‘Theory and Practice’ by Jacques Derrida reviewed by Conrad DiDiodato

Theory and Practice

University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2019. 144 pp., $41.92 pb
ISBN 9780226572345

Reviewed by Conrad DiDiodato

About the reviewer

Conrad DiDiodato is a retired secondary school teacher with an interest in Philosophy …


Editorial and authorial intention merge as early as in the translator’s preface to Jacques Derrida’s Theory & Practice to set up an accustomed thinking and doing binary. The strategy is all too familiar. As a work of the 1970s, editors today offer it in the usual language, deconstructive scaffolding and moves of its celebrated author. It is – one might say – almost textbook Derrida. His lectures to the École Normale Supérieur provide interpretive axes of theory and action; more specifically, of Althusser’s readings of Marx and Heidegger’s own extension of theory (in his ‘Question Concerning Technology’) through praxis to technê, and, since he’s addressing students preparing for their ‘agrégation examination’, of passive knowledge and a kind of socio-political call to action for young students flush with post-68 revolutionary zeal.

Theory & Practice is a text of deconstruction presented to his students as such. They must surely have known that Derrida liked to work within ‘the context of an opposition.’ (2) After all, if the lecturer begins his ‘Sessions’ with the pronouncement that ‘[It] must be done [Faut le faire]’ (1), what has to be done is to both prepare students for a ‘theory-and-practice’ final exam question as presented and also outline philosophy’s most contentious opposition to the satisfaction of young inquiring minds eager for the more interesting conceptual work to come in its wake. It’s hoped that Derrida will unpack this opposition and reveal meanings in a work like Marx’s ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ that may have been suspiciously privileged throughout its long philosophical history. Perhaps the celebrated eleventh thesis (‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; what is important is to transform it.’) is one such suspicious privileging. Again, Derrida’s reading of Marx (and later of Althusser and Heidegger) becomes a ‘non-closed text’ or ‘a network of relations to the other, of differences and traces of differences’ (12). And, of course, there is also Derrida’s penchant for word play, ‘transformation, displacement and re-elaboration’ (118).

Faut le faire is as random and arbitrary a beginning – what Derrida may have meant by ‘anticipatory parenthesis’ (41) and what I call a ‘tease’ – of a ‘theory-and-practice’ analysis as, for example, the Ça me regarde that begins the Second Session, both utterances seemingly tossed out haphazardly and yet both serving as a conceptual focusing of the task at hand. Perhaps Derrida is saying that Althusser’s choice of the eighth thesis as epigraph to his ‘On the Materialist Dialectic’ is the perfect complement to his own Ça me regarde: ‘All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.’ He seems tempted to do the same with ‘Pragma’ in the Third Session. Althusser is being closely aligned to Kantian ‘practical reason’ to the extent that he can answer Kant’s fundamental ethical question ‘what am I permitted to hope?’ What regards me specifically – Ça me regarde – is, in other words, the hope for a theory of dialectical materialism rooted in praxis. Whatever ought to happen in theory will necessarily result in action. From an initial tease or ‘anticipatory parenthesis’ (Ça me regarde) philosophical discourse leads to both a preparation (theory) and a call to political action (practice) that requires an overthrow of all the old conceptual bulwarks that now may work as barriers to future inquiry.

The reader wonders, however, if by casting his discussion of Marx in terms of a ‘theoretico-speculative’ and ‘practical’ opposition only, he’s simplified what by its design ought to anticipate more interesting ‘problematic directions’ (27). Is to state the task, in other words, as overtly as he does and blanketly equate it with Marxism and the celebrated ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ to identify it too narrowly? Derrida does say that ‘the philosophical discourse that takes under its aegis in an invested way the theory/practice pair, making it a major motif of its discursivity, is the discourse of a Marxist tradition, more precisely dialectical materialist philosophy.’ (7) The task at hand must, consequently, be understood as an ‘oppositional machine and semantic network’ (3) or ‘semantico-philosophical genealogy’ (5). But his Faut le faire/Ça me regarde/Pragma teases or anticipatory gestures may look out of place in a work intended to clarify and outline complex philosophical inquiry to the satisfaction of young students. Initially it’s not easy to see if he’s only interested in oppositions and will ever approach what Derrida calls in many places the ‘inner edge of the philosophical’ without which it’s impossible to know if ‘dialectical materialism is a philosophy or philosophical practice’ (16). At one place he even refers to ‘theory’ and ‘practice’ as philosophemes and to the struggles and forces in a Marxist philosophy ‘as the place and site of, and relations between theory and practice’ (70): the text as the field of both philosophy proper and political practice. But the task before him now is to do philosophy. In that sense, Derrida would like to treat the eleventh or eighth thesis or any related Marxian commentary (via Gramsci or Croce) as he would any text before him, such as works by Freud or Austin, ‘psychoanalysis, speech acts or the performative’ (17), namely, as any easily enunciable object of inquiry or ‘mode of enunciation’ (25) subject to all the usual deconstructive moves. Derrida has, in fact, devoted the entire Ninth Session to a deconstructive reading of ‘the analytical’ in Freud and what he’s referred to as the ‘analytical society’ of Austin and his performative theory of language (118-19).

