Jacques Derrida: Live Theory. By James K. A. Smith


Pp. xvii, 157 , NY/London , Continuum , 2005 , $24.95 .

Few philosophers of late have courted as much controversy as Derrida or, according to Smith, been as misconstrued. Whilst detractors accuse him of ‘hermeneutical nihilism’ intent on ‘undermining the very task of scholarship’ (p. 4), the mass of popularist appropriations often fail to take into account the subtlety of his work. Thus Smith's contribution to what has so far been an exemplary series – others include Baudrillard, Cixous, Kristeva and Žižek - should not be treated as mere introduction, but an essential reclamation of this ‘privileged interpreter of the philosopher tradition’ (p. 118).

The book is divided into three major sections which follow the historical development of his work whilst simultaneously treating it in terms of the trivium of classical philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Chapter One examines Derrida's principle contention that the Western philosophical tradition has consistently denigrated written language and the metaphysical implications thereafter. Particular attention is given to his early engagements with Husserl, Rousseau and Lévi-Strauss. Chapter Two details his interest in literature and the role of interpretation. Here Smith provides sensitive readings of Derrida's most contentious claims: ‘there is nothing outside the text’ (i.e. there is nothing without a context), and the problematic of authorial intent. Chapter Three explores Derrida's explicit engagement with politics, religion, and ethics. A further chapter outlines Derrida's relation to his philosophical predecessors: Plato, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Freud; as well as contemporary responses: American, German, analytical and postmodern. The book ends with excerpts from selected interviews.

Derrida was of course opposed to interviews or indeed the idea of a ‘live theory’ to the extent that the immediacy of the interview would somehow clear up the ambiguities of a text. It is then not without some contention that excerpts of interviews are included. Moreover, by constructing an interview, Smith risks (as he himself points out) a certain violence by making Derrida merely say what he wants to him to say. Nonetheless, it is somewhat fitting that Derrida remains a trace (i.e. present by his absence) in these excerpts; and by highlighting these very issues, Smith is able to challenge the axiomatic of the interview ritual. Indeed, by risking this violence in the name of Derrida he arguably remains faithful to the spirit of deconstruction – one which is often overlooked.

According to the standard interpretation Derrida highlights the undecidablity of meaning, abandoning us to the play of the signifier and disseminating us across the void. And this has had an important impact on theology. In what amounts to a fetishization of the flux, theologians like Mark C. Taylor (and to a lesser extent John Caputo) have read the critique of logocentrism (i.e. that meaning is transcendentally secured) as a chance to relinquish our moorings from doctrinal demands or religious institutions to embrace a ‘religion without religion’. And from here it is of course a short step to inscribing religion into the autonomous and private individual, a liberal spirituality devoid of communal ties. Yet if Derrida was wary of institutions, it was not their social strictures that mattered, but the point at which an institution or community closes in on itself at the expense of the other.

Moreover, from the perspective of ethics, undecidability can easily come to mean ‘indecision, a kind of paralysis in the face of the power to decide’ (p. 82). Yet as Smith points out, for Derrida ‘undecidablity does not stand in opposition to decision, but rather in opposition to a situation of complete knowledge’ (p. 82); i.e. in the same way Kierkegaard's Abraham cannot appeal to any rule or universal law to justify his act, there are occasions when we must act despite not being in possession of all the facts. And it is precisely this lack of knowledge which makes a situation ethical.

Surprisingly this emphasis on decision would bring Derrida into far closer proximity with current continental or postmodern thought that is accredited in Smith's final chapter. For example, Badiou and Žižek's articulation of the Truth-Event is equally indebted to Kierkegaard, and involves an absolute commitment to an act, the results of which cannot be known in advance. The difference resides at the level of singularity or universality. For Derrida deconstruction concerns singular institutions and practices. It is in the words of Smith ‘a deeply affirmative mode of critique attentive to the way in which texts, structures, and institutions marginalise and exclude ‘the other’, with a view to reconstructing and reconstituting institutions and practices to be more just’ (p. 12). For Badiou and Žižek by contrast the act proposes nothing short than the inauguration of an entirely new social order.

A further feature of Smith's exposition is Derrida's relation to justice and law. For Derrida, qua Levinas, we are called to respond unconditionally to the singularity of the Other, yet not only can we never measure up to this infinite responsibility, we must respond to each singularity. What spares us from being consumed by these obligations is precisely law. Thus law emerges as a kind of ‘necessary evil’ (p. 79). On the one hand this makes Derrida sound curiously like Freud for whom the generality of law saves us from the overbearing love of the mother. Yet crucially, whereas the imposition of law invites resignation for Freud – society is built on renunciation – Derrida invites us to consider the finitude of all laws and hence the possibility of a ‘hospitality to come’. What emerges therefore is less an apolitical aesthetic, as someone deeply committed to justice, hope, and the emancipatory, liberal politics of the enlightenment.

The cover of this book, as with the others in the series, is one of those photographs of an everyday object taken from an obscure angel that leaves the viewer guessing as to what it is; and this serves as an apt metaphor for Smith's work, because despite Derrida's omnipresence throughout the humanities, Smith has managed to render Derrida otherwise. Hence while this book will be of benefit to all those approaching Derrida for the first time and in need of a guide, it will also serve as an important corrective to those who might unwittingly have perceived Derrida as an enemy of truth.