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  • Judgment, or Learning How to Live
  • Danielle Sands (bio)
Jacques Derrida, Before the Law: The Complete Text of Préjugés, Sandra Van Reenan and Jacques de Ville (trans.), Minneapolis & London, University of Minnesota Press, 2018, 78pp; ISBN 978-1517905514 (pbk).

In ‘The (Re)Turn of Philosophy to Itself’ Alain Badiou lamented that philosophy, contaminated by other discourses and paralysed by obsessive historicity, ‘no longer knows if it has a proper place’.1 ‘Contemporary philosophy’ he observed, aiming squarely at Jacques Derrida’s late engagement with the structure of messianism, ‘combines a deconstruction of its past with an empty wait for its future’ (p4). Philosophy’s restoration, he argued, demanded ‘a violent forgetting of the history of philosophy’ (p5). Badiou’s extreme solution was less widely endorsed than his diagnosis, which, first articulated in the early 1990s, reflected an intellectual restlessness which would ultimately generate a rejection of deconstruction and a shift in paradigm from text to matter, and from genealogy to politics and ontology.

Before the Law, a text well-known in its shortened form (published in Derek Attridge’s 1992 collection Acts of Literature), is unlikely to gain Derrida new readers or to convert Badiou and his sympathisers. It is textual, historical and digressive. Its unabridged publication does not lessen the challenges of Kafka’s opaque story or of Derrida’s dense exegesis. The opening section, in which Derrida leafs ponderously through Jean-François Lyotard’s now largely-unread back catalogue, is a reminder of the fickleness of philosophical fashion. But Derrida, now himself deeply unfashionable, remains a superb thinker whose interrogation into the ‘impossible history’ (p42) of law and judgment deserves to be read.

Derrida describes a philosophical era marked by a tripartite destabilisation of judgment: the phenomenological epoché, a suspension of judgment; the Heideggerian rejection of the conception of truth as fundamentally propositional or judicative; and the psychoanalytic challenge to the judging subject. However, despite its disintegrating authority, judgment persists. Indeed, like metaphysics, which haunts those who proclaim its dissolution, according to Derrida (and here he follows Lyotard), decreeing yourself free from judgment guarantees that it will ‘not leave you in peace any time soon’ (p20). Unable to escape judgment, Derrida explores modes of engagement which don’t endorse the entire Kantian schema (which flavours, of course, all post-Kantian accounts of judgment) and its rational, juridical subject. This is where the parasitical pré of Derrida’s untranslatable title comes into play. Doubly descriptive– préjugés is an ontological adjective, referring to ‘the prejudged beings that we are’ (pp8–9) and a noun describing the prejudices [End Page 182] that we bring to judgment– préjugés also functions as a counter to the categorical, a way of resisting the ‘ontological prerogative’ (p13) of judgment. Despite at times veering towards the laborious hermeneutics which his critics perceive as leading to passivity, Derrida always returns to the practical: the question of judgment, it is clear, is a question of how to live.

In Derrida’s text, Kafka’s inexhaustible story– the tale of a man from the country who is inexplicably denied access to the law by its gatekeeper– functions both diagnostically, exposing the law, and performatively, refusing the reader entry to or knowledge of it. Derrida demonstrates that the absolute authority of law depends on its disassociation from potential contaminants, such as narrative or history, which might expose its authority as ungrounded. The law appears as a sort of ‘God effect,’ superficially theological but lacking essence. Derrida’s unmasking of its disavowed historicity, for example (in a now-familiar revelation of the operation of supplementarity), by unfolding one of its ‘prohibited narrative[s]’ (p47) via Freud’s account of the founding of the moral law, displaces law sufficiently so that we might actively and critically think our relation to it. Such critical thinking is allied with reading. As ‘prejudged beings,’ thrust into a world whose systems are both inescapable and illegible, we risk having our reading faculties jammed. ‘Perhaps,’ Derrida writes, ‘man is a man from the country in so far as he is unable to read or […] has to deal with the illegibility within that which seems to allow itself to be read...


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pp. 182-184
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