David Farrel Krell: Phantoms of the Other: Four Generations of Derrida’s Geschlecht

Phantoms of the Other: Four Generations of Derrida's Geschlecht Book Cover Phantoms of the Other: Four Generations of Derrida's Geschlecht
SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
David Farrell Krell
SUNY Press
Paperback $34.95

Reviewed by: Joeri Schrijvers (KU Leuven)

David Farrell Krell’s Phantoms of the Other. Four Generations of Derrida’s Geschlecht is an in-depth study of Derrida’s Auseinandersetzung with Heidegger. Krell takes Derrida’s Geschlecht-series as his starting-point to focus on Heidegger and Derrida’s “magnetization” (25, also 113) with the poetry of Georg Trakl. Heidegger’s preference for poetry and language is well-known but his fascination with Trakl really stands out as a bit odd nonetheless: what on earth has Heidegger seen in the poetry of this young, rather rough and dark, poet?

Krell examines Derrida’s series thoroughly and focuses on its missing never published third piece. Geschlecht I and II are published as the opening of Derrida’s Psyche. Inventions de l’autre II (Galilée 2003), the fourth features in Politiques de l’amitié (Galilée 1994), all of which were written in the eighties of the previous century. Around that time Derrida, prolific writer as he was, also was composing his De l’esprit. Heidegger et la question (Galilée 1987), which Krell treats in his chapter three. Of Geschlecht III, there exists only a typescript of thirty pages or so that Derrida handed out to the happy few present at a colloquium in Chicago in 1985. Krell contends that this typescript was drafted from a seminar on ‘Nationalité et nationalisme philosophiques: le fantôme de l’autre’ that Derrida held in Paris from 1984 through to 1985 (2-3). For this seminar, Derrida drafted 100 or so pages on Heidegger’s 1953 essay Die Sprache im Gedicht, now in Unterwegs zur Sprache (Neske 1975: 35-82). Derrida’s text, however, was never published and it is not sure whether it will be—later in his beautiful book Krell complains that next to no one can read Derrida’s handwriting (218).

In his Introduction, Krell examines Derrida’s early confrontations with Heidegger, the recently published “Heidegger: la question de l’être et de l’histoire” (Galilée 2013) is included, for example, in order to look for “anticipations of the Geschlecht-series” (16n.2). Here Krell examines what will become one of his book’s main themes namely, what he calls “Derrida’s hope” (ibid.)—readers of Derrida will note the pun: had not Derrida once written rather critically about “Heideggerian hope” (in Marges de la philosophie 1972: 29). These anticipations and this hope will prove to be rather similar in Heidegger and Derrida, and my point in what follows will be that Krell takes the similarity perhaps a bit too lightly. To be sure, Derrida has never hoped for a primary word, nor for a gathering that gathers all and most certainly not for a ‘destiny’ that this or that people would have chosen. Yet Derrida’s hope, “for a sexuality that is not trapped in and by dualities and duels” (ibid.), for a humankind, a Geschlecht that is, or becomes, one is surely one of Derrida’s greatest dreams that resists (even his) deconstruction.

It is here, with questioning Heidegger’s Dasein supposed neutrality, transcending sexual difference that Geschlecht I, which Krell discusses in his first chapter. All of us, of course, have been struck by Heidegger’s repeated claims of neutrality, by his dismissing embodiment, especially in Sein und Zeit, lest ‘Dasein’ is not a thing, not a body primarily, but rather describes the phenomenological gaze, shared equally by women and men, arising from out of being-in-the-world—I have ventured something of this sort in my own work (Schrijvers 2016: 25 and 194).

