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.
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.’” ). 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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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)
- 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.
- 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.
I just noticed this–up on Youtube from earlier this month.
I recorded for a student tonight’s lecture, which includes discussion of the most crucial passages in the DP lectures. I extemporize from the lecture’s text at several points, and include the class discussion that followed, which really went through Derrida’s claims in the text concerning his “interest” in abolitionism.
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.
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.” 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 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),” 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.
 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.
 See, for example, Emmanuel Levinas, God, Death, and Time, trans. Bettina Bergo (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 11-20.
 BS 2, 131/194.
Since the election of Trump, various explanations have been given: Clinton didn’t spend enough time in Michigan or Wisconsin; Trump voters did a Brexit and didn’t think he would actually win; etc. But the most absurd, one that pops up at least once a week, it seems, is the non-argument argument that “postmodernism” (by people who don’t know what it means) led to Trump, since his post-fact universe is just like the supposed post-fact universe given by very different thinkers lumped under that term: Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, etc. First was Daniel Dennett, who while whining he had to think about politics at all (the poor guy!) 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.”
No citation is given, because none would be found. Lyotard, the one who wrote The Postmodern Condition, was deeply interested in how we think ethics after the death of absolutes. Foucault’s late career would be wrongly dubbed “ethical,” or only that, but he was interested precisely in genealogies of power and how to act otherwise on the margins of those forms of power, a veritable thinking of the care of the self. And Derrida’s whole later corpus focused on forgiveness, alterity, critiquing sovereign decisionism, and all manner of thinking that testified to what he called the “undeniable” finitude of our being. Far from erasing “facts,” these are thinkers who built an entire archive testifying to multiple “undeniable facts,” a phrase found all over Derrida, to rethink, revalue, and rewrite a tradition that determines all manner of our modes of thinking.
Make an argument. We can then have one, but just sputtering is not an argument. This weekend’s example was in the Jacobin, and, alas, given the good work the authors normally do, just repeats tendential sputtering in the wind: we need to ignore all manner of critique from Adorno to post-colonial critique, we need to ignore that Foucault and Derrida in fact called for something like an extra-Enlightenment, a hyper critique in works dedicated to Kant, to think another Enlightenment to come.
The ostensible target of the article is Jason Reza Jorjani, the alt-right PhD graduate from Stony Brook, and to show through a series of moves that can only be called hermeneutic inversion that Jorjani’s racist clap-trap is somehow linked to his alma mater, Stony Brook. (The absurdity is firstly that Stony Brook is not the leading Continental program it once was, as a look at its current faculty would show.) But let’s leave that aside: we get a reading of Spinoza as a hyper-rationalist when any reader of the Theological-Political Treatise would see that the rationalism of the ethics cannot be divorced from an avowed historicist claim about how cultural values are crystallizations of formations of power. To only claim Spinoza as a rationalist is not to read him at all. And then this claim–where I’m forced to defend Heidegger even as he was a right-wing thinker:
From Heidegger, Jorjani takes the idea that one’s historical culture matters more than objective reality. As opposed to the Enlightenment belief that time and space are uniform and measurable in some objective way, Heidegger claims that each group of people subjectively wills and shapes its own world and destiny. No common universe belongs to all; there is only a pluriverse of conflicting worldviews and forces. As Jorjani paraphrases Heidegger, each historical community struggles “to become more essentially what it is, or to perish in enslavement to another people and its world.”
Well that’s quite a paraphrase that phrases it wrong, and it ignores that Heidegger critiqued from beginning to end anything thinking of supposed “world-views” dominant in Germany. The Black Notebooks and his anti-semitism are an academic void in which I don’t wish to leap, but where is that book of Heidegger on “will” or “subjectively” or “shaping its own world and destiny.” He had critiqued all of that while still being, obviously, an arrogant wanna-be philosopher king in the mid-thirties. An awful man, but let’s at least not make up arguments he didn’t make.
Evidence is claimed that the alt-right “derives from the counter-Enlightenment.” I wish they were that well read. I also wish that Spinoza was this Spinoza (how many feminists have had at it about this? Why not think that there is perhaps an intrinsic link between his vitalism and the blank page? Or Kant on colonialism? To admit that, though, means thinking a universalism that always is anything but):
Spinoza’s universalism entailed that governments exercise tolerance toward minority communities and grant them political emancipation as citizens without requiring them to shed their particular religious and cultural identities. It also held that members of those communities should be able to freely assimilate, should they desire, into the broader European culture (as Spinoza himself did following his excommunication). Meanwhile, his rationalism empowered minorities to become critics of the dominant culture now open to them.
