Geoffrey Bennington’s review of the new translation of Derrida’s Of Grammatology: read as a commentary on the humanities.

by Jonathan Sterne on March 21, 2016

Read the review here: https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/embarrassing-ourselves

This was a great read over breakfast. I want to leave aside the intra-Derridean sniping and draw some bigger lessons from this review:

1. It’s dangerous for scholars to cut corners: look at the text, not your notes on the text. Advice for students and super stars alike. (or rather, we are all always students)

2. Publishers are cutting corners more and more. This is equally dangerous. We need proper fact-checking, reference-checking and “continuity editing” to make sure references are consistent. As budgets for copyediting are slashed, this work is being outsourced to scholars, who are neither qualified to do it, nor able to manage it on top of all the other things that are now outsourced to them.

3. Deep expertise is still necessary to engage in high stakes humanities argument, whether it is linguistic, historical, philosophical, or “other.” The old-fashioned language learning evidenced in this fight, which is the part of the humanities probably most suffering from cuts to the humanities in general, is a great example of this. If you want to argue across traditions and national contexts, there is no substitute for language learning. 

4. Any kind of erudition takes time to do well. The calls to speed up humanities PhDs will insure our future work will be less intelligent and less sophisticated. Expect more misreadings, more mistranslations, and more corners cut for professional rather than intellectual reasons.

5. Whether you write accessible prose for broad audiences, or intricate prose aimed at specialists (or try to do both and other things too), you should be able to read, discuss and work through difficult texts. That’s part of the job description.

6. Ok, a little intra-Derridean sniping. I don’t have the French chops to take a position on the translation, but I’m still not sold on the reading of Derrida that takes his expansion of terms like “text” too literally, including Bennington’s.

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