Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Il n'y a pas de hors-texte

That there is nothing outside the text for Derrida simply means that the language as metaphor goes all the way down (arche-writing). This is not to deny reference in language as Derrida himself protests:

It is totally false to suggest that deconstruction is a suspension of reference. Deconstruction is always deeply concerned with the 'other' of language. I never cease to be surprised by critics who see my work as a declaration that there is nothing beyond language; it is, in fact, saying the exact opposite. The critique of logocentrism is above all else the search for the 'other' and the 'other of language'.

Derrida in suggesting that a context can never be completely fixed or stabilized, is really only saying that contexts overflow, that contexts are always in a state of flux, and as finite beings we can never hope to 'master' a given context. Thus a context is never 'complete' there is no total context. (This is not that radical of an idea, considering the fact that anyone doing serious historical study understands that history is a discipline of revision.) The problem, or the radicalization, of Derrida enters when we assume that because contexts are always and already under-determined that it naturally follows that all contexts are indeterminate. In fact, surprising to some, Derrida places a large emphasis upon reference, context, and community in interpretation. What Derrida is opposed to then, is not the impossibility of interpretation or the determination of communities as such, but rather the determination of communities under the naive assumption that no determination has taken place - that interpretation follows a set of 'natural' or 'self- evident' rules. These rules usually contain, as there chief means of determination, the notion of authorial intention. For Derrida the author's intent is not something that is 'perspicuous', it is not to be simply read off of the lines of a text. The derridian notion of the 'author's intention' is not some magical hermeneutic elixir which escapes the conditioning of contextually; but neither is it a chimera.

Friday, December 16, 2005

the positive side of Derrida

Sean de Toit (by the way the coolest name of any biblioblogers) asks the question of whether James thinks he is the only one to really understand Derrida, and wonders if the entire monstrosity surrounding Derrida can really be a chimera.

If I gave the impression that this is the scope of James' project, I must apologize; I can't imagine anyone saying that there is a 'single' correct interpretation of Derrida. What I feel James is attempting is a reading of Derrida that listens carefully to Derrida, and in the process seeks to dispel some of the 'pop-culture' interpretations of Derrida.

First James sets the Derrida-monster squarely within the context of two significant events, the awarding of the honorary doctorate by Cambridge, and the controversy that surrounded this move; and the illegal publishing of an interview in the states and the sparring that took place in the pages of the NYRB. It is from these events, but obviously not limited to these events, that the demonization of the Derrida-monster began to seep into the public's conciseness.

Next by way of via negative he explains deconstruction:

  1. Deconstruction is not a 'method'. It is not something we do to texts, deconstruction is already present in the texts, as interpreters we are but witnesses.
  2. Deconstruction is not merely negative 'destruction'. It is never a simple dismantling of texts, it is always a double movement of destructing with a view to reconstructing, thus the con infix is very important.
  3. Deconstruction is not a 'master' name. Deconstruction is not an adequate term, and must never be severed from the discourse of trace, margin, supplement, etc.
  4. Deconstruction is not nihilism. 'Deconstruction is not an enclosure in nothingness, but an openness towards the other (Deconstruction and the Other, 124).'
  5. Deconstruction is not anti-philosophical. While deconstruction questions the systems of philosophy and the institution of university, it is not opposed to either as such.

So as to come to a preliminary definition: 'Deconstruction then is a deeply affirmative mode of critique attentive to the way in which texts, structures and institutions marginalize and exclude 'the other', with a view to reconstructing and reconstituting institutions and practices to be more just (i.e. to respond to the call of the other).' (12)

Obviously there are other ways of reading Derrida, but I think James touches on something very important, the fact that the positive purposes of Derrida are often either neglected all together, or hidden in the backdrop; because a domesticated, silly, deconstruction is easier to brush of than one that, at its very center, has the ethics of the 'other' in view.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Derrida-Monster

  1. All texts and all interpretations are on par.
  2. Authors are irrelevant.
  3. Impossibility of distinguishing correct interpretations from incorrect ones.
  4. There are no distinctions between fact and fiction, observation and imagination, evidence and prejudice.
  5. People live in a prison house of language and have no relation to reality.
  6. Interpretation is without criteria.

A monster is a type of hybrid, a composite of other organisms grafted on to each other; it is at first sighting unrecognizable, it is unnamable, yet strangely familiar; the moment the monster is named it is tamed, this domestication of the monster is achieved through the mastery over the monster.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Can you misread Derrida?

This is a book that I bought on a whim, one of those many (my wife would say too many) books purchased to fulfill the requirements of Amazon's free shipping. I confess I purchased it more for the author's upcoming book, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, but I thought I would get acquainted with the prose style, dip my toes, so to speak, to see if the water would be to my liking.

I must say it is well written, indeed, I am engaged so far, and it has confirmed many of my own 'preliminary' readings of Derrida. But enough of what I think!

Jacques Derrida Live Theory is an attempt to reread Derrida in light of the many misreadings that have spawned over the years by those who have either been less than enamored with or those who have been over enthralled with his writings. Most of these misreadings, James presumes are due to critics not taking the time and effort to read Derrida carefully and thoughtfully (I must confess, I too am among the lazy, I have only read, Margins of Philosophy, and only read it once). According to Smith this has led to the creation of a 'derrida-monster', a mythical monster that is alive and haunts the public’s conception of what Derrida was all about.

I am looking forward to reading this book more thoroughly in an effort to correct my own possible/probable misappropriations of Derrida. That being said I do have a strong attraction to Derrida's notion of alterity, and am intrigued by the theological possibilities of such an ethical approach.

I imagine that I will probably post further on this book. But let it be known that my lame, and befuddled attempt to synthesize Jamey's accessible and elegant prose, should in no way discourage you from buying this book, he really does say it so much better!

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Time, RSS Feeds, and Biblioblogs

Do you just not have enough time to catch up with the latest squabble between Joe Cathey and Jim West on historiography? Or perhaps you want to know instantly from Mark Goodacre the latest offerings from RBL. But after that third cup of coffee and the morning scone(s) you just don't know if you can stay glued to your RSS feeder any longer. Well now you don't have too, thanks to RSStroom Reader which is ready to print the latest offerings from the Deinde team all the way to Scot McKnight, all for your reading pleasure.

With wireless connectivity, RSS 2.0/Atom compatibility, and a browser based control panel, it should get the job done. I remember a picture of Michael Bird's office, and this would look great next to your chair!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Achtung!: Self Disclosure

As I mentioned before I picked up a real gem of a book for a mere 36 cents called God and the Philosophers: The reconciliation of faith and reason. It is a book comprised of short autobiographical essays produced by philosophers on the subject of faith and reason. I read the short article by Merold Westphal entitled Faith Seeking Understanding, and I sum it up as follows:

On the Christianity of his Youth:

Westphal grew up in the type of circles that had a bumper sticker sort of hermeneutic 'God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It,' the function of this sort of hermeneutical theory, as Westphal explains, is to terminate conversation and critical reflection. He goes on to state that, by terminating conversation with those who do not share one's specific interpretation of the faith, one pretty much terminates the possibility of critical reflection on the truth, meaning, and relative significance of the various components of one's theology, rendering one's current understanding of the faith final for all intents and purposes. Ironically, the quest for certainty that motivates this posture is anything but philosophically innocent. It is more like a cross between Plato and Descartes dressed up in its Sunday's best.

On Suspicion and Faith

Thus I have found it necessary to take seriously such theories, often motivated by unbelief and just as often perceived as threats to the life of faith, as Nietzsche's perspectivism, Heidegger's hermeneutical circle, and Derrida's deconstruction based on differance. If there is ultimately a theological rationale for my serious exploration of these powerful secular forms of finitism, it is a willingness to be put in question. However imperfect the practice is of this willingness, it is an essential ingredient of faith as a virtue.

Faith's self-understanding is likely to be changed in the process. My own faith has continued to be central to my being-in-the-worlds but it has not been a fixed and final point impervious to reinterpretation. Faith in the unchangeableness of God does not entail the unchangeableness of faith itself, for faith is not so much my holding on to God as it is my willingness to let God hold on to me. Such faith includes the trust that in this process one's relation to God will be deepened rather than destroyed, and that has been my experience. I don't have the world on a string (or God in a box), as I did when I first came to philosophy. But I am convinced that I understand both God and myself better because of these losses. What Jesus said about finding our life through losing it has many meanings' one of which, in my experience, pertains to the life of the believer engaging in philosophical reflection. We have a similar experience when we discover that human relations, such as marriages are so much richer when we abandon the effort always to be in control.

On Kierkegaard and Sin:

Kierkegaard does not deny the finitude that is the heart of the Kantian analysis; but he subordinates it to a more radical rift between ourselves and God, our sinfulness, which he understands as our point of being useful without being a nuisance, He points out the workings of this desire, not just in our behavings but in our believings as well. Hence the contrast between 'humanly understood' and 'divinely understood.' What made me 'vulnerable' to these experiences was in large part the constant reminder from Kierkegaard that the thinking of sincere Christians was not immune to the corruptions of the fall. I was no longer able simply to identify the Christian world view I had inherited with the truth of God. Once Kierkegaard had become the occasion for a shaking of the foundations'significant parts of that edifice came tumbling down like the walls of Jericho. I was learning that the life of belief is a journey, and that 'living happily ever after,' poetically speaking, comes at the end of the story and not in the middle.

On the Lenten Reflection of the Secular:

Derrida, Marx, and Freud proved to be my worst friends' the kind everyone needs--to tell you what you best friends won't tell you, about your bad breath and dandruff. I found them to echo in the context of modernity the kind of critique originally directed by Jesus, the prophets who preceded him, and the apostles who succeeded him to those who saw themselves as the covenant people of God. These great modern atheists helped me to discover a dimension of the biblical message I had not noticed much before. A sustained appeal to the Christian church to take all religion critiques of this unholy trio seriously rather than simply trying to debate or discredit them, to read them as a kind of Lenten spiritual exercise in self-examination. It seems to me that their deeply hostile and unflattering accounts of the personal and corporate life of Christians is all too true all too much of the time. I don't think it is the whole truth, as they are inclined to suggest, but the best way to show this, I think, is not to argue against their theories but to submit to their discipline and relearn to live the life of faith in ways less vulnerable to their critiques. If there is more to the life of faith than self-deception in the service of self-interest, the best demonstration of this is not proof but practice. Here piety is useless in the sense of not having its value as a means to some end; and it is self-transcendence, not because it relates to the Transcendent (which can be an entirely ego-centered project), but because it involves a decentering of the self that always aspires to be the center of the world.

On Useless Self-Transcendence:

The concept of useless self-transcendence is not an argument for the rationality of religious belief. But it is a challenge to every rationality, sacred or secular, that functions to make the human self or the human community the possessor and dispenser of Truth. At the same time it summarizes, perhaps better than anything else--what my faith has found as it has sought understanding, namely, that faith is the task of a lifetime. The present narrative ends hereby but the story it has tried to tell goes on. As those who know me best will gladly attest, God isn't finished with me yet.