Derrida: a Very Short Introduction
Oxford University Press, 144pp, £7.99
I don't usually stalk celebrities, but one sunny day in the gardens of an Oxford college, I looked up to see a conspicuously neat man making his way past the rose border, pursued by a cloud of white hair. The urge was irresistible. "It's Jackie D," I cried, and ran off
to follow him.
It was an odd thing to do, perhaps, particularly given that I hadn't actually read a word of Derrida at that point. I was not alone, however, in holding strong opinions about the man without having read his work. His visit to Oxford came at the time that a group of Cambridge academics was lodging a noisy objection to his nomination for an honorary doctorate at that university. It was clear, from the hysterical tone of the widely reported statement (Derrida's "contempt for argumentative rigour" would "deprive the mind of its defences", the group argued) no less than from the extraordinary absence of a single citation from the French philosopher's work, that the assembly of scandalised scholars had read barely a word written by Derrida.
Many see it as rough justice that the philosopher of deconstruction - of a kind of reading, that is to say, which seeks actively and rigorously to destabilise and reorder the texts it analyses - should have become the most systematically misread thinker of his generation. Well-known for their opacity, Derrida's texts seem to invite misreading merely because few readers can ever really be confident that their own reading has been correct. For this reason, most scholarly readers of Derrida were drawn from literature and the humanities - readers much better used to attending to texts whose dense fields of significance yield cognitive fruit only over a long harvest.
The effects of this have been mixed, with the proliferation of pseudo-philosophical Derridese, a kind of criticism that gives the illusion of insight simply by submerging its readers in an avalanche of undigested categories. Things are better now, however; academia is decidedly less dominated by Derrida-haters and Derrida-lovers, with the effect that it is only now, seven years after his death, that his philosophy can be read with the kind of disinterested equilibrium it requires.
Simon Glendinning's excellent study of the philosopher exemplifies this in two ways. First, it is the 278th of Oxford University Press's "very short introductions", which, given that the series' coverage of philosophy began at number 25 with Heidegger in 2000, is not exactly an elevated position. Second, and more importantly, Glendinning's book is laudably undefensive. He wastes little space defending Derrida from denigrators and devotees, and instead connects the man's thinking to the concerns of the general reader.
Although he leaves many scraps for the editors of Pseuds Corner, Glendinning proceeds with cautious clarity. Take the discussion in two central chapters of the idea of "différance", showing in a series of relatively easy steps how our notion of identity - in everyday perception, in language - is rooted as much in what is absent as in what is present. The "movement of différance" is gradually shown to be the conceptual key to so many of Derrida's themes, linking his early analysis of the relation of thought to speech in turn to his discussion of philosophical tradition, and his gradual absorption of ethical and political considerations into his thinking.
After idly following Derrida around Oxford that afternoon, I came to know his texts rather better in the following years, eventually devoting a chapter of my PhD to him. And yet, reading Glendinning's book, I realise how much more I shall gain from reading Derrida now that the debates he encircled with such grace and loving scholarship are more distant from my concerns. This is not an "idiot's guide" - Derrida does not, or should not, have much relevance for idiots - but rather an invitation to re-enter philosophical labyrinths from which one first emerged not by killing any minotaurs but merely by running out of thread. So, this book is perhaps less an introduction than a reintroduction. Either way, it's very short, and certainly worth reading.
Guy Dammann is music critic of the Times Literary Supplement and teaches at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama