Derrida and the Legacy of Psychoanalysis is an ambitious book written by Paul Earlie that aims at measuring Derrida’s contribution to contemporary critical thought by exploring his encounter with Freud. Earlie does not only offer a systematic, in-depth account of Derrida’s understanding of Freud’s legacy by a close reading of often overlooked or marginal texts. He also attempts to confront Derrida with contemporary philosophical problems through his writings on psychoanalysis. The book is a welcome addition to Derrida studies. It challenges a still prevailing “textualist” reading of Derrida’s works and examines in fine details Derrida’s relationship with Freud. Earlie offers a quite comprehensive exploration of several psychoanalytic concepts found in Derrida’s oeuvre.
The relationship between psychoanalysis and deconstruction is described according to an aporetic sense of inheritance that will be at the centre of Paul Earlie’s analyses until the very conclusions of his book. By reactivating the critical message of Derrida’s philosophical style through his confrontation with psychoanalysis, Earlie reconstructs many classical arguments that characterize Derrida’s thinking. As he shows, investigating Derrida’s encounter with psychoanalysis essentially means responding to a whole series of general questions like: What does it mean to interpret Freud’s psychoanalytic theory? How does psychoanalysis survive to its founder? Who is behind the “proper name” “Freud”? In what sense can we affirm the existence of a Freudian legacy? Or, more importantly, can there be a legacy at all?
Already in the title, it is possible to appreciate the fil rouge that connects all the chapters. The etymological meaning of the word “legacy” finds its place in the polysemic variety of the Greek-Roman culture. At a closer examination, a complex historico-cultural background constitutes its horizon of interpretation. Legō, from Latin, has many senses: gathering together, to collect, but also, to extract, to choose, to entrust, to read. These are some of its main usages. The expression “legacy of psychoanalysis” could be translated by replacing some of the Latin meanings of legō. However, arguably, gathering together several items to form a set is the very opposite of extracting from a set. Apparently, it seems that legō hides a contradictory logic of inclusion-exclusion. It potentially means both collecting and extracting. Could it be possible to think about a collection of thinkers gathered together around the proper name “Freud” and, at the very same time, through a selective enumeration, restricting the set to very few trustworthy authors? It should be possible only at cost of a decisive criterion grounded on Freud’s textual truth or, better, on the original source of his thought. However, as it is widely known, since the beginning of his confrontation with phenomenological themes, Derrida has always been critical to the notion of simple, pure, transparent origin favoUring and developing the consequences of his logic of contamination — as he writes in the preface to his Le problème de la genèse dans la philosophie de Husserl. Derrida often shows his resistance to any interpretative closure, as is witnessed by the studies on Mallarmé, Artaud, Nietzsche, just to name a few. Freud is no exception and Earlie shows us why.
Rightly at the beginning of his book, Earlie claims that Derrida reinterprets the problem of Freud’s legacy into the general question of inheritance. This strategy mirrors Derrida’s classical myse en abyme. Indeed, in the same vein, Earlie’s book follows a similar strategy. As he defines it, the book tackles the “double bind of inheriting Derrida inheriting Freud”. Although comprehensible to a broad philosophical audience, to be fully appreciated an understanding of Derridean philosophical path and his main notions is warmly recommended. Without claiming to exhaust the rich variety of analyses presented in the text, I will limit myself to pointing out a few key passages.
The first chapter is dedicated to the problematic reception of Freud in France. The central thesis of this chapter is that Derrida has never attempted to appropriate Freud’s legacy as much as he has tried to “show how this legacy survives by means of its structural inappropriability”. In order to justify his claim, Earlie discusses the meaning of Freud’s legacy through specific conceptual tropes found in Derrida’s many essays and conferences. These introductory analyses run through the concepts of “aporia”, “myth”, and “proper name” that, de facto, constitute the essential margins of this book.
Earlie exemplifies the problem of Freud’s legacy by referring to the ambiguous judgment of Lévi-Strauss on psychoanalysis. While Lévi-Strauss sometimes praises Freud’s psychoanalytic discoveries recognizing a “formative influence” on his speculation, as in Tristes tropiques, sometimes he does not, as in La Potière jalouse. As Earlie shows, in this text Lévi-Strauss does not only denounce the absence of Freud’s influence on his structural anthropology, he even calls into question its originality. However, instead of discussing what is the debt of anthropology to psychoanalysis, Earlie aims at demonstrating that, actually, Lévi-Strauss’s relationship to Freud remains caught into the aporetic logic of debt, best expressed through the Freudian figure of “kettle logic”. The “kettle logic” is a Freudian trope that essentially refers to the internal logic of dreams and it describes a rhetorical expedient consisting of the use of contradictory arguments to defende a unique thesis. Earlie claims that, for Derrida, the logic of debt actually reminds us of the Freudian notion of kettle logic, since repudiating or assuming a debt always results in opposing statements. One of the clearest examples is found by Earlie in Derrida’s reading of Plato’s indebtedness with the concept of writing as pharmakon.
Earlie illustrates what he calls the argumentative strategy of the “fort-da” also with Lacan’s relationship to Freud. Instead of denouncing the absence of Freud, like Lévi-Strauss, Lacan leads a firm and allegedly transparent appropriation of Freud’s textual truth. For Earlie, this logic of fort-da consists of renouncing and assuming, including and excluding. This general strategy is for Earlie “an insistent feature in the inheritance of Freud’s legacy”. The first chapter is essentially a demonstration of this thesis. Other seminal figures populating the French freudisme, like Laplanche and Pontatis, Abraham and Torkok are passed in review, including important critics and detractors of Freud’s psychoanalysis, like Onfray and Sulloway. A special attention is dedicated to other influential authors like Foucault and Sartre.
Through these authors, Earlie explores the idiomatic appropriation of Freud’s psychoanalytic themes. The aporetic logic behind any kind of inheritance or legacy results in depicting, each time, a different, contradictory image of “Freud”. For him, Derrida’s method of reading Freud’s legacy leads to reaffirm and relaunch the impossible appropriation of his textual truth. Derrida “resist[s] the temptation to mythologize” by limiting the negative, sclerotic effect of a hermeneutic dispositive of appropriation, or interpretative closure. In this sense, Earlie aims at showing the difference, for Derrida, between “Freud’s open-ended textual legacy” and freudisme. Broadly, he shows that no “intellectual lineage” can oppose the resistance of Freud’s textual corpus to BY being reduced to a single interpretation, since any appropriation is only the result of a hermeneutic decision. In this regard, for Earlie, Derrida preserves an important ethical responsibility, even if only in critically restating the difference between Freud and freudisme.
In the second chapter, Earlie focuses on Derrida’s understanding of “psychical spacings”, investigating the relationship between space and psyche in some of his most important works. By turning towards his writings on phenomenology, in particular to La voix et le phenomene and Le toucher, Jean Luc Nancy, Earlie sets the stage for discussing the role of Derrida’s encounter with some of Freud’s main psychoanalytic concepts, reflecting on the importance of the issues of spatiality, surface, and touch in his philosophy. In a sense, Earlie attempts to show that Derrida uses the category of space for deconstructing the classical metaphysical notion of subjectivity. In particular, I am referring here to the idea of pure, immediate self-identity and the idea of psyche as a kind of internal space as opposed to an external world. In other words, this chapter is dedicated to deciphering Derrida’s classical thesis concerning the characterization of classical metaphysics as phono-logo-centrism.
In the chapter, Earlie confronts Derrida’s notion of spacing as it is presented in La Voix with that found in Le Toucher. He notes that while in the first book spacing describes the condition of possibility of temporalization as spatial inscription of a trace, in the latter, Derrida is more interested in spacing in relation to spatiality and self-touching. The theme of spatiality is introduced by a close reading of the fifth chapter of La Voix. Earlie discusses Derrida’s strategic interpretation of the Husserlian analyses on the temporal flow of the Living Present. In this chapter, Derrida is steadfast to show the relationship between time and auto-affection in Husserlian phenomenology. In Le Toucher, instead, Derrida directly tackles the problem of auto-affection in relation to self-touching, no longer focusing on the temporalization of the flow of the Living Present. Earlie illustrates how, for Derrida, self-touching or the chiasmatic, double apprehension of the touching-touched, describes the phenomenon of auto-hetero-affection, the contamination of sameness and otherness.
In both cases, spacing represents the condition of (im)possibility of the subject, since it describes, on one side, the subject as an “effect” of temporal deferral and spatial inscription, and, on the other side, the impossibility of a pure, immediate auto-affection. Through these analyses, Earlie finally discusses the role of the Freudian concept of Nachtraglichkeit (afterwardness) and his interpretation of the psyche as topographical space, as it is expressed by the famous sentence Psyche ist ausgedehnt, weiss nichts davon (Psyche is extended, knows nothing about it). In this sense, Earlie shows how Freud’s conception of the psyche has been reworked by Derrida for deconstructing the classical metaphysical idea of subjectivity attributed to Plato and Descartes.
Freud et la scene de l’écriture constitutes the other fundamental text explored by Earlie in the second chapter. For him, this text is an exemplary work for discussing Derrida’s analyses on the “space of unconscious”. Earlie finds this text quite interesting since it presents a critic of any interpretation of memory as “localizable anatomical space”. According to him, by speculating on Freud’s histology of the psyche and his critiques to the empirical account of memory and perception, Derrida challenges any materialist account of memory since, as he writes, memory finds its space only “in the difference between one inscription and another.” By comparing Freud’s persistence in representing the psyche through physical writing – for instance, in The Interpretation of Dreams – in relation to Husserl’s characterization of psyche as “spoken word, e.g., interior monologue, Earlie signals the “sympathy between psychoanalytic regression and écriture”. He shows again that Derrida reworks the Freudian notion of unconsciousness as a process of spacing that challenges the idea of self-identity accompanied by a “linear structure of verbal discourse”.
This chapter also constitutes a defence of the recent materialistic interpretation of Derrida’s deconstruction. In particular, Earlie is critical of Catherine Malabou’s interpretation of the relationship between psychoanalysis and deconstruction, and between deconstruction and neuroscience. He criticizes the opposition between “material space of neuroscience and intangible spacing” claiming that for Derrida “it is never simply a question of choosing one over the other”. Earlie’s reconstruction demonstrates that Derrida has never considered spacing in a materialistic or idealistic sense and his approach cannot be a positive one and cannot be confused with the contemporary neuroscientific approaches to psychoanalysis.
Science and Fiction
The third chapter is dedicated to showing the relevance of Derrida’s writings on psychoanalysis to understand for understanding his position in relation to science and the scientific method. In this respect, Earlie complements Derrida’s reflections on epistemology in his famous introduction to Husserl’s supplement to Crisis, The Origin of Geometry. Earlie’s objective is to defend Derrida from recent readings of deconstruction such as poststructuralism. Instead of reducing Derrida to just a figure of the philosophy of language, Earlie wants to demonstrate the significance of his reflections for any scientific discourse, even defending Freud from some current neuropsychoanalitic trends of research that aim at freeing psychoanalysis from fictive or speculative elements.
Spéculer–sur ‘Freud’, Mes Chance, Télepathie, and Foi et savoir constitute the main texts of this chapter in which Earlie reconstructs Derrida’s discussion upon the scientific “credentials” of Freud’s psychoanalysis. As he shows, it is the very definition of psychoanalysis as A “border-discipline” that allows Derrida to characterize Freud’s recourse to the scientific method as always contaminated by irreducible elements of fiction. By discussing the influence of Comte’s notion of positive science on Freud’s scientific method, Earlie already presents a general Derridean thesis. Positive science cannot eliminate its ties to theoretical conjecture, speculation, or fiction, otherwise, it would be mere positivism. The scientific discourse remains irreducibly permeable to other fields of knowledge that, de facto, participate in the definition of its margins. Science can only proceed by trial and error and it is always exposed to the risk of failure. In a long passage, he summarizes as follows:
“While it is always possible to speculate on what new evidence may become available, it is structurally impossible for future data to be entirely foreseen or predicted. Every context, and thus every description of context, is always already punctured by an unconditional exposure towards the to-come, the alterity, or difference of an à-venir which may come to displace all previous hypotheses.”
As Earlie shows in Grammatologie, an account of science solely grounded on immediate empirical observation is impossible for Derrida. This is exemplified in Derrida’s account of structuralist linguistics. How can writing can be the object of science if writing, as already shown already in the Introduction to The Origin of Geometry, is the very condition of ““all scientific inquiry and of the épistémè more generally” ? Is not this a vicious theoretical diallele? By passing in review Spéculer–sur ‘Freud’, Glas, and La Carte Postale, Earlie presents interesting elements for reconstructing Derrida’s understanding of scientific method. He reconstructs the tensions between psychoanalysis and phenomenology and exposes Derrida’s reading of Freud’s “speculation” in relation to that of Hegel. Earlie shows how Derrida opposes Freud to Husserl and Freud to Hegel. While Husserl intends the telos of scientific progress as an infinite task grounded on the Living Present, Freud conceives science as “limping” on risky unknown paths that can be completely replaced. Whereas Hegel’s speculation absorbs for his own profit and consists of “a positive reappropriation of the negative” (Aufhebung), Freud’s speculation is always at risk of failing and the Freudian concept par exellence, the unconscious, is all but the name of a positive principle.
However, for Earlie, Derrida’s interest in Freud’s “speculative procedure” derives from the recourse of the latter to fictive arguments not supported by positive evidence but still, defended against any accusation of metaphysics, paradigmatically in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. At the core of Freud’s speculative procedure, Earlie exposes Derrida’s interpretation of a classical Freudian scene, “the child’s game of fort-da”. This scene is of paramount importance in the economy of Freud’s psychoanalysis since it is used to describe the child’s initial mastery of identity. In relation to Spéculer, Earlie mainly intends to show two things: a) that Derrida reads this scene, again, to critique the idea of classical subjectivity; b) that Derrida uses this scene to show a type of incompleteness affecting any scientific discourse.
a) Earlie reflects upon what seems to be Derrida’s main interest for this game: the child’s “double movement of distancing and return” from the object. For him, Derrida interprets the game as an example of spacing. In his reading, Earlie remarks that for Derrida this figure of spacing cannot be accomplished without” either the boy’s playthings or – and this is another version of the game – his verbal discourse. Distancing and return describe the prosthetic condition of the subject to the “external world”, the “self affecting itself through technical re-presentation”. In other words, Earlie claims that, for Derrida, the child’s fort-da is possible only by means of an “originary technicity” represented, in this case, by an object or by the child’s voice. This “originary technicity” has many names in Derrida’s vocabulary, for instance, it is all called “archi-writing” in La Voix and Grammatologie.
b) Another important point signaled by Earlie is that, for Derrida, the problem with this game does not only concern the variety of its possible interpretations but the very description depicting a number of different versions. As Derrida shows in Spéculer, on a closer examination, the game’s description depends on either fictive elements or Freud’s autobiographical details. Derrida is interested in the fact that Freud diverges from the frames of scientific positivism by exploiting the resources of fictive speculation. For these reasons, the value of fiction is, according to Earlie, the very reason for Derrida’s interest in Freud’s work: “Freud’s more speculative writings emphasize the fragility of psychoanalysis’s scientific foundations, a fragility he paradoxically concludes only strengthens psychoanalysis’s scientific credentials.”
In the fourth chapter, Earlie takes the occasion to introduce Derrida’s Mal d’Archive (1995) by reflecting on the recent digitized version of the Library of Congress’s “Sigmund Freud Collection”. In this chapter, Earlie’s deflationist reading of Mal d’Archive is intended to show the structural limitations of the archive’s technicity implied in Derrida’s aporetic speculation. In particular, Earlie aims at showing the archive’s double bind, namely “the possibility both of preserving the trace and the simultaneous exposure of this trace to forgetfulness, finitude, or destruction.” In his exposure, Earlie shows the role of Freud’s notion of repression and his topographical image of memory in Derrida’s text.
According to Earlie, Mal d’Archive continues to offer a twofold lesson to archive studies. First, it shows a way to think about the role of the archive that is at odds with, on one side, the proponents of a “neoliberalization of the university”, and on the other side, those who critique a supposed “dishumanization of the liberal studies”. In other words, Earlie intends to show that Derrida does not take the part of one of these two sides, since he for him any techné can be read through the aporetic logic of Plato’s pharmakon. It is both enabling and threatening, and it is erroneous to stigmatize or praise any archive fever. Second, it enlightens the hidden relationship between the archive and affectivity. Earlie focuses on Derrida’s reflections on our desire for archiving and archive, and on the general problem of any calculable science of the archive.
In Mal d’Archive, Derrida ironically observes that the Greek origin of the term “archive” is forgotten by most who use this word nowadays. In this sense, Earlie starts reflecting on the word archive as the very “archive of a structural forgetting”. Yet, the archive stands as an external, often distributed space of memory. Indeed, the most interesting aspect Earlie signals of Derrida’s reflections on the archive is its relevance to the understanding of “psyche’s relationship to more recent techno-scientific developments.” More than ever, our contemporary interaction with technology is characterized by an increasing dependency. The archive stands as an example of the outside on which memory depends. Just think about the role that search engines have today. For Earlie, Derrida uses the archive to discuss the prosthetic account of psychical memory connected to his general thesis of the originary technicity as condition of (im)possibility of subjectivity.
Earlie’s reading of Genèse, généalogies, genres et le génie: Les secrets de l’archive (2003) and Papier machine is centered instead on the paradox of consignation. In these texts, he explores Derrida’s analysis on the possibility of archiving. The argument goes as follows: archiving practices are hampered by the undecidability of the cataloging process and by the work of indexing. The limitations of consignations consist in the impossibility for the archivist to frame once and forever the complexity of a text. The aporia of archiving rests on the resistance to the categorization of the secret of the text. In this context, Earlie shows that the secret, for Derrida, is a non-synonymous substitution for dissemination. Dissemination describes the generative possibilities resulting from semic drifting constituting any semantic corpus, that exceeds any calculable economy of the text.
The final part of this chapter is related to the relationship between the archive and affectivity. Earlie turns again to “Freud et la scène de l’écriture”. In this text, he indicates the general relationship between the thinking of the trace and passions, the relationship between the subject and death. Expressions like “mal d’archive” and “pulsion d’archive” witness the affective side of Derrida’s thought of the archive. The chapter ends with a discussion on the meaning of our desire for the archive as “anxiety in the face of its destruction.”
Affectivity and Politics
The last chapter is dedicated to measuring the influence of Freud on Derrida’s reflections on affectivity and its relation to political themes. Derrida’s initial hesitation for political speculation is explained by the fact that, for him, political philosophemes are often obscure and heavily loaded with metaphysical conceptuality. In this chapter, Earlie attempts to show that Derrida’s reflections on the political are grounded on the aporia of affectivity. Against the prejudicial judgment of a dismissive treatment of emotions and affective experience, Earlie argues that a text like Passions depicts the image of Derrida fully interested in affectivity. For Earlie, Derrida deconstructs the classical concept according to which passions indicate external forces that drive passive subjects. He shows that Derrida’s reading of Freudian narcissism is an example of his aporetic account of passion. For Derrida, narcissistic auto-affection is countered by an irreducible inappropriability, the “non-self-belonging of technicity”, namely, the fact that writing exceeds subjectivity by constituting it, and trace is not the name of a circular movement of appropriation. In this sense, narcissism is (im)possible, caught in a mutual relation between sameness and otherness. The example of narcissism shows the double bind of affectivity in general. Broadly, for Earlie, if Derrida’s conception of affectivity is “always interwoven with […] possible-impossible auto-affection” then the political is (im)possible for it is grounded on the (non)coincidence of the auto-(hetero)-affection.
In this sense, for Earlie, Derrida articulates the political from the impossibility of pure auto-affection. The aporia of affectivity results in the consequent aporia of the political as “the anxiety-inducing exposure of […] bonds to incalculable otherness (à venir)”. Through a comment of La Carte postale, Earlie presents a convincing account of Derrida’s theory of anxiety that is the result of his reading of Freud’s Beyond the pleasure principle. According to this reading, anxiety is generated by the doubleness of binding, the “process in which a calculating desire for the object is accompanied by anxiety faced with is incalculable loss”. Anxiety is a condition that belongs to auto-hetero-affection since the self is constituted by what threatens him. This double bind of affectivity also explains the (im)possibility of bonds of friendship.
For Earlie, affectivity described in Derrida’s philosophy as the “structural non-coincidence which both constitutes and impedes, […] any stable bond between ‘self’ and ‘other’”. In this sense, it is easy to see why Derrida contrasts any account of the political grounded on supposedly natural or immediate bonds ultimately affective. In this chapter, Earlie demonstrates that Derrida’s writings on psychoanalysis are fundamental for understanding the role of auto-hetero-affection as the condition of (im)possibility of any politics. In a sense, for Earlie, Derrida develops the extremes consequences of Freudian thought by showing both the aporetic relation between the self and the other and the contradictions hidden in affectivity. Earlie notes that Derrida reworks the Freudian concepts of binding (Bindung) to describe the irreducible affective tensions underneath the social bonds that unmask the fictive illusion of a peaceful civilization.
In the final part of the chapter, Earlie focuses on the later Derrida works centred around autoimmunity (auto-immunité). He illustrates how this concept has been developed by Derrida in La Carte postale through a reading of Freud’s vesicle allegory, the fictive image describing the sensory reception: “Freud’s fictive vesicle protects itself against external dangers by deadening its outer layer (or ‘shield’) and allowing small, immunizing ‘doses’ of dangerous excitation to filter through its semi-porous membrane”. This allegory does not only show the autoimmunitarian logic at work in the fictive vesicle. For Earlie, this also describes the continuity between auto-affection and auto-immunity. The auto-affection is ultimately auto-hetero-affection, since the subject experiences what is other than itself by affecting itself, as it is shown in the self-touching. Auto-immunity follows from the constitution of the self in the spacing of the self from its other. The danger of the other that it is already hidden in the experience of the self, is then a consequence of auto-hetero-affection. The subject and the vesicle are constituted only by means of a technicity that it is their condition of (im)possibility. In the first case, it is the trace or writing or supplementarity, in the second case, it is the deadening of the vesicle’s outer layer.
Earlie finally addresses the presence of Freudian themes in the Auto-immunités, suicides réels et symboliques and in Voyous, especially in relation to Derrida’s understanding of trauma and technology. By focusing on Derrida’s analysis concerning “September 11th”, Earlie comments on the originality of Derrida’s account of trauma. Derrida does not understand trauma according to the classical mechanical concept, a state of anxiety that is grounded on the recurring reappearance of calculable intensity of a past event. Rather, he shows that “September 11th” essentially exemplifies for Derrida a trauma that rests on the incalculable danger of an event-to-come that fuels the state of anxiety. The chapter ends with a discussion on the role of the technologies of communication in determining the affective impact of terrorism. Earlie focuses on Derrida’s reflections on television in Échographies de la télévision. The repetition of live footage of the towers’ collapse is compared with the “compulsive repetition” aimed more to guarding against the unpredictable future of potential violence rather than to mastering the traumatic, past experience.
Derrida, Jacques & Bernard Stiegler. 1996. Echographies de la télévision. Paris: Galilée, lnstitut national de l’audiovisuel.
Derrida, Jacques. 1967. De la grammatologie. Paris: Seuil.
Derrida, Jacques. 1967. La Voix et le phénomène, introduction au problème du signe dans la phénoménologie de Husserl. Paris: Presses universitaires de France.
Derrida, Jacques. 1980. La Carte postale. De Socrates à Freud et au-delà. Paris: Flammarion.
Derrida, Jacques. 1990. La probleme de la genese dans la philosophie de Husserl. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.
Derrida, Jacques. 1995. Mat d’archive: une impression freudienne. Paris: Galilée.
Derrida, Jacques. 2000. Le Toucher, Jean-Luc Nancy. Paris: Galilée.
Derrida, Jacques. 2003. “Autoimmunités, suicides réels et symboliques.” In Giovanna Borradori, ed., Le “concept” du 11 septembre, Dialogues à New York, 133-96. Paris: Galilée.
Earlie, Paul. 2021. Derrida and the Legacy of Psychoanalysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Freud, Sigmund. 1964. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Edited by J. Strachey. Macmillan.
Malabou, Catherine. 2007. Les nouveaux blessés. De Freud à ta neurologie, penser les traumatismes contemporains. Paris: Bayard.
Michael Naas’ 2019 book, Derrida à Montréal: Une pièce en trois actes, is an interesting reconstruction of the three lectures Jacques Derrida gave in Montreal between 1970 and 1997. We also learn of a fourth ‘unofficial’ lecture which is presented as an appendix to the ‘official’ narrative of the three main events. Naas reconstructs the three episodes by placing them within a consistent line inside Derrida’s philosophy. According to him, even though the three lectures do not fit a purposely announced continuum, they form a common thread within Derrida’s philosophical project. This project is already evident in the first of those episodes in 1971: his presentation of “Signature Event Context” for the French Language Philosophy Association Annual Conference. It is fundamental to understand that Naas is not pointing at this instance as an original or originary source of Derrida’s philosophy. This is not an unambiguously demarcated origin but rather the first of several instances within a chronological fragment presented by Naas.
Derrida’s most significant contribution in that text is assessing John Austin’s theory of performance and its relevance to a theory of communication by arguing that it is not just an addition to the established understanding of language as a descriptive force but a challenge to the idea of description itself. Naas is clearly aware that this was perhaps Derrida’s most polemic text sparking controversy not only within the ‘opposing’ philosophical field, analytic philosophers represented by John Searle, but also within Derrida’s ‘home base’ as Naas recounts that Paul Ricœur, the keynote at the event where Derrida read his article, was uncomfortable with Derrida’s reconstruction of Austin’s theory. Even though Derrida’s occupation with an analytic philosopher such as Austin might be surprising, Naas points to Derrida’s exchange at Harvard, where the lectures that later became How to Do Things with Words took place, to argue that this was not an unconventional choice of subject. In that sense it was not an empty provocation.
Rather, Naas presents Derrida’s account of communication and language as covering most of his philosophical enterprise. Not in a manner that summarizes or contains all of the subjects Derrida will occupy himself with throughout his work nor in a sense that Derrida continually returns to that text as if it was somehow a foundational moment in his career (50). Instead, Naas’ adoption of that text as a central piece in his reconstruction of Derrida’s theory serves to demonstrate that Derrida’s arguments there could be translated into two fundamental methodological points that Naas adopts as his guidelines for assessing Derrida: performativity and iterability.
The performative aspect is evident in how Naas structures the book. He chooses to present Derrida’s interventions as acts in parallel to a theatrical play. In that way, he is not only describing Derrida’s work but also performing it to a great extent. As Georges Leroux and Ginette Michaud argue in their introductory note, he thinks towards Derrida in an act of reaching out to him. Instead of the perhaps ordinary descriptive movement of dissecting something stable, Naas offers an act of Derrida’s act: an attempt of ‘mimicking’ without copying or of tracing the movements of Derrida as its partner in a dance. The fact that, similar to Derrida’s texts analyzed by Naas, the texts in the book were originally performed in a conference have great significance in this context. Naas is very literally performing the piece Derrida à Montréal: Une pièce en trois actes.
According to Naas, Derrida’s interventions form a three act play chronologically ordered with two additional interludes and an encore where he discusses the fourth unofficial intervention. Naas argues that each of the three main interventions could be portrayed as examining one of the three concepts in Derrida’s initial talk. Despite presenting the interventions in chronological order, Naas argues that the first one (“Signature Event Context”) is centered on context, the second one (“Otobiographie de Nietzsche”) on signature and the final one (“Une certaine possibilité impossible de dire l’événement”) is associated to the event.
The iterability factor comes about in the fact that Naas is not arguing that Derrida is repeating himself in the three supposedly unrelated lectures; he is arguing that when considering Derrida’s argument about iterability, one must carefully reflect on what is being iterated in the three themes that at first sight show no communality. Naas argues that what is being iterated is Derrida’s original deconstructive impetus and, in that sense, a proper understanding of the larger piece in its three acts should provide the reader with an account of what is the deconstructive project.
The first act of Naas’s play comments on Derrida’s “Signature Event Context” (hereby SEC, as Derrida refers to it) focusing on the last concept of the title. The central argument being that Derrida’s text aims directly at challenging any possible contextualization of the performative iteration. According to Naas, context is, from a Derridean perspective, not a ground that solidifies the iteration into a clear and precise address where communication takes place. It is precisely the indeterminacy that permeates any attempt of certitude. This is not merely a contingent element of the specific contexts or an empirical barrier encountered by the transition between the theory of communication and its real occurrences. According to Derrida, this is a structural condition of communication per se. In other words, in the context of communication there is neither a departure address nor an arrival point that could solidify the communicative event. The context is marked by absence rather than by presence: it is characterized more by the lack of determining factors than by their presence.
Naas argues that Derrida’s point about context passes through his assessment of the relation between speech and writing in Austin’s How to Do Things with Words since it is by first problematizing and then offering an inverse logic that Derrida deconstructs the notion of context. Naas describes this movement as a transition from placing Austin within the philosophical tradition that privileges speech over writing by thinking of writing as merely the supplement of speech, towards finding in Austin’s performative theory a breaking point to that logic. The first step is Derrida’s reference to Étienne Bonnot de Condillac and the idea that writing is marked by absence: the writer or the receiver are absent. In imitating/representing speech, writing allows for a non-synchronous timeframe opening the space for absence in communication. This absence, however, is portrayed as a temporary lack that must be supplemented. In that sense, the ‘natural’ communicative order of speech is preserved.
Derrida challenges this perspective by arguing that the absence in writing is not a contingent element but rather its very condition. Naas explains that the fact that writing must be ‘readable’ makes absence a constitutive factor of writing. Writing is for some absent other but, moreover, it is also the limit of my intentionality. Using a concept that he explores elsewhere (“Miracle and machine: Jacques Derrida and the two sources of religion, science, and the media”), Naas argues that writing is like a machine for Derrida since it keeps working in the absence of the original impetus. Besides the obvious absence of the reader in a written communication, Derrida argues that the writer is also absent in the act of making their writing readable: their presence and intentionality are relevant but not conditions of its communicative force.
Derrida then reverts this logic back to what is allegedly the ‘original’ logic of speech (43). According to him, this logic of absence is not exclusive to writing but permeates communication as a whole since even the spoken word needs to remain ‘readable’ without the presence of both the speaker and the listener. In order for language to work, it must have some ‘durability’ as Naas points with his emphasis on the concept of restance. Language is only understandable if it could be understandable in all possible contexts. Naas reconstructs this fundamental step by referring to Plato’s Pharmacy in order to demonstrate how this deconstructive movement is consistent in Derrida’s work. It fundamentally amounts to Derrida’s suspicion of a metaphysics of presence.
Naas goes great lengths to explain Derrida’s argument by emphasizing that he is not arguing that absence is a necessary condition of communication, as if to argue that it is exclusively in the context of the absence of determining factors that communication is possible. That is, Derrida is not making a normative argument in defense of emptying out the communicative act towards anonymity and transparency. Instead, as Naas clearly illustrates, Derrida’s argument is that such anonymity and transparency is impossible precisely because despite any possible content one might be able to associate to context, it will remain invariably permeated by an absence. Derrida is opposing the possibility of a fully charged context where in the absence of any ambiguity, one would reach a transparent communicative act (71). Derrida demonstrates that such interference-free communication is supposedly achieved not by the clearing of the context but rather by overcharging it.
Naas notices he does this by referencing McLuhan, which, as Naas argues, is a clear reference to the context of Derrida’s speech in Canada. Still, it is Toronto and not the same French speaking Canada of his speech. By pointing to this perhaps anecdotal fact, Naas is performing a deconstructive act: remarking a context that is not the exact context, staging the marginalia of the act to show its importance.
Moreover, Naas demonstrates the power of Derrida’s argument by translating it into its fundamental principles: in order for something to be communicable, it must work beyond its context. A communication that is absolutely grounded on its contexts would not communicate anything, so in every instance of communication the context must be invariably extrapolated (42). The presence of contextual elements is always permeated by some elements of absence. In that way, Naas successfully demonstrates how Derrida challenges the metaphysics of presence.
Here lies the strength of Naas reconstruction: with this argument, Derrida, unlike many of his critics argue, is not dismissing intention—he is merely arguing that it is not the governing force in language. In the same way that Derrida’s arguments about absence do not entail the disappearance of presence, intention does not provide us with a fundamental and defining context. But this does not mean that it is irrelevant. To large extent, this is the power of the deconstructive movement that Naas captures with precision. Naas explains this to be the meaning of Derrida’s argument: that language must be iterable, it must make reference to the already known while being the singular event of communication, i.e., communicating a new sense (61). In order for a performative to work, it must make reference to codes already established beyond its context and, in that sense, it is a citation of a previous iteration that is taken out of context. Both in the theatre or in ‘real life’, when a couple gets married, they must use (or at least reference) the appropriate code. The possibility of extrapolating the context, inherent to any citation, is not marginal to the force of language but its very ground.
This is the point of connection that Naas finds between Derrida and Austin. Despite the fact that Derrida finds problematic arguments in Austin and, if we consider Austin’s ‘heirs’ to legitimately represent his philosophical project, the reverse is also true: Derrida and Austin are both committed to opposing the ‘descriptive illusion’ that language exists as a manner of referencing things rather than doing things (52). In other words, they are both concerned with the power/force or language not with its truth values.
Still, Naas argues that Derrida tries to overcome Austin’s reliance on the context via his assessment of the role that intentions play in Austin’s theory. More specifically, Austin’s dismissal of infelicities (Naas uses the French word for failures, which is also the word for chess, ‘échecs’) which is to a great extent evident in his attempt to secure the source of every speech act. Derrida, on the other hand, adopts failure and indeterminacy as his model. For Naas, more important than who is right or how they disagree, this difference is crucial for understanding Derrida’s philosophy. The possibility of failure is not a marginal possibility of the successful instance, it is what grounds the possibility of success. In the same manner that writing is not the shadow of speech, failure is not the negative of success but its structural condition.
Naas wants to show that the structural condition of absence (failure, parasitology…) are the central marks of Derrida’s deconstructive project. In doing that, he is able to point at a fundamental principle in Derrida’s philosophy. Naas is not reducing it to one fundamental principle that is reproduced in different instances. Instead, he is showing the invariable iterability of the deconstructive project: precisely the impossibility of ever reducing it to one individual context that securely grounds it beyond any other movements. Naas’ piece is not an ‘pure’ enactment of Derrida’s theory. In a more daring argument, but perhaps consistent with Derrida’s project, he is showing that even Derrida himself is unable to purely perform his project considering that the three acts are not one consistent exposure of a systematic theory. It is only their iteration in Naas, in their removal from their original context, that they become a unified piece. In themselves, the three acts somewhat ‘fail’ to connect to each other, they are only parasitic of each other.
Naas dedicates the intermission to the controversy between Derrida and Searle. He reconstructs some of the general argument and fundamentally blames Searle for the aggressiveness that marked the debate. This is somewhat ironic considering that it seems to resort to the same problematic quest for the source as Derrida opposes in Austin. Regardless of ‘who started it’, there is reverbing dispute over Austin’s heritage. This dispute fundamentally boils down less to the proper interpretation and application of Austin’s theory but, more importantly, to the power to speak on his behalf: who is entitled to sign in Austin’s name or whose is the proper citation/iteration of Austin’s performance. In other words, it is a dispute over the force of speech not its descriptive power. In that sense, Naas demonstrates the relevancy of performative speech theory to understand this dispute. He is clearly picking a side here but the final verdict on whose theory is more loyal to Austin is only established later. As in any proper theater piece, he is only showing the gun that is going to be fired in the third act.
This is perhaps the most political section of the play. It follows an interlude where Naas clearly establishes that the dispute between Derrida and Searle is much more political than philosophical. He ends the intermission with a provocation of his own by requesting that people stop passing notes because the second act is about to start. This is a clear and very direct reference to what is presented as a very weak objection by Searle to Derrida. And he begins the second act with an epigraph by Derrida on the importance of lies, false reality and illusion as part of real life as much as everything that might be ordinarily considered more ‘real’. Again, this movement has several layers. As mentioned, it is another poke that Naas is throwing while he is on the roll, but it is also a change in tone since in this chapter Naas will discuss Derrida’s ‘possibly’ and its political power. More specifically, the power to declare something real via Derrida’s assessment of the Declaration of Independence. In other words, the reality of all the ‘fictitious’ elements within that declaration and their performative power of establishing reality.
The chapter is dedicated to “Otobiographie de Nietzsche” from 1979 where Derrida discusses the notion of autonomy via the notion of autobiography. Naas highlights Derrida’s performance here by elaborating on the purposeful ‘glitch’ in his title. The prefix oto- references the Greek word for ear and is the homonym of auto-. This is something that remains unnoticeable unless one is either very attentive (considering that the speaker also pronounces it in a way that allows such perception) or if one is reading rather the hearing (using one’s ears) the text. Naas highlights that with this small detail Derrida conveys two main messages. Firstly, the importance of the text in the assessment of language. And secondly, but in direct line with the first point, that the notion of selfhood (auto-) as presented in any account of oneself, such as an autobiography, must invariably pass through textualization, to the possibility of presenting selfhood in a manner that is ‘readable’ by some other. In that sense, the other’s ear (oto-) is a crucial element of any account of selfhood.
The notion of signature plays a fundamental role here because it is the mark of such autonomous act of self-recognition and awareness. Naas argues that his political reading is not a stretch from Derrida’s text on personal autonomy since the version of the text presented in Montreal is ‘missing’ a fundamental section dedicated precisely to independence declarations. Before properly assessing the content of the chapter and the important role the missing section plays in it, it is fundamental to draw attention to Naas’ use of deconstruction as a methodological tool in his assessment of Derrida’s deconstructive project. Taking into account the structure he established in the previous act, one should not ignore the fact that Naas employs a text that was not given in Montreal. In fact, the absent text plays a fundamental role in the account of the context he is trying to establish in the chapter. Naas is clearly performing Derrida’s theory in his engagement with it. The play of Derrida in Montreal is not confined to the context of Montreal, it invariably entangled with its other iterations, with the possibility of the absent, with everything that occurs beyond the three acts. In the same way that Derrida’s theory is not bound by his acts, Naas acts out of his title to provide us with performance of a Derridean moment.
Naas demonstrate the importance of the performative in Derrida’s assessment by highlighting the point in Derrida’s account of the Declaration of Independence where he points to the fact that god merely serves to establish that which is already the case. In the Declaration, the text argues that the rights established there are natural god-given rights, so god serves as the ultimate ‘signature’ of the new status; but if they were in fact natural, they would not need god to declare them in the first place (98). The declaration is precisely the performative act of establishing that which is already the case: of securing it with an ultimate signature.
Naas points to the fact that what appears as a descriptive act, is in fact a performative. This relation between the constative and the prescriptive refers back to the epigraph: America does not exist in an autonomous manner; it is not absolutely real since it must be declared in a manner that naturalizes it. In very simple terms, does the Declaration of Independence merely state the ‘facts on the ground’ or does it make a claim: does it come after or before the independence? Naas points to the fact that for Derrida it is both. The declaration invents that which is already the case. It performs as if it was real, therefore making it real.
Once again Naas begins his intermission with a provocation to Searle. This time it is even more explicit by referencing Derrida’s comment in Limited Inc that if Searle was present in Montreal during his reading of SEC he would pass him a note asking him to pay attention to the most important part. Naas’ choice must be assessed from within his arguments in the previous section. What could be the motivation for Naas’ constant provocation? One would be surprised if Searle took the time to read Derrida’s comment in its original iteration, so it would be all the more surprising if he reads Naas’. Perhaps to a lesser extent it is still valid to assume that Naas’ book will not be widely read within the analytical field, (i.e., Searle’s scholarship) so what is the gain in constantly provoking him? If one ignores the balance of power and the hegemony of analytic philosophy, one could even present it as cruel mocking or beating him after he is already down, but this is evidently not the case. This is precisely the point: in behaving as if there was a fight, Naas is declaring war on an enemy that deems him irrelevant. The simple fact that analytic philosophy is able to erase its counterpart merely by ignoring it demonstrates the force of speech. Moreover, Naas demonstrates it by employing the absence of speech which further reinforces Derrida’s argument. By engaging with Searle, who is alive and capable of responding, Naas is inventing a reality where his philosophy has as much claim as Searle’s.
This is exactly the topic explored in the intermission: the dispute between Derrida and Searle via the angle of the latter’s refusal to even be considered within the context of the dispute. Searle pretends as if it did not happen. Naas demonstrates this by highlighting that, when the texts were collected in 1990, Searle did not allow his reply to be part of it. This refusal by Sarl (the way Derrida, in another beautiful provocation, refers to Searle and his colleagues using the French word for company) is most evident in the copyright mark signed by Searle. Naas does not occupy himself with refuting Searle’s arguments. Instead, he shows that speech act theory should not be concerned with refuting arguments. In other words, the discussion should not surround the precision or imprecision of the arguments but rather their force: whether what they are doing is consistent with Austin’s opposition to the descriptive illusion. In that sense, in refusing to debate, to operate with language and engage in the game, Searle proves to be disloyal to Austin even if he adheres to some notion of precision. Derrida does the exact opposite.
This chapter is dedicated to “Une certaine possibilité impossible de dire l’événement” from 1997. Once again, one must pay attention to the epigraph to find the connections Naas is trying to draw. This chapter uses two quotations by Derrida as epigraphs. The first arguing that the question whether something happens or not was the main issue in SEC and the second arguing that the question of the event is the main question of the performative. The chapter is mostly dedicated to connecting the two statements but, before diving in, it is important to emphasize the connection to the intermission here: how to determine whether the dispute really took place? If there was ever such a thing as a conflict over a philosophical claim or if it was just two parallel lines that never met? Or, in more direct terms, did Derrida do something with his text or did he not: did he manage to perform/invent an event or not? Moreover, even if it is possible to do something with words, is it possible to comment on that which one does, using words to state that which one does with them? This is the tension present in a possible distinction between the two readings in Derrida’s title. What does it mean to say the event? Does it mean saying something about the event or does it mean making the event by saying it?
Going into the chapter, Naas begins by stating that this was an improvised intervention by Derrida. And without directly connecting it, since no connection is needed for such obvious parallel, he summarizes Derrida’s definition of event as: that which is unpredictable, which cannot be ordered or expected (117). At the same time, Naas highlights that in Derrida’s treatment of the event, or more specifically, in his question about the possibility of the event, there is a certain acceptance that is always already presupposed: a preliminary ‘yes’ before any actual engagement. In other words, one finds oneself already within the event by the sheer existence of its possibility. Naas highlights that this ‘yes’ makes the event (122). It is not an engagement that provides any information, it is the adventure into the possibility of something happening. So, in that sense, it is neither of the realm of the performative nor of the constative since it has neither inventive force nor descriptive information. It escapes the declarative act previously explored.
Naas assesses how this ‘possible impossibility’ is consistent with Derrida’s deconstructive project as a whole. On the one hand, the event must be unpredictable and therefore escape language, on the other hand, it fits a certain code. According to Naas this is an expansion of the logics in SEC into the overall field of linguistics interactions. This implicit acceptance of the occurrence of a communicative act invites both the unpredictable and the code (124). Each event is one instance of an iterable act, it is both unique, and therefore unrepeatable, and, in being readable, dependent both on possibilities of referring to previous codes and serving as reference for future iterations.
Naas refers back to Derrida’s biographer, Benoît Peeters, to tie this logic back to Derrida’s loyalty to Austin. As mentioned before, this lecture was not a prepared text, it is Derrida’s attempt to perform his philosophy: to turn his speech into an event. He is coherently philosophizing by performing his claims. An improvised speech by Derrida on philosophy is unpredictable at the same time that it operates within a certain code. It is not as if he was asked to comment on nanotechnology or microbiology, on which he might have had something to say, but it would certainly be more surprising (especially that he would be invited to comment on them at an official event). Derrida is a philosopher and as such comments on notions such as the event or language at events dedicated to philosophy. At the same time that his talk is certainly unique and unrepeatable it refers to previous interactions (as is the point of Naas’ book). It becomes a textual reference not only as a published text but, more importantly, as a textual corpus whose logic can be reproduced as Naas evidently demonstrates by actually reproducing/reconstructing it in his texts both in terms of actual arguments but also in its performative methodology.
With this Naas demonstrates that the notion of ‘possibly’ (my translation of the French ‘peut-etre’) is the fundamental category for understanding the event. Derrida’s investigation of the event is concerned with the possibility of something occurring. Again, not with the ‘descriptive illusion’ of determining the truth value of the event, whether it occurs or not, but with the performative force of making it happen. The way the event is acted out: this threshold between its possibility and impossibility.
Naas calls the encore “the cocoon (a signature of the self)”. In this section he will comment on the ‘bonus’ act given by Derrida in Montreal. An unofficial talk given the day after the text explored in the previous chapter. This, Naas tells the reader, was not an event he witnessed nor an event that is registered. It was a reading of “Un ver à soie” in its draft form. With these final words, the curtains fall and reveal everything; it reveals that there is nothing to reveal, nothing hidden from the eyesight. Derrida’s performance is not a magic trick where at the end he pulls the cloth and shows the rabbit, there are no surprises or last-minute revelations, all there is this cocoon of the performative to wrap oneself around.
In his postface, Leroux contextualizes Derrida’s lectures in the Quebecois philosophical scene. Along with Michaud’s and his introduction and preliminary remarks, they create the scenario for Naas’ intervention. Naas’ performance, his piece in three acts, has a deeper meaning than merely reconstructing Derrida’s philosophy where the enactment serves merely as a pedagogical tool. The enacting gains importance under the circumstances that it is being presented. In the most direct and blatant manner, it is a book written in French in Canada by an USA American (as a South American, I feel the need for more precision than using merely American or North American). The choice of French is not trivial in this context. There is the obvious nationalistic Quebecois dispute but on a deeper level, as presented in the surrounding texts, there is a dispute over the philosophical legacy of Quebec. As the field becomes more hegemonically analytic and Anglo-Saxon, the choice of doing French philosophy in French must be understood as laying a claim over a disputed territory. Maybe not a declaration of independence like the one assessed in the second act but perhaps a declaration of war. Hence making the possible radio-silence response of the other side even more significant.
This possibly failed declaration of war reverberates Derrida’s argument about the importance of failure in success. One could even say that in not responding, SARL is doing Derrida a favor: proving his point. It is showing exactly the importance of impotence in understanding the performative force of language. Naas’ text places us exactly at the verge of the unpredictability of the event: it can either be ignored as his tradition has continuously been hence showing the importance of the performative force of speech acts or it can successfully stoke a debate and actually accomplish that which it aims at first glance. Either way, one finds oneself at the preliminary ‘yes’ described in his last act since something has already happened: in both cases Naas has undoubtedly done something with his words.
Johan de Jong’s The Movement of Showing opens with the observation that “Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida consistently characterize their thought in terms of a development, movement, or pathway, rather than in terms of positions, propositions, or conclusions” (xix). In other words, they do not stake out a definite position that they defend against all comers; rather, they call attention to the movement that carries us beyond each apparently fixed position that a work might seem to present. Indeed, not only do they not aim to delineate a fixed, complete, and fully consistent position, they regard such a delineation as impossible, so noting that they fail to accomplish it does not suffice as a criticism of them. Readers, or would-be readers, of Derrida in particular often stop here, dismissing his work as so much nonsensical relativism. De Jong instead asks how we are to understand this movement that resists any fixed position and how we might critique it without taking it for a failed attempt to establish a fixed position. These questions, which de Jong addresses in an admirably nuanced fashion that makes this book well worth reading, ultimately point us to questions about justice and responsibility.
Thus we as readers find ourselves confronted with the question of what it means to read de Jong’s text responsibly. How do we engage with the impossibility of reducing it to a single determinate position about the three philosophers – G.W.F. Hegel, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida – with which it primarily deals? For what is here called a “movement” must exceed de Jong’s stated positions as it exceeds theirs. Asking “how such a discourse of movement can be understood and criticized,” he maintains that “answering this question does not, as some may think, itself require indirectness, textual extravagance, or a poeticization of philosophical method (even though these cannot in principle be excluded from the realm of philosophical efficacy)” (xxii). What, though, does it mean to say that answering a question does or does not require indirectness? “Indirectness” is the word de Jong has chosen to name the “undercutting gesture” by which “Derrida’s claims and conclusions are invariably repeated, reversed, retracted, contradicted, visibly erased, or otherwise implicitly or explicitly complicated” according to the movement that cannot be contained within any fully determined position (xxii). Yet if indeed thought itself cannot be thus contained – if any position that one might suppose to be fully determined in fact always already undercuts itself – then it is less a matter of indirectness being required than of indirectness being impossible to avoid, at least in implicit form, no matter how hard one tries. De Jong’s style does differ considerably from Derrida’s; readers who regard Derrida’s style, or styles, as obfuscatory should not be able to make the same complaint about de Jong’s, and if they read The Movement of Showing they ought, moreover, to come away with a better understanding of why Derrida wrote as he did. That said, de Jong implicitly recognizes that indirectness is also at work in his own book when he writes that “the very term ‘indirect’ is itself also not the adequate, definite, final or right word for what is investigated here” (xxii). I will return, at the conclusion of this review, to the question of indirectness in de Jong’s text. For the moment, let us note that the impossibility of finding any “adequate, definite, final or right word” will be a recurring theme throughout, and it is one that we must bear in mind when reading any text, whether a book by Derrida, The Movement of Showing, or, for that matter, this review. At the same time, we cannot escape words, however inadequate and indefinite they may be, nor should we desire to – and the joint impossibility and undesirability of such an escape will prove central to ethical responsibility.
Part I, “Sources of Derrida’s Indirectness,” examines, with remarkable nuance and precision, Derrida’s manner of writing. In chapter 1, De Jong begins by arguing that, contrary to what some commentators have supposed on the basis of certain of Derrida’s more direct assertions, Derrida does not and cannot offer a theory of language. Readers of Of Grammatology at times make the mistake of deriving a theory of language from it, which they then attribute to Derrida, according to which speech, traditionally considered superior to writing because of its immediacy, is in fact just as mediated as writing and should therefore be understood as arche-writing, or writing in a more general sense of the term. Derrida’s point, however, is that this theory is already in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics, Saussure’s intentions to the contrary notwithstanding. Taking it as Derrida’s theory fails to understand that there can be no definitive theory of language. Arche-writing is not writing understood more broadly, as if we could fully understand language once we worked out the proper definition of “writing”; rather, it marks the impossibility of attaining some ideal meaning that would be unmediated and fully present. Derrida does not offer a theory, explains de Jong, but seeks rather to show the movement that reveals the limits of all theories, even as they try to present themselves as complete.
Readers of Derrida who recognize that neither he nor anyone else can offer a complete and consistent theory of language often interpret him as an opponent of metaphysics, but de Jong shows in chapter 2 that this interpretation also fails. There is no way out of metaphysics, and Derrida does not propose to offer one. Seeking to overcome metaphysics is itself metaphysical, for any attempt to get outside metaphysics already depends on metaphysics to define itself. What is more, the history of metaphysics is the history of this attempted overcoming. Questioning metaphysics is not, therefore, a matter of opposition, and this questioning even calls itself into question precisely because any attempt to think metaphysics necessarily occurs within the language of metaphysics. That theories are limited in no way entails that we can step outside or overcome their limits.
Having demonstrated the problems with certain popular interpretations of Derrida’s texts – that he offers a theory of language and that he calls for the overcoming of metaphysics – de Jong asks, in chapter 3, whether Derrida can be justified. If Derrida argues that all positions are incomplete and undo themselves, then pointing to omissions or inconsistencies in his work hardly serves to refute him, but it is equally unclear what grounds one might find to justify a work that disclaims the very attempt to produce a complete and consistent position – and de Jong insists that Derrida’s would-be defenders must recognize the latter point just as much as the former. It is not that Derrida makes a virtue of mere contradiction, as if one ought to embrace inconsistency itself as final and definitive. But de Jong emphasizes that “Derrida cannot be completely safeguarded against the accusations from which his works must nevertheless be tirelessly distinguished” (76). Derrida is not the mere relativist that he has often been accused of being, and yet “the risk of assimilation and supposed misreading is not an extrinsic one, but intrinsic to the operation of deconstruction” (78). There is a real sense, therefore, in which Derrida cannot be justified – which is not to say that his work can be dissociated from justice (a point to which de Jong will return). De Jong warns us against the “reassurance mechanism” that consists in saying, “Never mind [Derrida’s] critics; they clearly haven’t read the texts” (78). The point is apt, but I suggest that one might ask the critics whether they have read their own texts. For a more careful reading might show them that misreading and reading can never be neatly separated; nor, for that matter, can writing and what one might call miswriting. As deconstruction operates within any text, it is not only Derrida’s texts that cannot be safeguarded from any possibility of misreading – and this point is one that merits greater emphasis than de Jong gives it in this chapter. He rightly points out what he calls the vulnerability of Derrida’s texts, at the risk of suggesting that Derrida’s texts are unusually vulnerable. Still, Part I is an excellent reading of Derrida, and since reading and misreading cannot be disentangled, there is no way to exclude every possible misinterpretation. De Jong’s argument that Derrida does not call us to overcome metaphysics, as if going beyond metaphysics were possible, is a particularly valuable contribution to the literature.
De Jong now turns to Hegel in Part II and then to Heidegger in Parts III and IV. Since Derrida cannot be outside the metaphysical tradition, his relation to Hegel and Heidegger cannot consist, as it has often been thought to do, in rejecting them as still too metaphysical. This reexamination of Hegel and Heidegger thus follows from the analysis in Part I, and it shows that they are rather less different from Derrida than they are generally imagined to be – without, however, assimilating them into a single position. All three thinkers reveal the limits of any thought that seeks to establish a fixed position, while they also recognize that we cannot step outside or beyond the limits of thought itself.
Part II, “Movement and Opposition,” begins with the argument, in chapter 4, that for Hegel as for Derrida, philosophical questioning cannot itself be detached from its object. Indeed, de Jong writes that “Hegel is the first philosopher to explicitly locate the aforementioned entanglement right at the heart of the philosophical enterprise” (85). It is for this reason that philosophy cannot arrive at a conclusive end to its investigations: philosophy is always investigating itself. Hegelian dialectic is often interpreted to mean that philosophy will progressively free itself from its own limits and reach Absolute Knowing, a final position in which alterity is no more, and Derrida’s own readings of Hegel have fueled this misconception. Through a consideration of the development of Hegel’s thought, de Jong shows that Hegel does not propose that philosophy’s movement can or should be brought to a halt. Precisely because the absolute is not the cessation of movement, “Hegel’s ‘absolute’ idealism must be interpreted as an affirmation of the limits of reflection” (121): reflection does not transcend its limits but is carried along within them, and it is within its limits that it finds itself haunted by the alterity that can never be made fully present.
What, though, of Derrida’s own readings of Hegel, in which Derrida seems to regard Hegel as an opponent of alterity and himself as an opponent of Hegel? De Jong turns to this question in chapter 5 and argues, without denying the differences between the two philosophers, that Derrida’s relation to Hegel is not, and cannot be, one of simple opposition. In any case, opposition is never simple, since the sides of a dichotomy are necessarily dependent on each other to the very extent that they are defined by their opposition. What is more, Derrida offers multiple readings of Hegel – or, to put it another way, the name “Hegel” does not stand for the same figure every time it appears in his texts. At times, as for instance in “Tympan,” it does stand for a figure who seeks to eliminate the risk posed by negativity or alterity – but “Tympan” is less a supposedly definitive reading of Hegel and more an attempt “to stage a confrontation of philosophy with that in which the philosopher would not recognize himself, not so foreign to philosophy as to leave it undisturbed, and not so close to philosophy as to do no more than repeat it” (134). It is, in short, an attempt to call attention to philosophy’s limits so that it will not mistake itself for the final, complete answer. Derrida’s target is not Hegel but a complacent Hegelianism that believes that all that is worthwhile is, or at least can be, subjected to its comprehension. Reading “Hors livres, préfaces” in Derrida’s Dissemination, de Jong finds that Derrida first describes the Hegel of Hegelianism before coming to the Hegel who is a thinker of movement and of difference – a Hegel who is not Derrida but in whom Derrida finds a “point of departure” (149) that is not simply the basis for opposition. Or, as de Jong puts it, “Derrida needs Hegel’s ‘speculative dialectics’ as a point of contrast, but he is aware that Hegel cannot be reduced to those terms. […] The more radical [sic] Derrida presents himself as moving beyond Hegel, the more emphatically his allegiance to Hegel is reaffirmed” (151). Derrida needs Hegel because of how Hegel can be read and misread: the thinker of movement who has been misinterpreted as a thinker of overly definitive absolutism is a fitting interlocutor for another writer who, precisely because he is also a thinker of movement, is profoundly concerned with questions of interpretation, questions of reading, misreading, and the complex interplay thereof. Indeed, one should not suppose that reading and misreading are independent and readily distinguishable – a point implicit in de Jong’s insistence on the impossibility of safeguarding Derrida from misreadings.
Part III, “Heidegger: The Preservation of Concealment,” reads Heidegger’s Being and Time and Contributions to Philosophy (Of the Event) in order to explore the theme of indirectness in Heidegger. In chapter 6, considering Heidegger’s criticisms of the language of Being and Time, de Jong argues that the problem was not that the language of Being and Time failed by remaining too much within metaphysics, nor can the Kehre be understood as a turn to looking for a language that would adequately say being. Rather, the language of Being and Time was, in Heidegger’s later view, insufficiently attentive to the inevitability of a certain failure, and Heidegger came to seek “a language that would take into account, recognize, and preserve a certain necessary failure-to-say with respect to (the question of) being” (156). This language would still be metaphysical since the overcoming of metaphysics is itself metaphysical, but it would strive to reveal the very impossibility of finding a location outside metaphysics from which to philosophize. Already in Being and Time questioning is no straightforward matter, however: that Dasein questions being from within being is crucial to the book – an obvious point in itself, but what has been neglected is that the middle and late Heidegger’s works, including those written post-Kehre, therefore represent not a break with his early thought but a deepening of themes and problems that were in play from the start.
