January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
August 6, 2012
Unlike Jacques Derrida, who was haunted by specters of Karl Marx, I am haunted by specters of JKA Smith. My first glimpse of Smith’s ghostly presence came in 2005, when an anonymous reader for my soon-to-be published book on postmodernism berated me for never mentioning The Fall of Interpretation. As I checked Smith’s text out of my college library, planning to include it in my last-minute revisions, I noted how well worn it was, as though, like Hamlet’s ghost, it had wandered the halls of multiple mental castles. The haunting continued once my book on postmodernism was published, for it was often paired on Amazon.com with Smith’s simultaneously published Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? It felt as though my work was standing next to its magnificent father, “so excellent a king, that was to [my book] a Hyperion to a satyr.”
My allusions to Hamlet are not arbitrary. In Specters of Marx Derrida links the opening of The Communist Manifesto with the ghost that haunts Hamlet: the father who preceded him. Like Hamlet encountering the ghost, then, I feel a certain belatedness when I encounter the work of Smith, whose lucid, eloquent prose brought the work of Derrida to bear on Christian faith years before I thought to do so. And it strikes me that Shakespeare’s famous play helps explain my response to the welcome second edition of The Fall of Interpretation.
Significantly, Shakespeare inserts into Hamlet several references to Wittenberg, the town where the eponymous hero attends university. As the famed location where Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door, Wittenberg gestures toward a pluralism of interpretation that outraged the Roman Church. Shakespeare thus implies that Hamlet’s inability to act results from the hermeneutic dilemma signaled by Wittenberg: a fall from interpretive purity into agonizing ambiguity. Smith’s Fall of Interpretation, in contrast, implies that Wittenberg’s door opens onto “a creational hermeneutic.” Establishing that pluralism reflects the goodness of creation, Smith masterfully argues that the One who created male and female declared embodiment “good.” Embodiment, however, implies multiple perspectives on truth, each individual situated in time and space differently. The concept of plural perspectives, therefore, as Smith convincingly argues, reflects not the Fall into sin, but instead a falling into line with God’s creative plan. Or, as Hamlet finally recognizes at the end of the play that contains him, “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”
Smith argues for the special providence of the fall with brilliant elegance. I had never thought to compare the hermeneutic “fall into violence” suggested by multiple 20th century philosophers—Heidegger, Derrida, Lyotard, Levinas—with the common Christian belief that interpretive pluralism originates in “the Fall.” For evangelicals like Rex Koivisto and Richard Lints, as Smith notes, the desire for interpretive purity, wherein truth is fully present, reflects the longing for “prelapsarian . . . immediacy” (17). Ironically, then, when postmodern thinkers posit a violence to hermeneutics, believing that any interpretation insults the alterity of the other, they imply a mystified (if even unattainable) horizon of full presence that stands over and against the violence of interpretative difference. Evangelicals and philosophical atheists thus become opposite sides of the exact same coin. Smith, however, wants us to stay on the edge of the coin, avoiding the violence of “either/or” thinking (cf. 205, 217) by positing the inherent goodness of pluralism. As he states in chapter six, “By affirming the goodness of creation we can also account for our opposition to violence and oppression as a state of affairs that ‘ought’ not be, that demands of us not a ‘greater good defense’ but protest and lament” (173). And he practices what he preaches by creating conversational connection among radically different approaches to “truth,” from evangelical modernists to agnostic postmodernists.
Smith practices what he preaches in other ways as well. By identifying his own Christian “situationality” at the start of The Fall, he can, by its end, demonstrate how Derrida reinforces one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity: that following Christ is a decision made by faith, not by sight. Discussing Derrida’s focus on “undecidability,” Smith notes that pluralistic readings of reality imply not what John Searle calls “indeterminacy,” but instead the necessity of choice. Derrida’s undecidability thus implies what most thinking Christians already know: that salvation through Christ is not empirically obvious. If it were indeed self-evident, most people would be Christians, the evidence for Christianity making belief highly “decidable.” Instead, “undecidability” elicits a response—a decision for Christ, what Kierkegaard calls a “leap of faith.” Smith’s take on Christian “undecidability” thus avoids violence through its acknowledgement that human finitude itself is situated in the goodness of creation. Best of all, Smith foregrounds his own finitude in his introduction to the second edition, acknowledging “the shortcomings of the first edition of The Fall of Interpretation” (2). Smith thus establishes a pluralism within himself, noting how changes in time and space affect the “situationality” of his own scholarship. And it is good.
