The scope of James Mensch’s new book is truly impressive. On the one hand, Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining does not shy away from the rather unfashionable task of proposing a systemic account of human existence. In a manner reminiscent of some of the most exciting works in the history of philosophy, Selfhood and Appearing intervenes in an array of philosophical, political, and religious debates, which, in turn, allow it to propose a unified model of human reality: from subjectivity, through science and politics, to the divine. On the other hand, Mensch’s engagement with wide-ranging and diverse sources relies on insights afforded by one tradition of philosophy in particular – phenomenology. It is on the basis of his close reading of various phenomenologists (perhaps most importantly, Patočka and Merleau-Ponty), that Mensch is able to develop an interpretative key capable of unlocking hidden possibilities of diverse theoretical debates. In other words, the ‘macroscopic’ account of human existence proposed in Selfhood and Appearing presupposes a ‘microscopic’ argument grounded in phenomenological literature.
One of the undeniable achievements of Mensch’s book, therefore, is that it clearly demonstrates the continuous importance of phenomenology, not only for questions which remain unsolved (or, at least, remain solved insufficiently) in other traditions and disciplines, but also for a more consistent understanding of our multifaceted existence – on Mensch’s reading, phenomenology is a force to be reckoned with.
In consequence, Selfhood and Appearing can be read in three ways (simultaneously): as a comprehensive analysis of the various levels of human reality; as an interpretative intervention in contemporary phenomenological studies; and, finally, as a love letter to phenomenology.
Selfhood and Appearing is divided into four parts: Part One examines the role of intertwining in subjective experiences; Part Two deals with intertwining and intersubjectivity; Part Three continues the analysis of the previous sections by exploring intertwining in the context of political violence; and Part Four focuses on intertwining and religion.
Since it is the notion of intertwining which allows Mensch to successfully navigate through diverse theoretical landscapes, in this review I will focus primarily on the role intertwining plays in the main argument of the book. As I hope to show, although extracted from the works of other philosophers, intertwining is a specifically ‘Menschean’ notion, which in Selfhood and Appearing is endowed with a double function: firstly, intertwining characterises human experience as a whole, and as such, it is the unifying thread which weaves together the various levels of human reality, which from a traditional perspective are in opposition to one another. Secondly, intertwining enables Mensch to re-interpret and bring together otherwise dispersed philosophical arguments, debates, and traditions; the concept of intertwining is formed on the basis of a phenomenological analysis, and because of that it can be found (for the most part implicitly) in any philosophy attentive to this fundamental structure of human experience.
I will conclude this review by alluding to a tension between two effects of intertwining. Throughout Selfhood and Appearing, intertwining reveals human existence to be chiefly harmonious: the traditionally opposing terms—for instance, self and other, self and the world, the world and divinity—are shown to be intertwined and thus essentially compatible with one another. Likewise, the history of philosophy appears to be interwoven and unified due to a shared attentiveness to the concept of intertwining. In short, the main effect of intertwining is a reconciliatory vision of existence and philosophy, in which antagonisms between divergent elements are dissolved in a more fundamental interlacing. However, occasionally, Mensch allows us to glimpse a different effect of his concept: some phenomena and philosophies are excluded from the reconciliatory work of intertwining. In such cases, a phenomenon or a philosophy is so radically antagonistic that it becomes separated from the otherwise all-encompassing intertwining. As a result, Selfhood and Appearing—in addition to demonstrating the possibility of a harmonious existence and theory—invites us to think the irreducibility of antagonisms in both experience and philosophy, and with it, to conceptualise notions like separation and exclusion opposed to, yet effected by Mensch’s intertwining.
The definition of the concept of intertwining finds its first expression in the Introduction. In the section devoted to Merleau-Ponty, Mensch discusses our natural belief that my perception of external objects is an internal process which takes place “in me,” and that I also count myself as one of the external objects, out there in the world. Our natural belief, therefore, is that ‘I am in the world and the world is in me’ – the “natural” person:
‘lives in a paradox, undisturbed by it. He thinks both that he grasps external objects and their apprehension is within him. The basic tenet of such belief is that our relation to world is that of a double being-in. We are inside that which is in us.’
The paradigmatic example of intertwining, therefore, is our double position as perceivers of objects and—by virtue of our embodiment—as objects to be perceived. These two perspectives, according to Mensch, reveal something ‘more than the fact that our embodiment places us in the world, which we internalize through perception. At issue here is the appearing of the world.’ In other words, the fact that my perception of objects is “in me,” while I am “out there” with the objects, is not an inconsequential paradox, which philosophers may try to resolve in their free time. On the contrary, the intertwining between the “inside” and the “outside” found in our embodied perception, is a condition of possibility for any manifestation: I reveal myself and the world which I inhabit thanks to the “double being-in” of the world in me and of me in the world as embodied. Intertwining, therefore, has a transcendental function of making possible the appearing of subjects and objects.
Mensch extends his definition of intertwining in the next section devoted to Patočka. Intertwining, and the manifestation it makes possible, should not be understood as an essentially subjectivity category; nor can it be reduced simply to an objective structure:
‘Appearing as such, however, can be derived neither from consciousness nor the realities that appear to it. Considered in itself, it is a “world-structure”… Prior to subjects and objects, it informs both.’
Whereas Merleau-Ponty enables Mensch to posit intertwining as a transcendental condition of appearance, Patočka helps Mensch to argue that intertwining cannot be categorised as simply subjective or objective. Since intertwining makes possible disclosure as such, it is the structure which underlies the manifestation of both subjectivity and objectivity.
Importantly, Patočka contributes a further insight: intertwining is not a static function of appearance. Rather, ‘appearing… is to be understood in terms of motion.’
‘As Patočka expresses this, “movement… first makes this or that being apparent, causes it to manifest itself in its own original manner.” The moving entity does this through affecting what surrounds it… Without this ability through motion to affect what surrounds it, an entity cannot distinguish itself from its environment. But without this, it has no presence either to inanimate or anime beings. In living sentient creatures, this manifests itself as experience. It forms the subjective component of appearing. The objective component is simply the physical presence that the entity has through its action. It is, for example, the depression on the pillow left by an object pressing on it.’
The engagement with Merleau-Ponty and Patočka in the Introduction provides the basic definition of intertwining: it is a transcendental condition of appearance, neither subjective nor objective, which enables manifestation through motion. In the remainder of the book, Mensch demonstrates the way in which intertwining is effective in various aspects of our existence. It is precisely here that the concept becomes ‘Menschean’: intertwining enables Mensch to offer a coherent re-interpretation of the writings of figures in the history of philosophy; these re-interpretations, in turn, allow him to propose a unified account of human existence in its various guises.
In the first part of the book, in addition to Merleau-Ponty, Patočka and other phenomenologists, Mensch engages at length with Aristotle, who helps him to conceptualise space and time in terms of intertwining. The discussion of Aristotle is exemplary since it illustrates well the trajectory of Mensch’s argument as a whole. Selfhood and Appearing takes up notions theorised by other thinkers and reframes them by demonstrating their reliance on intertwining. Aristotle offers resources which enable Mensch to identify the effects of intertwining on the appearance of subjects and objects in space and time.
According to Mensch, the notion of space described by Aristotle, is a space produced by the motion of entities. The particular movement of a subject, for instance, determines its “first unmoved boundary” and with it, the space it occupies and in which it moves. Furthermore, as Mensch points out, these Aristotelian conclusions can be applied beyond a simple physical presence – space can be constituted by a practical motion of a teacher who teaches, or a builder who builds. Importantly, on Mensch’s reading, space depends on embodied entities which produce it by their motion.  Furthermore, since motion is a structural feature of intertwining, it is, in fact, the latter which, indirectly, gives rise to space.
Likewise time can no longer be thought of as independent from the movements of embodied entities, and thus from intertwining. The constant presence of the body to itself (e.g. my continuous embodiment) constitutes the now: ‘This present “corresponds” to the body by virtue of being part of the body’s continuous self-manifestation.’ The flow of time, by contrast, ‘corresponds to the body’s movement insofar as it manifests the body’s shifting relation to its environment.’  Time, therefore, depends on the permanent yet moving body, producing a temporality responsive to the entity’s motion: the flow of time is effected by the body’s movement, whereas the persistence of the present (the fact that I am always in the now) results from the uninterrupted presence of the body to itself.
Both space and time, therefore, are the effects of embodied entities and their motions; as such, space and time presuppose intertwining as the structure which makes possible the appearance of embodied entities in motion.
A similar argument can be found in Part Two of Selfhood and Appearing. In this section of the book, Mensch re-examines Hannah Arendt’s discussion of public space, which, he says, ‘should be understood in terms of our embodied motion in the world… To think public space in terms of this embodiment is to understand how the intertwining of self and world shapes the public space we share.’ Interestingly, in his engagement with Arendt, Mensch makes more explicit the distinction between intertwining as a fundamental structure of appearance, and intertwining as an interpretative key useful for the re-reading of other philosophers. When Mensch takes up Arendt’s categories of labour, work, and action, in order to demonstrate their intertwining, he uses the latter primarily as a concept enabling him to bring together the otherwise separate aspects of human activity theorised by Arendt. Here, intertwining designates a conceptual structure in which category A manifests within itself external categories B and C, while itself remaining one of the external categories. ‘To claim in this context that labor, work, and action are intertwined is to claim that they achieve their presence through embodying one another. Doing so, they serve as a place of disclosure for each other’.
