Essential History: Jacques Derrida and the Development of Deconstruction

Essential History: Jacques Derrida and the Development of Deconstruction

by Joshua Kates

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Overview

Now that Derrida has passed on to the inevitable and generally highly inaccurate jokes about eternal deconstruction, it is time to take stock of his work at a foundational level. Kates (philosophy, Indiana U.) returns to essential history to find answers to his questions: is Derrida the most radical of skeptics or a friend of reason and philosophy? Is Derrida's chief concern language? Is Derrida's work constitute a system of its own, or is it primarily a series of commentaries on other texts? Working through a new take on the Husserl/Derrida debate and Speech and Phenomena and Of Grammatology, Kates finds original answers, perhaps ones that would startle even Derrida himself. Annotation ©2006 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810123274
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 11/11/2005
Series: Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Joshua Kates is a tenured faculty member at St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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ESSENTIAL HISTORY
Jacques Derrida and the Development of Deconstruction


By Joshua Kates
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2005

Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.


ISBN: 978-0-8101-2327-4



Chapter One The Success of Deconstruction: Derrida, Rorty, Gasché, Bennington, and the Quasi-Transcendental

The ultimate aim of this book is to set out a new interpretation of Derrida's core thought, in particular his two book-length 1967 works, Speech and Phenomena and Of Grammatology-the works for which Derrida remains best known even today. In this chapter, I begin from some of Derrida's best interpreters in order to demonstrate the need for this new approach. I take up the debate between Derrida's quasi-transcendental interpreters (primarily Rodolphe Gasché, but also Geoff Bennington) and Richard Rorty in order to show that deconstruction in the way it has been taken to operate-as it is described by Derrida himself and by his readers, seemingly in conformity with some of Derrida's best-known texts-does not fully function as Derrida intended. Deconstruction, at least in its usual constructions, is not able to maintain the various sides of its operation that Derrida wished to bring into play, and this demonstration, in turn, motivates and orients the project I subsequently bring forward. Due to the inability of Derrida's work to fully perform as he had hoped, a new way of treating Derrida's key texts proves to be needed: one that approaches deconstruction through its development.

The eventual site on which this breakdown is exposed in this chapter will be Derrida's discussion of Saussure in Of Grammatology's first half. This remains the signature topos of Derridean deconstruction-the text of Derrida most widely cited and read, for better or worse. However, before turning to Of Grammatology and to the debate in the commentary-to Gasché, Bennington, and Rorty-I must begin by briefly making clear what is at stake in Derrida's own enterprise. Indeed, not only is it necessary to show that deconstruction does not function as Derrida himself wished, in order to reframe our understanding of this operation and our approach to Derrida's text and corpus-but since I am about to criticize Derrida's project in certain respects, while devoting the remainder of this book to its explication, it ought to be made clear first of all what in my eyes remains urgent about Derrida's thought: what remains compelling about Derrida's project as a whole.

I will thus start by briefly distinguishing Derrida's views on deconstruction from the sort of radical undecidable skepticism with which it is most often identified, in order to show what Derrida intended deconstruction to accomplish and why such work potentially remains so pressing. Derrida, I will argue, wished deconstruction to remain far closer to philosophy than many acknowledge even today, in the sense that he wanted deconstruction to fulfill that "responsibility to thought" that philosophy alone from Derrida's perspective so far has instantiated.

To be sure, this is a tricky matter, since the interpretation of deconstruction I am contrasting with this one, deconstruction as an undecidably radical skepticism, itself demands ongoing contact with philosophy, with fundamental thinking, and its traditions, just as would the honoring of real responsibility to them. Deconstruction, in fact, has long been seen as undecidable on just this account: due to this apparent retention of thought, due to the appearance of recognizing both the rights of thought and their renunciation at once.

On this construal of deconstruction, Derrida's work indeed is believed to continually find itself speaking from a position of philosophical authority and knowledge, even while aiming to leave these behind. Because reason, thought, and philosophy brook no stable or permanent opposition, according to this account, because they allow for no permanent escape, no authoritative other, Derridean deconstruction must necessarily have repeated recourse to thought's authority, to philosophy's positions, in order to take leave from them radically, to break decisively with reflection and philosophy (albeit only for a time). Compressing an account of deconstruction that is today widely known, and hence readily recognizable: thought, reason, are believed to be a sort of enclosure or trap-such that only by remaining within them in the right way, by acknowledging the inevitability of ongoing recourse to them and recontainment by them, is any sort of meaningful escape to be had.

