“For Architecture no longer defines a domain.”
To begin with the title. ‘The last fortress of metaphysics’ is for Francesco Vitale architectural; it is indeed, architecture itself—at once protected and encumbered by a manifold of “theoretical, political, institutional, symbolical, and material resistances” (xvi). In its encrusted ‘lastness’ architecture presents thus the litmus test of deconstruction, making the latter’s intervention into the former the measure of deconstruction’s efficacity.
This is because at and from the outset philosophy and architecture have found themselves “in the most essential of cohabitations” (xv). The apparent oblivion to the fraught resonances of the “cohabitation with women” that haunt Rousseau’s supplementarity across the pages of the Grammatology will be partly compensated by the book’s opening two chapters, which will undertake to think habitation in the figure of the oikos. At the outset however the cohabitation of philosophy and architecture is established in the strange, troubled even, generality of the latter. In a passage of Derrida, which the short book will quote thrice (repetition ringing across the text worse than a stylistic shortcoming) and which must thus appear here in toto, architecture’s generality is contested by logical and material consistency, if not constancy:
“On the one hand, this general architectonic erases or exceeds the sharp specificity of architecture; it is valid for other arts and regions of experience as well. On the other hand, architecture forms its most powerful metonymy; it gives it its most solid consistency, objective substance. By consistency, I do not mean only logical coherence, which implicates all dimensions of human experience in the same network: there is no work of architecture without interpretation, or even economic, religious, political, aesthetic, or philosophical decision. But by consistency I also mean duration, hardness, the monumental, mineral or ligneous subsistence, the hyletics of tradition.” (xiv, 3, 90)
It is at the juncture of this hyletics, upon the rock of its consistency, that Derrida’s confrontation with Peter Eisenman will play out, a confrontation of particular significance for the encounter of deconstruction and architecture. But since the onto-political fate of the latter with philosophy will be from the outset intertwined, so must be the fate of their critique. Accordingly, Derrida destabilises and solicits the significance of the architectural foundation: “Architecture must have a meaning, it must present this meaning, and hence signify. The signifying or symbolic value of this meaning must command the structure and syntax, the form and function of architecture. It must command it from the outside, according to a principle (archē), a grounding or foundation, a transcendence or finality (telos) whose locations are not themselves architectural.” (xviii) With the same stroke, Derrida solicits the significance of the sign itself, a significance always already philosophical. It does so, by exploring the work of spacing that antecedes all given and constituted internal and external spaces.
Law of the Oikos
Vitale’s exploration begins with a return to the ‘law of the oikos’. The book’s first two chapters deal with the Hellenic legacy that informs the shared fate of philosophy and architecture. For, as Derrida reminds us: “there is an architecture of architecture. Down to its archaic foundation, the most fundamental concept of architecture has been constructed. […] This architecture of architecture has a history.” (1) Vitale locates the significant point of entry to this history in the Greek polis in its intricate relation to the oikos.
The politics of habitation in Athens rests on the myth of king Erichthonius, “who was born directly from earth, not from a woman, but from the soil fecundated by the seed of Hephaestus, dispersed after his clumsy attempt to possess Athena.” (7) In this reading, the soil from which Erichthonius emerges, becomes the mythical foundation of all eco-political foundations. Since no reality will be able to adequate the myth, the latter will continue to haunt the imaginary of the West, producing building and dwelling as much as theoretical and political effects. For Derrida, this ontopology, this “axiomatic linking indissociably the ontological value of present-being (on) to its situation, to the stable and presentable determination of a locality, the topos of territory, native soil, city, body in general,” is today more obsolete than ever. (7) This certainly does not mean overcome.
The Erichthonian soil determines the law of the oikos, a law that “imposes the task of thinking identity (ontological and political identity) in terms that are irreducibly spatial: origin as a place, permanence, stability, being distinguished and protected from difference, alterity, the stranger, and the foreign.” (11) It does so by presenting itself as an immutable, yet indeterminate foundation. This terrestrial foundation bears the name of khōra.
Since khōra “is neither sensible nor ideal, not even a being, it cannot be determined in any way as a being could be. For this reason, to describe it, Timaeus must use a set of analogies (the receptacle, the cast, the sieve, the nursemaid, etc.), assuming that none of them are adequate since they all come from the sensible determined in the khōra. This third remains indeterminate: the indeterminate that prevents itself from any possible determination and makes every determination possible. But, at the same time, in its indeterminateness khōra imposes on us the thought that all that is, is as such because it takes place, has an origin that remains fixed, permanent, and stable, has a proper place, oikēsis idias.” (12)
Derrida explicates the status of the khōra further: “Perhaps, because it can receive everything, one could give it all the names one wants, since it can take any form, ultimately one could give a name different from khōra. As it does not exist under the form of a being identical with itself, of an ideal referent or a thing, one does not see why it would have only one name. But it is precisely because of this that it is always necessary to name it in the same way, since it is paradoxically necessary to keep the sense that it has no sense.” (12) Being the signifier of a signified which is not, the khōra is at the same time a quasi-index, a this, each time unique, yet nonetheless a name, and as such more than a mere this, a cipher eliding indication and signification.
Khōra accordingly designates political space, in the primary sense of invested, occupied space. (13) This space is occupied by the ‘dead sons of the polis’, the Erichthonian progeny which returns to rest forever in the originative soil of the city, now the burial ground of the Kerameikos. (8) The soil of the city the dead will share with the heroes, the cult of which is reactivated in the 8th century BC. The Mycenaean constructions, used by the cult are thus reactivated, offering not only the reassurance of a religious a continuity, but also assuming “a civic as well as territorial value,” by gathering the community and rooting it in the soil. In tandem, the acropolis will be “heir of the royal fortress of the Mycenaean age,” circumscribing the unity of the polis. (22) Whereas the fort would guarantee permanence to the city because of the security it afforded, the architectural permanence of acropolis offers a symbolic security. Positioned at the akron, the visible limit of the polis, it determines its whole territory, stabilising the khōra. The ethico-political significance of this stability will lend support to the Socratic indictment of the itinerant sophists, who lack a proper place, an oikos and thus the nomos, the law that pertains to it. (10) The city must exclude the dangerous other: it is a philosophical as much as an architectural function, a function summed up in the designation of an outside against a stable, striated inside. The law of the oikos, coupled with the law of the polis protect this inside, arresting and fixing the fluidity of the khōra.
Politics of Architecture
For Vitale, the significant contribution of deconstruction is precisely the re-articulation of all stability into effects of stabilization and sedentarization (let it be recalled that de-construction determines itself from the outset as de-sedimentation). Thus places lose their mythical-metaphysical origin and identity, appearing as effects of dislocation and localization, whereas the human appears as the effect of a situated self-inscription, placed by default in relation to otherness and the other. (29) Opening up a space in which to think and live this relation, is the contribution of deconstruction. (30) The law of the oikos, which protected the inside from the outside, the familiar from the stranger, and which informed the history of architecture, as well as that of the ‘architecture of architecture’ is here suspended (31). It becomes thus possible to conceive an other end of architecture, decoupled from dwelling. It certainly becomes possible to conceive of a different dwelling. For this “the deconstruction of architecture must in turn become work, it must become architecture.” (33)
The promise of this ‘architecture to come’ is affirmative of its own possibility, yet never positive. It never posits itself in a fortified security, but remains ‘risky, uncertain, improbable’. (34) It thus remains open and assumes the responsibility not only towards its own future, but towards the other to come, the nameless other, whom we do not know, cannot prefigure and imagine, the other that we do not know when, and altogether whether, will arrive. (38) This is a task not only of architecture, but of the polis as a whole. In order to achieve this, a city must strive to remain “indefinitely and structurally non-saturable, open to its own transformation, to additions that come to alter or dislocate as much as possible the memory of the heritage.” (41-2) As prime counterpoint to the acropolis and the funerary sēma, “Derrida conjures up the example of the temple of Ise in Japan, the most remarkable place of worship of Shintoism. The temple has been dismantled and rebuilt with new materials every twenty years for one thousand five hundred years.” (42) If such a thing was ever needed, one has here the most literal and least literary moment of deconstruction. It is all the same a sign.
The following, fourth, chapter undertakes to trace the passage ‘from architecture to writing’ and then ‘from writing to arche-writing’. Derrida, wishes to abandon ‘the envelope of a book’ to seek a different organisation of space—a space, where one does not only read, but also write between the lines. As readers, we are not handed over the model or blueprint of such ‘architectural artifacts’ as Glas or La Carte Postale, but are rather invited to inhabit their text. (47) Neither, because there is no model, nor because the model must be kept secret; we are not presented with the architectonics of architecture, because although the act of writing that has escaped the book, is a spacing akin “to the production of architectural drawing,” (49) this drawing resists its summary, its reduction to a few master-lines. The architecture of deconstructive writing resists the enclosure and subsumption under its own archē.
The book represents for Derrida precisely such a closure or totality, be it finite or infinite, of the signifier, which can only be established, once a totality of the signified has been previously asserted. (50) Although the historic veracity of this assertion is hardly questionable, Vitale could have here explored the necessity of the equivalence: even though no ground or telos might ultimately support totalisation, it appears theoretically possible to de-couple a totality of signifiers from a totality of signifieds. A ‘trans-total’ correspondence, one between a totality and a non-totality, is imaginable.
Architecture offers a paradigmatic possibility of a rupture with totalising writing. Pluri-dimensionality becomes the operative word. In Vitale’s words: “architectural writing is able to articulate geometric and mathematical notation, perspectival drawing and multiple reference systems, computer graphics, diagrams, photography, spectrography (which detects the physical nature of sites and materials as well as the anthropic presence), tridimensional models, and so on.” (51) It contributes thus to the deconstructive programmatic of conceiving “in a manner at once historical and systematic, the organized cohabitation, within the same graphic code, of figurative, symbolic, abstract, and phonetic elements.” (58) The war of linearisation against the originary pluri-dimensionality of writing, a war that reduced the cohabitation of these dimensions to successivity has long appeared won. Derrida, after Leroi-Gourhan, discovers the potentiality of resistance against the dominion of linearity, which marks the promise of a different scriptural future, in the sign of the ‘mythogram’. In the mythogram, “meaning is not subjected to successivity, to the order of a logical time, or to the irreversible temporality of sound. This pluri-dimensionality does not paralyze history within simultaneity.” (59) Mythography grants us access to arche-writing. Leaving this passage to arche-writing underexplored, Vitale follows Derrida, in an open gesture towards writing and reading architecture as mythography.
The fifth chapter explores the theme of spacing as it comes into play in Tschumi’s research and work. Spacing must be understood not only as an empirical necessity of every system of notation, of every scriptural or inscriptive system, but also as an irreducible condition of experience and of the production of meaning. Spacing is already there in every presence, at the heart of its own self-immediacy. (63) Accordingly, spacing is the imprint of the play of the trace, of a movement that produces space in its unfolding. The trace, as “the opening of the first exteriority in general,” (56, 64) spaces by showing the exteriority at the heart of every interiority.
For Vitale, Tschumi’s work follows faithfully the play of the trace. It is thus able to offer a new architectural possibility, a possibility that is “neither architecture nor anarchitecture, [but rather] transarchitecture.” (68) What is particularly significant and particularly topical for Derrida in transarchitecture is that “it comes to terms with the event; it no longer offers its work to users, believers, or dwellers, to contemplators, aesthetes, or consumers. Instead, it calls on the other to invent, in turn, the event, to sign, consign, or countersign: advanced by an advance made to the other—and maintaining architecture, now architecture.” (69) At a given juncture, Tschumi offers for Derrida the inventive now.
In the Manhattan Transcripts Tschumi’s struggle to escape the confines of received architectural writing becomes apparent: “The original purpose of the tripartite mode of notation (events, movement, spaces) was to introduce the order of experience, the order of time—moments, intervals, sequences—for all inevitably intervene in the reading of the city. It also proceeded from a need to question the modes of representation generally used by architects: plans, sections, axonometries, perspectives. However precise and generative they have been, each implies a logical reduction of architectural thought to what can be shown, to the exclusion of the other concerns. They are caught in a sort of prison-house of architectural language, where “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” [Wittgenstein] Any attempt to go beyond such limits, to offer another reading of architecture, demanded the questioning of these conventions.” (71)
It is precisely the function of movement in Tschumi’s work that destabilises calculability and universality, to bring forth the unique now in which a play of differences becomes possible for architectural writing. Again The Manhattan Transcripts: ‘The movements—of crowds, dancers, fighters—recall the inevitable intrusion of bodies into architectural spaces, the intrusion of one order into another. The need to record accurately such confrontations, without falling into functionalist formulas, suggests precise forms of movement notation. An extension of drawing conventions or choreography, this notation attempts to eliminate the preconceived meaning given to particular actions in order to concentrate on their spatial effects: the movement of bodies in space.’” (72)
It is because of this attentiveness to the plasticity that the play of the trace necessitates, that Tschumi appears not to betray the promise of deconstruction for a different architecture. Thus, the “unique existence and logic” that “books of architecture, as opposed to books about architecture” develop, (70-1) will not be met by Vitale with the suspicion reserved for Eisenman’s attempt to extricate architecture from the exigencies of deconstruction, by establishing a sui generis space for it. Perhaps then the space devoted to the latter’s critique would have been better employed in following much more closely the former’s appraisal, exploring the architectural pathways opened by Tschumi’s practice.
Eisenman the Apostate
The penultimate chapter is then devoted to Eisenman—a cul-de-sac of deconstruction. A certain early rapport of the two men in view of a collaboration on the La Villette park project quickly came to a head. The rupture manifested in dramatic fashion at the 1989 congress in Inrvine, which Derrida decided not to attend. It was precisely this performative absence that dramatised their divergent positioning vis-à-vis the place and function of absence in thought and architecture. Derrida used his physical absence to address on tape a series of questions to Eisenman—a spectral confrontation. (79)
Derrida had proposed his essay Khōra as common ground for their joint exploration, a text and a notion that we saw pose a challenge to territorial foundations of identity. (17) Eisenman retracted in view of this challenge. The concrete materiality of the physical presence of buildings meant for Eisenman that “the term [deconstruction] is too metaphorical and too literal for architecture.” (82) The full scope, however, of the double hyperbole is only made apparent in Eisenman’s attempt to break with the way in which deconstruction engages with oppositionality: “In my view, your deconstruction of the presence/absence dialectic is inadequate for architecture precisely because architecture is not a two-term but a three-term system. In architecture, there is another condition, which I call presentness—that is neither absence nor presence, [neither] form nor function, but rather an excessive condition between sign and being. As long as there is a strong bond between form and function, sign and being, the excess that contains the possibility of presentness will be repressed.” (87)
Presentness as the third term is the wager of the whole dispute and the point on which Vitale will concentrate his vindication of deconstruction. He will do so by means of a theoretico-historical and a logical argument. The former suspects the structure of a transcending-encompassing third of regressing into dialectics and producing dialectical effects. Accordingly, Eisenman will remain haunted by the spectre of an architectural Hegelianism; a spectre he will not even attempt to shake off. (88) The latter argument presents Eisenman’s logic as circular. We are given to read: “Presentness is the possibility of another aura in architecture, one not in the sign or in being, but a third condition of betweenness. […] This excess is not based on the tradition of the plenitude, but rather is the condition of possibility of presentness.” The circle is clear: “Presentness is the condition of possibility of the excess that is the condition of possibility of presentness.” Neither Eisenman, nor Vitale seem to be interested here in a notion such as ‘equi-primordiality’, as an escape from the conundrum.
What emerges in the brevity of this exposition is the introduction of aura as the halo of presentness, which amounts for Eisenman to the “presence of absence.” (90) This is why Derrida will take advantage of his absence to say to Eisenman on tape: “I’m not going to take advantage of my absence, not even to tell you that you perhaps believe in it, absence, too much.” (80) Eisenman believes in absence too much because he believes in the redemptive possibility of its presentification. The implications for Derrida—or what Vitale diagnosed as dialectical effects—are significant: “Whether it has to do with houses, museums, or university research laboratories, what distinguishes your architectural space from that of the temple, indeed of the synagogue (by this word I mean a Greek word expressing a Jewish concept)? Where will the break, the rupture have been in this respect, if there is one, if there was one, for you and other architects of this period with whom you feel yourself associated? I remain very perplexed about this subject; if I had been there, I would have been a difficult interlocutor.” (81)
The difficulty for Derrida amounts to the attempt, both impossible and regressive, to presentify absence. Thus his spectral advise to Eisenman: ‘Well, you can strategically insist on absence as a disruption of the system of presence, but at a certain point you have to leave the theme of absence’.” (93). Derrida who confesses to feeling like an architect when writing, the paradox of architecture cannot be sublimated:
“The paradox, of course, is that on the face of it, architecture seems to have nothing to do with absence, in one of Heidegger’s texts, he says that a temple is a place where God is present, but that implies that the temple is an empty place ready to receive God. It is the ultimate paradox of logocentrism. […] So, because of its unique relationship to representation, architecture is more ‘present’ than any other art, but at the same time, being the most ‘present’, it is also the strongest reference to the opposite of presence, namely absence.” (92)
In the artifacts of the architectural tradition and despite the latter’s claims, the cohabitation of presence and absence remains productively irresolvable. Within this picture Eisenman appears merely to reinscribe a traditional gesture in the architectural matrix.
In order to decide the fate of this gesture Derrida invites Eisenman to position himself with regard to Benjamin’s essay Experience and Poverty, in which a ‘constructive destruction’ of aura is undertaken by the ‘new Barbarians’. (90-1) Benjamin observes the destruction of aura in the glass and steel work of architects such as Loos and Le Corbusier build with steel and glass. The hardness of the former and the (assumed) transparency of the latter preclude auratic effects, such as uniqueness, exclusiveness and mystification. Eisenman, whose attempt to rehabilitate aura is by now clear, will sidestep Benjamin’s essay.
Returning to the challenge of khōra to foundational origins, Derrida shows the need to think the auratic play of presence and absence through the notion of the trace: “The living present springs forth out of its nonidentity with itself and from the possibility of the retentional trace. It is always already a trace. This trace cannot be thought out on the basis of a simple present whose life would be within itself; the self of the living present is primordially [originairement] a trace. The trace is not an attribute; we cannot say that the self of the living present “primordially is” it [l’‘est originairement’]. Being-primordial [l’être-originaire] must be thought on the basis of the trace, and not the reverse. This arche-writing is at work at the origin of the sense.” (85) The difference becomes thus clear: whereas Eisenman’s phenemonological trace enables a reconstitution of presence as retention of absence, Derrida’s deconstruction of this traces shows presence as a transitory effect of the trace’s movement. (87, 93, 95)
Here ends therefore Derrida’s engagement with Eisenman, as well as Vitale’s chapter. It is perhaps unfortunate that the latter did not attempt to identify and extract those intuitions in the latter’s work that originally attracted Derrida, and might still hold the potential of productive effects—intuitions working precisely against Eisenman’s overall gesture. The chapter’s polemic shares thus little of deconstruction’s sense of a fidelity working from within, remaining rather a siege extra muros.
The last chapter of the book functions as a coda to the series of forays of the previous chapters. Vitale returns with Derrida to Saussure, to find a sign both arbitrary and differential (102-3), which will support the renewed call for the displacement of the linearity of architectural and non-architectural writing. The notion of the trace, the fruit of the internal tensions of the two-fold character of the sign, provides the “finite and material element of a composition that takes on the shape of an architectural product,” in order to effect the displacement of linearity. (105) The play of the trace spaces, gives space, opens up the matrix of the khōra.
Vitale chooses to close with a framing of Glas, perhaps the most ‘architectural’ of Derrida’s works, and moreover, in Derrida’s words, one replete with traces, “traces of traces without tracing, or, if you wish, tracings that only track and retrace other texts.” (110) For Vitale the two columns in which the text of Glas is arrange, constitute architectural artifacts: “two columns that are erected and stand out on account of a supposed autonomy: the autonomy of the work, of the Book, granted by the signature of the author (subject, consciousness, etc.). In this case, Hegel’s work, on one side, and Genet’s work, on the other side. […] Glas consists in this frame that exposes what makes it possible: between the two columns, the clapper [battant] of another text, of another logic: spacing.” (107)
The implications of the making, the arrangement of scriptural space are catalytic for the ciphering and de-ciphering of the text. Moreover, the text itself will reinforce its architectural space, the way a stalactite becomes the support of the cavernous, mineral space that produced it. Vitale is observant: “Genet’s work, once inscribed within the frame of Glas, can no longer be entirely solved, absolved, detached from the act of absolute self-naming to which it aims. To realize/idealize itself as such, it cannot but go through the erection of a column of writing, and thus it must leave the traces of its finite and contingent passage.” (109) In this, reading Genet is constituted by Derrida as the anarchitecture that opposes Hegelian architectonics; the space between the two becomes the desired space of transarchitecture, a space between two architectures, two idioms, two tongues. If a kulindros designates the round body of a pyramid, an obelisk or a column, as much as a rolled manuscript or a scroll, Glas, working between its two columns, presents itself as a transversal writing, the most literal trans-script.
The integrated collection of essays that comprise The Last Fortress of Metaphysics would be strengthened if, rather than being their object, trans-scripturality was their constitutive mode of articulation. A second language would have to infect that of Derrida’s, the language of “the master of masters,” in Vitale’s acclaim. (viii) Adoration repays badly the master; if the master is to be followed, his performance must be performed anew. To perform anew in this instance would also require heeding the words of Derrida that Vitale is familiar with: “I am not happy with the concept of collage. I never use it as such. It is a traditional concept. Collage implies fragment, and that implies that there is a proper body the fragment belongs to.” (97) The collage that The Last Fortress is, troubles the reader less by the precariousness of its unity or its repetitiveness, as by the tempting promise of a proper textual body, a naked body in which the intricate and far-reaching interweaving of deconstruction and architecture is exposed in its plenitude. All the same, Vitale’s effort is a first step and as such a significant contribution to the labour required in appraising the lure of this promise.
This essay reviews a lecture by Jacques Derrida regarding Antonin Artaud. However, we should immediately note that Derrida is not discussing a philosopher or even a philosophical system. Instead, he rhetorically embraces Artaud in Artaud’s own terms, namely, that Artaud is not an artist nor is his work art as conventionally understood. Alternatively expressed, Derrida appears to be engaging in a rhetorical performance in the guise of a lecture as both an homage to Artaud and a provocation of the artistic establishment. Hence, for the vast majority of readers of Phenomenological Reviews, this could well be a problematic starting point for an analysis of Artaud and his late work.
On at least half-a-dozen occasions since the mid-’sixties, Derrida has written or spoken about the confronting avant-garde artist Antonin Artaud. His extended October 1996 lecture at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art, translated here by Peggy Kamuf, took place at an exhibition of drawings-and-writing on paper undertaken between 1937 and 1948. These works were grouped sequentially. The first group comprised specifically dated and addressed “Spells” crafted from 1937 which were also clinically regarded as a symptom of Artaud’s severe psychological dislocation. The second group emanated from the Rodez psychiatric hospital between 1943 and 1946 which has since been associated with Artaud’s acute physical pain resulting from repeated electro-convulsive therapy. Finally, MoMA included a series of asymmetrically positioned portraits and self-portraits executed at a private clinic in the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris, Ivry-sur-Seine, that were exhibited at Galerie Pierre in July 1947. Unfortunately, none of these works are reproduced with the English translation. This is all the more so when, for the 1947 exhibition’s catalogue, Artaud wrote a prose-poem in which he declared:
and which Derrida (40ff.) interprets as giving us a clue to Artaud’s vociferous view of the artworld.
Derrida’s originally untitled lecture forms part of Columbia University Press’s monograph series in philosophy, social criticism, and the arts. This series construes philosophy beyond its academic strictures “to embrace forms of discussion” in which the conventions or “rules of social, political, and cultural practice are both affirmed and challenged; and where new thinking takes place.” (ii) Derrida fulfils the series’ goals as, in part, he continues his 1986 essay on Artaud’s conception of le subjectile. There, he also probed the relationship of drawing and writing (“pictograms”) in terms of at least three consequences. The relationship is one where the conventions of language are made extremely problematic; where Artaud’s creative practices are better construed in terms of force rather than form—his piercing and scorching of the material being used is not simply to foreground the material but also the very activity of Artaud himself—and where the deliberate act of employing brute or clumsy techniques intensifies the spectator’s response to the nature of the encounter between artist and medium. Derrida’s Manhattan response to the sheer frenetic, if not contrary, nature of Artaud’s language is at times no less frantic as he explores how Artaud, on the basis of only a few artefacts—notably the July 1947 portrayal of Jany de Ruy—undercuts the aesthetic categories said to be upheld by MoMA, North America’s leading modernist museum. Amongst these institutionally sanctioned categories, Derrida includes artistic originality and techniques as well as artistic history and influences. Derrida also fulfils the goals of the Columbia series in that he explores the aesthetic realm by way of his widely disseminated interpretive strategies of singularity and repetition. Time and again, these are deployed in the lecture, occasionally without providing listeners an overt rationale, possibly because Derrida may have assumed an audience sufficiently acquainted with his linguistic and phenomenological pre-occupations.
Firstly, we shall briefly sketch his polysemous approach enacted from the beginning of his lecture which sets the scene for the lecture as a whole. Next, we shall examine the approach more closely (without resorting to the derogatory tone that has characterised so many Anglophone responses to Derrida’s prolific writings as exemplified by the multiple accusations of J.R. Searle (1983)). Finally, we shall conclude by raising a number of questions that the published lecture leaves unanswered for its readers nowadays.