And thus we have it: an article attacking postmodernism as the front for Trumpist alt-rightism is in the end, a blinkered reading of Spinoza, ignores the Enlightenment it claims (along with the colonialism to a man it supported), says not a word in passing about the writers it diminishes, and thus remains as fact-free as its supposed enemy. Whining that we should believe in the Enlightenment is not an argument; it is a repeat of the Dostoyevsky claim that without God, everything is permitted. That’s not a proof for a God, and this is not a proof for that God trotted out as the Enlightenment.
Derrida and the Death Penalty
8 March 2017
We are each of us assigned a death, we are sentenced to it even before we can form a single sentence, and we live always already dying or perishing (sterben oder verenden), a distinction at the heart of Derrida’s deconstructive analysis of Heidegger’s thinking of death in Aporias that we explored at some length last week, not least since this distinction makes the cut between the human and the animal, between that which can transcend its animality (this will have great import in these lectures) and have a certain dignity (Würde) worthy of the name, and that which is just living (nur-leben). Thus we give to ourselves the power or possibility, the can-be (Seinskönnen) of death that belongs to us like no other possibility; it is for Heidegger, our “ownmost possibility…not to be outstripped.” We saw that Derrida argued in Aporias that we can’t conceptually, logically, which is to say, phenomenologically have death with or at hand; it may be a matter of grave concern, but it cannot fall within the circuit of our circumspective concern (whether as Care [Sorge] in general or as Besorge or even Fürsorge, since in solicitude one mourns to the being-there that is no longer there). Derrida’s thesis then in Aporias is that Heidegger’s distinction between the human and the animal is precisely where a deconstruction of Being and Time must begin, and this follows his dictum in TATTIA that if one wishes to deconstruct a thinker, one should always begin precisely where they place, or try to place, the difference between the human and the animal. Perhaps for this reason, you’ll allow me to begin with a bit of a deviation, as if I wanted to stave off death and the death penalty a bit longer, as if I’m filing an appeal with you for a bit more time to make the case, to provide a defense, and thus have death as still “not yet” today.
Yesterday, “The Stone,” The New York Times’ section written mostly by those who call themselves philosophers, published “If We Are Not Just Animals, What Are We?” by Roger Scuton. He doesn’t use the German “nur-leben” of Heidegger, but I invite you to read and then unread this relatively short article, because it credits a belief, or is rather indebted to a belief that is scarcely believable (or at least to the animal that therefore je suis):
Do any other beings, animal or otherwise, belong to [the kind of thing we are]? And what follows? These questions lie at the center of philosophical inquiry today, as they have since the ancient Greeks. In a thousand ways we distinguish people from the rest of nature, and build our life accordingly. We believe that people have rights, that they are sovereign over their lives, and that those who live by enslaving or abusing others are denying their own humanity. Surely there is a foundation for those beliefs, just as there is a foundation for all the moral, legal, artistic and spiritual traditions that take the distinctiveness of human life as their starting point.
I am willing to credit all of this, to take it on faith that this is true: indeed the human-animal distinction provides for a whole thinking of rights, sovereignty, and for all manner of Western “moral, legal, artistic, and spiritual traditions.” This is undeniable, but everything happens in the form of a kind of plaintive whine, of a cry that it’s necessarily the case that this is the case, though I can provide no evidence ultimately for the claim, and thus my claim must be nothing other than the fiat that can only say “Surely there is a foundation for those beliefs.” Nothing is less sure, as we’ve seen in recent weeks. Let’s look to see what the l’animal que donc je suis (I use the French for the obvious reasons of its ambiguity between “I am” and “I follow” we discussed some weeks ago). Scruton writes:
We human beings do not see one another as animals see one another, as fellow members of a species. We relate to one another not as objects but as subjects, as creatures who address one another “I” to “you” — a point made central to the human condition by Martin Buber, in his celebrated mystical meditation “I and Thou.” We understand ourselves in the first person, and because of this we address our remarks, actions and emotions not to the bodies of other people but to the words and looks that originate on the subjective horizon where they alone can stand.
