Derrida Now - John W. P. Phillips - E-Book

Derrida Now E-Book

John W. P. Phillips

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For more than 30 years and until his death in 2004, Jacques Derrida remained one of the most influential contemporary philosophers. It may be difficult to evaluate what forms his legacy will take in the future but Derrida Now provides some provocative suggestions. Derrida s often-controversial early reception was based on readings of his complex works, published in journals and collected in books. More recently attention has tended to focus on his later work, which grew out of the seminars that he presented each year in France and the US. The full texts of these seminars are now the subject of a major publication project, to be produced over the next ten years. Derrida Now presents contemporary articles based on or around the study of Derrida. It provides a critical introduction to Derrida s complex and controversial thought, offers careful analysis of some of his most important concepts, and includes essays that address the major strands of his thought. Derrida s influence reached not only into philosophy but also into other fields concerned with literature, politics, visual art, law, ecology, psychoanalysis, gender and sexuality and this book will appeal to readers in all these disciplines. Contributors include Peggy Kamuf, Geoff Bennington, Nicholas Royle, Roy Sellars, Graham Allen and Irving Goh.

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Title Page


Editor’s Introduction: John W.P. Phillips

Deconstruction: Where It Begins and How It Ends

The Doctrine of the Mark

Derrida: Credit, Penalty and Death

Overview of this Volume


1. Transcendental Difference and the Auto-Relation: Critical Overview: John W.P. Phillips


1. The Meanings of Writing

2. Teleology, History, Difference

3. Transcendental Difference



2. Derrida’s Dignity: Geoffrey Bennington



3. Stepping Out with Freud and Derrida: On the Royal Road of Interpretation: Roy Sellars



4. The Transparent University: Kant, Derrida and a New University Law: Graham Allen


5. Does Deconstruction Imply Vegetarianism?: Martin McQuillan

Animal Research

Animal Writes

Food for Thought

We Must All Make Sacrifices


6. After Derrida’s Foi et savoir: From Rejection to the (Animal-)Reject for the ‘Post-Secular’: Irving Goh




From the Auto-Reject to Divinanimalité

Conclusion: Following after the Animal-(Auto)-Reject



7. Composition Displacement: Peggy Kamuf


8. Jacques Derrida and the Future of the Novel: Nicholas Royle


9. Derrida, Code Enforcement, and the Question of Justice: Hugh J. Silverman






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Table of Contents

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Theory NowJohn Armitage, Virilio NowRyan Bishop, Baudrillard NowVerena Conley and Irving Goh, Nancy NowOliver Davis, Rancière NowStuart Elden, Sloterdijk NowJames Faubion, Foucault NowJamil Khader and Molly Anne Rothenberg, Žižek NowJohn W.P. Phillips, Derrida NowStephen Sale and Laura Salisbury, Kittler Now

Derrida Now

Current Perspectives in Derrida Studies

Edited by John W.P. Phillips


Copyright © Polity Press 2016

Copyright © Chapter 2 Geoffrey Bennington 2016Copyright © Chapter 8 Nicholas Royle 2016

First published in 2016 by Polity Press

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Polity Press350 Main StreetMalden, MA 02148, USA

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ISBN-13: 978-0-7456-6288-6

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Derrida now : current perspectives in Derrida studies / John William Phillips.pages cm. -- (Theory now)Includes bibliographical references and index.ISBN 978-0-7456-5573-4 (hardcover : alk. paper) -- ISBN 0-7456-5573-4 (hardcover : alk. paper) -- ISBN 978-0-7456-5574-1 (pbk. : alk. paper) -- ISBN 0-7456-5574-2 (pbk. : alk. paper) 1. Derrida, Jacques. I. Phillips, John William, editor.B2430.D484D4856 2016194--dc23


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Editor’s IntroductionJohn W.P. Phillips

Deconstruction: Where It Begins and How It Ends

How are we to calculate the age of Deconstruction? We can ask about its chances. And we can acknowledge that not everything in it comes down to a name, not even that of Jacques Derrida. Nevertheless, it was Derrida who identified from time to time the necessity of a deconstruction and who insisted on its traversal across and beyond more familiar categories of academic practice. ‘It is because deconstruction interferes with solid structures, “material” institutions, and not only with discourses or signifying representations’, he writes in The Truth in Painting, ‘that it is always distinct from an analysis or “critique” ’ (Derrida, 1987a: 19). And it was Derrida who insisted that the necessity of a deconstruction couldn’t be separated from the chances that we must take with it (Derrida, 1984).

Attempts to write in Derrida’s name or in the name of Deconstruction, or even to produce critical readings of Derrida’s works, face a peculiar problem. While the general outlines of the philosophy might be reasonably well known, and many exemplary studies exist, the provocation of the Derrida text remains. So, after Derrida – in his name – it is possible not only to present coherent accounts of the history of western metaphysics and the logocentrism that guides its programme, but also to intervene in that programme by mobilizing the a priori insinuation of the trace, of arche-writing, of iterability, of the remarkable mark, of différance, or of the supplement at the origin. Such practices, enchained in the narrative that helps to produce them, are today widespread. What remains, however, is the peculiar problem of the Derrida text, which presents its arguments (in sometimes strange syntactical arrangements) each time in the guise of complex webs of connections, allusions, sometimes obscure references and chains of association, the effects of which leave nothing untouched. If the now familiar narratives of logocentrism and iterability can be detached from the peculiarity of Derrida’s written signature, what, then, remains to be read in it? The question turns not on the status of the texts themselves but on an indeterminate (accidental, fatal) predicate that they acknowledge, perhaps uniquely in the history of western philosophy: an addressee at once adequate to reading them and yet absolutely outside determination.

In 2004 Derrida gave an interview, a few weeks before he succumbed to his fatal illness, where he discusses among many other topics matters of inheritance, writing and death. He reframes the question of the intellectual inheritance he will have left in terms of the familiar doctrine of the remarkable mark, already well established by the watershed year of 1967, which signifies the death of the writer in the repeatable form – the obscure repeatability – of the trace. ‘The trace I leave’, he says, ‘signifies to me at once my death, either to come or already come upon me, and the hope that this trace survives me’ (Derrida, 2007: 32). This hope, from a writer who repeats here that we live death in writing, follows the structural form of ‘the most contradictory hypothesis’. Again the formulation traces a familiar pattern. The pathos of structural form precedes and exceeds the active control of the phantasmatic subject:

I have simultaneously – I ask you to believe me on this – the double feeling that, on the one hand, to put it playfully and with a certain immodesty, one has not yet begun to read me, that even though there are, to be sure, many very good readers (a few dozen in the world perhaps, people who are also writer-thinkers, poets), in the end it is later on that all this has a chance of appearing; but also, on the other hand, and thus simultaneously, I have the feeling that two weeks or a month after my death there will be nothing left. (Derrida, 2007: 34)

Survival here means not merely ‘what has been copyrighted and deposited in libraries’ but what still has the capacity to form its readers. The structural role of the addressee therefore haunts our hope for the survival of the written trace. Derrida identifies the peculiar properties of this addressee on several occasions. In a celebrated interview with Derek Attridge the ‘dream of a writing that would be neither literature nor philosophy’ gives rise to certain thoughts that concern the reader of such a work: ‘what it is in the work that produces its reader, a reader who doesn’t yet exist, whose competence cannot be identified, a reader who would be “formed,” “trained,” instructed, constructed, even engendered, let’s say invented by the work’ (Derrida, 1992: 74). Derrida returns to this thought in the last interview, confirming the connection between pedagogy, institutions, writing, experimentation and the future or to-come of an unimagined addressee. ‘Each book’, he reminds us, ‘is a pedagogy aimed at forming its reader’ (Derrida, 2007: 31). If the writer is to take the ‘desired’ addressee into account they must ‘invent’ the law of a one-time event. In yet another interview (from 1987) Derrida answers to questions about the peculiarity of his writing again with reference to the ‘necessity of formal adventure’, which involves ‘incorporating in some way the other’s signature’ (Derrida, 1995a: 188). The event of deconstruction thus occurs between the signature of the other and the unmarked addressee, which gives way (but never entirely) to the asymmetrical form of a signature-countersignature.

The asymmetry of the formal structure follows what we’ve just seen described as ‘the most contradictory hypothesis’, that is, a form that implies (after and in spite of Jean-Jacques Rousseau) ‘an intermediary between everything and nothing’ (cited in Derrida, 1967/1976: 157). Derrida focuses on the space of necessary invention, the sphere of mediacy (which in this instance Rousseau wants everywhere to efface). The aporia of this impossible mediacy (between say the immediate and absence) involves the reader in an awkward obligation – not merely ethical but structurally necessary: an estranged fidelity. In reading, we are faced with the impossible choice of ‘two infidelities’, as Derrida puts it in his elegiac work, ‘the Deaths of Roland Barthes’ (Derrida, 2001: 45). The motif of reading merges with that of friendship: ‘on the one hand, not to say anything that comes back to oneself, to one’s own voice, to remain silent, or at the very least to let oneself be accompanied or preceded in counterpoint by the friend’s voice . . . to be content with just quoting . . . On the other hand, by avoiding all quotation, all identification, all rapprochement’ (Derrida, 2001: 45). The extremes imply death (hence the ‘deaths’ of Derrida’s title) unless each betrays the other, such that in the intermediate position a reader will ‘learn to read (to “live”) something he or she was not accustomed to receiving from anywhere else’ (Derrida, 2001: 31).

A further related form of asymmetry implies the distinction to which I’ve already alluded between philosophical demonstrations and ‘forms of writing that have their own, sometimes novel, rules’ (Derrida, 1995b: 188). Demonstration therefore falls away from traditional forms. The necessity in these asymmetries lies in the formal doctrine that seems to guide even Derrida’s most adventurous works: the doctrine of the trace.

The Doctrine of the Mark

In nearly every text by Derrida, readers may find some more or less directly programmatic statements, which not only establish principles on which the philosophy must stand or fall but which also can be read as instructions or at least clues for reading the perhaps more puzzling sections of the text. There is never a decisive breach between the statement made and the performance by which the statement is produced, but it is nearly always possible to begin to identify statement-like sections, which may explain the more ‘performative’ or inventive productions. I use ‘performative’ with caution here because both the ideal of clarity and distinctness of expression and the ideal of the pure performative utterance tend to annul the disturb-ing force that the doctrine of the mark is concerned to teach. It is a matter of grasping that while the principle cannot exist outside its demonstration, the demonstration could not have been produced were it not for the principle.

The demonstration each time intends to evoke (to simulate or to imitate) the experience (a word often underlined by Derrida) of the effects that concern him. Demonstration in Derrida’s writing therefore accounts for much of what is forceful and compelling about it. In order to read and to write effectively, in a way that is influenced or inspired by Derrida, one can follow the fecundity of the demonstrations, avoiding the need to establish principles or the evidence that supports them, as demanded by classical requirements. But when Derrida demonstrates the doctrine of the mark through the statement, ‘I am dead’, to identify one of the clearest available propositions from his intricate reading of Edmund Husserl’s Logical Investigations, two slightly different things occur simultaneously.

First (and more easily explicable), an analytic argument about meaning is established: the meaning of the statement functions independently of the subject’s intention in making it; meaning is dependent on conditions that exceed the expressive function of a subject’s speech. Illimitable speakers can say, ‘I am dead’, and the statement will each time mean what it always means. The principle here, then, as everywhere in Derrida’s writings, is that of the mark (and by infinite extension the statement and the text) and its a priori repeatability. This a priori repeatability demonstrably allows a statement to function as an expression, by which a subject intends a meaning for which he or she takes responsibility. In the Logical Investigations Husserl attempts to maintain a strong distinction between the expressive signs of the transcendental subject (in ‘auto-affection’) and external (i.e. written) signs, which are always potentially free of sense, reference, addresser or addressee. The expressive and indicative sign (a distinction carried out elsewhere as the difference between speech and writing) turn out to be indistinguishable, separated by a difference that distinguishes nothing but difference-from-self (Derrida, 1973: 11). The repeatability of the sign in general (the written mark is the privileged example) allows an individual to speak and to write. It may then seem that there would be no subject without this ability a priori. However, insofar as there is a subject, its origin remains permanently ‘alienated’ from itself. Husserl, activating a desire or at least a preference that dominates western philosophy throughout its history, would like to be able to say that the expression (my present intention and responsibility in producing it) has priority in the order of events and that the repeatable marks of this expression, which he labels indication, are derivative and in all senses secondary, despite inhabiting every expression as its externalization or transport (Derrida, 1973: 21). The statement ‘I am dead’ demonstrates (against this preference) that it is not possible ever to distinguish absolutely between an expression and an indication (Derrida, 1973: 54–5). Furthermore, if one is to retain an analytical truth from Husserl’s commentary, then the predicates of indication, repeatability and internal divisibility, must indeed take preference. Not only must a mark be repeatable but its repeatability immediately also divides it from itself. The incalculable number of instances of the statement ‘I am dead’ merely manifests, in both act and permanent potential, the logical and practical upshot of the difference from itself of the mark in its a priori repeatability. Furthermore, the repeatability of the statement and the responsibility I take for it are mutually enjoined and mutually destructive.

Secondly, the meaning of the statement ‘I am dead’, which is not now merely an example of a statement, describes the situation. Only because I can say ‘I am dead’ can I then say ‘I am’ (Derrida, 1973: 54). My death names the very principle on which the truth of the statement ‘I am dead’ depends, that it be repeatable in principle to infinity and thus immediately beyond my mortal span and outside my control and responsibility. The play of repeatability and internal division is not, then, an accident that befalls a previously well-formed sentence but one that inhabits the sentence as its a priori possibility. My death (the final misfortune, the final danger) inhabits my possibilities, which would not be possibilities without it. And again death is not merely accidental. But the principle that connects my death to my ability to speak also infects my language with the accidental. And for this reason we cannot restrict the effects in question (those of chance and death) to writing, language and culture, for these effects operate wherever it is said that chance and death play a role. And so the doctrine of the mark operates not only in philosophy and literature but also in sciences of what we still call nature and in spheres of religious experience too.

If the principle has any force, however, a further question must be posed. How can one account for the preference in the history of philosophy for the priority of the act of the responsible individual, in the face of what looks like repressed yet overwhelming evidence against this priority? The role of preference itself thus comes into view as a motive for the interminable ways of calculating risk, economizing on randomness, and affirming, against accidents, time and death, a priority for the present and living intention of my act. This side of the doctrine of the mark – the side of preference, liking for, desire, love, friendship and relation – plays a most important role, to the extent that the structure as well as the institutional ambivalence of the writings function to create the conditions necessary, in light of the doctrine of the mark, for protecting this ancient preference. The fact that this form of protection appears historically to be a veritable attack on the principles that traditionally have supported it (and that this is not merely the form of a misunderstanding or misreading, though it is certainly that too) can be considered as a function of the principle itself, which in some later works returns in the guise of auto-immunity.

Derrida: Credit, Penalty and Death

Motifs gathered around questions of religion, law and violence, which come to the fore in Derrida’s writings towards the last decades of his life, had always informed his work to an extent. It is possible to trace their emergence to the earliest work on Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology (Derrida, 1973, 1978) through to the majestic readings of Plato (Derrida, 1972/1982) and the exhaustive treatment of Hegel and Genet (Derrida, 1974/1986). But in the 1990s motifs touched by what Derrida comes to identify as an auto-immunity, implying a paradoxical form of self-indemnification, begin to appear more regularly and consistently in contemporary contexts concerned with, and connecting, philosophy, religion, justice and law. Auto-immunity implies immunizing the self against conditions that both threaten and yet enable it, while at the same time immunizing itself against that very immunization. The motif of auto-immunity turns up at this stage in Derrida’s career, in Specters of Marx (Derrida, 1994) and in ‘Faith and Knowledge: Two Sources of “Religion” at the Limits of Reason Alone’ (Derrida, 2002), but also in ‘Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides’ (Derrida, 2003) and Rogues (Derrida, 2005). It also has the virtue of helping retrospectively to clarify structures of thought that demonstrably operate from the earliest texts.

In a notable instance from ‘Faith and Knowledge’ Derrida identifies what he calls ‘the mechanics of a double postulation’, implying incompatibly ‘the absolute respect of life’ and ‘a universal vocation’ for sacrifice:

This mechanical principle is apparently very simple: life has an absolute value only if it is worth more thanlife. And hence only in so far as it mourns, becoming itself in the labour of infinite mourning, in the indemnification of a spectrality without limit. It is sacred, holy, infinitely respectable only in the name of what is worth more than it and what is not restricted to the naturalness of the bio-zoological (sacrificeable) – although true sacrifice ought to sacrifice not only ‘natural’ life, called ‘animal’ or ‘biological’, but that which is worth more than so called natural life. (Derrida, 2002: 87)

This passage contains many of the motifs that from at least Specters of Marx begin to inform Derrida’s writing more emphatically. The mechanics of the double postulate (life is sacred, sacrifice is necessary) implies incompatible doubles that nonetheless cannot be separated: the auto-immunological relation; the beast and the sov-ereign; credit and death; death penalties; law and justice; violence and law; friendship, hostility and hospitality.

Overview of this Volume

Derrida Now collects work that develops the critical motifs touched on here and, by doing so, continues in different ways the sustained formal adventure that the name Deconstruction evokes. The volume arrives at a time when Derrida’s seminars are more substantially beginning to appear in print. The seminars open up questions that are contemporarily posed in the better-known published writings to significantly more patient and extended discussion, as appropriate for the pedagogic contexts that gave rise to them. So far one volume of The Death Penalty (Derrida, 2014b) and both volumes of The Beast and the Sovereign (Derrida, 2009, 2011) have been published in English translation. They currently represent substantial and often surprising opportunities for further examination of these durable yet difficult motifs.

During the planning stages of Derrida Now we invited well-known scholars informed by idioms associated with Derrida’s work (by way of translation, exposition, commentary, criticism and in various ways application) to contribute to the volume. Some declined for various reasons mostly to do with timing, and of those who agreed some dropped out owing again to various time constraints. We have therefore arrived at some current perspectives on Jacques Derrida (as the subtitle of the volume promises) although these are by no means representative of a complete picture. As chance would have it, we have an inevitably slightly distorted perspective marked superficially by a gender imbalance. Each of the contributors can be regarded as contemporary while at the same time able to draw on the entirety of Derrida’s work through demonstrable scholarship and expertise. The later motifs are addressed (the question of animals, sovereignty, the death penalty) but other works from early in Derrida’s career onwards are also addressed.

John Phillips puts unavoidable constraints to work in an attempt towards an overview of Derrida’s career that emphasizes connections as well as divergences between the earlier and the later motifs and structures of argument. The role of the signature in philosophy serves as a guiding thread.

Geoffrey Bennington offers a characteristically painstaking and thorough reading of the motif of dignity in Derrida and its relation to deconstruction, which draws from the earliest to some of the latest published work.

Roy Sellars approaches the question of interpretation (and the question of approach, the road, the method) via the problem as it is posed in psychoanalysis, and the deconstruction of psychoanalysis, folded out into the fault lines of a general hermeneutics, to which (he demonstrates) neither deconstruction nor psychoanalysis can be reduced.

Graham Allen’s article on transparency (and the motifs of vision and blindness) in relation to the university draws on Derrida’s reading of Immanuel Kant’s The Conflict of Faculties to pose some contemporary questions and propositions about the university now, demonstrating the necessity of a deconstruction, which, as Derrida argues elsewhere, ‘attacks not only the internal edifice, both semantic and formal, of philosophemes, but also what one would be wrong to assign to it as its external housing, its extrinsic conditions of practice: the historical forms of its pedagogy, the social, economic or political structures of this pedagogical institution’ (Derrida, 1987a: 19).

Martin McQuillan follows the motif of animals (in various sites of Derrida’s bestiary) to further radicalize Derrida’s discourse – especially where it is aimed at sovereignty and the bestiality of man – and therefore to identify the fault in discourses of vegetarianism and environmentalism as belonging to a wider range of problems in contemporary political discourse. Evoking Specters of Marx, McQuillan argues the need for ‘a new political economy, a new politics of economy and a new economy of politics’ (this volume). Deconstruction beyond Derrida he suggests would be ‘up to the task’.

Irving Goh’s reading of Foi et savoir mobilizes his own motif of ‘the reject’ with an eye to rethinking discourses of ‘post-secularism’. Goh, like McQuillan, tries to extend the implications of Derrida’s text into contemporary thought, with the aim of transforming the most urgent problems by way of thinking beyond the contemporary sphere into a future that can barely be imagined. The role of animals in helping to construct a phantasmatic human subject is offset by the notion of the auto-reject that Goh develops here.

Peggy Kamuf offers a subtle re-reading of ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’. Kamuf’s reading emphasizes the elements of testimony in the theatricality of the trial represented by the ‘trial of writing’ in Plato’s text. Necessity (as in ‘the necessity of a deconstruction’) comes to mean something other than ‘the necessity of a theoretical or epistemological proof’ but instead grounds as their condition the giving and receiving of legal testimony. Kamuf therefore emphasizes the paradoxical role of fiction in the procedures of arriving at truth. Kamuf’s reading emphasizes the two tropes of composition and displacement so that a simultaneously legal, literary and philosophical interest presides over her argument.

Nicholas Royle’s literary speculations, reading Derrida as a portal – or a series of portals – through which to understand better what the future of the novel could be, show his own literary singularity at work in reading Derrida and stretching the meaning of reading beyond the normal or standard frameworks.

Finally we include an essay, one of the very last, by Hugh Silverman. ‘Derrida, Code Enforcement, and the Question of Justice’ presents a questioning reading of The Human Stain (The Philip Roth novel and the film adaptation) through the lens of Derrida’s texts on justice. Silverman died shortly after submitting the article, so we publish it here by way of a memorial to his teaching and to the graduate classroom, which this article evokes.


Bennington, Geoffrey and Jacques Derrida 1993. Jacques Derrida. Trans.

Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Borradori, Giovanna. 2003. Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Cixous, Hélène. 2005. Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint. Trans. Beverley Bie Brahic. New York: Columbia University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1967/1976. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1967/1978. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. London: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 1972/1981. Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1972/1982. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1973. Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs. Trans. David B. Allison. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1974/1986. Glas. Trans. John P. Leavey Jr. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1978. Edmund Husserl’s ‘Origin of Geometry’: An Introduction. Trans. John P. Leavey Jr. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1984. ‘My Chances/Mes Chances: A Rendezvous with Some Epicurean Stereophonies’. In Taking Chances: Derrida, Psychoanalysis, and Literature. Ed. Joseph H. Smith and William Kerrigan. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1987a. The Truth in Painting. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1987b. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1992. ‘ “This Strange Institution Called Literature”: An Interview with Jacques Derrida’. In Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. London: Routledge, pp. 33–75.

Derrida, Jacques. 1994. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. London: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 1995a. Points: Interviews, 1974–1994. Ed. Elizabeth Weber. Trans. Peggy Kamuf et al. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1995b. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 1998. Resistances of Psychoanalysis. Trans. Peggy Kamuf, Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2000. Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle invites Jacques Derrida to Respond. Trans. Rachel Bowlby. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2001. The Work of Mourning. Ed. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2002. ‘Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of “Religion” at the Limits of Reason Alone’. Trans. Samuel Weber. In Acts of Religion. Ed. Gil Anidjar. London: Routledge.

Derrida, Jacques. 2003. ‘Autoimmunity: Real and symbolic suicides. A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida’. In Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2005. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2007. Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Hoboken, NJ: Melville House.

Derrida, Jacques. 2009. The Beast and the Sovereign, Volume I. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2011. The Beast and the Sovereign, Volume II. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2014a. For Strasbourg: Conversations of Friendship and Philosophy. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. New York: Fordham University Press.

Derrida, Jacques. 2014b. The Death Penalty. Volume I. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Goh, Irving. 2014. The Reject: Community, Politics, and Religion after the Subject. New York: Fordham University Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1970. The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology: An Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy. Trans. David Carr. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Husserl, Edmund. 1991. The Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time. Trans. John Brough. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

1Transcendental Difference and the Auto-Relation: Critical OverviewJohn W.P. Phillips


‘Thought would always be to come . . .’ (Derrida, 1978: 153)

Here I attempt a critical reading of Jacques Derrida, one of the most influential, and some would say controversial, figures of the current philosophical age. The task of reading Derrida critically entails some peculiarly challenging considerations, not least because his influence on fields of critical reading in particular is second to none. Derrida taught a practice, according to which reading implies attention to a particular form of necessity. This practice insists that a reading take account of the strictly non-philosophical role in philosophy of the writer but without reduction to biographical (or psychological) narrative. Such a reading attends to the forms of what Derrida identifies by way of the signature and of certain ‘signature effects’. It would be out of the question here to avoid an attempt at such a reading of Derrida’s work.

The fragments of biographical narrative that often creep into considerations of Derrida’s thought have a place there.1 But Derrida’s work puts into question notions of person, context, narrative, and so on, thus radically revising them. Yet his painstaking investigation of a given philosophical work proceeds as if the questions he poses will yield a sufficient degree of generality to make it worth the effort. The yield – in that case – will be on the side of philosophy. The originality of the text in question relates then to what it helps uncover in the field of philosophical development in general. The so-called singularity of a philosophical text thus relates to philosophy as a whole, to the extent that it elucidates a fundamental philosophical concern.

How then does a text by Plato or Hegel or Husserl differ from the more general ‘text of philosophy’? A famous statement from Hegel puts things into perspective. In the ‘Preface’ to The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel complains about attempts to distinguish works of philosophy from one another:

The very attempt to determine the relationship of a philosophical work to other efforts concerning the same subject introduces an alien and irrelevant interest, which obscures precisely that which matters for the recognition of the truth. (Hegel, 1977: 116)

Hegel here states an uncontroversial truth that resists erosion throughout the most dominant paradigms of philosophical knowledge: the philosopher notwithstanding his noticeable peculiarities (not least those of their ‘style’) labours in the service of a greater truth or science. Derrida in a later interview confirms the traditional philosophical attitude: ‘The philosophical field, if it has an identity, if it has strict limits (and that are such as can be located on the basis of its traditions), has nothing to do with the unveiling of the identity of the thinker or the philosopher; this field is constituted, precisely, by cutting itself off from the autobiography or the signature of the philosopher’ (Derrida, 1995a: 144; 1995b: 135). Derrida’s observation here might lead us to suppose – if we react too quickly – that he occupies an antagonistic attitude towards philosophy; but things have a more interesting flavour than that suggests. The philosophical field ‘is constituted’ in the effort of its cutting itself off from its other (from the signature and identity of the philosopher). The identity of philosophy, and therefore of the philosopher, depends on its cutting itself off from the philosopher’s mortality. Such a ‘cutting off’, as Derrida puts it, implies the production not only of philosophy but also of its appropriate other. The signature emerges in the difference between philosophy and its other (or philosophy and the philosopher’s death).

So we are obliged to remain attentive to the implications of Derrida’s thought in its effect on how we read and in particular how we read Derrida. If that is the case, then any account of the content of Derrida’s thought, of his basic argumentation, should justify the contribution of these signature effects on that argumentation. Otherwise, we may fail to capture the potential impact of Derrida’s work.

In some preliminary remarks I can identify a few of the most startling consequences of three related formulations: those of theatricality, auto-immunity and hospitality. To produce an effective and rigorous philosophy requires that we also produce the scene or stage on which such a philosophy could proceed. It implies, therefore, clearing the stage of those conditions that make theatre as well as philosophy possible (though, as with philosophy, not all theatrical traditions require this clearing). It also introduces a consideration of the unconscious as an essentially undetermined sphere without which consciousness would not be what it is. So the role of theatre is intricately connected to Derrida’s reading of psychoanalytic texts.2

When I clear the stage I immunize myself against those conditions that allowed me to set the stage in the first place. Selfimmunization: the self immunizes itself against conditions that both threaten it and yet make it possible while at the same time immunizing itself against that very immunization.3 And when philosophy questions its (nearly illimitable) topics, it reveals conditions uncannily reflective of the conditions of philosophy itself. For example, hospitality in its idea conceals potentially diverse historical senses including those of hostility as well as those of care (Derrida emphasizes this double-edged background in the coinage hostipitality). And it requires in principle the relaxation of all the normal defences that might apply when someone (a person or state) invites a stranger into their space. In order to exercise the inalienable right to be hospitable, one must at the same time protect oneself from that same hospitality (Derrida, 2000: 77). A state protects its hospitable institutions by inventing complex citizenship and immigration laws to the extent that its hospitality inevitably (as we say) deconstructs itself in its idea. Now we understand deconstruction as a condition that simultaneously allows and prevents.

We can locate as a common root of structures of this kind the earliest formulations of terms like deconstruction, as well as différance and archi-writing (to name only three of the most familiar), which designate inevitably paradoxical structures of possibility.

1. The Meanings of Writing

The future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger. It is that which breaks absolutely with constituted normality and can only be proclaimed, presented, as a sort of monstrosity. For that future world and for that within it which will have put into question the values of sign, word, and writing, for that which guides our future anterior, there is as yet no exergue.4 (Derrida, 1967/1976: 5)

Nothing, neither among the elements nor within the system, is anywhere ever simply present or absent. There are only, everywhere, differences and traces of traces. (Derrida, 1972/1981: 26)

Derrida’s writings from the late 1950s to the 1970s (sometimes considered his ‘early works’) focus consistently on a complex problem: the role and value of writing in western metaphysics from the Ancient Greeks to the present and beyond. That this problem at length opens out into quite radical and novel treatments of the most tenacious issues of philosophy has to do with the nature of the problem itself. The common-sense notion of writing (which, like everything else, we inherit from our own traditions) implies that we name by writing any system of inscribable marks used for representing spoken words or thoughts. Such systems operate on the basis of the fact that their marks can be repeated. Furthermore, the notion of repetition at work here cannot be reduced to a finite number of instances. Such a mark must in principle be repeatable to infinity.

Beyond what can be written with clarity about Jacques Derrida’s treatment of the question of writing, there remains a still enigmatic sense of danger, which for several reasons compels our attention. The most gripping of these resides in the insistence by which he proposes that this enigmatic ‘sense’ of writing both constitutes writing in general, in its essential structure, and yet puts its value (as word, as sense, as content) in question. Certain words or phrases, like ‘future world’, ‘absolute danger’, ‘a sort of monstrosity’, ‘exorbitant’, are distinctive in how Derrida composes this enigmatic yet essential sense: something dangerous ‘within’ its ‘future world’ constitutes and puts into question the value of writing.

A minor grammatical observation is needed now to capture the force of the question. If, following Derrida, we alter the tense of the verb ‘puts’ from present to future perfect, the sentence now reads: ‘Something within the future world will have put into question the value of writing.’ The future perfect if used in this way puts into suspense (will have suspended) the basic sense of the present that seems so commonplace for describing experience – here I am right now in the present. Ordinarily the future perfect operates as a grammatical device for describing a future event that will occur by the time another later event occurs: e.g. by the time we read this sentence we will have grasped its main point. Two future events connected logically in this way are posited. But when applied to the present situation (a situation, say, of writing or speaking) the second event effectively projects the first into a situation that cannot be described as present unless qualified (eternally) as not yet. The yet to come of the future perfect inflicts the present with a delay it could not do without. It therefore functions beyond but in some curious way before events like grasping main points and finishing sentences occur.

Before looking further into this sense of danger that apparently resides in the future perfect of writing, we might reflect a bit more on what can be written with clarity about Derrida’s treatment of the question of writing. During an interview with Derrida from 1967 Henri Ronse formulates the explanation, which many have since repeated, about the conflicting meanings of writing:

In your essays at least two meanings of the word ‘writing’ are discernible: the accepted meaning, which opposes (phonetic) writing to the speech it allegedly represents (but you show that there is no purely phonetic writing), and a more radical meaning that determines writing in general, before any tie to what glossematics calls an ‘expressive substance’; this more radical meaning would be the common root of writing and speech. The treatment accorded to writing in the accepted sense serves as a revelatory index to the repression to which archi-writing is subject. An inevitable repression whose necessity, forms, and laws are to be investigated. (Derrida, 1972/1981: 7)

This way of putting it is helpful so long as we note that what Ronse calls ‘the accepted meaning’ accounts for a value that has been attributed to writing through the ages (and which Derrida analyses with great care during this stage in his career), according to which it operates as the more or less faithful or unfaithful tool of speakers who would like to communicate their ideas beyond the presence of the situation in which at any time they find themselves. The point is not so much that the value attributed to writing is in error. Rather, the degree to which it is in error reveals what Ronse here calls the repression of the actual conditions of writing (as written marks, inscriptions, and so on). The word archi-writing therefore accounts for actual conditions that have been repressed by at least twenty-five centuries of writing about writing. What is at stake that such a general repression was necessary?

A strong sense of the danger inherent in the ‘future world’ of writing remains to be understood. If the ‘accepted meaning’ of writing reveals in its errors a vast historical repression of the radical conditions of writing, then there’s a likely connection (i.e. between a sense of danger and an inevitable repression). But Ronse’s otherwise excellent summary needs a few more qualifications in the interests of clarity. First, we should note that Derrida finds the two meanings of writing operating together and in an antagonistic relationship to each other. Derrida identifies both the accepted meaning and the more radical meaning as being at work alongside each other in the same texts. They are related by way of a kind of contradiction. The radical meaning is not, therefore, something that Derrida simply invents or produces through some kind of empirical study of writing (which for reasons that will become more and more clear would be impossible anyway). The interesting phenomenon is the textual one, according to which throughout history authors exhibit contradictory and incoherent positions in regard to writing. On one hand, writing is thought to be secondary and derivative – a material expression of spoken thoughts (as the alphabet is supposed to be a graphematic representation of phonemes); but on the other hand, writing operates as if quite independent of speech and its cognates: an addressor, addressee, a guaranteed meaning and reference, and so on. No one, it seems, would disagree that the technical condition of writing lies in the possibility that a mark of some kind be repeatable.

