Book Review : Jim Powell - Derrida for Beginners (1997)
Derrida has said that any statement such as "deconstruction is 'X'' automatically misses the point.
I usually don't read ABOUT stuff. Even the subject I like, I don't pursue. I don't have a satisfying explanation to that except that I value authors and ideas more than I'll ever value a subject in particular. I'll blame the school system for that, like I always do. It has ruined my desire to learn the way they spend twenty years teaching me. The exception to that rule would be the philosophy of Jacques Derrida. See, he's kind of hot shit in academia. It's really cool to debate Derrida amongst eggheads. It's even cooler to say you don't understand him and that it really is impossible to.
Jacques Derrida became interesting to me a couple years after the official failure of my always-doomed academic career after reading about deconstruction in an essay by patron saint of this blog Chuck Klosterman. What if Derrida was unwittingly important to me? Am I not seeing something obvious here? So I mustered all the courage I could and decided to start with: Derrida for Beginners, by renowned philosophical popularizer Jim Powell. Turned out I was not seeing several things, but none of them were really obvious. This is the first of at least two reviews about decoding Derrida, so please be kind. It all comes from an earnest place of intellectual curiosity.
So, what's so frustrating about Jacques Derrida's philosophy?
He's seen as a crucial figure in twentieth century philosophy and the spiritual father to post-structuralism, which he cast upon an unsuspecting academia during a legendary lecture at Johns Hopkins University in the sixties. But I challenge you to open Derrida's magnum Opus Of Grammatology and understand what the hell is going on. He deconstructs philosophers who are tough to understand by themselves such as Martin Heidegger and Claude Lévi-Strauss, two fellas I'm sure you haven't read and neither did I. Derrida picks their texts aparts in this playful, artistic and often self-referential way that will make you cry to your mother after 30 pages. I'm talking putting Xs on words in the middle of a text and such. It's a nightmare to read without any guidance.
Jim Powell begins his brilliant breakdown of Jacques Derrida's life and philosophy right where he should: by giving historical and cultural context. The birth of post-structuralism and deconstruction came during the rise of an important political movement that had some of the most important intellectuals of its era examining the questions of text and language. Derrida himself was born in Algiers and member of an oppressed Jewish minority, so he already had interests in the controlling power of speech, text and language. This is important. This is at the heart of Derrida's principal contribution to philosophy: deconstruction.
Deconstruction first focuses on the binary oppositions within a text-like man/woman. Next it shows how these opposites are related, how one is central, natural and privileged, the other ignored, repressed and marginalized. Next it temporarily undoes or subverts the hierarchy to make the text mean the opposite of what it originally appeared to mean. Then in the last step both terms of the opposition are seen dancing in a free play of non-hierarchical, non-stable meanings.
So there you have it. Powell breaks down deconstruction as being essentially this: every text in the Western Occidental philosophical and literary tradition has a center. That center is an idea. A truth. Something impossible to debate and it manifests itself in text through binary oppositions (as quoted above) and privileges the opposition that confirms its center and marginalizes the other. For the longest time here, it was God. Derrida thought (and rightfully so) that it was complete bullshit and called it out at Johns Hopkins University during his famous lecture. Not only he did that, but he offered a method of decentering texts and proving that meanings are unstable and always deferred in an arbitrarily organized system.
The philosophical breakdown kind of stops there in Derrida for Beginners. Jim Powell subsequently goes over every publication of Derrida and exposes how he used deconstruction to decenter canonical texts in Occidental tradition. An important aspect Powell emphasizes after his brilliant explanation of deconstruction is how anything can be text to Jacques Derrida. Whatever series of symbols with inherent meaning and underlying rules is a text. It's a structuralist thing. Powell gives the example of boxing. It has its symbols, its grammar and a set of rules everybody watching is supposed to already know, like when two people are talking the same language. So deconstruction is not just literary criticism. It's a philosophical method which applies to the very fabric of life.
Derrida for Beginners was more or less an introduction to the important concepts and methods of Jacques Derrida's philosophy, albeit a brilliant one. I do not claim to have a sturdy understanding of how to deconstruct anything, really, but I can see the appeal and important of such method. We're tunneled through ideological constructions by forces we can't control as individuals, so it's important to understand their ideological center and not blindly adhere to tyrannical beliefs. It's what Chuck Klosterman is doing in his books and it's something I aspire to do with this blog. Anyway, more on that after I read Deconstruction for Beginners this summer.