Jeremy Arnold: Across the Great Divide: Between Analytic and Continental Political Theory

Across the Great Divide: Between Analytic and Continental Political Theory Book Cover Across the Great Divide: Between Analytic and Continental Political Theory
Jeremy Arnold
Stanford University Press
Paperback $28.00

Reviewed by: Ben Turner (University of Kent, UK)

Disagreements over the nature of the divide between continental and analytical philosophy are perhaps as common as disputes between these two parts of the discipline. A consequence of the heterogeneity of understandings of this division is that attempts to cross it are often isolated cases rather than widespread philosophical practices. Jeremy Arnold’s Across the Great Divide: Between Analytic and Continental Political Theory represents one such attempt to construct a bridge between the two traditions within political philosophy rather than philosophy as such. In doing so he makes two claims: that ‘political theorists and philosophers ought to engage in…cross-tradition theorizing’ and that what he calls ‘aporetic cross-tradition theorizing is a viable and attractive mode of cross-tradition theorizing’ (14). In contrast to what Arnold calls the synthetic mode, which seeks to unify the two traditions within a single theory, the aporetic mode highlights the incompatibilities between the two traditions and shows how neither can give exhaustive accounts of political concepts. Arnold’s claim that the aporetic mode is a desirable mode of thinking across traditions is compelling due to the strength it lends to arguments in favour of theoretical and methodological pluralism in political theory. However, one might question the extent to which the aporetic mode is truly as agnostic with respect to method as it is intended to be.

Before moving to an overview and evaluation of the argument that Arnold makes in favour of the aporetic mode, it is worth highlighting the complexity that is added to the task of defining the divide between continental and analytic schools when it is examined within political philosophy. Within philosophy, one can begin from clear historical examples, as Arnold does (1-3), in which divisions between Husserl and Heidegger, on the one hand, and thinkers such as Ryle, Russel, Carnap and Frege, on the other, were established in the early to mid 20th century. It is a more complex task to identify the manner in which this division was transferred to political philosophy because of what Arnold acknowledges as the discipline’s ‘capacious’ character (5). Oscillation between the terminology of ‘political theory’ and ‘political philosophy’ indicates nominal differences which unfold in a variety of ways, such as the distinction between those based in philosophy departments and those in political science departments or the way political science and political philosophy are differentiated. In addition to the continental/analytical axis, political philosophy or theory is also divided along another axis which distinguishes it from political science or philosophy more broadly.

Arnold’s argument is situated within this definitional quagmire and is admirable for the clarity of the position which it articulates. Political theory, for Arnold, emerges in the context of the influence of European emigres to America upon normative debates regarding the crisis of liberalism and methodological debates regarding behaviourism in political science (4-5). Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, and Eric Voegelin are pivotal in the constitution of political theory insofar as they carried with them a set of continental influences that were critical of both liberalism and positivism, such as Heidegger, Nietzsche and Weber. Political philosophy, in contrast, has a simpler genealogy. It ‘has its institutional home primarily in philosophy departments, which in the Anglophone world are largely analytic’ (4). Normative political philosophy owes as much to its proximity to analytic moral philosophy as it does to debates about the nature of the political (6-7). Consequently, two different approaches to liberalism arise from these historical circumstances (7-8). Politically, liberalism is criticised by political theorists and endorsed by political philosophers of continental and analytic dispositions respectively. Methodologically, analytic political philosophers put great stock in the content of intuitions, particularly those of a liberal variety, whereas continental political theorists are more likely to scrutinise the ideological basis of these intuitions due to their scepticism of dominant liberal values.

That political philosophy is largely analytic and political theory is largely continental is cemented by Arnold’s articulation of three key differences within the contemporary unfolding of these historical trajectories. First, analytical political philosophers engage in justifying resolutions to problems found within political concepts, whereas continental political philosophers are more concerned with highlighting the impossibility of this enterprise (9). Second, this leads to differences in ‘style, interdisciplinarity and canon’ (11). An eclectic canon of references in the case of continental political philosophy–such as psychoanalysis, literature, film studies and neuroscience–leads to a wider diversity of argumentative styles, whereas a more tightly honed argumentative style is characteristic of analytic philosophy’s lesser use of interdisciplinary materials (11-13). Third, where analytical political philosophers work within a framework that is at the very least sympathetic to modernity and seeks to correct its wrongs, continental political theory is largely critical of the consequences of modernity (13-14).

Arnold’s overview of these differences is striking because it shows how Beyond the Great Divide is as much about bridging the divide between political theory and political philosophy as much as it is about the division between continental and analytic thinkers. To establish aporetic cross-tradition theorizing as the most desirable way of bridging this gap, Arnold argues that both traditions offer something to the study of political phenomena. Political phenomena are dense: a single concept, such as freedom, is not only defined by historical complexities and a range of practical interpretations; theorists which try to explain them bring their own normative and explanatory baggage to these problems (14-15). For Arnold, these dense concepts cannot be exhausted by a single theory. Consequently, each tradition responds to different elements of political problems–analytic political philosophers engage in the conceptual justification of reasons for the legitimacy or acceptability of particular political practices or expressions of power, whereas continental political philosophy highlights the historical, cultural or social contingency of those concepts and often the impossibility of any ‘final’ justification for them. More often than not these are incompatible philosophical trajectories. Aporetic cross-tradition theorising is justified with reference to the intellectual payoff of utilising both traditions to investigate dense phenomena.

Arnold gives three reasons for this. First, if political phenomena are dense and if the methods and approaches within the two traditions that approach them are irreconcilable, then no single approach can exhaust the complexity of the concepts studied within political theory. Synthetic cross-tradition theorising can only fail in the face of the fact that ‘dense phenomena contain irreconcilable elements, elements we cannot eliminate and cannot unify’ (17). The aporetic mode, in contrast, recognises that we cannot resolve these tensions. Second, the aporetic mode turns this irresolvability into a virtue. Different phenomena and conceptual approaches have a range of intellectual needs. By navigating across these approaches, the aporetic mode seeks to ‘discover the limits of our intellect’ insofar as a single account will never be exhaustive of political phenomena (19). Third, Arnold argues that the aporetic mode has ‘at its ethical core the demanded of the singular, embodied, all-too-real coerced individual, the simple demand for justification, for an answer to “why?”’ (20). If analytic political philosophy is often abstract and ignores concrete individuals in its justification of particular concepts and if continental philosophy focuses on the contingencies of concepts and eschews justification, then neither, for Arnold, can truly live up the simple fact that political practices involve individuals who need to be addressed with a justification for the exercise of power. If these approaches are translated into the aporetic mode, this can lead to ‘a powerful expression of the unrealizable but valuable ethical and political ideal of answering to this person’s subjection to power with reasons this person can accept’ (21). With this third claim Arnold switches from a methodological to an ethico-political register that addresses what he perceives as a deficiency common to both traditions: their abstraction from justifications that are acceptable to everyday individuals.

This argument is established over two main sections. The first consists of an overview and critique of two approaches to synthetic cross-tradition theorizing, realist political philosophy and the work of Stanley Cavell, whilst the second consists of two examples of aporetic cross-tradition theorizing, comparing Philip Pettit and Arendt, and John Rawls and Jacques Derrida. The first section discusses the difficulty of finding a justification for state violence in both realism and Cavell, whereas the second discusses freedom as found in Pettit and Arendt, and justice as found in Rawls and Derrida. Arnold’s aim across these chapters is to move from the deficiencies of the synthetic mode of cross-tradition theorizing to an advocation of the aporetic mode, whilst also producing meaningful insights into the thinkers and topics covered.

The first substantive chapter of the book deals with realism. According to Arnold,  the realist critique of moralism in political philosophy represents an example of synthetic cross-tradition theorizing. The goal of this synthetic enterprise is the production of claims to legitimacy based on terms that would be acceptable to those individuals rather than on pre-political moralistic arguments of the kind articulated by figures like Rawls, Cohen or Nozick. Realists seek to provide political rather than pre-political accounts of justification and of legitimacy. Ultimately, Arnold argues, the synthetic mode is not up to this task. This claim is based on the argument that realists do not adequately distinguish between state legitimacy and the legitimacy of state violence. This difficulty arises as much from realism’s synthetic method as it does from the intellectual problem of legitimacy.

Realism is synthetic insofar as it combines the need for justification and legitimacy characteristic of the analytic tradition with an attention to context, history and conflicting interpretations of political events characteristic of continental thought. One might lose a particular political battle over the interpretation of, say, whether the state is legitimate in imposing a particular form of taxation, but those who disagree with such an account may still find its terms acceptable (39). In the case of state violence, however, Arnold argues that interpretation does not provide a strong enough case for legitimating that violence in terms that an individual could accept–for it is likely that there are multiple competing interpretations within which state violence is not legitimate. Moreover, if in these interpretations state violence is not agreeable to the individual who is subject to it, then it can only be justified in pre-political terms which realists reject (41). By synthesising the analytic justificatory impulse with the continental emphasis on interpretation and conflict, realists end up satisfying neither demand in the case of state violence (47). Rather than trying to synthesise these two demands, Arnold argues that instead the aporia represented by the tension between the need for justification and its impossibility should be embraced as a core element of realist theorising about legitimacy.

