Everything Burns: Derrida’s Holocaust

SOMETIME AROUND 1989, Jacques Derrida must have agreed to give the opening keynote at the UCLA conference entitled “Nazism and the ‘Final Solution’: Probing the Limits of Representation.” Derrida must have agreed since, on 26 April 1990, in front of an undoubtedly sizable audience, he delivered that lecture, a reading of Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence” that has since become one of Derrida’s most influential and most generative texts.

The academic equivalent of a star-studded event — in Los Angeles no less! — the conference had been explicitly and centrally organized as a defensive call to arms against those who might question, in the name of historical probity, the historical profession’s strenuous policing of Holocaust testimony, evidence, and representation. The conference singled out Hayden White, himself a historian, as representative of the risks — and negationist, even fascistic, inclinations, however unwitting — courted by “postmodernist” claims. White participated in the conference, and he was duly included, along with numerous detractors of his, in the published proceedings. Derrida was not. Otherwise fleetingly mentioned in a bibliographic footnote or two, Derrida is missing from the archive and historical record. The difficult questions generated by the Holocaust, the debates that emerged around the proper understanding of Nazism, were inscribed on his person and on his work. They constitute still an unsettling part of his legacy, which challenges our relation to suffering and to mourning, and to events that remain without measure.

No doubt a minor or marginal event, perhaps the result of a mechanical or typographical accident, a nonevent, as it were, or better yet, a machine-event, the vanished or erased keynote-turned-major-intellectual-milestone constitutes an oddly fitting bequest for Derrida, the one-time figure of “Jewish mysticism” (as Jürgen Habermas charged) who inspired, according to some, the “deconstructive architecture” of Holocaust memorialization, while becoming, for others, something of a “Nazi” by association, a fellow traveler, at the very least a significant promoter of the blurring of distinction between victims and perpetrators, Nazis and Jews.

Derrida was more than vocal and unequivocal in his opposition to Nazism and his elaborate reflections on and condemnations of racism and anti-Semitism. It is equally true, however, that he has left a number of traces that should give pause to any pious account of his “positions” as transparently settled on the right side of history (or on the left side of the political spectrum), as well as to any opportunistic judgment banishing him to the pit of misguided politics and worse. Derrida implicated both sides of the Historikerstreit — the quarrel among historians about the comparability of the Holocaust — and showed a “terrifying” (his word) contamination and complicity on all sides of the Holocaust divide. Derrida thus infringes upon the very limits and divisions of what Karyn Ball has called “the disciplinary imaginary” of Holocaust discourse. He makes manifest the protocols and rules of this discourse, but, displacing and transforming them, Derrida also exposes their vanishing. If there is a lesson there, and I believe there is, it is one that still awaits learning.

It is often said that Derrida was a controversial or “polarizing” figure. In the supercharged and microwaved environment we persist on calling “the public sphere,” few epithets are as effective at cleansing or excluding any individual or collective, any deed or thought (not to mention image), from our brief and (apparently) vulnerable attention. Yet, it should not take long to recognize that Derrida was himself polarized. The thinker made famous for his undoing of binary opposites (back in 1966) was, as he strikingly put it in his last interview, “at war with himself.” Indeed, for every public “controversy” to which he was exposed, Derrida had already articulated — and interpellated us with — a more acute and potent version. Far from appeasing the fight or quelling the panic, Derrida was fanning the flames.

Consider his oft-repeated reference to the expulsion he suffered as a young adolescent in colonial Algeria (a country then known as “France”). Ahead of Nazi demands, the French had already reached the conclusion that the best education is selective education; they proceeded to legally expel from their legally segregated school system those Jewish children who had managed to make it into the schools. (The other natives were not so “lucky,” as fewer of them had been allowed to “integrate” in the first place.) This particular chapter in the history of anti-Semitism, which explicitly sensitized Derrida to the issue (he went so far as to suggest that it may have been the first of many reading lessons that launched him on his deconstructive way), was also and remarkably the occasion for a life-long allergy to Jewish communalism. For Derrida, there was no surplus value to being a victim.

