The Tain of the Mirror: Derrida and the Philosophy of Reflection 
by Rodolphe Gasché.
Harvard, 348 pp., £19.95, December 1986, 0 674 86700 9
Show More
by Christopher Norris.
Fontana, 271 pp., £4.95, November 1987, 0 00 686057 5
Show More
The Truth in Painting 
by Jacques Derrida, translated by Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod.
Chicago, 386 pp., £39.95, October 1987, 0 226 14323 6
Show More
The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond 
by Jacques Derrida, translated by Alan Bass.
Chicago, 521 pp., £36.75, August 1987, 0 226 14320 1
Show More
The Archaeology of the Frivolous: Reading Condillac 
by Jacques Derrida, translated by John Leavey.
Nebraska, 143 pp., $7.95, June 1987, 0 8032 6571 9
Show More
Show More

Bait them and the Derrideans certainly rise. When the English version of Derrida’s Glas appeared last year in the United States*, I wrote a griping review of it, to regret mainly that a philosopher as brilliantly fresh and radical as Derrida should want to publish something so mannered and so hard to follow. Some of the North American faithful objected to this review, and one, a professor of philosophy in Scranton, wrote a letter warning that I had failed not just Derrida but our whole benighted community. To wit:

The signs of the Holocaust were all around but only the Madman saw them. And no one listened to the Madman. It is 1939 with regard to the world of letters, and Jacques Derrida is telling us to wake up. But we don’t listen.

Thus spoke Zarathustra, as I recall, in an aggressively lyrical strain unsoftened on this occasion by any hint of Glas-nost. How odd that Derrida, one of whose democratic themes has been the need to deconstruct the notion of authority in the transmission of knowledge, should himself find authority so easy to come by.

The review did not ask for his ostracism as a Madman, it merely found fault with his presumption that readers of Glas should bear with him through the punishing tortuosities of its parallel texts on Hegel and on Jean Genet. The author of Glas is Derrida the writer, casting yet more doubt on the credentials of philosophy ‘proper’ by apparently allowing the surface accidents of language to call his own textual tune; the result is an arrogant show of that mix of rigorous commentary and antic verbalism which we might as well call Derri-Dada. This is not the most reasonable or effective style in which to be sounding reveille-calls to the slumbering world of letters. But why raise even the author of Glas to the rank of Madman, when he remains first and foremost a thinker, serious, fundamental and mind-enlarging in his inquiries into a whole range of unexamined a-prioris in philosophy, and a disappointment only in those places where he turns performative, and writes in such a manner as to exemplify from within rather than analyse from without the underlying continuities between the texts of philosophy and those of literature? The literary Derrida is for most of us parasitical on the philosophical one; thought is what we demand of him, not flighty approximations to fiction.

To recapture Derrida for philosophy is the aim, happily, of both Rodolphe Gasché’s The Tain of the Mirror and Christopher Norris’s Modern Master volume. Gasché’s is a formidable book, a dense, none too easy, but splendidly full and orderly synthesis of Derrida’s thought, which makes a meticulous case for him as a philosopher of real substance, given the radical nature of his investigations in the philosophies of language and of meaning. Gasché starts by restoring most helpfully the connections between Derrida’s concerns, unfamiliar as those notoriously are to anyone brought up on the prevalent Anglo-American philosophy, and the concerns of the German philosophical tradition in which he is so thoroughly read, in Kant, Hegel, Husserl and Heidegger – Nietzsche, a proto-deconstructionist if ever there was one, is surprisingly played down. Gasché’s central theme is that of reflexivity, or the ‘specular’ freedom of the human consciousness to reflect (on) its engagement with the world, and of this mirroring mind’s necessary, if frequently occluded, structural limits: the ‘tain’ is that non-reflecting surface which backs the glass in a mirror and makes reflection possible. This is the guiding metaphor for the whole of the book, since as a thinker Derrida has gravitated consistently and with profit to the bounds of thinkability, or the unthought conditions which have to be there for thought as we know it to be possible.

