Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Best Scholarly Text in Ages

Last week I finished this book, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion by John D. Caputo. Okay . . . this one . . .was a little tricky. I feel it is best described by the copy on the back of the book:

The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida takes its point of departure from Derrida's more recent, sometimes autobiographical writings and closely examines the religious motifs that have emerged in his later works. John D. Caputo's provocative interpretation of Derrida's thinking also makes an original contribution to the question of the relevance of deconstruction for religion. Caputo's Derrida is a man of faith who bridges Jewish and Christian traditions. The deep messianic, apocalyptic, and prophetic tones in Derrida's writings, Caputo argues, bespeak his broken covenant with Judaism. Through its startling exploration of Derrida's impossible religion, the book sheds light on the implications of deconstruction for an understanding of religion and faith today.

Got that? Let us continue . . .

Why'd I read this book? Because it was enthusiastically recommended to me and because I've got a soft spot for poststructural criticism in me left over from college.

I feel my thoughts on this book are best summarized in a bullet-pointed list:
  • First of all, Caputo writes his book in a very writerly manner. There is a lot of flourish and art to this scholarly text, not too different from reading Derrida himself—so some might say it can be a tad convoluted or obscure at times, let's just be straight about that. I like my philosophers to be very upfront and clear as they explain things so that I (in my limited capacity) can follow it as closely as possible . . . unfortunately, I think there's only one contemporary philospher who writes this way. So this book was a bit of work, I had to make sure I caught the concepts and I then I had to make sure I understood the concepts. This lead to my underlining quite a bit and coming away with a few ideas and soundbites well captured but not a certainty that I got the big picture down just right.
  • Continuing from above, this is not a beginner's text. The reader is counted on to bring in a lot of knowledge of the background material and a lot of other material in general. For example, Caputo writes about the teachings of Johannes de Silencio . . . if you didn't know that was Kierkegaard's pseudonymous author of Fear and Trembling, well, you weren't going to find that out from Caputo.
  • But, continuing from that, I was happy to find so many traces of Kierkegaard in the book. A lot of Caputo's thoughts on Derrida's ideas fit in nicely with things I picked up from Training in Chrisianity (my favorite Kierkegaard text). Kierkegaard's writings on the offensive nature of Christ or Christ as the symbol of offense seem particularly in harmony with Caputo's ideas. Also, a decent amount of the later portion of Prayers and Tears has to do with the story of Abraham and Isaac and Fear and Trembling, so that's cool.
  • On the major-league plus side, I was just happy to be reading this book and having my Subway brain (and sometimes-wandering work brain) thinking about Derrida, critical theory, and deconstruction--all interests of mine that I don't typically visit daily. I feel I have a, like, solid B understanding of deconstruction but even still, reading this book made me wonder if a B understanding might as well be a D understanding. Reading the book it became clear to me that having an A++ understanding of deconstruction (the point where you'd readily proclaim there is no understanding of deconstruction at all . . . I don't understand deconstruction well enough to say that, myself) is something that will really consume your life.
  • I started this book with the hopes of gaining a little knowledge and being able to mingle a little more of the philosophies of men with my scripture. I don't know that I grasped enough to accomplish much of that (not that I felt like a clueless dunce the whole time I read the book! there were just definitely stretches of paragraphs . . . or pages . . . where I had to say to myself "Okay, what was that?") BUT I was in Sunday School several weeks ago talking about Lehi's vision of the Tree of Life and the teacher said ". . . the iron rod is the word of God . . ." and my Caputo-addled brain thought "The iron rod is the word of God . . . or is the word of God the iron rod? Oh my gosh! Exemplarism!" And then we were making a list on the board of symbols from the vision and the teacher asked us "Okay, what isn't the word of God?" And I thought "Oh my gosh! Negative theology!"
  • I guess you had to be there.
  • And have read the book?
  • Or known was exemplarism or negative theology are.
  • Okay. Examplarism is a problem with meaning and identity, sort of like the chicken and egg question applied to sign and signifier. Negative Theology is theology where you define God by delineating what He isn't. Much of the book seemed, it seemed to me, to alternate between arguing that deconstruction is negative theology and that deconstruction isn't negative theology.
  • More than anything, I wish I read this book in a class. I wish I read it with people I could discuss it with and with a teacher who could explain what a few things meant, even if that defies the very nature of deconstruction.
A question! (if you read this far) Should we talk more about deconstruction around here? Should I say what I think it's about? Should I have said that at the beginning of this post? I know some people showed up today just hoping for pictures of hamburgers or maybe a youtube of something.


Chet said...

i prefer this to pictures of hamburgers myself.

Anonymous said...

This is actually the first time in a while that I've read the text of your post, not just skimmed over the descriptions and looked at the pictures. More you Briggie.


Noelle said...

This post is kind of like comic relief but the opposite. It's nice.
So I vote a mix of both.