Tonight’s lecture on Heidegger, Derrida, and the Aporias of Death

Derrida and the Aporia of Death

[Welcome back after almost three weeks: the winter storms and break—we’ll have to make up for some lost time.]

We will come to a certain end today, even as Aporias takes up first and foremost the essential question of where to begin, of what the proper starting point for a thinking of death would be. We will indeed all come to an end, even if we don’t believe it, even if the unconscious of Freud could never believe it, though what “belief” would mean when discussing the unconscious is a vertiginous problem or question that could take up all our time until we die (or perish—the words will have to be chosen carefully). If not today then some other, when we least expect it, even in a hospital ward, for Levinas is right to say, for reasons different than perhaps his intention, that “death” comes always by surprise. (You should note well: these are the two interlocutors that Derrida references without discussing them explicitly, referencing them without referencing them.) But we would have to credit this word “death” with a meaning beforehand, hic et nunc; we would have to have a for-knowledge or pre-comprehension of it, in the Heideggerian sense, in order to give any credence to this belief that indeed each of us, each existent Dasein, will always already be running ahead or thrown towards its “own” “death.” And with each word here, I increase the protocols and the questions: what is one’s own? Can one name a certain death without presuming already what this will have been for each of us in turn? I have said more than once that Derrida’s modus operandi is less to reverse binary oppositions—though that he might do—than to show the presuppositions at the heart of a work, all in order to show that that supposition, supposedly so grounded in “what we all know,” whatever is common sense, is put into question by that very discourse even as it looks to disavow or deny that it is repeating the values and attitudes of its historical milieu and its common sense (one that could be as long as the history of the West itself).

But let’s get to it, to the thing itself: what can be more real than death? What is least avoidable, more certain? It is, for Heidegger the certitude par excellence that we are to die, that from the moment of our birth we are always dying, not from this or that disease, but from living itself. Living is nothing other than dying, surviving while mourning that death that awaits without awaiting us, since we don’t know precisely what “it” is. Our beings-towards-death does not come down to an acknowledgement or knowledge of death; it always “not yet,” not here and now. Let’s follow Heidegger as he moves through the main claims of Division II, chapter 1, and we will pause to circle around each of these sentences that are both sententious and profound at once. They are of absolute import to the readings in Derrida tonight:

Death is a possibility-of-Being [Der Tod ist eine Seinsmöglichkeit] which Dasein itself has to take over in every case [die je das Dasein selbst zu übernehmen hat]. With death, Dasein stands before [steht…bevor (Derrida will make much of this phrasing)] itself in its ownmost potentiality-for-Being [in seinem eigensten Seinkönnen; we’ll come back to this latter term soon]. This is a possibility in which the issue is nothing less than Dasein’s Being-in-the-world [In-der-Welt-sein]. Its death is the possibility of no-longer being-able-to-be-there [des Nicht-mehr-dasein-könnens]. …This ownmost [eigenste] non-relational possibility [unbezügliche Möglichkeit] is at the same time the uttermost one [ist zugleich die äußerste]. [Pause and discuss] As potentiality-for-Being, Dasein cannot outstrip the possibility of death. Death is the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Dasein [Der Tod ist die Möglichkeit der … Daseinsunmöglichkeit].

Derrida will make much of this last sentence, and for good reason: If death is the possibility of the impossibility (“die Möglichkeit der Unmöglichkeit”) of existing (262), it is nevertheless a possibility that is one’s “own most,” that is, what is most proper to Dasein, one that is non-relational, it is, then, the most owned and proper of possibilities:

Thus death reveals itself as that possibility [Möglichkeit] which is one’s ownmost [als die eigenste], which is non-relational [unbezügliche], and which is not to be outstripped [unüherholhare]. …Its existential possibility [existenziale Möglichkeit] is based on the fact that Dasein is essentially disclosed to itself [das Dasein ihm selbst wesenhaft erschlossen ist], and disclosed, indeed, as ahead-of-itself [Sich-vorweg]. (BT, 294/250-1)

Reading for the most part Heidegger’s remarkable thinking here of death in Division II of Being and Time as well as in his 1929-30 lecture course (he makes clear his admiration), Derrida follows Heidegger through what he dubs a “decision” that guides and thus provides a certain starting point for Heidegger concerning his existential analysis, a starting point that is well known. Derrida’s argument is that the above and similar passages combine both a thinking of the proper and the same and a thinking of death that is inseparable from its historical, cultural, and even biological meanings: that is to say, despite his thinking of time, Heidegger wishes to bracket out both any considerations of Dasein and death in terms of any previous metaphysics, theology, anthropology, and so on, which is to say, he wishes to provide a phenomenological account that brackets everydayness and its everyday conceptions of death even as one’s resoluteness towards death only arrives from within that everydayness—and hence one’s historical milieu.