Chapter 7 pursues this analysis via a reading of the Contributions. De Jong emphasizes that the forgetfulness of being is neither a problem that can be solved nor an error that can be fixed. Heidegger’s goal is not and cannot be to overcome this forgetfulness but is “to recognize and preserve that forgetfulness as such, or interpret it originally” (200). Indeed, overcoming the forgetfulness, as though it could be left behind, would amount to forgetting it again. What is essential is that we strive not to forget the forgetfulness, that we strive to recognize the limits of thought – which is precisely not stepping beyond them as if they could become negligeable. This recognition, moreover, is a movement that never becomes a completed process.
Part IV, “Of Derrida’s Heideggers,” shows that Derrida’s relation to Heidegger, like his relation to Hegel, is not simply a matter of opposition. In Derrida’s texts, the name “Heidegger” is no more univocal than the name “Hegel.” Chapter 8 explores this complex relation through a reading of Derrida’s Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. The key point is that Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche risks closing off the meaning of Nietzsche’s texts by arriving at some result that is then taken as definitive and final, yet Heidegger’s texts cannot themselves be closed off by interpreting them once and for all as the refusal of indirectness and undecidability. And as de Jong observes, “[Derrida] does not make a simple choice between these two Heideggers. The virtue of that undecidability lies in its potential to open the texts of these thinkers and resist reducing them to the content of an unequivocal thesis” (240). This remark also has worthwhile implications for the question of what it might mean to critique Derrida, though de Jong does not make them wholly explicit: that Derrida cannot be reduced to a purveyor of definite theses means that there are multiple Derridas, and a fruitful critique – fruitful in that it would recognize the limits of thought without seeking to go past them – would then be one that draws out this multiplicity rather than presenting a univocal Derrida who is assigned the role of opponent.
Chapter 9, turns, finally, to the question of responsibility. Here the question of critique or justification gives way to the question of justice. De Jong notes that “in the debate about the ‘ethics of deconstruction,’ interpretations have tended to work within a Levinasian framework, which understands ethics primarily with reference to the ‘other.’ That is quite right, but there is a risk if the other is confused with the external” (242). It is worth explicitly noting what is implicit here: that the other in Levinas is not a matter of externality, as alterity would then be one pole of the externality-internality dichotomy and so would fall within totality. In any case, de Jong’s analysis, which emphasizes complicity and proceeds through a reading of Derrida’s Of Spirit, is excellent. De Jong recognizes the indirectness of Derrida’s texts as a gesture of responsibility. What might appear as an irresponsible refusal to be associated with any position, and hence as a withdrawal from potential criticisms, is an attempt to grapple responsibly with the failure of any position – yet it is a responsibility that can never escape its own complicity with those failures. Heidegger’s own complicity has struck many as uniquely grave, and de Jong notes that Derrida does regard Heidegger’s use of the term Geist, in his 1933 rectorial address, as complicit with Nazism. It does not follow, however, that we can purify our own thought by rejecting Heidegger; Derrida himself cautions us against such an attempt to achieve purity. For Heidegger’s complicity with Nazism took place, writes de Jong, “by way of a mechanism or a ‘program’ of complicity and reaffirmation that Derrida himself does not claim to be able to escape. The program itself consists in the very attempt to escape, the thought that one can exceed racism or biologism by elevating oneself above it to a position of reassuring legitimacy” (251). More broadly, the quest for absolute purity cannot be untangled from a drive to declare oneself innocent – that is, not complicit in anything or, to put it another way, not responsible. But “the ‘fact’ that not all forms of complicity are equivalent” (252) does not mean we can avoid complicity, that we can overcome or go beyond it. We are responsible in advance, inescapably responsible, unable to establish a position that would justify us, free us from complicity, and let us relax in the security of non-responsibility. De Jong’s emphasis on complicity ties back to his earlier argument that Derrida’s texts cannot be made safe from misreading. By resisting the opposition between Derrida’s critics and his defenders, de Jong resists the temptation to safeguard thought, thereby reminding us of our limits. It is because we will never be able to present the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as the saying goes, that we are complicit – which is a call not to despair but to the responsibility that, as de Jong’s The Movement of Showing skillfully reminds us, we cannot evade.
An afterword begins by addressing the question of indirectness in de Jong’s own text, and here he proves a less skillful reader than he did when interpreting Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida – though his failings are instructive and perhaps unsurprising, given that we cannot escape complicity with the attempt to arrest the movement of showing to arrive at some fixed position. De Jong asks “why, if [he] ha[s] been successful, [his] own exposition will not have displayed the implicit or explicit self-complication that has been [his] theme” (264). One response, which he admits is “facile,” is that “[he] ha[s] set out to do nothing more than to provide a commentary, and to provide a way of reading that goes against certain ideas about how to interpret the work of Hegel, Heidegger, and Derrida. […] There is no reason why that reading could not be explicated unequivocally” (264). Granted, he himself calls this response “facile,” yet that it should be offered at all indicates the durability of the opposition between a commentary and the work commented upon, with the commentary appearing as merely secondary and derivative. Derrida, let us recall, commented on works by Hegel and Heidegger, and as I noted above, de Jong’s own analysis suggests (though without explicitly saying so) that there are multiple Derridas, as there are multiple Hegels and Heideggers. I do not mean to suggest that all Derridas, Hegels, or Heideggers on whom one might comment are equally valid or fruitful. The Derridas, Hegels, and Heideggers whom one encounters in de Jong’s text are remarkably well interpreted, whereas, to take an extreme example, anyone who attempts to read Of Grammatology as a guide to birdwatching is likely to be disappointed. Consider, however, Derrida’s remark in “Des tours de Babel,” concerning translation, that “the original is the first debtor, the first petitioner; it begins by lacking [manquer] – and by pleading for [pleurer après] translation” (Derrida 2007, 207). The so-called original text never stands on its own but is already a translation, is already separated from itself by its inevitable equivocity. Commentary is not exempt from this condition: it is never “nothing more than […] commentary.” De Jong’s writing is clear in that it is easy to follow – easier than Derrida’s, Hegel’s, or Heidegger’s often is – but that does not mean it is univocal. Commentary too is separated from itself – and, moreover, it is a way of translating the so-called original. The texts signed by Hegel, Heidegger, or Derrida call out for commentary because they are not summed up in what they say – nor in what any commentary or translation could say. The commentary and the translation plead as well, and they are not safe from misreading. Whether de Jong’s text displays self-complication and whether it does complicate itself are two different questions, and besides, one might well argue that it does display self-complication precisely by calling our attention to our inevitable complicity.
De Jong offers, as a “more principled answer,” the reply that “an awareness of the performative complexity of philosophical texts does not in itself necessitate a specific style” (265). This answer still tends to assume that self-complication must be blatantly visible as such, but de Jong rightly observes that “it is not a matter of doing away with representation or opposition, nor with the traditional form of an academic treatise. At issue is precisely an ‘inner excess,’ or how in what presents itself as proposition, representation or claim, something more, less, or other than what is ‘posited’ in them is taking place” (265). Indeed. Derrida’s styles are not the only ones in which worthwhile thinking may occur. And as there are multiple Derridas, there are multiple de Jongs, whom this review certainly does not exhaust, and I recommend that anyone interested in Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, or questions of indirectness more broadly read The Movement of Showing and encounter them for him- or herself. If I have dwelt at some length on the brief and admittedly “facile” response, and if I still reproach the “more principled” response with suggesting, in defense of the book’s clarity, that it is possible to avoid self-complication through the choice of a particular style, it is to highlight a certain complicity with the overly definite and determinate that inevitably accompanies writing. Indirectness cannot, however, simply be opposed to directness, as if one were pure and the other not – a point de Jong does not make explicit but that he could well have. Complicity with the overly definite and determinate is the only way to speak or write at all, and refusing to speak or write out of a desire for purity is an attempt to abdicate responsibility.
Indeed, de Jong in his afterword goes on to observe that “even given the limitations of the propositional form, of representation, and of oppositional determination, it is in and through them that we can and in fact do say more, less, or something else than what is merely ‘contained’ in those determinations” (272). Hence the limits of language are not to be regretted, which is a crucial point. Thus de Jong refuses to take “a negative or skeptical view on language as inadequate or as failing,” calling instead for “a productive view on propositions and claims such that they might carry or co-implicate more than the content that is ‘contained’ in them” (272, emphasis in original). That a text is “lacking,” to recall the above quotation from “Des tours de Babel,” does not mean that it has failed, as though it would have been better for it to lack nothing so that there was no call for translation’s creativity. Complicity does not put an end to creativity – far from it. Because there is no manual telling us precisely how to live out the responsibility by which we are committed in advance, our responses must be creative ones. One of the virtues of The Movement of Showing, though by no means the only one, is that it warns us against considering language—and hence what is expressed through language—a failure because of its limits, and that it points out that language even owes its richness to those very limits. In short, The Movement of Showing is a text that rewards attentive reading, and it makes a valuable contribution to the field.
Derrida, Jacques. 2007. “Des tours de Babel.” Translated by Joseph F. Graham. In Psyche: Inventions of the Other, vol. 1, edited by Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
I came to this book because of the back cover’s promise that “for Derrida, salutation, greeting and welcoming is resistant to the economy of salvation”. Having written a book myself on the topic of greetings and salutations—a book that contested precisely this claim—I could not not be intrigued. There is no doubt that the salut, and especially the ‘salut sans salvation’ plays a central role in Jacques Derrida’s later writings. In fact, it would be really hard to doubt whether, for Derrida, this little word ‘salut’ could ever be sufficiently resistant to the economy of the salvation: many of his writings in effect question whether it is, for us late moderns, possible at all to distance ourselves from Christianity or any other matter that speaks of salvation.
Yet Saghafi promises (the promise being a salvific remainder in itself) to give us just this. In seven chapters and a prologue, all in one way or another devoted to mourning the death of the other, which arguably is the book’s main concern, Saghafi explores what happens when the other greets us and what happens when this no longer occurs—on the occasion of the other’s death for instance. The author is quite clear that a personal event had interrupted his writing: “a heartrending, ravaging event in ‘my’ world led me, forced me, in my grief” (xxiii, also 137, n.19) to think about these themes of mourning and departure—the latter theme inspired, though, by Jean-Luc Nancy, one of the other protagonists of the book. It is true that the death of the other is no small matter, not for Derrida, and not for any one of us. Derrida, in brief, claimed that the other’s death is not a ‘part’ of the world that disappears but that with the death of the other—every other—no less than an entire world crumbles.
The book argues that “Derrida’s taking up of the notion of ‘the end of the world’ […] dictates an engagement with the thought of salut, for if the death of the other—a parting—signifies the end of the world, this departure then necessitates, stressing the perfomative, a salut-ation” (xxvii). How to address the other once she has left and gone to ‘the other side’ and how, if so, does she greet us ‘from wherever she is’ (referring to Derrida’s final note saluting his audience at the gravesite ‘smiling at us from wherever he might be’)?
The first chapter comments on Derrida’s reading of Paul Celan’s verse ‘the world is gone, I must carry you’. One is reminded here of Ludwig Binswanger’s account of the death of the lover: when my lover dies, our relationship depends on me, and on the few friends that are similarly left behind. It is we who will have to carry (out) our relationship. Our love, the love between my lover and me, is upon the occasion of her death, in my hands entirely. Derrida’s comments on our mortal condition make us aware that it is only through our dealings with the other that there is world in the first place. We carry the world, in a sense, through and for the other. If the other is gone, the world no longer makes sense and one might rightly say: it is the end of the world—the world is gone indeed. Throughout the book teases out some of Derrida’s more familiar themes in his last seminar The Beast and the Sovereign, reception of which is only now beginning. Saghafi carefully reads into this seminar’s interpretation of ‘carrying the other’ a “remarkable description of an experience” (12). It is with this experience that Saghafi’s book will close.
Chapter two introduces to the debate between Derrida and Nancy. Where Derrida states that the reason for religion is to provide a safe space for the living, a promise that they’ll be safe and intact, Nancy’s notion of what is intact differs. It is for Nancy only the dead body, which for him attains a certain completion, a state of ‘being finished’, that is intact. Nothing can happen to or arrive for the dead. Derrida’s account of religion mentions that the sanctity, which provides and promises that the living will be safe and intact, assumes itself a position of perfect integrity: the holy is what will remain untouched—it is ‘at a distance’ and is what will save us without itself feeling the need to be saved. Yet to know about this safe haven over there, about this instance that is set apart from all the rest, some mediation is needed. This is what Derrida calls the “law of tact” (25). In a language echoing the tradition, one would need to say that the divine must first have ‘touched’ us whilst so instructing us not to touch the divine, that is, not to grasp, comprehend it in its immediacy. Saghafi adds: “what is tact but ‘knowing how to touch without touching’” (25, quoting Le toucher, 82). The tactful advance of what is saintly needs to be reciprocated similarly, on the part of us humans, with tact. One is reminded of the beginning of The Animal that therefore I am, where Derrida notes that reticence and restraint are at the origin of the religious attitude: Bellérophon is admonished not to expose and make public the nudity of a women imposing herself, which he had, of course, had already seen. Bellérophon needs to ‘unsee’ what he has seen and ‘untouch’ what had touched him. The latter movement Derrida calls the drive for immunity: to leave untouched what has touched us.
Both Derrida and Nancy here take Christic scenes from the gospels, particularly of Jesus’ supposed resurrection, as figurative of how we today could approach the question of death. Christ’s frequent insistence of touching the sick, for instance, illuminates the law of tact. Nancy has responded to Derrida’s stance in his Noli me tangere, insisting, for his part, on what remains (and needs to remain untouched) in these scenes. Well-known are the examples of the risen Christ ‘not to touch’ him—’for I will be with you for not much longer’. For Nancy, this departure of the Christ is a figure for the parting that we all experience, witness (and eventually undergo) in this span of eighty odd years granted to us. Christ so presents “the infinite continuation of death” (29 quoting Noli me tangere, 17) to us. For Nancy, what is untouched is what is intact and which will no longer touch. What remains with and for the living is the persistence of death and departure of everything which surrounds us. This is what Nancy’s secular notion of anastasis intends to convey: it is the attitude of the men and women who have seen death in life and are ‘still standing’. Derrida will however fiercely critique Nancy’s, well, stance, because this secular account of resurrection for Derrida cannot sufficiently distance this secular ‘salut sans salvation’ from its religious counterpart and will therefore continue to console and save. A deconstruction of Christianity as Nancy proposes is destined to repeat Christianity in its very gestures.