Violence is also the political issue at stake in Arnold’s critique of Cavell. In Cavell’s reading of the social contract tradition, our participation in community implies complicity with the exclusions that are a necessary part of social life (49-50). Cavell diverges from the classical aim of the contract, to justify state violence through consent, in order to explore how we are morally compromised by our participation in unjust societies. Arnolds’s reading of Cavell makes two claims. First, he argues that Cavell’s focus on social violence is too general to make sense of the specificity of political issues relating to consent. Second, the focus on consent as membership of a community rather than the authorisation and legitimation of state action and violence means that Cavellian consent cannot account for this integral part of the ‘“grammar” of political consent’ (52). Arnold makes this case by emphasising the role that the community plays in underpinning the search for reasons in Cavell. Claims to reason find their transcendental conditions in community and draw on the distinct grammar of those communities (58). However, for Arnold Cavell does not provide sufficient detail for articulating the grammar of a specifically political community because consent is primarily an issue of complicity with social violence that arises from one’s participation in community as such (62-3). Consent merely implicates one in social violence within a particular community but does not expressly authorise the legitimate use of violence by the state.

This reading of Cavell continues the line of argument found in the previous chapter on realism, however, the link between synthetic cross-tradition theorising and the criticism of Cavell’s work is less clear. When considered as a form of cross-tradition theorising, realism falls short of providing a convincing justification of state violence because its synthetic method fails to reconcile the justificatory project of analytic political philosophy with continental political theory’s emphasis on interpretation. Within Arnold’s critique of Cavell, however, method is at a distance from the problem of legitimacy. Cavell utilises a synthetic method which treats philosophical texts as texts and not simply as examples of political argumentation: a continental method is synthesised with analytical texts. Arnold argues that this method falls short insofar as by reading texts ‘as texts we will often fail to take them seriously, on their own terms’ (75). Cavell’s method fails to treat analytical texts on their own terms precisely because he treats them as texts and not as pieces of philosophical argumentation. There is no disputing that this is a salient issue in an account of why cross-tradition theorising in the aporetic mode is superior to the synthetic mode. However, the criticism of the substance of Cavell’s account of violence and consent is at a remove from this methodological complaint: one might criticise the category of social violence without recourse to a critique of synthetic cross-tradition theorising. Thus, while both of these points stand it does not appear that the account of legitimacy in Cavell is essential to pursuing the project of advocating for aporetic cross-tradition theorising, and the point against the synthetic mode is somewhat weakened as a result (an issue that we will return to).

Following this critique of Cavell, The Great Divide shifts gear into advocating openly for aporetic cross-tradition theorising. In contrast to the first two chapters, where realism and the work of Cavell were taken as examples of synthetic cross-tradition theorizing, in the remaining chapters Arnold seeks to engage in aporetic cross-tradition theorizing himself.  It is here that Arnold turns to the work of Arendt and Pettit on freedom and Rawls and Derrida on justice. Each of these chapters represents an attempt to demonstrate the viability of the aporetic mode by showing ‘that a crucial feature of the concept theorized by a representative of one tradition cannot be harmonized with another crucial feature of that concept when theorized from the other tradition’ (76). The account of Arendt and Pettit spans two chapters which deal with freedom as such and political freedom respectively. At issue in both is the problem of control: whether it concerns freedom in general or political freedom, Pettit and Arendt’s respective approaches to control do not fully explain the density of the concept of freedom. As such, an aporetic approach is necessary to do justice to the complexity of freedom as a dense concept.

For Pettit freedom in general is understood in terms of responsibility. Responsibility gives a richer understanding of freedom than accounts which focus on the rational control of one’s actions or the ability to align one’s actions with second-order desires (volitional control) because, in Pettit’s account, freedom as responsibility requires the agent to exert ‘discursive’ control over the connections between their actions (81). Responsibility arises from the ability to give an account for the links between actions, for which rational and volitional control are necessary but not sufficient conditions. For Arnold, this leaves three common questions about freedom unanswered: what is its value, can freedom be spontaneous, and to what extent can we distinguish between acts that are considered as free because we exercise them consciously and those that arise from ‘virtual’ control or habit (84-9). These criticisms are introduced to facilitate the transition to Arendt’s concept of freedom, wherein freedom has a clear value: the capacity to create something new. Moreover, free acts must not be guided or dictated by others or by the self. They must be spontaneous (92-5). Free acts create something new under conditions of spontaneity while also maintaining that this act is intelligible to others. Arendt’s account of freedom shows, in contrast to liberal theories of non-interference, that a lack of control of the sovereign self is valuable for free action. While Arnold is more critical of Pettit than Arendt he is not dismissive of the former: the purpose of this comparison is to highlight that freedom as control and freedom as a lack of control represent irreconcilable accounts of freedom that nevertheless both have something valuable to say about freedom as a dense concept.

This insight is pursued further in Arnold’s account of specifically political forms of freedom in Pettit and Arendt. Both accounts fail to exhaust the permutations of political freedom as a dense concept. Pettit elaborates upon the conditions of freedom as non-domination, where republican institutions are intended to ensure that political decisions and forms of interference are non-dominating insofar as they track the interests of citizens (106-7). Freedom is conditioned as citizens can be subject to interference so long as their interests are tracked, and thus enhanced, by government action (106-8). In contrast, Arendt is concerned with institutions that support isonomy, or the ability to participate in unconditioned ‘disclosive’ action that reveals something about the world and that makes it meaningful to others (124-5). Isonomy is Arendt’s response to the conditions of modernity in which the ability of all to participate in political action is negated by conditions of alienation from both oneself and the world (125-7). Arnold’s account is intended to bring out the difference between Pettit and Arendt in sharp relief. Arendtian political freedom is incompatible with the kind of interference Pettit describes, no matter how non-dominating it intends to be, and the republican theory of non-domination would require a degree of self-control and control by the state for actions to be classed as free that would be unacceptable for Arendt.

As we already know, the aim of this account of Pettit and Arendt is not simply to state that they have different accounts of freedom. Instead, Arnold aims to show how they each run into difficulties that provide meaningful insights about the nature of freedom as a dense concept. While he seeks to distance himself from the difficulties associated with positive liberty that also plague forms of republicanism, Pettit fails to eliminate them. The classic critique of positive liberty is that aligning the state with the interests of citizens in a way that shapes the liberty of those citizens requires interference which, in Rousseau’s famous words, forces those citizens to be free (109-11). Pettit’s version of political freedom is intended to avoid the problems of republicanism in the Rousseauian and Kantian traditions, but for Arnold the state fostering of discursive control ends up repeating the problems of positive liberty. Arendt is faced with the opposing problem. A political entity based on the ideal of isonomy might have as its aim the defence of the right to unconditioned action, but it is difficult to conceive of an institution which could both create and maintain a political space while also refraining from controlling actors within those spaces (132-45). A synthetic account of freedom in Pettit and Arendt would attempt to iron out these issues by combining their opposed approaches into a single system. Arnold’s case, however, is that there is more value in treating them as distinct and irreconcilable approaches that are plagued by their own problems. If political concepts are dense, then a single, synthetic account would still fall short of the impossible goal of unifying several perspectives in a way that exhausts the complexity of political concepts.

The same approach is applied in Arnold’s reading of Rawls and Derrida, where he focuses on their attempts to provide non-metaphysical accounts of justice. Arnold gives an account of the changes that Rawls’ makes to his system between Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism, focusing on the stability of the principles of justice chosen from behind the veil of ignorance. In Theory of Justice they are chosen according to rational principles shared by all individuals, whereas in Political Liberalism the definition of society used to guide deliberation within the original position represents the fundamental ideas of constitutional democracies (143-144). For Arnold, this non-metaphysical justification made with reference to historical conditions fails as it invests the historical trajectory towards liberalism with metaphysical significance for considerations of justice (154-5). Derrida’s account of justice suffers from the opposite problem. Here the question posed by Arnold is how one can move from a quasi-metaphysical account of justice to a historical account of its permutations? Arnold does an admirable job of simplifying the aporias within Derrida’s understanding of justice: justice requires the absolute singularity of the decision, as it is ‘owed to a singular other’, but it must occur through the application of rules which are not singular (163). Justice, therefore, is irreducible to history but must be realized within it. The issue that Derrida runs into here, according to Arnold, is the necessity of law in this process. Why must justice take place through legal institutions? This is clarified with respect to Derrida’s account of forgiveness: even though no act of forgiveness can live up to the forgiving of the unforgivable, we would nevertheless still recognise an act of forgiveness as participating in this unreachable ideal form. This is not true of justice: it is manifestly clear that legal institutions do not just live up to the ideal of justice because it requires an unconditioned decision on behalf of the other, but also because some legal institutions would not be considered to be just in any manner. Bridging the gap between justice and history is difficult for Derrida, insofar as it is unclear why justice as a quasi-metaphysical idea must be realised in the factual institution of law (169).