The decision that Heidegger makes comes to the fore in the work’s introduction, where Heidegger notes that if we are asking after the meaning of the Being of beings, we must first look at the structure of any questioning (fragen) or seeking (suchen). Heidegger writes in one of the most famous passages of Being and Time:

Every seeking [suchen] gets guided beforehand [vorgängige Direktion] by what is sought. Inquiry [Fragen] is a cognizant seeking [Das erkennende Suchen] for an entity both with regard to the fact that it is and with regard to its Being as it is. …Any inquiry, as an inquiry about something, has that which is asked about [sein Gefragtes]. But all inquiry about something is somehow a questioning of something [Anfragen bei … ]. So in addition to what is asked about, an inquiry has that which is interrogated [ein Befragtes]. In investigative questions-that is, in questions which are specifically theoretical-what
is asked about is determined and conceptualized. Furthermore, in what is asked about there lies also that which is to be found out by the asking [das Erfragte]; this is what is really intended: with this the inquiry reaches its goal [wobei das Fragen ins Ziel kommt]. Inquiry itself is the behaviour of a questioner, and therefore of an entity, and as such has its own character of Being [Das Fragen selbst hat als Verhalten eines Seienden, des Fragers, einen eigenen Charakter des Seins]. (M&R, 1962: 22/5)

The last of these sentences leads to the entirety of Being and Time: what falls out of the three-sided structure of each question [Jedes Fragen] is a questioner [der Frager] who is asking the question itself: the who that is Dasein, and therefore not a what, and it is only the former that can be dying, that can be dying all the time that it has time. Being and Time will not ask after, then, the meaning of Being overall [überhaubt], but the meaning of that being for whom the meaning of the Being of beings is an “issue” [um…geht] for it. Thus the starting point for Being and Time, which was to get to a Division III on Being and time as such, is the “who” of Dasein, and thus Division I and II will take up the meaning of this “who” in terms of its care-structure, all in order to get purchase on the meaning of its being in terms of its temporalization [Zeitlichkeit] so as to broach the temporality [Temporalität] of the Being [Sein] of beings [Seiendes] in a Division III never to appear (at least in explicit form; Heidegger scholars posit this or that lecture course or texts as one place to find the work that was to be Division III). I will discuss this, but perhaps it’s the case that there never is time as such, any more than death as such. Time is not ever simply in the present and thus presentable. Any conception of it as such—as a series of nows representable to thought—is always thought from a view of time as the negative of eternity, a forever standing now that is hence nothing other than death, since it has no future anymore than a past.

The important part is that this “who” of Dasein will be found always already to have a relation to its “being-towards-death,” and the aporia is that this being will have a relation to that which lies always ahead of it; the Da of Dasein, its there (da), is always “on this side [das Diesseits]” of death, even as that death is the possibility of its impossibility. How could it be otherwise? Thus our starting point is always in medias res, for Heidegger, by witnessing Dasein in its everydayness in order to then describe its modes of fleeing in the face of its ownmost potentiality for being. Therefore we can make the cut between authenticity and inauthenticity (Eigentlichkeit and Uneigentlichkeit) and thus between a proper relating to one’s ownmost possibility, the possibility of impossibility that is death, and a fleeing in the face of that impossible possibility. The problem begins when we want to give some salience and understanding (pre-cognitive or otherwise) to Heidegger’s various uses of this non-modal modality: the possibility of impossibility. Derrida writes:

Is this an aporia [the phrase]? Where do we situate it? In the impossibility or in the impossibility of an impossibility (which is not necessarily the same thing)? What can the possibility of an impossibility be? How can we think that? How can we say it while respecting logic and meaning? How can we approach that, live, or exist it? How does one testify to it? (A, 68)

Derrida’s point is not only to reference his 1990s work on “testimony” and “witnessing”—the witness always testifies to what it can’t bring forward, especially as a survivor—but the avowed “method” of Being and Time, namely its use of testimony (Bezeugung) as a means of providing a phenomenology of Dasein in its Being-in-the-world. As any reader of the above or of Being and Time knows, the section on being-towards-death (Sein-zum-Tode) is central to Heidegger’s claims about Dasein being always-already out-ahead-of-itself, and that this being-towards-death is the horizon that gives meaning to its concernful absorption (Besorge) with equipmental beings ready-to-hand (zuhanden) and its solicitude (Fürsorge) in its originary being-with other Daseins. This care (Sorge) finds itself, as if for the first time, when Dasein comes back to itself in its being-towards-death, awoken, as it were, from its fallenness (verfallen) into the conformity of the They (das Man). Dasein’s possibility of impossibility is hence the condition of possibility of Dasein’s ownmost possibilities, those not taken over by das Man, the “They” in which one engages in anything but one’s ownmost possibilities, but merely the banalities of the day.

Awaiting without awaiting, as Derrida puts it, this death, Dasein can properly, through Angst, free itself for itself while awaiting a simple “no-longer-being-there” that is impossible and therefore not the correlate of any understanding, whether in the Heideggerian sense or not. Yet when one brings being-towards death to the “closest closeness [die nächste Nähe]” as a possibility, it nevertheless it “as far as possible [so fern als möglich] from something actual [einem Wirklichen]” (262). Dasein only returns to itself as possibility, but as a possibility that Heidegger makes clear is not a logical possibility. As Iain Thomson puts it in one of today’s readings,

Here Heidegger has not simply inverted the millennium-old Aristotelian distinction according to which actuality is granted metaphysical primacy of place over possibility; according to Heidegger’s thinking of “existential possibility,” Dasein exists through the constant charting of “live-options,” choices that matter. Existential possibilities are what Dasein forges ahead into: the roles, identities, and commitments which shape and circumscribe the reflexive comportment of Dasein as a “thrown project.” Heidegger’s distinctive sense of existential possibility is, he later says, best understood as enabling possibility, as “what enables” us to be what we are. (32-3)

Thomson’s critique of Derrida’s reading is that he is not attentive enough to the ways in which Heidegger takes up Dasein’s existential possibility not just in term of Möglichkeit but Seinkönnen. Again, Thomson:

This difference becomes crucial when we remember Heidegger’s claim that, “As being-possible [Möglichsein] . . . Dasein is existentially that which, in its ability-to-be [Seinkönnen], it is not yet.” Since it is “ability-to-be” [Seinkönnen] rather than “being-possible” [Möglichsein] that receives elaboration “in conjunction with the outermost possibility of death,” Dasein embodies the possibility of an impossibility only as something which it is not yet. “Being towards one’s ownmost ability-to-be [i.e., death] means that in each case Dasein is already ahead of itself.”

His point is that Dasein’s ability to be privileges a certain futurity of Dasein and is not merely what we have seen Derrida critiques under the notion of the “I can” of previous forms of subjectivity, one that is self-present and hence temporally always in the present, that is, present-to-hand (vorhanden). This reading has much to offer us, not least since Thomson makes clear the privileging of the future that is marked by our being-towards-death and Heidegger’s account of it. I also find it unassailable that one can read the Heidegger otherwise, perhaps cutting against the grain of Heidegger’s own later worries that Being and Time circuited too closely around Dasein and a certain “nearness” that didn’t get far enough from a certain transcendental subjectivity, one that would bracket all historical questions concerning Dasein (recall all that we are to bracket above) in order to give a “universal,” that is, transcendental, account of Dasein, one that would even count for so-called “primitives.” In such a way Heidegger repeats a Cartesian/Kantian move of bracketing out the historical paths out of which its discourse arose (those that Heidegger later would make central to his inquiries and certainly centers his account of Destruktion in Being and Time’s introduction) and is thus a work on time that is strangely ahistorical at key moments. But if one cannot bracket the ontic in thinking the ontological—Heidegger’s avowed claim about the ekstasis of time and Dasein’s always already being out ahead of itself—then does not a presuppositionless task as Heidegger wants fall to its claim to be fundamental, that is, to be a fundamental ontology? Does not the text need to argue that it is grounded in a tradition it is putting under deconstruction (Destruktion) while repeating its methods and modes, even or especially when it comes to a thinking of death? That is, is there not always, as Foucault would put it, but very close to Derrida here, an historical a priori? A pre-given sense that Being and Time would bracket and yet also tell us that Dasein, unlike the animal, has “access” to death as such?

What Derrida is elaborating, through the question of testimony, is one similar to Levinas on the question of death: if death precisely that which does not appear, is that which is an impossible possibility, then it can never be on the level of what is one’s ownmost possibility, since we could never distinguish, as Derrida goes to pains to show, the distinction holding death from perishing from merely ceasing to exist. We never have a relation to death as such, since Heidegger is clear that this remains just beyond our ability-to-be (Seinkönnen). It can never be actual (Wirklich) and thus it always awaits (us) and this awaiting without awaiting (since we have no relation to “it” as such) is not on the order of any ability (whether Seinkönnen or Möglichsein) or possibility. Derrida writes:

[D]eath is always the name of a secret, since it signs the irreplaceable singularity. It puts forth the public name, the common name of a secret, the common name [nom: noun or name] of the proper name without name. It is always a shibboleth [discuss], for the manifest name of a secret is from the beginning a private name, so that language about death is nothing but the long history of a secret society [my italics]. (A, 74).

Can one write a history of death? Of this secret society? The question concerns precisely how one writes a history, since the singular and unique, the irreplaceable does not give itself over to a history to be written. Precisely when it comes to death. We can date a death, we can give it a gloss both biologically and anthropologically, but one would always put into the past a common way of speaking of this secret today into the past; history risks always being an anachronism, as the historians Derrida reads in these pages suggest. There is no pure empirical history: one begins with a “classificatory hypothesis,” as Ariàs notes, and thus history is never purely historical, especially when one attempts, as he does, to write a history of death, of the practices of death.  “Dying,” Derrida writes, “is neither natural (biological) nor cultural” (A, 42). Let’s move to the beginning of our reading for tonight. We see here a number of declarative sentences and thus Derrida’s own suppositions that would appear here and there undeniable, unassailable, which is not to say so generic as to say nothing at all:

All people do not die in the same way. Throughout time they have not died in the same way. Moreover, it is not enough to recall that there are cultures of death and that from one culture to another [and we should add: within what we too quickly call a culture], at the crossing of borders, death changes face, meaning, language, or even body. … [C]ulture itself, culture in general, is essentially, before anything, even a priori, the culture of death. Consequently it [that is, culture] is a history of death [but can one write that history given the above?]. There is not culture without a cult of ancestors, a ritualization of mourning and sacrifice [can we not think culture otherwise than as sacrificial?], institutional places and modes of burial. …[E]very culture entails a treatise or treatment of death, each of them treats the end according to a different partition. (A, 43)

Ever culture is a culture of death. In Heidegger’s terms, it is because everydayness is structured—universally it seems—by staving or calling off death, by fleeing from it, and thus is formed by sublimating death. This is, I think, what Derrida means above: every culture is founded on how it gives meaning to death; a sacrifice for the sake of the community, or simply a passage to a beyond, an au-déla, and death is nothing other than this climbing or going (scandere) above or beyond (trans) “it,” via transcendence. Thus cultures give meaning to death by denying it, and thus any meaning given to it renders it, oddly, meaningless.

We can see coming, then, the critique of Heidegger for attempting to think a universal relation to death, to give a meaning to it beneath or below its very happening, if one can speak this way of an event that ends a world, just this once, each time: chaque fois unique, la fin du monde, as he titled a late introduction to a book on mourning. These, I know, may be seemingly hopelessly arcane questions, but when we ask qui suis-je? (Who am I? Whom am I following) as we have for several weeks (or for several weeks before we were off for several weeks), who I am and whom I follow is wrapped up from the very beginning in Heidegger’s Being and Time—and the account of death, which says the human but no other being, has access to death as such, making it not a “what”—circles then back to the “who” that is never a what and thus can and is able to die, an ability not given to the animal or the stone. To be fair to Thomson, whose article appeared years before the publication of Derrida’s last seminar (maybe perhaps he had read him, a not impossible possibility), The Beast and the Sovereign lectures of 2002-3, Derrida does take up precisely Dasein’s ability to be (Seinskönnen) that Thomson centers his article on as different than the possibility that is involved in the German “Möglichkeit.” (Perhaps at this point Emma’s voice will rise up in defense of Heidegger and Thomson.) In the seminar’s fifth session, Derrida’s quotes from Heidegger’s (infamous) lecture on the “fourfold” (das Geviert) collected in English in Building, Dwelling, Thinking. This is twenty years after the ‘29-30 course, and shows a remarkable consistency across and around the supposed Kehre or turn in Heidegger’s work. Here is what Heidegger writes concerning the mortals (the other three being earth, sky, and divinities):

The mortals are human beings (Die Sterblichen sine die Menschen). They are called mortals because they can (weil die sterben können, thus the very kind of possibility that Derrida, Thomson rightly notes, did not take up). To die means to be capable of death [Sterben heisst; den Tod als Tod vermögen]. Only man dies [Nur der Mench stirbt]. The animal perishes [Das Tier verdendet, that is, merely comes to an end; this repeats verbatim the claims made in BT and the ‘29-30 course]. [The animal] has dead ahead of itself nor behind it [Es hat den Tod als Tod weder vor sich noch hinter sich]. (BDT, 171/176)

Then we have this claim from Heidegger from the same essay:

Death is the shrine of Nothing [Der Tod ist der Schrein des Nichts)…harbor[ing] within itself the presencing of Being [das Wesende des Seins; the swaying, the way or how, the essencing of Being]. As the shrine of Nothing, death is the shelter of Being [das Gebirg des Seins; almost the same year, in the “Letter on Humanism,” we learn that language is the house of being, and so everything hinges in Heidegger on what sheltering, on what dwelling within and providing shelter to Being would mean in the face of language and death, of that which precedes and proceeds us (explain)] We now call mortals mortals—not because their earthly life comes to an end [endet; that word is reserved above for animals] but because they are capable of death as death [weil sie den Tod als Tod vermögen]. [Mortals] are the presencing [again, wesende] relation [Verhältnis] to Being as Being [zum Sein als Sein]. (Ibid., 171/176)

But once we make of death that which falls outside circumspective concern, outside an epistemology or ontology or phenomenology, we find ourselves in an aporia. Again, these are not arcane questions: what is my relationship to death, one not to be outstripped to a death that undoes all relation? Can I die? Is it an ability or a power, whether können or as a Möglichkeit? Derrida writes:

What here [that is, in Heidegger’s essay on the fourfold] bears the main accent is that death as such, access or relation to death as such is a being-able, a power (Können, Vermögen). Such a power or potency defines the mortal, man as mortal, and this power of as such, of the as such [ce pouvoir du comme tel, de l’“en tant que tel”], this power of access to the as such of death (i.e., the Nothing as such) is not other than the relation to the ontological difference, and thereby to Being as Being. (123/184)

Hence having access to Being as Being, to the ontological difference between beings and Being, to the nothing that is, is an ability or power, and perhaps then what we get in Heidegger is another power ontology. No doubt, at times here and there, Derrida’s reading of Heidegger moves too quickly, saying in a page that Sorge (care) is akin to the Christian cura, and so on, thus denying Heidegger’s text of its own care it took with its own staging of those terms. Moreover, to call the text “onto-theological” is to presume one could simply describe Dasein as a subjectum or hyperkeimenon—things, as ever, are not so simple—though it’s also no doubt that Heidegger relies on a certain notion of the self (selbst) throughout Being and Time and especially in these crucial sections on death and time that at least borrows from but does not credit a whole tradition that would put under the flux and flow of everydayness to a self to which one would be thrown back from within that flux, to a Präsent that presences, that may happen in the blink of an eye (Augenblick), in the sovereign instance of the most instantaneous of instants, and thus would be another rendering of a heroic self coming back to itself in proximity and nearness. In the nearnest nearnness. One that would tell us that we die, we must die, it is our ownmost being-able and possibility, alone: no one, Heidegger says, can take over our dying for us, there where we should question—and no doubt our late-life medical care shows this as unstable as ever—the boundaries among dying, perishing, and croaking. Heidegger writes:

When we characterized the transition from Dasein to no-longer Dasein as Being-no-longer-in-the-world, we showed further that Dasein’ s going-out-of-the-world in the sense of dying must be distinguished from the going-out-of-the-world of that which merely has life [des Nur-lebenden; Heidegger thus will have a thinking of bare life, of a life and nothing more, even as he has bracketed from the beginning any thinking of Dasein as “life” and all that that word would bring with it]. In our terminology the ending of anything that is alive, is denoted as “perishing” [Verenden]. We can see the difference only if the kind of ending which Dasein can have is distinguished from the end of a life. (285/240-1)

We know already from The Animal that therefore I am how this will cash out two years later in terms of thinking animals as being “poor in world,” as opposed to rocks and stones that are “without a world.” I would say, if it weren’t so grave, that any thinking of death is consequential for our place in this world, in this time, and beyond that how we think “who I am” and “whom do I follow.” Heidegger writes:

