Johan de Jong: The Movement of Showing: Indirect Method, Critique, and Responsibility in Derrida, Hegel, and Heidegger

The Movement of Showing: Indirect Method, Critique, and Responsibility in Derrida, Hegel, and Heidegger Book Cover The Movement of Showing: Indirect Method, Critique, and Responsibility in Derrida, Hegel, and Heidegger
SUNY series in Contemporary French Thought
Johan de Jong
SUNY Press
2020
Paperback $33.95
386

Reviewed by: Sarah Horton (Boston College)

Johan de Jong’s The Movement of Showing opens with the observation that “Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida consistently characterize their thought in terms of a development, movement, or pathway, rather than in terms of positions, propositions, or conclusions” (xix). In other words, they do not stake out a definite position that they defend against all comers; rather, they call attention to the movement that carries us beyond each apparently fixed position that a work might seem to present. Indeed, not only do they not aim to delineate a fixed, complete, and fully consistent position, they regard such a delineation as impossible, so noting that they fail to accomplish it does not suffice as a criticism of them. Readers, or would-be readers, of Derrida in particular often stop here, dismissing his work as so much nonsensical relativism. De Jong instead asks how we are to understand this movement that resists any fixed position and how we might critique it without taking it for a failed attempt to establish a fixed position. These questions, which de Jong addresses in an admirably nuanced fashion that makes this book well worth reading, ultimately point us to questions about justice and responsibility.

Thus we as readers find ourselves confronted with the question of what it means to read de Jong’s text responsibly. How do we engage with the impossibility of reducing it to a single determinate position about the three philosophers – G.W.F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida – with which it primarily deals? For what is here called a “movement” must exceed de Jong’s stated positions as it exceeds theirs. Asking “how such a discourse of movement can be understood and criticized,” he maintains that “answering this question does not, as some may think, itself require indirectness, textual extravagance, or a poeticization of philosophical method (even though these cannot in principle be excluded from the realm of philosophical efficacy)” (xxii). What, though, does it mean to say that answering a question does or does not require indirectness? “Indirectness” is the word de Jong has chosen to name the “undercutting gesture” by which “Derrida’s claims and conclusions are invariably repeated, reversed, retracted, contradicted, visibly erased, or otherwise implicitly or explicitly complicated” according to the movement that cannot be contained within any fully determined position (xxii). Yet if indeed thought itself cannot be thus contained – if any position that one might suppose to be fully determined in fact always already undercuts itself – then it is less a matter of indirectness being required than of indirectness being impossible to avoid, at least in implicit form, no matter how hard one tries. De Jong’s style does differ considerably from Derrida’s; readers who regard Derrida’s style, or styles, as obfuscatory should not be able to make the same complaint about de Jong’s, and if they read The Movement of Showing they ought, moreover, to come away with a better understanding of why Derrida wrote as he did. That said, de Jong implicitly recognizes that indirectness is also at work in his own book when he writes that “the very term ‘indirect’ is itself also not the adequate, definite, final or right word for what is investigated here” (xxii). I will return, at the conclusion of this review, to the question of indirectness in de Jong’s text. For the moment, let us note that the impossibility of finding any “adequate, definite, final or right word” will be a recurring theme throughout, and it is one that we must bear in mind when reading any text, whether a book by Derrida, The Movement of Showing, or, for that matter, this review. At the same time, we cannot escape words, however inadequate and indefinite they may be, nor should we desire to – and the joint impossibility and undesirability of such an escape will prove central to ethical responsibility.

Part I, “Sources of Derrida’s Indirectness,” examines, with remarkable nuance and precision, Derrida’s manner of writing. In chapter 1, De Jong begins by arguing that, contrary to what some commentators have supposed on the basis of certain of Derrida’s more direct assertions, Derrida does not and cannot offer a theory of language. Readers of Of Grammatology at times make the mistake of deriving a theory of language from it, which they then attribute to Derrida, according to which speech, traditionally considered superior to writing because of its immediacy, is in fact just as mediated as writing and should therefore be understood as arche-writing, or writing in a more general sense of the term. Derrida’s point, however, is that this theory is already in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, Saussure’s intentions to the contrary notwithstanding. Taking it as Derrida’s theory fails to understand that there can be no definitive theory of language. Arche-writing is not writing understood more broadly, as if we could fully understand language once we worked out the proper definition of “writing”; rather, it marks the impossibility of attaining some ideal meaning that would be unmediated and fully present. Derrida does not offer a theory, explains de Jong, but seeks rather to show the movement that reveals the limits of all theories, even as they try to present themselves as complete.