He’ll end by saying that because of these facts, we philosophers, we who call ourselves philosophers—it’s what I say to you and how we address ourselves and each other in this seminar room—can have something left to do, which is to “make sense of the human condition.” There is no doubt that we address one another, that there is this this I that I follow after, but on the whole, all this comes down to whether we are, as this rejuvenated Cartesianistic subjectivism; though the subject is something like the Descartes-effect; he never uses the term but he is its starting point, no doubt despite all of the doubts he must overcome to say in the Second Meditation, “I think, I exist,” and it is true whenever I say it. Scruton makes no scrutiny of this fabulous claim that “we human beings” (who is this “we”?; we are said to be a “kind,” a genus, and hence we can do a genealogy of this thinking all the way back to Aristotle’s thinking of the human genus as the zoôn logon echon) “do not see one another as animals see one another,” since we see each other as one of a common species. If this is the test of our dignity, of not just an animal, then we must mark out every moment when we are less than human, when we don’t recognize others and ourselves as part of a common species: the human humanizes itself precisely in that moment when it says what is not human, and therefore not of its kind or kin, and thus we have never been less human than at that very moment when we dehumanize—on Scuton’s account—the Other, and even the Other that we are. Animals, he all but says, do not respond, but react, they do not recognize each other as such (recall that Heidegger said as much about the as such), as such and such a member of common project or species, even though, of course, we didn’t need the era of Trump to cash out that anything is less sure than humans seeing each other as part of a common species.
But what is common? That we say “I” to the other, and to the Other in me. What a power to grant oneself, to nominate oneself, to name and thus substantialize oneself as a subjective substance—over and against a “Thou” or you. All based on the idea of what we think the animal sees when it sees another, and thus our transcendence over nature, of animality, and the animal that therefore je suis, is based on nothing other than the phantasm of what this human, Scruton, thinks he sees when he sees one animal seeing another. “I am, I exist” is true every time I say it, according to Descartes, and thus those that cannot say it don’t exist, do not have substantiality or subjectivity, simply because they don’t say it. This is what we philosophers are assigned to do now, according to Scruton, less we deconstruct (but not destroy) the very traditions that rely on the sovereign fiat that “surely there must be a foundation” for our most common beliefs, for our common sense that tells us that we have something in common when we see each other seeing each other.
And because we can see each other seeing each other in a way that animals can’t, we can die and we can also be given the penalty of death. Every culture, Derrida writes, is ultimately sacrificial: it takes one as uncommon to the common of a given species and puts it to death in the name of that common. Today I’d like to focus on one major claim in Derrida, a claim that is, unlike the above, supported by ample textual, historical, and other evidence. He writes (and here I quote at some length):
If one wants to ask oneself “What is the death penalty?” or what is “the essence and the meaning of the death penalty” [Thus the death penalty would be a what, it would have an essence, it would answer to the first question of philosophy: ti esti? What is….x?] it will indeed be necessary to reconstitute this history and this horizon of sovereignty as the hyphen in the theologico-political [that is, the sacrificial religiosity that links the political and the theological]…It is not even certain that the concept of history and the concept of horizon resist a deconstruction of these scaffolds. … History, the concept of history, is perhaps [I will highlight each of his uses of this term] linked, in its very possibility, in its scaffolding [he is clearly trading on the metaphor of the scaffold on which the death penalty takes place, a scaffold whose technics and techniques are intrinsic to the scaffold of philosophy, he ultimately says] to the Abrahamic and above all the Christian history of sovereignty, and thus of the possibility of the death penalty as theological-political violence. Deconstruction is perhaps always, ultimately, through the deconstruction of carno-phallogocentrism, the deconstruction of this historical scaffolding of the death penalty, of the history of this scaffold or of history as scaffolding of this scaffold. Deconstruction, what is called by that name is perhaps, perhaps [he himself repeats and emphasizes] the deconstruction of the death penalty.(23/50)
Derrida’s focus, even 18 years ago in the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 academic years on the death penalty can seem even then anachronistic—the death penalty in France had for several decades been abolished, and certainly biopolitical modes of putting to death (poverty, lack of health care, but also the living death of solitary confinement in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere) had come to the fore politically Though dedicated to close readings of such abolitionist writers as the French writer Victor Hugo, Derrida continuously returns to the example of the U.S., which he dubs the “most Christian” Western democracy, as well as its predominant use of lethal injection. In 1997, Derrida had given the title of “Perjury and Pardon” to his annual lecture series, and these were themselves a subset of a larger theme on “Questions of Responsibility” that began in 1989 and ended in 2003 with the last of his lectures before his death in 2004. Nevertheless the reader might wonder why Derrida turns to the issue of the death penalty. Hamida Djandoubi was the last citizen executed by the French state in 1977 and the death penalty was abolished there four years later. The European Union had made abolishing the death penalty a prerequisite for nations, such as Turkey, wishing to join, and all but a few biens pensants in France, it would seem, would call for the death penalty’s return.
Previous seminars had taken up pressing political concerns, such as the right to pardon and political forgiveness (1996-1998), or questions of immigration and hospitality (1995-1997), and the death penalty would seem a settled issue, at least in France. But Derrida’s argument throughout the lectures is that far from an accidental feature of Western politics, the death penalty derives from a political theology that both sides of the death penalty have as the hidden premise of their arguments. This is because it is inscribed in the Judeo-Christian tradition going back to the prohibition of homicide in the Decalogue, though the Bible also calls for the death of those guilty of not adhering to it. This political theology, he argues, has not been superseded by any supposed secularism or Enlightenment process over the past several centuries in Europe, which can best be seen in the implacable place of sovereignty in our politics — the exceptional and God-like power that decides over life and death both within and beyond death penalty statutes, such as the killing of supposed enemies of the state in both foreign and domestic “police” actions.
In a move that might strike you as odd, Derrida spends most of these lectures not on the case made by death penalty proponents, with whom he clearly disagrees, but on demonstrating that abolitionists borrow from the same language and historical sources as their avowed enemies. One need not study deconstruction or his philosophical sources from Plato to Kant to Nietzsche to Blanchot to get the point. Opponents and proponents share the language of measuring “cruelty,” of who is adhering most to Christian doctrine and other traditional notions of justice, of making sure only the guilty face the penalty, of the back and forth over utilitarian measures of its effect on crime, and so on. As Derrida puts it, for example,
the argument against cruelty rather than against the principle of the death penalty is both strong and weak, strong because it moves and thus motivates, provides a good psychological motivation for the abolition of the death penalty; but it is weak because it concerns only the modality of application, not the principle of the death penalty, and it becomes impotent in the face of what claims to be an incremental softening, an anesthesia that tends toward the general, or even a humanization of the death penalty that would spare the cruelty to both the condemned one and the witnesses, all the while maintaining the principle of capital punishment. (50)
He notes that all “progressive steps” in the application of the death penalty, from the guillotine to lethal injection purport to end the cruelty and lessen the pain of the punishment — for both the watchers and the watched. As in all his work, Derrida is less interested in entering the back and forth of a given binary opposition than in showing how this opposition is both informed by a long tradition and is implacably found in disparate voices adhering to its metaphysics. To put it in the now-old language of deconstruction, the point is to displace the opposition, not merely to favor one side of it, which would leave the opposition in place. Derrida’s central thesis in the lectures — that there has never been a truly philosophical critique of the death penalty — does not concern a prosaic claim about which philosophers have indeed opposed the death penalty, though it should be underlined that none had done so prior to the Enlightenment era of the eighteenth century. Rather the point is to show the death penalty is borne out of a perennial logic structuring the philosophy of the West, evidenced by a political theology very much with us, one that has to be isolated and put into question, that is, deconstructed. In other words, as those to be executed climb the scaffolds to their doom, what led them there was not just a particular crime or country-specific laws, but rather the scaffold of a Western political theology that puts a sacrificial politics at its core — the executed is the one who must be killed for the sake of the many, a transubstantiation in line with Christ’s sacrifice of his body for the salvation of his followers.
For most of the sessions of the lecture course, Derrida begins with a question that will guide that day’s readings. In the very first session, Derrida asks, “What do you respond to someone who might come to you, at dawn, and say: ‘You know, the death penalty is what is proper to man?’” (1). The question hints not only at the traditional time of the imposition of the penalty of death, or a certain literariness to Derrida’s lecture style, but also his linking of the essence of man to the death penalty. Derrida’s lectures then take us through four cases: Socrates, Jesus, Joan of Arc, and Mansur Hallaj. As Derrida notes — no doubt this was his reason for choosing them — each of these figures was put to death in the name of a certain religion, since they testified to a counter-transcendence, and thus were a threat politically and theologically. These condemnations were “issued, then, both in the name of transcendence and against transcendence” (26). His choice of cases are obvious and will strike some readers as too historical to be relevant, but Derrida carefully reads the pertinent texts to show how point by point a similar logic is used in more recent figures such as Immanuel Kant — for Derrida, the most “rigorous” proponent of the death penalty — and opponents such as Cesare Beccaria, Victor Hugo, and Albert Camus. These thinkers, broadly put, support the belief that what is human is what allows man to transcend his animal, all-too-bodily existence. Derrida’s reading of Kant, in particular, is a tour de force: anyone who knows a bit about Kant’s ethics may presume, as my students often do, that Kant would be an opponent of state executions, since any such killing would seem to go against the categorical imperative. Yet just as a long tradition had talked about the sanctity of life and also called for the death penalty, Kant argues that if one wishes civically to demonstrate one’s transcendence over one’s phenomenal existence, “one must raise oneself by means of law above life and thus inscribe from the height of noumenal man [that is, man proper] the death penalty in the law” (124). Thus for Kant, “to make life for life’s sake an inviolable principle, to fail to inscribe death in the law is unworthy of human dignity; it is a return to the state of nature and animality” (130). The categorical imperative of the law, Kant argues, is the lex talionis: if you kill, you should be killed. (He goes so far as to claim that even if a civil society is dissolved, it must kill its last murderers remaining in prison, lest the people become collaborators in the original crime .) Derrida’s attention to the marginal places in a philosopher’s texts comes through well in these lectures, noting Kant’s arguments against administering the penalty for maternal infanticide of children born out of wedlock as well as winners of duels, demonstrating how Kant’s logic is both “rigorous and absurd” (128). The child of unmarried parents, for example, is not a citizen and has, in Kant’s words, “stolen into the republic,” so the state can ignore its “annihilation,” thus separating out a life that has meaning through the law from those that do not—and thus can be killed with impunity.
