Goodreads: Introducing Derrida
Series: Introducing series
Published: February 10, 1993
Jacques Derrida is the most famous philosopher of the late twentieth century. His philosophy is an array of rigorous tactics for destabilizing texts, meanings, and identities. Introducing Derrida introduces and explores his life and work and explains his influence within both philosophy and literature.
As a disclaimer, I have no direct experience with Derrida’s work. I started my journey in critical theory by reading Introducing Critical Theory, which I found offers a useful overview of the subject but which is, perhaps necessarily, very general. To help fill in some of the gaps, I decided to continue on to some specific theorists, starting with Derrida. So my review of this book is purely of this book and how clearly and engagingly it seems to convey the complex, sometimes seemingly contradictory, school of deconstruction. Whether it interprets Derrida “correctly,” I cannot accurately judge without reading his works myself.
Introducing Derrida, from a novice’s perspective, is a very approachable guide to deconstruction. I went into the book really knowing nothing about the topic (besides the fact that people seem to equate it with tearing things apart) and came out feeling as though I could talk knowledgably about the general concepts and approaches of the theory. The book highlights key terms and gives brief definitions and examples, providing a more than adequate overview of not only deconstruction itself, but also its historical reception and its political implications.
I do have some confusion, but I believe my issues are with deconstruction itself, and not necessarily with this book. In many cases, deconstruction does not make sense to me. The book is written clearly enough that I understand the explanations…but I fail to see the point of deconstruction. I see that one can, for instance, show the “undecidability” of terms, but I have yet to understand exactly why one would want to, why deconstructive approaches are actually useful.
For example, the book explains that a deconstructive approach to architecture would theoretically result in a building that is ugly and functionless—but then hastily reassures the readers that this would not be quite the case, because perhaps beauty and function can be redefined—but then notes that no one has ever really solved this problem or built such a building. First, this summary is contradictory. Is the building useless or not? Second, it fails to adequately convey why someone would want to build a maybe-useless building, besides as some type of protest or artistic statement.
In comparison with Introducing Critical Theory, the graphics in Introducing Derrida are notably less clever and less useful as mnemonic devices. An inordinate percent of the illustrations are simply of Derrida himself, with speech bubbles quoting some of his works directly. Many of the other remaining illustrations are of other theorists and philosophers, with their own speech bubbles. So there is really no overwhelming benefit to the book’s being a “graphic guide” as opposed to having been primarily text-based—unless one simply enjoys pictures breaking up what can otherwise be a dense topic.
However, the Derrida pictures occasionally complicate the message of the book. As in Introducing Critical Theory, the lines between instances where the authors are summarizing Derrida (or other scholars) and when they are adding their own personal commentary on deconstruction are vague. The fact that there are so many mini Derridas with speech bubble quotes tempts the reader to suspect that anything not in a speech bubble must be authorial commentary…but it is impossible to be certain.
So, I still have a lot of work to do understanding Derrida and deconstruction, but I feel as if this book has given me a solid foundation from which to start. Derrida is notoriously complicated (the word “incomprehensible” may have been thrown around as well), so I believe having a general overview of his primarily ideas will be essential in attempting to tackle his primary texts. And after that I should be able to move on to figuring out how other scholars have used deconstruction.