Readers of Derrida who recognize that neither he nor anyone else can offer a complete and consistent theory of language often interpret him as an opponent of metaphysics, but de Jong shows in chapter 2 that this interpretation also fails. There is no way out of metaphysics, and Derrida does not propose to offer one. Seeking to overcome metaphysics is itself metaphysical, for any attempt to get outside metaphysics already depends on metaphysics to define itself. What is more, the history of metaphysics is the history of this attempted overcoming. Questioning metaphysics is not, therefore, a matter of opposition, and this questioning even calls itself into question precisely because any attempt to think metaphysics necessarily occurs within the language of metaphysics. That theories are limited in no way entails that we can step outside or overcome their limits.

Having demonstrated the problems with certain popular interpretations of Derrida’s texts – that he offers a theory of language and that he calls for the overcoming of metaphysics – de Jong asks, in chapter 3, whether Derrida can be justified. If Derrida argues that all positions are incomplete and undo themselves, then pointing to omissions or inconsistencies in his work hardly serves to refute him, but it is equally unclear what grounds one might find to justify a work that disclaims the very attempt to produce a complete and consistent position – and de Jong insists that Derrida’s would-be defenders must recognize the latter point just as much as the former. It is not that Derrida makes a virtue of mere contradiction, as if one ought to embrace inconsistency itself as final and definitive. But de Jong emphasizes that “Derrida cannot be completely safeguarded against the accusations from which his works must nevertheless be tirelessly distinguished” (76). Derrida is not the mere relativist that he has often been accused of being, and yet “the risk of assimilation and supposed misreading is not an extrinsic one, but intrinsic to the operation of deconstruction” (78). There is a real sense, therefore, in which Derrida cannot be justified – which is not to say that his work can be dissociated from justice (a point to which de Jong will return). De Jong warns us against the “reassurance mechanism” that consists in saying, “Never mind [Derrida’s] critics; they clearly haven’t read the texts” (78). The point is apt, but I suggest that one might ask the critics whether they have read their own texts. For a more careful reading might show them that misreading and reading can never be neatly separated; nor, for that matter, can writing and what one might call miswriting. As deconstruction operates within any text, it is not only Derrida’s texts that cannot be safeguarded from any possibility of misreading – and this point is one that merits greater emphasis than de Jong gives it in this chapter. He rightly points out what he calls the vulnerability of Derrida’s texts, at the risk of suggesting that Derrida’s texts are unusually vulnerable. Still, Part I is an excellent reading of Derrida, and since reading and misreading cannot be disentangled, there is no way to exclude every possible misinterpretation. De Jong’s argument that Derrida does not call us to overcome metaphysics, as if going beyond metaphysics were possible, is a particularly valuable contribution to the literature.

De Jong now turns to Hegel in Part II and then to Heidegger in Parts III and IV. Since Derrida cannot be outside the metaphysical tradition, his relation to Hegel and Heidegger cannot consist, as it has often been thought to do, in rejecting them as still too metaphysical. This reexamination of Hegel and Heidegger thus follows from the analysis in Part I, and it shows that they are rather less different from Derrida than they are generally imagined to be – without, however, assimilating them into a single position. All three thinkers reveal the limits of any thought that seeks to establish a fixed position, while they also recognize that we cannot step outside or beyond the limits of thought itself.

Part II, “Movement and Opposition,” begins with the argument, in chapter 4, that for Hegel as for Derrida, philosophical questioning cannot itself be detached from its object. Indeed, de Jong writes that “Hegel is the first philosopher to explicitly locate the aforementioned entanglement right at the heart of the philosophical enterprise” (85). It is for this reason that philosophy cannot arrive at a conclusive end to its investigations: philosophy is always investigating itself. Hegelian dialectic is often interpreted to mean that philosophy will progressively free itself from its own limits and reach Absolute Knowing, a final position in which alterity is no more, and Derrida’s own readings of Hegel have fueled this misconception. Through a consideration of the development of Hegel’s thought, de Jong shows that Hegel does not propose that philosophy’s movement can or should be brought to a halt. Precisely because the absolute is not the cessation of movement, “Hegel’s ‘absolute’ idealism must be interpreted as an affirmation of the limits of reflection” (121): reflection does not transcend its limits but is carried along within them, and it is within its limits that it finds itself haunted by the alterity that can never be made fully present.