Unlike the way he questions the underlying, idealised conceptual schemes of past philosophers such as Immanuel Kant or Edmund Husserl, Derrida’s handling of artists as Artaud the Moma rapidly demonstrates is quite different. Whether Franz Kafka or James Joyce, Paul Celan or Francis Ponge to mention but four literary artists whom he had discussed before the 1996 MoMA lecture, his approach is notably distinctive. He particularly focuses upon specific works, specific words, as intensely singular events. Indeed, in an April 1989 interview with Derek Attridge, Derrida elaborates upon the very experience of singularity characteristic of reading (or viewing) modernist artefacts of the twentieth century, including Artaud himself. Although the “‘historical solidarity’ of literature and the history or tradition of metaphysics must be constantly recalled, even if the differences, the distances must be pointed out,” there remains “a task inherent in the experience of reading or writing” which does not “mean that all reading or all writing is historicized.” (1989: 54) What is this experiential, as distinct from historical or metaphysical, task? It is
to give space for singular events, to invent something new in the form of acts of writing which no longer consist in a theoretical knowledge […] to give oneself to a poetico-performativity at least analogous to that of promises, orders […] which do not only change language, or which, in changing language, change more than language. (1989: 55)
When Attridge raises the question of a longstanding claim of “traditional” literary criticism that “it heightens or reveals the uniqueness, the singularity, of the text upon which it comments,” Derrida concedes that a work or oeuvre “takes place just once” and hence “Attention to history, context, and genre is necessitated, and not contradicted, by this singularity” providing we keep in mind “the date and the signature of the work […] which constitute or institute the very body of the work.” (1989: 67-68) Yet, no matter how paradoxically, we also must concede that for a work to
become readable, it has to be divided, to participate and belong […] in the genre, the type, the context, […] the conceptual generality of meaning, etc. It loses itself to offer itself. (1989: 68)
To that extent, singularity is “deferred”
to be what it is and to be repeated in its very singularity. There would be no reading of the work—nor any writing to start with—without this iterability [….] And any work is singular in that it speaks singularly of both singularity and generality. (1989: 68)
For this reason, we encounter such assertions in the Manhattan lecture as an artwork “is archivable because iterable, in the museum and in the history of art”; in fact, in all those institutions “which the work attacks.” (45) However, Derrida continues, “for there to be iterability” or repetition, there must also be “the singular event of […] its indisputable occurrence.” (45)
Against this apparently paradoxical background, let us now return to the very opening of Artaud the Moma. Derrida immediately intones the question inscribed vertically adjacent to the pastel blue bordering the pencilled full-face portrait of Jany de Ruy, dated on a Wednesday, the 2nd July 1947, in Ivry-sur-Seine:
Derrida seizes upon the fact that we are not simply encountering a “rhetorical question”; rather, it is one he is “miming” and “relaunching,” “framing” and “immobilizing,” if not ultimately “pretending to install […] today” (1)—Thursday evening, the 10th October 1996, in an exhibition at MoMA. In short, any of us can “decipher right here […] this mute interrogation that, in effect, says nothing at all: neither who nor what.” (2) By such means, his audience is thrust into the realm of the deictic utterance and whether or not it can be understood by virtue of the meanings of words or of its actual context, if not both. Derrida’s reply is one captured earlier by one similarly albeit sceptically wrestling with phenomenological issues, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein comments about the deictic utterance, “After he had said this, he left her as he did the day before,” as follows:
After pursuing the analogy of understanding the meaning of an utterance with that of understanding a musical theme, Wittgenstein ends:
In sum, Derrida, continuing to draw upon other instances of word meanings throughout the lecture—for instance, le coup, la foudre, and le mômo—each with an indefinite number of associations and contexts, pithily declares: “This work is not exhausted in a discourse.” (56)
Consequently, the portrait of Jany de Ruy “overruns” Derrida’s own discourse. (56) It does so because, on the one hand, “it gives itself its own body one single and unique time in an event that is both irreplaceable and serial,” and, on the other hand, the “event, at the moment of signing, recognizes no soothing status for itself, no assured stability: neither as a drawing […] nor as work of art in the tradition of a history of art or […] the culture of a museographic canonization.” (56)
At this juncture, Derrida re-assembles Artaud’s vertically inscribed question (quoted above) to ask his audience, “Where are we today? […] This evening?” before responding on its behalf with:
We are within the walls of a MoMA. What is a MoMA? What does museum of modern Art mean? In this very place, who would take place? To say what?” (56)
Shifting the onus from artefact to institution, Derrida abjures any attempt to define visual art (or artists) by its (or their) empirical or concrete properties, let alone abstract or metaphysical ones. Gleaned from his comments about Artaud throughout the lecture, it is apparent that for Derrida there is no work of art in general except when those institutions—galleries, schools, museums—insist on grouping individual works together and, one might add, the spatio-temporal manner by which they are best viewed. Nor can institutional efforts to distinguish between stylistic forms and represented content hold with any clarity or certainty: content can no more be abstracted from style than a representation from what is represented. Oddly, Derrida pays no attention to institutional definitions of art, against which Artaud constantly rails, in terms of the horns of a dilemma first pinpointed by Richard Wollheim (1980: 160-164). If, for example, those conferring artistic status—be they critics, teachers, or scholars—have good reason for taking some object to be an artistic work, then all that these institutional representatives have done is to confirm a status already had before their act of conferral and so they can dispense with the need to define artistic works in institutional terms. If, by contrast, those conferring artistic status were ultimately to deny that a good reason is ever needed or could be articulated for taking some object to be an artistic work, then the very point or value of attributing the status of art to anything appears to be quite arbitrary and hence any institutional definition would fail to provide us with a necessary criterion in the first place.
So, how are we to experience, to understand, Artaud’s work if institutional interpretations are illusory? One will fail to understand, declares Derrida,
if one does not hear his voice, if one does not attune oneself to the tempo of his letters and the rhythm of his words beyond coded language, beyond its grammar and its instituted semantics. (57)
Imbued with Artaud’s April 1947 text, “Ten years since language left,” Derrida excerpts the following:
and that’s all. (22; cf. 1986: 113 & 121)
These words epitomise the sheer force of Artaud’s drawings and their capacity for
transforming the aesthete’s body, [for] changing these transient guests who, having come as visitors or voyeurs into a museum, would claim to be mere spectators. Woe to these contemplators and consumers of images. (60)
Understanding Artaud also requires “a slow, careful, inflamed, vocalized reading” of all his contemporaneous texts “preceded by subtle and audacious protocols of interpretation.” (63) Indeed, continues Derrida, “without the experience of these texts, without meditation on these protocols, without recasting everything from top to bottom,” both bodily and cognitively, we shall fail to experience the drawings and, at best, will merely “indulge in some aesthetic tourism.” (67)
Having now sampled some pivotal passages of the Manhattan lecture, how, for readers nowadays, does Derrida himself understand Artaud’s drawings, especially in 1947 when Artaud re-iterates his protest against any suggestion that his portraits and self-portraits are skilfully “academic” and have not truly broken from “those great figures in the history of art” be their work figurative or non-figurative? (37 & 42) Accepting Artaud at his word, Derrida admits that there is one exception, “only one avowed figure of a legitimate and legitimating ancestor,” namely Vincent van Gogh. (43). However, unlike his essay on Artaud’s conception of le subjectile (1986: 96ff.), Derrida stops short of explicitly delving into Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society. In it, Artaud asks of someone he regards as “great a writer as he was a painter”:
What is the use of describing a painting by van Gogh! No description attempted by anyone else could be worth the simple alignment of natural objects and hues to which van Gogh gives himself, (1947: 498)
and consequently concludes:
So I shall not describe a painting of van Gogh after van Gogh [upon citing his letters such as those of the 8th September 1888 and the 23rd July 1890], but I shall say that van Gogh is a painter because he recollected nature, because he reperspired it and made it sweat, because he squeezed onto his canvases in clusters, in monumental sheaves of color, the grinding of elements that occurs once in a hundred years, the awful elementary pressure of apostrophes, scratches, commas, and dashes which, after him, one can no longer believe that natural appearances are not made of.
And what an onslaught of repressed jostlings, ocular collisions taken from life, blinkings taken from nature, have the luminous currents of the forces which work on reality had to reverse before being finally driven together and, as it were, hoisted onto the canvas, and accepted?