In Arnold’s account, both Rawls and Derrida fail to produce non-metaphysical conceptualisations of justice. The former turns to history but by doing so transforms its contingencies into metaphysical justifications, whereas the latter fails to provide a convincing reason for the link between a quasi-metaphysical form of justice and the historical fact of law. Again, a synthetic account of justice would eradicate this complexity. The density of the relationship between metaphysics and politics can only be fully appreciated in an aporetic mode where the need to dispense with metaphysics must co-exist with the necessity of metaphysical grounding (170). This problem cannot be overcome, and therefore a synthetic approach to it will necessarily fail in its attempt to do so.

Arnold concludes with three reasons why the model of aporetic cross-tradition theorizing demonstrated across the accounts of freedom and justice in Pettit, Arendt, Rawls and Derrida is a desirable one. First, the aporetic mode is more viable than the synthetic because it refuses to treat political problems as ‘solved,’ whereas the synthetic mode attempts to resolve political problems despite the impossibility of this task in the face of dense concepts (172-5). A brief example is given here of how calls for reparations from the accumulation of American wealth through slavery are characterised by complex and contradictory elements of historical and metaphysical justifications which an aporetic form of theorising might make sense of. Second, aporetic theorising challenges the cloistering of intra-tradition debates and opens political theory to new discussions and the discovery of new problems (178-179). Third, and similarly, it fosters an ethic of openness and responsiveness to the differences between approaches to political theory as a discipline and a recognition of how what is common within one part of the discipline may, in fact, pose a serious intellectual problem in another.

Arnold’s case for the aporetic mode is a compelling one, particularly in the context of methodological developments in political theory that call for comparative methods that refuse the possibility of exhaustive, synthetic theoretical enterprises. However, we might consider the extent to which aporetic theorising, while appealing, is truly agnostic with respect to the traditions that it attempts to treat equally. If we take Arnold’s own definition of analytic political philosophy, it would appear that the aporetic method is something that most analytical thinkers would view as defeatist obfuscation. Contrastingly, this method fits very neatly into the continental perspective which seeks to press problems in order to uncover aporias rather than resolve them.[1] Aporetic cross-tradition theorising may draw on both traditions, but it could be said to do so from a broadly continental perspective that focuses on the value of intellectual aporias. Of course, Arnold’s perspective is an account of the intellectual characteristics of analytic political philosophy as a tradition. Justification may be an aim of this tradition as a whole, but individual thinkers would most likely accept the point that no single account will exhaust a particular political problem or phenomena. Understood in this way Arnold is brought back to the agnostic ground between continental and analytical perspectives, as the eponymous aporia of the aporetic approach could be seen to represent a claim about intellectual inquiry rather than the nature of political problems.

However, Arnold does hold to the stronger version of this claim which stresses that dense political concepts cannot be fully explained. This is noteworthy because density does not necessarily have as its consequence a total failure of explanation. While analytical thinkers may indeed accept that no single account exhausts the density of concepts, this tradition as a whole would be more receptive to the gradual unpacking and explication of dense concepts across multiple, competing accounts of the phenomena they represent. Here complexity is not insurmountable. In contrast, continental thinkers would be more likely to hold to a thicker understanding of complexity in which both the phenomena and the explanation are equally complex, and which must be integrated into the very nature of political inquiry. Density in the analytic tradition is a concern for the political philosopher, whereas in the continental it is the political itself which is dense and thus complexity is a concern for both the theorist and the political agent. We might also note here that Arnold’s account of the problem of the return of metaphysics faced by the post-metaphysical political theories of both Rawls and Derrida is a quintessentially a continental way of thinking about these problems. Indeed, it is one that is explored within Derrida’s own work. While Arnold might be seen to be agnostic with respect to the two traditions, insofar as he characterises political problems themselves as aporetic he could be seen to be a ‘continental’ thinker.

Leaning to one side or the other of the divide is not necessarily a problem for Arnold’s position. Analytic or continental thinkers engaging in cross-tradition theorising have to start from somewhere. However, this unacknowledged propensity towards one side rather than the other belies challenges that face the argument made in The Great Divide. While political phenomena are treated as dense, one might also note that the divide between analytic and continental thinkers is itself a dense and complex concept. Arnold does not give the impression that he is of the opinion that his account of the difference between the two traditions is the only one. However, the multiplicity of ways of distinguishing between the two traditions is a problem that is not dealt with in the course of the defence of aporetic cross-tradition theorizing. Moreover, if the division between the two traditions is contested, one might also contest the division between synthetic and aporetic modes of cross-tradition theorising. The aporetic and synthetic modes are not necessarily opposed or mutually exclusive: one might engage in aporetic inquiry and recognise elements of two thinkers that can be synthesised, or one might engage in a synthetic inquiry that highlights incompatible aspects of two systems of thought.

Arnold’s conclusions are pre-empted with the claim that while cross-tradition theorising is taking place between political theory and other disciplines, there is a lack of cross-tradition theorising that ‘moves between’ analytic and continental political theory (171). This advocation of the aporetic mode takes the above points for granted: the difference between the two traditions is simple rather than complex, that the complexity of political phenomena is by necessity irreducible to explanation, and that synthetic and aporetic methods represent mutually exclusive methodological alternatives. The case for taking the aporetic path is a convincing one insofar as it presents methodological pluralism as a worthwhile goal. However, if disciplinary pluralism is our aim, then the most fruitful approach may be to commit more fully to the methodological agnosticism that Arnold sets out. While synthetic theorising may fail in the particular case of realist accounts of legitimacy, it is not clear that this rules out in advance the impossibility of situations where synthetic theorising is more beneficial than aporetic theorising. As noted above, the gap between the critique of Cavell’s claims about violence and his textual method indicates that such an approach may be fruitful insofar as Arnold does not present a convincing argument as to why Cavell’s failure to account for state violence is necessarily a result of his synthetic method, instead of a result of a disagreement about legitimacy itself.

Understood in this way, political theory might be best served by an understanding of synthetic and aporetic modes of cross-tradition theorising that sees them as tools to be used as appropriate for the political and conceptual challenges facing the theorist. Such an approach would go some way to alleviating the way that Arnold leans towards a more continental approach in his advocation of an aporetic method and would further the ethos of disciplinary pluralism that implicitly underpins his argument. I do not wish to suggest that any of these objections invalidate Arnold’s argument–far from it. The value of The Great Divide is that it makes space for further discussion about how political theory navigates its own disciplinary divides, and for this it is a laudable intervention.

[1] Here I refer to the work of Thomas J. Donahue and Paulina Ochoa Espejo, to which Arnold also refers. See: ‘The analytical–Continental divide: Styles of dealing with problems,’ European Journal of Political Theory, 15:2 (2016): 138–154.

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Hugo E. Herrera: Carl Schmitt between Technological Rationality and Theology, SUNY Press, 2020

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Jacques Derrida: Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity, University of Chicago Press, 2020

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Dawne McCance: The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La vie la mort

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Reviewed by: Dong Yang (The University of Georgia)

“This book is not a translation of La vie la mort,” McCance states in the introduction of The Reproduction of Life Death—a study of Jacques Derrida’s series of lectures conducted at the ENS from 1975 to 1976– “Nor is the book an exegesis of the seminar” (McCance, The Reproduction of Life Death, 5). Without offering further clarification, the author seems to have posed a curious riddle for the reader: after all, this work appears to be a translation of sorts, given the multiple inserted and interlaced quotations from various seminal works of Derrida; and it appears to be an exegesis of Derrida’s consistently deconstructive effort within and beyond the seminar to problematize the oppositional logic that renders the form of reproduction as a repetition of the identical and that lends theoretical and scientific force to the eugenic movements, exemplified chiefly in the thoughts of Aristotle, Hegel and François Jacob, by tracing the lines of thought of Nietzsche and Freud that consider the relational difference between life and death as interdependent and mutually inclusive. Already there is a curious aporia between the author’s aim and the organization of the text, a struggle that perhaps reflects McCance’s careful effort to keep her study of La vie la mort from becoming an ironic proof of what Derrida attempts to refute in the seminar: a programmed form of inheritance that strictly follows a predetermined nonliving model and consequently subjects difference to identity. Hers is a dynamic double gesture of both reworking the Derridian positions on biology and pedagogy and breaking the spell of “technoscientific and philosophical ‘modernity,’” a time of experimental science in which “invention has become less a ‘discovery’ than a ‘production’” (9). Following the author’s winding attempt to decode a work of Derrida’s that defies simplistic explication, therefore, surpasses the intellectual pleasure of the source text, especially when Derrida’s principle task—to critique the mode of biological or educational reproduction as repetition of an identical model–seems to echo what Gilles Deleuze formulated in Difference and Repetition years before Derrida’s seminar. In that work, Deleuze strives to overturn the ruling primacy of identity in the history of philosophy and thereby restore the significant function of difference in weaving together an image of thought prior to any static formation of concepts and repetitions. In such a spirit Deleuze writes, for instance, “When we define repetition as difference without concept, we are drawn to conclude that only extrinsic difference is involved in repetition; we consider, therefore, that any internal ‘novelty’ is sufficient to remove us from repetition proper and can be reconciled only with an approximative repetition, so called by analogy” (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 27). The invisible Deleuzian presence in La vie la mort thus weakens the joy of deconstruction one usually feels when reading a Derridian text, but at the same time, it separates McCance’s study from its source text and continues the inquiry into its nature and grounding, as the publication of this neither-translation-nor-exegesis precedes the real English translation of the seminar. McCance’s overall methodology of approaching Derrida’s seminar in a thematic rather than a linear way implies a relational inquiry, that is, instead of treating La vie la mort as a stand-alone text, McCance examines how Derrida’s central thesis fits into his oeuvre, and it is the rhizomic effort to trace the course of the envelopment of an idea that constitutes the primary significance of the book.

