Month: February 2017

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.