The “deceased” [Der “Verstorbene”] as distinct from the dead person [dem Gestorbenen], has been torn away from those who have “remained behind”’ [den “Hinterbliebenen”], and is an object of “concern” [Besorge] in the ways of funeral rites, interment, and the cult of graves. [Here it is: our being-with those who have died is not a matter for “concern” and thus any given historical culture around and of death must be bracketed, and thus with it any “funeral rites” and such]. And that is so because the deceased, in his kind of Being, is “still more” than just an item of equipment, environmentally ready-to-hand, about which one can be concerned. [Hence the “dead person” is not a piece of equipment and is not ready-to-hand; “it” is “still more,” even as Heidegger avows a disavowal of a measure of how much more by putting in quotations this “still more” that cannot be measured.] In tarrying alongside him in their mourning and commemoration, those who have remained behind are with him in a mode of respectful solicitude [Fürsorge]…. [W]hen we speak of “Being-with”, we always have in view Being with one another in the same world. The deceased has abandoned our ‘world’ and left it behind. But in terms of that world [Aus ihr her] those who remain can still be with him. …In suffering this loss, however, we have no way of access to the loss-of-Being as such which the dying man “suffers.” The dying of Others is not something which we experience in a genuine sense ; at most we are always just “there alongside” [sind…dabei]. (282/239)

Derrida does not quote these lines, but they need to be put alongside and with [dabei] the claim that  “death is in every case mine, in so far as it “is” at all. And indeed death signifies a peculiar possibility-of-Being in which the very Being of one’s own Dasein is an issue. In dying, it is shown that mineness and existence are ontologically constitutive for death” (284/240; my emphases) Hence we can be with the dead in mourning, but not concern, though we should watch above all the avowals and disavowals that are marked through quotation marks: the suffering without suffering, the non-genuine sense of experience, the “there alongside” that is not there alongside, and the being-with that is not being-with since that whom were were with and following are not “with” us in this world, and so on. When an author trades on common sense meanings, or even his or her own usages, but then also wants to discredit its very usage—the scare quotes that are meant to scare away any literal, metaphorical, or metonymic meaning—one sees how they are driven to an indecision there where they appear to be quite decisive. It is not just death, but dying that is in each case mine: I am not even dying (sterben) with others, and thus one is lead to wonder, since dying is precisely that which Dasein always is as out-ahead-of-itself, what happened to the primordial structure of Dasein as Being-with (Mitsein)? As he puts it, “Let the term ‘dying’ stand for that way of Being [Seinweise] in which Dasein is towards [zu] its death” (291/247).

Derrida in Aporias thus makes much, as he does later in the Beast and the Sovereign lectures, of what the “as such” means. The animal, as such, has no access to Being as such, nor to death as such, and no doubt to other beings as such. This is why it is poor in world (Weltarm). Though Derrida doesn’t quite put it this way—I don’t have Aporias in front of me as I finish this lecture, and it’s been some weeks since I have read it, so I don’t recall—how except by a decision, a fiat, a sovereign claim of what the human (and that human named Heidegger) gives to the human is the ultimate power of providing shelter to death, and to know that death is not perishing. This has perhaps always been the case, but nevertheless, new medical technologies and that which comes along with it (the living death that is being comatose, and so on) deconstructs our ability to distinguish between dying and perishing, and having a relation to the former but not the latter, which is not relational at all. These are not morbid questions, since to bring death within circuit of our care (Sorge) for Heidegger is to affirm life, to affirm one’s possibilities, even as death is questionable as an ability of who that says “I can.” We are coming to an end, we are coming to an end here. But let us not leave these considerations of the aporias of death as anything but an affirmation of survival, of living-on, of being the survivors who are dying (or perhaps simply perishing) and will come to an end. In The Beast and the Sovereign, Derrida writes:

This suffices [all the problems of identifying death, of it “as such,” in this language and this place and time] all the less to distinguish clearly between death as such and life as such because all our thoughts of death, our death—even before all the help that religious imagery can bring us—our thoughts of our death are always, structurally, thoughts of survival. To see oneself or to think oneself dead is to see oneself surviving, present at one’s death, present or represented in absentia at one’s death even in all the signs, traces, images, memories, even the body, the corpse or the ashes, literal or metaphorical, that we leave behind,in more or less organized and deliberate fashion, to the survivors, the other survivors, the others as survivors delegated to our survival [those on whom we will live after and before death]…The logic of this banality [his description of the above] of survival that begins even before our death is that of a survival of the remainder, the remains, that does not even wait for death to make life and death indissociable, and thus the unheimlich [uncanniness] and fantasmatic experience of the spectrality of the living dead. (117/176)

We saw this thinking of survival in Derrida’s last interview with Le Monde that its thinking of finitude and death, on living as survival, does not put deconstruction of the side (and we see above how so much above relates to this or that side, on what side we take with death, and whether we can even say can have an understanding of it enough to take its side) of death and the past. “No,” he writes, “deconstruction is always on the side of the yes, on the side of the affirmation of life” (51). This affirmation, though, affirms the “necessity of dying” even in moments of joy, perhaps most in those moments. The moments of joy only take place within limits, not transgressing them, as Sade, Bataille, and others believe. To be banal—and banality and everydayness is not simply a fleeing, as Heidegger says we do in everydayness relating to thinking the possibility of our impossibility of death—we can think of taking our reading week and counting down to its last moment, from the very beginning. The joy of the festival or the vacation cannot happen without that limit; a limitless joy is unthinkable since it would be endless tedium. And thus there is no joy and affirmation of life without thinking the surprise of death, of the surprise that takes us on from every moment of our life. Death, perishing, ending, is not to be outstripped—but that is the not the thinking of the melancholic, though philosophy, as Heidegger writes, is always such, but is a thinking of joy, of love, of that which happens just this once before or on this side of the end of the world.


