There are some oddities in this piece on books about how to read Derrida and Marx.
The assumption of Granta’s How to Read series is that readers will go on to read at least some of the works discussed. Including this author in a series of this sort, aimed at a “general reader”, invites an interesting question: should one read Derrida? Is his work important, something with which any intelligent person should be familiar? In the grand scheme of things, perhaps not, but the question is complicated. What might it mean to say that an author is important, not just in a particular field, but for society as a whole?
What, indeed? Surely it’s fairly obvious that one has to figure that out in order to offer a reasonable answer to such a question. Isn’t it? Isn’t a question like ‘is Derrida’s work important?’ one that pretty much demands consideration of what is meant by ‘important’? Doesn’t one have to start by saying ‘Well what are we talking about here? Important to whom? Important for what purpose? Who wants to know?’ Words like ‘important’ are pretty obviously contextual rather than self-evident, aren’t they? Or am I confused.
In How to Read Derrida, Penelope Deutscher, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University in the United States, explains that deconstruction, the idea most closely associated with Derrida, is a way of reading that focuses on hidden contradictions, “deconstructing” the text, and often confounding the intentions of the author. This applies to radical and alternative ideas as well as established ones…To suggest that people should read Derrida, then, is to warn against simplistic or one-sided ideologies, and insist that “things are more complicated than that”.
Okay, but – is Derrida the only writer that’s true of? Are there other people who fit into the sentence ‘to suggest that people should read [__], then, is to warn against simplistic or one-sided ideologies, and insist that “things are more complicated than that”‘? Is Derrida the only writer who has ever warned against simplistic or one-sided ideologies, or pointed out that things are more complicated than that? If he’s not (and I’m hinting that I think he’s not), then is it quite true to say that to suggest that people should read Derrida, then, is to warn against simplistic or one-sided ideologies, and insist that “things are more complicated than that”? If someone – say, Derrida – is only one of many people who have said X, then is it clear that a suggestion that one should read Derrida is a suggestion that X? I’m not sure it is.
But, whatever satisfaction we may derive from Marxism’s power to explain, if Marx’s work is merely another text to be read it loses much of what he intended. For theory to “grip the masses”, as Marx put it, there has to be at least the foundation of a mass movement for it to address. Without such a movement, theory lacks direction, discipline even. Consequently, the obscurity of contemporary philosophy as exemplified by Derrida and his followers is not a purely intellectual phenomenon. Disconnected from political engagement, reading lacks urgency, and how we read, and what, becomes almost arbitrary.
Wait – what? Disconnected from political engagement, reading lacks urgency? It does? Not at my house it doesn’t! Not unless ‘political engagement’ is interpreted almost insanely broadly. Disconnected from engagement of any kind, one might say, reading lacks urgency, but then that’s pretty much a tautology – and there are more kinds of engagement than the political. Lots more. So – I beg to differ.