Friday, May 06, 2011

Marder, Elissa. Review of Peggy Kamuf, TO FOLLOW. NDPR (April 2011).

Kamuf, Peggy.  To Follow: the Wake of Jacques Derrida. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2010.

Peggy Kamuf long ago established herself as one of Jacques Derrida's most discerning readers and finest translators, but in To Follow: the Wake of Jacques Derrida, she offers her readers a rare opportunity to follow her as she works through critical questions in Derrida's thinking in the wake of his death. The book comprises seventeen beautifully written and delicately interwoven chapters, composed before and after Derrida's death in October 2004. In each chapter, Kamuf picks up on a word or phrase (what she calls a "watchword") in Derrida's writings in order to attend to the critical inventions and political interventions called forth by and in his thought.

This illuminating and moving book is also explicitly a work of mourning. Following Derrida's life-long work on mourning, Kamuf begins her book by pointing out that mourning does not begin with the other's death but is at work from the beginning in the names by which we come to know ourselves and through which we are called by others: "From the very first, every name, anyone's name, names a site of mourning to come." And if, as Kamuf suggests, the name is itself another name for mourning, this is because every name bears the trace of a division within: to be what we call a name, a name must be repeatable in the absence of the one to whom it ostensibly "belongs" and therefore must always be able to live on after the death of its bearer. In this sense, then, a proper name is not the property of the person named as it is also borne and carried by those who follow. It will follow from this that mourning is always already at work in every relation with the other. Mourning conditions all ethical positions and political actions and cannot be relegated to a uniquely personal experience in spite of (or perhaps even because of) the singular unbearability that attends each person's "personal" experience of loss.

Thus, although To Follow is punctuated by several poignant "personal" anecdotes (culled from her long professional and personal relationship with Derrida as critic, translator, and friend), its primary critical focus (and philosophical appeal) resides in the way that Kamuf cares for Derrida's legacy by caring about the ways in which his own inimitable texts are themselves responsive readings to the question of what it means to inhabit or inherit a tradition. Inheritance, Kamuf reminds us, is not a positive value that is passively received, but rather requires attentive and attuned reading. Throughout the book, Kamuf explores how Derrida's legacy takes the form of haunting questions that ask us to keep watch for what cannot be seen, known, or understood in advance: "The watch watches for -- it knows not what may come. This vigilance does not anticipate or expect an arrival that will put an end to or interrupt its waiting, but nonetheless it watches for another's coming to interrupt it" (11). . . .

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