Derrida on Freedom

Lecture 3

Who am I? Who or what do I follow? We began with this question last week and it’s worth returning to it, since who I am or follow (je suis) this week will be a certain rogue (voyou) who often thinks itself free, a masterful subject sovereign over itself, able to circle back to itself in a certain self-consciousness or self-presence, whether in deliberation or in its processes of reasoning—a whole canon will have told me this from Plato and Aristotle on forward to the resoluteness of Heidegger that throws one “back to the self!” (the exclamation point is Heidegger’s) in Being and Time. Are we free to think freedom otherwise? We know well this term has a proper philosophical lineage and is aligned with a certain sovereignty (from Plato to Kant and beyond, a sovereignty of reason over one’s inclinations or passions), a sovereignty that philosophy gives to itself as the proper modus operandi of reason. This week we can also begin to collect all the dicta that Derrida elaborates by noting, for example, that hitherto few philosophers, if any, have contested the distinction between the human and animal, or few philosophers, if any, have spoken for democracy, or few philosophers in a long tradition have spoken against the death penalty, etc. What machine, what structural logic pulls all of these claims together, since for Derrida it is not mere coincidence that philosophy and metaphysics would have been that form of knowledge that always already presupposed a sovereign and therefore sacrificial logic?And this logic would have presupposed a sacrifice of our body, our animality, in the name of reason and its liberating possibilities. Hence we are determined by a heritage that would think freedom as that of a sovereign and willing subject, one who is not determined at all, even as this heritage determines us and all considerations of freedom as such. Derrida notes,

If I am cautious about the word “freedom,” it is not because I subscribe to some mechanistic determinism. But this word often seems to me to be loaded with metaphysical presuppositions that confer on the subject or on consciousness—that is, an egological subject—a sovereign independence in relation to drives, calculation, economy, the machine. If freedom is an excess of play in the machine, an excess of every determinate machine, then i would militate for a recognition and respect for this freedom, but I prefer to avoid speaking of the subject’s freedom or the freedom of man.

This question of play within a given machine or structure connects Derrida’s “poststructuralist” writings from beginning to end, from his famous essay “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” forward. No deconstruction without this play or “freedom,” and no freedom without this deconstructive play at work in any machine or structure. Freedom then would occur between the calculable and the incalculable, between machine and a miracle that is acausal, between repetition and différance, sundering always my ability to say who or what I am or follow. As Derrida defines a machine is any “dispositif of calculation and repetition. As soon as there is any calculation, calculability, and repetition, there is something of a machine.” But if there were only structures of repetition, if there were only a program that one would follow, one would never be surprised, one would never be taken up and taken on (sur-prise) by an “unforseeable freedom” that can never announce itself in advance, since it is always “to come” (à-venir) and never presents itself as such; it is never present to me such that I know it has come: am I reacting or responding? Deciding or being decided? Underdetermined or overdetermined? Kant, for example, held that we could never know whether or not we are truly autonomous, truly giving the nomos that is universal to the self, ipse, or autos, giving ourselves reason and thus being reasonable there where our inclinations (here we have the invention of unconscious subjectivity—there in Kant) may hover like a shadow behind every act of willing. Which is to say that we can never know whether we are autonomous or heteronomous, following the law we give ourselves or following the law of the other, even the other in me. Who or what am I or whom or what do I follow (Qui suis-je?) Any final answer would have to be sent off and deferred even as I must account for myself in any thinking of responsibility and hence of any responding that I am, since at the heart of autonomy is an unaccountable heteronomy of the Other that I am or follow.


In the readings this week, we will see that Derrida lays out an isonomy among alterity, the future, and the event: all arrive unforseeably and cannot be presented as such, either in modes of circling back to onself in self-presence or temporally wholly in the present: “The event—which in essence should remain unforseeable and therefore not programmable—would be that which exceeds the machine.” In this way we would need to think a “freedom without autonomy,” a “passive decision” that would be a “scandalous proposition for common sense and for philosophy,” which would amount, often, to the same thing, since philosophy reinscribes a given consensus about madness, freedom, the decision, death, and so on, that arrives out of its historical milieu, even as it disavows and denies that its reasoning is anything but common and derivative. Schelling also describes something like the “passive decision” in his Freedom essay, and that passivity is due to the fact that the decision arrives from a past that is truly past—unpresentable in the present—and thus one would be passive to its arrival, if any of this language even makes sense given what is at stake. We will see something similar at stake in Derrida. Typically, Derrida is read as thinking the the relation to the other in terms of a certain futurity, a future that can never be made present, but it’s clear, too, that such a future arrives only from the repetition of an absolute past unpresentable as well, which would be like a repetition of a trauma—and the future always arrives, if it does, as traumatic, for Derrida—or as a heritage that one will have repeated and deferred.


In any event, the point is not the one should always be wholly open to the surprise of the Other—how could one await a surprise?—nor give up on the calculability and knowledge; this is not a mysterianism or mysticism. Nevertheless,

Between knowledge and decision, a leap is required, even if it is necessary to know as much and as well as possible before deciding. But if decision is not only under the authority of my knowledge but also in my power, if it is something “possible” for me, if it only the predicate of what I am [je suis] and can be, I don’t decide then either.

