Return of Oedipus

Stephen Bann

  • Dissemination by Jacques Derrida
    Athlone, 366 pp, £25.00, December 1981, ISBN 0 485 30005 2

Jacques Derrida once defined his intellectual project with the aid of an image from the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale. It was a question, he suggested, of ‘vomiting up’ philosophy and restoring her to the ‘sea of texts’ from which she had proudly withdrawn. Those who would like to take the allegory further might reflect that Jonah was not in fact precipitated into the sea but onto dry land, and lost no time in prophesying doom to the great city of Nineveh. Derrida’s message has indeed caused increasing disarray in the citadels of Academe over the past decade, and particularly in those of America. If American philosophers, such as John Searle, have reacted dismissively, the same has not been true of those restless denizens of the sea of texts, the literary critics. Geoffrey Hartman’s Saving the Text, whose subtitle hopefully sandwiches Derrida between the two bastions of ‘Literature’ and ‘Philosophy’, is a recent and highly impressive example of the recuperative effort which has been expended in responding to the challenge.

Writing in the last issue of this review, the American philosopher David Hoy gives courteous attention to Hartman’s redemptive strategy. But he remains sceptical about Derrida’s influence and, in the last resort, dismissive of his claims. For him, Derrida practises a ‘recognisable genre’, that of bringing philosophy to an end. But where Wittgenstein, for example, practises the genre for therapeutic purposes, Derrida’s enterprise has the same ambiguity as he detects in Plato’s use of the term pharmakon in the Phaedrus: it is either a poison or a cure. Hoy indeed goes further than this, and suggests that Derrida’s obstinate dedication to ambiguity may cause him to fall, irretrievably, between two stools. ‘We could decide his texts were neither literature nor philosophy, nor anything else.’

For someone who is more keenly aware of being adrift in the ‘sea of texts’, this categorical judgment is hard to accept. Hoy’s arguments are sound enough. But they do not take full account of the scope of Derrida’s achievement. Nor, it seems to me, do they diagnose the real challenge which Derrida is now obliged to face. Barbara Johnson’s painstaking translation of La Dissémination (1972) certainly comes to us as a dividend of American preoccupation with Derrida. But the questions which it raises go beyond his current notoriety, and recall us to the literary and intellectual context in which the work was first produced. Where does it belong in the sequence of his publications? How does it stand in relation to the heroic enterprise of ‘vomiting up’ philosophy? If Derrida has taught us nothing else, he has taught us to be sceptical about questions such as these, which take for granted an easily extracted ‘content’ and a teleologically-ordered direction within a sequence of texts. Nevertheless the attempt at elucidation has to be made.

One generalisation may be risked at the outset. Over the years since the publication of Grammatology and Writing and Difference in 1967, Derrida’s work has come to be presented less and less as a philosophic discourse, and more and more as a poetic discourse. The central notion of Grammatology – that there should be a theory of the written text as such – has been put into practice through an unremitting attention to questions of structure and form. The conventional form of the book as a sequence of chapters, anticipated in an omniscient Preface and summed up in a succint Conclusion, has been criticised and, as it were, exploded from within. Dissemination belongs midway in this process. The preliminary ‘Outwork’ (Hors-Texte) is a brilliant exploration of the metaphysical assumptions which underlie the convention of the prefatory text. The three following sections carry to an extreme the balance between citation and commentary which is the distinguishing mark of the learned article or critical review. Nevertheless the balance has not yet been tipped irretrievably towards citation, as in Glas (1974). Nor has the spatio-temporal unity of the book been sacrificed to the deceptively casual journal or ‘postcard’ form employed in recent works.

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