Month: March 2017

Tonight’s Lecture on Of Grammatology

Deconstruction on Trial

[I didn’t expect to be here, but we can have class after all] There is a certain trial going on by many in academia and the defendants, the ones on trial, are such figures as Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard. The latest is from Areo Magazine, with an article two days ago by Helen Pluckrose titled—I’m not making this up— “How French ‘Intellectuals’ Ruined the West: Postmodernism and Its Impact, Explained,” which gives quite a power to professors teaching them, when if I’d be lucky to get them to read the books, let alone convert to this phantasm they have made of so-called “postmodernism.” She says that postermodernism began in the 1960s in writers such as Foucault, and that the term “postmodernism” was coined by Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern condition, though since it’ll be a topic tonight, one can wonder how any signified can predate its signifier. As I wrote on my website a couple of weeks ago, these trials over French writers of Derrida’s era want to say both that they are responsible for the Trumpian post-fact era and also the supposed “identity politics” found on college campuses and elsewhere. The prosecutors, as I noted, are often as fact free as the their supposed enemies. For example, Lyotard most certainly did not first coin the term “postmodern”; it was in use as early as the 1880s in discussions of French impressionism. The first witness up was Daniel Dennett, who while whining he had to think about politics at all said in an interview with the Guardian:

I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.”

Numerous witness and media accounts have then followed (just google postmodernism and you’ll see the string of articles, including one from Jacobin by Landon Frim & Harrison Fluss, that argues that we must abandon a supposedly rampant postmodernism, which gave us today’s alt-right, for supposed Enlightenment values.) Pluckrose bases her charges against postmodernism and its meaning by quoting the Encyclopedia Brittanica—a move that we know to be the gold star of real scholarship—and never considers for an instant that Lyotard, for example, was less prescribing the postmodern in the book he later came to critique, than describing what is obvious: with what Arendt calls the “loss of authority” and Nietzsche called “the death of God,” there was a loss any “metanarratives” under which which any “we” could collect ourselves. This death of metanarratives meant for Lyotard thinking how we think through the inevitable impasses that differends between different narratives, themes that he takes up in The Differend and Just Gaming. Rather than some celebration of the loss of metanarratives, though clearly not in favor of inflating one or another narrative into one, Lyotard’s work was to think justice after this loss, a point that in these trials over postmodernism might just be important; justice is always what is at issue in a trial. Perhaps the Britannica article missed that.  At least we do get quotes from Derrida, but she then makes a mash of what those quotations mean. You can go and read her prosecutorial account yourselves and see if she is up to the rigorous hermeneutic standards she believes Lyotard et al. incapable of. Here is her closing argument of the damage Derrida has wrought:

We see in Derrida further relativity, both cultural and epistemic, and further justification for identity politics. There is an explicit denial that differences can be other than oppositional and therefore a rejection of Enlightenment liberalism’s values of overcoming differences and focusing on universal human rights and individual freedom and empowerment. We see here the basis of “ironic misandry” and the mantra “reverse racism isn’t real” and the idea that identity dictates what can be understood. We see too a rejection of the need for clarity in speech and argument and to understand the other’s point of view and avoid minterpretation (sic). The intention of the speaker is irrelevant. What matters is the impact of speech. This, along with Foucauldian ideas, underlies the current belief in the deeply damaging nature of “microaggressions” and misuse of terminology related to gender, race or sexuality.

Nevermind that Derrida, from beginning to end, and in the very text she cites and mangles (“Différance”) is a critic of the proper, the self-same, and phantasms of self-identity. It’s also astounding that these writers never bother to take up exactly where Foucault, Lyotard, and Derrida, for example, discuss the Enlightenment: that evidence is never presented since it would defeat their own cases. If these thinkers are on trial, perhaps a look at the (textual) evidence would be a first step. Instead we just get told that they simply rejected the Enlightenment and a certain liberalism that came with it. Nevermind that the Enlightenment of the Auklärung and les lumières has a complicated relation to the history of liberalism predating it, and one ought not to assume such an easy “thing” as “Enlightenment liberalism.” Nevermind, too, that what Derrida often wanted to counter was the false universalisms that were an ethnocentrism under another name, a key theme in Of Grammatology. And never once is mentioned the fact that during the era of Enlightenment itself, we saw the burgeoning of the slave trade, and those involved in the supposed Enlightenment were anything but critics of its colonialisms’ horrendous practices. We are told simply, though, to return to those values, as if one can excise one from the other. What they want is the phantasm of Enlightenment, and not to deal with a world that diffused with differential forces and powers, where, as Arendt puts it well in Origins of Totalitarianism, rights always disappear the very moment they are needed. This is not to say, as Derrida argues many times, that we abandon this notion, nor that of sovereignty, as we have seen numerous times this semester. They, at points, are a necessary strategy in combatting oppression, but we cannot just presuppose that we can through out such vaunted and complicated terms, which presuppose so much and from which we Enlightened thinkers should be afraid to look to those presuppositions. For example, in these trials over postmodernism, I am taking up the strategy of the right to defend them. Could we for once, if we accuse them of such things as “relativism,” actually read what they had to say about it? Let me apologize for citing from Limited Inc. at some length (not least to my typing hands), but the defense does need to present its evidence:

This way of thinking context [key to OG, where Derrida says all thinking occurs within a context] does not, as such, amount to a relativism, with everything that is associated with it (skepticism, empiricism, even nihilism). First of all because as Husserl has shown better than anyone else, relativism, like all its derivatives, remains a philosophical position in contradiction with itself. Second because this “deconstructive” what of thinking context is neither philosophical position nor a critique of finite contexts, which it analyzes without claiming any absolute overview. Nevertheless to the extent to which it—by virtue of its discourse, its socio-institutional situation, its language, the historical inscription of its gestures, etc.— is itself rooted in a context (but, as always, in one that is differentiated and mobile), it does not renounce (it neither can nor ought to do so) the “values” that are dominant in this context (for example, that of truth. …I insisted [in a previous passage] in quotation marks … “real-history-of-the-world” in order to mark clearly that the concept of text or of context which guides me embraces and does not exclude the world, reality, history. Once again (and this probably makes a thousand times I have had to repeat this, but when will it finally be heard, why this resistance? [indeed. It is as if the resistance is psychoanalytic in its disavowal, even decades after he wrote this passage]: as I understand it…the text is not the book, its is not confined in a volume itself confined to the library. It does not suspend reference—to history, to the world, to reality, to being, and especially not to the other, since to ay of history, of the world, of reality, that they always appear in an experience, hence in a movement of interpretation which contextualizes them according to a network of differences and hence of referral to the other, is surely to recall that alterity (difference) is irreducible. Différance is a reference and vice-versa. (LI, 137)

He then goes on to say that if one wants to fix a priori the context for debate, it one wishes sovereignly to set the limits of what is to be said in the “indefinite opening of every context, an essential nontotalization,” the one refuses  to think those places where “responsibilities jell, political responsibilities in particular. That will seem surprising or disagreeable only to those for whom things are always clear, easily decipherable, calculable, and programmable: in a word, if one wanted to be polemical, to the irresponsible” (ibid.). There were things are programmable and calculable, there is no freedom: freedom is precisely calculating against the incalculable, in temporized situations that call for a decision worthy of the name. (We can note just in passing that John Searle, the opponent of sorts who comes to defend the honor of Enlightenment values against Derrida, has long been an opponent of multiculturalism and feminism, and has been charged this past week for trying to trade a GA-ship for sex and for creating a hostile work environment by watching porn in his office. But a judge would be correct to rule this “evidence” as irrelevant to the case at hand. The jury here should ignore these statements in its deliberations.)

