Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


Humanism and its Aftermath: The Shared Fate of Deconstruction and Politics

Bill Martin
New Jersey: Humanities Press
0 391 03894 X
xvi + 200 pp.

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A little melodramatic perhaps, to use the author's word, but seemingly not jaded, this book attempts to eke out a political activism from the genre-law busting philosophical convolutions of the work of Jacques Derrida. And succeeds. To a degree.

Martin's second foray into the interface of deconstruction and politics is more explicit in displaying his political credentials (an affiliation to Bob Avakian, a respectful impatience with Trotskyites like Callinicos, a promised future work on the importance of Mao), and is more often marked by the kind of auto-referentiality found in those texts of Derrida which are not so readily amenable to the abstracting of theses and political diagnosis. This style is refreshing and yet somewhat contrived, so that I couldn't decide in the end if it really was necessary to indicate that this was a book written on either side of a break from school occasioned by the arrest of Abimael Guzman, and the author s participation, arrest and deportation, in a delegation to Peruto draw attention to the Shining Path leader's plight. There are parts of the book that seem something like 'filler' alongside this politics. This is especially so of the middle sections of the book offering a rehearsal of the already well known disagreements between Foucault and Derrida over Descartes, and appraisal of Habermas and Derrida's differences - although the critique of Rorty around the problem of universalism seems to be very useful, as are the surveys of debates about the university and the politics of research and teaching (p. 65) otherwise too often left aside in both philosophy and politics.

One of the underlying themes of the book is an evaluation of Derrida's project of making space, clearing a path or pursuing a transformatory move towards respect for the other (p. 72). While this sits strangely alongside more orthodox notions of the other, it is possible for Martin to articulate this project in terms of the excluded proletariat (excluded from the 'other' in social theory and in the university), in terms of the aporias by means of which alterity enters the world of politics (rather than by explicit political declaration) and in terms of the non-West (that which is not thought by Heidegger, that which Euro-reason as universalism excludes) and the failures of critical theory to do much but dance around the issue of imperialism. In doing so the question is one of whether classical historical materialism can be a basis for a fundamental regard for the other (p. 36), or if, as Martin has it, this must be supplemented with deconstruction? There is an unsatisfactory aspect to the book here that insists on a break with calculation - and all the notorious undecidable and clarity-resistant prejudices against post-structuralism hover on this horizon. This however does not mean the book is not worthwhile for thinking through these problems. The choice in Martin's ethics is for thinking through with Derrida, in addition to calculation.

It may worry some that this text tends towards the very postmodern cynicism that is such a useful resource for delinking thinking from action in politics in the current period. Here the few comments towards the end regarding the politics of speed deserve to be rethought in terms of the dangers of moving away from calculation, since such a move seems to accept a speeding capitalism which must always be out of control (not a Marxist position this, surely). Alongside the jaded culture of Europe (p. 155), the waste of time entailed in having to engage intellectually with the likes of Rorty (p. 112) and how Martin seems unaware that Derrida's own texts are not really all that resistant to co-option as commodities (p. 151), in the end it is difficult to avoid the now conventional cul-de-sac where deconstruction falls prey to its own critique . In politics this thinking seems too often like a verbose paralysis, and Martin does well to interrupt this work in favour of Guzman.

Appreciation can be had for the ways Martin finds aspects of Adorno in the Derrida project. But if there is an Adorno hidden in Derrida somewhere, this is glossed so quickly as only some kindly notion of the autonomy of art and style as political resistance, and as Adorno being the first critique of the commodity system, that if this is all that Derrida takes from the Frankfurt School it is not much of a surprise. Adorno offered more than this to those interested in culture, radicals and liberals alike.

Similarly, although Derrida's Spectres of Marx is not dealt with in this book because of the delays of publishing schedules (and here questions of speed are also important), appreciation can be had for the ways a serious political concern and engagement between Marxism and Derrida is pursued. Although there are problems with Derrida's recent play with Marxism, in the fixation upon the ghost of Hamlet and his homo-erotic jokes about reading over Marx's shoulder and wanting to read Plato over Socrates' shoulder and so on, Martin manages to read both Derrida and Marxism's varieties without falling into the entrenched and orthodox mutual denunciation and this must be applauded. That Martin promises a future work on Mao, that he refuses to dismiss a political reading of Heidegger within a Marxist problematic (p. 147, against Callinicos), and that in the end this book is a very welcome rejoinder to the aesthetic coffee-table trash of so much current work means that a recommendation is deserved.

John Hutnyk
University of Manchester

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996