Before delving fully into the seminar, McCance begins the first chapter with a detour of Derrida’s suspicious attitude towards the telos of modern experimental science by revisiting his account of the change of meaning in the notion of invention in Psyche: Inventions of the Other. No longer is invention related to unearthing something new, rather, it has become a mode of production that follows a programmed and oppositional logic (9-10). McCance then helpfully underscores the key line of thought in Derridian philosophy, the concept of heritance, and then links it to a provocative work of biological science—La logique du vivant— by Nobel Laureate biologist François Jacob, provocative because of its declaration of “biology’s release from metaphysics and its coming of age as a science” (11). With McCance’s careful reminder of the unsatisfactory English title of the book, The Logic of Life, which obscures the departure of the study of life from its metaphysical tradition, we come to understand the inherent opposition in modern biology that aims to demystify living life via nonliving entities (that is, DNA), an effort that consequently establishes juxtapositions between life/living and death/nonliving. She captures what is at stake in Derrida’s account: the relation between life and death, be it connective or predicative. As already suggested in the title of the seminar La vie la mort, inserting an undecidable difference or “trait blanc” is thus necessary—Derrida speculates in the spirit of Freud and Nietzsche—for launching a qualitative transformation of the dynamism between life and death from oppositional or dialectical to supplementary. McCance writes “Derrida chooses the titles La vie la mort, he says, not in order to suggest either that life and death are not two, or that one is the other, but rather that the difference at stake between the two is not of a positional (dialectical or nondialectical) order” (11-12). Situating the book back in the mid-70s context where poststructuralist momentum was thriving in France, such an attempt to break with binary oppositions would not seem revolutionary or overly creative; rather, it reads more like an affirmation of philosophical trends of the era. But McCance extends our interest by drawing on the power of such oppositional logic in the process of auto-reproduction by associating La vie la mort with Derrida’s critique of the Hegelian family in Glas, where Hegel claims the privilege of the father-son lineage while crossing out the role of the female. It is precisely this coded mechanism in familial reproduction that finds its echo in the writing of François Jacob and Georges Canguilhem, where the meaning of heritage becomes understood as mere transmission of hierarchical information (26-27), with the result that eugenic measures would proceed to eliminate unwanted differences. The grounding of such a critique comes from Derrida’s explication of an analogy Jacob makes between DNA and text, a view that helps him initiate the accusation of phonologocentrism in Jacob, and McCance concurs: “Indeed, to refer to DNA as a ‘text’ is to borrow a metaphor, in Jacob’s case, an all but outdated metaphor of text drawn from structuralist semiotics, a metaphor through which he reduces ‘text’ to a phonologocentric communicative entity” (30). Hence Derrida’s understanding of DNA’s function: it is the difference along with sameness that get processed and extended through sexual reproduction (31).

Derrida’s critical objective in the seminar not only aims at cultivating an awareness of the problem of inheritance in biological science, but also—and perhaps more interestingly and convincingly—at highlighting the application of such an oppositional logic in biology in modern philosophical institutions, in particular the ENS, where Derrida—teaching then as an agrégé-répétituer–likens the way the philosophy program operates at the institution to the concept of genetic program Jacob proposes, a logos-like message that instructs and repeats generation after generation. Drawing on this theoretical resemblance, in the second chapter McCance then walks us through Derrida’s theory of pedagogy and reemphasizes the unavoidable power inherent in the process of teaching where structural signs are passed along. One problematic function of teaching, especially teaching philosophy, as Derrida diagnoses in his essay “What Is a Teaching Body,” is exactly the auto-productive program that transcribes the coded and repetitive information via the teaching body of the agrégé-répétituer. The act of teaching, therefore, must base its effectiveness on a kind of machinic institutional power “presented as a defense against mutant or contraband influences that threaten the death of the biological or institutional body” (47). By highlighting the mutually supportive roles of the two Derridian texts, McCance, instead of overly emphasizing the rather trite thesis of La vie la mort regarding the oppositional logic of the repetition of the same, directs our attention to the analogy that reveals the pervasiveness of such a biological model on which Jacob relies in educational institutions; we learn from her concluding statement that:

In his reading of Jacob’s program as an apt description of the aggregation program, Derrida demonstrates that both the biological and pedagogical institutions, attempting to ward off difference, constitute reproduction as repetition of the same, although as he remarks every reproduction involves selection and thus the failure of philosophical-biological-pedagogical metalanguage. (50).

Given Derrida’s predicament regarding the presence of ideological power in both academic and scientific institutions, McCance unpacks further the working mechanism of such effort to automate and rigidify the process of teaching and biological reproduction in the following chapter, by invoking Derrida’s curious rendering of Nietzsche’s name and philosophical legacy in The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. This reading of Nietzsche’s autobiography Ecce Homo functions as an apology for Nietzsche’s posthumous negative influence by arguing that the dissemination of the autobiography depends not on the author’s own signature but the ear of the other who cosigns with differences in hearing or translating the original text. The riddle with which Derrida begins his text—the death of Nietzsche’s father and the life of his mother at the moment he is born—helps foster the sense of self in Nietzsche’s course of life, which, in turn, leads to Derrida’s association of Nietzsche’s description of his life with the process by which one obtains an identity and becomes oneself. Such a process is represented through the development of the name:

“There, this is who I am, a certain masculine and a certain feminine. Ich bin der und der, a phrase which means all these things. You will not be able to hear and understand my name unless you hear it with an ear attuned to the name of the dead man and the living feminine—the double and divided name of the father who is dead and the mother who is living on” (Derrida, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, 16).

But the continuation of the name after death—the living, namely—depends not on the bearer of the name but on the persons who listen to the name and revive it in the process of infinite eternal return; hence, according to Derrida, one cannot ascribe to Nietzsche the atrocities that the Nazi perpetrated: “One can imagine the following objection: Careful! Nietzsche’s utterances are not the same as those of the Nazi ideologues, and not only because the latter grossly caricaturize the former to the point of apishness” (30). To emphasize the fluidity of life death that refuses any form of consolidation of Nietzsche’s thought under the unity of his proper name, as Heidegger reads and interprets Nietzsche through the “Aristotelian-Hegelian tradition” (The Reproduction of Life Death, 57), McCance aptly connects the three seminal concepts Derrida exploits to contest the institutional or scientific subjectivity grounded by oppositional and hierarchical logic: autobiography, the ear, academic freedom (53), of which the ear is given special emphasis in the rest of the book. After a brief characterization of the Hegelian-Heideggerian line of thought that shares a synthetic tendency to fold and classify an identity within an unchanging personal proper name, McCance explains the Derridian alternative that sees heritance as a process, with the remark that

“The temporal deference upsets the linear notion of time, making the writing of autobiography an ongoing life death affair, an alliance between the living and the dead, a case of death in life […]” (61).

An intriguing idea that appears near the end of the third chapter and runs throughout the rest of the book—perhaps the most memorable elements of the text—is the (re)formulation of Derrida’s view that the study of the relation between life and death demands an interdisciplinary effort. Modern biologists’ efforts to decode the living by treating it as text, Derrida argues, by no means simply the methodology; quite the contrary. The texualization of life inserts a third term—the text—between life and death, and thus, “the referential subject/object paradigm no longer suffices, a changed situation for all disciplines—or at least, a change that would be required for revitalization of the academic institution” (69). An interdisciplinary transition of the academic institution–in the spirit of Nietzsche–is necessary for the future collaborative study of life, a key point McCance proposes here: “The radical ‘interdisciplinarity’ that, for want of a better term, I read La vie la mort to recommend is as much needed today as it was in the 1970s and as it was in the German university of Nietzsche’s day” (69). In such a spirit, Chapter 4 traces the transdisciplinary effort of an oppositional logic that may be found in Marxist political economy, the Jacobian biological theory of life, Alexander Graham Bell’s speech reproduction theory, and the eugenics movements in American history. Centering on the notion of production that entails man’s distinct cerebral ability to control products and eliminate the redundant and undesirable, Derrida surmises that interchanging usages of production and reproduction in Jacob’s work indicates his belief that “man distinguishes himself from animals by assuming control over the products of evolution” (77). In a similar fashion, McCance adds, phonetic speech is reproduced via Bell’s invention of the phonautograph, a speech producing apparatus preceding the appearance of the telephone that makes visible the phonetic signs by a “mechanical theory of hearing” (87). Bell’s essentialist momentum of reproducing the same speech by reducing its abnormal patterns finds its echo in the American eugenics movement, where inheritance is controlled in accordance with a mechanical model that helps produce offspring of desired types.

Chapter 5 develops in detail an essential line of thought Derrida addresses in La vie la mort, the dangerous power of scientific knowledge that is in part unavoidable. McCance finds inspiration in Derrida’s final seminar, “The Beast & the Sovereign,” where a consciousness of knowledge-as-sovereign is always present alongside the process of scientific inquiries, a demonstration of man’s hierarchical and theological power over the beast that lends force to a Catholic ethics, one that “reproduces a double body, an imperishable life worth more than natural or animal life, even as, paradoxically, the church reduces ethics to the automaticity, to the technics or technical reason, from which, at least since Vatican I (1869-1870), it has sought self-protection” (116). However, for Derrida, such a religious goal of self-protection or immunization—standing in line with the oppositional logic criticized in La vie la mort—causes an internal conflict: “religion’s efforts at immunization end up attacking, as an external contaminant, what is already internal to its own body, and indeed necessary for its survival” (116). This self-destructive tendency within religious bodies (similar to the concept of “the politics of politics” that Geoffrey Bennington has recently proposed) finds its secular recurrences in the contemporary “non-speciesism” ethical theories developed by Peter Singer and Tom Regan, two modes of thought that primarily concern the rights of the animal. Conjoining other works of Derrida, such as The Animal Therefore I Am, The Beast & the Sovereign, McCance returns to the principal theme in La vie la mort and contends that Derrida’s formulations provide “a critical resource for developing non-sovereign, non-prescriptive, non-oppositional and non-anthropocentric approaches to ethics in the age of the Anthropocene” (122).

By way of Freud’s implicit counter to the Hegelian and Jacobian oppositional logic of the living in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, McCance offers a holistic account of an earlier theme that the study of life requires an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach that is beyond the capacity of science or philosophy. Derrida was intrigued by the Freudian methodology of speculation, a view that tends to explicate the meaning of pleasure in terms of the variation of quantitative energy, an economic theory that concentrates on the relation between two quantities with unknown essences (130). Grounded by such a model, Derrida moves on to note that the Freudian theory of life death—or Eros Thanatos—defies the Hegelian-Jacobian program that reproduces only the same. On the contrary, Freud writes with a sense of confusion that also surprisingly breaks with the logocentric convention of the production of sameness: “[…] Derrida reads Freud’s account of reproduction in Beyond as offering an alternative ‘logic’ to Jacob’s, an alterity on the side of life and living on” (146). Life, therefore, is not opposed to death in the form of an either/or, but supplements and becomes interdependent with it, with a nexus of difference that always moves beyond disciplinary boundaries and binary judgements.

The Reproduction of Life Death is a strange book, precisely because McCance writes it in deconstruction but at the same time out of Derrida. We read an anxious awareness of the not-so-spectacular source text with a rather trite thesis along with a rhizomic effort of McCance’s to move beyond the scope of La vie la mort—just as Derrida tries to move beyond the limitations of the life/death opposition in the process of the continuation of heritance—to make the seminar itself an intertextual nexus in relation to Derrida’s oeuvre. McCance rigorously highlights the necessity of an interdisciplinary approach to the study of life and the living—a central theme of La vie la mort and, perhaps most importantly, reveals Derrida’s courage in the text to confront the dogmatism and sacredness of modern science, a spirit of the spur that is increasingly difficult to find in the weakening voice of the humanities.


McCance, Dawne. The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La vie la mort. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. Paul Patton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Derrida, Jacques. The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation. Trans. Peggy Kamuf and Avital Ronell. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

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).

Jacques Derrida: La vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976)

La Vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976) Book Cover La Vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976)
Bibliothèque Derrida
Jacques Derrida. Edited by Pascale-Anne Brault and Peggy Kamuf
Paperback 24.00 €

Reviewed by: Mauro Senatore (Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez, Santiago de Chile)

“Who am I, Jacques Derrida?” In the attempt to address this apparently naïve question in the collection of essays entitled The Animal That Therefore I Am, Derrida sketches a suggestive “intellectual autobiography” (144). He tells us that he invented a series of figures―mark, grammē, trace, and différance―that allow for a differential account of all living beings, of all sorts of relationships between the living and the dead. It is to this story, Derrida goes on, that one should retrace his early project of grammatology―the project of replacing the notions of word (parole), sign, and signifier, with the aforementioned figures (see Of Grammatology, 1967). Since then, he had re-elaborated the oppositional account of life, based on the humanist conception of language, into the differential account made possible by the analogical code of grammē. For Derrida, the humanist and oppositional account of life hinges on an axiomatic demarcation. On the one hand, we have animal autorelation (the animal ability to move, feel and affect itself with traces of itself, which is traditionally opposed to inorganic inertia); on the other hand, we have human self-reference or autodeicticity (one’s power to refer to oneself in a deictic way, that is, by saying “this is me,” 131-2). The logical matrix of Derrida’s argument for a critical re-elaboration of the humanist account of life consists in calling into question this axiomatic demarcation of animal autoaffection and human self-reference. Building on his early work (above all, Voice and Phenomenon, 1967), Derrida rethinks autorelation as the minimal condition of life, including human life, and thus self-reference as an effect of autorelation, with all that this implies―to begin with, the departure from phenomenology as a thinking of the self-referent living present.

By subscribing to this autobiographical sketch, we welcome the publication of Derrida’s 1975-76 seminar La vie la mort (Life-death) as it unfolds another stage in Derrida’s development of his grammatological and differential account of life and adds another figure in the series, that of life-death. This seminar engages in a re-elaboration of the problematics of biologism, the biographical, and the relation between philosophy and the life sciences, by taking as its guiding thread Nietzsche’s thought of life-death. In their introductory note, the editors recall that Derrida taught this seminar at the École Normale Supérieure, between fall 1975 and spring 1976, as a preparation to the exams of agrégation, whose programme was “La vie et la mort.” As the editors remark, in §1 Derrida offers a long explanation of the modification that he made on the institutional title of the seminar (without the conjunction “et”). Furthermore, the editors point out that some parts of the seminars were revised later to be presented in conferences and/or published in books (§2, §§8 and part of 9 and §§11-14; 13-14). Strikingly, Derrida neither presented nor published the part of the seminar dedicated to the biology of his time, namely, genetics (§1 and §§4-6). On my reading, this circumstance remains unexplained and cannot be justified by the hypothesis that, in the seminar, Derrida subscribes to an untimely or anachronistic scientific position―whether compromised by genetics or prefiguring its epigenetic overcoming. Indeed, as I will suggest, he offers an informed account of contemporary biological debates. In §7, Derrida provides us with two indexes concerning how this seminar may be read. The first index is the theoretical presupposition of a historical unity from which he selected the texts examined in the seminar. Derrida identifies this unity as the field that extends from Nietzsche’s and Freud’s discourses to the biology of his time. Besides the scientific achievements that, since Nietzsche, have transformed the knowledge of life profoundly, Derrida argues, this field is informed by the account of life as a semiotic remark (183). The second index gives a clearer and more reassuring picture of the way the seminar develops from session to session. Derrida explains that it unfolds as a three-stage movement. Each stage describes a ring which would consist of a point of departure (and articulation, in the case of rings 2 and 3), corresponding to Nietzsche’s life-death, and a topic (modern biology, Heidegger’s Nietzsche, and Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle). In what follows, I put these instructions to the test through a selective reading of the analyses that Derrida develops in each session.

§1 plays an introductory and parergonal role with respect to the aforementioned three-ring movement. It justifies Derrida’s intervention on the title of the programme of agrégation (la vie et la mort) and discusses the concept of programme. Derrida begins by explaining that he substitutes the hyphen (or spacing) for the original conjunction in order to call into question the logic according to which the relationship between life and death had been thought. He traces this logic back to Hegelian dialectics, which he proposes reading as a powerful thinking of life and death. The conjunction between these two terms presupposes the concepts of position, double position and opposition, which constitute the motor schemes of Hegelian dialectics. To test his hypothesis, Derrida refers his students to the syllogism of life from the last section of The Science of Logic that he summarizes as the movement in which life reappropriates itself as the life of spirit through natural death. In his subsequent remarks, Derrida makes it explicit that, by intervening on the institutional title, he does not aim to counter the logic of position undergirding the conjunction of life and death with another logic, but he points to another “topics” in which the concepts of position and presence would be an “effect of life-death” (24-25). In his lexicon (see the elaboration of presence as an effect of différance in the essay “Differance,” 1968), here Derrida suggests rethinking what had been thought as life and death from within the system of life-death that he develops in the seminar. Ultimately, Derrida recalls that his discrete and yet violent intervention on the title of the programme of agrégation consists in a political gesture, that of rewriting an inherited programme. It is motivated by his uneasiness in following the programme and by the strategical decision of countering the institution of agrégation from within. Finally, through this rewriting, he reverts the subject of the programme into the object of his deconstructive re-elaboration.