In any event, what I want to make clear is Derrida’s attention to thinking a hauntology, a term he later used in Specters of Marx instead of ontology, where nothing is fully present, in the present, nor absent, given the temporalization that we have seen, with différance, is non-representable. What I mean by that is that while Derrida’s grammatology—a term that he thought would come to define his career—seems, with its emphasis on semiology and the grammê is through and through a text on the traces of différance and difference/deferral of any present meaning. That is to say, Of Grammatology is not about how language, as one commentary on Of Grammatology puts it [I can’t find the book to cite it at the moment], shapes the world, but rather that the world is, as Jean-Luc Nancy puts it, nothing other than the passage of sense, an infinity of referrals but always in a finite context. And Derrida links his thinking of archi-writing (archi-écriture) to temporalization. (If we have time after the trial, I would like to go to these places to make that case, that this ultimately a text concerned with time-spacing, with difference-deferral, that is, referral: OG, 47, 60, 62, 65, 66.)

Let us turn, then, for a moment to the scene of the crime, as it were, of which Derrida et al. are accused (it’s the first quotation by Derrida used in the Areo article): any defence will have to take up the facts of the case, even if it is an apologia without apology. (One is reminded—and the analogy will gobsmack Derrida’s prosecutors—of Socrates, where the charges made against him are buts rumors of rumors, which withered in the Apology under the least questioning. And since inevidably university students are mentioned, Derrida, too, has always been on trial for corrupting the youth.) Derrida’s Of Grammatology, said to give us a linguistic idealism, says, smack literally in the middle of its pages, the following:

[I]f reading must not be content with doubling the text, it cannot legitimately transgress the text toward something other than it [my emphasis], toward a referent (a reality that is metaphysical, historical, psychobiographical, etc.) or toward a signified outside the text whose content could take place, could have taken place outside of language [my emphasis], that is to say, in the sense that we give here to that word, outside of writing in general. That is why the methodological considerations that we risk applying here to an example are closely dependent on general propositions that we have elaborated above, as regards the absence of the referent or the transcendental signified. There is nothing outside of the text [il n’y a pas de hors-­texte, there is no outside-text]. And that is neither because Jean-Jacques’ life, or the existence of Mamma or Therese themselves, is not of prime interest to us, nor because we have access to their so-called ‘real’ existence only in the text and we have neither any means of altering this, nor any right to neglect this limitation [and so forth]. (OG, 158)

Here we get the deconstruction of so many readers, even perhaps a certain reader named Derrida. All is text and any referent is but another sign; any supposition otherwise would be attempting to make claims for a ‘transcendental signified’ outside the play of signs. In context, Derrida is reading Rousseau and Saussure’s claims against themselves: their semiologies argue firstly against such signifieds only to make claims for ‘nature’ and ‘consciousness’, respectively, as meaningful outside of the semiologies they proclaim.

I could quickly note that context is everything in reading, or that the place of thought is everything in thinking and writing as such, and one should not universalise, as it were, claims that are context-specific, as all readings are; the rush to use language as non-emplaced, as not context-specific—that is behind the invention of the logos and the logocentric thinking of the West that remains fifty years after Of Grammatology the hidden premise of much of its thinking. As I offer this opening statement, you will think to yourselves that any con-text returns us to the problem of non-textual referents and therefore I am merely playing on words without ever getting outside of them. The sophists were good at the law courts by providing defences against all kinds of ‘challenges’, but you know better than to be bewitched by any of my attempts at sophistics; there are the facts of reality beyond sensuous signs and you will be judging me (and the dead philosopher I speak for and hence betray) on whether I can give you these extra-textual facts. You will want me to get real already, to abandon obscure rhetoric, and speak to the thing itself. Hic et nunc.

Let me then turn to several important pages in Of Grammatology almost wholly neglected in its reception, and certainly in the summary judgments of Derrida’s new prosecutors (they seem too busy to give time for the defence present its case). The pages concern Charles Sanders Peirce, who Derrida takes up before turning to Saussure. As Derrida notes, logic for Peirce is itself a theory of signs, and so is any given ontology. Derrida writes, in passages usually taken as merely bringing in Peirce as a witness to the unmotivated-ness of the sign (that is, unmotivated by anything to which it refers, including a transcending reality), the following:

Peirce goes very far in the direction that I have called the de-construction of the transcendental signified, which, at one time or another, would place a reassuring end [my emphasis, we will come back below to witness another writer wanting the salve, the saving, of this reassuring end] to the reference from sign to sign. I have identified logocentrism and the metaphysics of presence as the exigent, powerful, systematic, and irrepressible desire for such a signified. [That is as clear a definition of this term as one will find.] Now Peirce considers the indefiniteness of reference as the criterion that allows us to recognize that we are dealing with a system of signs. What broaches the movement of signification is what makes its interruption impossible. The thing itself is a sign. [The emphasis is by Derrida]. … According to the ‘phaneoroscopy’ or ‘phenomenology’ of Peirce, manifestation itself does not reveal a presence, it makes a sign. One may read in [Peirce’s] Principles of Phenomenology that the ‘idea of manifestation is the idea of the sign.’ Thus there is no phenomenality reducing the sign or the representer so that the thing signified may be allowed to glow finally in the luminosity of presence. The so-called ‘thing itself’ is always already a representamen shielded from the simplicity of intuitive evidence. The representamen functions only by giving rise to an interpretant that itself becomes a sign and so on to infinity. (OG, 49)

My apologies for this long quote. When putting on a defence to a challenge, sometimes the witnesses do go on for a bit. As is well known, Peirce argued in his pre-1904 work for an infinite semiology. Each sign, that is, thing, was itself a signifier-object-interpretant in a chain of other signifiers-objects-interpretants, with no final or first sign, since any first sign could not be an object for another sign and so forth. For Peirce that passage of sense was not something extrinsic to the movement of the real, but was the real itself. Derrida takes this less in the direction of a debate over reference than towards a consideration of Peirce’s view that the traditional notion of intuition (which Peirce thought to be a holdover of Cartesianism) is one not determined by a previous cognition, which is rendered impossible given infinite semiosis. This would of course come to inform Derrida’s readings of Husserl and other phenomenological thinkers.

But let us pause before that point in the paragraph: what does it mean to think that ‘the thing itself is a sign’? The point is crucial, since all manner of the prosecutors’ efforts hinge on the supposedly shared view that the sign locks us away from the real, justifying the charge of linguistic idealism one often hears about—though one should worry more these days, I would aver, about linguistic naiveté. One reading of the above would be that, as Derrida himself put it, “there is no thinking outside of language,” that is, outside of signs. But it would also mean thinking that there is not something extrinsic or transcending linguistic systems or conceptual schemes, since the things are signs and vice-versa. Thinking language only in the first way is to posit a transcendental signified and this must be excluded on Derrida’s account, since the whole sign system itself (which would then itself be a sign) would refer to an unnameable outside as transcendental signified, and thus we would have doubled down on Platonism in a linguistic register (the appearance of signs and the reality of what is irreducible to appearance). That is, the whole sign system would refer to an outside, a view of language that Derrida works to deconstruct as it is beholden to a metaphysics of presence, one that is rewritten line by line in the descriptions of language by the new realists. Derrida’s insight was to see Platonist dualism as informing a long line of semiological thinking from Plato to Saussure in terms of the difference of the material signifier and a signified whose form transcends this materialit]—a view Peirce came the closest to ‘deconstructing’ according to Derrida.

