Kas Saghafi: The World after the End of the World: A Spectro-Poetics

The World after the End of the World: A Spectro-Poetics Book Cover The World after the End of the World: A Spectro-Poetics
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Kas Saghafi
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

Reviewed by: Joeri Schrijvers (North-West University Potchefstroom, South Africa)

I came to this book because of the back cover’s promise that “for Derrida, salutation, greeting and welcoming is resistant to the economy of salvation”. Having written a book myself on the topic of greetings and salutations—a book that contested precisely this claim—I could not not be intrigued. There is no doubt that the salut, and especially the ‘salut sans salvation’ plays a central role in Jacques Derrida’s later writings. In fact, it would be really hard to doubt whether, for Derrida, this little word ‘salut’ could ever be sufficiently resistant to the economy of the salvation: many of his writings in effect question whether it is, for us late moderns, possible at all to distance ourselves from Christianity or any other matter that speaks of salvation.

Yet Saghafi promises (the promise being a salvific remainder in itself) to give us just this. In seven chapters and a prologue, all in one way or another devoted to mourning the death of the other, which arguably is the book’s main concern, Saghafi explores what happens when the other greets us and what happens when this no longer occurs—on the occasion of the other’s death for instance. The author is quite clear that a personal event had interrupted his writing: “a heartrending, ravaging event in ‘my’ world led me, forced me, in my grief” (xxiii, also 137, n.19) to think about these themes of mourning and departure—the latter theme inspired, though, by Jean-Luc Nancy, one of the other protagonists of the book. It is true that the death of the other is no small matter, not for Derrida, and not for any one of us. Derrida, in brief, claimed that the other’s death is not a ‘part’ of the world that disappears but that with the death of the other—every other—no less than an entire world crumbles.

The book argues that “Derrida’s taking up of the notion of ‘the end of the world’ […] dictates an engagement with the thought of salut, for if the death of the other—a parting—signifies the end of the world, this departure then necessitates, stressing the perfomative, a salut-ation” (xxvii). How to address the other once she has left and gone to ‘the other side’ and how, if so, does she greet us ‘from wherever she is’ (referring to Derrida’s final note saluting his audience at the gravesite ‘smiling at us from wherever he might be’)?

The first chapter comments on Derrida’s reading of Paul Celan’s verse ‘the world is gone, I must carry you’. One is reminded here of Ludwig Binswanger’s account of the death of the lover: when my lover dies, our relationship depends on me, and on the few friends that are similarly left behind. It is we who will have to carry (out) our relationship. Our love, the love between my lover and me, is upon the occasion of her death, in my hands entirely. Derrida’s comments on our mortal condition make us aware that it is only through our dealings with the other that there is world in the first place. We carry the world, in a sense, through and for the other. If the other is gone, the world no longer makes sense and one might rightly say: it is the end of the world—the world is gone indeed. Throughout the book teases out some of Derrida’s more familiar themes in his last seminar The Beast and the Sovereign, reception of which is only now beginning. Saghafi carefully reads into  this seminar’s interpretation of ‘carrying the other’ a “remarkable description of an experience” (12).  It is with this experience that Saghafi’s book will close.

Chapter two introduces to the debate between Derrida and Nancy. Where Derrida states that the reason for religion is to provide a safe space for the living, a promise that they’ll be safe and intact, Nancy’s notion of what is intact differs. It is for Nancy only the dead body, which for him attains a certain completion, a state of ‘being finished’, that is intact. Nothing can happen to or arrive for the dead. Derrida’s account of religion mentions that the sanctity, which provides and promises that the living will be safe and intact, assumes itself a position of perfect integrity: the holy is what will remain untouched—it is ‘at a distance’ and is what will save us without itself feeling the need to be saved. Yet to know about this safe haven over there, about this instance that is set apart from all the rest, some mediation is needed. This is what Derrida calls the “law of tact” (25). In a language echoing the tradition, one would need to say that the divine must first have ‘touched’ us whilst so instructing us not to touch the divine, that is, not to grasp, comprehend it in its immediacy. Saghafi adds: “what is tact but ‘knowing how to touch without touching’” (25, quoting Le toucher, 82). The tactful advance of what is saintly needs to be reciprocated similarly, on the part of us humans, with tact. One is reminded of the beginning of The Animal that therefore I am, where Derrida notes that reticence and restraint are at the origin of the religious attitude: Bellérophon is admonished not to expose and make public the nudity of a women imposing herself, which he had, of course, had already seen. Bellérophon needs to ‘unsee’ what he has seen and ‘untouch’ what had touched him. The latter movement Derrida calls the drive for immunity: to leave untouched what has touched us.

Both Derrida and Nancy here take Christic scenes from the gospels, particularly of Jesus’ supposed resurrection, as figurative of how we today could approach the question of death. Christ’s frequent insistence of touching the sick, for instance, illuminates the law of tact. Nancy has responded to Derrida’s stance in his Noli me tangere, insisting, for his part, on what remains (and needs to remain untouched) in these scenes. Well-known are the examples of the risen Christ ‘not to touch’ him—’for I will be with you for not much longer’. For Nancy, this departure of the Christ is a figure for the parting that we all experience, witness (and eventually undergo) in this span of eighty odd years granted to us. Christ so presents “the infinite continuation of death” (29 quoting Noli me tangere, 17) to us. For Nancy, what is untouched is what is intact and which will no longer touch.  What remains with and for the living is the persistence of death and departure  of everything which surrounds us. This is what Nancy’s secular  notion of anastasis intends to convey: it is the attitude of the men and women who have seen death in life and are ‘still standing’.  Derrida will however fiercely critique Nancy’s, well, stance, because this secular account of resurrection for Derrida cannot sufficiently distance this secular ‘salut sans salvation’ from its religious counterpart and will therefore continue to console and save. A deconstruction of Christianity as Nancy proposes is destined to repeat Christianity in its very gestures.

Chapter three focuses on Derrida’s deconstruction of death. Here Saghafi discusses Derrida’s Aporias where the latter questions the most common “figure” of death, namely as “the crossing of the line between existence and non-existence (45): one moment you’re here and the next moment you’re not. Noteworthy here is the parallel between death and the event: “both are unpredictable, radically other, lack a horizon, and come as an absolute surprise” (48). Death, for Derrida, is the great unknown: one cannot even say, with certainty, that through death one crosses a threshold between one place and the other or that one moves from one state to the other. Death, then, is not a threshold, not what crosses a threshold “but rather what affects the very experience of the threshold itself” (47, quoting Aporias, 34): death is no longer that instance that separates life from death, existence from non-existence but that skandalon that is ‘already here’ whilst ‘being over there’ and utterly other. Concretely this would mean that the living, somewhat like Nancy also argues, need to learn to live with death in the midst of their lives already. Like Heidegger, death for Derrida is not something that will happen later—’eventually’—but what happens ‘first and foremost’ to others; on the contrary, death is already here to the point of being the condition of a meaningful life. Life then is itself (a form of) dying constantly. It is, in short, a “living of death” (50, quoting H.C For Life, 89) while dying alive—a factum for a mortal being that is dying, ‘coming closer to death’ general opinion would say at every point in time. Saghafi states it nicely: “”the finitude of Dasein does not mean that it will die one day, but that is exists as dying” (85). Derrida’s difficult idea somewhat resembles the more popular opinion that it is only because of our mortality that life makes sense and that we undertake actions at all (an echo of which one, in turn, can found in John D. Caputo’s recent works).

Chapter four focuses on Nancy’s take on resurrection as ‘anastasis’. Nancy is quite clear that he seeks to retrieve the nonreligious meaning of resurrection, a sense utterly secular and mundane. In a text devoted to Maurice Blanchot—’Consolation, Desolation,’ part of Dis-enclosure—Nancy, Saghafi argues, responds to Derrida’s objection mentioned above. Nancy insists that no consolation is at issue here. At times one has the impression of a race between Derrida and Nancy to interpret death as the utmost foreign instance. For Nancy for instance the dead do not leave something behind as if something of them would remain in a certain place (64). One wonders whether Nancy is thinking of the place Derrida mentioned at his salutary note. On the contrary, Nancy argues, the dead do not depart to somewhere, we just “enter into the movement of leave-taking” (64, referring to Partir-le départ, 46): the dead one is the one who never stops leaving us (without a place to go to or to return from).

Here Nancy meets, in a way, Derrida again. For if the dead friend in a sense never stops leaving us (however painful), it is up to us to keep the dead alive. This is possible from out of a peculiar sensibility Nancy argues: “as soon as I name the dead one […] I grant her another life” (71). Another example might be the phone calls people make to the voicemails of deceased loved ones. This address and salutation is something we would need to think about when pursuing this sensibility. Yet it is not the end of religion, as Saghafi at the beginning of his book seems to imply, it might instead be its very beginning—no thought of salvation would perhaps ever occur without these salutes. In any case, this is where Nancy’s stance toward death arrives: “relations do not die” (71, referring to Adoration 92). There remains something of our relations to the dead as long as we speak about or address our dead ones. Again we find these difficult thinkers approaching a thought that has passed into cultural knowledge. A strange consequence of this kind of resurrection is, of course, that such a resurrection no longer befalls the good and the saintly only but the wicked ones just as well (and perhaps even more): after all, people still speak about (and thus relate to) Adolf Hitler too—an insight I owe to William Desmond, who mentioned this to me already a long time ago.

Saghafi concludes the chapter with mentioning that Nancy, somewhat oddly and unexpectedly, mentions “an unheard-of place” (72 in Adoration, 92) in which one could somehow encounter the (dead) other. It is clear then that both Nancy and Derrida are partaking in a thought of “the beyond of death” (74), however secular they are or wanted to be. With this, Saghafi suggestively and also somewhat provocatively, asks: “Would it be a strange hypothesis to suggest that Nancy’s [is] a reading of Derrida’s seminar The Beast and the Sovereign, 2?” (74). There is, to my knowledge, no direct reference to this seminar in Nancy’s most recent works.

Chapter five discusses Martin Hägglund’s recent interpretation of Derrida in his  book Radical Atheism. It is safe to say that Saghafi is not a fan of Hägglund, who refuses to see any ethical or religious turn in Derrida’s thinking, whereas Saghafi’s account of Derrida’s deconstruction of death rather sees in Derrida a secular account of the ‘beyond’ of death, a ‘dying alive’ that, even though it might be a phantasm is no less real. The desire for survival can therefore not be, as Hägglund has it, a mere desire to live on, as long as possible, until our deaths. Saghafi does not spare harsh words when it comes to Hägglund: his work is supposed to be “shorn of subtlety, elegance and complexity” (79 and esp. 154, n.4).

There is a lot to say about Derrida’s atheism, but the best lines come from Derrida himself. Saghafi quotes from Penser ce qui vient (80), a talk given at the Sorbonne in 1994 just after the publication of Spectres of Marx. Here Derrida beautifully says that he is an atheist “who remembers God and who loves to remember God”. The quote is sufficient already to question Hägglund’s indeed rather straightforward account of a rudimentary—Dawkins-like—radical atheism in Derrida. Derrida knew very well what damage a thought of the absolute can do; yet he knew, similarly, that there is, as Nancy has it in Adoration, a genuine need for the absolute and that it, here and there, has done some good too.

Saghafi agrees with Hägglund that there is an “infinite finitude” to be detected in Derrida, but he differs from Hägglund’s interpretation about how the phantasm of infinity from out of finitude is to be conceived. With Geoffrey Bennington’s classic Derridabase, Saghafi states that différance has given us to think “the inextricable complication of the finite and the infinite” (83-4) just as it complicates, as we have seen, the boundaries between life and death. This complication, for Derrida, has an odd consequence: if our mortal condition is such that we exist and are alive as dying then death is the end of this possibility of dying. When dead, my possibility to die (alive, continuously) has come to an end. By dying, I stop dying alive. This also means that, as long as we are not dead, we are in effect “essentially survivors” (91, quoting Politics of Friendship, 8) like one says after a hard day of work that we have survived another day.

These subtleties aside, it is time to ask: from whence the phantasm of infinity in these mortal lives of ours? From what experience, say, a phenomenologist (which Derrida also was) might start? If we are here only ‘for a little while’, as Heidegger would have said, how does this while, this span between birth and death, this delay, this lapse and deferment of death—terms that are all linked to Derrida’s French sursis—dream up something of the infinite? For these questions, chapter 6 turns to Michael Naas’ magnificent Miracle and Machine (2012) and its elaborate discussion of survival and living on: “Derrida did not believe that  we live on somewhere else or that we live again […] While we are not resurrected for another life […] ‘we’ do survive or live on for a time after death” (99, quoting Miracle and Machine, 270). What is this ‘for a time’ and in what sense goes it grant us a sort of delay from death? Saghafi here offers a reading of the second seminar on The Beast and the Sovereign: “Survivre does not refer to a state of life after demise […] but to a reprieve, an afterlife that is more than life or more life still” (100). General opinion would have: gone but not forgotten.

Derrida came to this idea, one might argue, through his idea of the originary trace and the traces we leave on, say, post-cards, in letters, home-movies and so on. There is something awkward about writing a few lines in a book, for instance, once one realizes that it is likely that these lines might survive my own very being and will be read by someone, likely a loved one, long after my demise. These traces of what I was, then, might even occur grief and pain on the other’s part (or joy if these few lines were funny). In that sense, these traces are ‘my’ survival and are already, in a sense, left there in this book, on this post-card, for the other. This ‘curvature of intersubjective’ space, to allude to Levinas, is present for Derrida in all friendly relations. One might even say that if I am not ready to mourn your loss, I am not really your friend either. This means that, from the very beginning, the possibility of loss is present in friendly and loving relations: the possibility that he or she parts and that one of us will have to mourn about this demise is always present. Yet the loss of the friend, as we have seen, is not the loss of the friendship altogether, except that he, she or me will have to carry the relationship forward. Friendship, Derrida says, “is promised to ‘testamentary revenance, the haunting return of […] more (no more) life’” (103, quoting Politics of Friendship, 3)Derrida’s plus de vie means both no more life and more life. All this, of course, signifies that for Derrida “surviving begins before death and not merely after it. [Life] itself is originarily survival” (104). Since the infinite dying will always persist, we will always (at least for a while) be survivors of the other. In this way, Derrida takes the idea of a testamentary revenance to an ontological level.

Chapter six turns to Derrida’s treatment of the phantasm of living death, mostly through Derrida’s reading of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in, again, The Beast and the Sovereign 2. With the phantasm, Derrida (and Saghafi) are trying to understand “the phantasm of infinitization at the heart of finitude” (36, quoting Death Penalty 1, 259).  Such a phantasm, in no way, can be separated from the real as the metaphysical tradition was wont to do. On the contrary, the phantasm (although dreamed up and imagined) is what exercises a power over us, what makes things happen (or not). It is this hold over us, of the idea of the infinite and of infinitization more general (which happens most often, these days, in the repetitive machine-like bad infinity of consumption culture) that Derrida sought to understand.

The phantasm of ‘living death’the topic of the seventh chapteris for Derrida most noteworthy in Robinson Crusoe’s constant fear of being buried alive by an earthquake or swallowed alive by wild beasts. Such a phantasm of ‘dying alive’ is, although imagined, no less than a lived experience. Derrida even argues that Robinson, because of his repeatedly imagined anxieties, has already lived through the experience of being buried alive. The phantasm is a performative: it provokes the event (Cf. 124). It is this experience (of the phantasm as phantasm) that Derrida tries to take seriously. Yet this, say, ontic and fictional phantasm in Defoe’s novel is a figure just as well for our ontological status as survivors who are, as long as we are living, dying.

This ‘shared sense’ of dying alive is, for Derrida, an affect and a sensibility: we sense that we are survivors now and will be survivors for a while later. It is with a finitude that reaches further than mere finitude that we are dealing here. A phenomenologist might compare this idea to the idea of breathing: with every breath I take, I am in effect closer to death. Yet every breath I take also entails that I am still alive and will live a bit more. In this sense, breathing too is an auto-immune pharmakon.

This leads us to a second somewhat odd consequence of Derrida’s thought of eternity, immortality or the afterlife. Robinson’s fear and phantasm are not the eternal life of the gods or of souls saved, but rather the fear of, come the moment, not being able to die. This ‘immortality’, if any, wavers between no longer able to live and not yet capable of death. This is also what separates Derrida’s idea of eternity from Nancy’s: where Nancy is influenced by a “Spinozist reading of eternity” (74) when arguing that eternal is what is independent of time, Derrida’s dealing with the phantasm shows a dying alive that still takes time. It is an eternity or a ‘beyond’  that arises from within time.

One might sense an idea of community in Derrida here: since I sense that something will survive (of) me, I sense the other as “the survivor of me” (126, quoting The Beast and the Sovereign 2, 131). Since, however, I am also the other of the other (as Derrida famously argued in his critique of Levinas in Violence and Metaphysics) I will necessarily also be a survivor of others. In every relation, then, there is survival and there will be survivors.

It is this “weave” (127) of life and death that the concluding pages of the book bring to bear.  This weave is the ground without ground from which all ideas of infinity, all phantasms of infinitizations, spring: we believe that it will go  on forever and act accordingly. And even though Derrida will not subscribe to any simple (bad) idea of infinity, such a groundless ground is nonetheless the base from which one can speak of “an excess of life that resists annihilation” (129, quoting Archive Fever, 60).

Does this thinking of survival offer anything to those who have lived through the experience of loss and death? Is there beyond the idea that I will survive my living body for a while anything that speaks ‘from beyond the grave’ as it were? The odd logic of community mentioned above, through which I live as if I will live eternally (or at least for an indefinite amount of time) also means that the logic of this (mortal) life surpasses the logic of thinking, rationality and consciousness. This, Derrida argues, entails that “this thinking of affect requires a certain ‘as if’, ‘as if something could still happen to the dead one’” (132, quoting The Beast and the Sovereign 2, 149). There seems to be developing a new sense of sensibility here which arises “if we allow ourselves to be affected [by a possibility of the impossible, [by] the impossible possibility that the dead one can be still affected or that we could still be affected by the dead one him- or herself” (ibid.). This, then, seems the final deconstruction that Derrida has left us with: “is being-affected excluded by death? Is there no affect without life?” (133). It seems that The Beast and the Sovereign permits us to doubt—and this is a lot. It means that although it might not be reasonable to believe in the afterlife, it is not altogether unreasonable to come up with the idea.

It is to Saghafi’s credit to makes us think about these issues. Yet one must also state that the book feels somewhat incomplete. At times, Saghafi gives us a cacophony of citations which leaves us guessing just a bit too much about the book’s overall argument. The two main themes of the book, namely mourning after ‘the end of the world’ and the question whether Derrida’s discourse can be dissociated from the discourse on religion are handled in a quite unbalanced way. In fact, after chapter two or so the latter theme disappears completely from the book’s focus (although there is a mention of it at p. 97). This bring us to two critiques.

Perhaps, first, the author realized that the two discourses, on salut and salvation, in Derrida cannot be dissociated? There is no way for Derrida that today, in contemporary culture, any discourse can be safely sheltered from the discourse of Christian religion (precisely because the idea of being saved and safely sheltered is the very idea of Christianity) and certainly not the discourse of greeting and address as being one of the very sources of religion for Derrida. This is at least what Derrida implies in Rogues where he speaks of two orders within the earthly Jerusalem: these orders, be they of the unconditional and conditional, of the salut with salvation as much as the salut sans salvation, are indeed ‘heterogeneous’ (which Saghafi notes) but also indissociable and inseparable (Rogues 114 and 172n. 12). The one time that Derrida actually mentions a “radically non-Christian deconstuction” (35, quoting Death Penalty 1, 245), one might also read:  “can one think [such] a deconstruction?” “Nothing is less certain” (Death Penalty 1, 245).

Secondly, one cannot help to detect some romantic exaggeration in Derrida’s thinking of death as the end of the world, each time anew. Although it certainly is the case that every other death is absolutely other and a genuine loss for all the people around the deceased one, it also needs to be acknowledged that differences are to be noted between the deaths of a lover and a friend over and against the death of a long-lost friend, an acquaintance or, say, a former coworker. It rather seems the case that the sense and shape of the shared world with this particular other alleviates or strengthens rather our experience of his or her loss. One therefore also needs to ask whether Derrida is not, with the idea of every other death as a genuine ‘end of the world’ introducing some ‘sameness’ in the idea of death: is it true that all deaths, always and everywhere, would entail ‘the end of the world’ for us and for me?

Beata Stawarska: Saussure’s Linguistics, Structuralism, and Phenomenology: The Course in General Linguistics after a Century

Saussure’s Linguistics, Structuralism, and Phenomenology: The Course in General Linguistics after a Century Book Cover Saussure’s Linguistics, Structuralism, and Phenomenology: The Course in General Linguistics after a Century
Beata Stawarska
Palgrave Macmillan
Hardback 53,49 €
IX, 133

Reviewed by: Jacob Rump (Creighton University)

In Saussure’s Linguistics, Structuralism, and Phenomenology: The Course in General Linguistics after a Century, Beata Stawarska surveys for English-language readers important differences between the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure as presented in student lecture notes and other materials from his Nachlass, and the received picture of Saussure known to most of his twentieth-century readers via the 1916 Course in General Linguistics assembled and published by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. She highlights several important ways in which the received “Saussurean doctrine”—especially the oppositional pairings of signifier and signified, la langue and la parole, and synchrony and diachrony—is actually more complex and more open-ended than Saussure’s structuralist adherents and poststructuralist critics have claimed. She suggests that this revised understanding of Saussure’s ideas can lead toward a rapprochement between the traditionally opposed camps of structuralism and phenomenology.

I. Theme, Audience, and Approach

Stawarska has done a great service for those of us interested in these issues, but who may not have had the time (as in my case) to read her much larger, 250-page work on this topic, Saussure’s Philosophy of Language as Phenomenology: Undoing the Doctrine of the Course in General Linguistics (Oxford University Press, 2015). Saussure’s Linguistics, Structuralism, and Phenomenology is a much smaller book, published in Palgrave Macmillan’s “Pivot” series designed for works shorter than traditional monographs. The work is presented as a handbook “addressed at a wide, interdisciplinary audience,” which may be read on its own or alongside the text of the course, and Stawarska includes a helpful reading map linking specific chapters in her book to specific chapters in the 1916 published version of the Course. But the book is only partially a commentary on specific chapters of Saussure’s well-known published work. It is also, and indeed, primarily, an exercise in philosophical philology, cataloguing ways in which the published “Saussurean doctrine” differs from the views of Saussure available in the Nachlass. It is heavy on criticisms of the published version of his ideas and evidence intended to set the record straight, but rather light on details concerning the reasons Saussure actually held particular theses and on examination of those theses as self-standing philosophical claims.

Because of this approach, the first and much larger Part I of the book, “Legitimacy of the Saussurean Doctrine” (Chapters 2-10), is in an odd position: it presents the results of highly specialized, high quality research concerning the production and reception of a published work that would seem to be far too specific for “a wide, interdisciplinary audience,” and yet does not engage in the detailed examination of the theoretical issues her research raises for disciplinary audiences expecting critical engagement (e.g., philosophers, literary theorists, perhaps intellectual historians). Similarly, Part II examines Saussure’s “Contemporary Legacy” (Chapters 11-13), but is dominated by broad considerations of the text’s reception and only sketches arguments and positions concerning Saussure and later twentieth-century authors.

After comparing this book to the table of contents of Stawarska’s 2015 work, and reading Patrick Flack’s review of the latter in Phenomenological Reviews, I have the impression that this book is largely a rewriting, rearranging and abridgment of the same material. But that is not the work under review here. Thus, in what follows, I address Saussure’s Linguistics, Structuralism, and Phenomenology as the relatively self-standing handbook it purports to be, and ignore the question of whether Stawarska has more thoroughly defended her interpretation in the earlier-published version of these ideas (I suspect she has). Considered on its own merits, the book offers a fascinating glimpse into issues concerning the promulgation and reception of Saussure’s views, and the implications of these issues for a rapprochement between phenomenology and structuralism, but it offers little more than a glimpse: the book is lacking on the level of substantive philosophical discussion or historical contextualization of the relevant issues. Depending on its readership, this may or may not be a limitation of the work. In the next section of this review, I present a general overview of Part I, raising some critical points along the way. In the final section I turn to the treatment of phenomenological figures and themes, which occurs primarily in Part II, and raise some additional, more specifically phenomenological concerns.

II. Setting the Record Straight on Saussure

The first few chapters provide an overview and helpfully summarize the case against the received interpretation of the Saussurean doctrine. Chapter two outlines the key doctrinal elements that have made the course so influential in the history of twentieth-century intellectual movements, especially structuralism, and surveys various strands of its legacy. Here, Stawarska sets up an important tension that informs the rest of the book: on the one hand, there is good textual evidence that speaks against taking the published content of the book as representing Saussure’s views: “it can be documented that the editors or rather ‘ghostwriters’ of the Course introduced apocryphal content, reversed the order of presentation, projected a conceptual apparatus of vertical dichotomies, and adopted a dogmatic tone in their redacted version of general linguistics” (11).  If we want to get the real Saussurean doctrine rather than that of Bally and Sechehaye, we will need to follow Stawarska in diving into various texts in Saussure’s Nachlass, including the lecture notes of several students who actually attended Saussure’s courses in general linguistics (remarkably, the compilers of the published version did not attend any of the iterations of the course, though they did attend other courses taught by Saussure (16)).

On the other hand, the legacy of the published content of the course has become so important in the history of twentieth-century intellectual movements that simply to reject the received doctrine would be to neglect the very influence that Saussure has had: “a critical study of a Great Book is a testimony to its established legacy and enduring relevance. The force of the critique depends in part upon the recognized importance of the object being critiqued” (12). Twenty-first century readers thus find themselves in a difficult position: on the one hand, details concerning the problematic circumstances surrounding the publication of the course lead us to want to seek out the “real Saussure.” On the other hand—especially insofar as Saussure’s lasting legacy and importance has not been (or has not been exclusively) in the field of linguistics, but rather in fields such as literary theory and Continental philosophy and in broad discipline-spanning intellectual movements like structuralism and post-structuralism—what seems important is not so much figuring out what Saussure actually said, but rather understanding the course in the context of its influential reception—even if that reception is, from the standpoint of authorial intent, highly problematic.

Stawarska uses this tension to frame her own interpretation, which she characterizes as both a “deconstructive” and a “critical” reading of Saussure. And yet her exegesis remains mostly at the level of philological, this-is-what-the-author-really-said considerations. Thus, while Stawarska may be right to characterize the course as “a complex and multifaceted text that arguably deconstructs the very doctrinal understanding it seeks to espouse” (13), there is remarkably little attention paid—with a minor exception in her treatment of Derrida in Chapters Seven and Twelve—to the issues raised by a self-professed deconstructive reading whose main goal seems to be to set the record straight concerning the real intentions of the author. I return to this issue below.

Chapter Three is a useful guide to the shocking ways in which the editors of the published version of the Course both took liberties in the presentation of the material and promoted it through avenues such as publishing their own reviews of the work. There is one important element underlying Stawarska’s broader considerations introduced in this chapter that I wish she had spelled out in greater detail and with more precision. Stawarska is highly critical of Bally and Sechahaye’s concern to present Saussure’s doctrines in linguistics in the light of “complete objectivity” (18), and their efforts “to conform the then emerging science of general linguistics to the normative expectations within scientific disciplines” (11). She seems to suggest that this scientifically oriented presentation somehow leads to the problematic structuralist assumption “that cultural signification can be studied like an object within traditional physical sciences, that is, independently of users and/or observers and irrespective of historical change” (10). And she cites with approval Saussurean critiques, in the Nachlass material, of “naïve realism in linguistics,” of “an unexamined metaphysical commitment to entities assumed to exist independently of language use” and of  “a naturalist approach to language”—all phrases which seem to be references to the same phenomenon (28-29). At the same time, she presents her own antidote to the misreadings as resting on the firm ground of “standards of empirical validity” (26) and as offering “an empirically based understanding” (11) of Saussure.

But there is very little discussion of what exactly these broadly scientific notions, on either side—naturalism, the empirical, natural science, etc.—are taken to be. This is particularly surprising given that both structuralism and phenomenology are known for their detailed considerations of the contested terrains of science and objectivity in the face of considerations of our subjectivity as thinkers, speakers, experiencers and knowers. These are no simple matters, and Stawarska surely owes the reader a more detailed account of them. Scientific objectivity was no more a simple, uncritical, unquestioned doctrine in empirical and formal disciplines at the turn of the twentieth century than it is today. Stawarska’s simultaneous reliance on the authority of the “empirical” (does this mean the lived-experiential, in the phenomenological sense?) and suspicion of objectivity and scientific disciplines is strongly reminiscent of the sort of reactionary anti-scientism characteristic of some post-structuralist and deconstructive theory in the 1980s and 90s. If this is not her position, a more detailed treatment of these concepts would help to show it.

Perhaps the most damning example of Sechehaye and Bally’s violation of academic norms is detailed in Chapter Four, where Stawarska shows that the famous concluding statement of the published Course, “the only true object of study in linguistics is the language, considered in itself and for its own sake” (qtd in Stawarska 24), is apocryphal, and not warranted by the source materials. This influential statement, she shows, becomes a sort of guiding thread for the problematic interpretation of  Saussurean doctrine among structuralists. By singling out language as the sole object of study, and implying that Saussure believed it should be studied as a complete and self-standing system, independent of, e.g., social and historical contingencies, the editors set the stage for the problematic hierarchical and anti-historical presentation of core Saussurean concepts.

Against this hierarchical presentation in the published course, Stawarska presents a “horizontal” (67, 94) interpretation of Saussurean linguistics. For example, contrary to the received view, Saussure did not straightforwardly privilege la langue (the language system, considered in terms of the interrelations of signifiers but independently of its actual usages) over la parole (actual usage of the language in everyday social speech contexts) as the “true object of study in linguistics.” Saussure’s actual presentation of this distinction in the Nachlass is rather more nuanced and modest: he presents la langue as a “platform,” “viewpoint,” or “orientation”  from which to view the “complex, heterogenous linguistic terrain” of la langage, rather than as “a superior and self-standing object” (30). Thus whereas the published course overstates the distinction between la langue and la parole, Saussure’s own statements from the Nachlass lead Stawarska to conclude that, in his actual view, “linguistic study involves an intellectually complex and self-reflective process that, in principle, precludes the possibility of unmediated access to a simple object” (31).

One of the most informative sections of the book explains how the presentation of the well-known figure from Chapter One of the published Course, featuring images of a tree and a horse alongside “ARBOR” and “EQUOS,” was intended by Saussure to represent the traditional nomenclature view of language, according to which there is a separation between “an immutable order of things in the world” and “an immutable order of ideas and words” (38). On this nomenclature view, words stand in for things, and thus constitute a version of what Stawarska calls the  “classical metaphysical view” of representation, such as we find in Aristotle, the Port-Royal rational grammarians, and the Augustinian theory of language Wittgenstein criticizes in the introductory sections of the Philosophical Investigations (38). But the next figure in the published text, which is supposed to represent the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, imports parts of the previous figure (the image of the tree and the word “arbor”) even though there is no support for such importation in the manuscripts of the lectures. On the basis of such considerations, against the received view of the structuralists that Saussure’s treatment of the sign is static and represents a “complete doctrine,” Stawarska argues that Saussure’s actual view as recorded in the Nachlass materials “presents testable, evolving, and if need be, revised hypotheses” (35).

There is of course a tension between structuralist and classical representationalist views. One does not typically think of the structuralists as paradigmatic representationalists. To endorse the view that language or any other semiotic system operates as a system of differences is in fact to downplay, if not reject outright, the claim that words stand in for things. Thus the Saussurean view as presented in the published version of the course is not only unfaithful to Saussure’s actual doctrines, it is also in tension with itself: as presented, “Saussure’s conception of language seems to be divided between, on the one hand, the metaphysical idea of a sign as signans/signatum and, on the other hand, the novel differential understanding of signification developed later in the Course” (37). Setting the stage for her reading of Derrida on Saussure, Stawarska shows how this tension in the published Course is avoided in Saussure’s Nachlass via his account not of absolute but of “relative arbitrariness” (Saussure, qtd. in Stawarska 43) at the level of the language system as a whole (45-46). The real Saussure, Stawarska argues, regards the sign system as always already engaged with the changing socio-historical world and thus open ended.

The socio-historical aspects of the real Saussurean view are investigated more closely by looking at Saussure’s conception of the speech community. Saussure recognizes “a historical fact at the origin of every state of the language” (Saussure, qtd. in Stawarska 51), resulting in a conception according to which “language and the social world are co-constituting factors of cultural signification, and it would be impossible to posit one without simultaneously implicating the other” (51). This is in direct contrast with the way the role of society is downplayed in the published version of the Course. In effect, then, when we consider the unpublished source materials, the Course “effectively complicates the order of the hierarchical dichotomies (la langue and la parole; synchrony and diachrony) from the ‘Saussurian doctrine.’ It calls into question the view that modern linguistics is an ahistorical and formal science, and it suggests that subject and structure-based approaches to cultural signification advanced, respectively, by the traditions of phenomenology and post-structuralism, can be productively combined” (53).

But the chapter does not specify who holds (or held) this view of modern linguistics. The phenomenological and (post-) structuralist considerations that presumably supply the remedy are only gestured at, and the important notion of historicity, so central for phenomenology and arguably one the features that most clearly distinguishes it from structuralism, isn’t discussed in detail. The suggestion seems to be that historicity is dealt with via Stawarska’s Chapter Eight, on synchrony and diachrony. But as both Husserl and Heidegger have shown us, diachrony, temporality, and historicity are not identical concepts, even if they are interrelated. Here, in a pattern repeated throughout the book, at an obvious point of differentiation between structuralism and phenomenology, Stawarska marks the issue but does not further develop it via detailed philosophical discussion, essentially limiting her account to setting the record straight on Saussure.

The chapter on synchrony and diachrony argues that the relationship between the two planes of linguistic analysis is more complicated in Saussure than one would think from reading the published version of the Course. Rather than a hierarchy—la langue as characterized by synchrony over la parole as characterized by diachrony—Saussure’s actual view in the course is not hierarchical but “horizontal” between la langue/synchrony and la parole/diachrony: “what may seem like a single and simple object of study (the sign; la langue ; a synchronic fact) turns out to be crisscrossed with its other interlinked facet (the signified; la parole; a diachronic fact)” (74). Chapter Nine provides an intriguing further account of this interlinking in terms of the notion of creativity or “linguistic innovation.” Whereas the published version presents this material after introducing the synchrony/diachrony distinction, suggesting that “linguistic innovation is of purely diachronic interest,” Stawarska argues, following analysis of remarks in the Nachlass by several Francophone interpreters, that Saussure’s doctrine of linguistic innovation is actually intended to explain the way in which la parole affects la langue over time, thus “horizontally” connecting diachronic and synchronic aspects. This is accomplished primarily through an account of analogy as a creative principle, as exhibited especially in the norm-defying language use of children and literary writers. In phenomena such a false verb conjugations, children’s mistakes are still “operative within a given conjugational paradigm” (79). Such analogical innovation is presented more generally as a “motor driving historical change” (80). In short, “analogical innovation deploys grammatical principles of novel formation harbored within the language structure” (80), and is “intrinsic to the language system itself (81).

Here again, however, Stawarska seems to ignore obvious points for engagement with structuralism and phenomenology: How does this account square with the traditional structuralist concern with the language system? Aren’t such “conjugational paradigms” and “linguistic structures” precisely the sorts of concerns that most occupied the structuralists? And if the real Saussure thinks analogical innovation within such structures is a driver of historical change, surely the close parallel between this idea and the phenomenological notion that eidetic structures of experience help to determine the meaning content of lived experience without fully predetermining it merits closer examination.

Chapter Ten brings together the various threads in Part One to summarize Stawarska’s critique of the general presentation of the published version of the course as an account of “a central language structure… assumed a priori,” with diverse natural languages as a set of “factual consequences” of lesser importance (87). Against this view, Stawarska argues that Saussure’s actual view, as evidenced in students’ lecture notes, “moves from a detailed survey of several languages (les langues) to a concluding, hypothetical notion of language (la langue) as such. Presumably, this is what Stawarska means when she characterizes her reading, earlier in the book, as “empirical” rather than “objective,” and which she contrasts to the problematic view as presented in the published texts that “la langue can be construed as an a priori abstract idea to be couched in universal laws” (94).

The chapter again raises interesting interpretive points that beg for further engagement—especially, in this instance, vis-à-vis phenomenology. Is not, e.g., Husserl’s phenomenology an example of “an apriori abstract idea couched in universal laws,” and which yet is arrived at through “empirical” analysis—assuming this means analysis of lived experience? Doesn’t Husserl’s insistence that, in some sense, the a priori is to be found in experience speak against the dichotomy Stawarska implicitly endorses, between the a priori/ necessary/ universal/ objective, one the one hand, and the a posteriori/ contingent/ particular/ subjective on the other? Was it not a central theoretical concern of phenomenology (and, indeed, of post-structuralists such as Derrida and Foucault) to overcome the simplified reliance on just such dichotomies?

III. Engagement with Phenomenology

Part II, “Contemporary Legacy,” does not further explore these issues directly but does (along with Chapter Seven of Part I, which seems oddly placed in the ordering of the chapters) explore some related themes, via a brief engagement with one broadly structuralist (Lacan, Chapter Eleven) and two phenomenological (Derrida, Chapters Seven and Twelve, and Merleau-Ponty, Chapter Thirteen) authors, focusing on what they had to say about Saussure and how they read the course. Stawarska’s treatment of these issues, while fascinating, seems to me to fall short of the purpose expressed in the introduction, of offering a “rapprochement” between structuralism and phenomenology via the long-obscured actual doctrines of Saussure. This may be in part because it is oriented around readings of particular figures, rather than addressing the philosophical issues directly. Given the venue of this review, I will focus on the chapters engaging phenomenological figures.

Chapter Seven, “Derrida and Saussure: Entrainment and Contamination” interrupts the chain of chapters detailing the doctrines of the Course through engagement with Derrida, seeking a

rapprochement between his critique and Saussure’s actual, more nuanced views. Stawarska is skeptical of Derrida’s reading of Saussure as practitioner of the metaphysics of presence: “It is difficult to imagine how Saussure’s linguistics could have made a difference to the study of cultural signification in the twentieth century, if it were as burdened by the Western metaphysical legacy as Derrida claims it is” (56).  The chapter does not explain what exactly this burden is, why it would have inhibited Saussure’s influence, or why we should take Derrida to be right about any of this. It may be true that “few scholars have challenged Derrida’s indictment of Saussure’s linguistics as a species of metaphysics of presence…” (56), but it is not true that few have questioned this Derridean doctrine in its own right. It is also unclear whether Stawarska means to connect the critique of the metaphysics of presence with the critiques of the nomenclature view of the sign and of the striving for objectivity as discussed above.

Stawarska claims that Derrida’s critique of Saussure is misplaced—that he misinterprets the master on the basis of the published text of the Course—but at the same time that Saussure’s actual view is in fact relatively close to Derrida’s own, with its emphasis on “entrainment” and “contamination,” and its rejection of simple notions of purity or presence. Following Derrida’s Glas, Stawarska focuses on the potential objection raised by onomatopoeia. If Saussure’s claim is that there is no natural relation between the world and the sign-system (the thesis of arbitrariness), then it would seem that onomatopoeia presents a putative counterexample, insofar as such words appear to be modelled on natural sounds. The editors of the published version of the course go to great trouble to effectively rule out such cases and thus diffuse the objection, on the grounds that these sorts of words “are never organic elements of a linguistic system” (Saussure, qtd. in Stawarska 60). But the latter phrase is an editorial insertion without basis in the manuscript (61).  In Saussure’s actual view, Stawarska argues, onomatopoeia does not constitute an objection to the claim that there are no natural signs. As Derrida argues, even onomatopoetic words are already contaminated by an outside, and are always already part of a sign system: the intralinguistic motivation by the language system enables individual signifiers like glas/knell  and fouet/whip to be heard as expressions indicating a sound (or an object capable of making a sound), rather than the external sound-source motivating these expressions directly” (62). Thus, for the real Saussure, as for Derrida, onomatopoeia is not an exception to the rule of the arbitrariness of the sign system, but rather an exemplification of that rule—so long as we recall, as argued in Stawarska’s earlier chapters discussed above, that the arbitrariness thesis applies at the level of the sign system as a whole, not at the level of individual signs.

Stawarska’s argument here—which is Derrida’s argument—is worth more consideration than it receives in the book. What proves that “there are no natural signifiers in language?” The claim is that any attempt to locate a putative exception to this rule will in fact reveal contamination and entrainment, and thus show that in fact the rule holds. But how does one identify cases of contamination and entrainment, except on the basis of the presupposition that the thesis always already holds? If the thesis is correct, there is no “nature” outside of the sign system available as an independent outside, as a neutral point of comparison: there is nothing outside the text. But if this is antecedently presupposed, then of course any attempt to find something that escapes the sign system will come up empty! If the thesis is incorrect, and there are neutral points of comparison for such questions—putative natural signs—then it will be said that “Following Derrida, the language system is worked from within by forces deemed external to it (be they sounds found in the physical world, phonetic evolution that is deemed merely fortuitous in the Course , or intertextual relations). Just as there are no ‘authentic’ onomatopoetic expressions based directly on the mimesis of sound, there are no absolutely arbitrary signifiers devoid of any and all external motivation” (63). The claim thus seems more dogmatic assertion than phenomenological description subject to verification via lived experience.

I don’t wish to question Stawarska’s exegesis of Saussure or of Derrida on this point, but surely, in a philosophical monograph, we are entitled to some considerations as to whether their views are correct. Potential counterexamples could be drawn, for example, from similar discussions in another of Derrida’s major source figures, Husserl (see, for example, the discussion of natural signs as a form of indication in §2 of the first Logical Investigation—particularly relevant given Husserl’s analysis in this section of the notion of “motivation,” a term Stawarska utilizes frequently, although it is unclear if she intends it in the technical phenomenological sense), or, venturing outside the world of Continental philosophy, from Paul Grice’s account of natural signs in “Meaning.” At the very least, some further clarification of what Stawarska means by “empirical” considerations could shed light on the method though which we are supposed to (fail to) discover natural signs.

Chapter Twelve, “Post-structuralism: The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing,”  attempts a slightly different sort of rapprochement with Saussure, focusing on Derrida’s reading of the Course in Of Grammatology. Stawarska’s claim is that, despite his deconstructive focus on the text rather than the author, and despite the well-known structuralist and post-structuralist rejection of the import of authorial intent, Derrida’s deconstructive critique of the “civilization of the book” in favor of a notion of “unbound text” or writing should have led him to examine Saussure’s unpublished manuscripts more closely. The notion of the open-endedness of the sign-system, which Stawarska plausibly takes as the marker that distinguishes post-structuralism from structuralism, should have lead Derrida beyond the published text of the course to discover Saussure’s own much more open-ended views in the Nachlass, of which there is evidence that Derrida was aware. Had he done so, Stawarska claims, Derrida would have found a Saussure whose views are in fact much closer to his own: “These writings went unpublished during Saussure’s life, and one could lament a rectifiable failure to deliver intellectual products or consider that the linguist was contesting scientific normativity and the civilization of the book. Saussure was performing the end of the book and the beginning of writing” (113).

Couldn’t the same be said of any author who left unpublished manuscripts? What is special or uniquely interesting about Saussure here, versus, say, other linguists of his day?  Beyond linguists, what of other authors in this time period (e.g., Husserl, Heidegger, Freud), who also wrote extensively and only published a fraction of what they wrote? Were they too contesting “scientific normativity and the civilization of the book?” If they were too, then which of their contemporaries were not? What was the source of the scientific normativity that was contested?  Again, my point is not that there is nothing to what Stawarska claims—these are interesting and important historical-philosophical issues that merit discussion. My point is, here again, we are not given that philosophical discussion, nor any engagement with Saussure’s contemporaries that might help to shed light on the intricacies and novelty (or lack thereof) of his views. Chapter Twelve is thus especially illustrative in bringing to the forefront the question of immanent critique, noted at the beginning of this review, that haunts Stawarska’s book as a whole: doesn’t this whole approach of establishing the “real Saussure” stand in some tension with Stawarska’s implicit endorsement of the poststructuralist, deconstructive project? Should it matter, from that perspective, whether the Course represents what Saussure himself actually thought, or even what he is “performing,” given that this is now the received view of his ideas—the text? Stawarska is of course aware of this tension. But here, as elsewhere, we are not offered any detailed philosophical account to justify or dissolve it. Is the absence of a detailed treatment of this rather central theoretical issue itself a performance that “deliberately contests scientific normativity,” or perhaps a rejection of the metaphysics of presence?

The final chapter of the book opposes structuralist and post-structuralist readings to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological reading of Saussure. The chapter begins with some interesting considerations of Saussure’s notion of the “language phenomenon,” and suggests that this tells against the traditional notion (presumably of structuralist inspiration) that Saussure has nothing to say about the subject. For Saussure, Stawarska claims, “the subject is equal parts a ‘human being’ and a ‘social being,’ and speaking is an inherently communicative act which borrows from society and thanks to which one interacts with the community. The language phenomenon  belongs, therefore, to the individual speaking subject and to the greater social world of historically sedimented conventions. As such, the language phenomenon described by Saussure cannot be confined to the inner world of consciousness emphasized within the classical tradition of phenomenology” (119-120, my emphasis).

Stawarska seems to be opposing French phenomenological figures such as Merleau-Ponty and Derrida to earlier “classical” phenomenologists whom she takes to have held this view. But we are not told what this inner world is, or who exactly held such a view. What of Heidegger’s rejection of the subject in favor of Dasein and Being-in-the-World? What of Husserl’s oft-expressed rejection of the notion of the ego as a monadic, solipsistic subject? Given that Stawarska explicitly invokes the “classical tradition of phenomenology” as a foil, surely we are owed some account of these figures’ views. Even if Stawarska wishes to limit her consideration to the French tradition of phenomenology, surely she is aware of Sartre’s claim that it follows from the very idea of intentionality that “everything [even consciousness] is finally outside” (Sartre, “Intentionality: A Fundamental idea of Husserl’s Phenomenology”). There is no detailed discussion of these central phenomenological themes, and long-discredited caricatures of the classical phenomenological project are presented as accepted doctrines. That project is certainly not beyond reproach; the potential challenges that Stawarska gestures at are interesting and important. But she never does more than gesture. There is no philosophically detailed reproach for the reader (or this reviewer) to agree or disagree with. Beyond historical sources, given her focus on the social aspects of the sign system, Stawarska might also have engaged with the currently burgeoning phenomenological literature on normativity, collective intentionality, or social ontology, but her account of the “contemporary legacy” of phenomenology relevant for the desired rapprochement is limited to mid to late-twentieth century French figures and some occasional references to Agamben.

The subsequent treatment of Merleau-Ponty that concludes the book is interesting, but again frustratingly minimal (direct engagement with Merleau-Ponty makes up about 3.5 pages of the book). Stawarska devotes a few pages to Merleau-Ponty’s view of Saussure, primarily based on Signs, excerpts from the Lectures at the College De France, and The Prose of the World. Her discussion is centered on Merleau-Ponty’s “methodological subjectivism,” which focuses on the phenomenon of speech and sees in the synchronic an always-incomplete historical reside of the diachronic, of previous generations of speakers (121). In this sense, Merleau-Ponty recognizes in Saussure an “interdependency between la langue and la parole” (121) and in light of this proposes a “new, situated conception of reason where historical contingency goes hand in hand with an enduring logic of both mutual understanding and world disclosure that are attainted via an evolving linguistic medium… the signifying ‘body’ of language in the social and historical context” (122). Whereas Merleau-Ponty’s critics found this to be a misreading of the Course, the real Saussurean doctrine, as Stawarska has explicated it, in fact better accords with Merleau-Ponty’s view. Thus, as was the case with Derrida, Merleau-Ponty is actually closer to the real Saussure, if further from the Saussure we know from the published Course, and may even be seen as a reformer of the study of language in the Saussurean mould via his focus on the subjective experience of speech (123).

Stawarska concludes the book thus:

[T]he subject and structure-based approaches to cultural signification need not be opposed. Language construed as a phenomenon is individual as well as social, intentional and automatic, received and invented, contemporary yet ancient. Language construed as a phenomenon calls, therefore, for combined phenomenological and structural approaches to cultural signification. Saussure’s linguistics points a way out of the institutionalized antagonism between these two philosophical traditions of inquiry, and it enables a greater rapprochement than is traditionally acknowledged. Saussure’s linguistics can therefore be claimed as an important intellectual resource in contemporary research on how subjective experiences and structural arrangements continually intersect (123).

This passage nicely encapsulates the Stawarska’s overarching thesis: a re-reading of Saussure that goes beyond the problematic published version of the Course can help to accomplish a rapprochement between the traditionally opposed camps of structuralism and phenomenology. The book is a helpful outline of such rapprochement, if not on its own an accomplishment of it.

Kas Saghafi: The World after the End of the World: A Spectro-Poetics, SUNY Press, 2020

The World after the End of the World: A Spectro-Poetics Book Cover The World after the End of the World: A Spectro-Poetics
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Kas Saghafi
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

Jacques Derrida: Le Calcul des langues, Seuil, 2020

Le Calcul des langues Book Cover Le Calcul des langues
Bibliothèque Derrida
Jacques Derrida. Edited by Geoffrey Bennington and Katie Chenoweth
Paperback 18.00 €

Sergio Genovesi: Tracce dell’informe. L’indecostruibile e la filosofia dell’evento in Jacques Derrida

Tracce dell'informe. L'indecostruibile e la filosofia dell'evento in Jacques Derrida Book Cover Tracce dell'informe. L'indecostruibile e la filosofia dell'evento in Jacques Derrida
Sergio Genovesi

Reviewed by: Marta Cassina (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn)

Ogni grande pensatore – molte volte e da più parti è stato già detto e molte volte forse lo si ripeterà ancora – non fa che ritornare nel corso della sua vita sulle medesime questioni, come fosse preda di un’ossessione, quasi non potesse fare a meno di rispondere, esistendo ed insistendo, al richiamo di un solo e tenace appello. Quando capita poi che tale pensatore sia insieme un grande autore, allora tutta la sua opera diventa col tempo testimonianza sempre più inequivocabile e chiara di una vocazione, mostrando infine quella limpidezza rispetto a se stessa che è uno dei tratti sicuri della validità di una proposta speculativa. Questo è il caso di Derrida e dei suoi “movimenti di pensiero”. Sicuramente i testi del filosofo sono molti e difficili da attraversare, perché difficile da attraversare è il “deserto” caotico e abissale di ciò che resta della parola, se la scrittura diventa il luogo della sua assenza e della sua lontananza originarie. Ugualmente, sono molti gli autori e i temi con cui Derrida continua a intrattenersi. Tuttavia, al fondo di una così articolata “disseminazione”, non si può non cogliere l’andamento di una stessa tensione, o di una preoccupazione, il che non equivale certo a dire che è un oggetto a ripetersi, attraverso diversi accenti e modulazioni, tanto meno qualcosa di semplice, tutt’al più il suo contrario, se di contrario si può ancora parlare, perché si tratta qui propriamente di una «legge della complicazione iniziale del semplice», di rimanere fedeli a ciò che fa segno all’assolutamente Altro che viene e che preserva lo spazio vuoto di questo evento, che a sua volta è un esercizio etico e irriducibile.

Tracce dell’informe. L’indecostruibile e la filosofia dell’evento in Jacques Derrida, opera prima di Sergio Genovesi pubblicata recentemente da “Mimesis Edizioni” per la collana Eterotopie, si propone di restituire al lettore una fine ricostruzione del tema dell’indecostruibile e della sua comparsa nella filosofia di Derrida. Genovesi ben argomenta come tale comparsa non corrisponda esattamente a un’appendice tematica rispetto a un corpus di riflessioni preesistenti, e nemmeno a qualcosa come una loro torsione verso una direzione inattesa, come invece hanno avuto modo di sostenere quei critici di Derrida che nella sua opera matura hanno intravisto quasi un ripensamento, se non una contraddizione, dei motivi giovanili della decostruzione. Dire che «c’è l’indecostruibile», secondo Genovesi, non aggiunge né toglie nulla, ma esplicita semplicemente qualcosa che, in forma “spettrale”, riecheggia nel pensiero derridiano fin dall’inizio, e che, se rimane celato tra le sue pieghe, è perché resta da pensare come la sua stessa condizione di possibilità (o di impossibilità) e il suo orizzonte di senso: è «la spaziatura stessa della decostruzione» (113), ovvero quell’esperienza pre-originaria di “differimento” dell’essere e del senso rispetto a se stessi di cui tutta la decostruzione non fa che parlare – mancandola costitutivamente –, perché vi riconosce la condizione paradossale in cui siamo e di cui dobbiamo parlare, perché in fondo non c’è proprio nient’altro di cui parlare.

Rispetto a quanto detto sopra, il saggio di Genovesi può essere considerato allora del tutto esemplare, e la sua ricognizione nel territorio dell’indecostruibile deve essere letta alla maniera di una sintesi perfetta di come la riflessione derridiana sia rimasta sempre leale a se stessa rispetto a questo fine – e anche a una fine –: l’apertura di uno spazio vuoto in margine all’ontologia della presenza, dell’identità, del logos e del fondamento, che permetta l’accadere dell’evento, ovvero di comprendere, per quanto si stia parlando di una comprensione iperbolica, spinta al limite della follia e quindi in realtà incomprensibile, cosa significhi che qualcosa possa accadere in generale. Questa spaziatura, che ha il carattere atopico del non-luogo, e quello raddoppiato del «supplemento d’origine» è, nelle parole del giovane filosofo italiano, indecostruibile, «perché come si può decostruire uno spazio vuoto, un luogo puro?» (130), è «allo stesso tempo presupposto e risultato della decostruzione» (146), ha molti nomi, che tuttavia si sovrappongono tra loro in un gioco di rimandi e scarti infiniti, perché «dare ai vari nomi che sono associati all’indecostruibile […] dei valori a sé stanti e ontologicamente distinti l’uno dall’altro vorrebbe dire farne dei feticci» (141), e coincide nella sua massima espressione con una sorta di «messianismo privato di qualsiasi contenuto positivo» (135), ovvero una forma di “giustizia” che consiste in null’altro se non nel rispondere esponendovisi alla chiamata dell’Altro, senza alcuna pretesa di afferrarlo, di ridurre la sua inesauribile trascendenza. Su questo punto, sui tratti distintivi dell’indecostruibile e sul perché finisca per caratterizzare tutta l’epopea della decostruzione come un’avventura fondamentalmente etica, torneremo in conclusione, dopo aver analizzato nel dettaglio il resto dell’impianto argomentativo attorno al quale Tracce dell’informe è costruito.

A questa analisi è bene premettere che, sebbene le tesi di Genovesi incalzino un’interpretazione sicuramente unitaria dell’opera di Derrida, l’importanza di una simile identità qui non cancella, anzi valorizza le diverse declinazioni attraverso le quali essa si è affermata. A questo riguardo, Genovesi non rinuncia a parlare infatti di due momenti o lavori distinti: il primo temporalmente, cui si dà il nome di «decostruzione letteraria», coincide con la pars destruens dell’impresa e si rifà soprattutto all’esercizio di scomposizione del significato dei “vecchi segni”, in altre parole, di tutti gli schemi positivi che reggono la «dogmatica della metafisica della presenza, dell’economia ristretta e del ritorno al medesimo» (88). In questa prima fase, per decostruzione si deve intendere eminentemente una pratica testuale negativa, che mira a destrutturare qualsiasi totalità pensata per ridurre l’evento dell’Altro alla forma di una presenza e di un “appropriabile” all’interno di un sistema ristretto di “scambi” logici tra medesimi. La lezione heideggeriana della «differenza ontologica» e della critica alla «metafisica della presenza» è qui insomma intesa come un’autorizzata celebrazione dell’assenza, del non-fondamento, e della fine del soggetto. Il secondo momento, che Genovesi, per evitare fraintendimenti o sovrapposizioni al pensiero ermeneutico, chiama «decostruzione evenemenziale» (49), corrisponde invece a una pars costruens e a un graduale avvicinamento della decostruzione alla filosofia dell’evento, fino al punto in cui esse sostanzialmente si indeterminano l’una con l’altra nell’espressione di un medesimo richiamo: quello all’idea di una “soggettività” inedita che sappia farsi carico dell’ospitalità e della testimonianza della venuta del nuovo, dell’Altro che arriva, dell’impossibile che ha luogo nell’accadere. Soggettività come puro luogo abitato da un “dono” e da un “segreto” che nessun sapere sarebbe in grado di dominare.

Rispetto a quest’ultima esortazione, ossia in quanto gesto di apertura a una venuta, sarebbe insensato pensare di poter ridurre la decostruzione, come molti dei suoi detrattori o cattivi lettori hanno tentato di fare, a una prestazione nichilistica «di puro rifiuto e sovvertimento» (90). E, tuttavia, questa “venuta” non sarebbe possibile se non perché già preparata dall’operazione negativa e decostruttiva, in senso sia letterale, sia “letterario”, che l’ha preceduta; donde l’invito di Genovesi a immaginare «due facce della stessa medaglia, che non solo coesistono sotto lo stesso nome, ma si complementano anche a vicenda» (50). Quali siano poi i termini di questa vicendevole complementarietà, Genovesi lo esplicita nell’ultima parte della trattazione. Nella sua accezione “positiva” – questo voler dire «Sì!» all’evento, che non è una parola specifica, ma un’«archi-parola», è un «ripetere il proprio assenso alla possibilità di questa venuta» (90) prima ancora che si possa dire alcunché – la decostruzione, «non trattandosi di un atto esercitato su qualcosa» (129), non ha più propriamente un oggetto. Soffermiamoci un secondo su questa affermazione, la cui portata diventa tanto più pregnante, quanto più la ricolleghiamo a quella “genesi dell’indecostruibile” di cui Tracce dell’informe percorre la storia. Che la decostruzione, nella sua formulazione più matura, rappresenti una sorta di invito positivo ad accogliere l’evento, senza però una positività vera e propria cui applicarsi, deriva dal fatto che essa diventa, incarnandolo, quello stesso evento e «un puro accadere» (129), vale a dire qualcosa che per sua stessa natura eccede e precede la dinamica esclusiva in cui la contrapposizione soggetto/oggetto risulta sensata. A questo proposito, allora, se è sempre vero che dove c’è oggetto (costrutto) c’è sempre la possibilità che questo oggetto possa subire una decostruzione stricto sensu, nei termini del lavoro negativo della decostruzione, è anche vero che dove l’oggetto sparisce, o meglio, si complica con l’ingiunzione originaria della sua oggettificazione, del suo “venire alla luce”, non c’è più nulla da decostruire in quanto tale, non c’è mai stato, così come non c’è più nulla di costruito. Ciò che resta è un indecostruibile, che, rispetto al lavorio di svuotamento dell’oggetto è, a seconda di come lo si voglia guardare, sempre anteriore e sempre posteriore: esso presiede e si nutre dell’atto negativo della decostruzione, così come quest’ultimo postula e risulta sempre nel primo. Inseparabilmente e circolarmente, in una temporalità «scardinata, out of joint» (132).

Veniamo dunque all’illustrazione della struttura del lavoro di Genovesi. Il punto di partenza delle analisi del filosofo può essere individuato molto chiaramente nel fitto confronto che il giovane Derrida intrattiene con i motivi e i concetti cardine dello strutturalismo, dell’etica levinassiana, del «pensiero sovrano» in Bataille e, più dettagliatamente, della fenomenologia husserliana, dei quali testi-testamento come La scrittura e la differenza, La voce e il fenomeno e Della grammatologia – facendo lo sforzo di pensare all’ordine in cui li elenchiamo qui come un crescendo, per quanto i tre volumi siano stati pubblicati tutti nel 1967 –, rappresentano prima una rilettura nella forma della “nota a margine” e poi un superamento, nella direzione di quello che diventerà il manifesto tutto personale della decostruzione nel suo stadio embrionale. Il primo capitolo di Tracce dell’informe può essere insomma pensato come l’abbecedario essenziale di una terminologia nascente; e infatti Genovesi studia da vicino la filosofia di Derrida rispetto ai momenti, ai luoghi e soprattutto alle sue scelte lessicali inaugurali: il «supplemento d’origine», l’«economia generale dell’Altro», la «decostruzione», la «scrittura», la «traccia», l’«indecidibile» e la «différance», che Genovesi sceglie di mantenere sempre in francese, perché, come esplicita sin dall’Introduzione, «nessuna delle due traduzioni [in italiano “dif/ferenza” e “differanza”, n.d.r.] riesce però a sortire l’effetto voluto da Derrida, quello di un evento inaudito» (11), l’evento cioè di una sostituzione che tuttavia non può e non deve essere intesa in quanto tale. Di queste parole viene proposta quella che indubbiamente è una spiegazione, ma che Genovesi ci esorta a non scambiare mai per una definizione; piuttosto bisognerà accettarla come l’«approssimazione al limite» (10) di un’incognita che – come appena detto a proposito della différance –, non esprimendo più qualcosa come una “pienezza” o un “senso” metafisicamente intesi, non deve neppure essere compreso pienamente.

Lo scopo di questa prima parte del saggio è quello di descrivere il funzionamento di una macchina, quella della decostruzione, rispetto ai propri ingranaggi e ai propri oggetti. Se, da un lato, questa operazione va delineandosi negli scritti di Derrida come un’azione di svuotamento e di desedimentazione del linguaggio, delle tradizioni, della presenza e della voce, è anche vero che, dall’altro, essa «non ha di mira la distruzione dei sistemi su cui opera, altrimenti distruggerebbe anche se stessa» (48). Così dicendo, Genovesi chiarisce con grande immediatezza uno degli aspetti più difficili, ma costitutivi della decostruzione, qualcosa in cui è racchiusa la sua logica esorbitante, quella del doppio, del double bind: essa non può decostruire se non, da un certo punto di vista, conservando, perché l’Altro cui anela, l’alterità che la metafisica della presenza finisce sempre per ricondurre all’Uno, non è una negazione assoluta, non è l’Altro irrelato, ma la complicazione dell’Uno con se stesso, è uno sdoppiamento della totalità lungo la linea di faglia di un cedimento che preme contemporaneamente dall’interno e dall’esterno. Uno sdoppiamento e un differimento – la différance – che non distruggono la totalità, bensì dischiudono lo spazio negativo in cui la stessa struttura della totalità può essere concepita ed esistere in quanto totalità, dicono il suo darsi. Decostruzione non è sinonimo di negazione della presenza, di negazione tout court; anzi, se teniamo presente questo meccanismo fondamentale e lo applichiamo ai vari obiettivi polemici di Derrida di cui Genovesi dà conto nel capitolo, essa ci appare piuttosto come un modo di restituire la verità della presenza, nelle sue molteplici forme e declinazioni, relativamente a quella che è la sua «mancanza originaria a se stessa» (34). Come scompaiono le nozioni di “origine” e “centro” che definivano il canone di struttura, ma solo per lasciare posto a una loro versione paradossale, supplementare, che «si inaugura solo nel momento dell’accadimento di ciò di cui è origine e rimane celata dietro il suo originato» (20), perché il proprio accadimento è esattamente ciò che l’originato manca di afferrare di se stesso; così si infrange il circolo ristretto dell’economia, intesa come la legge della circolazione e della conservazione del Medesimo, ma l’Altro cui si accede attraverso la negazione “sovrana” del circolo non è l’assolutamente trascendente, piuttosto l’inarrivabile cui ci si avvicina attraverso «il fenomeno della sua non-fenomenicità» (24).

Alla luce del double bind devono anche essere letti, a maggior ragione, i passaggi critici in cui Derrida elabora la nozione di “différance” a partire da e contro Husserl: non tanto come demolizione di un impianto teoretico, ma come apertura delle sue maglie verso le forme di uno scarto originario che c’è già nella trattazione husserliana della presenza, ma che vi rimane inespresso, incompatibile com’è con il lessico del “dato”, del donné, attorno al quale si costruisce la fenomenologia. Tra i differimenti, Genovesi rimarca: la discronia rispetto a sé dell’“ora presente” nella ritenzione e la non-coincidenza istitutiva dell’idealità, in ordine al meccanismo della sua infinita ripetibilità. C’è infine una forma di differimento, di supplemento, che si espande fino a fare da cornice a quell’imperativo programmatico della decostruzione di sostituire la “scrittura” alla “voce”: si tratta del rinvio dell’ego alla propria mancanza nell’atto auto-affettivo, di cui la voce è immediatamente un correlato. Il nome di questa ritenzione d’assenza è quello in cui si sovrappongono «la possibilità per il soggetto trascendentale di avere un rapporto con sé differendo da sé» (33), e la possibilità per la parola di avere un “rapporto con sé”, ovvero di realizzarsi nel gioco dei segni con «il loro accadere arbitrario e il corrispondere a un significato differenziandosi l’uno rispetto l’altro» (39); è la «traccia», intesa come trascrizione grafica della parola e struttura vuota di rimando a una “morte”, a ciò che nella parola si trova e deve trovarsi come puro rimando e in stato di assenza: l’origine assoluta del senso.

Passiamo ora al secondo capitolo. Qui Genovesi si occupa di gettare luce sull’“altro” di Derrida, cioè sul tipo di risonanza che le sue opere giovanili hanno avuto negli ambienti filosofici e letterari a lui contemporanei, per arrivare a sostenere che lo spostamento di baricentro nel corpo della decostruzione dalla critica testuale e letteraria all’evento sia in parte motivata dalla reazione di Derrida a una certa mislettura del suo pensiero a opera dei critici del post-moderno e, in particolare, degli studiosi statunitensi meglio noti come “Yale Critics”. Se il primo capitolo di Tracce dell’informe deve essere letto come una sorta di abbecedario, dicevamo, il secondo ha allora invece il carattere definitorio di una “soglia”. Qui con soglia non vogliamo alludere soltanto allo spazio liminare che esiste, ovviamente, tra i testi di Derrida, pensati nella loro autonomia, e le interpretazioni cui essi hanno dato luogo – di cui l’autore discute esaustivamente nel testo. Quello che ci sembra interessante sottolineare – diversione dovuta, perché spezza una lancia in favore all’argomentazione di Genovesi –, è che questo confronto tra il “dentro” e il “fuori” ha posto effettivamente Derrida nella condizione di lasciarsi andare a un’enfasi definitoria e ri-definitoria (per quanto, chiaramente, la parola “definizione” sia sempre da collocare nel contesto di senso della decostruzione) senza precedenti, e che resterà un unicum nel corso della sua opera. Quasi tutte le pseudo-definizioni di “decostruzione” che possediamo appartengono a questa soglia, sia dal punto di vista concettuale, sia da quello temporale: la seconda metà degli anni ’80, rispetto ai testi Memorie per Paul de Man, Come non essere postmoderni e Psyché. Invenzioni dell’altro, che, non a caso, nella trattazione di Genovesi trovano ampio spazio d’analisi. Le vogliamo elencare qui e commentare; il riferimento è motivato dal fatto che, non solo rappresentano un valido supporto a spiegare l’andamento del capitolo, da un lato, ma, in questo specifico ordine, comunicano anche il senso dell’evoluzione del pensiero di Derrida, nella lettura di Genovesi, dall’altro: 1) La decostruzione è l’America; 2) La decostruzione è plus d’une langue; 3) La decostruzione è ciò che accade; 4) La decostruzione è l’impossibile.

  1. Che il nome stesso della decostruzione sia l’America, ci ricorda Genovesi, è evidentemente un’affermazione provocatoria. A prima vista, essa si pone già come un détournement scherzoso del titolo del volume The Yale Critics: Decostruction in America, alla cui stesura Derrida non volle partecipare, e non solo a causa della «volontà da parte degli editori del libro di parlare degli Stati Uniti come se questi rappresentassero tutto il continente» (71), ma soprattutto perché, per quanto gli Stati Uniti – e, in particolare, il dipartimento di letteratura di Yale – si siano dimostrati lo spazio storicamente più ricettivo e sensibile al primo messaggio della decostruzione, è anche vero che questa sensibilità è sfociata in una sua lettura eccessivamente testualista e in una riappropriazione culturale indebita, che ne ha fatto prevalentemente, nelle parole dell’autore, «una metodologia critica post-strutturalista che dettava un insieme preciso di regole per affrontare un testo» (70)
  2. Se la prima definizione che riportiamo è, al contempo, scherzosa e sintomatica di un disagio, la seconda – che Genovesi nel saggio cita solo in nota (95), ma che, in un certo senso, sembra essere sempre presente in controluce – ha invece un peso filosofico enorme, andrebbe letta come una parola d’ordine, e ci piacerebbe allora pensarla come se avesse un punto esclamativo finale. Definizione ambigua, perché, a sua volta, significa tre imperativi distinti, tre risposte di Derrida al modo in cui, secondo Genovesi, gli Yale Critics avevano addomesticato i contenuti della decostruzione, così come sono tre i sensi in cui plus de ha da essere inteso in francese. Innanzitutto, che la decostruzione sia «plus d’une langue» significa che di essa si abusa quando la si prende alla maniera di un prontuario per la demolizione sistematica del testo, perché semplicemente non la si può forzare in un unico idioma o racconto, in altre parole, in un “-ismo”: «l’atto della totalizzazione può sempre essere visto come un gesto di violenza […], nel caso della decostruzione quest’operazione porta con sé un fraintendimento essenziale del termine» (72). In secondo luogo, «plus de» attesta una malcelata insofferenza a chi vorrebbe fare della decostruzione una mera faccenda linguistica, trascurando così la sua esortazione a rimanere attenti, invece, di fronte a tutto ciò che non può arrivare a farsi lingua: il silenzio, l’illeggibile, la vita. Questo “tutt’altro che lingua” compare infine compiutamente nel terzo senso, quello per cui «plus d’une langue» occhieggia a ciò che nel linguaggio c’è sempre d’eccessivo, al suo plus: l’eccedenza irriducibile del significante sul significato, l’intraducibile che resta tra linguaggi diversi, l’accadere della lingua.
  3. Da qui alla filosofia dell’evento il passo è breve, così come ci ricorda la terza definizione, che invece Genovesi analizza direttamente, e che getta un ponte tra la decostruzione e la stessa natura paradossale dell’accadere. Cosa l’autore intenda per “decostruzione evenemenziale” l’abbiamo già esplicitato, ci limitiamo quindi ad aggiungere che quest’identificazione della decostruzione, nel suo «carattere imprevedibile e sempre aperto» (72), con l’evento, nei suoi tratti di imprevedibilità, assoluta novità, gratuità e incoercibile differimento, conduce Derrida lontano dall’orizzonte della critica in cui la sua filosofia sembrava essere rimasta imprigionata, impone la necessità di una filosofia “nuova”, che si lasci «strutturare dall’alea». Qui la decostruzione può manifestarsi in quella che viene chiamata la sua «portata inaugurale e dirompente» (73).
  4. Il confronto con l’impossibile e le sue figure, tra le quali Genovesi mette in primo piano l’«invenzione», il «dono» e l’«invocazione», è poi presentato dal filosofo italiano come il luogo inabituale in cui lo spazio dell’elaborazione di Derrida si reinventa, facendosi a misura dell’evento dell’Altro che viene, che , che chiama. Assumendo come trópos privilegiato il lavoro su figure specifiche, la cui stessa possibilità incarna il paradosso di qualcosa che non si può tenere od occupare, se non attivandone un continuo debordamento, la decostruzione si prepara infatti all’accoglimento dell’evento, nei termini in cui l’evento dice il paradosso della possibilità del senso e del reale. Il paradosso consiste nel fatto che questa possibilità del possibile, ovvero «il margine all’interno del quale il possibile può situarsi» (86) e che al possibile appartiene intimamente come il proprium più autentico, è, in ragione di ciò, sottratta alla possibilità di essere compresa essa stessa in quanto senso possibile, quindi impossibile. L’evento è impossibile, ma anche evidente; dice Genovesi: «il suo carattere ostico può essere in qualche modo giustificato se si considera che esso […] si verifica e l’evento arriva» (88). L’impossibile «ha luogo», e ha luogo specificamente nel fatto che c’è possibile; il punto è che questo “esserci”, che aziona il circolo dove trovano posto enti e significati, quest’evidenza, che non solo non possiamo denegare, ma che anzi dobbiamo ricercare, fare in modo che si produca, è ciò che il circolo – e la filosofia! – non può che restituire razionalmente, se non come il suo Altro, la sua follia. Evidenza, allora, e follia dell’evento, da cui la necessità per la filosofia di debordare il proprio registro, di farsi “altro” lavoro del pensiero, di dirsi a sua volta impossibile, e non come deriva o punto di fuga, ma come centro stesso della questione che la definisce e destina.

L’ultima sezione di Tracce dell’informe tematizza l’insorgenza e la natura dell’indecostruibile. Torniamo così a ciò da cui abbiamo preso inizialmente le mosse, cercando di chiarirne gli aspetti che erano rimasti più impliciti. Da un certo punto di vista, questo “tornare a…” ha a che vedere con la struttura dell’indecostruibile molto più di quanto accidentalmente potrebbe sembrare, così come non è casuale la scelta di Genovesi di dedicarvi gli ultimi due capitoli del saggio – che vogliamo leggere in maniera unitaria, nel segno del medesimo “avvento” –, avendone però preparato la via, si potrebbe dire, in ogni sua pagina precedente. Decisivo è, a tal proposito, l’intendimento di ciò che Genovesi sostiene, quando presenta l’indecostruibile come un punto d’approdo nella riflessione matura di Derrida, includendo che, pur essendo evidente una certa attenzione mirata soltanto nei testi a partire dalla fine degli anni ’80, la questione dell’indecostruibile fosse già presente in nuce negli scritti degli anni ’60. Il punto è che l’indecostruibile, come abbiamo già fatto notare a proposito di quella dinamica di completamento circolare che descrive e mette in moto la macchina della decostruzione rispetto alla sua pars destruens e alla sua pars costruens, indica, al contempo, ciò che resta della presenza, in ordine allo spazio di vuoto che la macchina in questione ne estrae internamente – e questo spazio, è un affacciarsi sulla venuta dell’Altro, «mai presente e sempre a-venire, nella sua differenza infinita» (146), – e ciò che a quest’opera di svuotamento è sempre presupposto alla maniera di un «quasi-trascendentale» e di un cominciamento. All’indecostruibile, in questo senso, “si torna” sempre come si torna a un’origine, ma quest’origine è a sua volta sempre differita, supplementare – «al posto del fondamento, come supplemento d’origine, troviamo piuttosto l’indeterminatezza radicale e infinita della differenza» (144) –, e quindi, paradossalmente e in virtù di ciò, sempre ancora a venire, sempre ancora mai avvenuta, archi-originaria venuta di e da un futuro impossibile. Tenere a mente queste considerazioni serve a comprendere uno degli aspetti, a nostro avviso, più pregnanti che emergono dalla trattazione di Genovesi: il fatto che per parlare dell’indecostruibile serva parlare anche e soprattutto degli indecostruibili, che a esso si debbano dare dei nomi diversi. Aspetto apparentemente contraddittorio, in quanto qui i nomi rinviano a qualcosa che non possono essere, sono fondamentalmente inadeguati rispetto a ciò che vorrebbero significare, ossia questa archi-origine, questo «abisso senza fondo» (141) della spaziatura, che, come non può essere decostruito, per il semplice fatto che in esso non è rimasto nulla da decostruire, nessun agglomerato di senso da disseminare, così, a rigor di logica, non dovrebbe essere nemmeno nominato; da cui consegue quella singolare vicinanza tra Derrida e la teologia negativa, che Genovesi non manca di approfondire. E, tuttavia, di questo indecostruibile bisogna pur parlare, è importante parlarne affinché qualcosa arrivi, poiché l’evento si dà ogni qualvolta ricomincia l’essere – e il suo racconto –, poiché è insomma inseparabile dall’effettività storico-concreta che esso positivizza nella traccia dell’esperienza. Non solo bisogna parlarne, ma usare anche nomi differenti. I nomi dell’indecostruibile, infatti – nomi che, in ogni caso, possono essere utilizzati solo «in maniera provvisoria, per fini pedagogici e retorici» (140) – sono molteplici, allo stesso modo in cui intrinsecamente molteplice è l’indecostruibile, sempre supplementare a se stesso, indistinzione dell’origine e del punto di approdo, e anche, come si diceva sopra, di passato e futuro nel segno di ciò che non è mai potuto e che quindi aspetta sempre di accadere.

Se c’è una «sconnessione» e una proliferazione dei nomi dell’indecostruibile, è anche perché a essi spetta il compito di dire – certo, frammentandolo, isolandone momenti che nell’evento sono irriducibilmente concomitanti – il tempo disconnesso e plurale della venuta originaria. Ora, questo aspetto, che ci sembra di assoluta rilevanza teoretica, rimane purtroppo nell’interpretazione di Genovesi implicito, se non addirittura trascurabile, in quanto l’autore preferisce concentrarsi sul motivo della coincidenza dei nomi dell’indecostruibile nella comune referenza alla nozione di “spaziatura”. Eppure, come c’è modo di pensare gli indecostruibili in senso unitario rispetto a quello spazio di vuoto che è il «ritrarsi che ogni posizione e ogni manifestazione sottende» (139), così bisognerebbe dar conto della ragione per cui essi debbono differire tra loro, in riferimento invece alle dimensioni del tempo della spaziatura. Qui, d’altronde, non diciamo nemmeno qualcosa di incompatibile con la maniera in cui questi indecostruibili vengono presentati in Tracce dell’informe; si tratta soltanto di portare in primo piano un registro che nella trattazione non riceve troppo peso. A conferma di ciò, basti riflettere brevemente sulla scelta di Genovesi di affrontare l’indecostruibile a partire da «chora» e «giustizia», due figure che, per come vengono descritte e in questo senso, potrebbero essere valorizzate separatamente come due nomi – approssimativi, precari nella loro distinzione, ma funzionali – per due versanti della temporalità scardinata dell’evento. Da un lato, chora, che Genovesi introduce, guarda caso, come il primo nome che Derrida dà all’indecostruibile (113), direbbe soprattutto l’esteriorità e l’anteriorità assoluta dell’evento, per quanto concerne la sede spaziale – il «ricettacolo informe» (142) – della genesi e della collocazione dell’essente. Chiaramente, questa anteriorità non è da intendersi come una legge della precedenza temporale, come se alludesse a qualcosa che non è presente solo perché lo sarebbe stato una volta, ma come un rapporto di vertiginosa indipendenza e di inevitabile differimento all’indietro, tra questo non-luogo – «il luogo indecostruibile che dà luogo al gioco tra Dio e il suo creato» (113), origine più antica dell’origine – e ciò che vi si sistema per essere ricevuto. Dall’altro lato, la giustizia, intesa come «responsabilità dell’Altro» e verso l’Altro, aprendo a quella che Genovesi chiama «la venuta dell’altro come evento singolare senza anticipazione possibile, all’esposizione alla sorpresa assoluta» (140), diventerebbe invece simbolo per la necessità di un trascendimento dell’orizzonte temporale nella direzione di qualcosa che è una chance di accadere soprattutto al futuro, sempre inattuale e ritardata. La giustizia dice infatti dell’evento che esso non verrà mai del tutto, che lascerà sempre qualcosa a venire, dice il suo altrove imminente, ma impresentabile nell’attesa.

Due parole, infine, sono da dedicare a questa formulazione della giustizia e all’etica. «Se quindi la giustizia non è decostruibile,» – scrive Genovesi – «è perché essa si presenta come un gesto decostruttivo, fino al punto di andare a coincidere con la decostruzione stessa, che per converso ci appare adesso come un indecostruibile atto di giustizia» (133). L’ultimo atto della decostruzione è insomma un testamento etico: come emerge da quanto detto a proposito di Derrida in Tracce dell’informe, tutto il senso della decostruzione potrebbe essere infine riassunto nell’imperativo etico fondamentale di “fare spazio” per l’ospitalità dell’Altro assoluto; un incontro che non prevede relazione, o ancora, una relazione senza alcuna reciprocità, senza reciproco riconoscimento, sempre aperta alla sua dissoluzione e al suo sacrifico. In questo senso, bene hanno detto quei lettori di Derrida che in questa forma di non-rapporto hanno intravisto, più che la promessa del «dono dell’altro», soprattutto lo spettro del suo abbandono. E infatti la giustizia è collocata in una dimensione escatologica e messianica, che, come ci ricorda l’autore, da un lato costituisce un potenziale sovversivo immenso, nutrendosi di una costante insoddisfazione nei confronti del presente e dei suoi limiti, dall’altro, vicendevolmente, «non contemplando la venuta finale dell’altro, si presenta come un messianismo privo […] di ogni idea di rivelazione o compimento ultimo (135). Alla stessa maniera, aggiungiamo noi, l’apertura nei confronti dell’Altro, per il fatto stesso che si annulla nel momento in cui entriamo in relazione con quest’alterità nel mondo, nel momento in cui abbiamo presente l’altro, rischia sempre di tramutarsi in una chiusura. Non c’è verso in questi termini, per esempio, di ripopolare il mondo dei volti dell’altro, volti che possano chiamarsi per nome e realmente accogliersi, senza mettere a rischio il valore della loro incolmabile trascendenza.

Eppure un dato innegabilmente “positivo” rimane, e su questo concludiamo; Genovesi ce lo ricorda in chiusura, tra le ultime questioni del testo, che rimangono domande aperte sulla natura dell’evento e su come concepire la sua “irruzione” su piani differenti da quelli tematizzati nell’opera di Derrida (l’estetica, o la fisica, giusto per citarne un paio). Tale positività dell’etica consiste prevalentemente in questo, e questo sicuramente costituisce una consapevolezza preziosa: l’altro (il nostro prossimo, il fratello, lo straniero) rappresenta l’unico «evento dell’Altro» nella nostra quotidianità che possa dirsi tale, e che come tale deve essere rispettato, indipendentemente dal fatto che l’opera del suo avvicinamento e della sua comprensione rimangano necessariamente aporetiche, e spingerci a cambiare la nostra vita; «nel caso del sopraggiungere dell’altro, la rottura avviene sul piano etico del nostro vivere la quotidianità: l’irrompere dell’altro scombussola i nostri piani, è l’elemento incalcolabile che comporta la necessità di una riconfigurazione totale della nostra vita» (148).

Edmund Husserl: Normativité et déconstruction, Vrin, 2020

Normativité et déconstruction: Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920 Book Cover Normativité et déconstruction: Digression dans les Leçons sur l’éthique de 1920
Bibliothèque des Textes Philosophiques
Edmund Husserl. Présentation et traduction de Marie-Hélène Desmeules et Julien Farges

Jean-Luc Nancy: Derrida, suppléments, Éditions Galilée, 2019

Derrida, suppléments Book Cover Derrida, suppléments
Jean-Luc Nancy
Éditions Galilée
Paperback 20.00 €

Matthias Fritsch: Taking Turns with the Earth: Phenomenology, Deconstruction, and Intergenerational Justice

Taking Turns with the Earth: Phenomenology, Deconstruction, and Intergenerational Justice Book Cover Taking Turns with the Earth: Phenomenology, Deconstruction, and Intergenerational Justice
Matthias Fritsch
Stanford University Press
Paperback $27.95

Reviewed by: Christopher Black (Texas A&M University)


Taking Turns With the Earth offers to the reader a rich and incisive analysis of intergenerational justice, especially as it relates to issues pertaining to the environment.  With intergenerational ethics being relevant to so many issues that we face today, this book offers a timely theoretical analysis of the nature of our obligations to non-contemporary others.

This book makes clear that the theoretical nature of obligations to future generations is fraught and contested terrain, and Fritsch spends a sizable amount of time early in the text outlining the major ontological problems and methods in intergenerational justice (IGJ), of which there are multitudes. At times, especially in the early expository sections, so much theoretical matter is covered in such close succession that it becomes theoretically dense.  The multifarious forms of epistemic problems, interaction problems, world-constitution issues, and nonexistence challenges, and the various responses to each problem almost blur together into one mass.  But if taken slowly and deliberately, this expository portion is tremendously helpful towards understanding the state of the IGJ literature.  Within this section, too, certain portions – such as the discussion of the nonidentity problem (34) and the challenges it raises to common moral concepts such as autonomy and personhood – raise especially powerful challenges to IGJ in general, but also ones that Fritsch ably responds to.  Only after this expository portion do we get to Fritsch’s original contributions to the topic, which include his major claim and two models of intergenerational justice that follow from it.

He responds to the epistemic and ontological problems associated with intergenerational justice by promoting a social ontology that is attuned to what he calls the “ineluctability” of normativity, and which deals directly with “the relations among subjectivity, time, and generations.” Fritsch identifies a basis of normativity which he thinks need be recognized for an ontological account of IGJ to be adequately normatively sensitive. Specifically, he claims that both natality and mortality, or the fact that we are always already living in the time of birth and death, should be considered constitutive of moral subjectivity.  Moral subjectivity is a term which he thinks contains both moral status (being a legitimate object of moral concern) and moral agency (the capacity to freely choose a course of action). This moral subjectivity-constituting view of birth and death – which he expands upon further in chapter two – foregrounds the two models of IGJ which he introduces in chapters three and four, respectively. The first model of IGJ that Fritsch proposes is indirect reciprocity, which he elaborates further into his idea of asymmetrical reciprocity.  This model is meant to capture the role that indebtedness to previous others plays in giving to future others. The model is exemplified as follows: “A gives to B who ‘returns’ the gift to C (so for example, from past to future via the present.” (11) The second model of IGJ – which is outlined in chapter 4 – is the idea of “taking turns.” Fritsch argues this model is more appropriate for holistic or quasi-holistic objects (such as the earth or nature) because such holistic objects cannot be divided up and distributed like a cake. Whereas reciprocity depends upon substitutability, taking turns does not depends upon this principle.  Thus, the latter model is better equipped to deal with holistic, intergenerational, indivisible “objects” in a way that the former is not.


Now that I have quickly outlined the general structure of book I will undertake a more detailed summary, with an eye towards identifying the way of thinking about IGJ (i.e. the presentist view) that Taking Turns With the Earth resists, and then I will summarize the alternatives models to the presentist view that Fritsch offers in this book. Following that I will offer a few comments about the strengths and weakness of this book.

 The book starts out quickly with a series of salvos directed towards a certain set of people whom Fritsch refers to as “presentists.”  Presentists are those who exist as if they gave “birth to themselves.” Such people believe themselves to be self-standing individuals that are ontologically unrelated to past or future generations. Consequently, and critically, Fritsch (with continual reference to Stephen Gardiner) claims that because of this ontological short-sightedness presentists are subject to a form of “moral corruption.” Such corruption, it seems, is derived from a lack of social-ontological self-awareness, and results in a lack of care or adequate moral concern for noncontempories (both past and future, but especially future). Presentists’ lack of moral concern for noncontempories reveals itself most clearly on issues relating to the climate and non-renewable energy use. It is certainly true that conversations about these topics often reveal that there are many people who simply do not care about the welfare of individuals who will live, say, three or more generations down the line.  (This is the concept of “non-overlapping future people” illustrated on page 21.) The general nature of Fritsch’s indictment of presentism is compelling, and his concerns about intergeneration ethics are well warranted, but I think that it would be helpful if his idea of moral corruption (3) were given more explication, especially as many who participate in “presentist” practices (heavy dependence on fossil fuels by driving daily, for example) probably do so unreflectively or out of sense of perceived necessity.  Fritsch’ concept of moral corruption seems to imply a moral quality more active and malicious than this, though.  Instead, however, the indictment of moral corruption is given as just so.

Fritsch then argues that recently certain issues that are intergenerationally relevant, such as climate change, have come nearer to the center of public consciousness, and in doing so have made the topic of intergenerational justice more approachable. Notwithstanding these shifts in public approachability, he argues that there is still a prevailing – or at least a significant –  mythology of the temporally and historically isolated individual alive today, and he sets it as his task to debunk the myth of this kind of individualism in this book. In the introductory section he seems to come very close to claiming that those who hold to ideals such as individuality or autonomy, or perhaps even those who even believe that individuals exist at all, do not have the capacity to have care-filled relationship with contemporary or noncontemporary others. Surely it is the case that our identities are significantly extended through past and future, but it also seems that individuals are the kinds of being – and perhaps the only kinds of beings – that are capable of the capacity to care, be they a dog, a frog, or a friend. Crowds can’t care, only the individuals in them, at least if we are talking about the kind of care that can turn into moral corruption, not the kind of synergetic “care” that a superorganism (i.e. an ant colony or a coral reef) might be said to have for itself. But, to be clear, it seems that the idea of individuality that he is resisting is an idea of something like the liberal or the neo-liberal self, not an idea of selfhood like Heidegger’s authentic Dasein or Levinas’ other-constituted moral subject, and in the overarching scheme of this book this interpretation seems more sensible.  Indeed, later in the book Fritsch uses Heidegger’s “being-towards-death” as a stepping-stone (45/46) to get towards Levinas’ modified, intergenerationalized interpretation of self: being-for-beyond-my death (l’être-pour-au-delà-da-ma-mort). (67)  Upholding an intergenerational idea of self is critical to moving beyond a presentistic idea of self and, if Fritsch is right about presentism leading to moral corruption, then eschewing a presentistic idea of selfhood should lead us towards a better ontological alternative.  As the title of Chapter 1.4 states: “Ontological Problems Call for Ontological Approaches.”

To make the ontological adjustments that Fritsch argues that we need, the argument of the book turns towards an engagement with Levinas.  Fritsch specifically engages with the intersections of time, normativity, and sociality that can be found in Levinas’ thought.  Levinas offers a way of thinking about death, temporality, sociality, and normativity in a way that is helpful to Fritsch’ project of re-orienting IGJ. Fritsch seems to rely most heavily on Levinas’ thinking about temporality, and for good reason, because – as will soon be shown – this section adds strength to this book’s argument. Fritsch demonstrates that for Levinas death is not an isolating, individualizing event – as the existentialist pathos of Heidegger would have us believe – but that it is instead an inherently interpersonal, historical event.  Levinas agrees with Heidegger that meaning and agency depend of death, but contra Heidegger Levinas maintains that one’s own death is always inaccessible, and that it is only known in and through the experience of others.  For Levinas death is ever futural and never calculable; because of this, it is possible to psychically murder someone, but it is impossible to morally annihilate someone. (76)  Moral traces, vestiges, and memories of the moral other remain in a meaningful order beyond their physical death – even if the body is dead, there is no total annihilation of the other.

Levinas’ argument that a meaningful order exists beyond one’s death and his claim that death is a fundamentally interpersonal event, paired with Levinas’ assessment that our being is always already existing between the “immemorial past” and the infinite future, leads Fritsch towards his development of a model of ethical responsibility based upon Levinas’ idea of fecundity (fecondité).  Taking adequate precautions (86-91), Fritsch uses fecundity to argue that fecundity makes manifest the claim that relations with future people are not an afterthought but, instead, should be thought of as the exemplification of ethics in general. (88) It is the natal-mortal exposure to one’s child that both opens one up to a meaningful sense of time beyond one’s own life-span, but which also simultaneously hearkens back to the past, to previous generations – to those that gave birth to the parents, and the parents’ parents, and so on. At this nexus – in the fecund sense of time between birth and death – moral subjectivity emerges.  This fecund nexus demonstrates to us phenomenologically the kind of temporal being that we are, and also simultaneously infuses both the past and the future with ineluctable moral significance.

At this point, after having argued that we are the kinds of beings that exist as being-for-beyond-my-death and also always in relation to the past, Fritsch begins to turn the argument towards his reciprocity based model of IGJ, which is the first of the two models he proposes in this book.  Section 2.5 (“Intergenerational Reciprocities,” 91) introduces the language of reciprocity by stating: “If subjectivity can give birth to a fecund future only by owing to previous others, then its moral-ontological historicity can be captured by a Janus-faced form of reciprocity that refers both backward and forward.” Despite the wordiness of this passage – a regular trait in this book – the introduction of this concept is well-timed, and through its phenomenological descriptions this section does well to set up the normative argument for indirect reciprocity that Fritsch will soon move to.  But before doing this, and immediately after introducing the idea of reciprocity, Fritsch invokes Butler’s theory of cohabitation –  a theory which argues that Levinas’ distinction between my life and the lives of others is too strong – to gain support in order to help him begin his theory of indirect (or asymmetrical) reciprocity.  This interpretive reworking and clarification is needed because Levinas himself held a strongly negative view of the concept of reciprocity (92), and this caveat does well to demonstrate that Fritsch is well aware of the limitations of using Levinas to support his model  of reciprocity.

After introducing the basic idea of reciprocity in view of the ontological-normative claim that we exist fundamentally as past and future oriented (and constituted) beings, Fritsch expands the concept of reciprocity beyond its traditional mutualistic usage and argues that a tripartite understanding of reciprocity would better serve our ethical purposes.  That is, if we are to understand ourselves, ethically speaking, in terms of the concept of fecundity.  This tripartite usage of the concept of reciprocity a distinguishing factor that makes Fritsch’s model of indirect (asymmetrical) reciprocity distinctive. Indirect reciprocity is called “indirect” because the person that what I may owe is not limited exclusively to the person from whom I initially received something, but also to others. Traditional mutualistic ideas of reciprocity depend on the assumption that morally relevant parties will exist in a shared space of time and that the perspectives of morally relevant parties can be simply reversed.  They also depend upon the idea that the person who deserves reciprocity is the same person as the one who gave the first gift of exchange in the first place. However, Levinasian temporality and fecundity reveals this basic notion of reciprocity to be incomprehensive. Indirect reciprocity is a sense of reciprocity that cannot be distilled into a traditional form of simple, direct, presentist exchange, but instead extends beyond it. (94) This model of reciprocity calls for “giving back” to the future what is received from the past, even though the recipients of the gift are not the same as those who gave the gift in the first place.

Soon after these clarifications – and roughly halfway through the book – Fritsch introduces two major figures in the book: Derrida and Marcel Mauss.  Fritsch uses this middle portion to expound further on the idea of indirect reciprocity. He makes the case that because we are indebted to others from the past this should play a role in our giving to others in the future, even if the “gift” we give to future others is dramatically asymmetrical or altruistic.  Because of this second part, Fritsch argues that the notion of indirect reciprocity should be expanded into what he calls asymmetrical reciprocity. (107) Derrida’s critique of Levinas and The Gift by French sociologist Marcel Mauss figure heavily into this portion.

There are two critical elements to asymmetrical reciprocity that make it asymmetrical, and they form the bedrock of this distinctive way of thinking about IGJ. The traditional formulation of indirect reciprocity states that “(past) A gives to (present) B who ‘returns’ the gift to (future) C.” (108) Fritsch argues that this should be traditional formulation should be elaborated into asymmetrical reciprocity first because “if A’s gift is co-constitutive of B (i.e., is part of what allows B to be B), then B cannot ever fully repay the debt; full appropriation would amount to full self-annulment.  Thus, the gift remains inappropriable, excessive, and asymmetrical for B, who therefore must free herself from the debt in some way.” (108)  According to this argument one cannot fully repay a debt to the original donor without in some way substantially undermining or annulling their identity; the gift, and by extension the repayment, are inextricable from both the donor and the recipient. (Shades of the nonidentity problem appear here.)  The debt can only be repaid – in some way, shape, or form – to future others; other others than those who first gave the gift. The second element of asymmetrical reciprocity takes into consideration the excessive, overflowing characterr of this sort of debt.  Since this form of debt can never be fully returned to the original donor, this form of debt is always outstanding.  Thus, those in the present are always in the process of “giving back” to the future.  Thus, in this idea of continual future-oriented obligations constituting our normative being, we can see how this theory of asymmetrical reciprocity links up with Levinas’ of being as being-for-beyond-my-death.

Marcel Mauss is invoked in order to give a concrete sociocultural example of this sort of asymmetrical reciprocity standing at the center of a community’s ethos. Also Mauss is presumably used to suggest that since this sort of gift-receiving-and-giving can be witnessed in certain archaic cultures, then perhaps it can be used as a model of intergenerational relations for our modern world. In the cultures that Mauss studied the donor is not separable from the thing given, but also at the same time the donor is not taken to be the sole owner of the gift.  Instead the gift is understood to come from the clan, tribe, traditions, and ancestors. The recipient receives some of the donor’s spirit (in Maori hau or mana), and this spirit co-constitutes both donor and recipient. The obligation to reciprocate originates in the fact that in accepting the gift the recipient assimilates into themselves something that is fundamentally inassimilable (the mysterious elemental spirit of the gift), and thus it necessarily overflows them.  Because it overflows, it cannot but be passed on to future others, and in being passed on to the future it is in a sense returning to its own past.  This idea, as we can see, in many ways parallels the Levinasian structure of fecundity.  An ontological claim (that the gift itself is unassimilable) leads to a moral claim (that one should not try to make it theirs alone, but ought to pass it on.)  An example of this kind of gift would be food, for the food in one’s mouth – at least the kind of food that the cultures Mauss studies would eat – bespeaks the presence of ancestors; it would not come about without the gift inheritance of food-related gifts like tilled land, knowledge about farming, hunting, fishing, and so forth. (112) To account for the “return obligation,” that is, the obligation to pass the gift on, the gift is said to be imbued with an active spirit that wishes to return to its origin – to its clan, tribe, tradition, or ancestors. This model of socio-economy stands in marked contrast to the utility-maximizing agency that comprised the bedrock of Hobbes’ society, and indeed “the gift” offers an alternative model for the basis of the social contract.  For Mauss the foundation of society (at least in the one’s he reports on) is the gift that comes from the past and demands to be “returned” to future others.

Derrida is brought in to serve as a check on Mauss.  Derrida warns against Mauss’ “Rousseauist schema” which attempts to find an absolute bedrock of normativity in some far-off archaic origin.  Both Derrida and Mauss agree that there is an element of the “unpossessable” in the gift, but Derrida rejects Mauss’ foundationalism, and resists the idea that a singular normative origin can be found. Fritsch agrees that there is an issue with this sort of Rousseauism in Mauss – and that there is an issue in trying to identify a point of origin in normative life – but does not think it is sufficiently troublesome to motivate us to overlook the role that gifts play in intergenerational relations.  They allow us an opportunity to see a normativity that binds past generations to future generations, and thus are relevant to helping understand the nature of intergeneration normativity. Fritsch spends the rest of this chapter outlining more of Derrida’s thoughts about reciprocity and the gift, and defends his view against a variety of potential critiques.  He responds to the claim that asymmetrical reciprocity blurs the boundary between gift and exchange, and between private life and the world commerce, by suggesting (via Given Time) that this challenge – and challenges like this – presume the existence of utility-maximizing agents on the one hand, and the family one the other, whereas such a substantial distinction cannot be made.  (152).

The nuanced section on asymmetrical reciprocity nicely leads into the introduction of the second and final model of IGJ that Fritsch introduces: Turn-Taking.  While asymmetrical reciprocity is meant to show how the indebtedness to previous generations plays a role in our obligation to give to (and to care about the welfare of) future people, even if the gift is asymmetrical or altruistic, taking turns is meant to provide a model for intergenerational sharing of things that cannot be returned partially or incompletely.  That is, taking turns is concerned with holistic or quasi-holistic “objects” of sharing, such as the earth or nature.  Fritsch argues that there are three merits to the turn-taking model of IGJ. First, turn-taking demonstrates that there are ways other than the reciprocity of the gift that, normatively speaking, take into account the ontological presence of the dead and the unborn in our lives.  Secondly, turn-taking is better with respect to quasi-holistic and holistic object in a way that reciprocity is not, because reciprocity implies owing to the future an “equivalent among substitutables” and needs a “common metric to calculate such equivalents.” (155) Reciprocity is inadequate when discussing holistic objects such as the natural environment, the earth, or nature, because substitutability is not a principle that can easily applied to such totalizing entities. However, turn-taking can account for how to treat such holistic objects. Finally, taking turns better treats questions of intergenerational justice as inherently political questions. By citing Aristotle’s Politics Fritsch argues that this is so because a fundamental model of justice relies on the sharing of nonsubstitutable political offices. Turn-taking, Fritsch argues, is the model that free equals ought to take when attempting to share an object that is not divisible like a cake. (155) Fritsch notes this this basic idea of taking turns has received hardly any attention in the IGJ literature, and – in a very general way – this is surprising since this idea can be applied to a wide range of things, from political offices to the earth itself.  It is a model that provides a helpful way of thinking about IGJ in the context of holistic, indivisible, intergenerational objects, and for this reason it is a needed (and a very helpful) contribution to this book.

In a method not unlike that one found in the portion on asymmetrical reciprocity, which relied on the temporality of the “time of life and death” to reconceive of past-present-future obligations, in this chapter on turn-taking Fritsch invokes Derrida to deconstruct (“depresentify”) presentism, and to reconceptualize life as a matter of “lifedeath,” or even as “lifedeathbirth.” (161) This is meant to aid in understanding the ontologically connected, co-constitutive nature of the relation between living and nonliving generations.

After a few more forays through Derrida and Aristotle, Fritsch turns towards clarifying precisely what he means by turn-taking by laying out his model of “double turn-taking.” It has two components in its most general formulation: T1 and T2.  T1 is the turning of the self back towards itself over time.  “Given the noncoincidence of time, no identity is simply given.  Any self must, from the beginning, seek to return to itself, promising itself to its future self.” The second part of the turn is T2, which takes into account the differential contexts that the self passes through, but which are always constitutive of the self in the first place.  This is the turn toward the other: “To affirm oneself as oneself is to affirm the context without which one could not be what one is, and that means to welcome unconditionally the future to-come as an alterity within itself.” (167)  This two-step model of turn-taking can be applied specifically to intergenerational relations, but also to environment issues.  For the former, intergenerational relations, the attempted self-return would take place in and through birth from previous generations, and the turn towards the other takes place insofar as we turn towards the next generation.  For the latter, the environment, the attempted self-return takes place by the consumption of biospherical resources, and the turn towards the other is the turn towards the earth upon death and also through life’s continuous exchange with nature. (173)

In summary of this discussion of double turn-taking Fritsch says “saying yes to turn-taking means accepting that I receive power from previous others and will leave it to others.” (173)  In general the idea of turn-taking being an appropriate model for intergenerational sharing of holistic objects seems good and well-justified, however the level of theoretical detail and distinction-adding in this chapter seems unnecessary, and at times it seems to obfuscate the main point of turn-taking rather than clarifying it.

Final Comments

This general critique mentioned in the previous paragraph applies throughout this book.  In this book, as hopefully I have able to show in this review, there are many excellent, lucid, and compelling sections.  The early section on ontological problems in IGJ, the middle section on Levinas and fecundity, and the following section on Mauss and asymmetrical reciprocity were each particularly clear, well-argued, and engaging.  However, these rich and rewarding veins of thought are often buried beneath mounds of distinctions, caveats, and repetitions. Sometimes it gets hard to dig through, because the essential matter of the main argument is not always separated from additional theoretical matter. Moreover, the book tends to go on a bit longer than needed and to lose steam at the end. Chapter four – the section which introduces turn-taking as a model of IGJ – gives way to a chapter five.  This final chapter, while fascinating if standing on its own, seems primarily to turn around and rehash ideas previously covered in a way that is not terribly helpful to the overall experience of the book. This chapter concerns itself with life as lifedeath and the terrestrial claim over the corpse, both ideas which were previously covered. At this point I only have a few tiny, almost trifling critiques. First, there is a slight tendency to introduce very complex issues and then to simply say “I will not be able to discuss these interpretations here.” (115, for example) This leads to bit of expectation disappointment. Secondly, there is also a slight tendency to compile lists of “ists” and isms,” sometimes almost seemingly for its own sake. (212, for example.) This is certainly not a big deal, but just worth noting.

If the preponderance of critique that I offer about this book is in the form of writing critique, and anodyne critique at that, then that speaks to the strength of this book as a strong work philosophical scholarship.  Philosophically, I only suggested a concern about Fritsch’s use of “moral corruption” (which I mentioned in my 4th paragraph), and a concern about the idea of “self” that Fritsch is employing (which I mentioned in my 5th paragraph). This book is tremendously well-researched and takes pains to be sure that no theoretical stone goes unturned.  Appropriate sources are consulted at appropriate times, and the limitations of claims are clearly articulated.  More importantly, this book addresses a pressing ethical issue in our world today. What do we owe to future others, especially in view of our growing knowledge about climate issues?  If Fritsch is right, then we owe a lot, and certainly much more than many people take the time to consider that we do.  And we owe this to the future because of who, how, and, perhaps most importantly shown by this book, where we are.  Taking Turns With the Earth offers a vast reservoir of theoretical material to help us re-conceptualize the nature of our ontological and normative relation to both past and future noncontempories, and it demands that we pay attention to our status as interpersonal beings always living in the time of life and death. In doing so it calls for us to develop our ethical self-understanding, and this call is not just thrown out haphazardly.  Instead, this call is motivated and supported by astute philosophical argumentation.

Sean Gaston: Jacques Derrida and the Challenge of History, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019

Jacques Derrida and the Challenge of History Book Cover Jacques Derrida and the Challenge of History
Sean Gaston
Rowman & Littlefield International
Hardback $102.60

Francesco Vitale: The Last Fortress of Metaphysics: Jacques Derrida and the Deconstruction of Architecture

The Last Fortress of Metaphysics: Jacques Derrida and the Deconstruction of Architecture Book Cover The Last Fortress of Metaphysics: Jacques Derrida and the Deconstruction of Architecture
Intersections: Philosophy and Critical Theory
Francesco Vitale. Mauro Senatore - Translator
SUNY Press
Hardback $80.00

Reviewed by: Georgios Tsagdis (University of Westminster)

“For Architecture no longer defines a domain.”



To begin with the title. ‘The last fortress of metaphysics’ is for Francesco Vitale architectural; it is indeed, architecture itself—at once protected and encumbered by a manifold of “theoretical, political, institutional, symbolical, and material resistances” (xvi). In its encrusted ‘lastness’ architecture presents thus the litmus test of deconstruction, making the latter’s intervention into the former the measure of deconstruction’s efficacity.

This is because at and from the outset philosophy and architecture have found themselves “in the most essential of cohabitations” (xv). The apparent oblivion to the fraught resonances of the “cohabitation with women” that haunt Rousseau’s supplementarity across the pages of the Grammatology will be partly compensated by the book’s opening two chapters, which will undertake to think habitation in the figure of the oikos. At the outset however the cohabitation of philosophy and architecture is established in the strange, troubled even, generality of the latter.  In a passage of Derrida, which the short book will quote thrice (repetition ringing across the text worse than a stylistic shortcoming) and which must thus appear here in toto, architecture’s generality is contested by logical and material consistency, if not constancy:

“On the one hand, this general architectonic erases or exceeds the sharp specificity of architecture; it is valid for other arts and regions of experience as well. On the other hand, architecture forms its most powerful metonymy; it gives it its most solid consistency, objective substance. By consistency, I do not mean only logical coherence, which implicates all dimensions of human experience in the same network: there is no work of architecture without interpretation, or even economic, religious, political, aesthetic, or philosophical decision. But by consistency I also mean duration, hardness, the monumental, mineral or ligneous subsistence, the hyletics of tradition.” (xiv, 3, 90)

It is at the juncture of this hyletics, upon the rock of its consistency, that Derrida’s confrontation with Peter Eisenman will play out, a confrontation of particular significance for the encounter of deconstruction and architecture. But since the onto-political fate of the latter with philosophy will be from the outset intertwined, so must be the fate of their critique. Accordingly, Derrida destabilises and solicits the significance of the architectural foundation: “Architecture must have a meaning, it must present this meaning, and hence signify. The signifying or symbolic value of this meaning must command the structure and syntax, the form and function of architecture. It must command it from the outside, according to a principle (archē), a grounding or foundation, a transcendence or finality (telos) whose locations are not themselves architectural.” (xviii) With the same stroke, Derrida solicits the significance of the sign itself, a significance always already philosophical. It does so, by exploring the work of spacing that antecedes all given and constituted internal and external spaces.

Law of the Oikos

Vitale’s exploration begins with a return to the ‘law of the oikos’.  The book’s first two chapters deal with the Hellenic legacy that informs the shared fate of philosophy and architecture. For, as Derrida reminds us: “there is an architecture of architecture. Down to its archaic foundation, the most fundamental concept of architecture has been constructed. […] This architecture of architecture has a history.” (1) Vitale locates the significant point of entry to this history in the Greek polis in its intricate relation to the oikos.

The politics of habitation in Athens rests on the myth of king Erichthonius, “who was born directly from earth, not from a woman, but from the soil fecundated by the seed of Hephaestus, dispersed after his clumsy attempt to possess Athena.” (7) In this reading, the soil from which Erichthonius emerges, becomes the mythical foundation of all eco-political foundations. Since no reality will be able to adequate the myth, the latter will continue to haunt the imaginary of the West, producing building and dwelling as much as theoretical and political effects. For Derrida, this ontopology, this “axiomatic linking indissociably the ontological value of present-being (on) to its situation, to the stable and presentable determination of a locality, the topos of territory, native soil, city, body in general,” is today more obsolete than ever. (7) This certainly does not mean overcome.

The Erichthonian soil determines the law of the oikos, a law that “imposes the task of thinking identity (ontological and political identity) in terms that are irreducibly spatial: origin as a place, permanence, stability, being distinguished and protected from difference, alterity, the stranger, and the foreign.” (11) It does so by presenting itself as an immutable, yet indeterminate foundation. This terrestrial foundation bears the name of khōra.

Since khōra “is neither sensible nor ideal, not even a being, it cannot be determined in any way as a being could be. For this reason, to describe it, Timaeus must use a set of analogies (the receptacle, the cast, the sieve, the nursemaid, etc.), assuming that none of them are adequate since they all come from the sensible determined in the khōra. This third remains indeterminate: the indeterminate that prevents itself from any possible determination and makes every determination possible. But, at the same time, in its indeterminateness khōra imposes on us the thought that all that is, is as such because it takes place, has an origin that remains fixed, permanent, and stable, has a proper place, oikēsis idias.” (12)

Derrida explicates the status of the khōra further: “Perhaps, because it can receive everything, one could give it all the names one wants, since it can take any form, ultimately one could give a name different from khōra. As it does not exist under the form of a being identical with itself, of an ideal referent or a thing, one does not see why it would have only one name. But it is precisely because of this that it is always necessary to name it in the same way, since it is paradoxically necessary to keep the sense that it has no sense.” (12) Being the signifier of a signified which is not, the khōra is at the same time a quasi-index, a this, each time unique, yet nonetheless a name, and as such more than a mere this, a cipher eliding indication and signification.

Khōra accordingly designates political space, in the primary sense of invested, occupied space. (13) This space is occupied by the ‘dead sons of the polis’, the Erichthonian progeny which returns to rest forever in the originative soil of the city, now the burial ground of the Kerameikos. (8) The soil of the city the dead will share with the heroes, the cult of which is reactivated in the 8th century BC. The Mycenaean constructions, used by the cult are thus reactivated, offering not only the reassurance of a religious a continuity, but also assuming “a civic as well as territorial value,” by gathering the community and rooting it in the soil. In tandem, the acropolis will be “heir of the royal fortress of the Mycenaean age,” circumscribing the unity of the polis. (22) Whereas the fort would guarantee permanence to the city because of the security it afforded, the architectural permanence of acropolis offers a symbolic security. Positioned at the akron, the visible limit of the polis, it determines its whole territory, stabilising the khōra. The ethico-political significance of this stability will lend support to the Socratic indictment of the itinerant sophists, who lack a proper place, an oikos and thus the nomos, the law that pertains to it. (10) The city must exclude the dangerous other: it is a philosophical as much as an architectural function, a function summed up in the designation of an outside against a stable, striated inside. The law of the oikos, coupled with the law of the polis protect this inside, arresting and fixing the fluidity of the khōra.