Of course, Derrida is right in saying that Heidegger neutralizes and in a sense neuters Dasein. “To pass from the masculine and the feminine to the neuter is clearly, for Heidegger, to pass toward the transcendental, toward a meditation on the conditions of possibility of the being of Dasein” (27): if the being of Dasein would be neither male nor female, then what is it? This neutral, transcendental vantage point has a striking resemblance to what Heidegger will later call the ‘split’, or ‘blows’ the one Geschlecht faces (Heidegger 1975: 49-50). There is obviously a bit of a fog when it comes to these ‘blows,’ and Derrida will not stop questioning and exploiting these ‘blows’ or ‘Schlage’ nor will he stop being puzzled by them. For the moment, let us track what Heidegger takes from Trakl: there would be (there would have been or there will be: this is what separates Derrida from Heidegger) one Geschlecht, one humanity (but Heidegger will exclude all Latinate words and things. Hence, Krell and Derrida note, there ‘will never have been’ oneness in the first place), that then receives a blow, and one becomes two: this is the male-female Schlag, a sort of twofold that is not yet conflictual. The conflict and the duel, Heidegger states, comes later (like the third party in Levinas patiently waits until the ‘ethical relation’ between the other and me has been dealt with) and then the Zwiefalt becomes Zwietracht: there will be men and women, friends and foes, families and tribes against other tribes. This, Heidegger will call, with Trakl, the “decomposition [Verwesenden] of the human Geschlecht” (Heidegger 1975: 50). Not so much ‘beyond essence’ but, as it were, ‘out of essence’.

All of this surely sounds a bit mythological and for some, still versed in that tradition, Christian even: for, doesn’t it echo a tradition that narrates a ‘paradisiac’ state without shame or reticence that rather quickly had fallen (but when?) into dispute, into jealously, into ‘male’ and ‘female’ to such a point that it wasn’t even sure who was to be ‘his brother’s keeper’? For this, we would have to wait for that other great unifier, Versammlung, of which Paul (who gathers by dividing!) said that he inaugurates a state in which there will be ‘neither male nor female, neither master nor slave’ (but when?).

Heidegger makes no mention of these echoes of Christianity; Derrida, an Algerian Jew no less, will point them out to us. In his reading of Hölderlin, no less than in his reading of Trakl, the former theologian Heidegger will pretend not to know what this ‘bread and wine’ theme is all about. Derrida worries about this gesture: is this “not the classic metaphysical problem, namely, the attempt to ground negativity and dispersion on what ought to have been purely positive and unified” (35) and is not this metaphysics, with Heidegger, primarily Christian (and also without Heidegger of course: why else would he be in denial and/or repeating it, unbeknownst to himself)? These questions, Krell argues, would have prevailed in the Geschlecht III (43-45).

The second chapter, on Geschlecht II, is again a patient summary and meditation on Derrida’s piece on Heidegger’s imagery of ‘the hand’. Derrida’s hope “for a love where no quarrel can arise” (17) is here framed against Heidegger’s thinking of the hand, of handiwork and all things zuhanden. Why, Krell asks, is there again no mention of “loving hands” (50) in Heidegger, of handshakes perhaps, but of course also (and again) of caress, of sexual giving and taking? Derrida mentions Heidegger’s obsession with the hand in the singular, with apes who ‘have no hand’, but here again: is one always better than two? And would not “the folding of two hands into one, that is, into the gestures of pointing, signifying, praying and gathering” (58) deserve at least equal attention than, for instance, the ‘holding hands’ of lovers: why would these hands not form a unity and a gathering just the same? Yet, even though Krell notes how this “become[s] a crucial question for Derrida” (50) as well as for himself this early in the book, it already appears that these themes of love, of the sister, and of hope in general are suggested and intimated by Krell rather than straightforwardly addressed. This reader, at least, was a bit disappointed on that score, although Krell’s writing, humble, modest and suggestive as it is, is surely a strongpoint of the book. Countless are the ‘if I may’s, the ‘if I am allowed’s that preface a remark or a critique by Krell, who sometimes wants to side with Heidegger rather than simply follow Derrida (e.g. 87, 92, 116, 118 and so on).

I am not entirely convinced by Krell’s third chapter on Derrida’s De l’esprit. Krell contends that its importance is obvious from the fact that it was composed, more or less, at the same time Geschlecht III was drafted. Yet its themes and concerns seem to lie elsewhere. I remember the imagined dialogue in De l’esprit between Heidegger and the theologians fondly as one more example of how Heidegger’s thinking was at times being deconstructed by the Christianity he wanted to avoid. Krell, too, notes some important convergences between Heidegger and Derrida on this matter. Heidegger’s thinking about language shares the same paradox as Derrida’s question about the question: Heidegger was very much aware that to ask about the being of language, that “relation of all relations” (Heidegger 1975: 215), is only possible by already using language, just as Derrida’s questioning of the primacy of questioning, rather than of hearing or being addressed, is a similar way of a snake eating its tail (75). In the end, Krell too, concedes that De l’esprit is less radical than the Geschlecht series (85).

Nonetheless, we should recall that the third Geschlecht stems from a seminar on ‘philosophical nationalism’. Derrida’s remarks on Husserl’s Eurocentrism and, shall we say, his rather xenophobic remarks about gypsies should make us pause and think, beyond philosophical ‘scientificity’ (Derrida 1987: 94-95): it might be used to not too quickly condemn and judge Heidegger, for instance (not before reading him, that is) and to realize that, whatever neutral, transcendental vantage point we might desire to reach, this is not possible without somehow our locale and our context creeping in into our very desire for transcendentality—after all, one does not choose one’s metaphysics nor does one control how such a metaphysics could be overcome.

Chapter four turns to Derrida’s Geschlecht IV, where Derrida’s critique of Heidegger’s preference for ‘gathering’ and ‘unifying’ gains its full force. The problem with this gathering is that it gathers everything, “love or hate, amity or discord, peace or war—it does not really matter, it all gets gathered. One is all. For a thinker of différance, this is a nightmare” (125). Levinas, too, will criticize Heidegger for this: the ontological difference would have gathered both the same and the other, leaving no room for this Other to leave the ‘train of being’. Very true, this, but the opposite tendency might be just as well oppressive, for if nothing ever gets gathered, nothing ever gets united, we might lose the ability for reconciliation, for a certain dialectic perhaps, just the same. Hence, if I may, my critique of Derrida: whereas all naming might be a gathering of differences, not all gathering is just such an inappropriate naming (Schrijvers 2016: 352n.40). Sometimes, contra Derrida, the philosopher should simply try to say and name what ‘is’; and this ‘is’, of course, is ‘of the essence’. Perhaps not all differences can and should be gathered under the general heading of différance.

Krell contends that Derrida’s Politiques de l’amitié gestures toward the missing Geschlecht and its question about Heidegger’s desire to unite “what can distinguish between those two strokes that have struck our Geschlecht, the first, which coins a more gentle twofold, and the second, which condemns [it] to discord [?]” (129). How and when does the neutral “duality” become a malignant “discord” and duel (96), or: from whence and why this being chased out of paradise (see 162)?

Chapter five focuses on the thirty pages Derrida handed out to the participants in the colloquium in Chicago, entitled Geschlecht III. Here Derrida argues that in Heidegger’s reading of Trakl something similar occurs: on the one hand, there is the simple, traditional commentary of poetry (Erläuterung). On the other hand, Heidegger wants nothing to do with these commentaries, focusing on ontic affairs (such as biography for instance) and attempts what he calls an Erörterung, a ‘placement’ of the one poem that Trakl wanted to poetize and bring to speech. Just as every thinker truly has one thought, so Heidegger thinks that every real poet has but one poem. For Heidegger, obviously, there would be a rigorous difference between the two: the one ontic (and many), the other ontological, one might say: neutral (and one). For Derrida, however, such a neat distinction simply cannot be—if there is this one poem of Trakl (s’il y en a indeed) then some insight surely is to be gathered from his biography, from his coke addiction for instance (of which Heidegger says nothing), of his suicide (probably from an overdose, but Heidegger, again, remains silent), from his relation to his sister Gretl (again, of which Heidegger says next to nothing). One can see that the two realms are endlessly interspersed and there would be no way to distinguish them once and for all: their relation is in deferral and can in no way be denied. Krell comments: “For Derrida dissemination leaves only traces of sense, recognizing as it does the archaic non-origin of all meaning, for Heidegger dissemination is that paradox of an [essence] that peters out in a scattering of forces, a kind of ontic-existentiel entropy” (137).

The second blow to ‘humanity’ “irrupt[s] from the discord of the sexes” (163) and strikes everywhere, invading even, for Heidegger, das Geschwisterliche (Heidegger 1975: 60): it is no less than a plague—Heidegger mentions the Greek word, he could (and perhaps should) have mentioned the Hebrew. Heidegger, of course, pays no attention to the rumours of incest that surrounds the relation between the two Trakl’s, Gretl and Georg. Heidegger’s dream, for Krell, is the dream for a “new Geschlecht” (159), restored from out of the return of a (new) dawn, of a childlike state of being (before sex, neutral in any case to the question of sexual difference) (163). Krell asks, rightly, “does the poet ever dream Heidegger’s dream?” (165) and then, without further ado, wrongly I think, relegates the dream of Heidegger to the “utterly phantasmatic” (169). The chapter concludes with Derrida’s rather deft deconstruction of the difference between the ontological and the sexual difference: “it [is] impossible […] to keep these blows apart [and] equally impossible to deny that sexual difference and ontological difference are structurally identical. [If] the difference between being and beings, which is initially granted in Western history, is soon cursed by oblivion of being, so too is sexual difference initially granted, only to be cursed at some point by discord and dissension” (167). This, again, should make us pause and think about whether that which Heidegger wants to avoid—sex, Christianity, metaphysics—is not always that neatly avoided. The ontic and empirical—our history, our biography—penetrates the ontological.

Chapter six treats the hundred or so pages of Derrida’s seminar on nationalism that served as the inspiration for the thirty pages of Geschlecht III. These pages are now deposited in the archive in Caen where ‘Derrida’ is gathered. For the time being, Krell wants us to pause by “the coldness of Heidegger’s reasoning” (181), when stating that nothing is lost when this decomposing Geschlecht will have made its way onto a new dawn and a new gathering. There, supposedly, is a clear-cut between our past and our future. And even if Trakl mentions the “unborn grandchildren” in his last poem, written right after witnessing first-hand the horrors of the world war, then Heidegger will continue stating, in his ‘placement’ of Trakl, that these “are by no means the unengendered sons of the sons who have fallen” (Heidegger 1975, 65, Krell, 181). Something as ontic as the war surely will not have changed the one poem that Trakl needed to write. Heidegger’s attention goes to the ‘one Geschlecht’ that will rise from this new dawn, and here too this “resurrection” seems to have nothing to do with Christianity, nor, as Krell notes, with the lovers who Trakl nonetheless seems to intend (183). Derrida offers a benevolent but penetrating reading of the relations between women and men in this paradisiac state Heidegger is aiming for and states that, prior to the second evil blow, there would have been a sexual difference not yet disturbed by duel and discord. The typescript breaks off with the following enigmatic lines: “this relation between brother and sister is thus not asexual, but is a sexual relation within a difference that is without dissension” (184). Derrida and Heidegger’s hope, in a sense, coalesce. Here, in this fraternal moment, a moment of love, a relation to the other is envisioned in which our Geschlecht is set aright again, as in a “third stroke” (185), where the Geschlecht is one and where all are “brother to the brother” and “brother to the sister” in and through a sexual difference that is not a matter of discord anymore.

Such a dream means trouble nonetheless. On the one hand, Heidegger seeks to abolish the univocity brought about by technology and the current Gestell; on the other hand, the univocity of the Geschlecht remains something to be hoped for… Derrida does not sleep (or dream) lightly however and, in the typescript, likens such a paradisiac state to death. “Death lies in wait in on both sides,” he states, “with the phantasm of the integrity of the proper place and the innocence of a sexual difference without war, and also on the opposite side, that of impropriety or radical expropriation” (189). It is as if Derrida is voicing common sense (imagine!): it can’t be all good, but neither is it all bad. There is neither a paradise without the duel and the discord and yet the dual is not war and conflict all the way down. The place of life is in the movement between the two, between the dual and the dual. As long as there is movement, there is no death. In Heidegger, though, Derrida rightly perceives “the grand logic of philosophy […] still at work” (189) or, in Krell’s words, “a confidence in the purity and mutual exclusion of opposites” (190).