Life then, as Rousseau put in the Social Contract, life proper is thus a “conditional gift of the state,” and only then, as Kant’s political writings on the death penalty make clear, does it have what the latter calls the “dignity (Würde)” of the human. In this way, the inscription of the death penalty within the law is a “sign of access to the dignity of man, something that is proper to man,” an answer to Derrida’s question in the first lecture (9). Another way to put this is that what is taken to be a mark of the sovereignty of “man” (the patriarchal language is purposeful, as Derrida makes clear) leads right to the state’s sovereign claim to decide over life and death. Derrida thus joins these lectures to a critique of sovereignty that informs all of his later works, such as Rogues (2003). “Never,” he writes, “is the state or the people or the community or the nation in its statist figure, never is the sovereignty of the state more visible in the gathering that founds it than when itself in to the seer and voyeur of the execution of an irrevocable and unpardonable verdict” (3).
To state what should be clear by now, Derrida will find wanting critiques of the death penalty that rely on notions of dignity, of Christian transcendence, and the supposed inviolability of life, which merely extend the life of the logic of the death penalty — that this life can be sacrificed for the sake of an other, whether the lives of fellow citizens, or the transcendental life of the accused (147). This is why Derrida, towards the end of the seminar, is unconvinced by those who believe in the march of progress towards a day when all countries do away with the death penalty. His first reason is geo-political. As Kant himself noted, there “is no justice in the strict sense, in the legal sense, in the juridical sense, as long as there is no binding force, as long as commitments are not duties to which subjects of the law are held on pain of punishment [sous peine de peine] (80); as any parent knows, there is no law without the threat of punishment behind it. Can we at this point imagine the dissolution of state sovereignties in the face of some supra-sovereign or global entity having the force of law? Derrida is doubtful. Derrida’s second reason for pessimism on this front can be demonstrated by extending this example: any supra-entity would itself have the extra-legal force (police, military, etc.) to enforce the law, to put people under the pain of punishment, and kill if necessary, in order to protect its citizenry. His third reason for pessimism is that there still has yet to be carried out a “non-Christian deconstruction” of the death penalty, one he is obviously seeking to begin in these lectures (11).
I will leave aside what this would look like for next week, but let us return to the question of “what is the death penalty?” The problem is clear from last week. Recall that for Derrida, For Derrida, “death is always the name of a secret” (A, 74). And thus he will argue in The Death Penalty lectures:
I believe on the subject of death, the question, what is death?—which is perhaps preliminary to the question of death given or life taken [donner la mort] (by suicide: to take one’s own life; by murder, to take someone else’s life; or by capital punishment, a singular form of putting to death)—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. (323/237)
The questioning of death leads into others as well. Can one “purely, simply, and definitely,” as Victor Hugo stated in the 18th century, take a stand against the death penalty? For readers of Derrida, the ultimate thinker of contamination, there will be a skepticism, however much he merits Hugo and his stance against the death penalty, that one can purely take a stand—this goes back to the rhetoric of the passive decision we discussed last week and the fact that Derrida is an heir—in however complicated a fashion—of Freud and the discovery of the unconscious. The self’s lack of transparency to itself (here I would also recall Derrida’s invocation of the indecidability in the moment of decision between the hypothetical and categorical imperatives in Kant) would obviate any such purity of heart, as we would say, however much we would support Hugo and want to believe in such a purity of heart, in such a sovereign and masterful purity to vote purely, simply, and definitively. And perhaps this should also lead us to critique Roger Scruton’s view that I can ever “purely, simply, and definitively,” speak of the I that I am.
