This is a fascinating book on many levels.footnote＊ It is first of all an excellent guide through the sometimes murky landscape of post-1960 French thought. Dews manages the exceptional feat of being both fair and clear in expounding Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard and Foucault. It is all too easy to make any of these sound very straightforward by giving a selectively simplified translation into familiar slogans. This seems to have been largely the fate of Derrida on the American scene. It is also fatally easy to retain the full complexity by simply reproducing their language, or at least their impenetrable style. Dews has managed, on the contrary, to get to the essentials of their respective positions through a clear exposition of the underlying arguments. This means that he relates them at the same time to their sources in Husserl, Nietzsche, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, among others. He manages his imposing cast of characters with deftness and economy. This is a work without unnecessary digression. The argument of certain passages is dense, and calls for repeated reading. But it repays the effort in clarity of understanding. The book casts floods of light on its subject.
Dews has also had to strike a balance between two other extremes which mar one’s understanding of these writers. Some commentators on these authors are breathlessly admiring of their deep and unprecedented insights; others are impatient scoffers. I confess that I sometimes find myself drawn into the latter category, partly no doubt in reaction to people I encounter in the former. These two unfortunate attitudes undoubtedly feed off each other. Dews somehow keeps away from both. He treats his authors as though they had something new and important to say, as thinkers who have explored crucial facets of the modern predicament. But at the same time, he doesn’t hide or try to gloss over the evasiveness, the sometimes wilful obfuscation of certain issues, which the style of doing philosophy then dominant in Paris seemed to encourage. Foucault’s sliding between different contradictory positions on the issues of truth and freedom is well documented, for instance.
I confess that I have not been entirely cured of the scoffer’s disease. An overview of Lyotard’s whole development, through his rapid changes of position, rather reinforces the clownish aspect. It is hard to keep a straight face when one is told that Lyotard comes to discover that the issue of truth and falsehood is important after all, because various forms of power constantly try to suppress it to insulate themselves from criticism (p. 219). No wonder Popper is now the rage in Paris. He may have understood nothing else about society, history, cultural change, the sources of power, etc., but at least he never lost sight of that.
On the other hand, Dews shows a coherence in Lacan which I hadn’t seen, and establishes a case for seeing him as an important thinker of this period. This in spite of the fact that he seems to be slipping into neglect in the way Derrida is not, for all the sharp criticism that has been directed against him. The differential fate of these two authors, which Dews treats together and compares in an interesting chapter, would be interesting to explain, but that would have taken Dews beyond his brief.
But admirable as it is as exposition, Logics of Disintegration is more than this. Dews also tries to come to grips with the major underlying themes that link these authors, and to assess where they have brought them. The book concludes with an attempt to say where the argument has got to today.