OCTOBER 9, 2014
Plus de restes
WITH REMARKABLE INSISTENCE and uniformity, recent commemorations of Jacques Derrida, occasioned by the 10th anniversary of his death, have shown preoccupation with the question of remains. Exemplary in this regard is the article “Que reste-t-il de Jacques Derrida?” (“What remains of Jacques Derrida?”) by Michael Behrent and Héloïse Lhérété in Sciences Humaines.[i] A great deal of anxiety underlies queries such as the one Behrent and Lhérété are making, be they full of reverence or contempt. While Derrida-philes worry that what remains is too little and that the intellectual influence the grand master of deconstruction used to exert is fading, his detractors bemoan what they consider to be the undiminishing clout of his thought across the humanities and, to a lesser extent, the social sciences and legal studies.
A panoramic look at “what remains” is part and parcel of the work of mourning that takes stock of and accounts for every single trace of the lost object. Derrida himself commenced the work of mourning his own absence in his written texts, as well as interviews, and carried this work through whenever he invoked, for instance, the issues of legacy, his testamentary desire, and the aspiration to leave marks on the French language. But it also matters who raises such concerns and how. Who has the right to mourn (above all, publicly) someone who, across virtually his works, has been in mourning for himself, without end? Those who knew him personally? His close disciples? Official legatees? No one?
An indication that something is going awry in the current propagation of accounts of and accountings for the mourned object is that “What remains of Derrida?” elliptically means “What remains identifiable of his texts, his themes, even his influences?” The same motivating force unites tributes and diatribes that share the goal of identifying, fixing, and passing a decision upon the remains in question; in short, the goal of determining a legacy. As if 10 years, or any number of years, for that matter, were sufficient to endow the survivors — all of us — with the privilege to do so and, on this basis, to define the future reception of Derrida.
If you are au courant with Benoît Peeters’s recently published monumental biography, you will remember that the note Derrida had asked his son to read over his grave amounted to an interdiction of mourning: “[…] he begs you not to be sad […]. Always prefer life and never stop affirming survival.”[ii] To be sure, this posthumous request does not go so far as Jean-François Lyotard’s explicit prohibition (unless it is a constative or a normative, rather than a prescriptive statement), “There shall be no mourning [il n’y aura pas de deuil],” which Derrida reported in his funeral oration for the dead friend. “This was about ten years ago,” he adds[iii] — the same time span that separates us from his own death.“There shall be no mourning” does not spell out either utter oblivion or persistent melancholia. Instead, it signals, by a sort of via negativa, a mode of relating to a body of thought, of work, and perhaps to a life that does not rely on any mechanisms for identifying the remains in question.
In an entirely different context — in his defense of another friend, Paul de Man — Derrida gives a name to the unidentifiable afterlife of thought, work, and life “itself.” That name is biodegradability. “The worst but also the best that one could wish for a piece of writing,” he writes,
is that it be biodegradable. And thus that it not be so. As biodegradable, it is on the side of life, assimilated, thanks to bacteria, by a culture that it nourishes, enriches, irrigates, even fecundates but on the condition that it lose its identity, its figure, or its singular signature, its proper name.[iv]
Isn’t this what one should wish for deconstruction and for the proper name “Jacques Derrida,” too? Isn’t this what is already happening (and has been happening for quite some time before 2004) to deconstruction, despite all the efforts at circumscribing its remains? Wouldn’t its biodegradability imply the deconstruction of deconstruction, not as a formal meta-critique turning the tables on deconstructive hypercriticism, but as the intensification of the work or the play Derrida has favored in texts that bear his singular signature?
In this scenario, both more and less remains: plus de restes. Bereft of clearly identifiable boundaries, a piece of thought or of writing is everywhere in its effects and nowhere to be found as such. Thanks to a strange tradeoff that does not fit within the limits of economic logic (the best and the worst coincide), the singular signature and the idiom step aside, give themselves up, diffuse into the soil of culture so as to make future thinking possible. To me, the acceptance of such a condition betokens the fecundity and, especially, the maturity of thought, freed from schools, circles, and societies that invariably mutilate it by forcing it to conform to an identifiable and easily caricatured image. It could well be that biodegradability is how the gift of thinking is given in Derrida’s aporetic sense of the gift, according to which neither the giver nor the receiver is aware of the giving.
So, why does biodegradability stand not only for the best but also for the worst one could wish for a piece of writing? Derrida hints that a non-biodegradable remainder offers resistance to assimilation into the so-called cultural milieu and that it constitutes “the remains that remain to be thought,” as he notes on the same page of the essay. It is this remainder that is lost when thought or writing dissolves into compost for ideas. But what if something other than the remains of singularity and idiomaticity remain to be thought? What if these remains belong to the anonymous stratum of existence, which has always been inaccessible to metaphysics?