My only criticism of The Fall of Interpretation is Smith’s momentary fall into disdain for voices that contribute to a creational hermeneutic. Briefly failing to practice what he preaches, Smith indicts “American English departments” for painting an inaccurate picture of Derrida, one that “spells the impossibility for texts to communicate the intentions of their authors,” such that “interpretation is a wholly arbitrary endeavor” (201-2). As the product of an American English department, I was startled to see Smith dismiss an entire community of discourse, especially when he follows his broad-brush dismissal by singling out individual theologians—rather than entire theology departments—that promote a similar “misreading” of Derrida (203). Granted, many English professors celebrated deconstruction in the 1970s and early 80s as “a creative game with the play of signifiers where the reader is lord of the dance” (202). And, in reaction, many others uncritically dismissed deconstruction as nihilistic. But how is this problematic trend different from that in which many philosophers uncritically celebrated logical positivism in the 1920s and early 30s? Yet I would never indict “American philosophy departments” as a whole, despite the fact that I heartily welcome continental philosophy as a cooling rain to the desiccated deserts of the analytic tradition.
Perhaps I am over-reacting: a reflection of my own situatedness as a professor of English. Nevertheless, there may be a blind spot in Smith’s Fall. Like Hamlet’s mother in Shakespeare’s famous bedroom scene, Smith may not see a ghostly presence, the haunting of a predecessor. Consider the following statement by famed literary critic J. Hillis Miller, a member of the so-called Yale School of deconstruction: “all good readers are and always have been deconstructionists.” In other words, literary scholars have long recognized a pluralism within interpretation, a pluralism illustrated by the use of “Critical Editions” in English departments, wherein multiple readings of a famous text, like Hamlet, are bound together with the literary source. And implicit in the phenomena of Critical Editions is the assumption that some readings are better than others, that “all good readers are and always have been deconstructionists.” After all, only hermeneutically astute readings get selected for critical editions, reflecting Smith’s assertion that “the limits placed upon interpretation do not prescribe a single ‘correct’ interpretation but only preclude an infinite number of interpretations” (182). English departments have always known that “in the beginning is hermeneutics,” as Derrida once put it, and they see that it is good.
Some readers of this review most likely think “The lady doth protest too much.” That is probably the case. Nevertheless, I would also point out that the person in Hamlet who intones these words is Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, the woman who fails to see the ghost in her bedroom. When she states “The lady doth protest too much,” she is reacting to a literal play of signifiers coined by her son. Inspired by the ghost’s revelation that the current king murdered him, the haunted Hamlet inserts new lines for a play to be performed before the king: a fiction whose controlled play of signifiers contains coinages so revelatory that the murderer exits the room in despair. Ironically, when Hamlet gestures toward the ghost in her bedroom two scenes later, Gertrude proclaims “This is the very coinage of your brain”—like the coinages Hamlet placed into the truth-speaking play. I therefore wish Smith had given more attention to coinages, as “counterfeit” as they may be, in order to signal Derrida’s intrigue with the inherent metaphoricity of language—including philosophic language.
Think, for example, of “White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy,” where Derrida discusses Nietzsche’s comment that truth is composed of “worn-out metaphors which have become powerless to affect the senses, coins which have their obverse effaced and now are no longer of account as coins but merely as metal.” While Smith states in a footnote (without explanation) that he “attempted to avoid” a “visual metaphor” (160 nt.2), I ask for more metaphors, for the shine of new coins that might call attention to the dull metal of quotidian language that continues to serve as the currency of philosophical language. However, despite my demurrals, I acknowledge, unlike Gertrude, the presence of a ghost: the specter of Smith’s Hyperion-like scholarship. Rather than a worn coin, The Fall of Interpretation is a gift, not only to philosophers and theologians, but also to haunted English professors like me.
Crystal Downing is Distinguished Professor of English and Film Studies at Messiah College, in Grantham, PA. Her first book, Writing Performances, was honored at Cambridge University with the Barbara Reynolds Award for Outstanding Scholarship on Dorothy L. Sayers. Her second book, the one haunted by specters of Smith, is called How Postmodernism Serves (My) Faith. She recently discovered that her newly released third book, on Christianity and semiotics, is also haunted by Smith’s ghostly presence. Jack Caputo, upon receiving a copy of Changing Signs of Truth, informed her that Jamie Smith’s doctoral dissertation focused on semiotics.