Nero's kind of fiddler

Derrida for Beginners
January 31, 1997

Instant knowledge is like instant coffee. It is marketed mainly for people who cannot be bothered to go to the trouble of getting the real thing. In the case of instant Derrida, however, it is at least open to question whether the ersatz version does not actually taste better than the genuine article.

In spite of the gimmicky packaging - which also means, as Derrida would point out, because of the gimmicky packaging - this is quite a buyable book. The pity is that it could have been better value if the authors had gone to the trouble to check their facts and formulations. It opens with the assertion that Derrida is a philosopher who "has never written anything straightforwardly philosophical". This will not do. It might perhaps be claimed that he has never written anything philosophical straightforwardly. But that is a different matter.

The guru is introduced straight away as the "leading exponent" of deconstruction, and the question "What is deconstruction?" is addressed with further ado. We are offered a page of tickertape dicta to choose from, most of which would presumably be quite opaque to beginners, ranging from "not what you think it is" to "literature's revenge on philosophy".

Leaving all these obscure possibilities in play, the presentation moves immediately to the story of Derrida's honorary degree at Cambridge. Predictably, the opposition dons are portrayed as a bunch of academic dinosaurs striking "Anglo-Saxon attitudes". Dinosaurs they may have been. But the Anglo-Saxon gibe is far wide of the mark. Many French academics would echo exactly the Cambridge complaints about Derrida's work. It is difficult here to absolve the authors of the charge of intellectual snobbery. (We are fortunately no longer living in the era when every boring continental film was acclaimed by the British cognoscenti as a masterpiece, but one remembers it well. Something similar may now be happening in "cultural studies".)

The book is interesting because of its layers of built-in ambivalence, which is doubtless why Derrida approves of it. It is not for beginners at all, and it would be laughably naive to assume this. (Just as naive as assuming that "New Daz" is really new. Or "New Labour" either.) The word "beginners" is a publisher's catch-penny, designed with an eye to sales. Some of the "big names" the series deals with were very much aware of their own market value. Derrida obviously is. So was Picasso. Derrida himself, we are told, provided "generous and careful assistance" in the production of the book. One might have guessed as much. With his penchant for feeble puns, he could hardly have resisted the opportunity to collaborate with a publisher called Icon.

The ambivalence begins to show as soon as the question is raised (quite early on) of whether Derrida is "a joker". And the clever answer is given: "Perhaps, if we're willing to rethink joking...". But no rethink is called for. In the points de suspension idiom, a joker ... is a joker. Images of playing cards and games feature prominently in the illustrations. One waits for the point to be made that a joker overrides other cards in the pack. Or pack ... Nothing destabilises communication like a few extra punctuation marks.

The text, which is no more than a short essay spread out over nearly 200 pages, teeters at times uncomfortably on the edge of pretentious nonsense. But so do the writings of its hero. Where an opportunity has been missed is with the pictures. Any artist with a spark of originality should have risen to the challenge of presenting in visual terms such Derridean concepts as "undecidability" and "absence". Instead what we see throughout are rather dreary run-of-the-commercial-mill montages, of which the main functions seem to be to multiply photographic images of Derrida and keep down the number of words per page. Somebody also missed the opportunity to relate this division of labour to another of Derrida's keywords: "supplement".

Occasionally the book makes Derrida out to be even more cavalier in the treatment of other thinkers' views than he actually is. And that is certainly some kind of achievement. To out-Derrida Derrida is not easy. But the authors manage it when, in an orgy of alphabetic grammatism, they represent Saussure as claiming (in a comic strip bubble issuing forth in English from Saussure's head - surely it should have been in French from his mouth?) that all cases of writing are "monstrous". Given Derrida's position on grammatology, this merits a double-take at the very least. What Saussure actually said does not, so far as is known, correspond to this at all. What appears in print in the text of the Cours de linguistique generale does not either. But fuddy-old-duddy undeconstructed textual commentary - for those square enough to practise it - at least suggests where this unbelievable garble came from. (The source is one brief paragraph at the end of Saussure's chapter on the relations between speech and writing, and the original remark is not about writing at all but about pronunciations influenced by spelling.)

The way Derrida's approach to language is contrasted with Austin's does justice to neither. The issue is complicated by the fact (unmentioned in the text) that Derrida never understood Austin's theory of speech acts in the first place, and perhaps did not want to. But what is comic about the account given here is the role foisted on Austin as defender of traditional bastions. He would be better cast as a revolutionary and Derrida as Don Quixote. Why Derrida does not like Austin is quite evident: Austin actually stole Derrida's thunder in advance by being the first 20th-century philosopher to challenge the linguistic credentials of the traditional dichotomy between truth and falsity. And did so with wit, acuity and a scrupulous avoidance of anything that smacked of intellectual charlatanism.

Derrida is not the harbinger of any philosophical revolution. He is the philosophical Nero who fiddles while watching Rome burn. Nero, it seems, was not a particularly good fiddler. Nor is Derrida. The only reason why the fiddling attracts attention at all is that it is not what one would expect in the midst of a rush for the exits.

Although Derrida for Beginners hints plainly at the less savoury aspects of Derrida's thinking (exemplified in his ill-judged and unconvincing attempts to defend fascist sympathisers like Heidegger and Paul de Man), it makes no serious attempt to assess Derrida's originality. Nor does it raise the basic question of whether the destabilisation programme does not in the end serve to reinforce the authority of precisely those forms of discourse that it purports to question.

There is not much in the book to suggest to readers how little the real Derrida measures up to the slickness of presentation by his acolytes. However much one might complain about Derrida for Beginners, at least it is too brief to be dull. But the real Derrida, alas, is a tedious writer and a soporific lecturer. The worst fate in store for beginners here would be that they might be tempted to venture beyond the beginning.

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

Derrida for Beginners

Author - Jeff Collins and Bill Mayblin
ISBN - 1 874166 38 2
Publisher - Icon
Price - £8.99
Pages - 171

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