Sam Haddad’s Review of the Young Derrida IN NDPR

Here. Haddad notes:

This is a rich and fascinating book. Edward Baring presents Jacques Derrida’s early writings in a completely new light, reading them as specific responses to precisely defined debates in the Parisian intellectual community. His approach is refreshingly different from other accounts of Derrida’s development, which, as he notes, tend to follow the philosopher’s own (later) self-understanding as that of a marginalized outsider. This goes hand in hand with a vision of Derrida in dialogue only with the Greats. Instead, Baring describes a young man fully immersed in the French philosophical mainstream, albeit located “in those curious margins at its heart, straddling divides between the religious and the secular, Catholics and communists, phenomenologists and structuralists” (20). Taking this approach allows Baring to make a genuinely original contribution to the literature, and students and scholars will learn much about the development of both Derrida’s philosophy and French philosophy as a whole in the postwar period.

In the next paragraph, he does note a problem, though, with the author’s approach, or rather with evaluating many of the key arguments:

Being the first account of Derrida’s work based on extensive archival research, this book brings to interpretative debates much that has been hitherto unknown. This is one of the book’s strengths, and reading the many archival revelations in its clear and attractive prose was for me both illuminating and pleasurable, even exciting at times. At the same time, reading this kind of work poses a certain challenge. For it is a premise of interpretative agreement and disagreement that all parties have access to the texts. Much of the material discussed here, however, is only available onsite in archives in Normandy and California. This in no way detracts from Baring’s achievement, and in a sense it’s not his problem. As an intellectual historian, he’s simply doing his job in unearthing archival material that no one has read. But it does limit the level of critical engagement that the reader can pursue. In what follows, therefore, my few criticisms are couched in terms of persuasiveness and coherence. Deeper dispute over many of the arguments of this book will require first going to the archives and reading for oneself.

Let’s call this the Foucault 2.0 problem, which is when a work makes grand claims from archival sources that, when actually brought out of the archive and published, turn out to upend a book’s central assertions. Not that this is the case here…

5 comments

  1. I think Haddad is a little too harsh on Ed’s argument.

    It isn’t simply the case that Ed has had access where we can’t. You too can go to the archives. I went and Baring effectively publishes a lot of the best material to be got out of it. Not only has he translated it, he first deciphered Derrida’s nearly illegible scrawl. Lots of respect – I certainly couldn’t do so very well.

    Baring fills in the conversational context for us, which helps with thinking about the politics of Derrida’s thought. But the detail of his philosophical readings is, while excellent, less radical than Haddad makes out. The god stuff is certainly there, and Baring is not as ambiguous about it as Haddad thinks.

    What is great about the book is it goes along way to synthesising an orthodox picture of the early Derrida, while moving the debate on in one specific area. This kind of thing is long overdue…

    1. Thanks Andrew… i haven’t read the book, so I’m loathe to say anything about it. I talked with Sam about it at the Derrida Today conference and I think his point is more minimal: it’s hard to adjudicate claims about an archive that one hasn’t visited.

      1. Late response… but this kind of criticism ends up being trivial – you can say it about just about every history book. Nobody goes and reads all of the sources just to check them. The point of good history is to make this unnecessary.

        Instead, the test case for Baring’s book is the potted history of French philosophy that appears in ‘Ends of Man’ (which is the epilogue to Baring’s book), rather than any of the seminars… is Derrida representative of post war French philosophy?

        But on that note, when the editors do get around to publishing those early seminars, it will be a bomb. Last I heard, Thomas Du Toit was working on transcription and translation… was there any word on this at Derrida Today?

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