These are the claims and premises of the most common construal of Derridean deconstruction: deconstruction as undecidable, and therefore truly radical, skepticism. Yet so far from such a scenario retaining any real recognition of thought's claims, all genuine contact with thought and genuine responsibility to it is hollowed out by this construal in advance, it must be seen. Compelled to turn to reason, while already wishing to escape from it, the appeal to reason and thought here originates on a wholly irrational ground. The demand to turn to reason from the first is an unjustified and violent one-reason being known not to be authoritative, but only impossible to avoid. Making reason, or thought, compulsory or unavoidable in this way thus removes any trace of genuine responsibility from recourse to thought, since interaction with reason or thought in this scenario can indeed only represent "an unwarrantable involvement" with them-as Jonathan Culler puts it, in his treatment of the workings of this same undecidable radical skepticism (Culler 1982, 88).

Here, then, the continuing appeal to thought or reason can only ever be a sign of their total and absolute illegitimacy-rooted, as it is, in the premise that an escape from reason is somehow known in advance to be both warranted and desirable. And it should be no surprise that once this strategy was promulgated and the limits of thought were believed established by Derrida himself, if only for a time-and even if these limits were supposed to pass through thought, as well as around it, to require intra-, as well as circum-scription-that all these strategies immediately slipped from view, and only their outcomes, postulating the most radical sort of skepticism, even nihilism, remained.

By contrast to the standard account, then, and this brings us to the crux of the matter, Derrida's own aims, his own responsibility to thought, to the question, to philosophy, it was argued-both by a second group of critics, as well as by Derrida himself-necessarily went beyond this type of backhanded endorsement. Derrida himself had decided on undecidability, it was often emphasized; and Derrida had made this decision in the name of something like thought's own goals-in the name of a continuation, a broadening out, of this responsibility. Derrida doubtless did engage with all that seemed to bring thought and philosophy into doubt, but Derrida did so not for its own sake, but with the goal of fashioning new modes of thought and finding new ways to fulfill thought's underlying responsibility, or at least some transformed version of it.

Derrida himself has always insisted on this construal of his own project. He has denied from the start that he is a skeptic in any sense and has maintained that he rejects "skepticism, empiricism, even nihilism," terms that Derrida repeatedly groups together ("AED" 137). Moreover, Derrida has insisted that the totality of his thinking answers to the living ethos of thought, indeed that of philosophy itself (which he at times invokes by name), even as it may question radically some of philosophy's own aims and operations.

Thus Derrida in 1996 avowed not only that he is "a philosopher," but "that I want to remain a philosopher and that this philosophical responsibility is something that commands me" (Mouffe 1996, 81). And in another, even more recent discussion of his own work, Derrida both espouses his ongoing passion for Plato and Aristotle-"however old I am, I am on the threshold of reading Plato and Aristotle. I love them and I feel I have to start again and again and again"-and also goes on to make clear that he believes his deconstruction of these authors, his analysis "of the functioning and disfunctioning of his [Plato's] work," is itself "a sign of love and respect for Plato," a way "to be true to Plato" (DN9).

Derrida's deconstruction of Plato-his claims about this work's "disfunctioning" as well as its "functioning"-are intended "to be true to Plato," according to Derrida. Deconstruction as a whole even at this late date thus intends to be true to philosophy, to thought-that side of deconstruction that may appear to stand perilously close to skepticism included. From first to last, Derrida, then, has seen his work in this way: Derrida, by his own testimony, engages with the unthought of philosophy, but this ultimately in order to carry on thought and its responsibility, not abandon it altogether. His is a vital renovation of thought, a renewed and transformed commitment to the living responsibility that philosophy alone has previously instantiated-and this indeed at a time in the present day when the possibility of maintaining or fulfilling such a commitment has appeared most in doubt.

These, I maintain, are the real stakes of Derrida's endeavor. The question of whether thought has a future today is more urgent than ever. In this promise to carry on the legacy of thought, to honor it, transform it-to continue to honor this "responsibility that commands him"-consists the deepest import, the true pith, of Derrida's enterprise.

At the same time, what this entire chapter will show, and in the name of just this responsibility Derrida wishes to acknowledge, is that deconstruction in its most canonical form was never able to entirely fulfill its own stated aims. This end comprises the singular importance, the urgency, of Derrida's project. Yet at least in its most widely read text, and according to a construal of his work that Derrida himself offers, Derrida's thought does not fully satisfy this responsibility in a way that he himself had hoped. Deconstruction does not wholly succeed at keeping this responsibility to thought alive in the way that Derrida himself intended, and seeing this will lead to the recognition that a new manner of approaching Derrida's work is necessary, a new way of construing Derrida's project must be found, more in line with his own intentions. At present, deconstruction represents the most sophisticated matrix that we have for carrying on the project of thought, even while recognizing what brings it into doubt; and I will eventually explore whether a new perspective on this work, perhaps one also always Derrida's own, albeit implicitly or tacitly, can better bring to light the total work of deconstruction, such that it fulfills Derrida's own ongoing attempt to give continued life to thinking.