He is with Saussure and the structuralists in the assumption that, linguistically, meaning is differential, is determined by the relations which hold between the constituents of a language. But Saussure did not see quite where the logic of this led to. Derrida has seen: it leads to the loss of independence for meanings, which are no longer transcendent idealities, able to exist apart from their expression, but shifting forms stabilised by their objective ‘inscription’. By eliminating Saussure’s own stubborn and unremarked idealism, Derrida has extended structuralism, or at any rate underwritten the closed structures in which it deals, by a congeries of ‘infrastructures’, aimed at capturing what Gasché calls the ‘structurality of structure’. It is with these that Deconstruction sets to its work of conceptual sabotage: with différance, the trace, temporalisation, the ‘supplement’, and the rest of them, terms which are held, by definition, to escape definition but of which Gasché gives an excellent account in the middle section of his book. Were these infrastructures allowed to be related to one another by a common essence, it would be by the principle of difference itself: but how are essences to be thought by thinkers condemned like ourselves to think inescapably in differential terms? Derrida’s infrastructures are for ever about their unholy business of differentiation, ensuring that there can be no such thing, even in their own case, as integrity, or essence, or identity. These are ideal notions we may yearn after but which we cannot, in all honesty, attain to: Derrida is philosophy’s strict if good-humoured superego, barring the way to the deceptive satisfactions of a simple monism.

In full deconstructive flow he is an exciting beater of the cognitive bounds, uncovering the presuppositions in other thinkers’ systems which those thinkers had not noticed were there. If Kant didn’t ask the telling question, then Derrida will now ask it for him – from ‘inside’ the philosopher’s own discourse, as he slyly puts it in an analysis of Kant’s aesthetics in Truth in Painting. This is sly because the inside/outside distinction is one of those he has worked hardest to deconstruct, and nowhere more beneficially than in this suggestive mediation on the ‘parergonal’, or marginal aspects of works of art. It is the same old story in art as everywhere else that Derrida has chosen to look: the parergon is necessary but unconsidered, its ‘logic’ is that of the ‘supplement’. The painting has need of a frame, but the frame is not part of the painting, or so the protocols of art declare. There has been a conspiracy against the parergon, which is marginal because it has been marginalised: but Derrida will give back to it its true importance as an archetype of the ‘undecidable’, at once part and not part of the aesthetic whole. Truth in Painting is arguing for a more open-minded interpretation of the word ‘art’, and in that sense, like all Derrida’s later writings, it is a ‘political’ book, quarrelling with hallowed forms of delimitation in the study and evaluation of art. It goes with his campaign to de-institutionalise the teaching of philosophy in France, by seeing it from that tradition which forecloses on undecidable questions by what in The Archaeology of the Frivolous he calls ‘the dissolution of the alternative’. This is the intellectual repressiveness which Deconstruction would and could undermine, not cheaply, by standing established values on their head, but by undoing the whole notion that paired terms such as inside/outside have to stand to one another hierarchically, so that inside is always best.

Derrida’s philosophy is what Gasché terms a Heterology, or philosophy of otherness, founded, if it can be said to be founded at all, on the ‘equi-primordiality’ of alternatives, of the One and the Other, which is as far as the human mind can go towards a ‘pure’, unconditional differentiality. This Absolute (‘pre-ontological’) Difference is primordial to the point of not even existing, since existence, along with its opposite, non-existence, forms a typical pair of disjoined predicates, itself to be accounted for only by this principle. Philosophy in general, in his reading of it, has striven to suppress difference because it desires (but whence such a strong, universal and guilty desire? I don’t think he has yet quite explained this to us) a complete, unflawed ‘self-presence’, in which there is no place for the morbid and intrusive Other. ‘Self-presence’ is not a very happy nor a readily understandable term, though it is one which both Gasché and Norris frequently find themselves using; it can presumably be equated with the old, erroneous principle of identity. But ‘self-presence’ is a fantasy because in order to be present to ourselves we have to be divided into an I and a Me, the circuit between which passes through the objectivity of language and of meaning.

A somewhat furtive ethic is at work, then, in genuine Deconstruct ion, whose lesson is that any presumed integrity of the self is delusive, since we can relate to our selves only as mediate beings. I am I only by virtue of the not-I. This comes out in the over-long first section of the newly (and well) translated The Postcard, which is an intermittently and coyly autobiographical essay on the Derridean theory of telecommunication. The Derridean theory is that all communication is in sad fact telecommunication, even when we are communicating privately with ourselves, since there is no lesser distance in principle between I and me than between any other two parties to a dialogue; we are alienated even in our solitude. And a structural feature of all messages, however private, however heartfelt, is that they may not reach their, or indeed any, destination. Because of their necessary materiality they may fetch up in the cemetery on which all postal services have on occasion to rely, in a Dead Letter Office.