Heidegger dreams of a more originary dawn and future for us mortals, separating as it were the days and the nights, the heavens and the earth in a clear-cut manner (and so repeating a gesture of the Judeo-Christian tradition whilst silencing this tradition). Derrida, however, has a few qualms about such a “more originary repetition” (190). This is where the dreams of Derrida and Heidegger separate: while Heidegger explains away all references to Christianity in Trakl’s poems, Derrida offers a reading of them that will shock not a few theologians. Heidegger asked why Trakl’s last poems of horror do not call upon God if this poet is so decidedly Christian, calling for the sister instead (Heidegger 1975: 76)? Derrida answers, to his students, that “if they would grant him a bit of time he could show that the figure of the sister and that of Christ could in fact be substituted” (191).

Let us cite the passage in full:

“Son of God, Christ is the brother of all men and all women; he is simultaneously the image or the intercessor of the father. Yet he is a brother whose virility is never simply manifest or unilateral, a brother who presents himself within an aura of universal homosexuality, or in a sexual difference that has been appeased, pacified […] thus a brother who can be nothing other than a sister” (192-3).

The passage goes on: is this “not the essence of a relation to Christ, the essence or at least the destination, [the] entire Christian experience of the Holy Family, which is to say, of any and every family” (193)? Christ, being simultaneously both father and mother, or brother and sister, would then, for Trakl (and for a certain Derrida) be the one that gathers all and everything. Theology is rife, of course, with suggestions about Christ’s sexuality, gathering twelve fishermen around him, dwelling with prostitutes of the likes of a Mary Magdalene and with an institution that (more or less) condones homosexuality but abhors it when such sexuality would not be appeased or at all pacified.

Be that as it may, Derrida comments that in Heidegger “both Christian and Jews might well be happy to latch onto this moment […] as the affirmation of some sort of messianism” (199). But we know that messianism was not foreign to Derrida either. For Heidegger, though, this messianism as “the transition [of the West] to its matutinal essence” (ibid.) is a return to what once was. For Derrida, such a return is phantasmatic, that is, “a return to something that never was, an impossible return to a past that never was present” in the first place (229). No early Greeks, no pre-Socratics, no originary experience of being, no experience of a soft and tender childhood will tell us how to be our being.

But Derrida does dream, however, and Krell argues that “the entire Geschlecht series is magnetized by such a promise—the promise of a radically different sexuality for the future of humankind” (199). Derrida is not, for all that, laughing at Heidegger’s phantasm of a newly found childhood for humanity but “takes Heidegger’s effort […] quite seriously” by pondering that “it is perhaps when the sexual sense separates itself and determines itself as only sexual that discord appears” (204). Then, one might say, it is when eros separates itself from agape, that love is lost and one simply lusts (and vice versa perhaps: an agape without eros would not be love proper). Love, from then on (but when…?), is intermingled with instrumentality, with the techné of a Don Juan as it were. The question to Derrida here, of course, is, how can we name that difference? How can we state it phenomenologically: when and “how does the stroke strike” (207)?

Derrida takes Heidegger seriously, which in itself should be one of the lessons gained from Krell’s book. His “generous” reading will also try to see that Heidegger is not simply lamenting a lost and bygone era, but rather that Heidegger “is calling for, rather than to, a possibility” (217). In effect, what matters for Heidegger is more the transition to something new, a new gathering of being and beings, rather than a simple return to a phantasmatic past. It is such a transition, which dawns upon us a possibility precisely, that permeates Heidegger’s call out of technology and out of metaphysics. Krell, as we will see, is a bit too pessimistic about the possibility of this transition in Heidegger. Heidegger’s was not a revolutionary spirit for whom all that is past is bad and all that will come is good. Derrida, too, pondered this possibility, late in his life especially, and argues for the following: even though the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ stoke are always intertwined, even though there is no specific ‘beginning’ or ‘end’ to it, one might always hope for ‘moments’ of peaceful fraternity, of, well, democratic fervor for fraternity, equality and freedom in a “brotherland” (218). Following this, it is a bit odd that Krell does not turn to Derrida’s reservations about fraternity and community, notably in his Voyous (2003). Such a sexual difference, or such ontological differences over sexuality, has repercussions for the ontological difference too: not the one, grand history and sending of being, but rather “multiple sendings, sending of the other and of others”, of otherness, perhaps, in general and essentially (211).