To repeat: we have both a preparation (a task: Faut le faire or what should I know) and a ‘philosophy’ (a hope: Ça me regarde or what should I do) erected as foundational for the discovery of a solution ‘still to come’ and yet, for all that, a discussion of a Marxist text. His reading of Marx via Althusser and Heidegger seems to have made him all too aware of the intractability of the ‘theory-and-practice’ opposition with which he begins: perhaps of the bugbear of oppositional thinking in general. Derrida knows that ‘determining the forces or stakes invested in “theory/practice’ (53) is the primary aim. Althusser was certainly keen to show that Marxism isn’t just politics or a ‘political doctrine’ such as any academic institution can offer under the rubric of philosophy’s great systematisers, ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Husserl. It was also a ‘theoretical domain of a fundamental investigation’ (46) in which qua philosophical text Marxism is more than a ‘regional discipline’ (47), one text among many. To regard Marxism as one more academic exercise is to remove it somehow from its own ‘theoretical jurisdiction’ (48). To tie the philosophical to the theoretical in this Althusserian sense isn’t achievable without having to work through the theoretical and practical. To deconstruct Marx is to create at the same time this ‘overflowing effect’ (débordement) (83).

Derrida has ceded much conceptual leeway to Althusser and Heidegger, and for good reason. For Althusser Marxism, ‘in taking itself for its object’, is always of theoretical interest (51). Here Marx’s materialist dialectic is a ‘Theory of practice’ (52) though Derrida being Derrida suspects that perhaps the theoretical in Althusser is a ‘species of the practical’ (55) or what’s always already been implied in the practical. But Althusser is always clear: ‘without theory no revolutionary practice’ (57). Perhaps it’s for this reason that a good third of Derrida’s Fourth Session is devoted to explicating the primacy of the notion of ‘theoretical practice’ – via the ‘small “t” theory/big “T” Theory’ distinction – in Althusser’s For Marx. Perhaps Althusser has compelled Derrida to tackle the theory/practice distinction more directly and addressed the more transgressive language of ‘edge’ or ‘border’. Perhaps it’s by ‘getting beyond, or back behind philosophy’ (85) that the difficulties and limitations of oppositional thinking can be resolved. To give a reading of Marx for the benefit of a university class that is both defining and already well defined is clearly what’s at stake here. To properly question the theory/practice dichotomy will disclose through a deconstructive reading the suspicious rhetorical moves of those who would like to privilege theory or practice. Even Althusser the Marxist, for all his talk of ‘theoretical practice’, will have to translate (‘edge across’) theory into political action (71); he, too, could not find shelter behind the ‘inner edge’ of Marxist theorizing for very long. In that ‘overflow’ of deconstructive reading, Althusser, though opting for the security of theory, has been thrust into praxis. Heidegger, perhaps, as the philosopher of ‘technique’ will come even closer to that proper problematizing of the ‘inner edge’ or ‘border’ of philosophy.

Technique and dialectical materialism do not stand to each other as object and its metaphysical explication. Aletheia (‘physis’) or ‘disclosedness of being’ in Heidegger is a type of original techne or way of revealing thought and its object that’s more originary and closer to truth, making it a more radical ‘praxis’ than even Althusser’s ‘theoretical practice’. ‘The traditional theoreticism of philosophy is an effect of its practicism and not its opposite; a specific effect of its initial practicism and hence of its technicism.’ (76) To Althusser’s ‘theoreticism’ there’s now a proposed ‘practicism’ that’s made techne the very ‘essence of thinking’ (76) itself: a ‘techno-metaphysics’. The hope is now that ‘praxis’ from which the practical and theoretical stem will help Derrida navigate the treacherous waters of ‘oppositional thinking’ a little more confidently. Any talk of Marxist ‘practice’ for Heidegger becomes a ‘technical project at philosophy’s origin’ (77). Through an interesting excursus on Aristotelian ethical theory Derrida can even establish Heidegger’s metaphysics as a humanism (82), and it’s the ‘humanist’ strain that perhaps brings Heidegger closer to philosophy’s ‘inner edge’ or a truer thinking about the theory and practice opposition. Derrida’s masterful analysis of Heidegger’s ‘Science and Reflection’ in the Sixth Session is the clearest elucidation yet of the sense of ‘border’ or ‘edge’ Derrida needs to establish thinking as an activity that opens and reaches back to its ultimate ‘praxical’ origins (86-89): a Hedeiggerian ‘thinking’ as ‘an active, intervening elaboration, as if going against its essence’ (90). Here is perhaps the clearest path forward to engaging oppositional thinking on its own terms. The ‘praxical’ concealed in ‘thinking’ is precisely what keeps ‘thinking’ rooted to the ‘presentation’ or ‘production’ of objects. ‘Thinking’ is both ‘producing and product’, ‘operating and operated’ (92).

Where does Derrida stand or what has he accomplished or can affirm now as definitively true regarding the original Faut le faire mandate? Of the authors examined who is best situated to speak ‘from the edge of philosophy’ and successfully address the topic of oppositional thinking (100): Althusser, Heidegger, Gramsci? There is no definitive answer nor does Derrida provide more at the end than a restatement of an accustomed deconstructive theory (‘rhetorical artifice’ (117) and a hope, based on past practice, ‘to transform effectively a discourse or text on theory/practice into another practice’ (97-98). Derrida is always endlessly anticipatory in this way. He even wonders if Heidegger’s Richtigkeit or a ‘thinking’ properly attuned to praxical origins can do more than assume ‘the very thing it is questioning’ (102). Derrida is always Derrida. Isn’t that the fate of any reading (questioning) of a ‘non-closed’ text? It is a measure of the difficulty of the task Derrida sets for himself here, even in the case of preparing students for the agrégation examination, that in the end Derrida can offer only a clarification of terms such as Entbergen or unveiling (110-11) and the promise of more edifying lectures to come.

22 February 2020

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