Politics of Architecture

For Vitale, the significant contribution of deconstruction is precisely the re-articulation of all stability into effects of stabilization and sedentarization (let it be recalled that de-construction determines itself from the outset as de-sedimentation). Thus places lose their mythical-metaphysical origin and identity, appearing as effects of dislocation and localization, whereas the human appears as the effect of a situated self-inscription, placed by default in relation to otherness and the other. (29) Opening up a space in which to think and live this relation, is the contribution of deconstruction. (30) The law of the oikos, which protected the inside from the outside, the familiar from the stranger, and which informed the history of architecture, as well as that of the ‘architecture of architecture’ is here suspended (31). It becomes thus possible to conceive an other end of architecture, decoupled from dwelling. It certainly becomes possible to conceive of a different dwelling. For this “the deconstruction of architecture must in turn become work, it must become architecture.” (33)

The promise of this ‘architecture to come’ is affirmative of its own possibility, yet never positive. It never posits itself in a fortified security, but remains ‘risky, uncertain, improbable’. (34) It thus remains open and assumes the responsibility not only towards its own future, but towards the other to come, the nameless other, whom we do not know, cannot prefigure and imagine, the other that we do not know when, and altogether whether, will arrive. (38) This is a task not only of architecture, but of the polis as a whole. In order to achieve this, a city must strive to remain “indefinitely and structurally non-saturable, open to its own transformation, to additions that come to alter or dislocate as much as possible the memory of the heritage.” (41-2) As prime counterpoint to the acropolis and the funerary sēma, “Derrida conjures up the example of the temple of Ise in Japan, the most remarkable place of worship of Shintoism. The temple has been dismantled and rebuilt with new materials every twenty years for one thousand five hundred years.” (42) If such a thing was ever needed, one has here the most literal and least literary moment of deconstruction. It is all the same a sign.


The following, fourth, chapter undertakes to trace the passage ‘from architecture to writing’ and then ‘from writing to arche-writing’. Derrida, wishes to abandon ‘the envelope of a book’ to seek a different organisation of space—a space, where one does not only read, but also write between the lines. As readers, we are not handed over the model or blueprint of such ‘architectural artifacts’ as Glas or La Carte Postale, but are rather invited to inhabit their text. (47) Neither, because there is no model, nor because the model must be kept secret; we are not presented with the architectonics of architecture, because although the act of writing that has escaped the book, is a spacing akin “to the production of architectural drawing,” (49) this drawing resists its summary, its reduction to a few master-lines. The architecture of deconstructive writing resists the enclosure and subsumption under its own archē.

The book represents for Derrida precisely such a closure or totality, be it finite or infinite, of the signifier, which can only be established, once a totality of the signified has been previously asserted. (50) Although the historic veracity of this assertion is hardly questionable, Vitale could have here explored the necessity of the equivalence: even though no ground or telos might ultimately support totalisation, it appears theoretically possible to de-couple a totality of signifiers from a totality of signifieds. A ‘trans-total’ correspondence, one between a totality and a non-totality, is imaginable.

Architecture offers a paradigmatic possibility of a rupture with totalising writing. Pluri-dimensionality becomes the operative word. In Vitale’s words: “architectural writing is able to articulate geometric and mathematical notation, perspectival drawing and multiple reference systems, computer graphics, diagrams, photography, spectrography (which detects the physical nature of sites and materials as well as the anthropic presence), tridimensional models, and so on.” (51) It contributes thus to the deconstructive programmatic of conceiving “in a manner at once historical and systematic, the organized cohabitation, within the same graphic code, of figurative, symbolic, abstract, and phonetic elements.” (58) The war of linearisation against the originary pluri-dimensionality of writing, a war that reduced the cohabitation of these dimensions to successivity has long appeared won. Derrida, after Leroi-Gourhan, discovers the potentiality of resistance against the dominion of linearity, which marks the promise of a different scriptural future, in the sign of the ‘mythogram’. In the mythogram, “meaning is not subjected to successivity, to the order of a logical time, or to the irreversible temporality of sound. This pluri-dimensionality does not paralyze history within simultaneity.” (59) Mythography grants us access to arche-writing. Leaving this passage to arche-writing underexplored, Vitale follows Derrida, in an open gesture towards writing and reading architecture as mythography.

Writing Space

The fifth chapter explores the theme of spacing as it comes into play in Tschumi’s research and work. Spacing must be understood not only as an empirical necessity of every system of notation, of every scriptural or inscriptive system, but also as an irreducible condition of experience and of the production of meaning. Spacing is already there in every presence, at the heart of its own self-immediacy. (63) Accordingly, spacing is the imprint of the play of the trace, of a movement that produces space in its unfolding. The trace, as “the opening of the first exteriority in general,” (56, 64) spaces by showing the exteriority at the heart of every interiority.

For Vitale, Tschumi’s work follows faithfully the play of the trace. It is thus able to offer a new architectural possibility, a possibility that is “neither architecture nor anarchitecture, [but rather] transarchitecture.” (68) What is particularly significant and particularly topical for Derrida in transarchitecture is that “it comes to terms with the event; it no longer offers its work to users, believers, or dwellers, to contemplators, aesthetes, or consumers. Instead, it calls on the other to invent, in turn, the event, to sign, consign, or countersign: advanced by an advance made to the other—and maintaining architecture, now architecture.” (69) At a given juncture, Tschumi offers for Derrida the inventive now.

In the Manhattan Transcripts Tschumi’s struggle to escape the confines of received architectural writing becomes apparent: “The original purpose of the tripartite mode of notation (events, movement, spaces) was to introduce the order of experience, the order of time—moments, intervals, sequences—for all inevitably intervene in the reading of the city. It also proceeded from a need to question the modes of representation generally used by architects: plans, sections, axonometries, perspectives. However precise and generative they have been, each implies a logical reduction of architectural thought to what can be shown, to the exclusion of the other concerns. They are caught in a sort of prison-house of architectural language, where “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” [Wittgenstein] Any attempt to go beyond such limits, to offer another reading of architecture, demanded the questioning of these conventions.” (71)

It is precisely the function of movement in Tschumi’s work that destabilises calculability and universality, to bring forth the unique now in which a play of differences becomes possible for architectural writing. Again The Manhattan Transcripts: ‘The movements—of crowds, dancers, fighters—recall the inevitable intrusion of bodies into architectural spaces, the intrusion of one order into another. The need to record accurately such confrontations, without falling into functionalist formulas, suggests precise forms of movement notation. An extension of drawing conventions or choreography, this notation attempts to eliminate the preconceived meaning given to particular actions in order to concentrate on their spatial effects: the movement of bodies in space.’” (72)

It is because of this attentiveness to the plasticity that the play of the trace necessitates, that Tschumi appears not to betray the promise of deconstruction for a different architecture. Thus, the “unique existence and logic” that  “books of architecture, as opposed to books about architecture” develop, (70-1) will not be met by Vitale with the suspicion reserved for Eisenman’s attempt to extricate architecture from the exigencies of deconstruction, by establishing a sui generis space for it. Perhaps then the space devoted to the latter’s critique would have been better employed in following much more closely the former’s appraisal, exploring the architectural pathways opened by Tschumi’s practice.

Eisenman the Apostate

The penultimate chapter is then devoted to Eisenman—a cul-de-sac of deconstruction. A certain early rapport of the two men in view of a collaboration on the La Villette park project quickly came to a head. The rupture manifested in dramatic fashion at the 1989 congress in Inrvine, which Derrida decided not to attend. It was precisely this performative absence that dramatised their divergent positioning vis-à-vis the place and function of absence in thought and architecture. Derrida used his physical absence to address on tape a series of questions to Eisenman—a spectral confrontation. (79)

Derrida had proposed his essay Khōra as common ground for their joint exploration, a text and a notion that we saw pose a challenge to territorial foundations of identity. (17) Eisenman retracted in view of this challenge. The concrete materiality of the physical presence of buildings meant for Eisenman that “the term [deconstruction] is too metaphorical and too literal for architecture.” (82) The full scope, however, of the double hyperbole is only made apparent in Eisenman’s attempt to break with the way in which deconstruction engages with oppositionality: “In my view, your deconstruction of the presence/absence dialectic is inadequate for architecture precisely because architecture is not a two-term but a three-term system. In architecture, there is another condition, which I call presentness—that is neither absence nor presence, [neither] form nor function, but rather an excessive condition between sign and being. As long as there is a strong bond between form and function, sign and being, the excess that contains the possibility of presentness will be repressed.” (87)

Presentness as the third term is the wager of the whole dispute and the point on which Vitale will concentrate his vindication of deconstruction. He will do so by means of a theoretico-historical and a logical argument. The former suspects the structure of a transcending-encompassing third of regressing into dialectics and producing dialectical effects. Accordingly, Eisenman will remain haunted by the spectre of an architectural Hegelianism; a spectre he will not even attempt to shake off. (88) The latter argument presents Eisenman’s logic as circular. We are given to read: “Presentness is the possibility of another aura in architecture, one not in the sign or in being, but a third condition of betweenness. […] This excess is not based on the tradition of the plenitude, but rather is the condition of possibility of presentness.” The circle is clear: “Presentness is the condition of possibility of the excess that is the condition of possibility of presentness.” Neither Eisenman, nor Vitale seem to be interested here in a notion such as ‘equi-primordiality’, as an escape from the conundrum.

What emerges in the brevity of this exposition is the introduction of aura as the halo of presentness, which amounts for Eisenman to the “presence of absence.” (90) This is why Derrida will take advantage of his absence to say to Eisenman on tape: “I’m not going to take advantage of my absence, not even to tell you that you perhaps believe in it, absence, too much.” (80) Eisenman believes in absence too much because he believes in the redemptive possibility of its presentification. The implications for Derrida—or what Vitale diagnosed as dialectical effects—are significant: “Whether it has to do with houses, museums, or university research laboratories, what distinguishes your architectural space from that of the temple, indeed of the synagogue (by this word I mean a Greek word expressing a Jewish concept)? Where will the break, the rupture have been in this respect, if there is one, if there was one, for you and other architects of this period with whom you feel yourself associated? I remain very perplexed about this subject; if I had been there, I would have been a difficult interlocutor.” (81)

The difficulty for Derrida amounts to the attempt, both impossible and regressive, to presentify absence. Thus his spectral advise to Eisenman: ‘Well, you can strategically insist on absence as a disruption of the system of presence, but at a certain point you have to leave the theme of absence’.” (93). Derrida who confesses to feeling like an architect when writing, the paradox of architecture cannot be sublimated:

“The paradox, of course, is that on the face of it, architecture seems to have nothing to do with absence, in one of Heidegger’s texts, he says that a temple is a place where God is present, but that implies that the temple is an empty place ready to receive God. It is the ultimate paradox of logocentrism. […] So, because of its unique relationship to representation, architecture is more ‘present’ than any other art, but at the same time, being the most ‘present’, it is also the strongest reference to the opposite of presence, namely absence.” (92)

In the artifacts of the architectural tradition and despite the latter’s claims, the cohabitation of presence and absence remains productively irresolvable. Within this picture Eisenman appears merely to reinscribe a traditional gesture in the architectural matrix.

In order to decide the fate of this gesture Derrida invites Eisenman to position himself with regard to Benjamin’s essay Experience and Poverty, in which a ‘constructive destruction’ of aura is undertaken by the ‘new Barbarians’. (90-1) Benjamin observes the destruction of aura in the glass and steel work of architects such as Loos and Le Corbusier build with steel and glass. The hardness of the former and the (assumed) transparency of the latter preclude auratic effects, such as uniqueness, exclusiveness and mystification. Eisenman, whose attempt to rehabilitate aura is by now clear, will sidestep Benjamin’s essay.

Returning to the challenge of khōra to foundational origins, Derrida shows the need to think the auratic play of presence and absence through the notion of the trace: “The living present springs forth out of its nonidentity with itself and from the possibility of the retentional trace. It is always already a trace. This trace cannot be thought out on the basis of a simple present whose life would be within itself; the self of the living present is primordially [originairement] a trace. The trace is not an attribute; we cannot say that the self of the living present “primordially is” it [l’‘est originairement’]. Being-primordial [l’être-originaire] must be thought on the basis of the trace, and not the reverse. This arche-writing is at work at the origin of the sense.” (85) The difference becomes thus clear: whereas Eisenman’s phenemonological trace enables a reconstitution of presence as retention of absence, Derrida’s deconstruction of this traces shows presence as a transitory effect of the trace’s movement. (87, 93, 95)

Here ends therefore Derrida’s engagement with Eisenman, as well as Vitale’s chapter. It is perhaps unfortunate that the latter did not attempt to identify and extract those intuitions in the latter’s work that originally attracted Derrida, and might still hold the potential of productive effects—intuitions working precisely against Eisenman’s overall gesture. The chapter’s polemic shares thus little of deconstruction’s sense of a fidelity working from within, remaining rather a siege extra muros.

Spacing Architecture

The last chapter of the book functions as a coda to the series of forays of the previous chapters. Vitale returns with Derrida to Saussure, to find a sign both arbitrary and differential (102-3), which will support the renewed call for the displacement of the linearity of architectural and non-architectural writing. The notion of the trace, the fruit of the internal tensions of the two-fold character of the sign, provides the “finite and material element of a composition that takes on the shape of an architectural product,” in order to effect the displacement of linearity. (105) The play of the trace spaces, gives space, opens up the matrix of the khōra.

Vitale chooses to close with a framing of Glas, perhaps the most ‘architectural’ of Derrida’s works, and moreover, in Derrida’s words, one replete with traces, “traces of traces without tracing, or, if you wish, tracings that only track and retrace other texts.” (110) For Vitale the two columns in which the text of Glas is arrange, constitute architectural artifacts: “two columns that are erected and stand out on account of a supposed autonomy: the autonomy of the work, of the Book, granted by the signature of the author (subject, consciousness, etc.). In this case, Hegel’s work, on one side, and Genet’s work, on the other side. […] Glas consists in this frame that exposes what makes it possible: between the two columns, the clapper [battant] of another text, of another logic: spacing.” (107)

The implications of the making, the arrangement of scriptural space are catalytic for the ciphering and de-ciphering of the text. Moreover, the text itself will reinforce its architectural space, the way a stalactite becomes the support of the cavernous, mineral space that produced it. Vitale is observant: “Genet’s work, once inscribed within the frame of Glas, can no longer be entirely solved, absolved, detached from the act of absolute self-naming to which it aims. To realize/idealize itself as such, it cannot but go through the erection of a column of writing, and thus it must leave the traces of its finite and contingent passage.” (109) In this, reading Genet is constituted by Derrida as the anarchitecture that opposes Hegelian architectonics; the space between the two becomes the desired space of transarchitecture, a space between two architectures, two idioms, two tongues. If a kulindros designates the round body of a pyramid, an obelisk or a column, as much as a rolled manuscript or a scroll, Glas, working between its two columns, presents itself as a transversal writing, the most literal trans-script.

The integrated collection of essays that comprise The Last Fortress of Metaphysics would be strengthened if, rather than being their object, trans-scripturality was their constitutive mode of articulation. A second language would have to infect that of Derrida’s, the language of “the master of masters,” in Vitale’s acclaim. (viii) Adoration repays badly the master; if the master is to be followed, his performance must be performed anew. To perform anew in this instance would also require heeding the words of Derrida that Vitale is familiar with: “I am not happy with the concept of collage. I never use it as such. It is a traditional concept. Collage implies fragment, and that implies that there is a proper body the fragment belongs to.” (97) The collage that The Last Fortress is, troubles the reader less by the precariousness of its unity or its repetitiveness, as by the tempting promise of a proper textual body, a naked body in which the intricate and far-reaching interweaving of deconstruction and architecture is exposed in its plenitude. All the same, Vitale’s effort is a first step and as such a significant contribution to the labour required in appraising the lure of this promise.