From this point on, §1 engages in an exploration of the value of programme by analyzing how it is constructed by Nobel Prize molecular biologist Francois Jacob in his masterwork The Logic of Life (La logique du vivant, 1971). The session thus anticipates the topic of ring 1. Derrida points out that, in the introduction to the aforementioned book (entitled “The Programme”), Jacob describes biological heredity by means of a metaphorical code (information, message, and programme)―a “semiotic” and “grammatical” code (30)―which is shared by cultural and educational discourses and whose unity is secured by the concept of reproduction as a life condition for both living beings and institutions. In the subsequent analyses, Derrida demonstrates that Jacob fails to account for this code and metaphoricity, which he designates as more “fundamental” (30), and relapses into a concept of code and metaphoricity that is marked by a philosophy of life. In particular, Derrida draws attention to Jacob’s analogical account of the two turning points of evolution―the beginning of life and that of language―as the emergence of two mechanisms of memory, biological and cerebral memory. Jacob offers two different versions of this analogical account. In the first version, he distinguishes the two memories according to their degree of rigidity/plasticity, which explains the ability of cerebral memory to transmit acquired characteristics. In relation to this version, Derrida observes that this analogical account is made possible by the fact that, according to the biological discourse of his day, genetic memory operates like a language. In other words, the code of Jacob’s description of genetic programme is the same as the code employed by modern discourses (informed by psychoanalysis, linguistics and Marxism) to describe institutional and educational programmes. According to this metaphorical code, subjects are “effects” and not authors of programmes, which ultimately hinge on the relations among forces aiming to make their reproduction prevail (37). Derrida refers to Jacob’s description of reproduction not as a copy but as a variation within a strictly normed code, in order to highlight the metaphorical code of modern biological and cultural discourses. Finally, according to Derrida, the implications of this analogy are that: (a) Jacob describes the difference between the two memories as a quantitative difference rather than an opposition; (b) the removal of the biological/cultural (and thus animal/human) divide grounded on humanist ideologies liberates an analogical and differential account of life. In the second version of his history of evolution, Jacob distinguishes the two memories in the light of their relationship to the environment. According to Jacob, the genetic programme only admits contingent, that is, non-deliberate (or non-conscious, as Derrida puts it) changes. In this case, the opposition between genetic and cerebral-cultural programmes rests on the opposition between contingent and deliberate changes. However, by building on modern discourses once again, Derrida remarks that the causality of change in cerebral and institutional programmes has the same style as the one that Jacob wishes to restrict to genetic programmes. Derrida thus subscribes to the achievements of the structural sciences of his time (see, for instance, Jean Piaget’s Biology and Knowledge, 1967), which provide an analogical account of biological and cultural programmes as non-deliberate processes of general restructuration before a violent intrusion. Finally, Jacob’s conception of deliberate change in cultural programmes hinges on an ideological and metaphysical opposition grounded on the presuppositions of consciousness, freedom and meaning. For this reason, Derrida argues that Jacob neutralizes the stakes implicit in the grammatical code of modern biological discourse by drawing on a still humanist and logocentric conception of that code (“a philosophy of life,” 41).

Ring 1 begins with §2, which is devoted to life-death as it undergirds Nietzsche’s new treatment of signature. Derrida points out that, today―within the historical field under scrutiny―the problematics of the biographical have undergone a re-evaluation. Both immanent and empirico-genetic readings of philosophical discourse fail to account for the biographical as the dynamic border between work and life, system and subject. Take the extreme case of the living subject of bio-logical discourse, which is evidently engaged in its field, and thus of the ensemble of ideological, philosophical and political forces that are at stake in the signature of this subject and constitute “the inscription of the biographical in the biological” (50). According to Derrida, Nietzsche discloses this new historical field by treating philosophy and life, the life sciences and philosophy of life, with/in its name―that is, by putting his signature into play, or making his work into “an immense bio-graphical paraph” (50). Derrida thus proposes a reading of Nietzsche that does not fall back into an abstraction of the biographical. To this end, he turns to the self-presentation that Nietzsche performs in the preface to Ecce Homo. In particular, Derrida focuses on two statements from this preface: (a) I live on the credit that I give myself; (b) the fact that I live is perhaps a prejudgment. I shall try to summarize Derrida’s elaboration. The premise of (a) is life-death: the living name-bearer is dead as it signs (as it says “I live” or “this is me”). Therefore, what returns―the name, and not the living name-bearer―is always the name of the other. It follows that I sign (I say “I live”) under this contract that I engage with “myself,” which is made possible by the return of the name. Finally, (b) holds as this contract can be honored only because the living name-bearer is dead, and thus by living name-bearers to come. On my reading, here Derrida develops the kind of nonhumanist conception of self-reference evoked at the beginning of my review. He thinks self-reference as an effect of the minimal condition of life, namely, autoaffection (or autoregulation―as he seems to suggest in §1). Overall, Derrida argues that one can read the biographical inscription only from the contract mentioned by Nietzsche and thus only as “allo- or thanato-biographical” (61). At this point, Derrida puts his new reading protocol to the test by examining Nietzsche’s youthful work On the Future of Our Educational Institutions. He focuses on Nietzsche’s call in this text for a guide (Führer) that would rescue German spirit from its enemies. Derrida distances himself from naïve conclusions (“Nietzsche was Nazi” versus “Nietzsche did not mean that”) and, in a radical fashion, asks how Nietzsche’s message or programme could give place to the Nazi institution. Building on his new protocol of the biographical, he argues that a perverting simplification such as the Nazi reproduction of Nietzsche’s programme constitutes a possibility implicit in the structure of Nietzsche’s text, which keeps returning and offering itself to new readings and reproductions. Derrida thus demonstrates that readings―to begin with, his ongoing reproduction of the programme of agrégation―are never merely hermeneutical (as they grasp the meaning of a text): they are a “political intervention in the political rewriting of a text” (72).

In §3, Derrida makes a new transition to modern biological discourse. He takes as his point of departure the problematics of the cut/sharing (coupure/partage) between metaphor and concept. After developing a few remarks on Nietzsche, Derrida returns to Georges Canguilhem’s 1966 article “The Concept and Life,” which he had already mentioned in §1 as the example of a discourse unable to account for the analogical and semiotic code of modern biology. Derrida engages in a close reading of the theory of metaphor underpinning Canguilhem’s analyses of biologist Claude Bernard. In particular, he focuses on the dance figures that these analyses describe in the attempt to develop a relationship between the metaphor and the concept that would hold together teleological continuity and epistemological cut. Derrida ends his session by calling for a general re-interpretation of that relation. This re-interpretation would start by replacing the idea of a metaphor that anticipates a concept without anticipating it with that of an active interpretation at stake between different metaphorico-conceptual systems. In §4, Derrida reverts his focus on the text of modern biology, of which Jacob’s Logic of Life would be the representative or spokesman (111). Prior to starting another close reading of Jacob’s text, Derrida draws attention to the most evident trait of the modern biological text, the textualization of the biological referent. Modern biology writes a text on an object that has itself the structure of a text. For example, Jacob explains that the essential structure of life, reproduction, works as a text (the molecule of nucleic acid, or DNA, which he identifies as the latest great discovery in the history of the life sciences). Derrida identifies this mutation in the field of biology as the emergence of scientific modernity. The consequences of this mutation, discussed further in §6, would not be naïve as we do not speak about a science that relies on documents and archives (such as philosophy and so forth), but about the life sciences, whose object (namely, life) is presupposed by all the other sciences. Among these consequences, Derrida focuses on the fact that the model one is supposed to take from culture is already a product of life and thus that: (a) the text is the minimal structure of the living (as the object of biology) as well as of biology (as a product of life); (b) the sciences and logic of the living are no longer a regional discourse in the field of knowledge. These propositions seem to sketch a new conception of biologism that resonates with the nonhumanist and grammatological account of life evoked above. At this point, Derrida announces the task of revealing the machine that governs Jacob’s text secretly. He aims to draw out the implications of modern biology that a certain philosophy of life neutralizes. He thus traces two conceptual threads across Jacob’s text: the thread of reproduction (to which he dedicates the remaining part of §4 and §5) and that of the model (§6). Derrida begins by remarking that, starting from the title of his work (logic of the living and not of life), Jacob wants to distance himself from life as a metaphysical essence hidden behind biological phenomena and thus from vitalism. However, Derrida points out, Jacob keeps referring to the essence of the living, which he determines as the living’s capacity of self-reproduction (in line with the most metaphysical―that is, Hegelian―determination of the essence of life). Furthermore, Jacob identifies the accomplishment of this capacity as the project (the end or sense, as Derrida puts it) of genetic programme, thus subscribing to a perhaps nonhumanist and yet still teleological conception of the living.