Chapter three focuses on Derrida’s deconstruction of death. Here Saghafi discusses Derrida’s Aporias where the latter questions the most common “figure” of death, namely as “the crossing of the line between existence and non-existence (45): one moment you’re here and the next moment you’re not. Noteworthy here is the parallel between death and the event: “both are unpredictable, radically other, lack a horizon, and come as an absolute surprise” (48). Death, for Derrida, is the great unknown: one cannot even say, with certainty, that through death one crosses a threshold between one place and the other or that one moves from one state to the other. Death, then, is not a threshold, not what crosses a threshold “but rather what affects the very experience of the threshold itself” (47, quoting Aporias, 34): death is no longer that instance that separates life from death, existence from non-existence but that skandalon that is ‘already here’ whilst ‘being over there’ and utterly other. Concretely this would mean that the living, somewhat like Nancy also argues, need to learn to live with death in the midst of their lives already. Like Heidegger, death for Derrida is not something that will happen later—’eventually’—but what happens ‘first and foremost’ to others; on the contrary, death is already here to the point of being the condition of a meaningful life. Life then is itself (a form of) dying constantly. It is, in short, a “living of death” (50, quoting H.C For Life, 89) while dying alive—a factum for a mortal being that is dying, ‘coming closer to death’ general opinion would say at every point in time. Saghafi states it nicely: “”the finitude of Dasein does not mean that it will die one day, but that is exists as dying” (85). Derrida’s difficult idea somewhat resembles the more popular opinion that it is only because of our mortality that life makes sense and that we undertake actions at all (an echo of which one, in turn, can found in John D. Caputo’s recent works).
Chapter four focuses on Nancy’s take on resurrection as ‘anastasis’. Nancy is quite clear that he seeks to retrieve the nonreligious meaning of resurrection, a sense utterly secular and mundane. In a text devoted to Maurice Blanchot—’Consolation, Desolation,’ part of Dis-enclosure—Nancy, Saghafi argues, responds to Derrida’s objection mentioned above. Nancy insists that no consolation is at issue here. At times one has the impression of a race between Derrida and Nancy to interpret death as the utmost foreign instance. For Nancy for instance the dead do not leave something behind as if something of them would remain in a certain place (64). One wonders whether Nancy is thinking of the place Derrida mentioned at his salutary note. On the contrary, Nancy argues, the dead do not depart to somewhere, we just “enter into the movement of leave-taking” (64, referring to Partir-le départ, 46): the dead one is the one who never stops leaving us (without a place to go to or to return from).
Here Nancy meets, in a way, Derrida again. For if the dead friend in a sense never stops leaving us (however painful), it is up to us to keep the dead alive. This is possible from out of a peculiar sensibility Nancy argues: “as soon as I name the dead one […] I grant her another life” (71). Another example might be the phone calls people make to the voicemails of deceased loved ones. This address and salutation is something we would need to think about when pursuing this sensibility. Yet it is not the end of religion, as Saghafi at the beginning of his book seems to imply, it might instead be its very beginning—no thought of salvation would perhaps ever occur without these salutes. In any case, this is where Nancy’s stance toward death arrives: “relations do not die” (71, referring to Adoration 92). There remains something of our relations to the dead as long as we speak about or address our dead ones. Again we find these difficult thinkers approaching a thought that has passed into cultural knowledge. A strange consequence of this kind of resurrection is, of course, that such a resurrection no longer befalls the good and the saintly only but the wicked ones just as well (and perhaps even more): after all, people still speak about (and thus relate to) Adolf Hitler too—an insight I owe to William Desmond, who mentioned this to me already a long time ago.
Saghafi concludes the chapter with mentioning that Nancy, somewhat oddly and unexpectedly, mentions “an unheard-of place” (72 in Adoration, 92) in which one could somehow encounter the (dead) other. It is clear then that both Nancy and Derrida are partaking in a thought of “the beyond of death” (74), however secular they are or wanted to be. With this, Saghafi suggestively and also somewhat provocatively, asks: “Would it be a strange hypothesis to suggest that Nancy’s [is] a reading of Derrida’s seminar The Beast and the Sovereign, 2?” (74). There is, to my knowledge, no direct reference to this seminar in Nancy’s most recent works.
Chapter five discusses Martin Hägglund’s recent interpretation of Derrida in his book Radical Atheism. It is safe to say that Saghafi is not a fan of Hägglund, who refuses to see any ethical or religious turn in Derrida’s thinking, whereas Saghafi’s account of Derrida’s deconstruction of death rather sees in Derrida a secular account of the ‘beyond’ of death, a ‘dying alive’ that, even though it might be a phantasm is no less real. The desire for survival can therefore not be, as Hägglund has it, a mere desire to live on, as long as possible, until our deaths. Saghafi does not spare harsh words when it comes to Hägglund: his work is supposed to be “shorn of subtlety, elegance and complexity” (79 and esp. 154, n.4).
There is a lot to say about Derrida’s atheism, but the best lines come from Derrida himself. Saghafi quotes from Penser ce qui vient (80), a talk given at the Sorbonne in 1994 just after the publication of Spectres of Marx. Here Derrida beautifully says that he is an atheist “who remembers God and who loves to remember God”. The quote is sufficient already to question Hägglund’s indeed rather straightforward account of a rudimentary—Dawkins-like—radical atheism in Derrida. Derrida knew very well what damage a thought of the absolute can do; yet he knew, similarly, that there is, as Nancy has it in Adoration, a genuine need for the absolute and that it, here and there, has done some good too.
Saghafi agrees with Hägglund that there is an “infinite finitude” to be detected in Derrida, but he differs from Hägglund’s interpretation about how the phantasm of infinity from out of finitude is to be conceived. With Geoffrey Bennington’s classic Derridabase, Saghafi states that différance has given us to think “the inextricable complication of the finite and the infinite” (83-4) just as it complicates, as we have seen, the boundaries between life and death. This complication, for Derrida, has an odd consequence: if our mortal condition is such that we exist and are alive as dying then death is the end of this possibility of dying. When dead, my possibility to die (alive, continuously) has come to an end. By dying, I stop dying alive. This also means that, as long as we are not dead, we are in effect “essentially survivors” (91, quoting Politics of Friendship, 8) like one says after a hard day of work that we have survived another day.
These subtleties aside, it is time to ask: from whence the phantasm of infinity in these mortal lives of ours? From what experience, say, a phenomenologist (which Derrida also was) might start? If we are here only ‘for a little while’, as Heidegger would have said, how does this while, this span between birth and death, this delay, this lapse and deferment of death—terms that are all linked to Derrida’s French sursis—dream up something of the infinite? For these questions, chapter 6 turns to Michael Naas’ magnificent Miracle and Machine (2012) and its elaborate discussion of survival and living on: “Derrida did not believe that we live on somewhere else or that we live again […] While we are not resurrected for another life […] ‘we’ do survive or live on for a time after death” (99, quoting Miracle and Machine, 270). What is this ‘for a time’ and in what sense goes it grant us a sort of delay from death? Saghafi here offers a reading of the second seminar on The Beast and the Sovereign: “Survivre does not refer to a state of life after demise […] but to a reprieve, an afterlife that is more than life or more life still” (100). General opinion would have: gone but not forgotten.
Derrida came to this idea, one might argue, through his idea of the originary trace and the traces we leave on, say, post-cards, in letters, home-movies and so on. There is something awkward about writing a few lines in a book, for instance, once one realizes that it is likely that these lines might survive my own very being and will be read by someone, likely a loved one, long after my demise. These traces of what I was, then, might even occur grief and pain on the other’s part (or joy if these few lines were funny). In that sense, these traces are ‘my’ survival and are already, in a sense, left there in this book, on this post-card, for the other. This ‘curvature of intersubjective’ space, to allude to Levinas, is present for Derrida in all friendly relations. One might even say that if I am not ready to mourn your loss, I am not really your friend either. This means that, from the very beginning, the possibility of loss is present in friendly and loving relations: the possibility that he or she parts and that one of us will have to mourn about this demise is always present. Yet the loss of the friend, as we have seen, is not the loss of the friendship altogether, except that he, she or me will have to carry the relationship forward. Friendship, Derrida says, “is promised to ‘testamentary revenance, the haunting return of […] more (no more) life’” (103, quoting Politics of Friendship, 3)—Derrida’s plus de vie means both no more life and more life. All this, of course, signifies that for Derrida “surviving begins before death and not merely after it. [Life] itself is originarily survival” (104). Since the infinite dying will always persist, we will always (at least for a while) be survivors of the other. In this way, Derrida takes the idea of a testamentary revenance to an ontological level.
Chapter six turns to Derrida’s treatment of the phantasm of living death, mostly through Derrida’s reading of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in, again, The Beast and the Sovereign 2. With the phantasm, Derrida (and Saghafi) are trying to understand “the phantasm of infinitization at the heart of finitude” (36, quoting Death Penalty 1, 259). Such a phantasm, in no way, can be separated from the real as the metaphysical tradition was wont to do. On the contrary, the phantasm (although dreamed up and imagined) is what exercises a power over us, what makes things happen (or not). It is this hold over us, of the idea of the infinite and of infinitization more general (which happens most often, these days, in the repetitive machine-like bad infinity of consumption culture) that Derrida sought to understand.
The phantasm of ‘living death’—the topic of the seventh chapter—is for Derrida most noteworthy in Robinson Crusoe’s constant fear of being buried alive by an earthquake or swallowed alive by wild beasts. Such a phantasm of ‘dying alive’ is, although imagined, no less than a lived experience. Derrida even argues that Robinson, because of his repeatedly imagined anxieties, has already lived through the experience of being buried alive. The phantasm is a performative: it provokes the event (Cf. 124). It is this experience (of the phantasm as phantasm) that Derrida tries to take seriously. Yet this, say, ontic and fictional phantasm in Defoe’s novel is a figure just as well for our ontological status as survivors who are, as long as we are living, dying.
This ‘shared sense’ of dying alive is, for Derrida, an affect and a sensibility: we sense that we are survivors now and will be survivors for a while later. It is with a finitude that reaches further than mere finitude that we are dealing here. A phenomenologist might compare this idea to the idea of breathing: with every breath I take, I am in effect closer to death. Yet every breath I take also entails that I am still alive and will live a bit more. In this sense, breathing too is an auto-immune pharmakon.
This leads us to a second somewhat odd consequence of Derrida’s thought of eternity, immortality or the afterlife. Robinson’s fear and phantasm are not the eternal life of the gods or of souls saved, but rather the fear of, come the moment, not being able to die. This ‘immortality’, if any, wavers between no longer able to live and not yet capable of death. This is also what separates Derrida’s idea of eternity from Nancy’s: where Nancy is influenced by a “Spinozist reading of eternity” (74) when arguing that eternal is what is independent of time, Derrida’s dealing with the phantasm shows a dying alive that still takes time. It is an eternity or a ‘beyond’ that arises from within time.
One might sense an idea of community in Derrida here: since I sense that something will survive (of) me, I sense the other as “the survivor of me” (126, quoting The Beast and the Sovereign 2, 131). Since, however, I am also the other of the other (as Derrida famously argued in his critique of Levinas in Violence and Metaphysics) I will necessarily also be a survivor of others. In every relation, then, there is survival and there will be survivors.
It is this “weave” (127) of life and death that the concluding pages of the book bring to bear. This weave is the ground without ground from which all ideas of infinity, all phantasms of infinitizations, spring: we believe that it will go on forever and act accordingly. And even though Derrida will not subscribe to any simple (bad) idea of infinity, such a groundless ground is nonetheless the base from which one can speak of “an excess of life that resists annihilation” (129, quoting Archive Fever, 60).
Does this thinking of survival offer anything to those who have lived through the experience of loss and death? Is there beyond the idea that I will survive my living body for a while anything that speaks ‘from beyond the grave’ as it were? The odd logic of community mentioned above, through which I live as if I will live eternally (or at least for an indefinite amount of time) also means that the logic of this (mortal) life surpasses the logic of thinking, rationality and consciousness. This, Derrida argues, entails that “this thinking of affect requires a certain ‘as if’, ‘as if something could still happen to the dead one’” (132, quoting The Beast and the Sovereign 2, 149). There seems to be developing a new sense of sensibility here which arises “if we allow ourselves to be affected [by a possibility of the impossible, [by] the impossible possibility that the dead one can be still affected or that we could still be affected by the dead one him- or herself” (ibid.). This, then, seems the final deconstruction that Derrida has left us with: “is being-affected excluded by death? Is there no affect without life?” (133). It seems that The Beast and the Sovereign permits us to doubt—and this is a lot. It means that although it might not be reasonable to believe in the afterlife, it is not altogether unreasonable to come up with the idea.
It is to Saghafi’s credit to makes us think about these issues. Yet one must also state that the book feels somewhat incomplete. At times, Saghafi gives us a cacophony of citations which leaves us guessing just a bit too much about the book’s overall argument. The two main themes of the book, namely mourning after ‘the end of the world’ and the question whether Derrida’s discourse can be dissociated from the discourse on religion are handled in a quite unbalanced way. In fact, after chapter two or so the latter theme disappears completely from the book’s focus (although there is a mention of it at p. 97). This bring us to two critiques.
Perhaps, first, the author realized that the two discourses, on salut and salvation, in Derrida cannot be dissociated? There is no way for Derrida that today, in contemporary culture, any discourse can be safely sheltered from the discourse of Christian religion (precisely because the idea of being saved and safely sheltered is the very idea of Christianity) and certainly not the discourse of greeting and address as being one of the very sources of religion for Derrida. This is at least what Derrida implies in Rogues where he speaks of two orders within the earthly Jerusalem: these orders, be they of the unconditional and conditional, of the salut with salvation as much as the salut sans salvation, are indeed ‘heterogeneous’ (which Saghafi notes) but also indissociable and inseparable (Rogues 114 and 172n. 12). The one time that Derrida actually mentions a “radically non-Christian deconstuction” (35, quoting Death Penalty 1, 245), one might also read: “can one think [such] a deconstruction?” “Nothing is less certain” (Death Penalty 1, 245).
