Sunday, December 21, 2008

Reading Jacques Derrida

It is with De la grammatologie - which was published in English translation as Of Grammatology in 1976 - that most anglophone readers encounter Derrida for the first time. As we have already suggested, the Grammatology is Derrida best-known work but it remains a forbidding challenge for any reader: the book's single most famous line - "there is no outside-text ['il n'y a pas de hors-texte']' - is regularly mistranslated, misquoted or simply misunderstood even today. To put it bluntly, Derrida is difficult: his philosophical style is often deeply idiosyncratic and challenges formal or argumentative norms in a way that, for new and experienced readers alike, can sometimes seem almost wilfully perverse. Yet, the main reasons why the Grammatology is, for all its fame, somewhat under-read are, in fact, quite straightforward.

First, Derrida's text arises out of a very specific intellectual climate that may well seem daunting to the modern reader. On the one hand, it presupposes a knowledge of a certain philosophical tradition (Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl and Heidegger). On the other hand, it engages with what in France are called the 'human sciences' (linguistics, psychoanalysis, anthropology) and the then-dominant intellectual movement called 'structuralism'.

Second, and most importantly, however, Derrida's own philosophy proceeds - in stark contrast to his reputation as a master 'theorist' who deals in grand claims - via a series of minutely detailed, almost claustrophobic, readings of texts. If we want to follow his argument in the detail it requires, it is necessary to have a close familiarity with the work of the eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss: what Derrida has to say always emerges through the received ideas, concepts and vocabulary of his host texts and it is this almost forensic submersion that gives rise to the common allegations of obscurantism. For Derrida, what has become known as 'deconstruction' is not a 'theory' in the traditional sense of a general set of rules that can be applied to particular cases, but rather something that always takes place within, and cannot be separated from, the singular texts he is reading.

As this book will make clear, however, there is another, even more important, reason why Of Grammatology poses such a challenge to new readers and this is not so much a historical context or its own unique style as its argument. It is what Derrida's book has to say - as opposed to the supposedly obscurantist way in which he says it - that is the most formidable obstacle to anyone approaching his work for the first time. Quite simply, Derrida puts into question everything - meaning, language, interpretation, authorial intention, even the idea of the book as a fixed or finite repository of meaning with a beginning and an end - that we think we know about the process of 'reading' itself. If we all tend to bring certain assumptions to the reading process about what, how and why we read - even something as basic as the idea that we read in order to find out what an author has to say to us or what a book means - what Derrida's book seeks to analyze, and place in historical context, is why we have these preconceptions in the first place" '[i]n what you call my books' he once told an interviewer, 'what is first of all put into question is the unity of the book and the unity "book" considered as a perfect totality'. The everyday or common-sense ideas we have about reading rely, whether we know it or not, on a deep rooted tradition that Derrida spends the whole of the Grammatology seeking to call into question. This is not to say that such ideas are simply wrong - an enduring misconception of Derrida's work is that he does not believe in truth, meaning or authorial intentionality at all - but they are anything but a 'natural' or 'objective' reflection of 'the way things are'. In this sense, Derrida's philosophy ultimately forces us to ask questions about what we mean by 'meaning' itself an the answers he supplies are often radically counter-intuitive.

... Derrida's Of Grammatology, Arthur Bradley

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