No doubt there are other important places in the history of philosophy where a counter-history of the sign is possible. Two important moments I have in mind are Heidegger’s post-WWII writings on language, which are often said to be mystical (which is correct inasmuch as it was certain mystical traditions that held open a thinking otherwise of the sign, as performative and inseparable from the real) and Schelling’s notion of the tautegorial On the latter, Tyler Tritten notes: ‘Schelling views the history of mythology as the deployment of Being itself, i.e. as an ontogony or as onto-genesis. Mythic saying is the “tautegorical”—as opposed to allegorical—saying of Being, which says nothing but its own configuration, its own propriety. Myths do not represent a prior meaning which would exist in advance of the myth as the condition of its mythic expression; for, that would be a lapse into transcendentalism. … Poseidon, for example, would not be an allegorical manner of depicting the sea, but Poseidon rather is the sea’. There is thus an irreducible performativity to language, irreducible to any supposed nominalism, a point I cannot take up for now, since I must return to the case at hand.

The question, then, is can we think the thing itself as a sign? This does not mean dodging the real—we will valiantly face our fears, as Short calls them—but facing up to the fact of the sign as real, not just in its materiality, as marked out on our pages and so on, but also not as simply one side in the human/nature divide. As Derrida surmised in the largely speculative opening of Of Grammatology, such a thinking is the happening of science in terms of DNA, computing, post-Set theory mathematics, and so on, to all the so-called information sciences, which rely on another thinking of the sign. Can a post-deconstructive realism be aligned to such a thinking? Derrida demonstrates that it is not a matter of having social constructivism on one side and reality on the other—something that typically leads to the Maurizio Ferraris dodge, as I will call it after the Italian philosopher repeating such commonsensical notions as the following, in a supposedly critical, philosophical register: maleness, identity, and other cultural names are socially constructed (how could it be otherwise?) whereas the sciences avail us of a non-constructible reality (even if we must recognise each theory’s falsifiability). On the one side discursivity, deferral, and difference; on the other, an outside availed to us empirically and denoted (but not reducible to that denotation) by the scientist. We all know the consequences said to result by thinking otherwise about the latter, a political moralism that replaces blackmail for thought, which undergirds all the trials over deconstruction: without the Enlightenment, to put a twist on Dostoevsky, everything is permitted. To take an appropriate witness given the above, here is T. J. Short discussing Derrida in Peirce’s Theory of Signs (2009):

[T]he denial of an unambiguous reference is a perfect cover for someone fearful of facing reality [one must always adore the psychologising of philosophical differences; it’s a mark of much of the prosecutorial work, for example: one doesn’t have a philosophical position but is merely afraid, like a child, over against the brave realist philosopher fully instantiated in adulthood and Enlightened maturity], and that the idea that there is only play invites totalitarianism [!]. For if there is no reality, then there is no reason why one should not impose his vision on the rest of us: ‘One view is as good as another, so I’m going to make you accept mine!’ Truth’s denial leaves a vacuum: the will to power fills it. (T. J. Short in Peirce’s Theory of Signs [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009], 45.)

This, of course, is less an argument than an emotional appeal, though expected in the prosecutorial tone challenging and thus falsely accusing Derrida, et al. But it is helpful in delineating a given thinking of the real that any future realism—including a realism of and about the future and the to-come of time never presentable as such—must supersede: the real is unambiguous; knowledge of it saves us from totalitarianism (never mind that never has a philosophical knowledge of the absolute saved anyone from anything); and the real is the referent of language—and even in a book on Peirce would therefore be non-linguistic. Let me cite more evidence from Derrida, given that Short doesn’t bother to do so:

The deconstruction of logocentrism, of linguisticism, of economism (of the proper, of the at-home [chez-soi], oikos, of the same), etc., as well as the affirmation of the impossible are always put forward in the name of the real, of the irreducible reality of the real—not of the real as the attribute of the objective, present, perceptible or intelligible thing (res), but of the real as the coming or event of the other, where the other resists all reappropriation. … The real is this non-negative impossible, this impossible coming or invention of the event the thinking of which is not an onto-phenomenology . It is a thinking of the event (singularity of the other, in its unanticipatable coming, hic et nunc) that resists reappropriation by an ontology or a phenomenology of presence as such. … Nothing is more ‘realist,’ in this sense, than a deconstruction. (‘As If It Were Possible, “Within Such Limits”…,’ in Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 367)

This is also a good place to begin to think the problematic politics of a given realist politics. No doubt, it was the fear of ‘realising’ or naturalising political categories that still marks a hesitancy in some quarters with regard to the new realisms. Of course, one should not work backward from a given political position to an ontology just as one should not presume an easy movement from the latter to the former. Philosophy has no doubt always faced the trial of the real, to explain ‘what is’ irrespective of parochial, all-too-political concerns. But let’s get real and recognise that any future realism must think language otherwise and must pass through a certain thinking of language as temporalization, as the becoming-time of space and the becoming space of time, found in Derrida. Of course any final meaning of Derrida’s corpus, and thus any real judgment of it, will always be deferred, and thus the case may never be closed, though a certain thinking of time, I’ve suggested, is on our side.

Lecture Tonight on “Différance” and “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”

Derrida’s “Différance” and “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”

We begin tonight where many think we should have already begun, namely with the two most-assigned essays in Derrida’s oeuvre, texts that in most anthologies and classes on what gets called “literary theory” count as a sign that signifies all that Derrida will have written from 1966 (the year of the first publication of “SSP”) and 1968 (the year he gave the lecture “Différance” to the Société française de philosophie) on forward. But these texts, as you’ve now read and reread them, are anything but straightforward, and are hardly the introduction one would want to his thought, to its ultimate meaning, precisely because in these texts he argues against thinking of any ultimate meaning to a text above, below, or beyond its materiality, that is to say, its particular system of signs: this would be a thinking of texts that would reinstate a certain Platonism, that the intelligible (the “meaning” [sens] of the text) lies beyond the sensible (the text itself). The task tonight, though, will be more than to understand what is meant by “différance” but also to link these texts back to the future of Derrida, if you will, to show that his future invocations of the democracy-to-come, to impossible mourning, to the non-economy of the gift, and so on, are not, perhaps, foreseeable in these texts, but are nevertheless foreign to their concerns.

There is little doubt that temporalization is at the heart of these texts, even as we cannot get around that the way they are typically received as an account of an anti-realism, that is, that there is nothing outside of texts and textuality. But this “anti-realism” imputed to Derrida itself presumes a thinking of the sign and semiology wherein there would be an “outside” that language would represent (or fail to represent). No doubt, the “problem of language” was crucial to Derrida during this period, as it was all manner of thinkers in analytic and Continental philosophy. As he wrote at the beginning of Of Grammatology:

However the topic is considered, the problem of language has never been simply one problem among others. But never as much as at present has it invaded, as such, the global horizon of the most diverse researches and the most heterogeneous discourses, diverse and heterogeneous in their intention, method, and ideology. This inflation of the sign “language” is the inflation of the sign itself, absolute inflation, inflation itself. Yet, by one of its aspects or shadows, it is itself still a sign: this crisis is also a symptom. It indicates, as if in spite of itself, that a historico-metaphysical epoch must finally determine as language the totality of its problematic horizon. It must do so not only because all that desire had wished to wrest from the play of language finds itself recaptured within that play but also because, for the same reason, language itself is menaced in its very life (menacé dans sa vie), helpless (désemparé), adrift in the threat of limitlessness (désamarré de n’avoir plus de limites), brought back to its own finitude at the very moment when its limits seem to disappear, when it ceases to be self assured, contained, and guaranteed (bordé) by the infinite signified which seemed to exceed it. (OG, 6)