In the remaining pages of §4 and in §5, Derrida analyses the logic of the supplement that intervenes in Jacob’s account of sexuality and death in relation to reproduction. Derrida sheds light on the law that regulates Jacob’s model of living self-reproduction, a law that the biologist does not take into consideration and yet that calls for a review of Jacob’s model. In §4, Derrida discusses the role that Jacob allows to sexuality in his model of bacterial self-reproduction. For Jacob, the sexualization of living reproduction consists in the recombination of different genetic programmes or materials. Therefore, bacterial reproduction is said to be asexual since it unfolds as the bacterium’s division into two. However, Jacob acknowledges that this process admits mutations―errors in the translation or transcription of programmes―as well as transfers of a supplement of genetic materials from the environment (for example, by means of a virus). Thus, Derrida wonders if one cannot interpret these possibilities of recombination as terms analogous to what Jacob designates as sexuality and, consequently, if the opposition between sexual and a-sexual reproduction undergirding Jacob’s model of bacterial reproduction is not called into question. Finally, Derrida demonstrates that, whereas Jacob conceives of sexuality as a supplement to the history of genetic programmes and thus to his essential determination of life as self-reproduction, the possibility of sexuality is inscribed in that history and determination. He thus argues for, at least, another model of living reproduction. In §5, Derrida reveals the logic of the supplement at work in Jacob’s treatment of death. He explains that, for Jacob, within the limits of asexual reproduction, bacteria do not die. They experience a contingent death insofar as they dissolve by dividing into two or by extinguishing their reproductive capacity. In this case, Jacob argues that their contingent death depends on the milieu, in which the bacteria would live eternally if it were possible to renew it regularly. Like sexuality, therefore, death plays as a supplement in the chain of asexual reproduction: it comes from outside, by accident, to inscribe itself as an internal law of living reproduction; it is an internal supplement. Through this logic, Derrida shows that the oppositions undergirding Jacob’s text (inside/outside, organism/milieu, life/death, and so forth) fail to account for reproduction as they give place to contradictory statements that make them tremble. Jacob’s philosophical effort to protect a purified model of reproduction as merely asexual self-reproduction (or “self-reproductive self-affection,” 129) is problematic. Therefore, Derrida concludes that, if there is a certain quantity of bacteria that reproduce themselves asexually, there are also mutations due to the milieu, as well as recombination of genetic materials, which intervene in reproduction and call for another model and another logic of life.

§6 is devoted to the problem of the relation between the text and the model. In the first part of this session, Derrida builds on two propositions from Jacob’s book, which he proposes to read together, to elaborate his conception of general textuality. The two propositions in question are: (a) “the genetic message can be translated only from the products of its own proper translation”; (b) “since Gödel, we know that a logical system is not sufficient for its own description” (155). Derrida suggests that these propositions share a paradoxical necessity, which, as I will show, consists in the structural law of a general semiotic system or code: a system that describes itself―that is described by one of its elements―can neither comprehend itself nor be comprehended. To develop his suggestion, Derrida engages in a vertiginous analysis of Francis Ponge’s line: Par le mot par commence donc ce texte. He explains that this text accounts for what can always happen when the first event―the event that is described, translated, or reproduced―is a text. Therefore, the two propositions describe the structure or syntax of a general semiotic system or code, which is governed by structural or syntactical articulations that do not aim at a referent external to the system but at elements of the system itself. For Derrida, here one understands why the concept of the text has imposed itself in the life sciences: as it accounts for the general or self-referential code described above. Ultimately, notions such as information, communication and message should be thought as intratextual to the extent that they work like a text: a message only generates a message. However, Derrida goes on, this generality or self-referentiality is, by definition, neither autistic nor tautological. If a text can be translated only by the product of its translation, it is general precisely as it cannot close upon itself (as “alterity is irreducible” 159). At this point, Derrida wonders if the situation described here is not also that of the text of modern biology (“bio-genetics,” 159), which writes on a text, the living, of which it is the product. Thus, in proposition (a), Jacob also writes about his own text, as he is one of the translators of the genetic message as well as a product of the message’s translation. Finally, the activity of the life sciences consists in the textual product of the text that it translates. Derrida observes that here one can find the very condition of scientificity: scientific understanding and deciphering are intratextual; they are inscribed within the aforementioned self-referential and general text. It follows that the text can no longer be considered a model to the extent that textuality is coextensive to the living. Rather, the recourse to the notion of text testifies to an underpinning transformation in the statute of knowledge: knowledge has become a text on a text, as its object is a text and no longer the “meta-textual real” (161). In the remaining part of §6, Derrida draws attention to the problem of the circulation of the model that takes place in Jacob’s text as he resorts to the intratextual notion of information as a model. He shows that the value of the informational or cybernetic model is called into question when each of the regions considered (organism, society and machine) plays in turn as the model of the others and thus as model of the model. Apropos of the cybernetic model, Derrida also highlights the surreptitious reduction that is at work in Jacob’s elaboration of this model. Jacob wishes to abstract the exchange of information from the exchange of matter/energy that is attached to it―which is called entropy and involves an activity of selection and a play of forces―and thus to dissociate the semiotic element from the energetic and agonistic element. Like at the end of §1, here Derrida argues for an energetic and agonistic conception of cybernetic and semiotic code. This conception provides a protocol for the critique of mechanicism that Derrida had developed throughout his work. See, for example, his early reading of Freud’s agonistic rewriting of the naturalist explanation of memory in Project for a Scientific Psychology (“Freud and the Scene of Writing,” 1966) and his late proposal of a cybernetic and semiotic re-elaboration of the Cartesian mechanicism that undergirds humanist narratives of life (The Animal That Therefore I Am).

§7 functions as the point of articulation between ring 1 and ring 2. Derrida suggests that the implications of ring 1 lead us back to Nietzsche’s life-death. For example, the statement that the values of truth, knowledge and objectivity are effects of life-death should be read as a Nietzschean-type statement. Derrida thus engages in the reading of Nietzsche’s treatment of the relationship between truth and life in his Philosophenbuch. This reading provides the point of departure for the subsequent analysis of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism (ring 2). The analysis begins in §8 with the exploration of Heidegger’s treatment of Nietzsche’s signature and biography, which, on Derrida’s hypothesis, undergirds Heidegger’s interpretation of the problematics of biologism. Derrida starts by wondering to what extent a certain decision made on the subject of Nietzsche’s signature and biography undergirds Heidegger’s reading of the unity and unicity of Nietzsche’s thought and, more generally, of metaphysics, at whose limits Heidegger places that thought. Derrida summarizes Heidegger’s argument as follows: Nietzsche’s thought is one and unique, and this neither hinges on Nietzsche’s proper name nor on his life but on the unity and unicity of metaphysics that finds there its limits. In the remainder of §8, this argument is put to the test through a selective reading of texts from Heidegger’s Nietzsche devoted to the problematic of the biographical. First, Derrida focuses on the opening line of Heidegger’s 1961 preface to his Nietzsche, which reads: “‘Nietzsche’ der Name des Denkers steht als Titel für die Sache seines Denkens” (206). Also in the light of what follows in Heidegger’s preface, Derrida suggests that Heidegger unfolds a conventional conception of the philosopher’s proper name and biography by suggesting that the name put between quotation marks―the signature (the inscription of the biographical)―must be read from the thought and thus becomes inessential. Here Derrida sees the turning point between two diverging paths: the first path, which is explored in §2, would unfold a certain re-evaluation of the biographical; the second path, undertaken by Heidegger, would consist in the classical and metaphysical gesture of determining the essentiality of the name from thought. Derrida explores the effects of Heidegger’s decision on the biographical by taking into consideration the chapters “The Book, The Will to Power” (1.1) and “Nietzsche as the Thinker of the Consummation of Metaphysics” (3.1; hereafter I refer to David Farrell Krell’s English edition of Nietzsche). Through the examination of these chapters, Derrida highlights, on the one hand, the relevance of the fact that Heidegger questions himself concerning “Who is Nietzsche?” But, on the other hand, Derrida shows Heidegger’s ambivalent elaboration of this question. Heidegger would dissociate in a conventional way Nietzsche’s thought from a conventional conception of biography and, more specifically, from the psycho-biographism of his day (culminating in the edition in progress of Nietzsche’s complete works), with a view to securing the unity and unicity of this thought in relation to metaphysics. In the subsequent sessions, Derrida addresses Heidegger’s treatment of biologism.

In §9, Derrida focuses on the moment where Heidegger’s interpretation of the thought of the eternal return intersects with the problematics of life and biologism. He draws attention to chapters 2.11 and 2.12 in Heidegger’s Nietzsche (entitled “The Four Notes Dated August 1881” and “Summary Presentation of the Thought: Being as a Whole as Life and Force; the World as Chaos”). In 2.11, Heidegger examines Nietzsche’s 1881 notes on the doctrine of the eternal return. Derrida lingers on Heidegger’s remarks on Nietzsche’s first project in order to highlight the kind of suspension that would regulate Heidegger’s interpretative machine―a suspension between some statements that acknowledge the singularity of Nietzsche’s thought and others that interpret the latter as a metaphysical position with regards to being as a whole. In 2.12, Heidegger develops his synoptic reading of the eternal return into ten points. Prior to commenting on these points, Derrida focuses on the moment where Heidegger raises a question concerning Nietzsche’s recourse to scientific discourses. May this recourse serve as a standard of measure for interpreting “the thought of thoughts” (240) in Nietzsche’s philosophy, Heidegger wonders. Here Derrida finds the index that Heidegger’s subsequent interpretation hinges on his own interpretation of the relationship between science and philosophy. In the remainder of §9, Derrida paraphrases Heidegger’s synoptic examination up to points 8 and 9, devoted to Nietzsche’s remarks on time and chaos, where, he suggests, Heidegger’s interpretation becomes more active. Derrida’s close reading aims to highlight Heidegger’s operations that would fail to account for the force of Nietzsche’s text.

