Nicholas Royle's text on Jacques Derrida is part of a recent series put out by the Routledge Press, designed under the general editorial direction of Robert Eaglestone (Royal Holloway, University of London), to explore the most recent and exciting ideas in intellectual development during the past century or so. To this end, figures such as Martin Heidegger, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Ricoeur, and other influential thinkers in critical thought are highlighted in the series, planned to include at least 21 volumes in all.
Royle's text, following the pattern of the others, includes background information on Derrida and its significance, the key ideas and sources, and Derrida's continuing impact on other thinkers. As the series preface indicates, no critical thinker arises in a vacuum, so the context, influences and broader cultural environment are all important as a part of the study, something with which Derrida might agree.
Why is Derrida included in this series? It is hard to come up with a more wide-ranging and influential thinker in the twentieth century than Jacques Derrida. While starting out in the literary field as a primary focus, his thought and intellectual influence has extended far beyond to almost every academic field. Particularly in the areas of philosophy, politics, law, theology, sociology, psychology and science, Derrida's influence will continue to be significant for a number of reasons.
Royle's text is very interesting, as I knew it would be from the start, but one of the truly surprising aspects of this text was that it was fun to read. From the very first page, when I saw that the first comment on the text was from Derrida himself, I knew that inside there would be creativity and humour, pieces of interest and insight. Derrida's comment, with which I completely agree, is that this text is 'Excellent, strong, clear and original.' One might consider it ironic that in a text dealing essentially with an overview of another's thought, there would be little room for originality. However, this is to miss a great deal of what Derrida tries to say, and something that one gets out of this text. All things are new and renewed; even the re-hash of old thoughts becomes unique and original.
I did not know it at the time I began reading, but the book is designed so that each chapter can be a stand-alone essay, peripherally related to each other, but not dependent upon any particular order of reading. I say this because I started near the end of the book. There is a chapter entitled 'Poetry Break' – being an erstwhile poet of sorts, this was automatically of interest. But when I noticed that Royle had selected Coleridge's 'Kubla Kahn' as the example. This is one of my favourite poems, and the application of Derrida's principles opened up interesting insights. One key insight (if I am permitted to use that phrase, as Royle argues that the idea of key insights is a foreign concept for Derrida) has to do with the unreadability of the poem – how can we tell what it means? It goes beyond reason, certainly, and is hardly just a drug-induced reverie. It contains a gift and an element of poetry difficult to discern, an infinite and unknowable element that nonetheless speaks to us in unique ways.
Part of the problem of putting Derrida into a series like this is that the series requires the identification of key ideas. Royle states that there is few things less like Derrida's thought than to attempt to organise his ideas into a string of 'key ideas'. Here the humour is introduced again – one feature of the Routledge texts is to have key idea and explication boxes, separated out from the rest of the text. That doesn't happen much in this volume, as Royle tries to remain clear of putting 'Jacque in the Box'. The only such pull-text box asks the question, 'What is a box?' and proceeds to deconstruct and destroy the idea of using this as a working principle in the book.
Ah, there, I've said it. If there is a key idea to be identified in Derrida's work, it is Deconstruction. This is perhaps what Derrida is destined to be known for, the relentless pursuit of deconstructing everything in his path. Derrida himself doesn't care much for the word, but the underlying purpose is crucial. Deconstruction works from the principle that everything is divisible, and that there is value in shaking things up, a sort of seismic communication theory. This leads to the ideas of text, supplement, differance, and even monsters.
Monsters, you say? Surely a lot of modern and postmodern thought is monstrous, in a number of ways. Derrida would say yes! The monstrous is always around us – Shelley's Frankenstein is not simply a monster tale, but is also a moral and political lesson. We can apply the idea of the monstrous to the future – it is something unknown, and therefore frightening; monsters cease to be monsters once they are domesticated, once they are known. Derrida believes that much of religious faith is based upon the monstrous – Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, Jesus on the cross, these are monstrous things, that once they become known and transformed in new ways, cease their monstrosity. Of course, some of the ways in which these have been domesticated becomes once again monstrous.
As do the other volumes in this series, Royle concludes with an annotated bibliography of works by Derrida, works on Derrida, interview transcripts (Royle mentions a number of times that Derrida is known for talking as much as writing), and a listing of the top ten initial suggestions for those who want an accessible introduction to Derrida's work.
Intriguing and unexpectedly humourous, this is one of the better books I've read in a very long time.