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Derrida: Thinking The Impossible

Roger Caldwell considers whether it’s possible to consider Derrida.

In all commentaries on Derrida sooner or later you will find the assurance that his argumentation is rigorous. This is surprising, in two respects. Firstly, commentators on philosophers such as Hume or Kant rarely feel the need to reassure the reader in this way. And secondly, these assurances of Derrida’s rigorousness often come in the context of arguments that not only do not give the appearance of being rigorous, but scarcely appear to be arguments at all – for example, arguments based on verbal punning, on a seemingly random association of ideas, or generalizing from what appear to be inadequate or eccentric data. Even supporters of Derrida like Richard Rorty have not hesitated to call his arguments “terrible”.

It is possible, however, that what we are searching for is a philosophical protocol that is largely irrelevant to Derrida’s work. Indeed, I shall here be arguing that Derrida’s style of ‘argumentation’ is entirely congruent with the kinds of questions he raises and with the findings (where any are available) with which he brings his (invariably provisional) inquiries to (invariably premature) conclusions. Thus I will here attempt to outline a style of thinking and will not offer an account of deconstruction itself, or of his key notion of différance, ground that has been covered by his numerous commentators, if without much unanimity. Instead I will concentrate mainly on recent texts which, though still demanding, tend to be less semantically dense than his early work.

If Derrida’s style of argumentation is an unfamiliar one this is in part because his manner of questioning is likewise unfamiliar (if, indeed it is possible to properly distinguish the one from the other in his case). He does not, at least directly, address such time-trusted and all-too-familiar philosophical questions as free will versus determinism or the nature of mind. Rather, if the arguments he employs are admittedly unorthodox – even where he himself claims to be ‘rigorous’ – often the questions he asks don’t at first sight seem properly to be questions at all.

It is noteworthy that Derrida’s problematics invariably centre around the interpretation of particular texts rather than analyzing questions ‘cold’, as in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Some find this reliance on texts frustrating, given that interpreting a text (often one by Heidegger in Derrida’s case) doesn’t necessarily bring us any nearer to clarification of a particular philosophical problem. But here we are perhaps guilty of naïveté. As Derrida himself says, “We [meaning, no doubt, he and his fellow Derrideans] are no longer credulous enough to believe that we are setting out from things themselves by avoiding ‘texts’.” (Given Time p.100). Notice that here he puts the word ‘texts’ in inverted commas, reminding us of the pervasiveness of textuality. What, he asks with something of a sneer, is not a text? – meaning that everything, from mountains to electrons is in some sense inscribed in textuality. Nothing can ever appear naked before us in its own right but only in the context of a text.

Thus, interrogating a classical work of anthropology, Marcel Mauss’ The Gift, Derrida asks a question that, admittedly, never occurred to Mauss or, indeed, any other anthropologist: “How can we think together time and the gift?” Or, in a linked and perhaps more basic question he asks, “What is the relation between a language and giving-taking in general?” (GT p79).

This might initially seem to be odd. What kind of question is this? All languages, we might expect, include some notion of giving and taking; but why should we expect there to be a generalizable relation between these notions and language as such? Indeed, though Derrida subsequently tells us, almost in a spirit of revelation, that language itself is a phenomenon of giving-taking, given the obscurity of the initial question it might not seem that the revelation reveals much. But this is already to give in to conventional expectations of what a philosopher can offer. Perhaps all that can be offered is a further questioning – and it is in this that Derrida’s originality may perhaps lie.

In Aporias he uncharacteristically asks questions that appear straightforward, on the surface at least. For example, “Is my death possible? Can we understand this question?” Precipitately, naïvely, we may be tempted to answer in both cases, “Yes.” In this, however, we would be mistaken, as Derrida goes on to show. Interrogating, as so often, a text of Heidegger, he reveals that dying is neither entirely biological nor entirely cultural (Aporias p42), that ‘being-to death’ can’t be thought without starting from immortality (p55), and even that there is no politics without an organisation of the time and space of mourning, or, more bafflingly, “a topolitology of the sepulcher” (p61). Certainly, for human beings dying and death are complex matters. But against all this, as Derrida admits, is the evident fact that, biologically speaking, animals also die, without any evident relation to theology or politics. But even here Derrida is loath to give biology any priority, since for him (though not perhaps for most of us) animals – all animals presumably – have a very significant relation to murder, war, mourning and hospitality, though they are without a relation to death or the ‘name’ of death as such (p76). In any event, given the multiplicity of the language games of death (biological, theological, anthropological, political, etc); given also that “one no longer speaks the same death where one no longer speaks the same language,” it is clear that in talking of death and dying one is talking of something radically undecidable, so that “the relation to death is not the same on this side of the Pyrennees as it is on the other side.” (p24) It is perhaps ‘arguments’ of this sort which prompt critics to find that Derrida’s work lacks application, as being too “linguistic.” But it is possible to turn the tables on such critics by asking, on the contrary, is it possible for a philosopher’s work to be linguistic enough? This issue will concern us shortly. But I want first to show how Derrida’s questioning invariably involves “an immense problematic field” (Politics of Friendship p18).