There are no ghosts in the paintings of van Gogh, no visions, no hallucinations. (1947: 499)
In van Gogh, Artaud finds a painter only “and nothing more.” (1947: 502) In other words, there is “no philosophy, no mysticism, no ritual, no psychurgy or liturgy” to seek on canvas; indeed, “no history, no literature, or poetry.” (1947: 502) By such logic, understanding is re-directed:
To attend to van Gogh’s work itself is to attend to the actualities of his medium:
By quoting Artaud liberally, we have attempted to elicit the degree to which Artaud’s encounter with van Gogh above often parallels Derrida’s with Artaud. More bluntly expressed, does Artaud’s rationale for avoiding descriptions of van Gogh’s work exhibited at the Orangerie in Paris between January and March 1947 function as a precursor for Derrida’s similar avoidance with respect to Artaud’s works exhibited at MoMA between October 1996 and January 1997? Or, as a way of disputing Derrida’s reliance upon Artaud here, are readers meant to presume that Derrida’s lecture is a manifestation of what he had long held about the nature of rhetorical acts which include acts of describing and hypothesizing, evaluating and observing? For example, in his 1974 essay on Stéphane Mallarmé, Derrida succinctly claims that rhetoric contains a “hidden philosophy,” one exclusively tied to “the meaning of a text” or “its content.” (1974: 113) What rhetoric fails to do is “deal with signifying forms (whether phonic or graphic) or with the effects of syntax, at least as far as semantic control does not dominate them.” (1974: 114) Hence, for rhetoric or any act of description “to have something to see or to do before a text, a meaning has to be determinable.” (1974: 114) Not unlike Mallarmé’s texts, it may be counter-argued, Artaud’s texts for Derrida seem to be organised such that meaning remains indeterminate (“undecidable”) at which point “the signifier no longer lets itself be traversed, it remains, resists, exists and draws attention to itself.” (1974: 114)
It is scarcely controversial to say that the Manhattan lecture is far more focused on the writing accompanying and within Artaud’s hybrid work on paper. Yet, curiously, Derrida makes no mention of the fact that the full-face portrait of Jany de Ruy (amongst many others at the time) is a double portrait; it has Artaud’s portrait embedded within it. What does such an omission indicate? More particularly, what does it imply about the role Derrida has assigned to his audience, to those fulfilling the role of spectators (cf. 14, 33) or witnesses and, for that matter, to himself?
To begin with the latter, the lecture closes on what at first appears to be a confession. Referring to the months before the lecture, Derrida talks of being taken to court and put on trial by Artaud as both plaintiff and prosecutor in a scene incessantly, if not obsessively, in which Derrida hears Artaud’s voice: “I see nothing, I see no one, but I hear him,” Artaud, who “cries out at me.” (71) Haunted by the return of Artaud-Mômo on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of his birth, not as a “visible apparition” at MoMA, but as the ghost of his voice which, “by sacred mission or commission, it would be my job to play at guarding for a moment, the bodyguard, right here, of a voice from beyond-the-grave.” (71-72) Next, after capturing the voices of the dead Paule Thévenin (to whom the lecture is dedicated (26)) and Antonin Artaud (whose voice recorded in November 1947 for his radio play To Have Done with the Judgment of God prefaces and concludes the lecture), Derrida qualifies his role: “The bodyguard of Artaud’s voice—which I am not and do not wish to be but which I have perhaps acted for once—sees nothing but he lends an ear.” (74)
What are we to make of this tale and its bearing, not upon the concept of the artist or maker, but upon the equally crucial concept of spectator or witness of the visual arts? To what extent is Derrida enacting the stance taken six years earlier in the 1990 catalogue, presented in the form of a dialogue, for an exhibition at the Louvre of drawings he selected? There, he postulates:
In fact, a witness, as such, is always blind. Witnessing substitutes narrative for perception. The witness cannot see, show, and speak at the same time […] No authentification can show in the present what the most reliable of witnesses […] has seen and now keeps in memory. (1990: 104)
On the one hand, does this proposal resonate with his longstanding objection to any phenomenological commitment to direct perception, especially visual perception, as the means of garnering experiential facts or truths? After all, Derrida implies, no witness can retrospectively demonstrate through his or her perceptual modality (whether helped or not by electronic prostheses) what event or phenomenon is to be witnessed. Does the above proposal, at the same time, bolster his belief in the efficacy, no matter how contingently or momentarily, of writing and drawing to mediate and ultimately transform experience? On the other hand, does this conception of witnessing—whether his own or his audience’s—exonerate, as it were, not recognising or seeing the full-face portrait of Jany de Ruy as a double portrait? Again, is the witness’s shift from the visual to the rhetorical, to narrative discourse, consistent with Derrida’s underlying appeal to the vocally performative “something vision alone would be incapable of”? (1990: 122) Finally, there appear to be other aspects of the role of witness Derrida neglects. His conception of narrative associated with the role of the witness leaves open whether it accommodates both the temporal and the evaluative dimensions of narrative or remains limited to the temporal alone? Nor does his notion of witness take account of circumstances where sighting an event and avowals of its occurrence take place simultaneously in such cases as witnessing signatures. Moreover, there are also cases of spectators or witnesses viewing an event or phenomenon whilst simultaneously verbalising a running commentary about it in speech directed at others (or at self) as exemplified by sports commentators or gallery guides.
As stated at the onset of this review, Derrida’s lecture seems to be a problematic starting point for an actual analysis of Artaud and his late work. Ultimately, for readers less familiar with the visual arts and with Derrida’s approach to them (designated as “a poetico-performativity” (1989: 55)), perhaps there is something to be said for Mary Ann Caws’ prefatory observation to her translation of Derrida (1986). There, she notes, the text might be better read “like a musical score” as Artaud would say of his own writing and, as Derrida remarked about his selection of works from Artaud, he “won’t be describing any paintings” let alone their development. (1986: xii)
Thanks are particularly owed to musician and composer Elissa Goodrich for alerting me to issues raised by performance theory.
Artaud, Antonin. 1947. Van Gogh, the Man Suicided by Society. In Selected Writings. Edited by Susan Sontag; translated by Helen Weaver, 483-512. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.
Attridge, Derek. 1989. “‘This Strange Institution Called Literature’: An Interview with Jacques Derrida.” In Jacques Derrida, Acts of Literature. Edited by Derek Attridge; translated by Geoffrey Bennington & Rachel Bowlby, 33-75. New York & London: Routledge, 1992.
Derrida, Jacques. 1974. “Mallarmé.” In Acts of Literature. Edited by Derek Attridge; translated by Christine Roulston, 110-126. New York & London: Routledge, 1992.
————-1986. “To Unsense the Subjectile.” In Jacques Derrida & Paule Thévenin, The Secret Art of Antonin Artaud. Abridged translation by M.A. Caws, 61-157. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
————-1990. Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins. Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault & Michael Naas. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
————–1996. Artaud the Moma: Interjections of Appeal. Edited by K.M. Cabañas; translated by Peggy Kamuf. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.
Searle, J.R. 1983. “The Word Turned Upside Down.” The New York Review of Books 30(16): 74-79.
Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1945. Philosophical Investigations, 4th rev. edn. Edited by P.M.S. Hacker & Joachim Schulte; translated by G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker & Joachim Schulte. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
Wollheim, R.A. 1980. “The Institutional Theory of Art.” In Art and Its Objects: With Six Supplementary Essays, 2nd edn., 157-166. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
In this valuable, timely and in many respects, enlightening volume, Mireille Calle-Gruber gathers together a number of important documents: the transcripts of a discussion between Gadamer, Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe at a seminar in Heidelberg on Heidegger: Philosophical and Political Dimensions of his Thought; a series of questions to Gadamer, Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe, and their answers concerning Heidegger’s thinking, political affiliations and commitments; and a thought-provoking and altogether memorable appendix by Gadamer.
Gadamer’s response is, in some ways, not surprising, and striking. First of all, he chooses to speak in French (since the other two speakers, Lacoue-Labarthe and Derrida, are French, and visitors to Germany); he asserts that there is “no authentic conversation without dialogism, that is, without the basis of a common language” (6) – one might add: also without authentic hospitality. He brings no text; he sees the invitation to speak as “license permitted to an improvisation” (6). He insists on a familiar note: “there is no point in speaking about Heidegger if one is not familiar with the origins of Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics” (6-7). Indeed, he reminds us that this was the main reason why he had begun to read the works of Derrida. He explains that his interest lies not just in a “set of problems touching on Heidegger” but also in the question of “how, to some extent, it also determined us” (7).
