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Taking on the Tradition: Jacques Derrida and the Legacies of Deconstruction.

Taking on the Tradition: Jacques Derrida and the Legacies of Deconstruction. By Michael Naas. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. xxx + 211 pages.

The legacies of deconstruction remain to be determined. Presumably one of them will have been to raise the question of whether the acts of transmission--reading, writing, teaching--that are necessary to secure a strictly philosophical legacy do not also and inevitably put that legacy, or even its possibility, at risk. What passes from one generation to the next can by no means be guaranteed, though the absence of a guarantee may well constitute the one sure guarantee that something does come to pass even if it is nothing other than the coming of the passage itself or what earlier generations have called the generation gap. The case of deconstruction is exemplary, for deconstruction offers itself as, among other things, a reading of the so-called western philosophical tradition. In the work of Jacques Derrida, the figure who has come to signify "deconstruction" for more than one generation of readers, the reading of philosophical tradition derives in obvious ways from traditional scholarly and critical protocols. At the same time, Derrida's work not only exceeds such protocols but, more enigmatically, shows how they are predicated upon the necessary possibility that they may be exceeded.

In Taking on the Tradition: Jacques Derrida and the Legacies of Deconstruction, Michael Naas explores Derrida's intricate relation to tradition in order to show how Derrida "takes on" the very concept of tradition itself along with a constellation of concepts that surround and support it: "bequeathing and inheriting, giving and receiving, teaching and learning, writing and reading" (xix). As Naas explains in his introduction: "I wish to show how Derrida begins always with the tradition, with the canon, how he always assumes and confronts it, that is, 'takes it on,' so as to locate something within it that the tradition has itself never been able to take on as its own" (xxix). In effect, Derrida's work begins with tradition only to show that tradition is not even its own beginning--that it is not, after all, the tradition it claims to be.

The legacies of deconstruction are thus inextricably bound up with its reflections on "the legacy of the legacy" (9)--that is, on all that makes the passing on of a tradition at once necessary and impossible. However, "the legacy of the legacy" is ultimately less a matter for reflection than an occasion for action and appropriation: "The focus of this book is not only what Derrida says ... but the way he says it, not only the claims he makes, but the rhetoric, language, and strategies he uses to make them ... The focus is on the fact that the way Derrida says things, the way his texts are performative, is inseparable from what he says ..." (xxi). Inevitably, the way Derrida's texts are performative disrupts their constative claims, including the claims they make about tradition. Such disruptions are precisely what interest Naas: "Anytime Derrida begins analyzing the notions of reception or legacy within a particular text in the tradition, he ends up, because of the very necessity of taking on the tradition, performing and interrupting these gestures in his own reading so as to make possible the coming of 'another gesture,' one that is neither simply his nor the tradition's" (xix).

The individual chapters that make up Taking on the Tradition originated, as the introduction and notes indicate, as occasional essays, papers, and lectures. They are divided into three sections of three chapters each: the first primarily addresses Derrida's readings of Greek philosophy; the second primarily his readings of his near contemporaries in French thought, Michel Foucault and Emmanuel Levinas; and the third "autobiography, friendship, and hospitality" or "the sells relation to itself ... and its relation to other others either as individuals or as members of a community or state" (xxvii). Throughout the book, Naas supplements his readings of Derrida with readings of other figures including Homer, James Joyce, and Maurice Blanchot.

