Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Book Review: jacques derrida--live theory

Smith, James K. A., jacques derrida: live theory.  Bloomsbury Academic.

I accidentally wrote two reviews of this book.   I stand by both of them, but in many ways they represent two different approaches to Smith's project.  The first

Jamie Smith succeeds in what he sets out to do: make Derrida accessible. I've been a critically sympathetic reader of Smith for almost a decade, so some of this was familiar territory. He clears away a lot of misconceptions about Derrida:

*Deconstruction is not a method (9ff). Each deconstructive event remains singular. It is not something we do. It happens in the middle voice. Ca se deconstruit. It happens within texts because of the texts.

*Smith suggests “alterity” is the lens through which we interpret Derrida (13). Deconstructionism is a response to the “other.” Sees “reference” as language’s relation to the “other” of language (14). Derrida suggests a fundamental link between alterity and Judaism (15).

Smith takes us on a journey from Plato to Judaism to Something New Today. Continuing our theme of "alterity," we see Word-Things as Phenomenology's Other.

** In the Beginning was the Word**

“The world of signs--whether graphemes and phonemes--is a world of sensuous phenomena that activate and depend on the body” (17). The West treated language as a means to larger metaphysical questions. Language was always considered ‘mundane.’ And so enters Husserl. Our Western preconceptions thought that Language was governed by temporality. It was Always associated with “passing away.” Therefore, philosophy sought to ground knowledge in something more stable than language--ideas.

Husserl then Advances Plato’s thought that ideas have a history. Knowledge grows into a projected horizon. Suggests that ideas receive objectivity through “language.” Derrida’s contention has been that language in general is affected by mediation. “What the logocentric condition took to be a contamination is its original condition” (43). What was thought to be confined to writing is in fact true of all language: mediation, signifiers, culture.

Arche-Writing is a synonym for differance

JD explains differance in terms of alterity. The primacy of mediation and spacing is to make room for what Derrida calls “il n’y a pas de hors-texte.” There is no aspect of our experience that escapes the play of signifiers. The subject is a function of language. He is a speaking-subject. “The subject’s self-consciousness is constituted by a relation to an outside, to a community of others which grants language. The subject is constituted by the Other” (45). Instead of a metaphysics of presence we have an ontology of quasi-trace

That is the first half of the book and the essence of JD's philosophy. In the second half Smith takes us on a tour of Derrida's teaching controversies, French politics, and other items. This book is highly recommended as a entry point for Derrida's thought.

The Earlier Review

James K. A. Smith has given us probably the best intro to Derrida from an Evangelical perspective. It is remarkably clear, brief, and fair. While Smith doesn't offer anything like a full-orbed critique of Derrida, he shows us why Derrida is important for Evangelicals. I will end with my own critique of Smith and Derrida.
Americans love to hate deconstructionism--and not simply Christians. Much of the Anglo-American philosophical academy hates Derrida. Smith, by contrast, neatly clears up misconceptions. Smith "demythologizes" deconstructionism for us:
  • It is not merely negative (10). There is a “double movement of dismantling with a view to rebuilding.”
  • Deconstruction is not a master name (10). other possible synonyms are valid: ecriture, trace, differance, supplement, hymen, pharmakon, margin, etc.
  • Deconstruction is not a nihilism (11). “not an enclosure in nothingness, but an openness towards the other.” He is not a relativist. Relativism is referring to the absolute and denying it.


Smith suggests “alterity” is the lens through which we interpret Derrida (13). Deconstructionism is a response to the “other.” Sees “reference” as language’s relation to the “other” of language (14). Derrida's metaphysical target is Platonism--and by that he means largely the Western philosophical tradition. "Greek" metaphysics--at least in its Platonic conclusion--sought sameness, reducing reality to the One. There was always the attempt to get to the "pure stream," or "pure thought." Voice was prized over writing, because voice suggested immediate "presence" (key word for Derrida). Writing, by contrast, was material and seemed a slave to embodiment.

Derrida's project shows that there is no pure stream. "Pure thought" has always been supplemented by arche-writing. This does not mean, as some of Derrida's critics think, that Derrida thinks writing came before language. Rather, thought and language are always "mediated" to us. All idealities are bound idealities. The contamination of writing goes all the way down (24). Language is the very condition (incarnation?) for philosophy to assert itself.

Per Levinas Western philosophy privileged “the Same,” the sphere of knowing where Subject assimilates all that is other (31). That which is absent is that which is other--it is that which cannot appear to the subject (and hence be assimilated).

Ethics and Politics
Here is where Derrida's project (and Smith's comments) are weakest. My main problem with Derrida is not "deconstruction," for we have already shown that deconstruction is really not that different. Consistent with his thesis, Smith shows that Derrida's concern for "the Other" must allow for the other to visit our countries; thus, immigration. 

How do we respond to this? Smith takes a few potshots at conservatives but really doesn't get to the heart of the argument. I do not doubt that a biblical, much less philosophical case can be made for a sane immigration policy. My concern is that not every "immigrant" is a poverty-pressed refugee. A Frenchman like Derrida should know this. Muslims have routinely torched Paris and London (and in the latter are eating British officers' organs).

Ironically, and this is my critique, Derrida and Smith are privileging some concepts and texts while ignoring others. Is this not a similar reduction to sameness? 

Was Derrida a Communist?

To this answer we can give a firm "maybe" or "not really." That Derrida's ideas lend themselves to various Marxisms is true, yet Derrida routinely distanced himself from Marxist excesses and in later interviews he realized that "capitalism" was more nuanced than many post-Marxists realized.


Smith helpfully contrasts Derrida with later interpreters of Derrida. I particularly found his exposition of Slavoj Zizek illuminating. He points out that Zizek rejects Derrida at the key point: Zizek champions a unity of sameness. That Zizek is a Hegelian Marxist should not surprise us.

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