Wednesday, March 30, 2011


Miriam Leonard (ed.), Derrida and Antiquity. Classical Presences. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xi, 406. ISBN 9780199545544. $130.00.

Reviewed by Steven Z. Levine, Bryn Mawr College (

Version at BMCR home site


The aim of the series Classical Presences is "to appropriate the past in order to authenticate the present." In Derrida and Antiquity Miriam Leonard, Lecturer in Greek Literature and its Reception at University College London, gathers twelve essays that clarify the role of ancient authors in the commentaries of Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Leonard sees Derrida's deconstructions as urgent analyses of our present political moment through rigorous rereadings of canonical texts. The antiquity disclosed in Derrida's readings of Plato, Aristotle, or Augustine is an uncanny inheritance that haunts us today, an antiquity that in its ghostly duplicity is already divided against itself. "The 'one differing from itself,' the hen diapheron heautôi of Heraclitus—that, perhaps, is the Greek heritage to which I am the most faithfully amenable" (p. 36).

This declaration of Derrida's deep Heraclitean affinity is from "We Other Greeks," the newly commissioned translation by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas of Derrida's 1992 response to conference papers by Eric Alliez and Francis Wolff on the critique of Platonism by Derrida and his Parisian colleagues Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault. Placed after Leonard's introduction, this improvised text was never intended to summarize Derrida's views on the legacy of the ancients in twentieth-century culture and politics but was performed as a rejoinder to his critics and may be better read at the end rather than beginning of the volume. By the end, the many instances of self-splitting difference briefly noted by Derrida in an effort to distinguish himself from his colleagues will have been sharply illuminated by the dozen essays to come.

Unlike Gaul, the volume is divided into five parts. Part One, Derrida and the Classical Tradition, opens with "Earmarks: Derrida's Reinvention of Philosophical Writing in 'Plato's Pharmacy,'" by Michael Naas, Professor of Philosophy at DePaul University. "Earmarks" represents the author's effort to invent a word for the unhearable difference inscribed in Derrida's most famous French locution, différance, a neologism that condenses the meanings of "differ" and "defer" in space and time. Famously deployed in Derrida's 1967 landmark text, Of Grammatology, the oscillating self-difference of "différance" finds its viral embodiment in "Plato's Pharmacy" (1972) in pharmakon, a word meaning both remedy and poison in Socrates' myth of the origin of writing in Plato's Phaedrus. On the one hand, writing was invented as a convenient pharmakon-remedy for human forgetfulness; on the other, writing is a deadly pharmakon-poison that vitiates healthy memory. Such identification of a duplicitous "animot" (p. 71), an unstable word that textually behaves like an unruly animal, encapsulates the trademark Derridean event of rereading whereby the would-be stability of meaning upon which the entire Platonic philosophical edifice depends comes undone as an effect of the ineliminable ambiguity of language. Whereas some classicists have rejected Derrida's readerly gambit as willful inattention to the plain meaning of words, Naas insists on the potential new meanings that ancient texts are shown to disclose. As opposed to a traditional hermeneutics that seeks to recover an inherent meaning of the text, the Derridean practice of generating new meanings goes by the name "dissemination," a metaphor pointing to the corporeality of Plato's words and our embodied acts of rereading.

The next essay, "Derrida and Presocratic Philosophy," is lucidly presented by Erin O'Connell, Associate Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of Utah. "It is to Heraclitus that I refer myself in the last analysis," says Derrida in 1968 (p. 83), but O'Connell goes well beyond his limited remarks on the early Greek philosopher. O'Connell lines up passages from Derrida alongside writings by Anaximander, Parmenides, and Heraclitus to show their shared conviction that reference to the external and internal things of the cosmos and the psyche is inevitably constrained by the artificial medium of language itself. It is by returning to the sayings of the presocratic philosophers that O'Connell urges a Derridean overture to a still unknown future.

The final essayist in Part One, Stephen Gersh, Professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Notre Dame, describes a Derrida deeply identified with Saint Augustine in "Negative Theology and Conversion: Derrida's Neoplatonic Compulsions." Born into a Jewish family on the rue saint-Augustin in Algiers and later the author of an Augustinian Circumfession (1991) in which he, like his fellow North African confessionalist, cries over the death of his mother on the far Mediterranean shore as he cries out to a silent God, Derrida is compelled by the shattering event of Augustine's conversion to compose his philosophical autobiography as a uniquely personal act of "making the truth" rather than claiming to state the truth's impersonal universality. The negative void of truth around which Derridean difference traces its endless circle is said to resemble the protocols of negative theology whereby no elaboration of attributes will ever be deemed adequate to a description of the divinity, but in his conclusion Gersh assails the shortcomings of Derrida's understanding of the "immanent" core of Neoplatonism.

Miriam Leonard's essay, "Derrida Between Greek and Jew," opens Part Two on Antiquity and Modernity. In 1984 Derrida says, "I consider my own thought, paradoxically as neither Greek, nor Jewish. I often feel that the questions I attempt to formulate on the outskirts of the Greek philosophical tradition have as their 'other' the model of the Jew, that is, the Jew-as-other" (p. 136). In Derrida's writings on Hegel, Kant, and Heidegger, Leonard traces the unstable opposition between the particularist figure of the tribal Jew and the universalized Christian subject through which modern European identity asserts itself. For Derrida, the unconditional universality of the categorical imperative is fundamentally tinged with the evangelism of the Roman church, and thus he insists that our contemporary condition of American-style globalization should better be understood "Globalatinization," for it is not Athens but Rome that paves the way of imperial capitalism. "Coming as I do from the other Mediterranean shore," Derrida looks back at Europe from the South and East and invites his fellow Westerners to harken to Jerusalem. As one of his favorite authors, James Joyce, writes, "Jewgreek is greekjew. Extremes meet."