Krell inserts Trakl into the debate in his final chapter, focusing primarily on his relation to his enigmatic sister, Gretl. Krell returns to Heidegger’s “coldness” when it comes to our falling Geschlecht and states that “Trakl does not dream of the demise of any Geschlecht” (231). It is in effect more than likely that it was the horrors of the battlefield that caused his own demise. There is no doubt that Heidegger could be harsh in his judgement of people, of persons and of era. There is however another Heidegger too, one for which the past is not simply a Christian, ontotheological mistake, but whom rather calls to a patient transformation of that past, for a meditation on the possibilities that lie dormant in these traditions, very much like Derrida’s deconstruction is the hornet on the back of those traditions rather than simply being ‘against tradition’. Heidegger, in Unterwegs zur Sprache, wrote that “die wahre Zeit ist Ankunft des Gewesenen” (Heidegger 1975: 75) and has, in other writings where he was on the way to language just as well, made clear just how to envision such an arrival of what was: “Gewesenheit darf aber nicht als Vergangenheit begriffen werden”—that which has been is never simply past. On the contrary, Heidegger argues, “it has always already grasped over every today and now: it essences as tradition” (GA38, 117; Heidegger 2009, 100). Concerning this matter of the Verwindung of a certain history, Heidegger and Derrida are closer than expected. This would mean that we cannot comprehend the call for a ‘brotherland’ without the call (back) to our past, our metaphysics and our discords (and all the phantasmatic risks involved). Here too, not the one without the other. Derrida, too, would have known that no one ultimately is immune for a certain nostalgia, and a certain hope.

That would be my small bit of critique of Krell’s remarkable book, the ease with which it is prepared to call Heidegger’s other thinking a phantasm (e.g. 238) and the concomitant silence about Derrida’s doubts, elsewhere, about fraternity. Far from a phantasmatic either/or on this score, Heidegger would never have “banish[ed] th[e] tradition” (241): it is certainly true that Heidegger wanted to ‘overcome’ and even abandon Christianity, but he also said that this metaphysics would be overturned very, very slowly (if at all), and since a lot of this metaphysics is Christian, there is thus no way, in Heidegger, to banish and bar the Christian tradition. What dawns upon us as lying ahead of us, is precisely an Abbau or deconstruction of Christianity.

Krell has written a magnificent book: at times it is a true adventure in thinking. We should call ourselves lucky that he has not been “dashing off to meetings” (Krell 2013, 6, also 75 and 149) too much lately. Another book of his is out, on the Black Notebooks this time, and my copy is on its way. Let us, to conclude ponder the motto of this fine book, on Derrida’s dream, Derrida’s dreaming, and the nature of dreaming: “does not the dream, all by itself, demonstrate, that of which it is dreaming” (200)? Or, to quote another thinker that received Heidegger’s cold gaze, pondering the nature of love and imagination: “in jener ‘Einbildung’ enthüllt sich nämlich ein anthropologischer Wezenszug” (Binswanger 1993, 298).


Binswanger, Ludwig. Grundformen und Erkenntnis des menschlichen Daseins (Heidelberg: Asanger, 1993).

Derrida, Jacques. Marges de la philosophie (Paris: Minuit, 1972).

Derrida, Jacques. De l’esprit. Heidegger et la question (Paris: Galilée, 1987).

Derrida, Jacques. Politiques de l’amitié (Paris: Galilée, 1994).

Derrida, Jacques. Psyche. Inventions de l’autre II (Paris: Galilée, 2003).

Derrida, Jacques. Voyous. Deux essais sur la raison (Paris: Galilée, 2003).

Krell, David Farrel. Derrida and our Animal Others. Derrida’s Final Seminar, The Beast and the Sovereign (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 2013).

Heidegger, Martin. Unterwegs zur Sprache (Pfüllingen: Neske, 1975).

Heidegger, Martin. Logik als die Frage nach dem Wesen der Sprache (Frankfurt a. M: Klostermann, 1998).

Heidegger, Martin. Logic as the Question Concerning the Essence of Language, trans. W.T. Gregory and Y. Unna (New York: SUNY Press, 2009).

Schrijvers, Joeri. Between Faith and Belief. Toward A Contemporary Phenomenology of Religious Life (New York: SUNY Press, 2016).

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