August 19, 2012 by Peter Gratton
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…