He then turns to Derrida’s “concept” of deconstruction: “the term ‘deconstruction’ then, taught me immediately to recognize this connotation [destruktion as a ‘return to living speech’] that had never come to mind for us when we were listening to the young Heidegger speak of Destruktion. ‘Deconstruction’ wants, it seems to me, to underscore that it is a question not simply of destroying, but also of constructing something” (7). He hastens to add, however, quite unsurprisingly, that he is not “inhabited” (as Derrida “is”) “by the conviction that there is a total rupture of communication among men today” (8). He reminds the audience also that the hermeneutics at the basis of his reflection on communication is not as interested in “the hidden meanings of words and discourse” (8).
He argues that Derrida sees in Heidegger‘s interpretation of Nietzsche a “form of continuation, unintended and involuntary, of the tradition of metaphysics and even of logocentrism” – a “true provocation”, he calls it (8). In Gadamer’s view, Heidegger’s greatness lay in this: that he had taught Gadamer “that logocentrism was in a way the destiny of the West. That it was at the foundation of metaphysics…. That this logocentrism had constituted, for Heidegger himself, the true invitation to philosophy” (8). In a sense. Heidegger had begun to “comprehend” something “not comprehensible by means of the conceptuality or the metaphysics of the Greeks and of medieval or even modern thinkers” (8-9).
Gadamer then turns to the question of Heidegger’s “engagement in the National-Socialist movement” (9). He introduces a deeply personal, and troubling, note:
we were troubled by it from the moment when we began working with him, when we were his students. I was at Marburg and was a young colleague of Heidegger’s when he began to get involved in the Nazi movement in Freiburg. It is true and must be confessed, that for many of us this came as a surprise. Perhaps one will say: you were blind! Young people are blind, in a way, when they are guided by a master with great energy and force; so they give their attention only to what corresponds to their own interests and their own questions (9-10).
This insight brings him to the “crucial and absolutely inevitable problem,… the problem of German Nazism” (10). And he is insistent on this point: “it is clear that one cannot dissociate Heidegger’s philosophy from the fact of the extermination that took place” (10) – presumably because they had been troubled by Heidegger’s direct “involvement” in “the Nazi movement in Freiburg”. He does not note that the involvement was uncritical, of course, but his alarm could perhaps be explained by the very nature of that “involvement”. He insists also on the context: a period of liberalism, a bourgeois culture in decline, an age of artistic visions of the destruction of German culture, and so on. The young Heidegger had been “determined” by this kind of background, which extended to the critique of transcendental idealism, neo-Kantianism, “the critique on the part of Jewish thinkers and Catholic thinkers” during World War 1, and so on (11).
Nonetheless, he emphasises two problems
that have remained very troubling… throughout my life. The first has to do with the responsibility assumed by a man as excellent and paradigmatic as the thinker that Heidegger was in 1933… but also… there is the other fact, contradictory and disturbing: to wit, the same thinker, at the same moment—at a time when he supported, certainly not everything, not the anti-Semitism, not the racism, not the biologism of Nazism, but all the same some of its fundamental decisions—this thinker was writing texts that we still today can read as an anticipation of the coming reality. I am thinking in particular of “Die Zeit des Weltbildes,” of the description of the “forgetting of being,” as he called it, of the predominance of technics and of the consequences of the industrial revolution; in short, of everything that, as we know, began long ago but became evident only more recently, and is evident for young people to such a degree that this is perhaps today, in the eyes of the old man I am now, the most troubling fact there is: I mean, the pessimism of young people with regard to the possible future of humanity (11).
The question of responsibility is a profound one, given the context that Gadamer highlights; the question of Heidegger’s support for some of the “fundamental decisions” of Nazism is also a profound and troubling one, as are its connections with his writings concerning the “predominance of technics and of the consequences of the industrial revolution” (11), and the emerging pessimism “of young people with regard to the possible future of humanity” (11).
So the first “great ambiguity” in the case of Heidegger is the question of responsibility; the second one concerns the “ambiguity of his silence” (11). (“Heidegger never spoke of his error”, though Gadamer adds that “he did say once that it was ‘the greatest error of my life’”, in relation to his “engagement” with the Nazi Party). He intensifies the analysis considerably, in searing terms:
But that is superficial with regard to the serious affinities that exist between Heidegger’s philosophical position and certain tendencies of that movement. It is this question that has always preoccupied the Jewish friends I have met in America during my travels. They all say: the error of Heidegger, his participation in the movement, these are things that could be forgiven. But why did he never evoke that? Why did he refuse to speak of it? (11-12).
He explains how his attempt to explain “why Heidegger did not recognize any responsibility” in an article in Le Nouvel Observateur had been “very mutilated” (“but what can one expect, when a German writer engages in a Parisian debate”, 12). He critiques Farias’ book except “on one point”:
I am referring to the date of June 30, 1934, the Night of the Long Knives. It was there that my difference with Heidegger, I believe, revealed itself as fundamental. For both of us, this was a date with fatal consequences, but we did not understand this fatality in the same way. For Heidegger, it was the end of the revolution as he understood it: that is to say, a spiritual and philosophical revolution that ought to have brought with it a renewal of humanity in all of Europe. Whereas for me this stabilization of the Nazi revolution through the support of the army brought the irrevocable certainty that it would never be possible to be liberated from this regime without a catastrophe. This was, in my eyes, the prospect we were facing. And for me it is clear that it is mere hypocrisy to ask, why did you not rebel against it? When faced with weapons one does not counter them with preaching (12).
The bifurcation of their two paths is striking: for Heidegger, according to Gadamer, the Night of the Long Knives signalled the end of a revolution, in a “spiritual and philosophical sense”, that promised to bring in its wake, a renewal of all Europe; for Gadamer, it signalled a national “stabilization” which brought him the certainty that it would not be possible to be liberated from the “revolution”, except in catastrophic terms. It may be, as he argues, “that it is mere hypocrisy to ask, why did you not rebel against it?” But the question cannot be disengaged quite so readily: when one is faced with weapons, admittedly preaching may be futile, but it could be argued that critical thinking and questioning need not be abandoned entirely (notwithstanding the “determining” elements that Gadamer identifies incisively).
So, Gadamer concludes with some observations on that article in French, on a hermeneutical note that is long familiar from his writings, in which optimism and the possibility of authentic and meaningful communicative relations are affirmed, in the knowledge that the next speaker will be Derrida: he reaffirms his conviction that “communication can always take place, and that in my work there is not at all this insistence on the rupture that formed the destiny of human culture today” (13).
Derrida’s response is significantly longer than Gadamer’s, perhaps not surprisingly, though interestingly, he does not respond directly to Gadamer’s forceful claims about Heidegger. He begins with a startling claim: he professes to be happy, afraid, “very impressed” and “very intimidated” by “what is developing here”! (13) Derrida imagines Heidegger’s specter, or “something of his specter, predicting that this evening there will be no thinking [ça ne pensera pas]! And that is indeed what may happen” (13).
Perhaps. But it is evident that some thinking has already taken place, deep thinking or pondering, as Heidegger would have it, on the part of Gadamer. Derrida seems to mean that thinking may not take place in this challenging and less than ideal context: a short meeting, speaking briefly rather than reading (or writing) in detail, and so on. He clarifies his meaning:
an agreement in favour of improvisation: we are improvising, and we will continue to improvise. Why improvise in this case? Whereas everything, on the contrary—the gravity of the matter, the complexity of the problems, of the texts, of the political and historical situations, of the traps awaiting us at every moment—all this, precisely, would push us to weigh our words, to leave nothing to chance, to never improvise…. And I must say that personally, each time that I have attempted to speak of these questions—as I have done again recently—, I avoided improvisation as much as I possibly could. Not in order simply to defend or protect myself, but because the consequences of every phrase and sentence are so grave that all this deserves, precisely, to be removed from the element of improvisation (14).
He reasons that they are “improvising”, yet the complexity of the issues, the gravity of the situation, and so on, demand that they do not improvise. But it is not obvious that Gadamer had merely improvised; on the contrary, his talk seemed to come out of some deliberation, and over a sustained period of time, on the complexities and gravity of the situation – hardly without preparation. Yet Derrida insists on the point about improvisation. So, Derrida turns to Gadamer’s talk and to “a philosophical question… in what terms responsibility will be defined. Which category of responsibility ought to guide us, not only in the definition but in the taking of responsibilities?” (14)
On the one hand, Derrida insists on the improvisatory aspect, and on the other hand, speaks of Gadamer’s abundant attention to some of these things. Yet he raises an important question about the meaning of responsibility and the responsibilities that one has, for example, in relation to reading Heidegger carefully: since the publication of Farias’ text among others, “many of those who were not professional philosophers, or experts on Heidegger, if you will… have accused those who have been interested in Heidegger either of being uninformed regarding Heidegger’s Nazi engagement or, if they were informed… of not having transformed into a common problem, what they were aware of as professional philosophers” (14-15). The point about non-professional philosophers is fair enough. The “accusations” ought to be examined carefully and not merely in a purely improvisatory way which is after all, in a sense, an unphilosophical way of inquiry, as Derrida would have it.
Farias’ book has provoked emotions, Derrida claims; a provocation that compels “professional philosophers” to explain their own work on Heidegger, and in less than ideal circumstances, namely in terms of improvisation. Now, if Derrida is correct on this question, then the point is a strong one. Such issues, such “provocations”, largely on the part of non-professional philosophers, in a philosophical sense, demand not improvisation but pondering, deliberation, systematic and careful reflection, in short, all the things that improvisation makes impossible. He therefore introduces a complication, an aporia concerning improvisation, or in other words, the very mode of discourse and format of the exchange, as he sees it, that day, which makes him fearful: “improvising runs the risk of preventing us… from maintaining a certain refinement, a certain rhythm in the discussion that we are used to. In short, a certain style of discussion that is ours” (15). He seems to believe that such a mode, or format, runs a grave risk: it prevents the philosophers, who are also teachers, from maintaining a “certain style of discussion” which is inherently philosophical (though he does not name it here), which belongs to philosophy (and by implication, it seems, not to the style or mode which belongs presumably to those who are not professional philosophers).
A grave risk and a formidable but necessary one, then, according to Derrida, since philosopher-teachers in their philosophical mode (whatever that may be, but certainly involving complications and qualifications) are disarmed by the demands of the operative mode of discourse: disarmed in at least two senses, that is, deprived of a kind of power and disabled or weakened considerably. But he insists, “that no one here is in any way favorable, or wishes to be favorable, to what we always very cursorily call Nazism, totalitarianism, fascism” (16), or is to be suspected of wishing to defend them; no one wishes, he claims, to disculpate him [Heidegger] or render him innocent of every kind of fault in that respect (16).
So, though he feels disarmed, and though he fears the risks, he nonetheless feels that it is necessary to speak, and requests a “protocol of discussion”: that no one is to be suspected of defending the theses of Nazism, totalitarianism, fascism; that no one “claims to absolve Heidegger, to disculpate him or render him innocent” of fault in these respects. The point he makes here is an important one: he is characteristically going, not just to improvise, but to introduce a number of complications, and he wishes to maintain a distinction between complication as a philosophical (aporetic) mode and justification or evasion. He wishes to affirm the possibility of being vigilant “with regard to the discussions that develop on this subject… with regard to our discourse and our improvisations, in such a way that they would not contain or reproduce the gestures, the aggressions, the implications, the elements of scenography that recall the very thing against which we are allied” (16). He warns against modes that improvisation may valorise and promote: “every gesture that proceeds by conflation, precipitous totalization, short-circuited argumentation, simplification of statements, etc., is politically a very grave gesture that recalls…the very thing against which we are supposed to be working” (17).
He also warns, characteristically, against gestures which seem to attack totalitarianism yet unwittingly reproduce the very thing they attack; against attacks upon him for not denouncing “Heidegger’s Nazism”, even as he denounces this in his writings (“I speak of nothing else”, 18). He returns to the question of the significance “of the encounter this evening” (18). He asks why the “intense phase” of the debate took place in France, and reflects again on the sufficiency of the analyses in relation to the complexity of the “phenomenon” (18-19), on the over-determination, and points to a number of threads, even as he admits that they are insufficient. And he attacks the unreflective linking of France and Heideggerianism with good reason: he points out that such a linkage is both reductive and simplistic, for there is “not one single French Heideggerianism”, just as he insists on this point in order to detotalize the matter and insist on the differences and the ruptures that have marked the legacy of Heidegger (19).
He rightly insists on the amount of work that “remains to be done” (20), in relation to such complications, and complexities. He insists also on bringing the discussion back to
the political situation in France and in Europe. At a moment when the destiny of Europe, as one says, is taking a certain path, when a certain political discourse dominates the discourse on politics in Europe, in France, in Germany, and in many other Western democracies, we see a confrontation between, on the one hand, a resurgence of ideologies and comportments that are not unrelated to what one identifies very quickly as Nazism, fascism, totalitarianism; and, on the other hand, a social-democratic discourse whose values of reference are those of the rights of man, of democracy, of the liberty of the subject (21).
This is a “confrontation” between two discourses, one “not unrelated” to what may be identified, “very quickly” (again), with “Nazism, fascism, totalitarianism”, on the one hand, and a discourse that revolves around rights, democracy, liberty and the subject, on the other hand. One of the symptoms of this clash is anxiety or fear or distrust, not always informed, he argues, by a careful and reflective approach to reading the complex texts, but also “the compulsion to accuse very quickly, to judge, to simplify” – an “extremely grave” symptom (22) of an age in which nothing less, as he would have it, than the destiny of Europe and its path, are at stake. He also finds the accusations in Germany “unjust”: “so compulsive, so precipitous and globalizing” (22). Accordingly, he presents two “hypotheses”: first, “that for well-known historical reasons, the relation to Heidegger became so intolerable that, aside from a few exceptions, naturally, Heidegger has been little read in Germany since the war” (22). In France, he believes Heidegger was read with less of a bad conscience, for one bypassed a certain reading of Heidegger. He argues that “the reading of Heidegger in Germany was rather repressed since the war” (22).
The second hypothesis is that this “repression was bound to produce, in the form of a projection-expulsion, a desire to accuse, from the other side of the border, those who for their part had anything to do with Heidegger” (23). So, what the encounter “this evening” symbolizes “is the possibility, today, thanks to these provocations, of lifting the inhibitions on every side, and of not only reading Heidegger with the political vigilance required, but of reading him” (22-23).
Now, the first hypothesis is not supported by strong evidence, it has to be said, by Derrida. Of course, one can grant it as a hypothesis, but hypotheses without supporting evidence remain tenuous; they remain suppositions. The second hypothesis is that the “repression” of the reading of Heidegger’s works “since the war” in Germany, which has lead, amongst other things, to the “encounter” between the three thinkers at the conference nonetheless symbolically offers a possibility, namely that of lifting prohibitions (just how is not explained by Derrida) and that of actually reading Heidegger “with the political vigilance required”. It has to be said though, notwithstanding Derrida’s justifiable insistence of reading Heidegger carefully, vigilantly, responsibly and within a political context of human rights, liberties and the subject very much to the fore, the second hypothesis concerning a “projection-expulsion” is no less tenuous than the first. Of course, it may be true, but it is impossible to tell for sure from this contribution.
He closes on three important points at least: first, he reminds the audience of what interests him, in particular, about Heidegger’s thinking, namely “what, in Heidegger, on the one hand, made it possible to question the traditional categories of responsibility, of the subject, for example, of right [du droit], and what let itself nonetheless, up to a certain point, be limited by this questioning—and even, perhaps, by the form of the question” (23). Second, he argues that “deconstruction” is not an “abdication of responsibility”, even when it “places in question this axiomatic of subjectivity or of responsibility, or when it places in question certain axioms of Heidegger’s discourse” – he insists that it is, at least in his view, the “most difficult responsibility that I can take. And to trust in traditional categories of responsibility seems to me today to be, precisely, irresponsible” (24). Finally, he points, characteristically, to an aporia, and therefore to the importance of vigilance: “complicities between a discourse that is, let’s say, humanist and democratic but that has not reelaborated in a critical fashion its own categories, and that which it is meant to oppose” (24-25).
Lacoue-Labarthe speaks briefly (perhaps because Derrida spoke for too long!), but he makes a number of critical points, clearly, forcefully and concisely: he notes, firstly, that he belongs, unlike Derrida, to “the generation of 1940”, and so, sees the question differently:
This is still a family affair because, in the discourse, the language, the statements that suffused my childhood and my adolescence, in high school and in my surroundings, I heard pass a countless number of anti-Semitic phrases pronounced by schoolmates and friends, by adults, who were not particularly extreme right wing, but for whom this language was more or less natural (26).