What leads to this, I think, is that the representational or referential view of language had been disrupted by structuralism and in particular the Saussurean view of language that, at least in part, Derrida is willing to give credit. In his  Course on General Linguistics (1910-11), Saussure aimed at a science of signs (semiology). This means he is not interested in etymology, philology, or the any specific sign systems, but rather wants to answer: what is a language? (Not, “what is the French language?” etc.). What was essential to language—a point that Derrida will critique—is that it is two-sides: “the acoustic sign [as] linked to an idea.” But any langue (as opposed to parole, the speaking of that language) is social, not the creation of an individual. No one can will language into being. Moreover, language is an inescapable institution. Of course, there is a  huge diversity of language systems, heterogeneous to one another, a point crucial for Saussure. For Saussure, any sign is “arbitary”; it has no intrinsic “meaning” or “sense” (sens):

We must not begin with the word, the term, in order to construct the system. This would be to suppose that the terms have an absolute value given in advance, and that you have only to pile them up one on top of the other in order to reach the system. On the contrary, one must start from the system, the interconnected whole; this may be decomposed into particular terms, although these are not so easily distinguished as it seems. Starting from the whole of the system of values, in order to distinguish the various values, it is possible that we shall encounter words as recognisable series of terms. (30 June 1911).

Otherwise put, words only make sense in their difference from other words. Moreover, it’s not just that this is the case because of the syntactical context of a word (the word “decrepit” has a different meaning depending on if its placed before “old man” or a “wall.”) Even simply the word “sun” can mean a “star,” something warms one, etc. Here is the real turn made in Saussure:

Psychologically, what are our ideas, apart from our language? They probably do not exist. Or in a form that may be described as amorphous. We should probably be unable according to philosophers and linguists to distinguish two ideas clearly without the help of a language (internal language naturally). Consequently, in itself, the purely conceptual mass of our ideas, the mass separated from the language, is like a kind of shapeless nebula, in which it is impossible to distinguish anything initially. The same goes, then, for the language: the different ideas represent nothing pre-existing. There are no: a) ideas already established and quite distinct from one another, b) signs for these ideas. But there is nothing at all distinct in thought before the linguistic sign. This is the main thing. On the other hand, it is also worth asking if, beside this entirely indistinct realm of ideas, the realm of sound offers in advance quite distinct ideas (taken in itself apart from the idea). There are no distinct units of sound either, delimited in advance. (4 July 1911)

Thus the “signified element alone is nothing” (4 July 1911). Thus, “To sum up, the word does not exist without a signified as well as a signifying element. But the signified element is only a summary of the linguistic value, presupposing the mutual interaction of terms, in each language system.” The most difficult idea comes here:

[I]n the language (that is, a language state) there are only differences. Difference implies to our mind two positive terms between which the difference is established. But the paradox is that: In the language, there are only differences, without positive terms. That is the paradoxical truth. At least, there are only differences if you are speaking either of meanings, or of signified or signifying elements. When you come to the terms themselves, resulting from relations between signifying and signified elements you can speak of oppositions. Strictly speaking there are no signs but differences between signs. (4 July 1911)

In this way, there are no “positive ideas” given and there are no “determinate acoustic signs that are independent of ideas.” This leads him to the “fundamental principle of the arbitrariness of the sign”: “It is only through the differences between signs that it will be possible to give them a function, a value.”

This semiological difference will be put alongside ontico-ontological difference, crossing over one another, if one will, in différance, which is “neither a word nor a concept” (M, 3). To use Derrida’s language, any sign is but a trace of a trace of trace…ad infinitum. As is well known, the text of “Différance,” as presented orally, was to overturn the traditional view that speaking is to be privileged over writing, since the speaker, present to herself, can answer questions and provide reasons, that is, the meaning behind the speech, whereas writing is the symbol of death itself, since the speaking subject is not there to provide the meaning beneath or behind the text. Nevertheless the meaning, for the auditor in the room in 1968, is deferred until she has seen the written text and can see the difference written between différence and différance, and therefore take up just what Derrida was getting at in his oral work. The term différance, first found in his “Cogito and the History of Madness” (1963)  differs from difference in that it can mean both to differ and to defer, to put off, to send off, and in this way, différance is the the becoming-space of time (defer) and the becoming time of space (difference). [Note the story of Derrida’s mother when she discovered this term was in updated French dictionaries.]

In sum, what is not to be missed is not that this means that, yes, any ultimate meaning of a language—even one that asks after the meaning of the Being of beings, as we saw last week—will have to be put off, deferred, but is structured precisely the becoming text of textuality, which requires time and space (there is no writing without time; to sketch a line or a point, to type them, requires it, and thus to attempt to think the impossible itself). Derrida writes:

I would summarize here in I have never used but that could be inscribed in this chain: temporization. Différer in this sense is to temporize, to take recourse, consciously or unconsciously, in the temporal and temporizing mediation of a detour that suspends the accomplishment or fulfillment of “desire” or “will,” and equally effects this suspension in a mode that annuls or tempers its own effect. And we will see, later, how this temporization is also temporalization and spacing, the becoming-time of space and the becoming-space of time, the “originary constitution” of time and space, as metaphysics or transcendental phenomenology would say, to use the language that here is criticized and displaced. The other sense of differer is the more common and identifiable one: to be not identical, to be other, discernible, etc. When dealing with differen(ts)(ds), a word that can be written with a final ts or a final ds, as you will, whether it is a question of dissimilar otherness or of allergic and polemical otherness, an interval, a distance, spacing, must be produced between the elements other, and be produced with a certain perseverence in repetition. (M, 8)

The sign is not to thought as having a “deferred presence,” since that deferral is a like a letter that never arrives, in the same way that the meaning of the Being of beings never arrives, is never made present to the subject. Semiology, which was always something of a fallen science, since it represents that which is not present, thus comes in Derrida to have a deeply “ontological” meaning, since signification is the “différance of temporization” (M, 9). That is to say, any “meaning” would be given over to this deferral and differentiation, which is precisely what is meant, simply, when we say that any “meaning” is contextual, historical, and thus never fully arrives in the presence of the present. Derrida writes:

[T]hereby one puts into question the authority of presence, or of its simple symmetrical opposite, absence or lack. Thus one questions the limit which has always constrained us, which still constrains us—as inhabitants of a language and a system of thought—to formulate the meaning of Being in as presence or absence, in the categories of being or beingness (ousia). Already it appears that the type of question to which we are redirected is, let us say, of the Heideggerian type, and that différance seems to lead back to the ontico-ontological difference. I will be permitted to hold off on this reference. I can no longer be conceived within the horizon of the present, and what Heidegger says in Being and Time about temporalization as the transcendental horizon of the question of Being, which must be liberated from its traditional, metaphysical domination by the present and the now. (10)

What we get, then, is a recitation, by Derrida, of previous figures who have attempted to displace the metaphysics of the presence, whether Nietzsche, whose critique of philosophy was that it was “an active indifference to difference, as the system of adiaphoristic reduction or repression,” and always thought force as differential (there is only force in a differential field of forces and counter-forces) (17); Freud, whose notion of the unconscious points the way to that productive element of each of us that precisely that cannot be made present (even if Freud himself seems to think the symptoms as a sign in the classical sense of referring beyond itself, and thus Lacan’s whole career will be to think the relation of the unconscious and language differently); Levinas, who thought of the trace  points us to a past that has never been present and towards that which can never be presented as such, namely the alterity of the Other; and of course, Heidegger, whose thinking of the meaning of Being as temporalization was meant precisely to defer any presentable onto-theological meaning (Being as ultimately God, as ousia, as this or that representation based on a thinking of time in the “vulgar sense” as a series of nows). Democracy, if you recall, was precisely to be thought in terms of its differantial “nature,” that it is always differing and defering itself any final meaning, and thus its heritage is always to come, is not yet, even if it will never be presented or representable, without destroying its promise in terms of this openness. Death, too, is always differing and deferred; it is never in the present, not because of the Stoic dictum that if it is here, then we are not, which sticks to the logic of presence/absence, but because it is not some x to be present, to be given a meaning. This is what the death penalty seeks to do: to master not just death, but to master time down to the now, to the instant of death itself. It is why all manner of techniques (legal, medical, the ticking of the clock, etc.) are to be used to save the condemned until that last moment; the condemned is to be kept alive—whatever it takes—until that moment.