This first part of The Postcard, entitled ‘Envois’, is very much Derrida at play again, and has the form of a series of dated, variously private letters written by him to, as it might be, a lover. As philosophy they are diffuse, as fiction some way short of being dramatic; the prophet of ultimate divisibility here falls suitably but unhappily between two stools. The communicative model of the postcard suits Derrida because the words which it carries may be private but they are at the same time open, readable by, if not always intelligible to, anyone who is to hand, such as a prying postman. They are addressed to someone who exists, but the very possibility that they may never be delivered assimilates them to writing or to ‘inscription’ in general, whose nature is such that it may easily outlive both its author and its intended recipients. In The Postcard (which also contains a long, subtle and dazzling elucidation of Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle and a grand dismantling of Lacan), Derrida is being openly frivolous, in the sense of that term excavated in his – introductory, it is claimed, but few will find it so – essay on Condillac, The Archaeology of the Frivolous. Condillac was against frivolity, looking on it, according to Derrida, as one link in a chain of equivalences: ‘Absence of the object, absence of the interlocutor, philosophy, writing, frivolity ...’ When objects are absent we have to make do with signs for objects – that is, with words; when interlocutors are absent we have to make do with writing instead of speech. The utilitarian Condillac must be added to the numerous other thinkers picked on by Derrida for knowingly or unknowingly (and the distinction between those two categories is another which he hopes, however unrealistically, to destabilise) deprecating writing as an ‘external’ and inhuman substitute for speaking. Derrida, on the contrary, speaks (= writes) up for frivolity, having long ago learnt to revel in the ‘emptiness’ of signs, an emptiness which turns into an untoward fullness the moment one observes how delightfully equivocal they may be and how one sign leads so irresistibly on to others.

Philosophers of a nervous or a solemn cast will not be pressing to follow Derrida on his increasingly frivolous descents into the basement of conceptual thought, and there is a strong risk that he will now become too literally promiscuous for his own good. But Gasché’s book is a fine corrective to any view that his earlier, straighter work in philosophy was merely nebulous or eccentric: as, in its lighter, less technical way, Norris’s neat and well-organised volume should be, though Norris’s repeated hope that he can so present Derrida’s thought as to make it appear valuable to professional philosophers here and in North America seems far too optimistic, especially if Derrida is now entering some post-pedagogic stage of his career (Gasché, I notice, explicitly leaves out Glas as a source for his book).

If our philosophers are unlikely ever to buy into Deconstruction, what of the professors of literature? They it is who have mainly taken it up in recent years and made of it less a recognisable way of doing philosophy than a peculiarly narcissistic fashion in the study of far-from-philosophical texts. Derrida is on record as having disowned most of what has been done in the name of Deconstruction; Norris quotes from his published defence of his university thesis, in which he declares that deconstruction is ‘a word whose fortunes have disagreeably surprised me’. This disavowal may have been tactful, offered as it was to a jury of French academic philosophers, but it was surely sincere as well, since the chances of Deconstruction being understood, let alone appreciated, daily grow thinner as the number of so-called deconstructive essays in literary criticism increases. Deconstruction has to do with the close, inward examination of philosophical arguments and with their logical deficiencies or tacit a-prioris: it can have little to do with specific works of literature which contain nothing resembling a philosophical argument.

Gasché and Norris want to ease Deconstruction back onto its rightful side of the bed. Both, interestingly, are teachers in university departments of literature, yet both, Gasché in the German tradition, Norris in the Anglo-analytic, display a level and extent of philosophical understanding that would not long ago have been unseemly in a teacher of literature. They are impressive examples of how Derrida has been able to draw philosophically-minded non-philosophers to him. It is an irony that, having moved over into philosophy, as mediators, they are unable now to come back with any good news for literary criticism. Norris goes out of his way to exculpate Derrida from the common charge that he has authorised a ‘hermeneutic free-for-all’ in the interpretation of literary texts: and rightly emphasises the rigour of Derrida’s own hermeneutics. Gasché is more forthright still, giving it as his contention ‘that Derrida’s marked interest in literature – has in his thinking never led to anything remotely resembling literary criticism or to a valorisation of what literary critics agree to call literature.’ Expounding, however cleverly, the incoherence of a given text’s metaphors, and then calling it Deconstruction, will not do, when Derrida himself has never troubled with the naive, formalist division of language into the literal and the metaphorical, but has tried to see beyond it into a general ‘metaphoricity’, without which we could have no such division in the first place.

Whatever, and however, Derrida may write in the future, the philosophy he has already done will not cease to count: a salute, then, to Gasché, and to Norris, for so successfully giving Deconstruction back its good name.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences