From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Fri Oct 15 2004 - 14:32:47 EDT
On Jacques Derrida October 9, 2004 Judith Butler "How do you finally respond to your life and your name?" Derrida raised this question in his final interview with Le Monde, published in August 18th of this year. If he could apprehend his life, he remarks, he would also be obliged to apprehend his death as singular and absolute, without resurrection and without redemption. At this revealing moment, it is interesting that Derrida the philosopher should find in Socrates his proper precursor, that he should turn to Socrates to understand that, at the age of 74, he still did not quite know how best to live. One cannot, he remarks, come to terms with one's life without trying to apprehend one's death, asking, in effect, how a human lives and dies. Much of Derrida's later work is dedicated to mourning, though he offers his acts of public mourning as a posthumous gift, for instance, in The Work of Mourning published in 2001. There he tries to come to terms with the death of other writers and thinkers through reckoning his debt to their words, indeed, their texts; his own writing constitutes an act of mourning, one that he is perhaps, avant la lettre, recommending to us a way to begin to mourn this thinker who not only taught us how to read, but gave the act of reading a new significance and a new promise. In that book, he openly mourns Roland Barthes who died in 1980, Paul de Man, who died in 1983, Michel Foucault, who died in 1984, and a host of others, including Edmund Jabes (1991), Louis Marin (1992), Sarah Kofman (1994), Emmanuel Levinas (1995) and Jean-Francois Lyotard (1998). The last of the essays, for Lyotard, included in this book is written six years before Derrida's own death. It is not, however, Derrida's own death that preoccupies him here, but rather his "debts." These are authors that he could not do without, ones with whom and through whom he thinks. He writes only because he reads, and he reads only because there are these authors to read time and again. He "owes" them something or, perhaps, everything, if only because he could not write without them; their writing exists as the precondition of his own; their writing constitutes the means through which his own writing voice is animated and secured, a voice that emerges, importantly, as an address. It strikes me as strange that in October of 1993 when I shared a stage with Derrida at New York University, I had a brief, private conversation with him that touched upon these issues. As we were seated at a table together with some other speakers, I could see in Derrida a certain urgency to acknowledge those many people who had translated him, those who had read him, those who had defended him in public debate, and those who has made good use of his thinking and his words. I leaned over after one of his several gestures of nearly inhuman generosity and asked him whether he felt that he had many debts to pay. I was hoping, vainly it seemed, to suggest to him that he need not feel so indebted, thinking as I did in a perhaps naively Nietzschean way that the debt was a form of enslavement, and that he did not see that what others offered him, they offered freely. He seemed not to be able to hear me in English. And so when I said "your debts," he said, "my death?" "No," I reiterated, "your debts!" and he said, "my death!?" At this point I could see that there was a nexus between the two, one that my efforts at clear pronunciation could not quite pierce, but it was not until I read his later work that I came to understand how important that nexus really was. He writes, "There come moments when, as mourning demands (deuil oblige), one feels obligated to declare one's debts. We feel it our duty to say what we owe to the friend." He cautions against "saying" the debt and imagining that one might then be done with the debt that way. He acknowledges instead the "incalculable debt" that one that he does not want to pay: "I am conscious of this and want it thus." He ends his essay on Lyotard with a direct address: "there it is, Jean Francois, this is what, I tell myself, I today would have wanted to try and tell you." There is in that attempt, that essai, a longing that cannot reach the one to whom it is addressed, but does not for that reason forfeit itself as longing. The act of mourning thus becomes a continued way of "speaking to" the other who is gone, even though the other is gone, in spite of the fact that the other is gone, precisely because that other is gone. We now must say "Jacques" to name the one we have now lost, and in that sense "Jacques Derrida" becomes the name of our loss. And yet we must continue to say his name, not only to mark his passing, but precisely as the one whom we continue to address, in what we write, because it is, for many of us, impossible to write without relying on him, without thinking with and through him. "Jacques Derrida," then, as the name for the future of what we write. * * * It is surely uncontroversial to say that Jacques Derrida was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, that his international reputation far exceeds any French intellectual of his generation. More than that, his work fundamentally changed the way in which we think about language, philosophy, aesthetics, painting, literature, communication, ethics and politics. His early work criticized the structuralist presumption that language could be described as a static set of rules, and he showed how those rules admitted of contingency and were dependent on a temporality that could undermine their efficacy. He wrote against philosophical positions that uncritically subscribed to "totality" or "systematicity" as values, without first considering the alternatives that were ruled out by that preemptive valorization. He insisted that the act of reading extends from literary texts to films, to works of art, to popular culture, to political scenarios, and to philosophy itself. The practice of "reading" insists that our ability to understand relies on our capacity to interpret signs. It also presupposes that signs come to signify in ways that no particular author or speaker can constrain in advance through intention. This does not mean that our language always confounds our intentions, but only that our intentions do not fully govern everything we end up meaning by what we say and write (see Limited Inc., 1977). Derridaas work moved from a criticism of philosophical presumptions in groundbreaking books such as On Grammatology (1967), Writing and Difference (1967), Dissemination (1972), The Post Card (1980), and Spurs (1978), to the question of how to theorize the problem of "difference." This term he wrote as "differance," not only to mark the way that signification works, with one term referring to another, always relying on a deferral of meaning between signifier and signified, but also to characterize an ethical relation, the relation of sexual difference, and the relation to the Other. If some readers thought that Derrida was a linguistic constructivist, they missed the fact that the name we have for something, for ourselves, for an other, is precisely what fails to capture the referent (as opposed to making or constructing that referent).He clearly drew critically on the work of Emmanuel Levinas in order to insist upon the "Other" as one to whom an incalculable responsibility is owed, one who could never fully be "captured" through social categories or designative names, one to whom a certain response is owed. This framework became the basis of his strenuous critique of apartheid in South Africa, his vigilant opposition to totalitarian regimes and forms of intellectual censorship, his theorization of the nation-state beyond the hold of territoriality, his opposition to European racism, and his critical relation to the discourse of "terror" as it worked to fortify governmental powers that undermine basic human rights, in his defense of animal rights, in his opposition to the death penalty, and even in his queries about "being" Jewish and what it means to offer hospitality to those of differing origins and language. One can see these various questions raised in The Ear of the Other (1982), The Other Europe, Positions (1972), For Nelson Mandela (1986), Given Time (1991) The Gift of Death (1992), The Other Heading: Reflections on Today's Europe (1992), Spectres of Marx (1993), Politics of Friendship (1994), The Monolingualism of the Other (1996), Philosophy in a Time of Terror (with Jurgen Habermas) (2002), and his conversations with Helene Cixous, Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint (2001). Derrida made clear in his small book on Walter Benjamin, The Force of Law (1994), that justice was a concept that was yet to come. This does not mean that we cannot expect instances of justice in this life, and it does not mean that justice will arrive for us only in another life. He was clear that there was no other life. It means only that, as an ideal, it is that toward which we strive, without end. Not to strive for justice because it cannot be fully realized would be as mistaken as believing that one has already arrived at justice and that the only task is to arm oneself adequately to fortify its regime. The first is a form of nihilism (which he opposed) and the second is dogmatism (which he opposed). Derrida kept us alive to the practice of criticism, understanding that social and political transformation was an incessant project, one that could not be relinquished, one that was coextensive with the becoming of life itself, and with a reading of the rules through which a polity constitutes itself through exclusion or effacement. How is justice done? What justice do we owe others? And what does it mean to act in the name of justice? These were questions that had to be asked regardless of the consequences, and this meant that they were often questions asked when established authorities wished that they were not. If his critics worried that, with Derrida, there are no foundations upon which one could rely, they doubtless were mistaken in that view. Derrida relies perhaps most assiduously on Socrates, on a mode of philosophical inquiry that took the question as the most honest and arduous form for thought. "How do you finally respond to your life and to your name?" This question is posed by him to himself, and yet he is, in this interview, a "tu" for himself, as if he is a proximate friend, but not quite a "moi." He has taken himself as the other, modeling a form of reflexivity, asking whether an account can be given of this life, and of this death. Is there justice to be done to a life? That he asks the question is exemplary, perhaps even foundational, since it keeps the final meaning of that life and that name open. It prescribes a ceaseless task of honoring what cannot be possessed through knowledge, that in a life that exceeds our grasp. Indeed, now that Derrida, the person, has died, his writing makes a demand upon us, bequeathing his name to us who will continue to address him. We must address him as he addressed himself, asking what it means to know and approach another, to apprehend a life and a death, to give an account of its meaning, to acknowledge its binding ties with others, and to do that justly. In this way, Derrida has always been offering us a way to interrogate the very meaning of our lives, singly and plurally, returning to the question as the beginning of philosophy, but surely also, in his own way, and with several unpayable debts, beginning philosophy anew.
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