Jacques Derrida’s Urgency, Today

What might we make of Derrida’s legacy, 10 years after his death?

October 9, 2014

Jacques Derrida’s Urgency, Today

JACQUES DERRIDA’s conceptual innovations are interventions, “inventive engagements” whose apparent playfulness operates on the level of the signifier, challenging what one could call the repressed in Occidental philosophy. What has been denounced by Derrida’s detractors as futile word plays are anything but: They lead us to the heart of the most serious questions, including the most urgent political issues we face today.

When, for example, Derrida introduces the term hantologie, “hauntology,” which is, in French, almost homophonous with the French word for “ontology,” it is a conceptual provocation in the most radical sense. It does at least three things: It undermines the traditional discourse of philosophy as ontology, it challenges thinking to show itself “hospitable to the ghost,” and it alludes to a “hontologie,” introducing the element of shame (“honte”) into the very business of philosophy. Let me elaborate: Ontology is, first, defied for limiting itself to “what is,” for validating “presence” only, be it past, present, or future “presence,” and thereby refusing to acknowledge the specters that always haunt it. Second (and this point, closely related to the first, will need to be developed a bit more before I address the third), philosophy is called to

show itself hospitable to the law of the ghost, to the spectral experience and to the memory of the ghost, of that which is neither dead nor alive, more than dead and more than living, only surviving, hospitable to the law of the most imperious memory, even though it is the most effaced and the most effaceable memory, but for that very reason the most demanding.[i]

Welcoming the law of the ghost is for Derrida the task of the philosopher, or, as he writes, of the “philosopher-deconstructor,” and explicitly so. The question is not so much how to address the ghost or whether or not one can question or address the ghost — rather, the question is: “Could one address oneself in general if already some ghost did not come back?”[ii] Referring to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Derrida continues: “If he [or she] loves justice at least, the ‘scholar’ of the future, the ‘intellectual’ of tomorrow” should “learn” to address him- or herself to the other, and to learn it “from the ghost.” For Derrida, this task of the scholar is a matter of life or death: it is the most urgent responsibility and, at the same time, one that needs infinite differentiation, infinite patience.

The provocation is here truly a call-for, and a call-forward, toward a commitment that would open a different future: a future in which those who have been silenced in death and silenced beyond death would teach the “scholar” how to address himself or herself to the other. As such, Derrida’s thinking has always been deeply political.

Literature’s hospitality toward the law of the phantom is certainly related to the fact that, as Derrida writes, the “modern history of the institution named literature in Europe over the last three or four centuries is contemporary with and indissociable from a contestation of the death penalty.”[iii] This is one of the reasons why Derrida’s thinking has a strong affinity to literature. As countless examples show, literature welcomes the law of the ghost — from William Shakespeare and Mary Shelley to Toni Morrison and Sherman Alexie, to name only some well-known authors from the Anglophone world. Walter Benjamin’s famous thesis, from the unfinished text “On the Concept of History,” that “there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” could be the motto above all of Derrida’s texts.

By contrast, Derrida observes that not a single Western philosopher, from Plato on, has opposed the death penalty as such. In his later seminars, Derrida identifies the death penalty as the “cement” or “solder” of the “onto-theological-political,” the “prosthetic artifact that keeps it upright.”[iv] Noting the “terrible ambiguity” that lies in the fact that “sovereign power” is understood as “executing power,”[v] Derrida asserts that were one to ask the question, “What is the theologico-political?,” the “answer would take shape thus: the theologico-political is a system, an apparatus of sovereignty in which the death penalty is necessarily inscribed. There is theologico-political wherever there is death penalty.”

This yields for Derrida, as a consequence, a new outline of deconstruction’s scope: “Deconstruction, what is called by that name, is perhaps, perhaps the deconstruction of the death penalty, of the logocentric, logonomocentric scaffolding in which the death penalty is inscribed or prescribed,” a scaffolding linked, as Derrida shows, to the “Abrahamic and above all the Christian history of sovereignty, and thus of the possibility of the death penalty as theologico-political violence.”[vi] Rather than attenuating the broad sway of this assertion, the word “perhaps,” repeated and underlined in the repetition, actually reinforces it: As Derrida’s reflections on the word “perhaps” (rather than “maybe”) in Politics of Friendship show, the word indicates the always open, but never guaranteed, possibility of departure from the calculating discourse of definitions and accusations (“category” comes from the Greek “kategorein,” “to accuse”) in order to allow for the arrival of the unexpected and unpredictable. A departure from the theologico-political principle of sovereignty that has marked the entire Western tradition in philosophy, politics, law, economics, education, etc., would indeed effectuate a “mutation” — a “mutation” of which Derrida says in the context of a reflection on the “war on terror” that “will have to take place.”[vii]

The third connotation of ontology as “hauntology” I announced above lies in the fact that for a francophone ear, it is impossible to miss the homophony between “ontologie” and “hontologie,” the latter including the French word for “shame,” “honte.” “Hontologie” would be thus the logos of shame. Derrida opens his reflections in The Animal That Therefore I Am with the question of shame and of “pudeur,” modesty or, as the English say it so tellingly, self-consciousness, in a commentary of the second chapter of Genesis. Self-consciousness starts with shame. As David Wills writes in his commentary on Derrida’s text: “Shame is precisely that complicated system of self-reflection that begins with consciousness of our nakedness.”[viii] Wills continues:

from this perspective, [shame] is the conceptual machinery itself, a machine set in motion by itself, always already on. Before being the automatism of blood rushing to the face, the pure life of spontaneous blush, shame is the originary technicity that is the origin of technology, for it is on the basis of it that we inaugurate the technological drive.[ix]

In addition, I understand “hontologie” as the “logos of shame” in light of a triple scandalon. First of all, Derrida underlines this “most stupefying” and, really, most scandalous “fact about the history of Western philosophy,” already mentioned above:

never, to my knowledge, has any philosopher as a philosopher, in his or her own strictly and systematically philosophical discourse, never has any philosophy as such contested the legitimacy of the death penalty. From Plato to Hegel, from Rousseau to Kant (who was undoubtedly the most rigorous of them all), they expressly, each in his own way, and sometimes not without much hand-wringing ([as in] Rousseau), took a stand for the death penalty.[x]

Elizabeth Rottenberg notes that this fact is “also perhaps the most terrifying. Philosophy (ontology) has been soldered (soudée), welded, wedded tothe death penalty and to the principle of sovereignty from which it is inseparable.”It is precisely for this reason, as Derrida says, that “a ‘deconstruction’of what is most hegemonic in philosophy must […] pass through a deconstruction of the death penalty.”[xi] 

Michael Naas places Derrida’s observation in the context of two additional, and no less shameful, facts:

This sweeping claim about philosophy, however interesting in itself, might profitably be juxtaposed with Derrida’s question in Rogues [2005],“why are there so few democrat philosophers (if there have been any at all), from Plato to Heidegger?” and his claim in The Animal That Therefore I Am [2008] that no philosopher qua philosopher has questioned the single, indivisible line distinguishing man from the animal.

In short, Derrida invites us to

ask along with him what notions of cruelty, sacrifice, or blood, what conception of the dignity of life or natural law, what religion, would allow philosophers across centuries, traditions, and languages — though particularly in European modernity — to maintain a discourse that is at once pro-death penalty, anti-democratic, and overwhelmingly anthropocentric.[xii] 

What links the three for Derrida is their affirmation of what he calls “carno-phallogocentrism” that is as irreducibly driven by cruelty as it is by the desire of sovereignty. 