What, though, of Derrida’s own readings of Hegel, in which Derrida seems to regard Hegel as an opponent of alterity and himself as an opponent of Hegel? De Jong turns to this question in chapter 5 and argues, without denying the differences between the two philosophers, that Derrida’s relation to Hegel is not, and cannot be, one of simple opposition. In any case, opposition is never simple, since the sides of a dichotomy are necessarily dependent on each other to the very extent that they are defined by their opposition. What is more, Derrida offers multiple readings of Hegel – or, to put it another way, the name “Hegel” does not stand for the same figure every time it appears in his texts. At times, as for instance in “Tympan,” it does stand for a figure who seeks to eliminate the risk posed by negativity or alterity – but “Tympan” is less a supposedly definitive reading of Hegel and more an attempt “to stage a confrontation of philosophy with that in which the philosopher would not recognize himself, not so foreign to philosophy as to leave it undisturbed, and not so close to philosophy as to do no more than repeat it” (134). It is, in short, an attempt to call attention to philosophy’s limits so that it will not mistake itself for the final, complete answer. Derrida’s target is not Hegel but a complacent Hegelianism that believes that all that is worthwhile is, or at least can be, subjected to its comprehension. Reading “Hors livres, préfaces” in Derrida’s Dissemination, de Jong finds that Derrida first describes the Hegel of Hegelianism before coming to the Hegel who is a thinker of movement and of difference – a Hegel who is not Derrida but in whom Derrida finds a “point of departure” (149) that is not simply the basis for opposition. Or, as de Jong puts it, “Derrida needs Hegel’s ‘speculative dialectics’ as a point of contrast, but he is aware that Hegel cannot be reduced to those terms. […] The more radical [sic] Derrida presents himself as moving beyond Hegel, the more emphatically his allegiance to Hegel is reaffirmed” (151). Derrida needs Hegel because of how Hegel can be read and misread: the thinker of movement who has been misinterpreted as a thinker of overly definitive absolutism is a fitting interlocutor for another writer who, precisely because he is also a thinker of movement, is profoundly concerned with questions of interpretation, questions of reading, misreading, and the complex interplay thereof. Indeed, one should not suppose that reading and misreading are independent and readily distinguishable – a point implicit in de Jong’s insistence on the impossibility of safeguarding Derrida from misreadings.

Part III, “Heidegger: The Preservation of Concealment,” reads Heidegger’s Being and Time and Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event) in order to explore the theme of indirectness in Heidegger. In chapter 6, considering Heidegger’s criticisms of the language of Being and Time, de Jong argues that the problem was not that the language of Being and Time failed by remaining too much within metaphysics, nor can the Kehre be understood as a turn to looking for a language that would adequately say being. Rather, the language of Being and Time was, in Heidegger’s later view, insufficiently attentive to the inevitability of a certain failure, and Heidegger came to seek “a language that would take into account, recognize, and preserve a certain necessary failure-to-say with respect to (the question of) being” (156). This language would still be metaphysical since the overcoming of metaphysics is itself metaphysical, but it would strive to reveal the very impossibility of finding a location outside metaphysics from which to philosophize. Already in Being and Time questioning is no straightforward matter, however: that Dasein questions being from within being is crucial to the book – an obvious point in itself, but what has been neglected is that the middle and late Heidegger’s works, including those written post-Kehre, therefore represent not a break with his early thought but a deepening of themes and problems that were in play from the start.

Chapter 7 pursues this analysis via a reading of the Contributions. De Jong emphasizes that the forgetfulness of being is neither a problem that can be solved nor an error that can be fixed. Heidegger’s goal is not and cannot be to overcome this forgetfulness but is “to recognize and preserve that forgetfulness as such, or interpret it originally” (200). Indeed, overcoming the forgetfulness, as though it could be left behind, would amount to forgetting it again. What is essential is that we strive not to forget the forgetfulness, that we strive to recognize the limits of thought – which is precisely not stepping beyond them as if they could become negligeable. This recognition, moreover, is a movement that never becomes a completed process.