It would be mistaken to understand this belief, or indeed, anything Derrida ever wrote or said, as a personal matter (say, an instance of Jewish self-hatred) or as a case of “subjective” opinion (or abstract leveling) by a quirky philosopher. The disturbing rapprochement Derrida seems to have identified early on would recur in his work — and in his life — in ways that should have gained more attention, for it testifies to much larger concerns that constitute an inextricable part of his explosive legacy. Derrida was unflinching in calling attention to the contradictions (a mild word in this context, and not Derrida’s favorite) that plague our current memorious epoch. In a range of ways, our world evokes the Holocaust — from the role played by recruited Nazis in the shaping of American foreign policy (documented by Christopher Simpson in Blowback) to the banalizing identification of proliferating “Hitlers” (Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milošević, Osama bin Laden, and recently Vladimir Putin); from the welfare state to the carceral state and the increased stripping of legal rights from so-called aliens and terrorists; from routine deportations to permanent camps, north of the border or east of Schengen; from the obscene bombing of civilians to the carefully calculated collateral spillage of “precision” assassination — and the extent of these evocations, and their variety, might offer reasons for us to re-examine Derrida’s complex relationship to Nazism and to the Holocaust, and ours too. Indeed, the planetary functioning of the Holocaust in a generalized victimology, as well as in the self-righteous enforcement of militarized humanitarianism (what Jeremy Scahill recently described as “dirty wars”), and other political and legal international claims and positionings — these require a different set of reflective vectors, many of which were in fact provided by Derrida’s “controversial” and polarized writings.

Few will need to be reminded of Derrida’s “damning” association with such figures as Martin Heidegger and Paul de Man, and none could ignore the significance of Derrida in the post-Holocaust constellation that brings together Theodor Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Jean-François Lyotard, and others in their explorations of the darker centers and enduring “black sites” of the modern West. Accordingly, and rightly or wrongly, Derrida (that’s “Jewish Derrida” for some) has been understood as reviving rabbinical casuistry or cabalistic hermeneutics. Derrida surely inscribed his Jewishness on the surface of numerous texts, and he engaged with authors whose own Jewish concerns were explicitly thematized in his readings (Levinas, Jabès, Freud, Celan, Benjamin, Scholem). At the same time, his reflections on the Nazi question (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Schmitt, de Man) could not fail to rattle the mind — if not the smug conscience. Again, this is not personal but political. To the extent that “deconstruction” has a public image, it would be hard to disentangle in it these (apparently) opposite threads: “the Jew, the German.”

And this is why Derrida rejected facile identifications with regard to the victims of the Holocaust (even with victims, or experiences, he could have claimed as “his own”). “I do not believe that we as yet know how to think what Nazism is,” he insisted. He also refused to assume the dubious innocence, much less the moral victory and easy pronouncements, allegedly granted to victors and “understanding” judges (or frightened cold warriors). Derrida barely ever invoked the now hegemonic Hebrew term “Shoah” or the troublingly emblematic “Auschwitz” (“I find a bit indecent, indeed, obscene, the mechanical nature of improvised trials instigated against all those whom one thinks one can accuse of not having named or thought ‘Auschwitz’”) and persisted in writing the word “holocaust” without capitalizing (on) it.

Indeed, Derrida’s writings deploy the word “holocaust” in a variety of contexts, at times recalled to its original, Greek sources as if current usage could (or should) be ignored, at other times stunningly decontextualized. (“I am still dreaming of a second holocaust that would not come too late,” he wrote; or again: “Of the holocaust there would remain only the most anonymous support without support, that which in any event never will have belonged to us, does not regard us. This would be like a purification of purification by fire. Not a single trace, an absolute camouflaging by means of too much evidence.”) In Derrida’s work, “holocaust” is subjected to iterations that could almost be said to aim at or, more precisely, to tend toward banalization — unless it is the precise opposite.

Derrida gravely granted uniqueness, but he resisted the rule that would make the Holocaust into the fundamental exception. (“I know that it is unique, of course. But as to knowing whether one can make this uniqueness into an example and an exemplary point of reference, for me this remains very problematic with regard to other genocides.”) Most importantly, Derrida always recalled and underscored “the general complicity of Europe with the Nazis” and refused to limit his concerns to a “totalitarianism” that, restricted to Nazism and Stalinism (a once-controversial conflation that has now become a commonplace), would exonerate liberalism a little too hastily. “Where is the worse?” he asked. With what, in other words, has freedom not allied itself? The complicities and contaminations he scrutinized corresponded, he thought, to a larger program, “a program and a combinatory whose power remains abyssal. In all rigor it exculpates none of the discourses which can thus exchange their power. It leaves no place open for any arbitrating authority. Nazism was not born in the desert.” In the desert of the real, Derrida taught, in the wasteland that grows still, everything burns. The “all-burning” was in fact the name he preferred for the German Opfer, and for endless holocausts.

Derrida, as I mentioned, had confessed to feeling simultaneously disturbed by his early expulsion from school (under anti-Semitic Vichy laws in colonial Algeria) as well as by the gregarious repli of the Jewish community to which he ambivalently but unapologetically belonged. In a gesture that recalls the uncanny violence of this early association, Derrida insisted on the “correspondence” between the German Jewish art critic Meyer Schapiro and, well, the now-notorious Nazi supporter Martin Heidegger. Later, Derrida would also point to the horizon shared by Edmund Husserl and, again, Heidegger with regard to the “‘spiritual’ determination of European humanity.” Husserl would, after all, have excluded from Europe’s spirit “Eskimoes, Indians, traveling zoos or gypsies permanently wandering all over Europe.” At the UCLA conference, Derrida further invoked an equally troubling proximity between Walter Benjamin and the National Socialist program of extermination. Explicitly addressing Heidegger’s engagement with Nazism, Derrida concluded by suggesting that the ashes of “spirit in flame,” as Heidegger deployed it, may have to be thought together with a historiality that ambiguously includes “the Hebraic ruah.” “Sooner or later,” he accordingly wrote of Paul de Man and himself, “our common innocence will not fail to appear to everyone’s eyes, as the best intentioned of all our machinations.”

It is not, as some have charged, that Derrida abolished the distinction between victim and perpetrator, between Nazism and non-Nazism. Obsessed with the work of mourning throughout his life, Derrida saw us (“but who, us?” he liked to ask) as living on in a world of impossible mourning. More than on trauma (and its surpluses of attention to victims and the irreparable), Derrida insisted on an otherwise political mourning, one where it is uncertain who or what is mourned and by whom, who would mourn first, how many can be friended (which means mourned), and under what conditions.

Derrida’s impossible mourning thus poses an impossible but inescapable question, which renders inoperative the American “choice” to “forgive or forget” (unless it is “to buy or to bomb” now). Derrida, as we mourn him still, interrogated the all-too-obvious relation of mourning and memory, underscoring finitude and failure and fall (tombe, in French, which also means tomb). “There the fall maintains, embalms, and mummifies itself, monumemorizes and names itself — falls (to the tomb(stone)) [tombe].” Skeptical of proliferating memorials and memorializations, Derrida went on to suggest that

[…] We must rethink the temporalization of a traumatism […]. For the wound remains open by our terror before the future and not only the past. […] It is the future that determines the unappropriability of the event, not the present or the past. Or at least, if it is the present or the past, it is only insofar as it bears on its body the terrible sign of what might or perhaps will take place, which will be worse than anything that has ever taken place.

As we remember the holocausts and claim their victims for ourselves, are we remembering? Are we mourning? Derrida knew something about mourning, and about holocausts. He knew something about ashes. He may have been fanning the flames. But he did not start the fire.


Gil Anidjar is a professor in the Departments of Religion and Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS) at Columbia University. His most recent book is Blood: A Critique of Christianity (2014).