The trajectory is (loosely) chronological, but the argument is that tradition has "already from the beginning been other than itself" (xxiii). The impressive first section, "Greek Gifts," addresses one such beginning, and its three chapters include some of the most detailed exposition and analysis in the book. The opening chapter on Derrida's reading of the Phaedrus in "Plato's Pharmacy" is particularly compelling. Although it covers territory often discussed in introductions to Derrida's work, it does so with rare skill and, in many ways, sets the framework for all the chapters that follow. The discussion turns around the moment in "Plato's Pharmacy" when Derrida interrupts his account of the Phaedrus just as the king in Socrates's narrative is about to respond to the offer of Thoth's gift of writing. The king's subsequent critique of writing as "mere expression cut off from live intention" (10) institutes the very criteria that determine the philosophical tradition's response to the text of Plato's Phaedrus itself (often dismissed as the rather poor "expression" of a young Plato, not yet in command of his "intention" or, conversely, an elderly Plato, no longer in command of it). By interrupting at just this point, Derrida underlines the moment at which the interpretive authority of (a certain) tradition is founded--one that puts writing into question as a secondary or belated mode, mere expression. More broadly, the foundation of any oppositional hierarchy is at stake--not only speech and writing, but kings and subjects or, for that matter, teachers and students: "Derrida attempts to isolate not simply the oppositional structure of the text but that which orients it and makes it oppositional and hierarchical in the first place.... By cutting the king off in this way, Derrida draws our attention both to a certain philosophical legacy and to the very legacy of this legacy, to the handing down of a particular way of handing down" (7, 9).

The foundation of kingly authority is by no means undivided; it does not simply derive from the king: "[for] the reception of the king's authority does not simply confirm that authority but actually confers it upon him" (8). Tradition does not preexist the moment in which it is given and received or, for that matter, given and taken. A philosophical inheritance is both the object inherited and the act of inheriting--"the very legacy of this legacy"--and neither the object nor the act can be realized or realize itself in the absence of the other. However, the fit between the object inherited and the act of inheriting or between "legacy" and "legacy" is never an entirely orderly affair. A gap opens up between the given word of the king (or, say, Plato) and the reception of even his most obedient subject. To attribute this gap to the contingent failings of a particular mode of expression, as the king in the Phaedrus does when he condemns writing for its potential distortion of a speaker's intentions, is to misapprehend it. The king and his avatars (whether in the academy or elsewhere) attempt to master the gap by delimiting it to a particular conceptualizable field. They cannot do so, and one may find traces of that which exceeds all attempts at conceptual mastery even within the text of the Phaedrus.

Derrida finds such traces in the Greek word pharmakon, a singularly plural word that may be translated as both "remedy" and "poison" and, more to the point, which appears in the Phaedrus as the seeming bearer of both meanings. Thoth uses the word when he praises writing and the king when he condemns it. The interpretive range, the polysemy in question, remains determinate and the word pharmakon fully translatable if one supposes that within a given context (say, Thoth's speech or the king's), one already knows the interpretive protocol necessary to determine what is, prior to its expression, intended. Derrida does not allow such a supposition to remain unshaken. The translation of the word as one thing or another may be correct according to the set of protocols that the text itself seems to endorse--protocols that distinguish intention from expression and speech from writing--but it obscures how those protocols actually depend on the word that will always already have exceeded them: "All translations into languages that are the heirs and depositaries of Western metaphysics [heirs, for example, of Plato] thus produce on the pharmakon an effect of analysis that violently destroys it, reduces it to one of its simple elements by interpreting it, paradoxically enough, in the light of the ulterior developments it itself has made possible" (I quote from Barbara Johnson's translation of "Plato's Pharmacy" in Dissemination, [U of Chicago P, 1981, 99]). In Naas's formulation: "The question posed throughout "Plato's Pharmacy" is whether pharmakon does indeed mean 'remedy' in one place and 'poison' in another, depending on the circumstances, on the context, or whether pharmakon--as what would escape, yet remain unthinkable outside of, any particular context--can never in fact be mastered in this way, reduced to an either/or" (10).