Derrida’s premise, as we’ve seen, throughout is that the death penalty is inscribed in the theological-political traditions of the West: it speaks us, not the other way around. Thus he will be looking for those places where Hugo and others he reads—standing valiantly no doubt against a certain death penalty—inscribes the very language that has always stood for the death penalty. But one also would need to think what would need to be “destroyed” to “destroy” the death penalty once and for all:
[I]t is a question of attacking the foundations or the presuppositions alleged by the law or by public opinion wherever the bases of this law or the underpinnings of this public opinion, this doxa [opinion or custom], or this orthodoxy uphold the death penalty; it is a question of destroying the discursive and other mechanisms, the supports [les étayages], the phantasms, and opinions, the drives, the conscious or semi-conscious or unconscious representations, that work to legitimate the death penalty. (153/102)
That is, there is no chance of destroying by sovereign fiat all that produced the death penalty, all that produces its considerations within and beyond us, involving as it does a whole network of discursive and other mechanisms that are its “supports.” In this way, too, this is a good place to note, too, that deconstruction could never be a simple rejection of the Western tradition; it could never destroy all that remains of it within and beyond ourselves when it speaks through us, through our words, through our conscious, semi-conscious, or unconscious “decisions.” We belong, we take on (in the double sense, to use Michael Naas’s apt formulation) this tradition, even if we reject it, and perhaps all the more so when we do so: revolution, “the new,” and so on are particularly Western notions as well. We will see this in Hugo’s own use of Christian language, and in this way, the tradition acts on us like a particularly tough bear trap: it tightens on us all the more we try to break free. This is, I think, a central dictum of much of Derrida’s writing. As Derrida puts it a bit later, “We will verify this repeatedly: Hugo’s abolitionism is profoundly Christian, Christlike, evangelical” (156/104). In short, Hugo will argue that the death penalty is the human law; its abolition is “divine.”
What is it that this tradition shares? After a long discursus on Blanchot and his non-explicit favoring of the logic of the death penalty, Derrida lays out, in a long paragraph one might easily miss, the logic of the death penalty in the West. Let’s walk through step by step here:
[Blanchot] reproduces the argumentative core, the classic philosopheme of all the great right-wing [why only right wing?] philosophies that have favored the death penalty, such as the logical core of Kant’s philosophy of right and of Hegelian philosophy. The dignity of man [l’homme], his sovereignty, the sign that he accedes to universal right and rises above [s’éleve au-dessus] animality is that he rises above biological life, put his life in play [il met sa vie joue; at play as in “at stake”] in the law, risks his life and thus affirms his sovereignty as subject or consciousness. (170/116)
We should pause to discuss this: clearly the notion of the “dignity of man” is Kantian, and all of Derrida’s later work will be a contesting of sovereignty, of thinking the difference, as we saw in the Rogues, between the unconditional and sovereignty. Let’s continue with this paragraph:
A code of law that would refrain from inscribing the death penalty within it would not be a code of law [perhaps quickly here we should mention that the archaic Roman 12 tables as well as the Decalogue provide for the death penalty from the moment there is law, from once we have left Eden as it were, which is precisely repeated in the social contract theories from Hobbes to Locke to Rousseau, that is, where we have entered the political, once the Fall has occurred, there is the death penalty]; it would not be a human law, it would not be a law worthy of human dignity. It would not be a law. The very idea of law [note well the scope of the claim, though he seems to have Kant in mind (since Kant will say precisely this)] implies that something is worth more than life and that therefore life must not be sacred as such; it must be liable to be sacrificed for there to be law. (170/116)
Breaking off again, for those interested, Derrida here, I think, is turning back on an earlier view of his in the 1990s. In the Gift of Death, Derrida had claimed that “sacrifice”—he was giving a reading of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling—is our everyday relation to the ethical. (This is something I had critiqued in Derrida in fact, well before seeing he had done so in these more recently published lectures.) As we have seen in our readings thus far, Derrida believes we are faced with multiple unconditional demands and simply put, to choose one over another is to “sacrifice” one unconditional for the other [discuss if needed]. Yet six years later, he identifies sacrifice with the structure of the death penalty, with the very logic of sovereignty, one that links, he says here, Kant, Hegel, Bataille, and Blanchot:
Sacrifice is what raises, what raises itself above the egoism and the anxiety of the individual. [Again, this must be understood as a self-sacrifice, or a sacrifice of one for the other; thus sacrifice is what raises one above egoism, such as sacrificing oneself for the other.] Between law and death, between penal law and [the] death penalty, there is a structural indissociability, a mutual, a priori dependence, that is inscribed in the concept of law or right [droit], human rights or law [droit de l’homme; trans. mod.], as much as in the concept of death, of non-natural death, thus of death as decided by a universal reason [the law is universal or it is not law], a death that is given or that one gives oneself sovereignly. …It is the right to kill oneself, to be killed, or to kill: to accede to death by exceeding natural life, biological or so-called animal life. Death is not natural. (170-1/116-7) [Discuss the last claim.]