Part IV, “Of Derrida’s Heideggers,” shows that Derrida’s relation to Heidegger, like his relation to Hegel, is not simply a matter of opposition. In Derrida’s texts, the name “Heidegger” is no more univocal than the name “Hegel.” Chapter 8 explores this complex relation through a reading of Derrida’s Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. The key point is that Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche risks closing off the meaning of Nietzsche’s texts by arriving at some result that is then taken as definitive and final, yet Heidegger’s texts cannot themselves be closed off by interpreting them once and for all as the refusal of indirectness and undecidability. And as de Jong observes, “[Derrida] does not make a simple choice between these two Heideggers. The virtue of that undecidability lies in its potential to open the texts of these thinkers and resist reducing them to the content of an unequivocal thesis” (240). This remark also has worthwhile implications for the question of what it might mean to critique Derrida, though de Jong does not make them wholly explicit: that Derrida cannot be reduced to a purveyor of definite theses means that there are multiple Derridas, and a fruitful critique – fruitful in that it would recognize the limits of thought without seeking to go past them – would then be one that draws out this multiplicity rather than presenting a univocal Derrida who is assigned the role of opponent.

Chapter 9, turns, finally, to the question of responsibility. Here the question of critique or justification gives way to the question of justice. De Jong notes that “in the debate about the ‘ethics of deconstruction,’ interpretations have tended to work within a Levinasian framework, which understands ethics primarily with reference to the ‘other.’ That is quite right, but there is a risk if the other is confused with the external” (242). It is worth explicitly noting what is implicit here: that the other in Levinas is not a matter of externality, as alterity would then be one pole of the externality-internality dichotomy and so would fall within totality. In any case, de Jong’s analysis, which emphasizes complicity and proceeds through a reading of Derrida’s Of Spirit, is excellent. De Jong recognizes the indirectness of Derrida’s texts as a gesture of responsibility. What might appear as an irresponsible refusal to be associated with any position, and hence as a withdrawal from potential criticisms, is an attempt to grapple responsibly with the failure of any position – yet it is a responsibility that can never escape its own complicity with those failures. Heidegger’s own complicity has struck many as uniquely grave, and de Jong notes that Derrida does regard Heidegger’s use of the term Geist, in his 1933 rectorial address, as complicit with Nazism. It does not follow, however, that we can purify our own thought by rejecting Heidegger; Derrida himself cautions us against such an attempt to achieve purity. For Heidegger’s complicity with Nazism took place, writes de Jong, “by way of a mechanism or a ‘program’ of complicity and reaffirmation that Derrida himself does not claim to be able to escape. The program itself consists in the very attempt to escape, the thought that one can exceed racism or biologism by elevating oneself above it to a position of reassuring legitimacy” (251). More broadly, the quest for absolute purity cannot be untangled from a drive to declare oneself innocent – that is, not complicit in anything or, to put it another way, not responsible. But “the ‘fact’ that not all forms of complicity are equivalent” (252) does not mean we can avoid complicity, that we can overcome or go beyond it. We are responsible in advance, inescapably responsible, unable to establish a position that would justify us, free us from complicity, and let us relax in the security of non-responsibility. De Jong’s emphasis on complicity ties back to his earlier argument that Derrida’s texts cannot be made safe from misreading. By resisting the opposition between Derrida’s critics and his defenders, de Jong resists the temptation to safeguard thought, thereby reminding us of our limits. It is because we will never be able to present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as the saying goes, that we are complicit – which is a call not to despair but to the responsibility that, as de Jong’s The Movement of Showing skillfully reminds us, we cannot evade.

