Response to Downing: Police at Play

Mea culpa.  How else could I respond to Crystal Downing’s gracious, rightly-critical engagement with The Fall of Interpretation?  In what was a moment of (rather Caputo-an?[1]) flourish, I seem to have blamed an entire discipline for mis-readings of Derrida. And this despite the fact that, as Downing rightly points out, there are plenty of professors of philosophy and religious studies who are equally to blame, and plenty of professors of English who offered astute readings of Derrida.

So, again, mea culpa.  She’s exactly right.  As I argued in Jacques Derrida: Live Theory, I do think the initial North American reception of Derrida was skewed in weird ways because he arrived through comparative literature rather than philosophy—so the significance of his specifically phenomenological heritage was often missed (e.g., by Spivak in her influential introduction to the English translation of Of Grammatology).

But, of course, an entire discipline can’t be blamed for misreadings.  In a mild defense, I might point out that I only claimed this “received Derrida” was “mediated by American English deparments,” not all American English departments nor everyone in those departments. Downing points to Miller as a contrary example. I might add Geoffrey Bennington as another.  And the list could certainly go on.  So I welcome the correction.  The haunting is now mutual.

Downing is also right that, like a coin, there are always two sides to Derrida.  While the new chapter 7 focuses on a “policing” Derrida, this should not be unhooked from the “playful” Derrida.[2]  And even within my “ecclesial” hermeneutic, these two should be held together: the community of interpretation establishes parameters to be sure; but within those parameters—even when they’re eccelesiastical—there is interpretive play.  It’s in that bound space of play that allegorical readings of the fathers are operative.  And it’s in the same space in which preaching happens.  We need not flip the coin and choose; we ought to keep it spinning, like a very serious game.



[1] When his Kierkegaardian pen is revving, Jack likes to take shots at “assistant professors of X.”

[2] I hope I’ve done more justice to this side of Derrida in Jacques Derrida: Live Theory (Continuum, 2005).

Author:
James K.A. Smith :
  • ChadLakies

    Crystal Downing requested that the editor post this response to Jamie:

    Heads
    I Win, Tails You Win: Coining a Response to Smith’s Response

    Crystal
    Downing

    I value Smith’s gracious response
    to my review of his “Fall.” And his allusion to Jack Caputo reminded me of
    another form of belatedness that marks my scholarship. Smith had the privilege
    of studying with Caputo, a brilliantly articulate interpreter of Derrida. In
    contrast I, like a deficient citizen of
    Plato’s Republic, wrote books several steps removed from ideal form, having
    only read the reader of the reader. I mention this in order to praise something
    else about Smith’s Fall of Interpretation:
    the impressively lucid prose. As I made my way through the second edition, I
    several times thought, “This reminds me of Caputo’s playfully perspicacious
    writing.” And here I shamefully
    acknowledge, despite my earlier protestations,
    that many members of American English Departments did, indeed, misapply
    Derrida, becoming playful to the point of opacity. They looked at only one side
    of the coin.

    This relates to the final paragraph
    of Smith’s response, where he talks about the two sides of Derrida: the playful
    and the policing. Smith tosses up my metaphor of the coin to suggest that,
    within an ecclesial hermeneutic, discursive parameters and interpretive play
    are opposite sides of a coin that must stay on edge, spinning. Coincidentally (or not!) a “coin on edge” is
    the constitutive metaphor of my recent book on semiotics: Changing Signs of Truth. However, it wasn’t until I read Smith’s
    reference to the “bound space of play” that I remembered this: the word “coin,”
    usually spelled “quoin” in English, also describes the external corner of a
    building and/or the stones placed there to maintain the angle. Within the space
    defined by the quoins, then, we toss coins, sometimes needing to hurl them
    through the windows in order to open the space to the Other.