This testifies to the singularity, to the unaccountability of that being who I am or follow, even as that being wants to answer qui suis-je? and give an account of itself:

Singularity is indeed exposed to what comes, as other and as incalculable. Singularity as such (whether it appears as such or not) can never be reduced, in its very existence, to the rules of a machine-like calculation, nor even to the most incontestable laws of any determinism.  

No doubt, Derrida, adds, speaking of freedom, a privileged term in our tradition, risks merely repeating, machine-like, that tradition’s presuppositions and sensus communis, and yet if one gives in a certain “determinism…there is no future.” Derrida notes:

In calling it freedom, I am always afraid of reconstituting a philosophical discourse that has already been exposed to a certain deconstruction (freedom as sovereign power of the subject or as independence of the conscious self, will of the “cogito,” and even the freedom of Dasein, etc.).


This philosophy of a certain freedom—as sovereign power—has not, though, led philosophy to privilege democracy, from Plato to Heidegger (Derrida writes droley somewhere: the least that could be said is that Heidegger was not a friend to democracy). Even that great thinker of popular sovereignty, Rousseau, thought democracy to be only proper to a people who were gods, that is, those who could give themselves over to the general will and not be led by their particular needs and wants. Can one be a philosopher and a democrat? Can one have a democratic philosophy? This would be the threat some would find in Derrida: that it’s a philosophy that’s too democratic, that it’s too open to saying anything and thus telling us nothing, that it has no anchor in the truth or the real, that deconstruction’s popularity was only a matter of the rube masses in literary studies and beyond not able to reach the heights of philosophical understanding. Such would be the rumour of deconstruction, a rumour or allegation that is parallel to what philosophy has always said about democracy, forward on from Plato’s Apology that is unapologetic about its hatred of democracy, though, in fact, only where there is a certain freedom of thought and speech, a certain freedom for the logos and for dialogue and discussion (dia-legein), can philosophy have a place (recall how Socrates in the Crito notes that he alone among many has never traveled far from Athens): no philosophy without a certain freedom to critique and to deconstruction, and no deconstruction without a certain play within that heritage to think otherwise. And yet, philosophy, wanting its sovereignty over all other forms of knowing, will have, in the name of reason, want nothing to do with any democratizing elements within it: one would then be free to say anything, to follow sophists like Derrida and truth would be relative, as if what is true were up for a vote by a licentious and ill-read majority.


The regime, then, that belongs “properly” to freedom is democracy, and Derrida in 1990 invented or was surprised by syntagm “democracy to come,” by which he means that democracy, like freedom itself, is alleged always as a promise:

[D]emocracy does not present itself; it has not yet presented itself, but that will come. In the meantime let’s not stop using a word whose heritage is undeniable even if its meaning is still obscured, obfuscated, reserved. Neither the word nor the thing ‘democracy’ is yet presentable. We do not yet know what we have inherited; we are the legatees of this Greek word and of what it assigns to us, enjoins bequeaths or leaves us, indeed delegates or leaves over to us. We are the heirs or the delegates, of this word, and we are saying here as the very legatees or delegates of this word that has been sent to us, addressed to us for centuries, and that we are always sending or putting off until later.

We are undeniably its heirs. Which means, Derrida will right later, that democracy is always what is disavowed and denied. This, too, is our heritage. Yet, Derrida notes that available in that heritage is a thinking of democracy differently, even at the heart of Plato’s corpus, namely Book VIII of the Republic. This is where a “kind of precomprehension” of democracy would begin, through what we receive in a tradition that will have told us all we need to know about democracy, as form of sovereignty (kurios) of the dêmos that has power (kratos). Democracy would be that politieia that would allow for our own freedom and sovereignty, one aligned to the other and vice-versa. Derrida writes, in a reading of Plato that is masterful in de-mastering our grip on what we think we mean when we use the word “democracy,” let alone freedom. Reading crucial passages that pass along the rumor of “what is said” about democracy in The Republic, Derrida writes in Rogues:

We must never forget that this portrait of the democrat associates freedom or liberty (eleutheria) with license (exousia), which is also whim, freedom of choice, leisure to follow one’s desires, ease, facility, the faculty or power to do as one pleases. …[T]his opinion has spread like a rumor, varying little throughout history. Before even determining demo-crary on the basis of the minimal though enigmatic meaning of its two guiding concepts and the syntax that relates them, the people and power, dêmos and kratos–or kratein (which also means “to prevail,” “to bring off,” “to be the strongest,” “to govern,” “to have the force oflaw,” “to be right [avoir raison]” in the sense of “getting the best of [avoir raison de]” with a might that makes right) it is on the basis of freedom that we will have conceived the concept of democracy. …Whether as eleutheria or exousia, this freedom can of course always be understood as a mere figure, as another figure, turn, or rum of phrase for power (kratos). Freedom is essentially the faculty or power to do as one pleases, to decide, to choose, to determine oneself, to have self-determination, to be master.