Daniel Orrells, Lecturer in Classics at the University of Warwick, seeks to recover the antique past through the archaeological reconstructions of Freudian psychoanalysis in "Derrida's Impressions of Gradiva: Archive Fever and Antiquity." In Wilhelm Jensen's 1903 novella Gradiva: A Pompeian Fantasy, the protagonist travels to the buried city of Pompeii to look for the real female equivalent of a walking figure in an ancient relief whom he names Gradiva and who uncannily appears as the ghost of his forgotten childhood love. Commenting on the character's apparent delusion, Freud proposes the burial of Pompeii as a metaphor of repression and the archaeological excavation and reconstruction of the city as a metaphor of the interpretative procedures of psychoanalysis. Commenting on Freud's commentary in Archive Fever (1995), Derrida finds here an instance of the uncanny character of the copy that precedes the appearance of the original, or "the ghost of originary iterability that haunts the uniqueness of the event from its origin" (p. 184). Just as the constitution of the archaeological archive requires the supplement of psychoanalysis to make the distortions in the buried material visible so too does the ghostly truth of ancient philosophy require the deconstruction of Derrida to be brought to light.

Part III, A Politics of Antiquity, opens with an essay by Rachel Bowlby, Professor of English at University College London, called "Derrida's Dying Oedipus." Attending to Derrida's meditation on the homelessness of the woman foreigner, Oedipus' daughter Antigone, in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, Bowlby juxtaposes the exiled parricide's insistence that the place of his burial be kept secret with the consequent disallowing of his incestuous daughter's right to mourn at his grave. Here again we encounter the familiar Derridean structure of the deferral of meaning, for the killing of Laius and marrying of Jocasta only became traumatic when they took on new significance for the unknowing Oedipus and his innocent issue who must bear the burden of his fate.

In "Possible Returns: Deconstruction and the Placing of Greek Philosophy," Andrew Benjamin, Professor of Critical Theory and Philosophical Aesthetics at Monash University, mines the writings of Derrida to extract the mineral of Greek philosophy as an ore of hybridity, plurality, conflict, and alterity. Interpretation is thus seen as a mode of welcoming the stranger Oedipus into the community even though he is not subject to its laws. To acknowledge the unconditional hospitality due to the one beyond the law is to observe the irreducible gap between the arbitrary limits of any given set of laws and the transcendental force of justice that may require a violent suspension of those laws in the face of the arrival of the unknown stranger.

The theme of the homeless stranger is extended in "Derrida Polutropos: Philosophy as Nostos" by Bruce Rosenstock, Associate Professor of Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Throughout the decades of Derrida's career his manifold turns of deconstruction constitute a continuously renewed homecoming to philosophy's own unhomeliness within. From "White Mythology" (1971), where he interrogates Aristotle's positing of metaphor as an illicit transport of meaning away from its proper place, to The Politics of Friendship (1994) where he tracks the wayward itinerary of the traveler who, like Odysseus, returns home from the East, Derrida has been relentless in exposing the truth-claims of metaphysics to the deconstructive force of the metaphoricity of language. The white man's mythology, the mythology of whiteness itself, is the effacement of the dazzling "Oriental difference" (p. 247) of the rising sun that would be safely extinguished in the harbors of the West.

"Aristotle's Metaphor" is again the subject of Duncan F. Kennedy, Professor of Latin Literature and the Theory of Criticism at the University of Bristol, whose clarifying essay opens Part IV, The Question of Literature. Aristotle's metaphor is Cicero's translatio, for Derrida no abusive transfer of meaning from proper to improper but rather the play of différance itself, the ceaseless movement of language. Kennedy's essay is paired with that of Mark Vessey, Professor of English at the University of British Columbia, "Writing Before Literature: Derrida's Confessions and the Latin Christian World." Here the Derridean trace of literariness is a quality of "as if" whereby, for example, the truth-telling testimony of Saint Augustine is necessarily accompanied by the possibility of "fiction, perjury, and lie" (p. 309). Whereas Augustine calls upon an omniscient God to ratify his claims, Derrida attributes to his readers alone the power to determine the truth-effects of his texts.

Part V, Platonic Bodies, closes the book with a pair of essays on the corporeality of language and the linguisticality of flesh. Paul Allen Miller, Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of South Carolina, explores the material mystery of creation in "The Platonic Remainder: Derrida's Khôra and the Corpus Platonicum." Said to be "the mother or receptacle of creation" in Plato's Timaeus (p. 322), the khôra for Derrida is the material of ultimate Platonic irony in which the figural ground of the dialogue is pulled out from under the author's fundamental assertion of the unfigured denotative truth.

The deconstructive dialogue of author and other stages the startling final drama of the book. In "Eros in the Age of Technical Reproductibility: Socrates, Plato, and the Erotics of Filiation," Ika Willis, Lecturer in Reception at the University of Bristol, boyishly claims to receive paternal encouragement from Derrida's famous "buggering" reading in The Post Card (1980) of a medieval manuscript image of Plato pressing up against the back of Socrates' chair to queer the transmission of intergenerational knowledge from antiquity to the present by way of a detour into the "Old Guard leather culture" (p. 350) of San Francisco's sadomasochistic sexual subculture of daddies and boys. This is a remarkably enjoyable coda to a very stimulating book.


  1. Dear me - it is DANIEL Orrells (apparently having a knighthood doesn't guarantee one's name will be correctly copied), and Ika WILLIS.

  2. Now corrected on both sites, with apologies to the authors whose names we got wrong.


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