Catherine Pickstock's After Writing came highly recommended to me from several sources as a profound and original critique of postmodernity and engagement with so-called "postmodern theology." While this dense volume is all that, I find it to be far more interesting as a defense of the traditional Latin Mass (the Tridentine, or Extraordinary, Form of the Roman Missal) than as a critique of other modes of thought.
Pickstock begins with a challenge to Derrida's famous reading of Plato's Phaedrus in his 1972 essay "Plato's Pharmacy." She attempts to argue, contra Derrida, that Plato does not so much privilege logocentric,"presence" in the guise of Theuthian "writing," as conceive of being as directly attached to orality and to a process of supplementation that partakes of excess rather than absence. She takes Derrida to task for associating Theuth exclusively with scribal écriture, providing a wealth of counter-examples from Egyptian papyri. Unfortunately, she does not offer such specificity when arguing that Derrida's thought can be reduced to pure nihilism. The argument is exceptionally difficult, but I believe Pickstock means to say that since the deconstructive "trace" constantly postpones meaning in a chain-like structure, meaning never actually exists, leaving nothing but "pure" difference. However, if there is only pure difference without a meaning from which traces differ, such a state could not be distinguished from pure *indifference.* Ergo, deconstruction can actually be said to rely on a metaphysics of presence. This last jump, however, strikes me as somewhat wishful thinking. To say deconstruction is "nihilistic" is potentially defensible; to insist that such nihilism is somehow logocentric does not follow so clearly.
Continuing the first part of the work, Pickstock moves forward from Plato (but backward from Derrida) to focus on the sempiternal whipping boy of both postmodern and traditional thought, René Descartes. As Descartes is so frequently identified as the progenitor of all that is wrong with modernity, this critique is less original, though still interesting. Descartes, she argues, only appears to begin from pure epistemology in the cogito; really, such a beginning requires a metaphysics in which the world is mapped out and comprehensible in a simple, propositional way -- a conception of reality Pickstock refers to as "mathesis." Ultimately, in this and the "transitional" middle section of the novel, she means to set up an archaeology of knowledge in which the Sophists began Duns Scotus, who begat William of Occam, who begat Peter Ramus, who begat Descartes, who begat Kant, who begat Heidegger, who begat Derrida. For me, it goes without saying that such a sweeping claim (and, really, a sweeping condemnation) requires a good deal more careful proof than can be contained in half of a 270-odd page book. Much of this first section goes by breathlessly, assuming that readers will take it almost on faith that (for instance) Derridean philosophy depends upon Cartesian-style mathesis, a claim that flies in the face of much in Derrida and other prominent spokespeople for "postmodernity."
Pickstock begins to slow down in the "transition," in which she seeks to demonstrate how "liturgical culture" (i.e. the High Middle Ages, Thomism in particular) undermined itself from the inside via Scotus's critique of Aquinas on being, immanence, etc. The salient divergence, for Pickstock, is Scotus's rejection of the Thomistic "analogy of being" in favor of a "univocity of being" dependent upon categories of being anterior to any actually existing being. Other reviewers have dealt with this section far more thoroughly than I can; suffice it to say that the argument is not outlandish, and Pickstock treads more carefully here, immersing her text in footnotes from the French neo-Thomists, especially Étienne Gilson. Marring the section is a perhaps too willing acceptance of 13th century Europe as a liturgically-oriented paradise, only ever contradicted by a half-hearted disclaimer at the very end of the section. Although Pickstock claims later to have no truck with conservatism, her vision of a guild-based feudalism in which, for example, the presence of praying beggars allows for a truly humanized charity (not "impersonal" contemporary philanthropy) wanders dangerously close to fetishization, and willfully elides the cruelties and depredations of the era.
If I have spent so much time on the deficiencies of this text, it is only because I consider even its weakest sections to be worthy of close attention. The book really begins to shine in the final section, in which Pickstock defends the Roman Rite as the "consummation of philosophy." The argument is far too nuanced and complex to detail in full, but she especially succeeds when closely reading the Latin text itself and commenting simultaneously on the nature of language (the Roman Rite, for example, by frequently "re-beginning" or "stammering," situates the subject in a context of linguistic difficulty that properly mirrors the journey toward the eucharistic altar). Her interpretation of the meaning of the eucharist is equally sophisticated. It is, she argues, the grounds for the possibility of "the sign" itself; when Christ says (of what is clearly bread) "this is my body," he completely bypasses deixis and leaves us with pure language that is, paradoxically, overflowing with meaning; the meaning is grounded not in "reference" but solely in the overflowing orality of Christ. The section develops what Pickstock saw in Platonism -- a conception of being as gift and excess, in which the world is characterized not by lack but by plenitude, in which being flows as gift from the trinity, and in which all beings (including human beings and inanimate nature) can participate in the divine being through liturgical orientation.
Throughout the text, Pickstock continues to distinguish herself at every turn from Derrida and deconstruction. While I applaud this maneuver (far too much philosophy and theology is served up as though continental thought did not even exist, or could be safely ignored), I do think that a closer engagement with Derrida's late "theological turn" would vastly improve this volume. As far as I could tell, passing references to "Donner la mort" and "Apories" constituted the only dialogue with Derrida's work of the 1990s; religiously inclined essays such as "Sauf le nom," "Khora," and/or "Cironfession" do push back against Pickstock's accusation of nihilism. I presume she has read some of this work and remained unconvinced; if so, it would behoove her to acknowledge these works and show how, for example, Derrida's preoccupation with apostrophe and prayerful address differs from her own laudatory account of apostrophe as a rhetorical/liturgical strategy. Similarly, Derrida has claimed in an interview that the primary philosophical maneuver is not question but affirmation -- again, he seems concerned specifically with exonerating himself from charges of nihilism. As usual, choosing Jacques Derrida as a whipping-boy comes at a high cost ...
In short, this book is well worth reading for theologians, Latin Mass aficionadoes, those interested in postmodernism's "theological turn," or those inclined to enjoy "intellectual history" on the broadest scale. This very scale is the book's greatest weakness, especially in Part 1, but the sheer virtuosity of the third part makes the uneven beginning well worth the read.