Deepening the Derridean fog

October 8, 1999

In this brief un-Derridean book Christina Howells sets briskly about summarising Jacques Derrida's views on a whole range of issues. The results are uneven. Occasional shafts of light penetrate the philosophical fog - but elsewhere the attempt to compress what was never very clear in the first place leads to even greater impenetrability.

The opening chapter on phenomenology is, unfortunately, the least digestible. Readers who lack a particular kind of background in philosophy are unlikely to get much out of it and may well be dissuaded from proceeding further. Phenomenology is the fascinating flame around which Derrida has danced moth-like for most of his career. But it would have helped beginners to have a fuller account of the work of Husserl, in order to explain Derrida's initial attraction to (of all texts) Husserl's Origin of Geometry . Words such as "eidetic" slip in and out of Howells's discussion without explanation, and Frege is mentioned only once in passing.

The next chapter, on structuralism, is more approachable. Howells judges - rightly - that her hero's engagement with structuralism is less important than his engagement with phenomenology. But she passes up the opportunity to comment on whether Derrida's understanding of the structuralists was ever more than superficial. No explanation is given of why Derrida chose to attack such a relatively insignificant representative of structuralism as Jean Rousset in the opening essay of L'Écriture et la Différence . Since the other structuralist Howells features in this chapter is Claude Levi-Strauss, the disparity between the two targets is rather striking.

In chapter three, on language, Derrida emerges as a curious Don Quixote riding forth to slay the champions of modern linguistics (Ferdinand de Saussure, Emile Benveniste, J. L. Austin: Noam Chomsky manages to escape, although, arguably, the most "logocentric" of them all). Howells does not seem to see how woefully misdirected Derrida's attacks in this campaign were. Destabilising the discourse of linguistic orthodoxy may or may not be a laudable aim. But this was never the way to do it, as Derrida's sterile debate with John Searle shows only too clearly.

It is not until chapter four that Howells faces up to the acid test of any book on Derrida: explicating "deconstruction". We have already been given in the introduction Derrida's own account of how he chose the French term out of Littré's dictionary in order to translate Heidegger's " Destruktion " and " Abbau ". There is another missed opportunity here: to examine whether the word as applied to Derrida's work means what Derrida says. Instead of a frontal assault on the problem, Howells opts for what might be called a solution of definition through use. The strategy owes much more to Wittgenstein than it does to Derrida.

Chapter five is concerned with Derrida on psychoanalysis, Freud and Jacques Lacan. Finally, chapter six deals with ethics and politics. The issues of whether, in view of the Derridean connections with figures such as Heidegger and Paul de Man, deconstruction is, as Howells puts it, tarred with the same (crypto-fascist) brush, is handled with more tact than conviction.

The book tells us nothing about Derrida's upbringing, background or personal life. For those who like decontextualised authors, this is the perfectly decontexualised author. Although Howells never tires of emphasising the wilful No"difficulties", "obscurities" and even "perversities" in Derrida's writing, she evidently regards him as a major figure in 20th-century philosophy. What does not emerge at all convincingly from this presentation is why.

Roy Harris is emeritus professor of general linguistics, University of Oxford.

Derrida: Deconstruction from Phenomenology to Ethics

Author - Christina Howells
ISBN - 0 7456 1167 2and 1168 0
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £12.95
Pages - 175

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