I still remember the toils of one particular graduate seminar where the class worked through Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology. I would not say that these memories where of joy, as the readings where always difficult and frustration was the common mood among everyone. However, the time was fruitful and the lessons on deconstructive criticism will not be forgotten.
Jump many years forward, I looked forward to reading Christopher Watkin’s Jacques Derrida (P&R Publishing 2018; source: publisher), in the Great Thinkers series from P&R Publishing (see here for a review of K. Scott Oliphint’s Thomas Aquinas). Fortunately, Watkin does not write like Derrida. Understanding Derrida is no easy feat. When reading Derrida, you might even question if he understands himself. Having stated these difficulties, it makes Watkin’s work that much more impressive.
As one would expect, deconstruction is at the heart of the book. Watkin defines deconstruction as:
It is a theory about the finitude of language and meaning, its inherent incompleteness and indeterminacy. Derrida presupposes an essentially Hegelian holism. Everything particular is part of a larger whole, and it has its meaning and its being only as part of that whole. It can neither be nor be understood all by itself. Jacques Derrida, xii
Deconstruction prevents us from claiming absolute clarity and puts into doubt our ability to know the truth.
Watkin unpacks the theory of deconstruction and Derrida’s oft repeated quote “there Is nothing outside the text” in his discussion of the logeocrentric illusion, which masks the contingency of meaning to context, Derrida’s corrective of phonocentrisim with its favoritism of spoken language, and the term différance to show that “presence is always different from itself and deferred with relation to itself” (Jacques Derrida, 18).
The second half of the work examines Derrida from a reformed perspective. First, Watkin provides a corrective to John Frame and other reformed interpretations of Derrida. Second, he examines deconstruction from a presuppositionalist or a Van Tilian perspective. His objective is not to force a harmonization of deconstruction and orthodoxy Christianity. Rather. Watkin illustrates significant ways in which Christianity can and should learn from Derrida, in fields such as ethics.
On a side note, I greatly appreciated Watkin’s understanding of accommodation. His careful parsing of the doctrine indicates the significance of accommodation and the danger accompanying a misunderstanding. Watkin writes,
In view of divine accommodation, therefore, it seems too hasty to conclude—along with theologian Graham Ward, who interacts profoundly and at length with Derrida’s thought and has written an important book about Derrida and the theologian Karl Barth— that “a certain agnosticism must be preserved within theology, for God cannot be pinned down and defined.” This sounds a lot like Derrida, but not a lot like the Bible. To say things about God, especially if those are things that he has previously said about himself, is neither to pin him down nor to define him in a restrictive way. Content is not the enemy of freedom when it is the content of absolutely personal character. God is not pinned down by whom he reveals himself to be; he is not defined (in a negative sense) by his character. When Ward says that Christ, “like différance, transcends difference and metaphysical polarities and makes the movement of signification possible,” he is evacuating Christ’s revelation of God of determinate content, stripping it back to an indeterminate otherness that is necessary within a Derridean frame, in order to avoid totalizing violence, but this view is inimical to a biblical frame of reference. Jacques Derrida, 104
Watkin’s understanding of Derrida is insightful and his elucidation is clear. Also, as with the other volumes of the series, Watkin offers a reformed reading of the scholar, and provides a theological juxtaposition of reformed thought with, in this case, a study of Derrida. My general preference is to first read a scholar’s work before approaching secondary sources and studies on the scholar. Derrida might be an exception to this and Watkin’s Jacques Derrida is a great place to start.