Once we accept this possibility then it follows that a writing system requires merely a finite number of such marks that in a semi-finite range of possible combinations and permutations constitute something like a palpable (notable, remarkable, evidential) medium capable of representing thoughts and ideas and indeed spoken syllables of all kinds. The reason for the contradiction might therefore emerge more clearly once it is acknowledged that neither idea nor spoken sound can function in any other way than through the principle on which writing also functions: the possibility of the repetition of the mark. The sphere that is subject to this repression is not merely that of writing. The ‘writing’ inherent in speech and in thought is disavowed (denied, delinked, ostracized). And this repression takes the form of a radical distinction between speech and writing, which exiles writing from its sphere, maintaining it outside speech, and thus protecting speech from the very condition without which it would not after all have been possible. One of the reasons why you can use a writing system to represent not merely a system of phonemes but even also an entire system of ideas is because such systems operate on the same principle as that of writing: the capacity represented by the repeatable mark.

Derrida finds many clear (if complex) examples of this kind of treatment at work, not only in the traditions that form the vast heritage of western thought but also in some of the most radical and iconoclastic works of his precursors and contemporaries. Shortly I will dip into some of the most forceful of Derrida’s readings.

First let’s get back to the sense of danger. It’s enough for the moment to acknowledge that if we cannot after all exclude from the experiential sphere the conditions on which writing operates then a problem arises with regard to that sphere itself. How can we possibly maintain such a sphere (from which we build a sense of identity, of ‘I’ as distinct from ‘Thou’, of subject as opposed to object, of the present, here and now) on the basis of the functioning of a system that by a necessary technicality puts the present into infinite abeyance? If writing is a system of repeatable marks not fulfilled except in the future anterior of its infinite repeatability, then there can be no present tense for writing. This perhaps is the secret of its illimitable power. The mark has already in principle leapt ahead of us readers and writers, disincarnating us on the way, dragging our signatures along with it, quite possibly signifying again and again, each time elsewhere, producing new contexts ad infinitum. It’s not so much that writing signifies my death (which in all kinds of ways it does – and Derrida does underline this on several occasions) but more that it implies in principle the inevitable instability of my present experience; it threatens the being present of my present experience. Writing’s future does not lie in wait for us, some future present that will one day come, but it insists whenever or wherever we might be tempted to say ‘now’ or ‘here’. And it does so a priori, which is to say, these conditions are presupposed by the fleeting and illusory experience we call the present.

It seems therefore that paradoxical structures govern experience. We must constantly fail to achieve the things for which we strive – the possibility of such failure is the very condition for any measure of success. For now, we can identify the aims of such striving in broad and perhaps rather abstract conceptual terms: justice, hospitality, union with another (communication, commerce, communion), or perfection in a variety of things (works, acts, games). We are now ready to begin a more involved reading.

2. Teleology, History, Difference

Beginning and ending: teleology in trouble

It is dawn, now, we are at dawn. In the first light of dawn. In the whiteness of dawn (alba). Before beginning, let us begin. We would begin. We would begin by pretending to begin before the beginning. (Derrida, 2014b: 1)

Where do we begin and how do we end?

We could with justice begin with Hegel.5 Derrida undertakes his most substantial reading of Hegel in his most formally adventurous book, Glas (1974/1986). Derrida poses the question of beginning in the opening pages. Following the difficult thread of the family, in texts by Hegel concerned with civil society and the constitution of the state, the question arises about how to enter into an analysis of Hegel’s Oeuvre. On one hand, later texts (the Encyclopaedia and Elements of the Philosophy of Right) might seem to contain the most developed treatment of the system within which the family is inscribed. But, on the other hand, the first texts (e.g. The Life of Jesus) represent the earliest stages perhaps of the steady narrative of Hegel’s thought towards the mature position. Both these options assume the same questionable premise: that we may regard Hegel’s thought as a continuous (and implicitly inevitable) development from unripe beginnings to ultimate completion. The premise, briefly, implies teleology.

Hegel’s teaching also famously implies the teleology, on the basis of which in this instance the ethical life of society emerges from early steps in the family. The syllogism follows three stages: beginning with the family, passing through civil (bourgeois) society, and culminating in the ethical state. The question of the role of the family raises the stakes for the teleological development of the political state. A further, still properly Hegelian, point emerges in what Derrida refers to as ‘an irreducible structure of reading’ (Derrida, 1974/1986: 6), according to which the reader cannot avoid anticipating what is to come. The text follows its future into each reading: what remains of Hegel depends upon it.

The reading – and the possibility of reading as the possibility of the text – brings the text each time to a not altogether anticipatable termination that serves contrarily to delay its fulfilment. This detour does not simply do away with teleology. It both cancels it out and yet confirms it (we cannot but anticipate). Derrida puts it like this: ‘we can neither avoid nor accept as rule or principle teleological anticipation, neither accept nor avoid as rule or principle the empirico-chronological delay of the narrative’ (Derrida, 1974/1986: 6). If we accept the opposition, then we admit that conceptual progress cannot do without the time it takes for empirical events to confirm it in its movement. The scene of reading recapitulates the situation described by the text (the teleological fulfilment of history). The structure of reading, therefore, involves both teleological anticipation and delay, which we can neither accept nor avoid. We either anticipate or delay, and we both anticipate and delay. Teleology, which should move towards an end, seems to imply turning away: the turn and that from which one turns are constituted at once, in the same movement.

Aufhebung and la relève: translating teleology