The Phaedrus both determines a particular tradition of reading and yet can be read in such a way as to interrupt that tradition and bring it to a halt. It thereby gives way to a future that could no longer be characterized as belonging to its own determinate tradition and yet, obviously, could hardly be said not to belong to it. The crucial dynamic is performative: by breaking into the text at the moment when the king is about to institute interpretive protocols, Derrida's reading intervenes in the operation of those protocols in the course of its argument about them. He enacts as well as interprets, (ex)posing the text as that which must be read before and beyond protocols--read, therefore, before one can be sure what reading is or indeed whether it is either performative or constative: "By suspending [the] moment of donation ... Derrida suspends the moment when we will have to decide how to read, how to read ourselves, when we will have to decide what reading and writing--what we--are" (14).

Throughout Taking on the Tradition, one finds similarly complex and nuanced accounts of Derrida's work. The chapter on Derrida and Levinas is particularly effective in showing the intimate connection between Derrida's 1964 essay on Levinas and phenomenology, "Violence and Metaphysics," and his 1997 essay on Levinas and the ethics-cumpolitics of hospitality, "Adieu." In "Violence and Metaphysics," Derrida shows how the attempt to situate ethics on the far side of phenomenology and ontology, can only be articulated through (the language of) phenomenology and ontology. He is, therefore, in Naas's carefully elaborated account, "[already] speaking about the possibility of welcoming what is radically foreign," already asking "about the necessity of breaking with a tradition from within, in other words, the necessity of a certain hospitality for this contestation ..." (95).

In many of the later chapters, such detailed exposition of Derrida's arguments recedes in favor of a more exclusive emphasis on their performativity. As announced in the introduction, the focus is on "the fact that the way Derrida says things, the way his texts are performative, is inseparable from what he says and the claims he makes" (xxi). The approach is not unique to Naas (as his notes acknowledge, albeit in a general way), but it remains important and even salutary. However, as the book progresses, the increasingly formalized and, as it were, constative insistence on performativity becomes somewhat misleading. Intricately reflexive formulations, repeated on nearly every page, inadvertently endow Derrida's texts with the very qualities of structural and conceptual closure that Naas's own account of deconstruction and, indeed, tradition would seem to forestall. He repeatedly shows how Derrida's language does what it says, but fails to clarify how a text that does what it says also effects a radical displacement of what it says. The specular symmetry of doing and saying is illusory since, in doing what it says, a text cannot even entirely say what it says.

A characteristic passage appears in the chapter on "Khora:" "If detours in philosophy are thus always to some degree speculative, then Derrida's detour in 'Khora' is speculative in an exemplary fashion since it is a detour concerning speculation and, thus, a detour concerning detours. It is not only a description and a warning of the detour to come but a performative act that tries to draw attention to its own performance" (24). Taking on the Tradition is an echo chamber of such passages. The chapter on Derrida's intermittent debate with Foucault recalls "how this dialogue itself is marked by the very things at issue in the dialogue, that is, by exclusion and inclusion, mastery, control, communication with the other, and silence;" indeed, "the terms of the debate ... come to haunt the debate as a debate" (59). Similarly, the chapter on "The Politics of Friendship" suggests that "Derrida's deconstructive reading of the philosophical tradition surrounding friendship might thus itself be thought of as an act or performance of guest-friendship" (139).

The difficulty that haunts these formulations is that any claim that a text does what it says stands in uncomfortable rhetorical proximity to the claim that a text is what it says and thus that it fulfills the promise of aesthetic totalization--the promise of a perfectly self-referential structure. The shift from being to doing is (or, ought to be) crucial to the difference deconstruction makes to this aestheticizing tradition--that is, crucial to the breakdown of self-reference. Naas obviously grasps that in the specular linking of performative to constative or doing to saying, "the ring is always open ... it never achieves closure" (133). But arguably, even the spiraling figure of an infinite openness fails to capture the force of the performative intervention. In one of the relatively rare instances when Naas avoids reflexive formulations and the infinitizing effects of the mis-enabyme, he remarks quite astutely on how "Derrida reinterprets the source, opposing all self-reflecting and narcissistic sources to the source points or blind spots that always ... interrupt such reflection" (77). More such remarks would have helped, in turn, to interrupt the iteration of Naas's reflexively aware (and self-reflexively, self-aware) account of Derrida--an account that implies a control of discursive effects that the tension between the performative and the constative must finally undo.

