Friday, August 06, 2010

Hammerschlag, Sarah. Review of Steven Shakespeare, DERRIDA AND THEOLOGY. NDPR (August 2010).

Shakespeare, Steven.  Derrida and Theology.  London: Continuum, 2009.

What is most impressive about Steven Shakespeare's Derrida and Theology is its clarity and accuracy. Considering that the subject matter concerns Jacques Derrida's relevance to the field of theology, this is saying something indeed. It is a given that Derrida's arguments are notoriously difficult to parse and even more difficult to translate into prose untainted by jargon. But these issues become further complicated when the factors of religion or theology are introduced. For the past three decades critics have been debating over the potential theological significance of Derrida's conceptual battery. Depending on whom one reads, différance is either a principle of sheer nihilism or another name for the unknowable God of Eckhartian mysticism. Steven Shakespeare has the wisdom to resist both alternatives. Rather, he provides a sensible and balanced tour of the major Derrida works, focusing in particular on those that deal in themes directly referencing both the Christian and Jewish religious traditions, such as circumcision, messianicity, and the gift. All this makes Shakespeare's book eminently useful.

Derrida and Theology seems intended for an audience versed in theology but acquainted with Derrida only through hearsay, or by way of one of his interpreters. One of Shakespeare's primary purposes in the book is to correct the misrepresentations of Derrida in heavy circulation and to replace them with a guide for the theologically invested reader, one that will send her back to the texts to explore for herself. The strengths of this approach are quite clear, but it does have one considerable drawback: it leaves Shakespeare without any definitive point to make on the relation between Derrida and theology.

Anyone searching for the book's argument will be hard pressed to find a decisive statement on the matter. The closest Shakespeare comes are statements such as the following:

I am not claiming that Derrida is endorsing an alternative theological approach, even one as strangely heterodox as the one suggested here. However, his work does open possibilities for the theological imagination that are not shut down by his suspicion of the God of pure presence. (77)
One would assume that this claim would be followed by a clear delineation of said possibilities, and perhaps finally by some meditation on the most fruitful among them. Rather, Shakespeare continually defers on the specifics, allowing the answer to remain open-ended. We could of course read this as a sign of his respect for Derrida's own conceptualization of messianicity which insists that a true messianic awaiting resists predetermining the horizon for what can and may appear. Let us suppose, however, that this was indeed Shakespeare's intention. Certainly it would be an approach (perhaps the only one) that showed respect for Derrida's method. However, it would also sabotage the very claim being made. After all, such a position takes us no further than Derrida's own, and seems to suggest even that constructive theology built on a Derridian framework would have to fail before it had even begun, for the very act of fulfilling possibilities, utilizing the theological imagination, would betray the openness that the notion of messianicity demands. Should we read Shakespeare's book then as enacting the deconstruction of its own claims? Perhaps, but Shakespeare seems far too earnest about the theological potential of Derridian concepts for me to fully accept this reading. Rather, he seems very earnestly to be establishing the conditions under which Derrida could be seen as a resource for the theological imagination. While Shakespeare does make a distinction between the early Derrida and the late Derrida, he sees a unified set of concerns in Derrida's writings, none of which would be irrelevant to theology. . . .

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