The implications of Derrida’s thought are relevant to politics in general, but also to the specific political reality with which we are faced. While today’s news is awash in blood shed by the enemies of the West in the “war on terror,” while the “cruor” of blood screams out of the headlines of major and minor news outlets, and understandably so, the blood shed by the sophisticated, high-tech version of cruelty is all but wiped off the news. If, as Derrida repeatedly quotes Carl Schmitt, the sovereign is the one who decides over life and death, and the one who decides over the exception — that is, over the conditions in which national or international laws no longer apply — the war conducted with “armed unmanned aerial vehicles,” commonly known as drones, is the most deadly and the most remote assertion of sovereignty. “Remote” here takes the three meanings of “far-reaching,” “far away from public perception,” and “via remote-control”: a remote-control death penalty without trial, and in the majority of cases even without identification of the victim. The CIA drone war has transformed a vast area in Pakistan into “the world’s largest prison,” with the constant “specter of death” looming inescapably from above.[xiii] American lawyer Jennifer Gibson, co-author of the Stanford University/NYU study Living Under Drones, has describedthe “CIA killer drones programme” as “death penalty without trial, and the new face of state lawlessness in the name of counter-terrorism.”[xiv] According to data collected by the nonprofit organization Reprieve, to date, “the United States has used drones to execute without trial some 4,700 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia — all countries against whom it has not declared war. The US’ drones programme is a covert war being carried out by the CIA.”[xv]

As journalist and filmmaker Madiha Tahir, director of the November 2013 documentary Wounds of Waziristan, puts it, the US “sees itself as the center of the world,” while the border region of Pakistan, Waziristan, where most drones attacks occur, “is at the margins of [the] margin”:

Whether it’s true or not, people feel that with militants, there is some degree of control. You can negotiate. There is some cause and effect relationship. But there is no cause and effect with a drone, as far as people in the area are concerned. It creates an acute kind of trauma that is not limited to the actual attack. It has to do with the constant threat flying above.[xvi]

For the concerned population, drones are the terror of a permanent death threat looming in the blue sky. For citizens living at the “margins of the margin,” drone attacks are state terrorism conducted against them at the push of a button from thousands of miles away. As Tahir’s testimony shows, this cruelty is all the more lethal as it is covert: not or hardly monitored by the citizens whose taxes pay for it, it is the result of the highest technological sophistication, operated, when seen from the self-perceived “center,” i.e., very remote from the actual “theater of operation,” with the claim of “surgical precision.” In that center, it is, in other words, hardly perceived and certainly hardly ever referred to as “cruelty.”

Perhaps one could establish the following parallel: the destruction inflicted by drones in predominantly Muslim countries is perceived as acceptable in the United States and the West because of its asserted “surgical” nature, in the same way as the death penalty is acceptable to many in the United States at the condition of being executed under anesthesia or, as Peggy Kamuf provocatively puts it, at the condition of being an “anesthetic.”[xvii] In both cases, “cruelty” is in the public Western perception numbed, anesthetized, if not abolished. By contrast, for the people at the margin of the margin, the drone war is brutally arbitrary, wanton, and bloody, with family members being torn to bits by missiles arriving unannounced, out of the blue sky.

The drone war exemplifies, thus, the utter delocalization and thus expropriation Derrida associated with modern warfare and its tele-technoscience, and doubly so: for the victim, killed by someone via remote control, from thousands of miles away, and for the perpetrator, killing someone by remote control, thousands of miles away. At the same time, while tele-technoscience is highly deterritorialized, “the whole technoindustrial structure of hegemonic countries,” Derrida remarks, depends on the “last nonvirtualizable terrestrial places”: territories with oil reserves,[xviii] the latter often being exploited with little regard for the populations who actually live there, but with massive support for the elites who rule them.

The drone war also exemplifies one of the two “ages” violence has, according to Derrida, in our “wars of ‘religion.’” What Derrida wrote 20 years ago has an almost terrifying relevance today. I will thus conclude with a quote from the 1994 text “Faith and Knowledge”:

One [age of violence] appears “contemporary,” in sync or in step with the hypersophistication of military tele-technology — of “digital” and cyberspaced culture. The other is a “new archaic violence” […]. It counters the first and everything it represents. Revenge. Resorting, in fact, to the same resources of mediatic power, it reverts […] as closely as possible to the body proper and to the premachinal living being. In any case, to its desire and to its phantasm. Revenge is taken against the decorporalizing and expropriating machine by resorting — reverting — to bare hands, to the sexual organs or to primitive tools, often to weapons other than firearms. What is referred to as “killings” and “atrocities” — words never used in “clean” or “proper” wars, where, precisely, the dead are no longer counted (guided or “intelligent” missiles directed at entire cities, for instance) — is here supplanted by tortures, beheadings and mutilations of all sorts. What is involved is always avowed vengeance, often declared as sexual revenge: rapes, mutilated genitals or severed hands, corpses exhibited, heads parades, as not too long ago in France, impaled on the end of stakes […]. This is the case, for example, but it is only an example, in Algeria today, in the name of Islam, invoked by both belligerent parties, each in its own way. These are also symptoms of a reactive and negative recourse, the vengeance of the body proper against an expropriatory and delocalizing tele-technoscience, identified with the globality of the market, with military-capitalistic hegemony, with the globalatinization of the European democratic model, in its double form: secular and religious. […] This archaic and ostensibly more savage radicalization of “religious” violence claims, in the name of “religion,” to allow the living community to rediscover its roots, its place, its body and its idiom intact (unscathed, safe, pure, proper). It spreads death and unleashes self-destruction in a desperate (auto-immune) gesture that attacks the blood of its own body: as though thereby to eradicate uprootedness and reappropriate the sacredness of life safe and sound.”[xix]

These are texts we need to reread today. We need them to reflect on the different forms of hegemony against which revenge is directed, but also by which abyssal despair such revenge is fueled.


Elisabeth Weber is Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Recent book publications include Speaking about Torture, co-edited with Julie Carlson (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), and the edited collection Living Together. Jacques Derrida’'s Communities of Violence and Peace (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

[i] Jacques Derrida, “Prolegomena” to “First name of Benjamin,” first presented on April 1990 at the opening of the colloquium held at UCLA, “Nazism and the ‘Final Solution,’ Probing the Limits of Representation.” In: Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar, New York: Routledge 2002, p. 259.

[ii] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, transl. Peggy Kamuf, New York: Routledge 1994, 221.

[iii] Jacques Derrida, The Death Penalty, Volume 1, transl. Peggy Kamuf, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2014, p. 30.

[iv] Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow … : A Dialogue, trans.Jeff Fort (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 148: the keystone, or, if you prefer, the cement, the weld, as I just said, of the onto-theologico-political.” Elizabeth Rottenberg proposes an alternative translation, see endnote xi.

[v] The Death Penalty, p. 5.

[vi] Ibid., p. 23.

[vii] Jacques Derrida, “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides,” in: Giovanna Borradori, ed, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2003, p. 106.

[viii] David Wills, “The Blushing Machine,” Parrhesia Journal, p. 39: http://www.parrhesiajournal.org/parrhesia08/parrhesia08_wills.pdf

[ix] David Wills, “The Blushing Machine,” p. 40.

[x] For What Tomorrow, p. 146.

[xi] Elizabeth Rottenberg, “Cruelty and Its Vicissitudes,” Southern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 50, Spindel Supplement 2012, p. 148.

[xii]Michael Naas, “The Philosophy and literature of the death penalty: Two sides of the same sovereign,” in:Southern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 50, Spindel Supplement 2012, p. 52.

[xiii] Jennifer Gibson, “Living with death by drone,” Los Angeles Times, October 4, 2012, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/oct/04/opinion/la-oe-gibson-drones-civilians-20121004

[xiv] http://www.reprieve.org.uk/investigations/drones/. See also


[xv]http://www.reprieve.org.uk/investigations/drones/. For the numbers of victims, the website links to:

http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/category/projects/drones/, See also: http://www.reprieve.org.uk/press/2014_06_19_PUB_UN_expert_drones_must_be_curbed/

[xvi]Alex Pasternack, “Life in the Dronescape: An Interview with Madiha Tahir,” Motherboard, October 29, 2013, http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/life-in-the-dronescape-an-interview-with-madiha-tahir

[xvii] Peggy Kamuf, “Protocol: Death Penalty Addiction,” in: Southern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 50, Spindel Supplement 2012, p. 5.

[xviii] “Autoimmunity,” p. 106.

[xix] Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge,” in: Acts of Religion, p. 88-89.


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