Secondly, one cannot help to detect some romantic exaggeration in Derrida’s thinking of death as the end of the world, each time anew. Although it certainly is the case that every other death is absolutely other and a genuine loss for all the people around the deceased one, it also needs to be acknowledged that differences are to be noted between the deaths of a lover and a friend over and against the death of a long-lost friend, an acquaintance or, say, a former coworker. It rather seems the case that the sense and shape of the shared world with this particular other alleviates or strengthens rather our experience of his or her loss. One therefore also needs to ask whether Derrida is not, with the idea of every other death as a genuine ‘end of the world’ introducing some ‘sameness’ in the idea of death: is it true that all deaths, always and everywhere, would entail ‘the end of the world’ for us and for me?
In Saussure’s Linguistics, Structuralism, and Phenomenology: The Course in General Linguistics after a Century, Beata Stawarska surveys for English-language readers important differences between the ideas of Ferdinand de Saussure as presented in student lecture notes and other materials from his Nachlass, and the received picture of Saussure known to most of his twentieth-century readers via the 1916 Course in General Linguistics assembled and published by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. She highlights several important ways in which the received “Saussurean doctrine”—especially the oppositional pairings of signifier and signified, la langue and la parole, and synchrony and diachrony—is actually more complex and more open-ended than Saussure’s structuralist adherents and poststructuralist critics have claimed. She suggests that this revised understanding of Saussure’s ideas can lead toward a rapprochement between the traditionally opposed camps of structuralism and phenomenology.
I. Theme, Audience, and Approach
Stawarska has done a great service for those of us interested in these issues, but who may not have had the time (as in my case) to read her much larger, 250-page work on this topic, Saussure’s Philosophy of Language as Phenomenology: Undoing the Doctrine of the Course in General Linguistics (Oxford University Press, 2015). Saussure’s Linguistics, Structuralism, and Phenomenology is a much smaller book, published in Palgrave Macmillan’s “Pivot” series designed for works shorter than traditional monographs. The work is presented as a handbook “addressed at a wide, interdisciplinary audience,” which may be read on its own or alongside the text of the course, and Stawarska includes a helpful reading map linking specific chapters in her book to specific chapters in the 1916 published version of the Course. But the book is only partially a commentary on specific chapters of Saussure’s well-known published work. It is also, and indeed, primarily, an exercise in philosophical philology, cataloguing ways in which the published “Saussurean doctrine” differs from the views of Saussure available in the Nachlass. It is heavy on criticisms of the published version of his ideas and evidence intended to set the record straight, but rather light on details concerning the reasons Saussure actually held particular theses and on examination of those theses as self-standing philosophical claims.
Because of this approach, the first and much larger Part I of the book, “Legitimacy of the Saussurean Doctrine” (Chapters 2-10), is in an odd position: it presents the results of highly specialized, high quality research concerning the production and reception of a published work that would seem to be far too specific for “a wide, interdisciplinary audience,” and yet does not engage in the detailed examination of the theoretical issues her research raises for disciplinary audiences expecting critical engagement (e.g., philosophers, literary theorists, perhaps intellectual historians). Similarly, Part II examines Saussure’s “Contemporary Legacy” (Chapters 11-13), but is dominated by broad considerations of the text’s reception and only sketches arguments and positions concerning Saussure and later twentieth-century authors.
After comparing this book to the table of contents of Stawarska’s 2015 work, and reading Patrick Flack’s review of the latter in Phenomenological Reviews, I have the impression that this book is largely a rewriting, rearranging and abridgment of the same material. But that is not the work under review here. Thus, in what follows, I address Saussure’s Linguistics, Structuralism, and Phenomenology as the relatively self-standing handbook it purports to be, and ignore the question of whether Stawarska has more thoroughly defended her interpretation in the earlier-published version of these ideas (I suspect she has). Considered on its own merits, the book offers a fascinating glimpse into issues concerning the promulgation and reception of Saussure’s views, and the implications of these issues for a rapprochement between phenomenology and structuralism, but it offers little more than a glimpse: the book is lacking on the level of substantive philosophical discussion or historical contextualization of the relevant issues. Depending on its readership, this may or may not be a limitation of the work. In the next section of this review, I present a general overview of Part I, raising some critical points along the way. In the final section I turn to the treatment of phenomenological figures and themes, which occurs primarily in Part II, and raise some additional, more specifically phenomenological concerns.
II. Setting the Record Straight on Saussure
The first few chapters provide an overview and helpfully summarize the case against the received interpretation of the Saussurean doctrine. Chapter two outlines the key doctrinal elements that have made the course so influential in the history of twentieth-century intellectual movements, especially structuralism, and surveys various strands of its legacy. Here, Stawarska sets up an important tension that informs the rest of the book: on the one hand, there is good textual evidence that speaks against taking the published content of the book as representing Saussure’s views: “it can be documented that the editors or rather ‘ghostwriters’ of the Course introduced apocryphal content, reversed the order of presentation, projected a conceptual apparatus of vertical dichotomies, and adopted a dogmatic tone in their redacted version of general linguistics” (11). If we want to get the real Saussurean doctrine rather than that of Bally and Sechehaye, we will need to follow Stawarska in diving into various texts in Saussure’s Nachlass, including the lecture notes of several students who actually attended Saussure’s courses in general linguistics (remarkably, the compilers of the published version did not attend any of the iterations of the course, though they did attend other courses taught by Saussure (16)).
On the other hand, the legacy of the published content of the course has become so important in the history of twentieth-century intellectual movements that simply to reject the received doctrine would be to neglect the very influence that Saussure has had: “a critical study of a Great Book is a testimony to its established legacy and enduring relevance. The force of the critique depends in part upon the recognized importance of the object being critiqued” (12). Twenty-first century readers thus find themselves in a difficult position: on the one hand, details concerning the problematic circumstances surrounding the publication of the course lead us to want to seek out the “real Saussure.” On the other hand—especially insofar as Saussure’s lasting legacy and importance has not been (or has not been exclusively) in the field of linguistics, but rather in fields such as literary theory and Continental philosophy and in broad discipline-spanning intellectual movements like structuralism and post-structuralism—what seems important is not so much figuring out what Saussure actually said, but rather understanding the course in the context of its influential reception—even if that reception is, from the standpoint of authorial intent, highly problematic.
Stawarska uses this tension to frame her own interpretation, which she characterizes as both a “deconstructive” and a “critical” reading of Saussure. And yet her exegesis remains mostly at the level of philological, this-is-what-the-author-really-said considerations. Thus, while Stawarska may be right to characterize the course as “a complex and multifaceted text that arguably deconstructs the very doctrinal understanding it seeks to espouse” (13), there is remarkably little attention paid—with a minor exception in her treatment of Derrida in Chapters Seven and Twelve—to the issues raised by a self-professed deconstructive reading whose main goal seems to be to set the record straight concerning the real intentions of the author. I return to this issue below.
Chapter Three is a useful guide to the shocking ways in which the editors of the published version of the Course both took liberties in the presentation of the material and promoted it through avenues such as publishing their own reviews of the work. There is one important element underlying Stawarska’s broader considerations introduced in this chapter that I wish she had spelled out in greater detail and with more precision. Stawarska is highly critical of Bally and Sechahaye’s concern to present Saussure’s doctrines in linguistics in the light of “complete objectivity” (18), and their efforts “to conform the then emerging science of general linguistics to the normative expectations within scientific disciplines” (11). She seems to suggest that this scientifically oriented presentation somehow leads to the problematic structuralist assumption “that cultural signification can be studied like an object within traditional physical sciences, that is, independently of users and/or observers and irrespective of historical change” (10). And she cites with approval Saussurean critiques, in the Nachlass material, of “naïve realism in linguistics,” of “an unexamined metaphysical commitment to entities assumed to exist independently of language use” and of “a naturalist approach to language”—all phrases which seem to be references to the same phenomenon (28-29). At the same time, she presents her own antidote to the misreadings as resting on the firm ground of “standards of empirical validity” (26) and as offering “an empirically based understanding” (11) of Saussure.
But there is very little discussion of what exactly these broadly scientific notions, on either side—naturalism, the empirical, natural science, etc.—are taken to be. This is particularly surprising given that both structuralism and phenomenology are known for their detailed considerations of the contested terrains of science and objectivity in the face of considerations of our subjectivity as thinkers, speakers, experiencers and knowers. These are no simple matters, and Stawarska surely owes the reader a more detailed account of them. Scientific objectivity was no more a simple, uncritical, unquestioned doctrine in empirical and formal disciplines at the turn of the twentieth century than it is today. Stawarska’s simultaneous reliance on the authority of the “empirical” (does this mean the lived-experiential, in the phenomenological sense?) and suspicion of objectivity and scientific disciplines is strongly reminiscent of the sort of reactionary anti-scientism characteristic of some post-structuralist and deconstructive theory in the 1980s and 90s. If this is not her position, a more detailed treatment of these concepts would help to show it.
Perhaps the most damning example of Sechehaye and Bally’s violation of academic norms is detailed in Chapter Four, where Stawarska shows that the famous concluding statement of the published Course, “the only true object of study in linguistics is the language, considered in itself and for its own sake” (qtd in Stawarska 24), is apocryphal, and not warranted by the source materials. This influential statement, she shows, becomes a sort of guiding thread for the problematic interpretation of Saussurean doctrine among structuralists. By singling out language as the sole object of study, and implying that Saussure believed it should be studied as a complete and self-standing system, independent of, e.g., social and historical contingencies, the editors set the stage for the problematic hierarchical and anti-historical presentation of core Saussurean concepts.
Against this hierarchical presentation in the published course, Stawarska presents a “horizontal” (67, 94) interpretation of Saussurean linguistics. For example, contrary to the received view, Saussure did not straightforwardly privilege la langue (the language system, considered in terms of the interrelations of signifiers but independently of its actual usages) over la parole (actual usage of the language in everyday social speech contexts) as the “true object of study in linguistics.” Saussure’s actual presentation of this distinction in the Nachlass is rather more nuanced and modest: he presents la langue as a “platform,” “viewpoint,” or “orientation” from which to view the “complex, heterogenous linguistic terrain” of la langage, rather than as “a superior and self-standing object” (30). Thus whereas the published course overstates the distinction between la langue and la parole, Saussure’s own statements from the Nachlass lead Stawarska to conclude that, in his actual view, “linguistic study involves an intellectually complex and self-reflective process that, in principle, precludes the possibility of unmediated access to a simple object” (31).
One of the most informative sections of the book explains how the presentation of the well-known figure from Chapter One of the published Course, featuring images of a tree and a horse alongside “ARBOR” and “EQUOS,” was intended by Saussure to represent the traditional nomenclature view of language, according to which there is a separation between “an immutable order of things in the world” and “an immutable order of ideas and words” (38). On this nomenclature view, words stand in for things, and thus constitute a version of what Stawarska calls the “classical metaphysical view” of representation, such as we find in Aristotle, the Port-Royal rational grammarians, and the Augustinian theory of language Wittgenstein criticizes in the introductory sections of the Philosophical Investigations (38). But the next figure in the published text, which is supposed to represent the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, imports parts of the previous figure (the image of the tree and the word “arbor”) even though there is no support for such importation in the manuscripts of the lectures. On the basis of such considerations, against the received view of the structuralists that Saussure’s treatment of the sign is static and represents a “complete doctrine,” Stawarska argues that Saussure’s actual view as recorded in the Nachlass materials “presents testable, evolving, and if need be, revised hypotheses” (35).
There is of course a tension between structuralist and classical representationalist views. One does not typically think of the structuralists as paradigmatic representationalists. To endorse the view that language or any other semiotic system operates as a system of differences is in fact to downplay, if not reject outright, the claim that words stand in for things. Thus the Saussurean view as presented in the published version of the course is not only unfaithful to Saussure’s actual doctrines, it is also in tension with itself: as presented, “Saussure’s conception of language seems to be divided between, on the one hand, the metaphysical idea of a sign as signans/signatum and, on the other hand, the novel differential understanding of signification developed later in the Course” (37). Setting the stage for her reading of Derrida on Saussure, Stawarska shows how this tension in the published Course is avoided in Saussure’s Nachlass via his account not of absolute but of “relative arbitrariness” (Saussure, qtd. in Stawarska 43) at the level of the language system as a whole (45-46). The real Saussure, Stawarska argues, regards the sign system as always already engaged with the changing socio-historical world and thus open ended.
The socio-historical aspects of the real Saussurean view are investigated more closely by looking at Saussure’s conception of the speech community. Saussure recognizes “a historical fact at the origin of every state of the language” (Saussure, qtd. in Stawarska 51), resulting in a conception according to which “language and the social world are co-constituting factors of cultural signification, and it would be impossible to posit one without simultaneously implicating the other” (51). This is in direct contrast with the way the role of society is downplayed in the published version of the Course. In effect, then, when we consider the unpublished source materials, the Course “effectively complicates the order of the hierarchical dichotomies (la langue and la parole; synchrony and diachrony) from the ‘Saussurian doctrine.’ It calls into question the view that modern linguistics is an ahistorical and formal science, and it suggests that subject and structure-based approaches to cultural signification advanced, respectively, by the traditions of phenomenology and post-structuralism, can be productively combined” (53).
But the chapter does not specify who holds (or held) this view of modern linguistics. The phenomenological and (post-) structuralist considerations that presumably supply the remedy are only gestured at, and the important notion of historicity, so central for phenomenology and arguably one the features that most clearly distinguishes it from structuralism, isn’t discussed in detail. The suggestion seems to be that historicity is dealt with via Stawarska’s Chapter Eight, on synchrony and diachrony. But as both Husserl and Heidegger have shown us, diachrony, temporality, and historicity are not identical concepts, even if they are interrelated. Here, in a pattern repeated throughout the book, at an obvious point of differentiation between structuralism and phenomenology, Stawarska marks the issue but does not further develop it via detailed philosophical discussion, essentially limiting her account to setting the record straight on Saussure.
The chapter on synchrony and diachrony argues that the relationship between the two planes of linguistic analysis is more complicated in Saussure than one would think from reading the published version of the Course. Rather than a hierarchy—la langue as characterized by synchrony over la parole as characterized by diachrony—Saussure’s actual view in the course is not hierarchical but “horizontal” between la langue/synchrony and la parole/diachrony: “what may seem like a single and simple object of study (the sign; la langue ; a synchronic fact) turns out to be crisscrossed with its other interlinked facet (the signified; la parole; a diachronic fact)” (74). Chapter Nine provides an intriguing further account of this interlinking in terms of the notion of creativity or “linguistic innovation.” Whereas the published version presents this material after introducing the synchrony/diachrony distinction, suggesting that “linguistic innovation is of purely diachronic interest,” Stawarska argues, following analysis of remarks in the Nachlass by several Francophone interpreters, that Saussure’s doctrine of linguistic innovation is actually intended to explain the way in which la parole affects la langue over time, thus “horizontally” connecting diachronic and synchronic aspects. This is accomplished primarily through an account of analogy as a creative principle, as exhibited especially in the norm-defying language use of children and literary writers. In phenomena such a false verb conjugations, children’s mistakes are still “operative within a given conjugational paradigm” (79). Such analogical innovation is presented more generally as a “motor driving historical change” (80). In short, “analogical innovation deploys grammatical principles of novel formation harbored within the language structure” (80), and is “intrinsic to the language system itself (81).