Allow me some further time as we touch upon Derrida’s reading of Kant on the death penalty; I will try to do so in quick order, though I think those who think Derrida has a certain flair, a certain way of reading would do well to visit these pages, where Derrida’s gift for looking to those supposedly marginal parts of a corpus really brings out important points. For Kant—and I am summarizing a bit violently here—the categorical imperative of the penal law is the talionic law, the “equivalence of the crime and the punishment, thus of murder and the death penalty” (182/125). There is thus in Kant a precise economy (this economy, give and take, will be a theme in next week’s readings) in Kant between death and death, between one and the other, a law of equivalence that of course is also Mosaic and is perhaps the oldest law of the West. (Thus Nietzsche’s point in the Genealogy of Morals that the talionic law has its basis in early trading rituals.) Indeed, it may be the law of laws. In any event Kant argues that homicide contrary to the law must be punished by death, and just as interestingly, it is when one proves oneself worthy of life, since when put to death, one puts the interests of one’s homo noumenon above the homo phaenomenon, that is, empirical life of the condemned who calculates his/her extrinsic or hypothetical interests. Let me pause on Nietzsche, since his thinking of punishment and crime—how did we ever link in the West one to the other?—is in the background throughout here.
We know well Nietzsche’s answer, when he seeks to do a genealogy of crime and punishment, of making an equivalence of the incommensurability of a wrong and a suffering (unto death). Here is Nietzsche:
And whence did this …idea [of crime and punishment] draw its power (Macht)—this idea of an equivalence between injury and pain (Shaden und Schmerz). I have already divulged it in the contractual relationship between creditor and debtor (Gläubiger und Schuldner), which is as old as the idea of legal subjects (Rechsubjekte) and in turn points back to the fundamental forms of buying, selling, barter, trade, and traffic.
Instead of this, we have instituted a long “right to cruelty,” for Nietzsche, weighing up the cruelties owed for this or that “wrong,” and Nietzsche goes so far as to discuss the Christian passion (Christ’s sacrifice for himself to become the indebted of the world) in terms of this economy of wrong for suffering, of an inventions of so-called wrongs to inflict suffering. For Nietzsche—and Derrida seems to follow him on this—there is no “opposite” to cruelty, only differential forms of cruelty, since cruelty is something like the will to power that is dissimulated through cultural forms. There is no one who is disinterested in such cruelty, and Nietzsche, famously, finds Kant the cruelest of them all, from the beginning of section 6 of Essay II in the Genealogy:
It was in this sphere then, the sphere of moral obligations that the moral conceptual word “guilt,” “conscience,” “duty,” “sacredness of duty,” had its origin (ihr Entstehungsherd): its beginnings were, like the beginning of everything great on earth, soaked in blood throughout (mit Blut begossen worden) and for a long time. And might one not add that, fundamentally, this world has never since lost a certain odor of blood and torture [einen gewissen Gerch vont Blut und Folter; note Nietzsche’s refutation of Hugo: there has been no end to torture]? (Not even in good old Kant: the categorical imperative smells of cruelty)… Asking once again: to what extent can suffering be a compensation for “debts”? To the extent that making-suffer felt good, and in the highest degree [that is, assymetrical to even the pleasure of the crime itself]; to the extent that the injured one exchanged for what was lost, including the displeasure of the loss, an extraordinary counter-pleasure: making-suffer, a true festival… Seeing-suffer [note where Derrida began, by noting that the death penalty must be seen; it is where the sovereign sees itself being seen] feels good, making-suffer even more so—that is a hard proposition, but a central one, an old human all-too-human proposition, to which, by the even, even the apes might subscribe: for it is said that in thinking up bizarre cruelties they already abundantly herald and, as it were, “prelude” man. Without cruelty, no festival: thus teaches the oldest, longest part of man’s history—and in punishment too there is so much that is festive (GM, II.6)
There is, then, from the opposite vantage point, then, what is proper to “man”—his cruelty, his dissimulation and repression of cruelty through the social contract, where cruelty continues at another level. And thus no “man” without the death penalty, without this sovereign, breathtaking cruelty. And no man without the production of those “wrongs” in order to allow this suffering in the first place. Perhaps this is what is left unseen when we see each other seeing each other, a point that does not for a moment enter Scruton’s mind when he blabs on about our righteous traditions of morality and politics. And if I make the sovereign claim I can know what is in Scruton’s mind, well, it’s par for the course given he knows precisely what an animal sees when it sees its others.