By “anonymous existence” I do not mean Heidegger’s es gibt or Levinas’s il y a — the thought that “it gives” or “there is” being. For me, the names, the synonyms, of this anonymity are plants, growth, and physis. After much energy has gone into deconstructing the contrived opposition between “nature” and “culture,” now is the time to return to physis after deconstruction and to affirm its burgeoning emergence that offers an unacknowledged model for the thinking of being as a tireless giving of itself.And to return to plants, the growing beings par excellence, the metonymies of this emergence. I doubt that Derrida would have subscribed to (literally: put his signature or his name under) this turn or return; however, faithfulness to a legacy does not require that one keep reiterating the same doctrinal contents or that one repeat the gesture, whether theoretical or practical, that led to these contents’ enunciation. If assessments along the lines of “What remains of Derrida?” are to be worthwhile, they ought to pay attention to the oft-times unexpected venues for thinking and being opened by deconstruction as it survives, unrecognized, in its ongoing “descent” toward the biodegraded.
Vitoria-Gasteiz, September 2014
Urging us to come back to life
It is not possible to omit and forget the work of Jacques Derrida because it represents a stage in the story of Western philosophy, attempting to deconstruct our past metaphysics. No doubt, the necessity for questioning and deconstructing our traditional logic already exists in the texts of Heidegger who, himself, does not ignore Nietzsche’s criticism of Platonism, but Derrida endeavored actually to carry out such an undertaking. And it is not an easy task! The merit of Derrida has been to try to unite deconstruction and faithfulness, for example, with regard to the thought of Heidegger, but also to his own Jewish tradition. This is a proof of his will to search for truth without letting himself be silenced by discourses unconcerned about the patient and humble work of thinking, which some intellectuals prefer to anathematize rather than wonder about themselves and their relation to truth.
Certainly, as many of his contemporaries did, Derrida, at times, lost his path by favoring appearances, in a sort of reversal of the subjection to suprasensitive values or idealities. It is not by chance that he has been called “the playboy of philosophy,” that he did not mind appearing on stage during his classes or his talks, or acting as his own character in a film. However, at the same time, he spent hours on questioning about the language, the logos, which underlies Western thought — an essential task in the process of deconstruction, that most philosophers neglect, thus undermining their claim to be able to overcome past metaphysics.Indeed, what is metaphysics if not a particular economy of discourse, a certain model of predication, a linguistic manner of producing meaning that aims to be the one and only capable of revealing, or making appear, truth? Derrida was not artless enough to leap over the task of challenging language itself as a possible way out of our traditional manner of thinking.
Did Derrida, for all that, succeed in leaving our past metaphysics while avoiding the risks of falling into another, and perhaps worse, nihilism? It is not certain, but he continued indicating the way to be followed, and he also created the Collège international de philosophie in order that a place would exist where researchers could explore new philosophical perspectives.
Thus, whatever our hesitation in considering, for example, “différance” and “dissemination” as words operating in a really new philosophical horizon, we cannot deny that these strange notions have shaken the ground of our metaphysical tradition and altered our conviction that the rigor of thought cannot free itself from dependence on previous concepts, with their correlative impact on our subjectivity. After Nietzsche and Heidegger, Derrida invites, and even forces us, to open up a path toward a new manner of becoming human, in which our responsibility for thinking and discovering the words capable of passing it on are of crucial importance.
Paris, September 2014
Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. He is the author of The Event of the Thing: Derrida’s Post-Deconstructive Realism (2009), Groundless Existence: The Political Ontology of Carl Schmitt (2010), and numerous articles in phenomenology, political philosophy, and environmental thought. His most recent books include Phenomena—Critique—Logos: The Project of Critical Phenomenology (2014) and The Philosopher’s Plant: An Intellectual Herbarium (2014).
Luce Irigaray is a French philosopher, linguist, psychoanalyst, and cultural theorist. She is the Director of Research at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique in Paris.
[i]Michael Behrent and Héloïse Lhérété, “Que reste-t-il de Jacques Derrida?” Sciences Humaines, September 15, 2014.
[ii] Benoît Peeters, Derrida: A Biography (Cambridge, UK & Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013), p. 541.
[iii] Jacques Derrida, The Work of Mourning, translated by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2001), p. 217.
[iv] Jacques Derrida, “Biodegradables: Seven Diary Fragments,” translated by Peggy Kamuf, Critical Inquiry 15, Summer 1989, p. 824.