I will start from the debate among some of Derrida's best interpreters, then, in order to discover more precisely where Derrida's project falls down; why Derrida's thought has so rarely been understood in the way just described; why the very different sides of Derrida's intentions have rarely been brought together within a single treatment. What in Derrida's own work accounts for the fact, more specifically, that the phase of deconstruction that urges thought further is repeatedly neglected, and the one that appears to abandon it is emphasized? Why does Derrida's work remain known as the latest, highest-octane brand of skepticism, despite his own repeated denials? And why, when such recognition has not been missing, perhaps most notably in the work of Rodolphe Gasché, has it not then been able to take a fully credible form and never managed to sway those holding alternative views?

* * *

In truth, I have a long way to go, since my actual criticisms of deconstruction, my specific diagnosis of this problem, will come forward only in the next section of this chapter. Indeed, how much of the present problem is owed to the commentators and how much is owed to Derrida himself is at this moment impossible to say, since part of the problem is that we have no satisfactory way to bring the totality of aims of Derrida's work before us at present, no way that takes the spectrum of Derrida's intentions really into account-but also no way to easily distinguish a breakdown of Derrida's execution from a failure in our understanding of him. The two, Derrida's writings and the commentary on them, presently exist together in a kind of colloidal suspension whose separation may only slowly be brought about. The present state of engagement with Derrida demands approaching this problem, then, through the commentary; and such an approach will also let us see the mark these problems have left in Derrida's text more clearly by way of that which they have made upon the texts of his interpreters.

Let me begin, then, by giving a brief account of Richard Rorty's role in the present chapter. Much of the remainder of the present section focuses on Rodolphe Gasché's interpretation of Derrida in his early essay "Deconstruction as Criticism." Rorty's place in the whole of this first chapter is, however, even more crucial than Gasché's in some respects; Rorty brings forward the issues most decisive for our discussion, since in effect I will argue that Rorty's criticisms of deconstruction are right.

The centrality of Rorty for my argument may at first appear surprising, however, given how little commentary Rorty has offered on specific works by Derrida. And while this apparently rather disengaged style of Rorty's Derrida interpretation will be discussed in a moment, right now it must be recognized that Rorty, despite this, is one of Derrida's canniest critics. Rorty's proximity to Derrida's own standpoint, I believe, accounts for this fact-setting aside Rorty's own considerable philosophical acuity. Indeed, Rorty is one of the very few working philosophers who has written on Derrida whose concerns genuinely parallel Derrida's own, and yet who has himself not been influenced by Derrida's own thought in any significant way.

Rorty has devoted a great deal of consideration, after all, to a set of problems that Wittgenstein's famous figure of the ladder at the end of the Tractatus may serve to indicate: problems pertaining to philosophy's ability to make statements about the limits of its own projects, what sort of limits these may be, and what such pronouncements might entail, if anything, for whatever successor discourse to philosophy one might attempt to imagine.

These questions lie at the heart of Rorty's own investigations and they abut Derrida's program as well; and they have thus put Rorty in an almost unique position to question Derrida's enterprise. All Rorty's criticisms of Derrida focus on the moment-or membrane, if you will-in deconstruction between philosophy and some alternative discourse, a moment to which Rorty's own work has sensitized him, and these will eventually help us to show that deconstruction as usually construed is not able to balance all its goals successfully: to give heed to what lies beyond philosophy and fulfill its promise to philosophical responsibility at once.

Rorty's criticisms of Derrida's interpreters thus prove cogent when viewed as criticisms of Derrida himself (which is how, I take it, Rorty himself ultimately intends them), and it will, in fact, turn out that Rorty in some sense has already shown what this first chapter seeks to prove. At the same time, however, if Rorty proves to be right on the essentials, we have some way to go before seeing in what way this is really so. This is due to the above-mentioned issue: the apparent thinness of Rorty's descriptions of Derrida's work, the sometimes flickering character of Rorty's presentation of Derrida's thought.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from ESSENTIAL HISTORY by Joshua Kates
Copyright © 2005 by Northwestern University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Contents Acknowledgments....................xi
List of Abbreviations of Works by Jacques Derrida....................xiii
Introduction....................xv
1 The Success of Deconstruction: Derrida, Rorty, Gasché, Bennington, and the Quasi-Transcendental....................3
2 "A Consistent Problematic of Writing and the Trace": The Debate in Derrida/Husserl Studies and the Problem of Derrida's Development....................32
3 Derrida's 1962 Interpretation of Writing and Truth: Writing in the "Introduction" to Husserl's Origin of Geometry....................53
4 The Development of Deconstruction as a Whole and the Role of Le problème de la genèse dans la philosophie de Husserl....................83
5 Husserl's Circuit of Expression and the Phenomenological Voice in Speech and Phenomena....................115
6 Essential History: Derrida's Reading of Saussure, and His Reworking of Heideggerean History....................158
Notes....................219
Bibliography....................297
Index....................307

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