Of course, reflexive formulations occur in Derrida's own writing, but they are always oddly asymmetrical, hedged about with qualifications, and submitted to incessant interruption. The very elegance of Naas's writing tends to smooth over such difficulties. He may be correct to say that "there is a way in which a text by or even on Derrida cannot but be self-reflective today, even autobiographical" (77). But further critical reflection on the act of self-reflection would (ironically enough) have helped to specify how and why performativity remains disruptive of the very reflexivity that it engenders--and thus disruptive, too, of tradition "itself."

The penultimate chapter, "Hospitality as an Open Question," also suffers, though in a different way, from a tendency to smooth over difficulties. It was originally written as a lecture for undergraduates on a foreign-study program, and Naas asks that it be read with its original occasion in mind. In this case, the decision not to revise further seems misjudged. The chapter includes a somewhat reductive methodological account of deconstruction that may, indeed, be useful to students, but reads oddly so near the end of the book and serves as a less than ideal framework for the discussion of hospitality. Under the rubric of hospitality Derrida takes up such issues as the policing of national borders and the granting of citizenship. The "open question" of hospitality therefore offers an opportunity to consider the political implications of deconstruction with some explicitness. The discussion's self-consciously "accessible and nontechnical" (xxviii) manner does not so much clarify these implications as vitiate some of their force. Thus Naas suggestively reads Odysseus as an allegorical figure for the (post)modern refugee, but gives an atypically and unnecessarily simplified account of Homer's text. For example, in recalling the episode of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, Naas refers to what he calls Polyphemus's notorious failure to play the role of good host to Odysseus and his men, "his inhospitable if not inhuman practice of inviting strangers into his cave only to consume them" (156). But Polyphemus does not invite anyone anywhere. Odysseus's men come as raiders to his cave when he is away and await his return at Odysseus's insistence, to "see if he would give me [Odysseus] presents" (Book VIII, line 229 in Richmond Lattimore's translation).

In Naas's allegory, Odysseus becomes a type of the vulnerable refugee, but Homer is not so easily moralized. Neither is Derrida whose notion of "hospitality" remains acutely sensitive to the potential for the hote (in French both host and guest) to become the hostis or enemy--as Odysseus so often does. For Derrida, responsibility to the refugee does not preclude distasteful realities: he (or she) may turn up unannounced, rifling in one's cave, and expecting handouts--perhaps even prepared to take by violence any "presents" that are not forthcoming. Once Homer drops out of the discussion, Naas does begin to articulate these difficulties: he could easily accommodate a more accurate--and a more troubling--reading of Homer to his reading of Derrida. One suspects that the desire to make difficult material palatable to students is what gets in the way. Elsewhere in the book, Naas reads Homer alongside Derrida to great effect, as in his illuminating philological analysis of the "friend" (he philotes) and its cognates in the Iliad.

The sheer range of Taking on the Tradition is, in fact, one of its strengths. Its aim is ultimately, though, not to be exhaustive but exemplary. At its best, in the combined attentiveness and scope of its readings, it offers a model of how "writing or even reading never simply finds or deciphers what a text means ... Rather, the source animates, moves, and attracts a reading and a writing that will then move it, reanimate and set it in motion" (86). This "source" that moves and is moved is (the) tradition (that is not) itself--a complex hybrid of monologue and polylogue, discipleship and dialectics, receptivity and rejection. Taking on the Tradition shows how all of these are set to work--engaged, interrogated, addressed--by Derrida and deconstruction. In doing so, it makes an important contribution to the efforts of a new generation to take on Derrida and to set in motion the legacy that is also the future of deconstruction.

Deborah Elise White

Emory University

Atlanta, Georgia
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Author:White, Deborah Elise
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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