How then to think différance given that as always differing and deferring, “the trace is never as it is in the presentation of itself” (23). This means solliciting (used in the archaic sense of making tremble, shaking) a whole epoch of thinking of thought as making present, as representation, and therefore as based on a model of time the very “thinking” of différance puts into question. (And as Derrida notes, this is not merely a metaphysical question, since “metaphysics normalizes Western discourse, and not only in the texts of the ‘history of philosophy.’” [23]). Let me quote him at length as he pays his dues, so to speak, to those whose work were the historical conditions of possibility for this “trembling” (sollicitare) of the tradition:

The structure of delay (Nachträglichkeit) in effect forbids that one make of temporalization (temporization) a simple dialectical complication of the living present as an originary and unceasing synthesis—a synthesis constantly directed back on itself, gathered in on itself and gathering—of retentional traces and protentional openings. The alterity of the “unconscious” makes us concerned not with horizons of modified—past or future—presents, but with a “past” that has never been present, and which never will be, whose future to come will never be a production or a reproduction in the form of presence. Therefore the concept of trace is incompatible with the concept of retention, of the becoming past of what has been present. One cannot think the trace—and therefore, différance—on the basis of the present, or of the presence of the present. A past that has never been present: this formula is the one that Emmanuel Levinas uses, although certainly in a nonpsychoanalytic way, to qualify the trace and enigma of absolute alterity: the Other.  Within these limits, and from this point of view at least, the thought of differance implies the entire critique of classical ontology undertaken by Levinas. And the concept of the trace, like that of différance thereby organizes, along the lines of these different traces and differences of traces, in Nietzsche’s sense, in Freud’s sense, in Levinas’s sense— these “names of authors” here being only indices-the network which reassembles and traverses our “era” as the delimitation of the ontology of presence. Which is to say the ontology of beings and beingness. It is the domination of beings that différance everywhere comes to solicit, in the sense that sollicitare, in old Latin, means to shake as a whole, to make tremble in entirety. Therefore, it is the determination of Being as presence or as beingness that is interrogated by the thought of différance. Such a question could not emerge and be understood unless the difference between Being and beings were somewhere to be broached. First consequence: différance is not. It is not a present being, however excellent, unique, principal, or transcendent. It governs nothing, reigns over nothing…. Which makes it obviously threatening and infallibly dreaded by everything within us that desires a kingdom, the past or future presence of a kingdom. [Here we can read his whole later critique of sovereignty.] And it is always in the name of a kingdom that one may reproach difference with wishing to reign, believing that one sees it aggrandize itself with a capital letter. Can difference, for these reasons, settle down into the division of the ontico-ontological difference, such as it is thought, such as its “epoch” in particular is thought, “through,” if it may still be expressed such, Heidegger’s uncircumventable meditation? There is no simple answer to such a question. (21-2)

We have seen why this is not so simple, since he will critique Heidegger for ultimately asking after the singular meaning of Being, or thinking access to the meaning of the animal, death, and so on “as such,” since that would always be differed and deferred, which of course what Heidegger begins to undertake in rethinking essence or Wesen as an historical swaying. This brings us to the deconstructive upshot that the structure that we call “Western metaphysics” itself can also be differed and deferred as to its meaning. Indeed, if we are to think a beyond of “philosophy” and “metaphysics,” it is only from out of that tradition that one can do so. What Derrida sets out in “Différance,” then is the following:

  1. There is no single meaning beneath metaphysics, which would presume that one can arrest its meaning and its reception: we would always already know what is to be found in its texts, as if it could be presented to us. This was precisely what was at stake in “Ousia and Grammê” last week.
  2. Writing is exemplary of différance given that one can see in its sketching precisely the becoming space of time and the becoming time of space. But because beingness has always been thought of in the mode of the present, we cannot, in the traditional way, given an ontology of différance, which precisely as thought in terms of semiological difference (the nullity that each word is without any other) and the nullity that is the ekstatico projection that is ontological difference in Heidegger, is not (yet).
  3. Because there is no lost origin, as in Heidegger seems to think in his readings of the Greeks, philosophy is not, pace Heidegger’s claim in the ‘29-30 course a form of “nostalgia,” since there is never a lost home or ground to begin with.
  4. Deconstruction as an attunement to the mouvance of différance is affirmative in the Nietzschean sense: it affirms the play of meaning within any given structure, and thus gives it over to a future worthy of name. Let me pull two quotations. One from the last lines of “Différance” and the other from the last lines of “SSP” (thought I would get to it, huh?):

From the vantage of this laughter and this dance, from the vantage of this affirmation foreign to all dialectics, the other side of nostalgia, what I will call Heideggerian hope, comes into question. I am not unaware how shocking this word might seem here. [He then quotes Heidegger on seeking to Being and finding the unique or right word for it, a task he deems not impossible since “since Being speaks always and everywhere throughout language”—that is, it is the house of Being (das Haus des Seins], which is both near and far from everything undertaken in “Différance” (comment)] Such is the question: the alliance of speech and Being in the unique word, in the finally proper name. And such is the question inscribed in the simulated affirmation of différance [simulated because not truly affirmed in seeking Being’s final and proper name]. It bears (on) each member of this sentence: “Being/ speaks/ always and everywhere / throughout / language.” (M, 27)

Now from “SSP”:

There are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of play. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes play and the order of the sign, and which lives the necessity of interpretation as an exile. The other, which is no structure, sign and play longer turned toward the origin, affirms play and tries to pass beyond man and humanism, the name of man being the name of that being who, throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology—in other words, throughout his entire history—has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play. … For my part, although these two interpretations must acknowledge and accentuate their difference and define their irreducibility, I do not believe that today there is any question of choosing—in the first place because here we are in a region (let us say, provisionally, a region of historicity) where the category of choice seems particularly trivial; and in the second, because we must first try to conceive of the common ground, and the différance of this irreducible difference. Here there is a kind of question, let us still call it historical, whose conception, formation, gestation, and labor we are only catching a glimpse of today. I employ these words, I admit, with a glance toward the operations of childbearing—but also with a glance toward those who, in a society from which I do not exclude myself, turn their eyes away when faced by the as yet unnamable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity. (WD, 292-3)

  1. There is hence a relation between différance and the future beyond the present, the future unforeseen, that would be like a birth and thus, outside the structures that have structured us, would appear to us mute, and certainly, from all of our categories, monstrous.
  2. Ever Seiendes, every being, then is a trace or sign of Being and beings in their dissimulation through difference and deferral.