If there is time let’s move to 181/125 to the amazing passage from Kant on the two exceptions: infanticide of a child born outside of marriage and the duel. All revolves around the “shame” of the mother, the honor of the woman, as well as the honor of those in a duel. A remarkable passage. It is here that Kant makes a distinction between homicidium and homocidium dolosum, and the state will only have an interest in the death of a citizen, not the human being as such. Kant’s point—again quickly—is that it would be too cruel (grausam) [Derrida notes that this fits with a long line of linking cruelty to the death penalty] to punish the mother and the dueler, but it would also be “indulgent” (nachsichtig) to leave them alive. How to untie this knot? For Kant, there will be some who still are called by their subjective motives prior, say, to the kingdom of ends. Well, I can do no better than quote from Derrida:
Well this state of fact or this state of nature, this residue of the state of nature [that is, the remnant of those who do not accede to the law] translates a lack of culture or a barbarity…that should have been surpassed. Hence the extraordinary rationality but also the stupid uselessness [la stupide inutilité] of this Kantian logic. [It should be noted that Derrida is not ever this blunt, or hardly ever, though I do think this often is a good summation of much in Kantian ethics, which of course, aims to be completely useless, if not stupid.] If the categorical imperative—which in any case remains [bleibt]—is one day to be in agreement with customs, then culture, non-barbarity, and civilization are necessary, which is to say: it would be necessary for women no longer to have children out of wedlock [I would note well, too, that this would be a fully bio-political logic, if there is such a thing, since of course, it is all to save the honor of the woman and polices the line between the proper and improper life, the one deserving of protection of the law and the one that is not] [etc.] then the knot will be untied [that is, the knot of this problem]. In other words—and this is one of the great paradoxically interesting things about this Kantian position, which is as rigorous as it is absurd [aussi rigoureuse qu’absurde]—when the history of morality and of civil society will have progressed to the point where there is no more discord between the subjective motives and the objective rules, then the categorical imperative that presides over the death penalty will be fully coherent, with neither cruelty nor indulgence, but of course there will be no need to sentence to death. (184/127)
In the meantime, while waiting for that kingdom of ends, one must have the death penalty, even if the regulative ideal is that there should be no death penalty at all, or rather, there will be inscribed a death penalty in the law that would, ideally, not have to be enforced. And as Kant notes in the Metaphysics of Morals—in lines Derrida does not pick up—“Even if a civil society were to be dissolved by the consent of all of its members…the last murderer remaining in prison would first have to be executed, so that each has done to him what his deeds deserve and blood guilt [!] does not cling to the people [who are not, in fact, a people, given the dissolution of the social contract] for not having insisted upon this punishment” (6:333)
Why? Because without the death penalty, the law would have put an attachment to empirical or phenomenal life above homo noumenon, and thus “understand nothing about what surpasses the value of life, and surpasses all price…no law will ever be founded on an unconditional love of life for its own sake, on the absolute refusal of any sacrifice of life)” (185/128). Derrida thus finds in Kant a specifically Christian thinking of life, of a life denied for the sake of what is beyond life. In short, for Derrida—and in this seminar he will link Baudelaire and Hugo to this line of thinking—to be attached to life for life’s sake is animalistic; and we keep hearing from Plato to Scruton that we are not just that, even if we must do an injustice to logic to stick to these claims. Moreover, as Baudelaire suggests, perhaps those who oppose the death penalty are simply afraid for their own life. And Derrida agrees, in a sense, showing what links together the abolitionist discourses:
Who could deny that the fear of death or that the infinite protest against mortality and against one’s own mortality, especially against what is held to be an unnatural death, is the mechanism driving all the discourse on the right to life and the inviolable property of my life…How can one deny that the abolitionist discourse is rooted in the evil of finitude and of a fallible finitude? (187-8/130)
Derrida is nothing if not a thinker of finitude, a thinker of mortality and our mourning of this fact. Derrida notes about Hugo outloud during the session:
What comes back all the time is the inviolability of the life of the human person. Life is what is proper to me, inviolable by definition. If one extends this logic to its limit, then even if you kill me, you cannot violate the properness or property of my life. It is as if the abolitionists were people who basically dreamed of eternity, who dreamed of remaining eternally the proprietors of their lives (188 n. 1/130 n. 8)
In this way, they share with Kant the same belief in a life beyond life, in a propriety of life beyond this life. And it is this logic that can make sense of the dignity of life, of a right to life, in all the documents and declarations Derrida reviews, but not yet the end of the death penalty. Like the death that awaits us without awaiting in our being-towards-death, the death penalty lives on, and its end is always “not yet.”
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.