An afterword begins by addressing the question of indirectness in de Jong’s own text, and here he proves a less skillful reader than he did when interpreting Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida – though his failings are instructive and perhaps unsurprising, given that we cannot escape complicity with the attempt to arrest the movement of showing to arrive at some fixed position. De Jong asks “why, if [he] ha[s] been successful, [his] own exposition will not have displayed the implicit or explicit self-complication that has been [his] theme” (264). One response, which he admits is “facile,” is that “[he] ha[s] set out to do nothing more than to provide a commentary, and to provide a way of reading that goes against certain ideas about how to interpret the work of Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida. […] There is no reason why that reading could not be explicated unequivocally” (264). Granted, he himself calls this response “facile,” yet that it should be offered at all indicates the durability of the opposition between a commentary and the work commented upon, with the commentary appearing as merely secondary and derivative. Derrida, let us recall, commented on works by Hegel and Heidegger, and as I noted above, de Jong’s own analysis suggests (though without explicitly saying so) that there are multiple Derridas, as there are multiple Hegels and Heideggers. I do not mean to suggest that all Derridas, Hegels, or Heideggers on whom one might comment are equally valid or fruitful. The Derridas, Hegels, and Heideggers whom one encounters in de Jong’s text are remarkably well interpreted, whereas, to take an extreme example, anyone who attempts to read Of Grammatology as a guide to birdwatching is likely to be disappointed. Consider, however, Derrida’s remark in “Des tours de Babel,” concerning translation, that “the original is the first debtor, the first petitioner; it begins by lacking [manquer] – and by pleading for [pleurer après] translation” (Derrida 2007, 207). The so-called original text never stands on its own but is already a translation, is already separated from itself by its inevitable equivocity. Commentary is not exempt from this condition: it is never “nothing more than […] commentary.” De Jong’s writing is clear in that it is easy to follow – easier than Derrida’s, Hegel’s, or Heidegger’s often is – but that does not mean it is univocal. Commentary too is separated from itself – and, moreover, it is a way of translating the so-called original. The texts signed by Hegel, Heidegger, or Derrida call out for commentary because they are not summed up in what they say – nor in what any commentary or translation could say. The commentary and the translation plead as well, and they are not safe from misreading. Whether de Jong’s text displays self-complication and whether it does complicate itself are two different questions, and besides, one might well argue that it does display self-complication precisely by calling our attention to our inevitable complicity.

De Jong offers, as a “more principled answer,” the reply that “an awareness of the performative complexity of philosophical texts does not in itself necessitate a specific style” (265). This answer still tends to assume that self-complication must be blatantly visible as such, but de Jong rightly observes that “it is not a matter of doing away with representation or opposition, nor with the traditional form of an academic treatise. At issue is precisely an ‘inner excess,’ or how in what presents itself as proposition, representation or claim, something more, less, or other than what is ‘posited’ in them is taking place” (265). Indeed. Derrida’s styles are not the only ones in which worthwhile thinking may occur. And as there are multiple Derridas, there are multiple de Jongs, whom this review certainly does not exhaust, and I recommend that anyone interested in Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, or questions of indirectness more broadly read The Movement of Showing and encounter them for him- or herself. If I have dwelt at some length on the brief and admittedly “facile” response, and if I still reproach the “more principled” response with suggesting, in defense of the book’s clarity, that it is possible to avoid self-complication through the choice of a particular style, it is to highlight a certain complicity with the overly definite and determinate that inevitably accompanies writing. Indirectness cannot, however, simply be opposed to directness, as if one were pure and the other not – a point de Jong does not make explicit but that he could well have. Complicity with the overly definite and determinate is the only way to speak or write at all, and refusing to speak or write out of a desire for purity is an attempt to abdicate responsibility.

Indeed, de Jong in his afterword goes on to observe that “even given the limitations of the propositional form, of representation, and of oppositional determination, it is in and through them that we can and in fact do say more, less, or something else than what is merely ‘contained’ in those determinations” (272). Hence the limits of language are not to be regretted, which is a crucial point. Thus de Jong refuses to take “a negative or skeptical view on language as inadequate or as failing,” calling instead for “a productive view on propositions and claims such that they might carry or co-implicate more than the content that is ‘contained’ in them” (272, emphasis in original). That a text is “lacking,” to recall the above quotation from “Des tours de Babel,” does not mean that it has failed, as though it would have been better for it to lack nothing so that there was no call for translation’s creativity. Complicity does not put an end to creativity – far from it. Because there is no manual telling us precisely how to live out the responsibility by which we are committed in advance, our responses must be creative ones. One of the virtues of The Movement of Showing, though by no means the only one, is that it warns us against considering language—and hence what is expressed through language—a failure because of its limits, and that it points out that language even owes its richness to those very limits. In short, The Movement of Showing is a text that rewards attentive reading, and it makes a valuable contribution to the field.

Reference

Derrida, Jacques. 2007. “Des tours de Babel.” Translated by Joseph F. Graham. In Psyche: Inventions of the Other, vol. 1, edited by Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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
2020
Hardback $95.00
210

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?

Avital Ronell: Burnout der Autorität: Kojève, Kofman, Arendt, Klostermann, 2020

Burnout der Autorität: Kojève, Kofman, Arendt Book Cover Burnout der Autorität: Kojève, Kofman, Arendt
Klostermann Essay 6
Avital Ronell. Aus dem Englischen übersetzt von Peter Trawny
Klostermann
2020
Paperback 18,80 €
154

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
2020
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.

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