Here again, however, Stawarska seems to ignore obvious points for engagement with structuralism and phenomenology: How does this account square with the traditional structuralist concern with the language system? Aren’t such “conjugational paradigms” and “linguistic structures” precisely the sorts of concerns that most occupied the structuralists? And if the real Saussure thinks analogical innovation within such structures is a driver of historical change, surely the close parallel between this idea and the phenomenological notion that eidetic structures of experience help to determine the meaning content of lived experience without fully predetermining it merits closer examination.
Chapter Ten brings together the various threads in Part One to summarize Stawarska’s critique of the general presentation of the published version of the course as an account of “a central language structure… assumed a priori,” with diverse natural languages as a set of “factual consequences” of lesser importance (87). Against this view, Stawarska argues that Saussure’s actual view, as evidenced in students’ lecture notes, “moves from a detailed survey of several languages (les langues) to a concluding, hypothetical notion of language (la langue) as such. Presumably, this is what Stawarska means when she characterizes her reading, earlier in the book, as “empirical” rather than “objective,” and which she contrasts to the problematic view as presented in the published texts that “la langue can be construed as an a priori abstract idea to be couched in universal laws” (94).
The chapter again raises interesting interpretive points that beg for further engagement—especially, in this instance, vis-à-vis phenomenology. Is not, e.g., Husserl’s phenomenology an example of “an apriori abstract idea couched in universal laws,” and which yet is arrived at through “empirical” analysis—assuming this means analysis of lived experience? Doesn’t Husserl’s insistence that, in some sense, the a priori is to be found in experience speak against the dichotomy Stawarska implicitly endorses, between the a priori/ necessary/ universal/ objective, one the one hand, and the a posteriori/ contingent/ particular/ subjective on the other? Was it not a central theoretical concern of phenomenology (and, indeed, of post-structuralists such as Derrida and Foucault) to overcome the simplified reliance on just such dichotomies?
III. Engagement with Phenomenology
Part II, “Contemporary Legacy,” does not further explore these issues directly but does (along with Chapter Seven of Part I, which seems oddly placed in the ordering of the chapters) explore some related themes, via a brief engagement with one broadly structuralist (Lacan, Chapter Eleven) and two phenomenological (Derrida, Chapters Seven and Twelve, and Merleau-Ponty, Chapter Thirteen) authors, focusing on what they had to say about Saussure and how they read the course. Stawarska’s treatment of these issues, while fascinating, seems to me to fall short of the purpose expressed in the introduction, of offering a “rapprochement” between structuralism and phenomenology via the long-obscured actual doctrines of Saussure. This may be in part because it is oriented around readings of particular figures, rather than addressing the philosophical issues directly. Given the venue of this review, I will focus on the chapters engaging phenomenological figures.
Chapter Seven, “Derrida and Saussure: Entrainment and Contamination” interrupts the chain of chapters detailing the doctrines of the Course through engagement with Derrida, seeking a
rapprochement between his critique and Saussure’s actual, more nuanced views. Stawarska is skeptical of Derrida’s reading of Saussure as practitioner of the metaphysics of presence: “It is difficult to imagine how Saussure’s linguistics could have made a difference to the study of cultural signification in the twentieth century, if it were as burdened by the Western metaphysical legacy as Derrida claims it is” (56). The chapter does not explain what exactly this burden is, why it would have inhibited Saussure’s influence, or why we should take Derrida to be right about any of this. It may be true that “few scholars have challenged Derrida’s indictment of Saussure’s linguistics as a species of metaphysics of presence…” (56), but it is not true that few have questioned this Derridean doctrine in its own right. It is also unclear whether Stawarska means to connect the critique of the metaphysics of presence with the critiques of the nomenclature view of the sign and of the striving for objectivity as discussed above.
Stawarska claims that Derrida’s critique of Saussure is misplaced—that he misinterprets the master on the basis of the published text of the Course—but at the same time that Saussure’s actual view is in fact relatively close to Derrida’s own, with its emphasis on “entrainment” and “contamination,” and its rejection of simple notions of purity or presence. Following Derrida’s Glas, Stawarska focuses on the potential objection raised by onomatopoeia. If Saussure’s claim is that there is no natural relation between the world and the sign-system (the thesis of arbitrariness), then it would seem that onomatopoeia presents a putative counterexample, insofar as such words appear to be modelled on natural sounds. The editors of the published version of the course go to great trouble to effectively rule out such cases and thus diffuse the objection, on the grounds that these sorts of words “are never organic elements of a linguistic system” (Saussure, qtd. in Stawarska 60). But the latter phrase is an editorial insertion without basis in the manuscript (61). In Saussure’s actual view, Stawarska argues, onomatopoeia does not constitute an objection to the claim that there are no natural signs. As Derrida argues, even onomatopoetic words are already contaminated by an outside, and are always already part of a sign system: the intralinguistic motivation by the language system enables individual signifiers like glas/knell and fouet/whip to be heard as expressions indicating a sound (or an object capable of making a sound), rather than the external sound-source motivating these expressions directly” (62). Thus, for the real Saussure, as for Derrida, onomatopoeia is not an exception to the rule of the arbitrariness of the sign system, but rather an exemplification of that rule—so long as we recall, as argued in Stawarska’s earlier chapters discussed above, that the arbitrariness thesis applies at the level of the sign system as a whole, not at the level of individual signs.
Stawarska’s argument here—which is Derrida’s argument—is worth more consideration than it receives in the book. What proves that “there are no natural signifiers in language?” The claim is that any attempt to locate a putative exception to this rule will in fact reveal contamination and entrainment, and thus show that in fact the rule holds. But how does one identify cases of contamination and entrainment, except on the basis of the presupposition that the thesis always already holds? If the thesis is correct, there is no “nature” outside of the sign system available as an independent outside, as a neutral point of comparison: there is nothing outside the text. But if this is antecedently presupposed, then of course any attempt to find something that escapes the sign system will come up empty! If the thesis is incorrect, and there are neutral points of comparison for such questions—putative natural signs—then it will be said that “Following Derrida, the language system is worked from within by forces deemed external to it (be they sounds found in the physical world, phonetic evolution that is deemed merely fortuitous in the Course , or intertextual relations). Just as there are no ‘authentic’ onomatopoetic expressions based directly on the mimesis of sound, there are no absolutely arbitrary signifiers devoid of any and all external motivation” (63). The claim thus seems more dogmatic assertion than phenomenological description subject to verification via lived experience.
I don’t wish to question Stawarska’s exegesis of Saussure or of Derrida on this point, but surely, in a philosophical monograph, we are entitled to some considerations as to whether their views are correct. Potential counterexamples could be drawn, for example, from similar discussions in another of Derrida’s major source figures, Husserl (see, for example, the discussion of natural signs as a form of indication in §2 of the first Logical Investigation—particularly relevant given Husserl’s analysis in this section of the notion of “motivation,” a term Stawarska utilizes frequently, although it is unclear if she intends it in the technical phenomenological sense), or, venturing outside the world of Continental philosophy, from Paul Grice’s account of natural signs in “Meaning.” At the very least, some further clarification of what Stawarska means by “empirical” considerations could shed light on the method though which we are supposed to (fail to) discover natural signs.
Chapter Twelve, “Post-structuralism: The End of the Book and the Beginning of Writing,” attempts a slightly different sort of rapprochement with Saussure, focusing on Derrida’s reading of the Course in Of Grammatology. Stawarska’s claim is that, despite his deconstructive focus on the text rather than the author, and despite the well-known structuralist and post-structuralist rejection of the import of authorial intent, Derrida’s deconstructive critique of the “civilization of the book” in favor of a notion of “unbound text” or writing should have led him to examine Saussure’s unpublished manuscripts more closely. The notion of the open-endedness of the sign-system, which Stawarska plausibly takes as the marker that distinguishes post-structuralism from structuralism, should have lead Derrida beyond the published text of the course to discover Saussure’s own much more open-ended views in the Nachlass, of which there is evidence that Derrida was aware. Had he done so, Stawarska claims, Derrida would have found a Saussure whose views are in fact much closer to his own: “These writings went unpublished during Saussure’s life, and one could lament a rectifiable failure to deliver intellectual products or consider that the linguist was contesting scientific normativity and the civilization of the book. Saussure was performing the end of the book and the beginning of writing” (113).
Couldn’t the same be said of any author who left unpublished manuscripts? What is special or uniquely interesting about Saussure here, versus, say, other linguists of his day? Beyond linguists, what of other authors in this time period (e.g., Husserl, Heidegger, Freud), who also wrote extensively and only published a fraction of what they wrote? Were they too contesting “scientific normativity and the civilization of the book?” If they were too, then which of their contemporaries were not? What was the source of the scientific normativity that was contested? Again, my point is not that there is nothing to what Stawarska claims—these are interesting and important historical-philosophical issues that merit discussion. My point is, here again, we are not given that philosophical discussion, nor any engagement with Saussure’s contemporaries that might help to shed light on the intricacies and novelty (or lack thereof) of his views. Chapter Twelve is thus especially illustrative in bringing to the forefront the question of immanent critique, noted at the beginning of this review, that haunts Stawarska’s book as a whole: doesn’t this whole approach of establishing the “real Saussure” stand in some tension with Stawarska’s implicit endorsement of the poststructuralist, deconstructive project? Should it matter, from that perspective, whether the Course represents what Saussure himself actually thought, or even what he is “performing,” given that this is now the received view of his ideas—the text? Stawarska is of course aware of this tension. But here, as elsewhere, we are not offered any detailed philosophical account to justify or dissolve it. Is the absence of a detailed treatment of this rather central theoretical issue itself a performance that “deliberately contests scientific normativity,” or perhaps a rejection of the metaphysics of presence?
The final chapter of the book opposes structuralist and post-structuralist readings to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological reading of Saussure. The chapter begins with some interesting considerations of Saussure’s notion of the “language phenomenon,” and suggests that this tells against the traditional notion (presumably of structuralist inspiration) that Saussure has nothing to say about the subject. For Saussure, Stawarska claims, “the subject is equal parts a ‘human being’ and a ‘social being,’ and speaking is an inherently communicative act which borrows from society and thanks to which one interacts with the community. The language phenomenon belongs, therefore, to the individual speaking subject and to the greater social world of historically sedimented conventions. As such, the language phenomenon described by Saussure cannot be confined to the inner world of consciousness emphasized within the classical tradition of phenomenology” (119-120, my emphasis).
Stawarska seems to be opposing French phenomenological figures such as Merleau-Ponty and Derrida to earlier “classical” phenomenologists whom she takes to have held this view. But we are not told what this inner world is, or who exactly held such a view. What of Heidegger’s rejection of the subject in favor of Dasein and Being-in-the-World? What of Husserl’s oft-expressed rejection of the notion of the ego as a monadic, solipsistic subject? Given that Stawarska explicitly invokes the “classical tradition of phenomenology” as a foil, surely we are owed some account of these figures’ views. Even if Stawarska wishes to limit her consideration to the French tradition of phenomenology, surely she is aware of Sartre’s claim that it follows from the very idea of intentionality that “everything [even consciousness] is finally outside” (Sartre, “Intentionality: A Fundamental idea of Husserl’s Phenomenology”). There is no detailed discussion of these central phenomenological themes, and long-discredited caricatures of the classical phenomenological project are presented as accepted doctrines. That project is certainly not beyond reproach; the potential challenges that Stawarska gestures at are interesting and important. But she never does more than gesture. There is no philosophically detailed reproach for the reader (or this reviewer) to agree or disagree with. Beyond historical sources, given her focus on the social aspects of the sign system, Stawarska might also have engaged with the currently burgeoning phenomenological literature on normativity, collective intentionality, or social ontology, but her account of the “contemporary legacy” of phenomenology relevant for the desired rapprochement is limited to mid to late-twentieth century French figures and some occasional references to Agamben.
The subsequent treatment of Merleau-Ponty that concludes the book is interesting, but again frustratingly minimal (direct engagement with Merleau-Ponty makes up about 3.5 pages of the book). Stawarska devotes a few pages to Merleau-Ponty’s view of Saussure, primarily based on Signs, excerpts from the Lectures at the College De France, and The Prose of the World. Her discussion is centered on Merleau-Ponty’s “methodological subjectivism,” which focuses on the phenomenon of speech and sees in the synchronic an always-incomplete historical reside of the diachronic, of previous generations of speakers (121). In this sense, Merleau-Ponty recognizes in Saussure an “interdependency between la langue and la parole” (121) and in light of this proposes a “new, situated conception of reason where historical contingency goes hand in hand with an enduring logic of both mutual understanding and world disclosure that are attainted via an evolving linguistic medium… the signifying ‘body’ of language in the social and historical context” (122). Whereas Merleau-Ponty’s critics found this to be a misreading of the Course, the real Saussurean doctrine, as Stawarska has explicated it, in fact better accords with Merleau-Ponty’s view. Thus, as was the case with Derrida, Merleau-Ponty is actually closer to the real Saussure, if further from the Saussure we know from the published Course, and may even be seen as a reformer of the study of language in the Saussurean mould via his focus on the subjective experience of speech (123).
Stawarska concludes the book thus:
[T]he subject and structure-based approaches to cultural signification need not be opposed. Language construed as a phenomenon is individual as well as social, intentional and automatic, received and invented, contemporary yet ancient. Language construed as a phenomenon calls, therefore, for combined phenomenological and structural approaches to cultural signification. Saussure’s linguistics points a way out of the institutionalized antagonism between these two philosophical traditions of inquiry, and it enables a greater rapprochement than is traditionally acknowledged. Saussure’s linguistics can therefore be claimed as an important intellectual resource in contemporary research on how subjective experiences and structural arrangements continually intersect (123).
This passage nicely encapsulates the Stawarska’s overarching thesis: a re-reading of Saussure that goes beyond the problematic published version of the Course can help to accomplish a rapprochement between the traditionally opposed camps of structuralism and phenomenology. The book is a helpful outline of such rapprochement, if not on its own an accomplishment of it.