For example, he tells us that “to think one’s time... would deserve nearly infinite analysis.” (Echographies of Television p3). This is surely the case, but it is also the case that all Derrida’s questions, and the proliferation of questions that arise from the initial questioning, invariably involve nearly infinite analysis themselves. The result is that, as he modestly reminds us, the most we can expect from his work is “perambulatory detours” (Aporias p22) or “a barely preliminary step in these still so obscure regions” (PF p96). But how many steps would it take – and Derrida took a good many in his long and prolific career – for these regions to become less obscure? For it appears always that, rather than being well on the road, we are, in Derrida’s case, always still starting out in “a very preliminary and scarcely even preliminary way” on work that involves a “patient and interminable reading” (Aporias p72).

True, along the way, we are treated to some pithy formulations. For example, after discussing Baudelaire’s story ‘La fausse monnaie’ he suggests that “To sum all this up, we would say that counterfeit money is the title of the title, the title without title of the title (without title). The title is the title of the text and of its title” (GT p98). This is no doubt illuminating, but it would be a mistake to think that this is the end of the matter. Whereas his disciples are apt to move too quickly, Derrida always reminds us that what he proposes is only “an extremely simplified schema” (PF p221) and that “these matters are not so simple” (PF p228). Thus Robert Smith in Derrida and Autobiography, makes the very Derridean suggestion that “it could be that the diachrony of time is what provokes erotic tension (and also provokes desire for God).” (Smith p117). This is an intriguing formulation, but it is surely no more than that, and though it is certainly hard to see what could count against it (or, indeed, for it), one would not expect Derrida himself to reach to such a precipitate conclusion. In this Derrida is surely more canny than many of his disciples: he makes suggestions, provisional formulations, it is true; but only in the awareness that the issues concerned are ultimately undecidable – or even impossible.

Here he has been much maligned – to such an extent that he has found it necessary to inveigh against “those who snigger at discourse on the undecidable.” (PF p2). Yet when he speaks of European cultural identity as “this experience and experiment of the impossible” (The Other Heading p45), surely it is with a certain justification. Or, if we are to think, say, of circumcision, as “the foliaceous stratification of the pellicullur superimposition of these cutaneous marks,” then surely Derrida is right to suggest that this “seems to defy analysis” (Archive Fever p20). Again and again he seeks to make us think more deeply about what we take for granted, not for the superficial purpose of making things clear, but for the profounder purpose of showing that wherever we look, if we are to look deeply, we find ourselves on ever more treacherous and uncertain terrain.

Sometimes Derrida feels the need to remind us of the long, perhaps rather lonely path he has followed, “the aporetology or aporetography in which I have not ceased to struggle” (Aporias p15), delineating this “analysis of the Aristotelian-Hegelian aporetic of time, carried out with Heidegger” (p15). Indeed, it is in connection with this Derridean interrogation of texts about time that Richard Beardsworth for one finds his greatest contribution to lie, though Beardsworth also wishes to argue (mistakenly I think) that rather than making linguistic points only, this work also has important political consequences. Put very schematically, Derrida finds that justice is never timely – that is, it is always premature or belated. Similarly with a political act such as the American Declaration of Independence. The Declaration itself is either premature (because America has not yet become independent) or belated (because America has already become independent): as a result it can never be contemporaneous with what it declares. Now this is undoubtedly true – and it is a mark of Derrida’s originality that no one to my knowledge had previously pointed this out – but Beardsworth wants to argue that in the light of Derrida’s demonstration of “the irreducibility of time” (Beardsworth p102) the Declaration could be re-written. Here I think he is mistaken. Or, rather, it could be re-written, though for all Derrida’s prestige that is not very likely, and in any event Beardsworth fails to suggest how it could be re-written and still be comprehensible to an audience not educated in the work of Derrida. Indeed, even if the Founding Fathers had had prior knowledge of what Derrida tells us about the West’s mistaken metaphysics of time, it is hard to see how this would have changed what they wrote. What we have here is a linguistic, philosophical matter, which in the spirit of Wittgenstein, makes nothing happen. Philosophy doesn’t change the world. Why should we suppose that it does?

In The Gift of Death Derrida suggests that we are all Abrahams, raising our knives over our sons on Mount Moriah. In any empirical sense this seems more a rhetorical flourish than an accurate portrayal of our situation. But let us consider what follows: “By preferring my work, simply by giving it my time and attention,” he tells us, “I am sacrificing and at every moment all my other obligations: my obligation to the other others whom I know or don’t know, the billions of my fellows (without mentioning the animals that are even more other other than my fellows), my fellows who are dying of starvation and disease.” (The Gift of Death p69). This is a poignant moment indeed, but we would be mistaken to suppose it to be a sort of Tolstoyan abnegation of his literary work in the interest of a more direct attempt to help suffering humanity. Tolstoy was not a philosopher. Derrida is. In fact, there is no reason to suppose that the formulation is anything but a linguistic one. Derrida continued to prefer his work to his obligations to the others, as evidenced by his copious production of texts. This doesn’t mean that the Tolstoyan moment is somehow sincere in that it leads to a change of life, while the Derridean moment is insincere in that it doesn’t. It means only that the latter moment is a philosophical one, while the former is not.

Beardsworth worries at the accusations that Derrida’s work is too linguistic to have any direct political applications. But philosophy being a matter of words, it is necessarily linguistic, and indeed its whole raison d’être may be seen as conceptual analysis. Any relation to politics – or, for that matter, to anything else – may be seen as incidental. Indeed, there is here a certain affinity between philosophical and literary texts, although Derrida sometimes denies this. Of a Mallarmé text he declares that the words “finally refer only to their own game, and never really move towards anything else” (Acts of Literature p121), and talks of events “in which nothing happens,” or nothing other than “the space of writing” (p122). In the case of Derrida it too may be said that there is an “irreducible excess of the syntactic over the semantic” (p174).

There is here a certain contrast with the Anglo-American tradition of philosophy. Whether they achieve it or not, philosophers working in this tradition typically aim for an unambiguous style of writing which attempts to solve clearly-posed philosophical questions. It is perhaps not too harsh to see in writers like Quine, Davidson or Searle a certain authoritarian – Derrideans would say ‘phallagocentric’ – impulse at work There is no space in their writing for the reader to make her own interpretation: only one interpretation is to be allowed – the author’s. Further, by purporting to ‘solve’ problems rather than opening philosophy out to further questioning, analytic philosophers are in effect trying to close philosophy off. If a question is ‘solved’ then the scope for further philosophy is accordingly diminished.

Compare this with the generosity of a Derridean strategy. For him “one does not always write with a desire to be understood,” (A Taste for the Secret p30). Instead there is a matter of “leaving the other room for an intervention by which she will be able to write her own interpretation: the other will have to be able to sign in my text” (ATS p31). Thus he shows a hospitality to the reader that is lacking with analytic philosophy – with Derrida she is not to be bullied into accepting one interpretation rather than another, or indeed, any interpretation at all. Most important of all, the lack of closure in a Derridean text – the continual opening up of further questioning without any hope of an answer or of any application: the remorseless invention of whole new ‘sciences’ such as grammatology or archivology – means that there is infinite scope for philosophy. Analytic philosophers would deny us this. For them philosophy is a matter of solving problems. For Derrida this is naïve: if you delve deeply enough you will find that all questions come back to the same question. In Politics of Friendship he tells us that “The question ‘What is friendship?’, but also ‘Who is the friend (both or either sex)?’, is nothing but the question ‘What is philosophy?”’ (p240). No doubt analytic philosophers would say that this question itself either has an answer or it is meaningless. For Derrida neither is the case. Rather, the question is an impossible one. This need not, however, prevent us posing it, if, with Derrida, we are prepared to continue thinking the impossible.

© Roger Caldwell 2007

Roger Caldwell is a poet, philosopher and literary critic living in Essex. His book of philosophical poetry This Being Eden is published by Peterloo Press.

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