Naturally, the demonstration of the intertwining of different aspects of human activity – that is to say, intertwining as a theoretical tool – presupposes the intertwining of embodied entities in motion (i.e., the intertwining as the transcendental structure of appearance). The intertwined manifestation of labour, work, and action, ‘occurs in conjunction with our disclosure of the world… The public space we share is, in fact, the result of both forms of disclosure.’
Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between intertwining as a conceptual tool and intertwining as the condition of experience – whereas the former is derived from the latter, the two notions are endowed with different functions. Intertwining as a transcendental structure allows for the manifestation of entities; intertwining as an interpretative key enables Mensch to re-read the writings of other philosophers.
This distinction between the two functions of intertwining was already operative in Mensch’s interpretation of Aristotle, however, it becomes more explicit when Mensch first presents Arendt’s categories as intertwined, and only then links them with intertwining as a transcendental condition of appearance. Of course, Mensch could not re-interpret Arendt without identifying intertwining as a fundamental structure of experience; however, the fact that he is then able to free intertwining from its original context in order to apply it to the discussion of other philosophers, makes intertwining an effective (and genuinely interesting) theoretical notion.
The efficacy of the concept of intertwining is explored further in Part Four of the book. There, intertwining is used to examine questions related to religious life, and, specifically, to unravel a paradox which, according to Mensch, lies at the heart of the Abrahamic religions:
‘Thus, on the one hand, we have the binding insistence on justice, on the punishment of the offender, on the payment of the transgressor’s debts to God and society. On the other hand, we have an equally insistent emphasis on the unbinding of mercy, on the forgiveness of all debts. How can these two perspectives be combined? How are we to grasp this binding that is also an unbinding?’
The problem which motivates Part Four echoes the paradox of our natural belief in Part One (that the world is both “in us” and we are “out there in the world”) with which Mensch introduces intertwining as transcendental structure of appearance. However, the respective questions of Part One and Part Four remain distinct – what interests Mensch towards the end of this book is not, for the most part, the intertwining between embodied perceiver and the world; rather, his focus turns to a theoretical problem inherent in the biblical concept of religion, which can be solved by means of intertwining.
Importantly, intertwining as the solution to the paradox of religion is only analogous to the intertwining found at the bottom of appearance: ‘For Merleau-Ponty, the intertwining concerns our relation to the world… The religious analogue of this intertwining places God and the world inside each other.’ In other words, in part four intertwining becomes a device used to solve theoretical problems, with only an analogical relationship to the intertwining of experience of oneself in the world.
Of course, this is not say that the two notions of intertwining—as a theoretical tool and as a foundational experience—are separate. On the contrary, the latter continues to inform the former. However, the fact that, despite the change of conceptuality (from phenomenological terms to religious vocabulary), intertwining remains effective, attests to the theoretical efficacy of intertwining outside of a strictly phenomenological analysis of experience. This flexibility of the concept of intertwining enables Mensch to solve the “religious paradox” of part four in a manner reminiscent of the book’s previous arguments – that is to say, by arguing for the religious structure of intertwining: ‘…in the Mosaic tradition, religious selfhood is constituted through intertwining of binding and unbinding. This selfhood is such that the binding and unbinding provide for each other a place of disclosure.’
I have attempted to decouple the two functions of intertwining (as a theoretical tool and as a fundamental structure of appearing) because it strikes me that they are able to generate distinct effects, which are in tension with one another.
This tension is most apparent in Part Three, where Mensch discusses the relationship between violence and politics. There, Mensch engages with the thoughts of Schmitt and Heidegger. Mensch does not attempt to hide his intentions – in contrast to Merleau-Ponty, Patočka, Aristotle, and even Arendt, all of whom contributed something positive to the argument of Selfhood and Appearing, the two Nazi-sympathisers are shown to be wrong, and only wrong (and rightly so, I should add).
From a perspective of the history of phenomenology, one of the ingenious aspects of Mensch’s reading of Heidegger is that he finds him “in” Schmitt. As a result he is able to disclose the Heideggerian basis of Schmitt’s theory of sovereignty, which invalidates Schmitt and Heidegger as appropriated by Schmitt. This way, Mensch is able to please both the anti-Heideggerian readers (who will be satisfied with the demonstration of the explicit relationship between Heidegger and Schmitt), and the pro-Heideggerian readers (who will point out that the relationship between Heidegger and Schmitt is possible on the basis of partial convergence of their respective thoughts). Take, for instance, these two passages, which follow one another in the text:
‘… we can say that Schmitt’s use of the “extreme situation” to define our collective identity is based on a specific notion of human existence, one that he shares with Heidegger… Given the essential lack of content of our existence, seriousness means taking responsibility or the decisions that shape it and, hence, affirming our identity through such responsibility. For Heidegger and Schmitt, what forces us to do this is the enemy that confronts us. For both, then seriousness involves a readiness for conflict, a need to seek out the enemy.’
‘Heidegger takes our confrontation with death as primarily individual. For Schmitt, by contrast, both death and the enemy that threatens it are thought in terms of the collective.
Mensch then skillfully demonstrates how Schmitt’s understanding of the collective (that is to say, the point at which he differs from Heidegger) helps the jurist to elaborate his concept of sovereignty – thus creating a distance between Heideggerian ontology and Schmitt’s theory of the sovereign.
Almost immediately afterwards, Mensch returns to the similarities between Schmitt and Heidegger – the decision of Schmitt’s sovereign is ungrounded, and the ‘nothingness that is its source is, in fact, the political equivalent of the nothingness of death.’ Nevertheless, despite the equivalence of their concepts, the reader is reminded that is Schmitt who contributes the more explicitly problematic dimension to the discussion of decisionism.
The most interesting aspect of the discussion of Heidegger and Schmitt, in my opinion, is their uneasy position in relation to the concept of intertwining.
Schmitt’s (Heidegger-inspired) sovereign escapes the intertwining which constitutes legitimate politics, and in which the subject is free to act in the world while being limited by its norms and values. The sovereign does act in the world, however, he or she is not constrained by the world’s values. The sovereign constitutes a “liminal” figure: ‘this liminality signifies that the sovereign has complete authority with regard to the legal system, being himself unconstrained by it.’
Interestingly, the concept of liminality (embodied by the figure of the sovereign) is used by Mensch to identify phenomena which sit uncomfortably on the border of intertwining and its beyond. These phenomena are dangerous, because they act in the world from the position external to the world’s norms. This is why liminality should be eliminated by ‘the inclusion of the [liminal] agents into the world in which they act. It can only come through the reestablishment of the intertwining that joins the self and its Others in a world of shared senses.’
Intertwining, therefore, functions as a way to reintegrate liminal figures – such as the sovereign – back into the shared world of values and norms, and thus to eliminate the threat of senseless violence which liminality makes possible.
However, despite the call for the inclusion of liminal figures, the works of Schmitt (and to a lesser extent, Heidegger) are excluded from Mensch’s theoretical enterprise. After finishing Part Three of Selfhood and Appearing, the reader has no doubt that there is no place for Schmitt (and Schmitt’s Heidegger) amongst the thinkers of intertwining. This is a result which speaks favourably about Mensch’s project as a whole – we can safely assume that Mensch does not want to have Nazi-sympathisers on his side. However, this exclusion of Schmitt seems to be at odds with the inclusive work of intertwining attested to by Mensch in his demand for the reintegration of liminal figures.
My hypothesis is that the tension between, on the one hand, the exclusion of Schmitt, and, on the other hand, the inclusion of liminal figures, can be explained by the distinction between the two types of intertwining identified above.
As a transcendental condition of manifestation, intertwining aims to reconcile oppositional terms (e.g. subjectivity and objectivity, or the world and divnity). As a theoretical tool, however, intertwining can be used to separate and exclude philosophies which are irreconcilable with the ultimately harmonising and inclusive project of Selfhood and Appearing.
This suggests, in turn, that at least on the theoretical level antagonism is irreducible: philosophy attentive to intertwining cannot be reconciled with philosophies which pay no attention to this fundamental structure.
It remains an open question, however, if a similar antagonism can be located on the level of experience: is there anything which intertwining as a transcendental condition of manifestation is incompatible with?
Mensch’s discussion of liminality hints on such a possibility. The liminal figure is both within the structure of intertwining, and external to it. Furthermore, as the possibility of sovereign violence demonstrates, this sphere external to intertwining is an effective and dangerous dimension, with real consequences for the intertwined existence. Thus, ultimately, we might find an irreducible antagonism also in experience – the external dimension attested to by liminal figures is fundamentally opposed to the harmonising structure of intertwining and the manifestation it produces.
If we were to continue our hypothetical musings, we can ask: how is this dangerous dimension external to intertwining constituted?
Perhaps it is produced by intertwining itself, which separates and excludes elements which cannot be integrated in its structure. Intertwining is defined as a transcendental condition of appearance, neither subjective nor objective, which enables manifestation through motion. Does this definition not imply the separation and exclusion of elements which are static, purely subjective or purely objective, and as such invisible from the perspective of intertwining? Would these non-integrated elements, in turn, constitute the hostile dimension external to intertwining, threatening the harmonising work of its “enemy”?
In addition to all its other achievements, the fact that Selfhood and Appearing invites us to pose such questions, and to consider the irreducible antagonism between intertwining and the dimension external to it, shows clearly that Mensch’s new book truly has an impressive scope.
 J. Mensch, Selfhood and Appearing: The Intertwining, Brill 2018, p. 16
 Ibid., p. 16
 Ibid., p.19
 Ibid., p. 20
 Ibid., pp. 87-88
 Ibid., p. 89
 Ibid., p. 168
 Ibid., p. 171
 Ibid., p, 283
 Ibid., p. 288
 Ibid., p. 288
 Ibid., p. 265
 Ibid., p. 268
 Ibid., p. 253
 Ibid., p. 250
 Ibid., p. 254
“Who am I, Jacques Derrida?” In the attempt to address this apparently naïve question in the collection of essays entitled The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida sketches a suggestive “intellectual autobiography” (144). He tells us that he invented a series of figures―mark, grammē, trace, and différance―that allow for a differential account of all living beings, of all sorts of relationships between the living and the dead. It is to this story, Derrida goes on, that one should retrace his early project of grammatology―the project of replacing the notions of word (parole), sign, and signifier, with the aforementioned figures (see Of Grammatology, 1967). Since then, he had re-elaborated the oppositional account of life, based on the humanist conception of language, into the differential account made possible by the analogical code of grammē. For Derrida, the humanist and oppositional account of life hinges on an axiomatic demarcation. On the one hand, we have animal autorelation (the animal ability to move, feel and affect itself with traces of itself, which is traditionally opposed to inorganic inertia); on the other hand, we have human self-reference or autodeicticity (one’s power to refer to oneself in a deictic way, that is, by saying “this is me,” 131-2). The logical matrix of Derrida’s argument for a critical re-elaboration of the humanist account of life consists in calling into question this axiomatic demarcation of animal autoaffection and human self-reference. Building on his early work (above all, Voice and Phenomenon, 1967), Derrida rethinks autorelation as the minimal condition of life, including human life, and thus self-reference as an effect of autorelation, with all that this implies―to begin with, the departure from phenomenology as a thinking of the self-referent living present.
By subscribing to this autobiographical sketch, we welcome the publication of Derrida’s 1975-76 seminar La vie la mort (Life-death) as it unfolds another stage in Derrida’s development of his grammatological and differential account of life and adds another figure in the series, that of life-death. This seminar engages in a re-elaboration of the problematics of biologism, the biographical, and the relation between philosophy and the life sciences, by taking as its guiding thread Nietzsche’s thought of life-death. In their introductory note, the editors recall that Derrida taught this seminar at the École Normale Supérieure, between fall 1975 and spring 1976, as a preparation to the exams of agrégation, whose programme was “La vie et la mort.” As the editors remark, in §1 Derrida offers a long explanation of the modification that he made on the institutional title of the seminar (without the conjunction “et”). Furthermore, the editors point out that some parts of the seminars were revised later to be presented in conferences and/or published in books (§2, §§8 and part of 9 and §§11-14; 13-14). Strikingly, Derrida neither presented nor published the part of the seminar dedicated to the biology of his time, namely, genetics (§1 and §§4-6). On my reading, this circumstance remains unexplained and cannot be justified by the hypothesis that, in the seminar, Derrida subscribes to an untimely or anachronistic scientific position―whether compromised by genetics or prefiguring its epigenetic overcoming. Indeed, as I will suggest, he offers an informed account of contemporary biological debates. In §7, Derrida provides us with two indexes concerning how this seminar may be read. The first index is the theoretical presupposition of a historical unity from which he selected the texts examined in the seminar. Derrida identifies this unity as the field that extends from Nietzsche’s and Freud’s discourses to the biology of his time. Besides the scientific achievements that, since Nietzsche, have transformed the knowledge of life profoundly, Derrida argues, this field is informed by the account of life as a semiotic remark (183). The second index gives a clearer and more reassuring picture of the way the seminar develops from session to session. Derrida explains that it unfolds as a three-stage movement. Each stage describes a ring which would consist of a point of departure (and articulation, in the case of rings 2 and 3), corresponding to Nietzsche’s life-death, and a topic (modern biology, Heidegger’s Nietzsche, and Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle). In what follows, I put these instructions to the test through a selective reading of the analyses that Derrida develops in each session.
§1 plays an introductory and parergonal role with respect to the aforementioned three-ring movement. It justifies Derrida’s intervention on the title of the programme of agrégation (la vie et la mort) and discusses the concept of programme. Derrida begins by explaining that he substitutes the hyphen (or spacing) for the original conjunction in order to call into question the logic according to which the relationship between life and death had been thought. He traces this logic back to Hegelian dialectics, which he proposes reading as a powerful thinking of life and death. The conjunction between these two terms presupposes the concepts of position, double position and opposition, which constitute the motor schemes of Hegelian dialectics. To test his hypothesis, Derrida refers his students to the syllogism of life from the last section of The Science of Logic that he summarizes as the movement in which life reappropriates itself as the life of spirit through natural death. In his subsequent remarks, Derrida makes it explicit that, by intervening on the institutional title, he does not aim to counter the logic of position undergirding the conjunction of life and death with another logic, but he points to another “topics” in which the concepts of position and presence would be an “effect of life-death” (24-25). In his lexicon (see the elaboration of presence as an effect of différance in the essay “Differance,” 1968), here Derrida suggests rethinking what had been thought as life and death from within the system of life-death that he develops in the seminar. Ultimately, Derrida recalls that his discrete and yet violent intervention on the title of the programme of agrégation consists in a political gesture, that of rewriting an inherited programme. It is motivated by his uneasiness in following the programme and by the strategical decision of countering the institution of agrégation from within. Finally, through this rewriting, he reverts the subject of the programme into the object of his deconstructive re-elaboration.
From this point on, §1 engages in an exploration of the value of programme by analyzing how it is constructed by Nobel Prize molecular biologist Francois Jacob in his masterwork The Logic of Life (La logique du vivant, 1971). The session thus anticipates the topic of ring 1. Derrida points out that, in the introduction to the aforementioned book (entitled “The Programme”), Jacob describes biological heredity by means of a metaphorical code (information, message, and programme)―a “semiotic” and “grammatical” code (30)―which is shared by cultural and educational discourses and whose unity is secured by the concept of reproduction as a life condition for both living beings and institutions. In the subsequent analyses, Derrida demonstrates that Jacob fails to account for this code and metaphoricity, which he designates as more “fundamental” (30), and relapses into a concept of code and metaphoricity that is marked by a philosophy of life. In particular, Derrida draws attention to Jacob’s analogical account of the two turning points of evolution―the beginning of life and that of language―as the emergence of two mechanisms of memory, biological and cerebral memory. Jacob offers two different versions of this analogical account. In the first version, he distinguishes the two memories according to their degree of rigidity/plasticity, which explains the ability of cerebral memory to transmit acquired characteristics. In relation to this version, Derrida observes that this analogical account is made possible by the fact that, according to the biological discourse of his day, genetic memory operates like a language. In other words, the code of Jacob’s description of genetic programme is the same as the code employed by modern discourses (informed by psychoanalysis, linguistics and Marxism) to describe institutional and educational programmes. According to this metaphorical code, subjects are “effects” and not authors of programmes, which ultimately hinge on the relations among forces aiming to make their reproduction prevail (37). Derrida refers to Jacob’s description of reproduction not as a copy but as a variation within a strictly normed code, in order to highlight the metaphorical code of modern biological and cultural discourses. Finally, according to Derrida, the implications of this analogy are that: (a) Jacob describes the difference between the two memories as a quantitative difference rather than an opposition; (b) the removal of the biological/cultural (and thus animal/human) divide grounded on humanist ideologies liberates an analogical and differential account of life. In the second version of his history of evolution, Jacob distinguishes the two memories in the light of their relationship to the environment. According to Jacob, the genetic programme only admits contingent, that is, non-deliberate (or non-conscious, as Derrida puts it) changes. In this case, the opposition between genetic and cerebral-cultural programmes rests on the opposition between contingent and deliberate changes. However, by building on modern discourses once again, Derrida remarks that the causality of change in cerebral and institutional programmes has the same style as the one that Jacob wishes to restrict to genetic programmes. Derrida thus subscribes to the achievements of the structural sciences of his time (see, for instance, Jean Piaget’s Biology and Knowledge, 1967), which provide an analogical account of biological and cultural programmes as non-deliberate processes of general restructuration before a violent intrusion. Finally, Jacob’s conception of deliberate change in cultural programmes hinges on an ideological and metaphysical opposition grounded on the presuppositions of consciousness, freedom and meaning. For this reason, Derrida argues that Jacob neutralizes the stakes implicit in the grammatical code of modern biological discourse by drawing on a still humanist and logocentric conception of that code (“a philosophy of life,” 41).
Ring 1 begins with §2, which is devoted to life-death as it undergirds Nietzsche’s new treatment of signature. Derrida points out that, today―within the historical field under scrutiny―the problematics of the biographical have undergone a re-evaluation. Both immanent and empirico-genetic readings of philosophical discourse fail to account for the biographical as the dynamic border between work and life, system and subject. Take the extreme case of the living subject of bio-logical discourse, which is evidently engaged in its field, and thus of the ensemble of ideological, philosophical and political forces that are at stake in the signature of this subject and constitute “the inscription of the biographical in the biological” (50). According to Derrida, Nietzsche discloses this new historical field by treating philosophy and life, the life sciences and philosophy of life, with/in its name―that is, by putting his signature into play, or making his work into “an immense bio-graphical paraph” (50). Derrida thus proposes a reading of Nietzsche that does not fall back into an abstraction of the biographical. To this end, he turns to the self-presentation that Nietzsche performs in the preface to Ecce Homo. In particular, Derrida focuses on two statements from this preface: (a) I live on the credit that I give myself; (b) the fact that I live is perhaps a prejudgment. I shall try to summarize Derrida’s elaboration. The premise of (a) is life-death: the living name-bearer is dead as it signs (as it says “I live” or “this is me”). Therefore, what returns―the name, and not the living name-bearer―is always the name of the other. It follows that I sign (I say “I live”) under this contract that I engage with “myself,” which is made possible by the return of the name. Finally, (b) holds as this contract can be honored only because the living name-bearer is dead, and thus by living name-bearers to come. On my reading, here Derrida develops the kind of nonhumanist conception of self-reference evoked at the beginning of my review. He thinks self-reference as an effect of the minimal condition of life, namely, autoaffection (or autoregulation―as he seems to suggest in §1). Overall, Derrida argues that one can read the biographical inscription only from the contract mentioned by Nietzsche and thus only as “allo- or thanato-biographical” (61). At this point, Derrida puts his new reading protocol to the test by examining Nietzsche’s youthful work On the Future of Our Educational Institutions. He focuses on Nietzsche’s call in this text for a guide (Führer) that would rescue German spirit from its enemies. Derrida distances himself from naïve conclusions (“Nietzsche was Nazi” versus “Nietzsche did not mean that”) and, in a radical fashion, asks how Nietzsche’s message or programme could give place to the Nazi institution. Building on his new protocol of the biographical, he argues that a perverting simplification such as the Nazi reproduction of Nietzsche’s programme constitutes a possibility implicit in the structure of Nietzsche’s text, which keeps returning and offering itself to new readings and reproductions. Derrida thus demonstrates that readings―to begin with, his ongoing reproduction of the programme of agrégation―are never merely hermeneutical (as they grasp the meaning of a text): they are a “political intervention in the political rewriting of a text” (72).
In §3, Derrida makes a new transition to modern biological discourse. He takes as his point of departure the problematics of the cut/sharing (coupure/partage) between metaphor and concept. After developing a few remarks on Nietzsche, Derrida returns to Georges Canguilhem’s 1966 article “The Concept and Life,” which he had already mentioned in §1 as the example of a discourse unable to account for the analogical and semiotic code of modern biology. Derrida engages in a close reading of the theory of metaphor underpinning Canguilhem’s analyses of biologist Claude Bernard. In particular, he focuses on the dance figures that these analyses describe in the attempt to develop a relationship between the metaphor and the concept that would hold together teleological continuity and epistemological cut. Derrida ends his session by calling for a general re-interpretation of that relation. This re-interpretation would start by replacing the idea of a metaphor that anticipates a concept without anticipating it with that of an active interpretation at stake between different metaphorico-conceptual systems. In §4, Derrida reverts his focus on the text of modern biology, of which Jacob’s Logic of Life would be the representative or spokesman (111). Prior to starting another close reading of Jacob’s text, Derrida draws attention to the most evident trait of the modern biological text, the textualization of the biological referent. Modern biology writes a text on an object that has itself the structure of a text. For example, Jacob explains that the essential structure of life, reproduction, works as a text (the molecule of nucleic acid, or DNA, which he identifies as the latest great discovery in the history of the life sciences). Derrida identifies this mutation in the field of biology as the emergence of scientific modernity. The consequences of this mutation, discussed further in §6, would not be naïve as we do not speak about a science that relies on documents and archives (such as philosophy and so forth), but about the life sciences, whose object (namely, life) is presupposed by all the other sciences. Among these consequences, Derrida focuses on the fact that the model one is supposed to take from culture is already a product of life and thus that: (a) the text is the minimal structure of the living (as the object of biology) as well as of biology (as a product of life); (b) the sciences and logic of the living are no longer a regional discourse in the field of knowledge. These propositions seem to sketch a new conception of biologism that resonates with the nonhumanist and grammatological account of life evoked above. At this point, Derrida announces the task of revealing the machine that governs Jacob’s text secretly. He aims to draw out the implications of modern biology that a certain philosophy of life neutralizes. He thus traces two conceptual threads across Jacob’s text: the thread of reproduction (to which he dedicates the remaining part of §4 and §5) and that of the model (§6). Derrida begins by remarking that, starting from the title of his work (logic of the living and not of life), Jacob wants to distance himself from life as a metaphysical essence hidden behind biological phenomena and thus from vitalism. However, Derrida points out, Jacob keeps referring to the essence of the living, which he determines as the living’s capacity of self-reproduction (in line with the most metaphysical―that is, Hegelian―determination of the essence of life). Furthermore, Jacob identifies the accomplishment of this capacity as the project (the end or sense, as Derrida puts it) of genetic programme, thus subscribing to a perhaps nonhumanist and yet still teleological conception of the living.
In the remaining pages of §4 and in §5, Derrida analyses the logic of the supplement that intervenes in Jacob’s account of sexuality and death in relation to reproduction. Derrida sheds light on the law that regulates Jacob’s model of living self-reproduction, a law that the biologist does not take into consideration and yet that calls for a review of Jacob’s model. In §4, Derrida discusses the role that Jacob allows to sexuality in his model of bacterial self-reproduction. For Jacob, the sexualization of living reproduction consists in the recombination of different genetic programmes or materials. Therefore, bacterial reproduction is said to be asexual since it unfolds as the bacterium’s division into two. However, Jacob acknowledges that this process admits mutations―errors in the translation or transcription of programmes―as well as transfers of a supplement of genetic materials from the environment (for example, by means of a virus). Thus, Derrida wonders if one cannot interpret these possibilities of recombination as terms analogous to what Jacob designates as sexuality and, consequently, if the opposition between sexual and a-sexual reproduction undergirding Jacob’s model of bacterial reproduction is not called into question. Finally, Derrida demonstrates that, whereas Jacob conceives of sexuality as a supplement to the history of genetic programmes and thus to his essential determination of life as self-reproduction, the possibility of sexuality is inscribed in that history and determination. He thus argues for, at least, another model of living reproduction. In §5, Derrida reveals the logic of the supplement at work in Jacob’s treatment of death. He explains that, for Jacob, within the limits of asexual reproduction, bacteria do not die. They experience a contingent death insofar as they dissolve by dividing into two or by extinguishing their reproductive capacity. In this case, Jacob argues that their contingent death depends on the milieu, in which the bacteria would live eternally if it were possible to renew it regularly. Like sexuality, therefore, death plays as a supplement in the chain of asexual reproduction: it comes from outside, by accident, to inscribe itself as an internal law of living reproduction; it is an internal supplement. Through this logic, Derrida shows that the oppositions undergirding Jacob’s text (inside/outside, organism/milieu, life/death, and so forth) fail to account for reproduction as they give place to contradictory statements that make them tremble. Jacob’s philosophical effort to protect a purified model of reproduction as merely asexual self-reproduction (or “self-reproductive self-affection,” 129) is problematic. Therefore, Derrida concludes that, if there is a certain quantity of bacteria that reproduce themselves asexually, there are also mutations due to the milieu, as well as recombination of genetic materials, which intervene in reproduction and call for another model and another logic of life.
§6 is devoted to the problem of the relation between the text and the model. In the first part of this session, Derrida builds on two propositions from Jacob’s book, which he proposes to read together, to elaborate his conception of general textuality. The two propositions in question are: (a) “the genetic message can be translated only from the products of its own proper translation”; (b) “since Gödel, we know that a logical system is not sufficient for its own description” (155). Derrida suggests that these propositions share a paradoxical necessity, which, as I will show, consists in the structural law of a general semiotic system or code: a system that describes itself―that is described by one of its elements―can neither comprehend itself nor be comprehended. To develop his suggestion, Derrida engages in a vertiginous analysis of Francis Ponge’s line: Par le mot par commence donc ce texte. He explains that this text accounts for what can always happen when the first event―the event that is described, translated, or reproduced―is a text. Therefore, the two propositions describe the structure or syntax of a general semiotic system or code, which is governed by structural or syntactical articulations that do not aim at a referent external to the system but at elements of the system itself. For Derrida, here one understands why the concept of the text has imposed itself in the life sciences: as it accounts for the general or self-referential code described above. Ultimately, notions such as information, communication and message should be thought as intratextual to the extent that they work like a text: a message only generates a message. However, Derrida goes on, this generality or self-referentiality is, by definition, neither autistic nor tautological. If a text can be translated only by the product of its translation, it is general precisely as it cannot close upon itself (as “alterity is irreducible” 159). At this point, Derrida wonders if the situation described here is not also that of the text of modern biology (“bio-genetics,” 159), which writes on a text, the living, of which it is the product. Thus, in proposition (a), Jacob also writes about his own text, as he is one of the translators of the genetic message as well as a product of the message’s translation. Finally, the activity of the life sciences consists in the textual product of the text that it translates. Derrida observes that here one can find the very condition of scientificity: scientific understanding and deciphering are intratextual; they are inscribed within the aforementioned self-referential and general text. It follows that the text can no longer be considered a model to the extent that textuality is coextensive to the living. Rather, the recourse to the notion of text testifies to an underpinning transformation in the statute of knowledge: knowledge has become a text on a text, as its object is a text and no longer the “meta-textual real” (161). In the remaining part of §6, Derrida draws attention to the problem of the circulation of the model that takes place in Jacob’s text as he resorts to the intratextual notion of information as a model. He shows that the value of the informational or cybernetic model is called into question when each of the regions considered (organism, society and machine) plays in turn as the model of the others and thus as model of the model. Apropos of the cybernetic model, Derrida also highlights the surreptitious reduction that is at work in Jacob’s elaboration of this model. Jacob wishes to abstract the exchange of information from the exchange of matter/energy that is attached to it―which is called entropy and involves an activity of selection and a play of forces―and thus to dissociate the semiotic element from the energetic and agonistic element. Like at the end of §1, here Derrida argues for an energetic and agonistic conception of cybernetic and semiotic code. This conception provides a protocol for the critique of mechanicism that Derrida had developed throughout his work. See, for example, his early reading of Freud’s agonistic rewriting of the naturalist explanation of memory in Project for a Scientific Psychology (“Freud and the Scene of Writing,” 1966) and his late proposal of a cybernetic and semiotic re-elaboration of the Cartesian mechanicism that undergirds humanist narratives of life (The Animal That Therefore I Am).
§7 functions as the point of articulation between ring 1 and ring 2. Derrida suggests that the implications of ring 1 lead us back to Nietzsche’s life-death. For example, the statement that the values of truth, knowledge and objectivity are effects of life-death should be read as a Nietzschean-type statement. Derrida thus engages in the reading of Nietzsche’s treatment of the relationship between truth and life in his Philosophenbuch. This reading provides the point of departure for the subsequent analysis of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism (ring 2). The analysis begins in §8 with the exploration of Heidegger’s treatment of Nietzsche’s signature and biography, which, on Derrida’s hypothesis, undergirds Heidegger’s interpretation of the problematics of biologism. Derrida starts by wondering to what extent a certain decision made on the subject of Nietzsche’s signature and biography undergirds Heidegger’s reading of the unity and unicity of Nietzsche’s thought and, more generally, of metaphysics, at whose limits Heidegger places that thought. Derrida summarizes Heidegger’s argument as follows: Nietzsche’s thought is one and unique, and this neither hinges on Nietzsche’s proper name nor on his life but on the unity and unicity of metaphysics that finds there its limits. In the remainder of §8, this argument is put to the test through a selective reading of texts from Heidegger’s Nietzsche devoted to the problematic of the biographical. First, Derrida focuses on the opening line of Heidegger’s 1961 preface to his Nietzsche, which reads: “‘Nietzsche’ – der Name des Denkers steht als Titel für die Sache seines Denkens” (206). Also in the light of what follows in Heidegger’s preface, Derrida suggests that Heidegger unfolds a conventional conception of the philosopher’s proper name and biography by suggesting that the name put between quotation marks―the signature (the inscription of the biographical)―must be read from the thought and thus becomes inessential. Here Derrida sees the turning point between two diverging paths: the first path, which is explored in §2, would unfold a certain re-evaluation of the biographical; the second path, undertaken by Heidegger, would consist in the classical and metaphysical gesture of determining the essentiality of the name from thought. Derrida explores the effects of Heidegger’s decision on the biographical by taking into consideration the chapters “The Book, The Will to Power” (1.1) and “Nietzsche as the Thinker of the Consummation of Metaphysics” (3.1; hereafter I refer to David Farrell Krell’s English edition of Nietzsche). Through the examination of these chapters, Derrida highlights, on the one hand, the relevance of the fact that Heidegger questions himself concerning “Who is Nietzsche?” But, on the other hand, Derrida shows Heidegger’s ambivalent elaboration of this question. Heidegger would dissociate in a conventional way Nietzsche’s thought from a conventional conception of biography and, more specifically, from the psycho-biographism of his day (culminating in the edition in progress of Nietzsche’s complete works), with a view to securing the unity and unicity of this thought in relation to metaphysics. In the subsequent sessions, Derrida addresses Heidegger’s treatment of biologism.
In §9, Derrida focuses on the moment where Heidegger’s interpretation of the thought of the eternal return intersects with the problematics of life and biologism. He draws attention to chapters 2.11 and 2.12 in Heidegger’s Nietzsche (entitled “The Four Notes Dated August 1881” and “Summary Presentation of the Thought: Being as a Whole as Life and Force; the World as Chaos”). In 2.11, Heidegger examines Nietzsche’s 1881 notes on the doctrine of the eternal return. Derrida lingers on Heidegger’s remarks on Nietzsche’s first project in order to highlight the kind of suspension that would regulate Heidegger’s interpretative machine―a suspension between some statements that acknowledge the singularity of Nietzsche’s thought and others that interpret the latter as a metaphysical position with regards to being as a whole. In 2.12, Heidegger develops his synoptic reading of the eternal return into ten points. Prior to commenting on these points, Derrida focuses on the moment where Heidegger raises a question concerning Nietzsche’s recourse to scientific discourses. May this recourse serve as a standard of measure for interpreting “the thought of thoughts” (240) in Nietzsche’s philosophy, Heidegger wonders. Here Derrida finds the index that Heidegger’s subsequent interpretation hinges on his own interpretation of the relationship between science and philosophy. In the remainder of §9, Derrida paraphrases Heidegger’s synoptic examination up to points 8 and 9, devoted to Nietzsche’s remarks on time and chaos, where, he suggests, Heidegger’s interpretation becomes more active. Derrida’s close reading aims to highlight Heidegger’s operations that would fail to account for the force of Nietzsche’s text.
In §10, Derrida draws on Heidegger’s chapters dedicated to the thought of the will to power, in order to discuss the latter’s interpretation of this thought and of the accusation of biologism addressed to Nietzsche. Derrida begins by recalling that Heidegger introduces the thought of the will to power as Nietzsche’s only and unique thought (which includes the thought of the eternal return) and that, for Heidegger, only by referring to this thought one can develop an authentic interrogation of Nietzsche. The subsequent analyses aim to uncover the interpretative scheme that undergirds Heidegger’s criticism of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism. Derrida finds Heidegger’s first stage of this critique in Nietzsche 3.3 (“The Will to Power as a Principle of New Evaluation”). He summarizes Heidegger’s argument as follows. Nietzsche does not think of life (and being as a whole) through the discourses prevailing in the life sciences of his time (vitalism and Darwinism), but from the very condition of life, namely, the value, which allows for life-enhancement. It remains to explore what makes possible the essence of life as life-enhancement, its principle or ground. This principle is, for Heidegger, will to power: thus, for Heidegger, Nietzsche determines (the essence of) life as will to power. Through this determination, he name “Nietzsche” is detached from the living being and comes to name the fatality of Western metaphysics (of its consummation). As Derrida rephrases Heidegger’s thought, “thinking this pseudonymy is the only condition to hear [entrendre] Nietzsche’s proper name” (254). At this point, Derrida engages in an active interpretation of Nietzsche 3.5 and 3.6. (“The Essence of Truth (Correctness) as ‘Estimation of Value’” and “Nietzsche’s Alleged Biologism”), in order to catch the moment and place of Heidegger’s interpretative decision and the schema underpinning this decision. First, by drawing on 3.5, he emphasizes that, for Heidegger, Nietzsche’s reversal of truth consists in a secondary modification within a traditional, metaphysical determination of truth (as adequation), which Nietzsche does not interrogate. At the same time, Derrida expresses his perplexity before the rhetoric through which Heidegger wishes to draw together singularity and tradition in Nietzsche’s thought and thus to place it in relation to metaphysics (see the passage where Heidegger explains that Nietzsche is in harmony with tradition and only for this reason can he distinguish himself; 262). Secondly, Derrida traces in 3.6 Heidegger’s elaboration of the scheme underpinning his rebuttal of Nietzsche’s biologism. Prior to commenting on Heidegger’s text, Derrida offers a long formalization of this scheme, which he identifies as the metaphysical scheme par excellence, the presupposition of the regionality of sciences and thus of the fact that the essentiality of the determined types of being that sciences are dealing with is neither established nor grounded by them. Derrida explains that, according to this scheme, sciences, which are regional and thus apply to a determined region of being or object, do not have access to the meaning or essence of this region, or, in other words, they do not think of it. They presuppose that philosophy thinks of that meaning and essence (for example, the essence of life) and thus distributes and assigns them to regional sciences. Therefore, a scientist can interrogate the meaning of her specialized field only as a philosopher. Derrida counters this scheme as applicable to the reading of Nietzsche. On my view, this counterargument undergirds Derrida’s thought of life-death and, more precisely, his interpretation of “Nietzsche” as the name of a new historical determination of biologism and the biographical. Derrida argues that, when Nietzsche says that being is an effect of life and thus no longer being as a whole, nor the general form circulating through its multiple regions by distributing tasks and unifying knowledge, he calls into question that very scheme of the regionality of sciences and develops the thought of life-death and of life as a semiotic remark. Thus, interpreting what Nietzsche says either as biologism (thinking the whole being from a regional instance) or as a metaphysical determination of the essence of life (what Heidegger does in order to save Nietzsche from his supposed biologism) would mean in both cases subscribing to a deconstructed scheme. Within this framework, Derrida also remarks that the paradox and interest of Heidegger’s operation is that he deconstructs the metaphysics supporting the scheme of regionality at the same time as he submits Nietzsche to this scheme (for whose deconstruction he should be credited instead). In other words, Heidegger would save Nietzsche from biologism by bringing Nietzsche and himself back into the scheme that underpins the conception of that biologism. To test his hypothesis, Derrida recalls the paragraph from 3.6 ending as follows: “he grounds this apparently merely biological worldview metaphysically” (269). Heidegger would protest, Derrida observes, against a reading that interprets his text as affirming the regulation of the frontiers of sciences under the external jurisdiction of philosophy. And yet, Derrida goes on, the scheme at work in Heidegger’s interpretation of biologism is typically involved in the justification of the most violent hierarchies.
The last four sessions describe ring 3, devoted to the reading of Freud’s Beyond. As we know from §7, Derrida identifies Freud as one of the two representatives of the modern determination of biologism in which we find ourselves. On my reading, the interplay between this ring and the general framework of the seminar―Derrida’s project of life-death―is less explicit. Therefore, I suggest reading Derrida’s later development of these sessions into “Speculating – On ‘Freud’” (published in The Postcard, 1981) as a further elaboration of his interpretation of Freud’s Beyond. Derrida places the Nietzschean point of articulation between ring 3 and ring 2 in the reference to Nietzsche that Freud makes in Ma vie et la psychanalyse. There Freud explains that he had avoided Nietzsche as the latter’s insights surprisingly coincide with the outcomes that psychoanalysis had achieved so painfully. In the opening pages of §11, Derrida identifies the task of this ring as that of bringing to light the relation between the nonpositional structure of Freud’s text (its inability to arrest on a position or thesis) and the logic of life-death. In the subsequent close examination of Freud’s Beyond, Derrida focuses on a set of issues that are relevant to the thought of life-death. In §11, in which he comments on Beyond chapter 1, he highlights the differential and nonpositional logic at work in the relation between pleasure and reality principles. In §12, he lingers on the account of the child’s play that Freud offers in chapter 2. Here, Derrida elaborates a conception of the autobiographical for which, while describing the child’s play, Freud describes the very movement of writing his Beyond. In §§13-14, which explore the remaining chapters of Freud’s Beyond, Derrida sketches his interpretation of the Freudian lexicon of binden and of the drive to power.
Within the limits of this review, I have aimed to offer an overview of Derrida’s La vie la mort, which this edition has finally made accessible to everyone. I built on the structural and theoretical framework proposed by Derrida to develop my analysis of the readings offered in the seminar. I believe that this operation would help do some justice to these readings by tracing them back to the overall project of life-death as a modern interpretation of the biological and the biographical. To conclude, I would like to recall another place in Derrida’s work that would display a latest formulation of this project. We are in a critical moment of Derrida’s conversation with Elisabeth Roudinesco, published as For What Tomorrow… A Dialogue (2001) and devoted to the great questions that mark our age. Roudinesco invites Derrida to address the question of contemporary scientism, which she describes as “the ideology originating in scientific discourse, and linked to the real progress of the sciences, that attempts to reduce human behaviour to experimentally verifiable physiological processes” (47). Finally, she wonders if, “in order to combat the growing influence of this point of view,” one should not “restore the ideal of an almost Sartrean conception of freedom” (47). In his response, Derrida engages in a critical re-elaboration of scientism that resonates with his reading of the problematics of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism. He does not propose to counter scientism by resorting to the humanist and metaphysical conception of freedom, and thus, more generally, to oppositional accounts of life (nature/culture, animal-machine/man, and so forth), which would hinge on the same code that makes the determination of scientism possible. Rather, he unfolds an alternative, neither scientist nor humanist conception of the life sciences, which would account for the semiotic, namely, grammatological, element at work in the living and thus would liberate a differential and nonoppositional history of life.
Derrida, Jacques. 2008. The Animal That Therefore I Am (Follow). Translated by David Wills. Fordham University Press.
Derrida, Jacques, and Elisabeth Roudinesco. 2004. For What Tomorrow . . . A Dialogue. Translated by Jeff Fort. Stanford University Press.
Heidegger, Martin. 1979. Nietzsche: Volume I and II (The Will to Power as Art; The Eternal Recurrence of the Same). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Heidegger, Martin. 1987. Nietzsche: Volume III and IV (The Will to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics; Nihilism). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
What is it to define an emotion? Or to categorise an experience as an emotion? This is the aim of this collection of essays, the result of a conference of 2013 with the same name that discussed ‘surprise’ and attempted to categorise it as emotion, feeling, affect or otherwise. The editors identify two main theoretical frameworks with which to approach the question: psychology and philosophy. They argue that, whereas psychology treats surprise as a primary emotion, philosophy relates surprise to passions which are then opposed to reason. With this split in place, they seek to question these frameworks: is surprise not also cognitive? Is it not embedded in language? And how is it to be related to personhood and the interpersonal and moral emotions? Already we see that the exercise of defining an experience as an emotion takes place within the traditional binaries of philosophical psychology: passion/reason, emotion/cognition, etc. Yet throughout this volume, perhaps the most surprising aspect of surprise is just how inadequate these traditional categories are and how the phenomenon under discussion will exceed and trouble these traditional binaries.
One immediate difficulty the volume is faced with is what to call that which is to be defined or categorized: what is this realm of undefined or uncategorised? What most general word can refer to it: ‘surprise’? At some level, all authors can speak to this uncategorised experience called ‘surprise’; there is some binding of word and experience such that all authors can write on its vagaries and varieties. Yet how is this to be disambiguated from similar terms like wonder, startle, glance, etc. as well as the translation of these terms from other languages, most notably that of wonder (thaumaston) which, as Plato argued in Theaetetus, ‘is the only beginning of philosophy’ (155d). This is the very problem the volume engages with and thus, in so doing can be read as continuing this long tradition of surprise as the beginning of philosophy.
Three main themes occur in all the authors’ discussions. The most commonly invoked criteria for surprise that all authors mention in some form or another is the frustration of expectations. For example, Steinbock delineates surprise not only as ‘an experience of unexpected givenness’ but as ‘the accommodation of us to the situation by being the acceptance of what I cannot accept’ (10). These expectations can be implicit or explicit and not merely cognitive: they are discussed through concepts like habit or bodily adaptation to an environment. It is then in the frustration of expectations, or the difference between expectation and actuality, that surprise arises. Authors use many concepts to characterise these expectations (dispositions, integrations, entanglements and habit) and their frustration (startle, rupture, punctuation, anxiety, novelty and reconfigurations). But there is also room for concepts that convey a lack of surprise when expectations meet actuality (affinity, affordance).
The second commonality is the question of temporality: while most agree surprise involves a spontaneous, sudden, ‘rupture’ this is merely the first part of a temporal dynamic. Desmidt, for example argues ‘surprise is the structure of the temporal dynamic of emotional emergence’ (62).
The third point of agreement between most authors is that surprise is ambiguously valenced: surprise can be positive or negative and so appears to transcend any simple division into positive/negative valence.
But, whereas the authors tend to agree on these three main points, there is then much divergence in their characterisation of surprise. The main problem in comparing positions to agree any consensus and the possibility of answering the question of the volume is that the difference between the authors’ positions in part stems from different understandings of the terms being used to categorize ‘surprise’. For instance, if surprise is to be an emotion, there is little discussion or agreement of what an emotion is, nor its difference or identity to affect, passion, feeling etc. is. Some treat affect and emotion as synonymous, others as strictly different but few reflect on what they might mean nor what categorising surprise as one or the other would entail.
The authors who give most attention to this question are the two editors of the volume, Steinbock and Depraz and both invoke Kant to define emotions. Steinbock foregrounds Kant’s use of temporality to differentiate affect and passion: affect is sudden and rash in contrast to the duration of passions (12-13). Steinbock then, despite the suddenness of surprise, argues surprise is part of a process of much longer duration. But he concludes not that surprise is a passion but that surprise ‘belongs to the sphere of emotions (and is not a mere affect)’ (13). Steinbock thus seems to equate passion with emotion. Furthermore, whereas affects are ‘feeling-states and pertain to who we are as psychophysical beings, where we would find experiences like pleasure or pain, being ill at ease, tickling and arousal,’ emotions – such as ‘regret, remorse, fear, longing and surprise’ (14-15) – are emotions because ‘they can occur without any essential relation to personal ‘otherness’ in that experience’. But ‘genuine’ emotions are those which ‘presuppose an “order” or even “disorder” of the heart – to use a phrase from Pascal – and are lived in some way toward some other as bearer of value in a ‘creative’ or personal manner’ (15). Here we see that the divisions of psycho-physical to ‘personhood’ are played out to differentiate affect from emotion.
Meanwhile, Depraz argues that in psychology, surprise is treated as an emotion. She again cites Kant but, unlike Steinbock, identifies emotion with affect (‘emotion, here as Affekt’, 26). This identification of emotion with the German Affekt has a psychological precedence perhaps beginning with William James in his Principles of Psychology. For Depraz, surprise ‘is not an emotion in the sense of a basic feeling like fear, anger, disgust, jor or sadness.’ Her main argument is that ‘surprise involves an emotional and cognitive component but results in a more encompassing and integrative circular (time, bodily, expressive-descriptive) phenomena’ (39). Depraz then invokes the concept of valence to undermine the idea that surprise is an emotion: valence characterizes more precisely the ‘affective dynamic of the surprise rather than emotion as such, which always remains a partial and static state’ (40). Although surprise is linked to emotional valence when associated with these emotions, it may also appear as ‘a neutral, mixed or epistemic emotion, i.e. as a violated expectation that affects both action and cognitive processing.’ (39).
Other authors tend to reflect less on the problem, focusing their attention purely on emotion (Desmidt, Brizard) or tending to identify emotion with affect (Livet mentions ‘affective attitudes’ (109), ‘affects or affective bursts (111), ‘emotional or affective attitude’ (112)). Although Brizard does state that startle, that can be used to assess emotional reactivity which can be ‘modulated by affective states’ (78). Sheets-Johnstone in insisting the body is not ahistorical or living, speaks of ‘affective dynamics that move through bodies and move them to move’ (83). Yet, quoting Jung, she seems to elide any difference between affect and emotion (85). Emotions/affects are then qualitatively different: they have their own ‘distinctive qualitative kinetic dynamics’ (85).
At least three different approaches can be identified then: affect equals emotions; emotion is a type of affect; or affects and emotions are different. A fourth approach, however, is to avoid the whole problem by mentioning neither affect nor emotion – such is Casey’s singular approach: he instead likens surprise to glance, something that is perhaps less contentious and more familiar.
This difference in understanding and use of terms then makes the guiding question ‘Surprise: An Emotion?’ difficult to answer: it of course depends on what an emotion is. So when Steinbock argues surprise is an emotion, and Depraz that it is not, they are working with slightly different understandings of what emotion is. For Depraz, emotion is an affect, for Steinbock it is not. Yet both agree that the aspect that differentiates surprise as one or the other is temporality: surprise is not sudden but part of a more involved process.
Perhaps some attention to the terms being used (affect, passion, feeling, emotion) might yield a more productive discussion. The terms affect and passion in particular have a long and rich philosophical heritage and perhaps most significantly enter the philosophical discourse through its use by Cicero, Augustine and others to translate the Greek pathos. Now, whilst passiones is a transliteration of the Greek pathos with similar meanings, affectio already existed in Latin and is comprised of the prefix ad- + facio. Ad- usually adds a movement to or against something whilst facio has a very broad signification including to make, build, construct or produce. Passiones is also the root of our passive and thus this choice of translation would foreground an essential passivity to this realm of experience. Whereas, with the choice of affect, which can be active or passive voiced (‘to affect or be affected’ will become central to interpretations of Spinoza), it is the binary of active/passive that is paramount in discussions of Greek pathos.
However, Cicero, in Tusculan Disputations, chooses neither affect nor passion but uses perturbatio to translate πάθος. He prefers this to morbus, meaning ‘diseases’ because the Greeks also used πάθος for exaltation and joy which we cannot consider disease. Thus, already we see the problem of valence when it comes to choosing a term to characterize these experiences – the term itself cannot be valenced. Furthermore, by choosing pertubatio, Cicero makes a philosophical intervention in the reception of Greek philosophy by replacing medical metaphors with metaphors of movement and reintroducing into Latin a model of mind in Plato and Pythagoras who divided the soul into two: one of peacefulness that shares in reason and another that doesn’t, the seat of stormy emotions, motus turbidos. Perturbatio captures this metaphorical domain as it is comprised of the prefix per- meaning ‘thoroughly, to completion’ and turbāre from turbo ‘to disturb’ and implicitly contains a sense of a passive initiation of something that must run its course which means that, for Cicero, it becomes imperative to avoid perturbations in the first place as once initiated they cannot be stopped but must flow to completion.
On a purely etymological level, this understanding of perturbation resembles that of emotion which derives from the Latin ēmovēre to move out, drive away or banish, for example, pain. In this choice of concepts it is an implicit negatively valenced motion (as turbo or moveo) that is foregrounded . However, from a wider perspective than mere etymology, Thomas Dixon’s From Passions to Emotions claims that by 1850, the category of emotion had subsumed ‘passions,’ ‘affections’ and ‘sentiments’ in most English-language psychological theorists such as Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40). The increase in popularity of emotion arose from the 17th century consolidation of philosophies of individualism as well as a secularisation that sought to avoid the associations of passion and affection with the biblical and theological preferring emotion for its alternative network of relations to psychology, law, observation, evolution, etc. This resulted in differing causal explanations for the phenomena: whilst Christian philosophers assumed passions were the soul acting on the body, emotions then became the brain acting on the body. The scientific brain replaces the theological soul as agent.
This analysis of concepts reveals at root two alternative approaches adequately described by affect/passion and emotion. Whether separated or identified, however, they nevertheless share an implicit foundation in activity and passivity and in the metaphorical domains of theology, medicine and physics. The question as to whether surprise is an emotion, affect or other is therefore not philosophically, historically or politically neutral. And this question continues to haunt the pages of this volume: for the question of valence appears regularly as well as the question of active/passive. And the metaphorical domain continues to oscillate between a philosophical approach (mainly that of phenomenology) and a more scientific one of psychology and linguistics. Indeed, the sheer diversity of disciplines included in this volume (without any one dominating) – medical (depression), philosophy (phenomenology), science (psychology), theological (in the discussion of Paul) or language and literature – continues the question over which metaphorical domain to place the concepts in. Such a complex and multi-faceted problem does indeed touch on everything from language, linguistics, phenomenology, science and theology and it is therefore refreshing that this volume features accounts from all these differing approaches.
Moreover, the volume is enhanced through combinations of these disciplines: the introduction states the multidisciplinary approaches as ‘philosophy, psychophysiology, psychiatry and linguistics’ (vi) and mention early attempts at the interface of philosophy and linguistics, phenomenology and psycho-neuro-physiology or philosophy-phenomenology. Phenomenology, neuroscience, physiology, is an interesting and productive binding.
If this short history of the concepts used to describe this realm of experience reveals anything, it is perhaps how implicated in past metaphysics this whole discourse is. Thus, it might be productive to uncover how implicitly the authors depend on such a past metaphysics (notably that of a past metaphysics of coupled opposites derived from Greek philosophy) in approaching the central question posed by the book. Furthermore, perhaps the value of this book lies in its manifestation of a tension relating to how surprise appears to depend on and yet transcend these categories and conceptual histories of philosophy.
Sheets-Johnstone speaks directly to this question of past metaphysics when she complains of a ‘metaphysics of absence’ that leads to an ‘absence of the body below the neck’ (84). The traditional body/mind division is that which leads to this critique. But the influence of a past metaphysics of coupled opposites is felt most concretely with the numerous oppositions that continue to structure the problem field: positive/negative, approach/avoidance, and sympathetic/parasympathetic nervous systems not to mention emotion/cognition and emotion/volition. Such a metaphysics enables the very analysis Livet proposes in his concluding paragraph where he walks through eight possible combinations based on oppositional pairings of explicit/implicit, emotion/volition and the transition between the two. This then requires also that emotion be opposed to cognition and the whole realm of complexity is perhaps reduced to slotting aspects into a neat, three dimensional grid of implicit/explicit, emotion/volition, affect/cognition.
But perhaps the main oppositional pair that governs all these other pairs is the active/passive which features prominently in many authors’ discussions and may stem from the translation of the Greek pathos into a discourse of passivity. For example, Steinbock asks whether surprise is active or passive given that startle must be passive (10). For Livet, the active/passive is applied to the difference between emotions (passive) and volitions (active) and Livet argues both can actually be active either in an explicit, conscious or implicit way. But ultimately, Livet and Steinbock both demonstrate just how futile and inadequate conceiving something like emotions as passive or active is. Steinbock notes that the active/passive cannot adequately be applied to surprise for it cannot be purely passive but indicates transition from a more passive to a more active awakening (12). Often what is passive is said to be also active leading to them being active and passive at the same time and the whole point of the distinction to disappear.
The centrality of the active/passive together with the alternate history of mostly disturbing movements gives rise to a conception of affects as quantitative flows and is evidenced in the repeated mentions of intensity and valence. For example, in Depraz’s brief history of the concept of valence that began with Kurt Lewin in 1935. He proposed valence as a double-opposed movement of attraction and repulsion in reference to his force-field analysis of social situations. It defines the intrinsic attractiveness of an event, object or situation and, by extension, also the attractiveness of the emotion itself. This concept then became ‘an operative concept to define the very structural dynamics of emotions in psychology’ (41). Perhaps we could say more generally it is a metaphysics of coupled opposites that defines the structural dynamics of emotion implicit to psychology?
Given the privileging of their disturbing character, passions, affects or emotions are then treated as (or have to be differentiated from) external impositions disrupting purely self-present subjects that produces philosophies of defence that privilege sameness over difference. This approach would then consider surprise as negative or, at least, somewhat out of our control.