In an important sense, he tackles the question of French antisemitism directly, and without protestation or equivocation: the “language” and “discourse” of antisemitism and the extent to which it had become “natural” for a whole generation. Or more. He reminds the audience of the importance of such questions: “when one touches on these problems, this is a question that one should never forget to ask oneself. What would I have done, given that it was only afterward that I gradually discovered all this?” (27). It is notable that he wishes to note the importance of this question without aporiai, without hesitation, just as it is notable that he emphasised the practical response, not the merely theoretical one: there is something that needed to be done, or that should have been done. He warns, with remarkable and clear insight, against an attack that is “emerging”, that Farias’ book, or its conclusions, “will help to authorize, to legitimize” (28): he refers to a “kind of liberal philosophy, social-democratic, if you like, founded on what one of the two journalists I mentioned a moment ago calls a ‘juridical humanism’” (28), and notes the role played by Stalinists and ultra-Stalinists: “it is the same people who, in order to construct that humanism, are in the process of finding authorization in Farias’s denunciation” (28). He insists on this point: there is in this an undeniably political scene being played out. And I believe that this must not be passed over in silence (28).
It is a remarkable and striking contribution, and all the more so because it follows, and marks a stark contrast to, Derrida’s speech: it is spare, measured, stark and direct, and it does not shy away from the central question, the ethical, responsible, vigilant and unflinching critical analysis of Nazism and Heidegger’s complicity with aspects of the ideology, not just in his complex philosophical works, which demand extended attention, to be sure, but in his writing and thinking more generally in that context (his letters, notebooks, lectures, and his opinions expressed to friends and colleagues, and so on and so forth): it is, he notes, “perhaps only today that we are capable of beginning an attempt at an analysis of Nazism, of the fascisms; because it is in effect the first time that, on the one hand, we are at bottom rid of the communist . . . obstacle, let’s call it” (29).
He insists like Derrida on the importance of reading Heidegger thoughtfully and responsibly, but does not shy away from the context for such a reading, as many have noted, in particular Jaspers, Gadamer and Habermas, among many others, namely, the reality of Nazism in Heidegger’s thinking, even if one grants that Heidegger’s Nazism was not pure and unquestioning:
it is the reading of Heidegger that, I believe—provided that one carry it out in a certain way, of course—can give access to a certain reality of Nazism. An access that the univocal moral and political accusation—which of course I share; but in fact when one tries to carry out philosophical work one cannot after all limit oneself to that—has continued to mask (29).
He anchors his analysis not in aporetic complications, or extended problematizations, but in an attitude, which needless to say, attaches quite readily to the practical, namely, distrust of certain ideologies:
From the moment when one began to distrust the use of the word “fascist,” from the moment when there was a questioning of what is called leftist totalitarianism, from that moment, perhaps, it is possible for real work to begin. And that is the reason why—this is one of my grievances against Farias’s book—the simplification that consists in presenting Heidegger as entirely Nazi seems to me extremely unfortunate in this story: because perhaps it will be necessary, for a certain time still, to fight about this presentation, in order to try to make it understood that, in Heidegger, one of the secrets of Nazism has remained unperceived up to now (29).
It is not self-evident, or demonstrative, it has to be said, that this moment, and only this moment, signals the possibility of the commencement of “real [philosophico-critical] work”. The moment, so to speak, when Heidegger’s commitment to the spirit, if not the letter, of Nazism becomes apparent, is an important moment in relation to the commencement of this critical project; those moments, so to speak, when there was an understanding, a dawning awareness, on which “questioning of what is called leftist totalitarianism” could be based, also make it possible for real work to begin.
What follows however in the volume is a (valuable) series of questions to the speakers, with their answers, and questions from the audience, also with answers, along with an appendix by Gadamer. He notes the crucial differences between the reception of Farias’ book in France and in Germany. He expresses surprise over the “uproar” that Farias’ book has generated in France, since “almost all” of what Farias reveals “has long been known” in “German speaking countries” – and wonders, “could it be that so little is known there about the Third Reich? Heidegger’s followers, believing they were defending him, no doubt contributed to the affair by continually repeating the refrain of his ‘rupture’ with Nazism at the end of a year of disappointing experiences as the rector of Freiburg” (79).
He notes that in Germany, “no one is able to feign surprise in discovering that Heidegger did not leave the Nazi Party” (79); and he highlights the reaction of the younger generation in Germany, and their questioning: they find it “difficult to imagine the reality of that time: the conformism, the pressure, the ideological indoctrination, the sanctions. . . . Many of them ask, ‘Why did none of you cry out?’” (79). He answers, by affirming the underestimation of “the natural human inclination toward conformism, which is always ready to be taken in by any type of deception”, typified in particular, by the question, “Does the Führer know about this?” (79).
The historical context is critical, and Gadamer underscores it, in a way that, in a sense, seems intended to carry the reader well beyond aporetic questions and beyond astonishment or perplexity. He insists that the strategy of explaining (away) Heidegger’s political errors by claiming that they “have nothing to do with his philosophy” is insulting; for after fifty years of reflection on “the reasons that disturbed us and separated us from Heidegger for many years” “we” cannot be astonished to hear that Heidegger had “‘believed’ in Hitler” (80).
It is important to note the register here, to note that Gadamer chose to write like this, in the appendix, which is in an important sense the last word in the volume. It is quite breathtaking- there is no obfuscation, confusion, equivocation, hesitation or evasion:
Heidegger was not a mere opportunist. His political engagement clearly did not have much to do with political reality. The dream of a “people’s religion” encompassed, in fact, his profound disillusionment at the course of events. But he secretly safeguarded this dream. This is the dream he believed he was pursuing during the years 1933–34, convinced that he was rigorously fulfilling his philosophical mission by attempting to revolutionize the university. It was to this end that he did everything that outraged us. For him it was a question of breaking the political influence of the church and the inertia of the academic mandarins. He even gave Ernst Jünger’s vision of “The Worker” a place alongside his own ideas on overcoming the tradition of metaphysics on the basis of being. Later, as is well known, he went so far as to speak of the end of philosophy. That was his revolution (80-81).
He then tackles, without obfuscation, confusion, equivocation, hesitation or evasion, the question of Heidegger’s responsibility:
Did he then feel no responsibility for the terrible consequences of Hitler’s seizure of power, the new barbarism, the Nuremberg laws, the terror, the blood spilled—and, finally, the indelible shame of the extermination camps? [The answer is a rigorous “no.” For that was the perverted revolution and not the great renewal arising from the spiritual and moral [sittlich] strength of the people, which he dreamed of and longed for as the preparation of a new religion of humanity.] (81)
Such writing demands thinking and reflection, and deliberation, of course, but to put it bluntly, after some fairly long-winded exchanges in the volume, it is bold and striking, like his pronouncements on Farias’ book (“very superficial”, “grotesque” in some senses, “overflows with ignorance”, and so on):
What was considered the world over as a radical step forward in thought, his confrontation [Auseinandersetzung] with the Greeks, with Hegel, and finally with Nietzsche, had all this suddenly become false? Or have we long since finished with all that? Or perhaps what we are being asked to do is definitively to renounce thinking. Watching anxiously from afar as Heidegger thus strayed into the cultural politics of the Reich, we sometimes thought of what happened to Plato at Syracuse. One of his Freiburg friends, seeing him in the tram after his departure from the rectorship, asked him, “Back from Syracuse?” (81)
He ends with a reminder, like Derrida and Lacoue-Labarthe, perhaps intentionally, about the “requirements of thinking”, but in a different key:
The requirements of thinking are not so easily eluded. Even those who were disturbed at the time by Heidegger’s political adventure and distanced themselves from him for many years would never have dared to deny the philosophical impetus with which he had not ceased to inspire them from the beginning. [Just as Heidegger in the 1920s did not create blind followers for himself, likewise one must find one’s own paths of thought, now more than ever.]
[Whoever believes that today one need no longer be concerned with Martin Heidegger has not taken the measure of how difficult it will always be for us to debate with him, instead of making oneself ridiculous by looking down on him with an air of superiority.] (82)
So, he reminds us, pointedly, in the closing paragraphs in the volume, of the (above all, philosophical) importance of finding not so much an aporia, but a euporia (a way for thinking, which is not mere questioning – that is, a “path” of one’s own), “now more than ever”; he reminds us of the, above all, philosophical importance of engaging critically without evading responsibility (for example, for naming the thing by its true name, “the reality of Nazism” in Heidegger’s thinking, without obfuscation, confusion, equivocation, hesitation and/or evasion).
If Derrida presents hypotheses which remain unjustified, tenuous or questionable, if he (somewhat ironically, it has to be said!) spends a considerable amount of time given to him improvising on improvisation, as well as on the short amount of time given to them (though his speech is the longest, by far!) and on aporetic considerations and performative problematizations, which are not always convincing, and if Lacoue-Labarthe is not entirely convincing on the question of just which “moment”, if any, is entirely suitable for the genesis of “real work” on this problem, Gadamer closes with a sobering, largely lucid and startlingly concise meditation on conformism, ideological indoctrination and resistance, complicity and “rupture”, and the authentic and difficult, but always necessary task of thinking.