Monday, January 21, 2008

Preface (The Untimely Preface)


(The Untimely Preface*)

Sabah: Could you, for the benefit of the uninitiated, summarise Spivak's translation of de la Grammatologie?

Milan: A mighty task. But mightier still is this Norseman. These points might be of use.

  • Spivak reads the French text. Spivak understands it, after a fashion.
  • Spivak translates the work in a long course of events, and in the process, Spivak herself undergoes translation (geographical, political, psychological, linguistic, socio-economic). As a result, the text itself is altered. Being ultra-sensitive and self conscious, Spivak notices this phenomenon, and records - appropriates - the process in the mother of all prefaces.
  • The book is published. It makes Derrida a household name and Spivak a celebrity, all quite deservedly. Derrida, somehow, at least in the English-speaking world, never truly recovers from the stamp impressed on him by Spivak. He is doomed, or he chooses to, remain under the ubiquitous Spivak umbrella whenever he chooses English as a medium of communication.

Sabah: But surely this is your opinion, an allegation!

Milan: Indeed, as are all these. However:

  • We finally progress to the text after an arduous journey that crisscrosses and sympathetically places Kant, Heidegger, and a lot many philosophers in perspective; of course, the book is enriched by this whirlwind tour (de force?). Somehow Spivak grows immeasurably on account of this. And ultimately I perceive the entire Foreword as a separate text, only incidentally connected to the Derrida book which it supposedly "post" faces. Ultimately, regardless of its various merits - I consider it infinitely more useful than the text itself - it is in bad taste, and is a literary obscenity.
  • ...we finally progress to the text, which Derrida has divided into two: 'Theory' and Practice'.
  • In the theory part, he deals most excruciatingly about speech, writing, the connection (or the absence of connection) between the two. This is a general statement regarding the text.
  • In the practice part, the illustrations follow. Specifically, the texts so selected are those by Claude Levi-Strauss and by Jacques Rousseau, among others. It relates to various aspects of speech, writing, how it originated, and a curious interplay of the opinions expressed in these works by their respective authors.
  • Running through the entire work is an attempt to cut open the carcass of the text at that single point which will yield the entire innards of the text - so that the reader, if he carefully prises at the right spot - can easily disembowel the text, and have an eerie sense of delight at having uncovered the real stimuli behind a whole text. It is, so to speak, a method to find the "originary" impulse, or the originary stimulus - of the text.
  • The book in itself is quite bulletproof, as the author makes us walk through quicksand he has himself prepared. He is addressing problems he himself has stated, so we have no option but to take the bits he throws at us - I am reminded of reading Ulysses at times. But - as a work of philosophy it fails miserably, because it deals with a specific subject using the narrowest method imaginable - textual interpretation. But it is a technical work that makes no claims. This itself is perhaps its greatest claim to fame.
  • The book is difficult, especially the first part. The second part makes interesting reading, and you are likely to breeze through it, until you find that every two pages or so the author pole-axes you with a bolt from the blue. This is Derrida's way of doing philosophy: stun you with observations where you thought nothing existed.

Sabah: Would you recommend it?

Milan: You're jesting, madame! The student should read it. The non-specialist would find the Preface thoroughly illuminating. It is a superb piece of scholarship, and if anyone wants to have just one Derrida book, this is probably it. Though, for its subject matter, I think perhaps l'ecriture et le difference is perhaps more Derrida-like.

Sabah: But surely we're digressing...?

Milan: Yea, let's just get on with the main story...

(*A misplaced postface, perhaps?)

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