In §10, Derrida draws on Heidegger’s chapters dedicated to the thought of the will to power, in order to discuss the latter’s interpretation of this thought and of the accusation of biologism addressed to Nietzsche. Derrida begins by recalling that Heidegger introduces the thought of the will to power as Nietzsche’s only and unique thought (which includes the thought of the eternal return) and that, for Heidegger, only by referring to this thought one can develop an authentic interrogation of Nietzsche. The subsequent analyses aim to uncover the interpretative scheme that undergirds Heidegger’s criticism of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism. Derrida finds Heidegger’s first stage of this critique in Nietzsche 3.3 (“The Will to Power as a Principle of New Evaluation”). He summarizes Heidegger’s argument as follows. Nietzsche does not think of life (and being as a whole) through the discourses prevailing in the life sciences of his time (vitalism and Darwinism), but from the very condition of life, namely, the value, which allows for life-enhancement. It remains to explore what makes possible the essence of life as life-enhancement, its principle or ground. This principle is, for Heidegger, will to power: thus, for Heidegger, Nietzsche determines (the essence of) life as will to power. Through this determination, he name “Nietzsche” is detached from the living being and comes to name the fatality of Western metaphysics (of its consummation). As Derrida rephrases Heidegger’s thought, “thinking this pseudonymy is the only condition to hear [entrendre] Nietzsche’s proper name” (254). At this point, Derrida engages in an active interpretation of Nietzsche 3.5 and 3.6. (“The Essence of Truth (Correctness) as ‘Estimation of Value’” and “Nietzsche’s Alleged Biologism”), in order to catch the moment and place of Heidegger’s interpretative decision and the schema underpinning this decision. First, by drawing on 3.5, he emphasizes that, for Heidegger, Nietzsche’s reversal of truth consists in a secondary modification within a traditional, metaphysical determination of truth (as adequation), which Nietzsche does not interrogate. At the same time, Derrida expresses his perplexity before the rhetoric through which Heidegger wishes to draw together singularity and tradition in Nietzsche’s thought and thus to place it in relation to metaphysics (see the passage where Heidegger explains that Nietzsche is in harmony with tradition and only for this reason can he distinguish himself; 262). Secondly, Derrida traces in 3.6 Heidegger’s elaboration of the scheme underpinning his rebuttal of Nietzsche’s biologism. Prior to commenting on Heidegger’s text, Derrida offers a long formalization of this scheme, which he identifies as the metaphysical scheme par excellence, the presupposition of the regionality of sciences and thus of the fact that the essentiality of the determined types of being that sciences are dealing with is neither established nor grounded by them. Derrida explains that, according to this scheme, sciences, which are regional and thus apply to a determined region of being or object, do not have access to the meaning or essence of this region, or, in other words, they do not think of it. They presuppose that philosophy thinks of that meaning and essence (for example, the essence of life) and thus distributes and assigns them to regional sciences. Therefore, a scientist can interrogate the meaning of her specialized field only as a philosopher. Derrida counters this scheme as applicable to the reading of Nietzsche. On my view, this counterargument undergirds Derrida’s thought of life-death and, more precisely, his interpretation of “Nietzsche” as the name of a new historical determination of biologism and the biographical. Derrida argues that, when Nietzsche says that being is an effect of life and thus no longer being as a whole, nor the general form circulating through its multiple regions by distributing tasks and unifying knowledge, he calls into question that very scheme of the regionality of sciences and develops the thought of life-death and of life as a semiotic remark. Thus, interpreting what Nietzsche says either as biologism (thinking the whole being from a regional instance) or as a metaphysical determination of the essence of life (what Heidegger does in order to save Nietzsche from his supposed biologism) would mean in both cases subscribing to a deconstructed scheme. Within this framework, Derrida also remarks that the paradox and interest of Heidegger’s operation is that he deconstructs the metaphysics supporting the scheme of regionality at the same time as he submits Nietzsche to this scheme (for whose deconstruction he should be credited instead). In other words, Heidegger would save Nietzsche from biologism by bringing Nietzsche and himself back into the scheme that underpins the conception of that biologism. To test his hypothesis, Derrida recalls the paragraph from 3.6 ending as follows: “he grounds this apparently merely biological worldview metaphysically” (269). Heidegger would protest, Derrida observes, against a reading that interprets his text as affirming the regulation of the frontiers of sciences under the external jurisdiction of philosophy. And yet, Derrida goes on, the scheme at work in Heidegger’s interpretation of biologism is typically involved in the justification of the most violent hierarchies.

The last four sessions describe ring 3, devoted to the reading of Freud’s Beyond. As we know from §7, Derrida identifies Freud as one of the two representatives of the modern determination of biologism in which we find ourselves. On my reading, the interplay between this ring and the general framework of the seminar―Derrida’s project of life-death―is less explicit. Therefore, I suggest reading Derrida’s later development of these sessions into “Speculating – On ‘Freud’” (published in The Postcard, 1981) as a further elaboration of his interpretation of Freud’s Beyond. Derrida places the Nietzschean point of articulation between ring 3 and ring 2 in the reference to Nietzsche that Freud makes in Ma vie et la psychanalyse. There Freud explains that he had avoided Nietzsche as the latter’s insights surprisingly coincide with the outcomes that psychoanalysis had achieved so painfully. In the opening pages of §11, Derrida identifies the task of this ring as that of bringing to light the relation between the nonpositional structure of Freud’s text (its inability to arrest on a position or thesis) and the logic of life-death. In the subsequent close examination of Freud’s Beyond, Derrida focuses on a set of issues that are relevant to the thought of life-death. In §11, in which he comments on Beyond chapter 1, he highlights the differential and nonpositional logic at work in the relation between pleasure and reality principles. In §12, he lingers on the account of the child’s play that Freud offers in chapter 2. Here, Derrida elaborates a conception of the autobiographical for which, while describing the child’s play, Freud describes the very movement of writing his Beyond. In §§13-14, which explore the remaining chapters of Freud’s Beyond, Derrida sketches his interpretation of the Freudian lexicon of binden and of the drive to power.

Within the limits of this review, I have aimed to offer an overview of Derrida’s La vie la mort, which this edition has finally made accessible to everyone. I built on the structural and theoretical framework proposed by Derrida to develop my analysis of the readings offered in the seminar. I believe that this operation would help do some justice to these readings by tracing them back to the overall project of life-death as a modern interpretation of the biological and the biographical. To conclude, I would like to recall another place in Derrida’s work that would display a latest formulation of this project. We are in a critical moment of Derrida’s conversation with Elisabeth Roudinesco, published as For What Tomorrow… A Dialogue (2001) and devoted to the great questions that mark our age. Roudinesco invites Derrida to address the question of contemporary scientism, which she describes as “the ideology originating in scientific discourse, and linked to the real progress of the sciences, that attempts to reduce human behaviour to experimentally verifiable physiological processes” (47). Finally, she wonders if, “in order to combat the growing influence of this point of view,” one should not “restore the ideal of an almost Sartrean conception of freedom” (47). In his response, Derrida engages in a critical re-elaboration of scientism that resonates with his reading of the problematics of Nietzsche’s supposed biologism. He does not propose to counter scientism by resorting to the humanist and metaphysical conception of freedom, and thus, more generally, to oppositional accounts of life (nature/culture, animal-machine/man, and so forth), which would hinge on the same code that makes the determination of scientism possible. Rather, he unfolds an alternative, neither scientist nor humanist conception of the life sciences, which would account for the semiotic, namely, grammatological, element at work in the living and thus would liberate a differential and nonoppositional history of life.


Derrida, Jacques. 2008. The Animal That Therefore I Am (Follow). Translated by David Wills. Fordham University Press.

Derrida, Jacques, and Elisabeth Roudinesco. 2004. For What Tomorrow . . . A Dialogue. Translated by Jeff Fort. Stanford University Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1979. Nietzsche: Volume I and II (The Will to Power as Art; The Eternal Recurrence of the Same). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper and Row.

Heidegger, Martin. 1987. Nietzsche: Volume III and IV (The Will to Power as Knowledge and as Metaphysics; Nihilism). Edited by David Farrell Krell. San Francisco: Harper and Row.


Dawne McCance: The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida’s La Vie La Mort, Fordham University Press, 2019

The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida's La Vie La Mort Book Cover The Reproduction of Life Death: Derrida's La Vie La Mort
Dawne McCance
Fordham University Press
Paperback $28.00

Jacques Derrida: La Vie la mort: Séminaire (1975-1976), Seuil, 2019

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Bibliothèque Derrida
Jacques Derrida
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