What then to make of this thinking of time, which could not be presented or represented? The trace is from a past that cannot be made present and defers us to a future worthy of the name that, too, can’t be presented, precisely since it is to come, to arrive, and is inalterable in its alterity. Such a thinking of time would be as evental, as “always” (if this term has any meaning anymore given what is to come in this sentence) open to its finitude: time can always be otherwise. Especially since “time” as a signifier would attempt to signify, to present to itself, a meaning of time not given over to it, always in the present of the now, eternally. Speaking in terms of a Western language that has always wanted to master time from the eternal, to render it always the same, “time’ then has a meaning that is on its own terms, so to speak, a differing, deferring relation, even as we can’t help but borrow the tools of a tradition that would have defined it in terms of sameness and identity (the repetition of nows). It is past time we think time differently, not least since it gives us over to a thinking of a hope in the games of chance hidden in the structures of our thinking, of another tomorrow.


Devin Zane Shaw’s Disagreement and Recognition between Rancière and Honneth at boundary 2

Here’s his summary paragraph:

Thus while Recognition or Disagreement presents the debate between Rancière and Honneth, it speaks to broader issues about the scope and aims of contemporary political thought. The contrast between Honneth and Rancière ably demonstrates Rancière’s stubborn refusal to engage in the processes of justification valorized by mainstream political theory—indeed, it serves as a stark reminder of how engaging in these problems often, (and in Rancière’s view, always) entails accepting profound social inequalities. However, this book is also important because it shows that if we mainstream Rancière’s work, as Genel and Deranty attempt to do, we lose those parts of his work that are most subversive and inventive—and we are left with only Honneth.

Source: Devin Zane Shaw — Disagreement and Recognition between Rancière and Honneth | boundary 2

Derrida, Death Penalty Lectures (Week 2)

Derrida’s Death Penalty Lectures (Week Two)

This will no doubt be a tough week for us: six weeks of readings on death and time, as we make up for a time we could not be together while discussing our finitude and, well, the eventuality of a time we will not have been together, going through the Death Penalty lectures today and then “Ousia and Grammê” on Wednesday. As I was about to type this out, I came across the fact that Amy Krouse Rosenthal died today. I was not a reader of her children’s books, but I was a reader of remarkable essay published in The New York Times last month. Of course it might seem I begin each of our seminars on death and the death penalty with some article in the Times, which is perhaps all the less remarkable given how timely the question of death is, how it is always a spectacle and spectacular way the sovereign sees itself making itself, and thus is always making news of itself. I can’t visit that essay at great or really any length but it touches on an original mourning that Derrida often speaks of that comes from the very beginning of a love and of a friendship, a mourning that would always have the risk and the chance of betrayal, and her essay is no less aporetic. Given a sentence of death, Krouse-Rosenthal gives into the inexorable phantasm of being there after her death, of sur-viving, of living-on through a prosthesis or mechanism whose application is known for anything but what is heart warming and loving—as perhaps no machine ever is; indeed we define the machinic precisely as that without a heart or a beating heart, as that which is not alive. I don’t wish to take away the life of this article, to put it to death, through the machine of philosophical theory, though it does survive its author, as every writing does, allowing the author to live on and live through a writing now shared virtually across the world when it was published.

Making autobiography and biography inseparable she mourns her life and the love of her husband, Jason, mourning one and the other in the same article. She mourns the life she would have had with him if was not giving a deadline of death, a death sentence of cancer to man to whom she had been married for some 26 years. There is something of a genre, indeed perhaps makes a secret archive all its own, namely unpublished (but how can one ever protect against publication and publicity, even of one’s most closely held secrets?) letters one writes to one’s love in case of one’s death. You perhaps provide directions for the care or property or children, or perhaps confess to events you couldn’t bring yourself to confess during your life, but there on the page, can do. These letters are something of a suicide note, putting yourself to death on the page, phantasmatically depicting it as well as the survival of your writing, your words, and the bios to which it gave rise. She thus puts together something of a “Tinder, Bumble, or eHarmony” profile for Jason upon her death, a profile that is quotidian (one testifies to the other always by betraying their alterity, by making them ordinary and common) and singular, but one that seeks to provide for Jason beyond her death, and thus to survive to give more love to him in an economy that one could not begin to calculate. Indeed it’s an act that is meant to beat calculability of any economy of love, of any contract of love, by testifying to Jason and thus living on and staying with him in a way, since if one were to date Jason after the moment of his death based on such a profile, she will live on through that love, too.

She will have beaten calculability by giving Jason over to what is beyond any contract of one-to-one love (and I’ll not presume for a second that there are not other types of economies of love, beyond the one-to-one form), to have given him, through that love, a relation to the singular Other whom neither she or Jason can see arriving, beyond the living present of her love, a true future worthy of the name that will have arrived only—and this both the joy and melancholia of this article—upon her death. She will thus have given herself over to a certain phantasm of mastering that moment of death, of living beyond it, and thus betraying the gift to Jason that she would have performed. There is no way out of this aporia, or these host of aporias: writing all too commonly about what is to be singular (he dresses nicely, he is good around the house, and so on), since of course, the effort would fail if one appears all-too-singular and unique on a dating website. That is why they are so banal: everyone works out, everyone likes to hike, everyone loves to travel—one wants to stand out by not standing out. Das Man, it seems, is the author of each of those “auto-biographies.” Thus she must betray his singularity even as she testifies to it. She must die to survive. She must mourn him by mourning the life that they will have had together in order to, from that present-future, deliver him over, as if one could ever foreseeably do so, to a future Other who will then have mourned her through that partner’s love and mourning for that future Jason, who will have never finished the work of mourning for the author. And all while betraying the secrecy of their life together through a publication that will have, as all publications do, secrets left unsaid and indeed unsayable. If our discussions of the aporias of mourning, of the gift, of death, and so on, have the appearance of abstraction (one mourns by betraying, one forgives the unforgiveable, and so on) then Krouse Rosenthal’s essay—the proper name of a singular being that has already died, of a couple (Krouse and Rosenthal) that, through this act of publicity, we can all mourn—shows that one should not for all that, lose sight of the passion, of the love, that is enacted in coming to terms with these aporias. We cannot wish them away, and they are the very “stuff” of life. We can’t help but pass through these passions, or rather these passions that pass through us as the other in me, the one that says I and the one that I follow. And living that out, surviving that way, is not a morbid curiosity with death, as I was saying last week, whether we are dying or perishing all the time, but an affirmation and love for that life, for living as such.

This brings us to today’s class. What Derrida is critiquing in these pages is a certain knowledge or calculability of the moment of death, and he argues that far from questioning any presuppositions on the matter, Heidegger must presuppose a certain definition in order for his phenomenology of death to get underway. For Heidegger, death, as we recall, is the “possibility of the impossibility of existence in general.”[1] For Derrida, Heidegger will always have given death a certain meaning, a certain possibility for Dasein. As Heidegger puts it, “The full existential-ontological conception of death may now be defined as follows: death, as the end of Dasein, is Dasein’s ownmost possibility—non-relational [unbezügliche], certain and as such indefinite, not to be outstripped” (SZ, 258-9). Yet both Derrida and Levinas before him[2] find in Heidegger a certain propriety at the heart of his thinking. Heidegger writes, “Death is a possibility-of-Being which Dasein has to take over in every case. With death, Dasein stands before itself in its ownmost potentiality-for-Being…Its death is the possibility of no-long-being-able-to-be-there [Nicht-mehr-dasein-könnens]” (SZ, 250). This “ownmost” or “most proper possibility [die eigenste Möglichkeit],” as death, would seem to bring this impossibility within circumspective concern, within the possible, even if it is indeed the possibility of impossibility. For Derrida, “death is always the name of a secret” (A, 74). And thus he will argue in The Death Penalty lectures, as we saw last week:

