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Critical Discussion Wittgenstein and Derrida, by Henry Staten; xxviii & 182 pp. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984, $19.95. Discussed by Michael Fischer Wittgenstein and Derrida, the subjects of Henry Staten's important new book, have met before in contemporary literary theory, usually , however, as enemies or at least as philosophers with antithetical approaches to language. In several articles and at greater length in Act and Quality (1981), Charles Altieri, for example, has found in Wittgenstein a powerful challenge to Derridean literary theory, while Christopher Norris in The Deconstructive Turn (1983) has argued that Wittgenstein's writings are infected with the skeptical doubts that they supposedly cure. Unlike these critics, Staten proposes allying Wittgenstein with Derrida, an effort that depends on contesting what I would call, following Staten, the "communitarian " or "therapeutic" reading ofWittgenstein and the "terrorist" or "nihilist" reading of Derrida. While Staten complicates these familiar readings, he does not bring about the realignment that he seeks. Even after his painstaking work, the Derridean notions that he grafts onto Wittgenstein still seem out of place. Staten sees Derrida as a critic of a metaphysical tradition inaugurated by the Greeks and extended by such modern philosophers as Husserl. Much of Staten's introduction ("From Form to Différance"), first chapter ("The Opening of Deconstruction in the Text of Phenomenology"), and concluding chapters (grouped under the heading "The Law of Identity and the Law of Contamination") review Derrida's by now familiar deconstructive critique, sympathetically going over such terms as spacing, trace, iterability, and différance. As an explicator of Derrida, Staten can be 93 94Philosophy and Literature repetitious, especially toward the end ofthe book. And he can be unfair to some of Derrida's critics, especially John Searle, whose frequently discussed response to "Signature Event Context" seems to Staten not simply "vacuous" but lazy: "But no matter how traditional or well-entrenched die view, it remains that Derrida has worked out a critique and an alternate structure that he claims has a greater range and power, and it is easier to reassert the canonical concepts he criticizes, as Searle has done, in total ignorance of the full range of die conceptual structure Derrida has worked out as its replacement, than it is to master his arguments and his new logic and then to show where they fail" (p. 127). (In a similarly irritated tone, Staten rebukes Searle's essay "The Logical Structure of Fictional Discourse" for its "absurd posturing.") Dividing the world between the hard-working critics who agree with Derrida (thereby demonstrating that they understand him) and the indolent critics of deconstruction who more or less naively reassert what Derrida criticizes has reduced the debate on deconstruction to an often boring shouting match. Finally, in writing about deconstruction, Staten adopts its worst stylistic traits: ungainly verbs ("separate off" instead of separate, "open out" instead of"open," "normed," and "unlids" are only a few examples); labyrinthine sentences ("The iterability ofa code ruptures its authority because it makes it essentially permeable to the deformations of context and yet makes it independent of the power of any given context to determine its meaning once and for all, because the sign carries an irreducible structure that will not let itself be absorbed into a present intention that would fix it in relation to an intentionally totalizable present context" [p. 123] is a mild example); and Francophile idioms (e.g., "To think an essential law ofcontingency , as Derrida does, is to generalize as a 'grammatical rule' the principles of the kind of critique diat Wittgenstein here instantiates" [p. 18]). These shortcomings, however, are the other side of Staten's strengths, in particular his enthusiasm for the ideas he is discussing and his refusal to simplify complex texts. His patient, detailed treatment of Speech and Phenomena, a work often passed over by literary critics, is especially good. Instead of setting up Husserl as a straw man whom Derrida can easily knock down, Staten shows that rigorously working through Husserl's work is a precondition for deconstructing it. His evenhanded commentary persuades me not only diat Derrida is a careful reader of Husserl but that Husserl may have been right in thinking that phenomenology completes die project...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 93-97
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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