing. Any discourse that tries to uphold such dichotomies will have to resort to various rhetorical ploys in order to hide the inherent instability of its categories. The deconstructionist reader brings those ploys to light, exposing the conceptual weaknesses they were meant to conceal and undermining our confidence in the very dichotomies they were meant to protect. Here Deutscher does offer one essential hint for those who would dare read Derrida on their own: much confusion is generated by his tendency to expand the meaning of a term to include everything under the sun that shares certain qualities attributed (usually pejoratively) to the term’s usual referent. For instance: he may refer to speech as “writing” in order to say that speech itself possesses those very qualities that were thought to differentiate writing from it.

When the dichotomies involved refer to social hierarchies and to the delineation of membership on one’s own social group, the deconstructionist reading takes on political significance, forcing us to reconsider the status of people excluded from our own group, the famous “Other” of recent French philosophy. In this connection, Deutscher specifically discusses Derrida’s ideas on national identity and gender.

Next Deutscher discusses the “Afterword” of Derrida’s Limited Inc., which serves as a kind of bridge between the early and later periods of his writing. There Derrida develops a typical theme; that communication must inherently involve miscommunication. But how can communal life succeed if miscommunication is inevitable? His point is that we should never assure ourselves that perfect political solutions can be achieved through perfect communications. Sometimes incomprehension can even be valuable, especially if it signals the presence of wisdom beyond our comprehension. In any case, we must be prepared to endlessly “renegotiate” the way we understand both ourselves and others.

Derrida’s later writings further develop the theme of perfection vs. imperfection. Acts of mourning and hospitality, giving and forgiving, and the institution of jurisprudence are all considered as examples of the imperfectability of human life. Now, however, impossible moral and political ideals take on a new role in Derrida’s thinking. Rather than merely deconstruct such “pure” notions, he calls upon us to employ them heuristically for imagining new possibilities of human conduct. Instead of subjecting idealizing rhetoric to a deconstructive reading, Derrida wants to deconstruct the pragmatic language of those who cite the impossibility of ideal solutions in order to avoid radical progress. For example, if a French politician claims that it would be simply impossible to permit entrance to everyone who wants to live in France, Derrida will investigate the rhetoric required to shore up the notion of impossibility involved, thus making room for the discussion of a more radically hospitable policy. Finally, in a somewhat mystical mood, Derrida suggests that in some unthinkable way, acts of True Gift-Giving or True Forgiveness may actually be possible in this world. We can accomplish such moral feats without even knowing it - or perhaps only without knowing it! Unfortunately, Deutscher’s powers of exegesis fall somewhat short of giving us an entirely comprehensible account of this final mystery – but if she had it would not have remained a mystery.

In conclusion: this is a good short introduction to Derrida, but much more would be required to teach us “how to read” him. It seems that Deutscher is well aware of this herself. A more comprehensive guide would include suggestions regarding the order in which Derrida’s works should be read, warnings about the dangers of reading him in translation, and more information about the secondary literature. It might be said in Deutscher’s defense that she has made a more fundamental contribution to the popularization of Derrida’s idea; her book leaves the reader feeling that it will be worth while to make the effort to read his works.

Berel Dov Lerner
Western Galilee College
Akko, Israel

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