I believe on the subject of death, the question, what is death? cannot let its vertigo make the head spin in a simple hermeneutic circle that would give us some pre-comprehension of the meaning of the word “death,” a supposed pre-comprehension on the basis of which the question and its elucidation would develop. (DP, 323/237)

In the second year of his Beast and the Sovereign seminar, Derrida argued for a thinking of “survivance,” a living-on, that would be a “groundless ground from which are detached, identified, and opposed to what we think we can identify under name of death or dying (Tod, Sterben),”[3] and thus can think a living-on that would not be opposed to what we think about when we think we are thinknig death. The “scandal” of the death penalty, Derrida argues, is that it relies on a “phantasm” that this death can be known—and thus by its negation know what living beyond or within life means. In the tenth session of the Death Penalty lectures, Derrida offers the following aside that is not just any aside:

[W]hat we are talking about, the death penalty, it is a matter of an excessiveness [démesure], a penalty without proportion, without commensurability, without any possible relation that is proportional with the crime. With the death penalty, we touch on an alleged calculation that dares or alleges to incorporate the beyond-measure and the infinite and the incalculable into its calculation. If there is a scandal in all these penalties, in all these punishments, the unheard-of, unique scandal of the death penalty is precisely this excessiveness, the fact that it cannot be measured, ‘commensured,’ so to speak, with any crime. The death penalty dares to claim to measure the beyond-measure in some way.(DP, 248 n.11/338 n. 3).

The death penalty, Derrida argues, is the phantasm of the calculability of the moment of death, by the machines that are not just the instruments of the penalty but the penal code, the calendar, and so on. The “madness” of the death penalty—what he earlier dubbed its “excessiveness”—is to claim to deprive the condemned not of immortality but of his or her finitude: “It is to some finitude that this madness of the death penalty claims to put to an end, by putting an end, in a calculable fashion, to some life. Whence [its] seduction” (DP 256/349). He argues:

[W]hat we rebel against when we rebel against the death penalty is not death [even “our own,” even if we are simply against the death penalty because, as Baudelaire suggested, we fear for our punishment] or even the fact of killing, of taking a life; it is against the calculating decision,…it is [the] interruption of the principle of indetermnation, the end imposed on the opening of the incalculable chance whereby a living being has a relation to what comes, to the to-come and thus to some other as event. (DP, 257/347)

In what will connect well to Wednesday evening’s reading of “Ousia and Grammē,” Derrida argues that the the death penalty relies on a certain thinking of time, that it can master the instant (stigmē) of death. It would thus form an absolute knowledge (he references the suppression [Tilgen] of time at the end of Hegel’s phenomenology), since any mastery of the instant, of the living present, is itself the eternal, the eternal now, from the time beyond time that is always modeled on the point of the instant that has not future or indeed a past. Outside or beyond history, the eternal speaks, discourses, and such while betraying itself. I would wish to think this more, but I would argue that Derrida’s discussions of the instant is, as Aristotle recognized long ago, unthinkable, because between each point of time would be a passage that would be abyssal (in order for it to be a point) and thus could not form a line. Indeed, thinking time was for Aristotle a veritable aporia, as he puts in the Physics. But Derrida aligns the instant with auto-affection and self-presence or presence to the self, to the masterful “instant” of sovereignty that autoimmunizes itself through speech, as we saw in Voyous, and here to a certain mastery of the point of death. Indeed, he thinks that we must think all supposed “pre-comprehensions” of death must begin with a thinking of the death penalty. He writes:

[Various philosophies] rely on so-called common sense, on the alleged objective and familiar knowledge, judged to be indubitable, of what separates a state of life from a state of death—a separation that is determined or registered or calculated by the other, by a third party — that is, of the supposed existence of an objectifiable instant that separates the living from the dying, be it of an ungraspable instant that is reduced to the blade of a knife or to the stigmē of a point. (238/324)

Let’s pause momentarily that Derrida will deny any ability to calculate any instant, let alone the instant of my death: time is not on the model of the point or the line; it is the unrepresentable itself, and thus any discourse given over to time would begin by critiquing the logic of representation. Let’s continue the same passage:

Without the supposed or supposedly possible knowledge of this clear-cut, sharp limit, there would be no philosophy or thinking of death that could claim to know what it is talking about and proceed “methodically,” as once again Heidegger wishes to do (see Aporias). Now the alleged access to this knowledge that is everywhere presupposed,at the very point where one claims to deconstruct every presupposition, organizes every calculation (I will call this calculation), everything that is calculable, in language, in the organization of the society of the living and the dead, and especially in the possibility of murder and the death penalty, of some taking of life or “giving death” that is distributed among crime, suicide, and execution, at that point of originarity where it is still difficult to discern them, to distinguish among them…

What Derrida will say in these pages is that Derrida does not deny the originarity of the death penalty, of its singularity, but he also sees a certain logic in murder, suicide, and the death penalty. In each, there is a judgment, one that can be universalizable, that one deserves a death; one acts as a judge, he puts it at one point, in defending oneself from murder (the reason for the crime is the reason it’s not, according to the defendant, a crime), in giving reasons for killing oneself, and for the death penalty, one is judging a certain guilt, or at the least judging that one can master the instant of death, and this is the pathology of every murder, suicide, or sentencing of death. Let’s pause with something he says later, then come back to the above passage:

In other words, the criminal, even though one often speaks, I said so the last time, of a vengeance irreducible to law, the criminal as speaking or reasoning being, the criminal has always at least the idea of doing justice and of referring to a universalizable law, and thus, he feels innocent, like a judge. The criminal operates like a judge. And thus he acquits himself. In what is called premeditated crime. In unpremeditated crime, there is no crime. When crime falls like rain on one’s head, it is not crime. Premeditated crime, crime properly speaking, obviously, justifies itself. It bears within it a justification that acquits the criminal before the verdict. (248/238 n. 12)

[Discuss if needed.] Let’s continue:

This is to suggest that every imagined mastery of the sense of the word “death” in language, every calculation on this subject (and we are calculating all the time
in order to speak and to count on some meaning- to- say, some intelligibility some translatability, some communication), every calculation on the subject, around or as a function of the word “death,” every calculation of this type supposes the possibility of calculating and mastering the instant of death, and this calculating mastery can only be that of a subject presumed capable of giving death: in murder, suicide, or capital punishment, all three arising here from the same possibility. This is another way of saying — and ultimately it is rather simple — that the calculable credit we grant to the word “death” is indexed to a set of presuppositions, a network of presuppositions in which “capital punishment,” the calculation of capital punishment, finds its place of inscription where it is indissociable from both murder and suicide. Wherever at least the presumption of knowledge is lacking on the subject of this so- called objective limit, this end of life (which Heidegger would make us believe is not the dying proper to Dasein), wherever this mastering calculation would no longer be presumed accessible, possible, in our power, well then, one could no longer either speak of murder, suicide, and death penalty, or organize anything of the sort whatsoever in the law, in the legal code, in the social order, in its procedures and its techniques, and so forth. (328-9/324-5)

This is not to say the one should not calculate: the aporias with which we started operate precisely by calculating the incalculable. There is much that is going on in the latter part of this paragraph, and here should pause, since Derrida is not suggesting that the law or any legal code should not deal with murder, for example, and thus at least the logic of the death penalty would be inscribed wherever there is the law, since the first law is always the law against murder, and therefore the inscription within legal codes of what counts as a life and living means defining implicitly those lives that can be taken. We know all too well the stakes of this for the political, today and everyday.

