Derrida: Profanations

Robert Eaglestone applauds an important but rather obscure interpretation of Derrida's work

October 14, 2010

Even before Jacques Derrida's death in 2004, philosophers and theorists were arguing over his legacy. In 1996, Richard Beardsworth insightfully discussed two possible futures for "Derrideanism". The first would focus on the ways in which technology in the very broadest sense - including writing - shapes and forms the idea of humans and the world: this direction is apparent in the work of Bernard Stiegler and often takes its inspiration from the early Derrida. The second, influenced by Derrida's later work, is more concerned with ethics and the infinite, with politics, and indeed with religion: the work of Simon Critchley, on ethics and politics, and of Derek Attridge, exploring the role of responsibility and singularity in literature, are good examples.

And now there is a clear and fascinating schism between these branches, marked, perhaps, by Martin Hägglund's 2008 book Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. This book sought to disavow utterly the more ethical and religious-sounding readings of Derrida and the influence of the ethics of Emmanuel Levinas. Hagglund argued that since every religion is founded on an idea of the "unscathed" (the holy, the pure, the sacred) and since Derrida argues that nothing can be "pure" or "in itself", religions contain their own "autoimmunity", that is, deconstruct themselves. In this, deconstruction is shown to be thoroughly materialistic and atheistic. This is the idea that Patrick O'Connor's book Derrida: Profanations follows through. (It is a pity, in a way, that it comes so soon after and covers such similar ground as Hagglund's, as the unavoidable comparison seems to diminish the originality of O'Connor's work.) Through a series of complex and closely argued readings of Derrida and the philosophical canon, O'Connor develops his case for a deconstruction unencumbered by a normative morality.

While the book moves agilely around the terrain of Derrida's work, it is less sure-footed in the landscape of the thinkers O'Connor opposes. The sections on Levinas, for example, look rather superficial. Moreover, the account of religion that O'Connor adopts, in order to oppose, is that of Mircea Eliade's core distinction between the sacred and the profane. This conception, while still influential, has been widely questioned and looks very like a straw figure: religion across the world, as Derrida (among others) has made clear, is very complex and not easily reducible to a core idea.

The book concludes by challenging the "unquestioning way in which liberal values have been written into deconstructive premises" and goes on to suggest that this stems from an "acceptance of deconstruction as a critique of totalitarianism". Indeed, Derrida wrote, in 1988, that deconstruction has "always represented...the at least necessary conditions for identifying and combating the totalitarian risk". However, the more "profaning" deconstruction of O'Connor's book opens up the spectre not of a critique of liberalism - which surely is inherent in liberalism anyway, without the need for deconstruction? - but of an oddly totalitarian deconstruction.

This sort of book has been getting a bad press recently. It is certainly not for the general reader, not even for one with some background in philosophy: it is obscure, scholarly and presumes a great deal of knowledge. But Continuum should be applauded for publishing it. On the savannah of academic publishing, there are, of course, books that are great beasts, audible to all as they roar; there are herds of textbooks, to be hunted and fed upon; and then there are smaller creatures, often unglamorous and seen only by a few but that are absolutely essential to the ecosystem. Without them the whole savannah becomes stale and lifeless: with them it calls out to life. This book is one of those: less a profanation, perhaps, than a provocation.

Derrida: Profanations

By Patrick O'Connor

Continuum, 224pp, £65.00

ISBN 9781441181701

Published 6 May 2010

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