Furthermore, if surprise is based very much on this difference between world and self, the question of what is surprising – prominent mostly in the linguistics section – is problematised as it will vary from individual to individual. Philosophies might then seek to ‘master’ affects: because one could not know in advance whether a surprise would be negative or positive, it is better to resist them all together. This question of individuality presents a challenge to those papers that try to elicit surprise in experimental settings. Can surprise be identified in the absence of the experiencer and their expectations that are often implicit? This is perhaps why Steinbock differentiates surprise from startle – one could agree we could all be startled by a loud interruption but whether one is surprised by some of the examples might depend on one’s experience in the world, particularly in the case of police interactions (9). Perhaps this question underlies the difficulty inherent to the project of deciding whether surprise is an emotion.
Bloechl is perhaps most explicit in addressing this question. He writes that, if surprise depends on some difference between a subject’s expectation and actuality, ‘the intelligibility of the experience depends in some important measure on the condition of the subject and its relation to the world in which it lives’. He thus argues we can differentiate among surprises by attending to the context in which they occur (historical, cultural, personal-psychological, etc.). But, he adds, ‘without surrendering the possibility of grasping their inner unity in some irreducible essence (eidos)’ (119). What is it that remains the same across all differences in surprise, different expectations, different subjectivities? The experience of difference?
An important point to mention on this question of individuality and whether emotions like surprise can be said to be universal is the focus Ekman’s paradigm of ‘basic emotions’ based on facial expressions receives in Depraz, Brizard, Goutéraux, Celle et al. Although Ekman receives criticism in Sheets-Johnstone for ‘“the absence of the body below the neck”’ (84), his paradigm as a whole continues to pervade the psychological discourse of emotions despite major methodological criticisms coming from within and without psychology. Ekman’s paradigm has been coherently critiqued, particularly over its claims to cross-cultural comparison, most notably by Ruth Leys in her The Ascent of Affect.
So is there an alternative to this approach to affects and to surprise? Could we uncover such an alternative, manifest them in the same way surprise acts to manifest a difference between implicit expectations and actuality? Can a focus on surprise yield the very surprises needed to reveal implicit foundations? Perhaps surprise best offers such a path with its ambiguous valence problematizes any neat ascription to either positive or negative. Furthermore, whilst we may know surprise in itself, the details of its surprise is unique to each occurrence. And, in the surprise, we can learn the difference between our habitual, implicit being as it becomes manifested in the difference to the actual. Thus, affects here become a potential for individual growth and becoming rather than something to be defended against whilst retaining some universality for comparison and intersubjective understanding.
One such alternative is being drawn out by the work of Depraz for instance in her rejection of opposites for circularity (39). She argues, refreshingly, that ‘integrated emotions [like love, submission, etc.] show that we have to deal here with a three-dimensional dynamic model and not with a linear list of emotions opposed one to the other’ (29). She notes how phenomenology is uniquely positioned to enable such a synthetic integration of of cognitive, physiological, evolutionary and other aspects and her proposal is for a cardiophenomenology that places the emphasis not on the brain but on the heart partly because the heart-system is an integrative system and better recognizes the ‘unique dynamic circular living rythmic of such a system’ (48). The heart self-organizes ‘as soon as the embryo develops spontaneous contractions independently of the brain’ and integrates the nervous and brain system as well as performing a control function (48-49). The heart is both physio-organic and uniquely lived. You can’t feel your neurons but you can feel your heart and thus is ‘self-feelable’, an auto-affection. Thus the heart becomes, ‘the matrix of the person as both lived (affection) and organic (muscle), or again, the core of the weaving between the first- and the third-person experience of the subject’ (48).
Such an approach allows for physiological measures to get third-person perspectives on surprise as startle yet also allows for comparison with first-person perspectives on the feeling of those physiological measures. It also allows the experiential aspect not just a theoretical-textual approach so that individual differences in singular surprising events can be acknowledged. Surprise is thus the core-experience of a heart-centred, cardiophenomenology for Depraz.
This focus on the heart and its rhythmicity gives a more interactive circular dynamic than the perhaps active/passive transmissions of the brain from input to muscular output. Instead of causal, sequential flows of neuronal pathways, of flowing out of movements that must be expended, which always eventually leads to the active and passive (the brain as active sending out of passive sensations or movements), Depraz enables a focus on integration and circularity.
Desmidt also mentions cardiac psychology as ‘an integrative dynamic that includes the systems of the context, the body (and the heart and brain within the body), and the lived experience that dynamically interact according to the three phases to produce an emotional experience’ (64). He quotes Craig’s model of emotion in which an emotional experience ‘is produced by the sequential integration in the insular cortex of five types of information according to a spatial gradient’ (66).
Yet is this a move that repeats the debate between Galen and Aristotle – Aristotle seeing the heart as the centre, Galen the brain? For the nervous system is also seen as integrative. Perhaps the ultimate issue here is not whether it is the brain or the heart that is central but the challenge to the dominance of the active/passive ‘sending out’ for one that is more about circular dynamics.
Livet also acknowledges there should be a focus on ‘the entanglements between the different aspects of motivation experience […] without taking for granted restrictive definitions that overestimate their oppositions and underestimate their intimate relations. He urges a study of the ‘entanglements between different aspects of motivational experience without taking for granted restrictive definitions that overestimate their oppositions and underestimate their intimate relations’ (114). As to the active/passive, Livet recognizes that emotions are usually considered passive whilst volitions active but proposes they be considered as two kinds ‘that belong to a more inclusive category, namely the category of motivational dynamics’ (105).
It is then a question, not of oppositions but of entanglements, bindings, integrations that cannot be reduced to couplings of opposites or mechanical linear flows of active and passive but instead opens to the question of what bindings might enable and sustain our flourishing. Bloechl can perhaps be read as providing how an affect such as surprise could lead to our becoming and not be something to be defended against, mastered or known in advance through the example of Paul. Notably, Bloechl attends both to Paul’s state such that he experienced the surprise of a conversion (which depended on Paul’s ‘disposition’) as well as how he then integrated the experience. He looks for evidence for the former by attending to Paul’s Judaism prior to the experience and the latter through the Christianity in Paul’s letters.
What Bloechl concludes is that in Paul’s experience, and perhaps the experience of surprise more generally, there is a passage from inward and personal experience to an outward and universal discourse. He adds, ‘unless there is an affinity […] between that which surprises and that which is interpreted as the surprise, the event itself is literally unintelligible’ (127-128). This ‘affinity’ could also be called a context and it is surprise which can alter the entirety of a context, it comes, he adds, with ‘its own horizon of meaning’. Yet ‘unless at least some of this new meaning can be fused with the meaning of what it may challenge and transform, it remains strictly alien. The nature and limits of that fusion are open to interpretation and call for concepts that do not obscure the experience in question’ (128). Surprise and affects not so individual as to be incomparable across individuals or cultures but not so universal as to preclude the first-person perspective. Somewhere between reductive binaries and trivializing infinities.
Such an individual/universal approach is demonstrated in the volume applied to depression which is conceptualized in terms of an inability to anticipate pleasure in a situation even when they do then feel pleasure in its actualisation. Yet, it is a pity this account did not take into account the individual histories of expectation/actuality that is so paramount to surprise – if someone is depressed and cannot anticipate pleasure in a situation perhaps it is because of so many failed expectations? Although the authors suggest ‘hyporeactivity in depression may be characterized by an imparied cardiac physiology, especially during the anticipation phase’ (67). Here the question of individual history and ahistorical biology rears its head and the benefit should surely be in their mutual cooperation.
Perhaps if there is one key theme emerging from all these discussions it is the question of difference; difference between emotion and cognition, a difference encountered in an organism’s interaction with itself and its world that leads to differentiations, splits, retreats or avoidance and it extending or protending itself into its past/future. This focus on difference also helps against one discipline dominating: where is the organism’s self-difference? In the neurons? The gap between neurons? Any criticism of a cognitive privilege could then be countered by the fact that these expectations are often implicit and, moreover, manifested in the difference experienced and thus prior to any split between mind and body, this split coming after the fact as an attempt to integrate the experience. Indeed, it could be through a historical series of surprises that we find ourselves in this problem of mind/body dualism split. Is the feeling of oneself then arising from a unity with oneself or difference to oneself?
There are several mentions of the entangled nature of emotions and surprise. Can these be best understood within a metaphysics of opposites such as of active/passive, of cause/effect any longer? Or is the domain emotions try to capture one more of contingency, of expectations meeting actuality where these are not opposites but in their unfolding produce each other. Just like Picasso’s quote ‘je ne cherche pas, je trouve’ cited in this volume: it is only in finding, in the difference between expectation and actuality, that one knows one was searching.
It is in the unfolding of the entanglement this collection of essays resides in rather than the entanglement itself where surprise and emotion surely lie. Otherwise, we cannot truly find the alternative to the dominance of cognitive and computational so many authors descry. It seems if universality is not acceptable, and definitions vary, the experience of defining affects is the very experience of individuating, growing and self-differentiation, this self-differentiation that is the universal. Is this not a more adequate account of the affect surprise? Such would be the performative and not merely textual effect of reading this volume. Today, perhaps it is not wonder but surprise that is the beginning of philosophy.