Now, if there never be an “objective knowledge as to the delimitation of death” (239/325), then the death penalty will always be scandalous and a scandal to thought. Thus deconstruction, is far from being disinterested. This is what the categorical imperative and the imposition of the death penalty must be in Kant, though of course, there is always de facto the problem that one can never judge that cruelty, that Kantian cruelty that Nietzsche (and Adorno, in a different way later, regarding animals and animal cruelty) identified, is not the drive or interest behind this supposed “disinterest.” Indeed, there is no Marxian, Foucaultian, Nietzschean, Freudian, or, I think, Derridean discourse without identifying precisely those interests hiding beneath the procedures and mechanisms of power and death, that is to say, the disinterested law that puts to death, makes us pay the penalty in a supposed disinterested calculation between the trauma or pain (la peine) and punishment, especially the punishment of death (la peine de mort). And thus deconstruction has an interest; it is not a third party on the scene stepping outside its place in its milieu, judging from on high. It does not judge itself innocent, as even the criminal might do, but indeed begins by noting its implacatedness in that milieu, that is to say, the heritage that it must take on. Let me quote at length here (254-6), pausing at certain moments:

I say straight on: yes, I am against the death penalty because I want to save my neck, to save the life I love, what I love to live, what I love living. And when I say “I,” of course, I mean “I,” me, but also the “I,” the “me,” whoever says “I” in its place or in mine. That is my interest, the ultimate resource of my interest as of any possible interest in the end of the death penalty, every interest having finally to be a “my interest,” we are going to see why, an interest so originary, so primordial that it risks being shared, in truth, by the supporters of the death penalty — and who will always tell you, moreover, that they are not for death, that they do not love death, or killing, that like us they are for life…The abolitionist struggle, in my view, must still be driven; it cannot not be driven, motivated, justified by an interest, but by another interest, by another figure of interest that remains to be defined. …But that is not enough. It is still necessary to go from this originary and general preference of life by itself, for itself, from this self- preference of the living to the opposition to the death penalty; it is necessary to go from this quasi- tautological opposition of life to death to a more specific opposition: no longer simply to the opposition to death but to the opposition to the death penalty.

We thus must move from something like an a priori affirmation of life that deconstruction, he claims, is, to an opposition to the specific taking of a life, whether in murder or the death penalty. (I don’t know what this would mean for suicide, and it’s something for us to discuss, since the “right to suicide” is not one, I think, Derrida would abandon, though the question of the cut between the cutting of the sui in suicide and that of murder, of the murder of the other in me, is one that Derrida has questioned elsewhere.) Now to the major passage:

The point is that it belongs to life not necessarily to be immortal but to have a future, thus some life before it, some event to come only where death, the instant of death, is not calculable, is not the object of a calculable decision. Where the anticipation of my death becomes the anticipation of a calculable instant, there is no longer any future, there is thus no longer any event to come, nothing to come, no longer any other, even no more heart of the other, and so forth. So that where “my life,” be it originarily granted by the heart of the other, is “my life,” it must keep this relation to the coming of the other as coming of the to-come [venue de l’à- venir] in the opening of the incalculable and the undecidable.

When life is calculated down to the instant, it is robbed of a future, it is the phantasm of a robbing of that future:

“My life,” and especially my life insofar as it depends on the [tient au] heart of the other, cannot affirm itself and affirm its preference except over against this, which is not so much death as calculation and decision, the calculable decidability of what puts an end to it. At bottom, I would say by way of perhaps an excessive shortcut, that what we rebel against when we rebel against the death penalty is not death, or even the fact of killing, of taking a life; it is against the calculating decision, not so much the “you will die”….The insult, the injury, the fundamental injustice done to the life in me, to the principle of life in me, is not death itself, from this point of view; it is rather the interruption of the principle of indetermination, the ending imposed on the opening of the incalculable chance whereby a living being has a relation to what comes, to the to- come and thus to some other as event, as guest, as arrivant. And the supreme form of the paradox, its philosophical form, is that what is ended by the possibility of the death penalty is not the infinity of life or immortality, but on the contrary, the finitude of “my life.” It is because my life is finite, “ended” in a certain sense, that I keep this relation to incalculability and undecidability as to the instant of my death. …Only a living being as finite being can have a future, can be exposed to a future, to an incalculable and undecidable future that s / he does not have at his / her disposal like a master and that comes to him or to her from some other, from the heart of the other. So much so that when I say “my life,” or even my “living present,” here, I have already named the other in me, the other greater, younger, or older than me, the other of my sex or not, the other who nonetheless lets me be me, the other whose heart is more interior to my heart than my heart itself [and hence there is no pure “living present,” or presence to the self, and I would put all the weight on the temporal meaning of these terms].

And hence by testifying to the finite being that I am, I would only affirm life. In this way, the death penalty, not simply for the everyday ways in which it is understood, is on the side of death, of the infinite beyond this finite life, of the transcendental cut between this life and another, or at least the phantasmatic power that it can give meaning to death and thus to the supreme power, the God-like power to which the death penalty has alway been referred over life and death, to rob one of one’s finitude. Derrida writes:

Given this, however paradoxical it may seem, the death penalty, as the only example of a death whose instant is calculable by a machine, by machines (not by someone, finally, as in a murder, but by all sorts of machines: the law, the penal code, the anonymous third party, the calendar, the clock, the guillotine or another apparatus), the machine of the death penalty deprives me of my own finitude; it exonerates me, even, of my experience of finitude. It is to some finitude that this madness of the death penalty claims to put an end by putting an end, in a calculable fashion, to some life. Whence the seduction that it can exert over fascinated subjects.Fascinated by the power and by the calculation, fascinated by the end of finitude, in sum, by the end of this anxiety before the future that the calculating machine procures. The calculating decision, by putting an end to life, seems, paradoxically, to put an end to finitude; it affirms its power over time; it masters the future; it protects against the irruption of the other. In any case, it seems to do that, I say; it only seems to do that, for this calculation, this mastery, this decidability, remain phantasms. It would no doubt be possible to show that this is even the origin of phantasm in general. And perhaps of what is called religion.

I would go on, but this will require a fascinating discussion of this originary fascination. And here would we would need to attend to the two angels or daemoi of Derrida (pp. 240-1), which at once wants to deconstruct death, to be done with it, to call it to an end in the name of survival, and yet survives and lives only in the face of its finitude and our affirmation of it. Each death, Derrida would write later, is a singular, unique, and indeed, the end of the world. It is always the “not yet” in the face of which, as Derrida affirms by following Heidegger, there is anxiety (Angst), but also what Heidegger calls in Being and Time, an “unshakeable joy” (SZ, 310). In the face of the mourning of the Other, and the other in me, there is the awaiting without awaiting of death: we are always out ahead towards “it” even as there is no death that is not singular and unique, and thus we can never have a proper name for death, even as we banalize and use the term all the time—along with the assumption of its common sense meanings. What is scandalous about the death penalty is that it would want to rob one of this temporal finitude, one that marks each of our days, whether we are condemned to death or condemned to die. About this, deconstruction has much to say, though Derrida is right to say that deconstruction, as he puts in the second year of the seminar, has a categorical imperative, particularly when it comes to the death penalty (la peine de mort): “to say and to think what one can barely [à peine] think and say,” even as we must protest endlessly and from the heart of ourselves and not just barely for an abolitionism worthy of the name.

[1] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 262. Henceforth cited as SZ, with the German pagination to follow.

[2] See, for example, Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death, and Time, trans. Bettina Bergo (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 11-20.

[3] BS 2, 131/194.