Monday, June 12, 2006

"The Theory Mess"

I've just finished reading Herman Rapaport's The Theory Mess (Columbia U. Press 2001). For me, Rapaport's book was not only an excellent summary and analysis of deconstruction's troubled reception in the United States, but also a cathartic experience. Despite my great age and the facade of wisdom behind which I hide from my students, I'm intellectually very insecure and love to be reassured that I don't have everything all wrong.
I first encountered Derrida in around 1990 by way of a review of something else in the NY Review of Books (to which I no longer subscribe). In what was meant to be the only positive remark in the largely negative review of whatever it was, the reviewer sneered: "At least there is no mention of Derrida." Of course, I ran right out to look for something by Derrida, and picked up Limited Inc. which, also of course, I found utterly baffling. I was (and mostly still am), after all, merely a lawyer with no philosophical training to speak of and a dim memory of high school French. So I tried to find something to read about Derrida, probably Jonathan Culler's On Deconstruction. I "got" enough of this to realize that law, being made up of lots of text, might lend itself to deconstruction. Not exactly a pathbreaking insight in 1990, especially considering that I was at Harvard Law School in the mid 1980's when the Old Guard was glumly wondering how to deal with the annoying "Crits" in their midst. But I was pregnant through most of law school, so I was probably peeing or nursing (never mix legal theory with prolactin if you want to stay awake) in the ladies' room while the action was (as ever) elsewhere.
Anyway, I ploughed into Critical Legal Studies, where I found no enlightenment. Whatever they were going on about, it did not seem to connect up to Derrida in any way that I could divine. Nor did the critics of the Crits seem to have anything useful to say. I went back to try Derrida again and generally floundered around for a while until I stumbled upon Drucilla Cornell's The Philosophy of the Limit, which I also found impenetrable, but which at least reassured me by citing lots of Derrida but none of the Crits in its discussion of Derrida, Levinas and legal theory (Adam Thurschwell also stands out as a sure-footed continental philosopher in law). I read doggedly on until Simon Critchley's The Ethics of Deconstruction and Richard Beardsworth's Derrida and the Political came to my rescue. At last! someone writing about the same Derrida I thought I was reading! I was encouraged to persevere.
Now (or, rather, 5 years ago) along comes Rapaport and The Theory Mess to explain to me exactly why I found Derrida so very difficult to approach through his American fans and foes. Rapaport passes sentence on those who denounced Derrida without reading him but, more importantly, explains the many ways in which people differed from Derrida, and why those differences "eclipsed" rather than illuminated the value of Derrida's work.
I feel like I've been working for years to finish a difficult cross-word puzzle half done by someone else and full of mistakes. Maybe reading Rapaport's book is cheating, but sometimes you just need to know where to look up the answers.


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1 comment:

Academic Texan said...

Thanks for sharing your journey with Derrida. I will have to check out Rapaport's book.

My introduction to Derrida came via my Literary Theories class as an English undergrad. That was a whole semester of reading things I mostly didn't understand except for a few thoughts here and there (everyone else was in the same boat, so I felt a little better about it than I would have otherwise). The professor showed us the documentary "Derrida." That really helped get a sense of who he was and where he was coming from (at least in translation). Funny too, because he died on a Saturday or Sunday and we started the film that Monday.

I love how he prefaced one of the interviews with a disclaimer about the artifical construction of interviews, hiding the fact that no one is really him/herself in presence of the other's gaze.