Here Derrida refers in passing (“a might that makes right”) to La Fontaine’s The Wolf and the Lamb, a fabulous fable for children and the children we still are when it comes to the basics of political questions: in politics, does might still make right? [Read The Wolf and the Lamb.] Is politics—and this underlies the entirety of Roguesonly about power? If it is the matter of the freedom of an “I can,” of one’s possibilities, and therefore of certain faculties, then might will have won out, democracy will have been, as we so casually say without noting the cruelty hidden within it, only about the sovereignty of the people. But as Derrida notes, Plato stipulates that democracy has not paradigma, idea, or eidos: it has no proper form or propriety since it is bizarre where one finds all other paradigms (oligarchy, tyranny, and so on). Democracy, rightly, then, will be a concept without a concept; this is what allows, unlike any other regime, for its intrinsic historicity:

Why this freedom in the concept? Why this freedom at play in the concept, opening up within it its own space of play? Why is it, in the end, so noteworthy, so striking? I say “striking” so as to avoid having to say, as I did just above out of expedience, more radical, more originary, or more primitive than freedom or license as the ability or power to do one thing or another, a power that would thus itself be conditioned by an a priori freedom. This freedom in the concept is all the more striking inasmuch as it takes into account, as the empty opening of a future of the very concept and thus of the language of democracy, an essential historicity of democracy, of the concept and the lexicon of democracy (the only name of a regime, or quasi regime, open to its own historical transformation, to taking up its intrinsic plasticity and its interminable self-criticizability, one might even say its interminable analysis).

Is this not then what is proper to democracy: the promise that we can democratically decide on its very form? Is this not what is left to us by this heritage? This is why democracy always is plastic and thus has a future: it can be otherwise. No doubt, Derrida is well aware (and we will cover this next week) that the allegation to democracy is but an alibi for those who are anything other than friends of democracy. And that taking up then name of democracy risks giving cover to those hegemonic forces using democracy to cover over the power of a state and its emperialistic, anti-democratic ambitions. And yet, “democracy is what it is only in the différance by which it defers itself and differs from itself”; it can always be otherwise. That is to say, this concept without a concept means one never finally gets an answer to the question ti esti hê demokratia? Democracy is not a what (ti) that is identifiable, though in democracies across the world it is thought to have an identity and to be at work even when one must provide one’s identity papers. Derrida writes:

This renvoi [sending off] of democracy is thus still very much related to différance. Or if you prefer, this democracy as the sending off of the putting off, as the emission of remission [envoi du renvoi], sends us or refers us back [renvoie] to différance. But not only to différance as deferral, as the turn of a detour [tour du detour], as a path that is turned aside [voie detournee]’ as adjournment in the economy of the same. For what is also and at the same time at stake—and marked by this same word in différance—is différance as reference or referral [renvoi] to the other, that is, as the undeniable, and I underscore undeniable, experience of the alterity of the other, of heterogeneity, of the singular, the not-same, the different, the dissymmetric, the heteronomous.

Thus where democracy has been linked to a people or a dêmos, a group that is similar and thus privileges the same over alterity, where one guards one’s borders with walls, the democracy to come, allows us, like the passive decision, to the hypercritique of any democratic pretensions, even as we will always have to defer and refer to the promise of a democracy to come, never on the horizon of tomorrow, like some regulative ideal, but hic et nunc. There is no sure ground on which to stand in a democracy, and certainly even less if différance, a central term in Derrida’s deconstruction, is linked to democracy, and therefore to a certain thinking of freedom and a freedom of thinking (the play of any and all concepts) that would be central to the tasks of deconstruction. “[W]henever the one who or which remains to come does come,” he writes, “I am exposed, destined to be free and to decide, to the extent that I cannot foresee, predetermine, prognosticate.” We are destined to this responsibility, to freeing up and criticizing all those who want to undemocratically put an end to what democracy means, to sovereignly put an end to discussion and to self-critique or any critique of the self and its ipseity. This is the aporia that calls for a decision, one that cannot be programmed, but is nevertheless lived by all those confronting the beastly and stupid fascisms of our present day. Derrida writes:

[T]he aporia in its general form has to do with freedom itself, with the freedom at play in the concept of democracy: must a democracy leave free and in a position to exercise power those who risk mounting an assault on democratic freedoms and putting an end to democratic freedom in the name of democracy and of the majority that they might actually be able to rally round to their cause? Who, then, can take it upon him-or herself, and with what means, to speak from one side or another of this front, of democracy itself, of authentic democracy properly speaking, when it is precisely the concept of democracy itself, in its univocal and proper meaning, that is presently and forever lacking? When assured of a numerical majority, the worst enemies of democratic freedom can, by a plausible rhetorical simulacrum (and even the most fanatical Islamists do this on occasion), present themselves as staunch democrats.

This openness and yet also “suicidal” aspect of democracy should not leave us to despair, since who or what comes, who or what I am or follow (je suis), cannot foresee when “the event of the irruptive decision” will come. And yet its impossible possibility is another name for the democratic responsibility this Greek concept without a concept has left to us.


Foucault and the Politics of Rights Reviewed by Andrew Dits in the NDPR

He writes, by way of a summation,

How then ought we use rights? In his concluding chapter, Golder insists that precisely because they are forms of counter-conduct, they can be remade, reshaped, and redeployed to new ends. “Foucault does not simply capitulate to a certain ‘rights talk’ because this is the predominant language of his time,” Golder writes, “but rather tries to semantically undo that rights talk and to make it mean differently” (156). This is, Golder insists, the essence of Foucault’s critical method generally: by taking up rights as a critical counter-conduct, we can “occupy rights” (156) as a mode of self-reflective critique and make them mean differently. That is, Golder shows us that they can and should be used in the same way Foucault used them: contingently, ambivalently, and tactically. In his closing pages, Golder invites us to consider the future of rights, challenging us to reflect on the conditions in which we find ourselves and how the tools of power that dominate us may be strategically used for our liberation and the reformation of selves.

Source: Foucault and the Politics of Rights // Reviews // Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews // University of Notre Dame