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Customer Review

4.0 out of 5 stars Best introduction to Derrida, 9 Jan. 2012
This review is from: Deconstruction in a Nutshell: Conversation with Jacques Derrida (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy) (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy (FUP)) (Paperback)
I checked into various introductions to Derrida, including Leslie Hill's Cambridge Introduction to Derrida, Sarah Wood's Reader's Guide to Writing and Difference, and Simon Glendinning's Derrida Introduction, and I recommend John Caputo's Deconstruction in a Nutshell as the best. Caputo's book, first, lets Derrida himself speak, since the first chapter consists of an interview given on the inauguration of a doctoral program of philosophy at an American university. The book's chapters, indeed, are structured around Derrida's answers at that event as well as around his published works. Second, manuals are ill fitted to the plastic and playful nature of deconstruction, and Caputo's approach works best for its subject matter.

If I can summarise Caputo (deconstruction in a nutshell in a nutshell...), deconstruction is about eyeing the contradictions and gaps (différence(s)) within a text. It is an invitation to push against a text's limits, seeking the paradoxical or tangential within it in order to draw out fresh inferences, fresh meanings from it. Thus Derrida asked about the gap between transcendence and immanence, the khora, as it is called in Plato's works, to make fresh observations on Platonic metaphysics. But deconstruction does not happen in a vacuum. It calls for new interpretations in the context of other texts. Thus the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, to take an example that is not Caputo's, might be decoded in the context of early twentieth-century travel literature on the countries it remapped. To give a sample of what Caputo writes: 'For deconstructive thinking is acutely sensitive to the contingency of our constructions, to the deeply historical, social, and linguistic "constructedness" of our beliefs and practices. [...] In other words, deconstructive thinking is a way of affirming the irreducible alterity of the world we are trying to construe - as opposed to the stupefying nonsense that deconstruction reduces the world to words without reference.'

Derrida seems to have been a uniquely misunderstood figure, though that may partly have been his own fault. He was resistant to any codification of his work. This arguably reflected the circularity of deconstruction, but as a consequence the false inference was made that deconstruction refuses to recognise any sort of truth or any sort of interpretative legitimacy. Second, Derrida himself was an unashamed public figure. Public reactions to Derrida were often stormy even if, as time passes, he is perhaps entering the mainstream. And finally he did not refrain from voicing his political views directly or indirectly - and this comes out again in Caputo's volume. Yet Derrida (or Caputo) does not deny that such a thing as the truth exist. Nor did he contend that every possible interpretation of a text is valid, merely that a plurality of interpretations are possible. Indeed, because deconstruction is valid in a context (linguistic, literary, cultural, historical), it actually rules out pure free-associating interpretations. 'There is nothing outside the text', Derrida's famous quip, means that whatever objective reality may exist out there can only be gotten at through texts. Caputo: 'It is not that there are no "referents" or "objectivity" but that the referent and objectivity are not what they pass themselves off to be, a pure transcendental signified.' There is nothing outside the text for us as far as our ability to describe or communicate it is concerned, an important qualifier. Language is a collection of symbols, not the actual thing - an idea only borrowed from the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. I am looking forward to trying Writing and Difference. Caputo's short volume was a great start.
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