Jacques Derrida

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Jacques Derrida (July 15, 1930 – October 8, 2004) was an Algerian-born French literary critic and philosopher of Jewish descent, most often referenced as the founder of "deconstruction" or, by more unsympathetic theorists, "deconstructionism".

Abraham's sacrifice 321-2
Descartes's withdrawal-into-self 34
on Heidegger 9-10
ontology versus heauntology 238
pure notion of gift 56
On the Spint 9

In the work of Slavoj Žižek

Žižek’s encounters with Derrida belong to a tradition of mutual Lacanian– Derridean agonistics in which Derrida’s thinking was initially dismissed as mere “textualism”. From the reminder that phenomena take recognizable shape only through interpretative artifice, and that an irreducible gap remains between event and its linguistic description (Derrida 1976: 158), it was too quickly concluded that Derrida eradicates any referent and, in an auto-created world of self-referential textuality, celebrates a free play of differences without purchase on reality and too playfully ironic to be practically relevant.

Sensitive to Derrida’s (Derrida 2003: 87–8) objections, Žižek belongs to another generation of critics. Retaining the assumption that Derrida sharply divides text from referent, or equally “phenomenal” from “absolute Other”, Žižek’s charge is the reverse of textual narcissism (“Th e Real of Sexual Diff erence”). Supposedly, in a Levinasian about-turn, the “later Derrida” negates the textual imagination (e.g. legal systems, political measures) to preserve a pure, transcendent referent (a hypostatized absolute Other such as justice itself). “Derrida’s operation”, Žižek argues, merely turns from “textualism” to a different, but equally practically impotent, impossibility. He argues that Lacanian logic, represented inter alia through Lacan’s “Borromean knot”, copes better with the complexities of ethical practice.

The Lacan–Derrida encounter is consistently based on mutual misconstrual, and Žižek’s reading is no exception. However, unpacking his misinterpretation of Derrida’s operation has the value of clarifying Lacan’s ontological stance concerning the traumatic Real and the complex logic of human appropriation, which, incidentally, finds allegiance, not opposition, in Derrida’s operation, properly understood in terms of the “plural logic of the aporia”.

Using Creon and Antigone as metonyms for two extreme attitudes (“unprincipled pragmatism” and “totalitarianism”), Žižek takes up Derrida’s insistence that one ignores at one’s peril the irreducible gap between economic, phenomenal reality (the human law Creon invokes) and the aneconomic, transcendent Divine Other (obeyed by Antigone). To close the gap by denying all transcendent Otherness in the name of phenomenal reality can only be to promote the unprincipled pragmatism exemplified by Creon, whose refusal to contravene the letter of human law makes of him “a pragmatic state politician, mercilessly crushing any activity that would destabilize the smooth functioning of the state and civil peace” (“The Real of Sexual Difference”: 68). However, to leave open the gap by submitting phenomenal reality to a hypostatized Divinity is instead to risk “totalitarianism”. Antigone remains blindly faithful to the singular call of the Divine, which nobody else can understand. As a proto-totalitarian, her “decision” to bury her brother is the result not of careful deliberation but of her insistence on her Divine, sovereign right to do just what she decides, whatever it is.

Between unprincipled pragmatism and totalitarianism, one faces what Lacan (SXI: 210–12) calls “the mugger’s choice” (i.e. the injunction to choose “your money or your life”). Th is is no choice at all: a circularity persists whereby, in choosing one option, the other is lost; yet, because they are interdependent, this is also to lose the original choice. Negatively, in rejecting one option and gaining the other, one thereby regains the rejected original. Fearing the terror of singular totalitarianism, which threatens the social edifice, one might institute a shared, regulatory legal economy that aims instead for justice. However, the consequence of perfecting this economy by eradicating “evils” (unfairness, singularities, etc.) is not the hoped-for justice, but rigid prescriptions that apply badly “from above” to dynamic ethical realities. Ironically, when laws prevail over justice, law becomes totalitarian. Conversely, fearing the merciless strictures of unbending law, one might, like Antigone, answer to an anarchic, singular idea of “Justice itself” (“Th e Real of Sexual Difference”: 67). But all individuals, then, may legitimately apply personally held supreme principles at their own discretion. Th e consequence of this successful “totalitarianism”, where no overall principle suffices to arbitrate between power struggles, must be unprincipled pragmatism. Th is lose/lose circularity suggests that viable ethical practice cannot depend on either/or choices between binary opposites.

On the impotence of binary thinking, Žižek and Derrideans concur. Žižek claims, however, that Derrida cannot off er an adequate heuristic to negotiate the “mugger’s choice” between immanence (Creon) and transcendence (Antigone), because his thinking remains trapped within a religious matrix that understands the Real in terms of sharply opposing ontological spheres. Derrida, for example, “retains the irreducible opposition between … the messianic call of justice and its ‘ontologization’, its transposition into a set of positive legal and political measures” (“Th e Real of Sexual Difference”: 65). Further, all “determinate economico-political measures” will betray the transcendent principle of, for example, justice because Derrida has merely replaced a problematic positive figure of the absolute Other, associated with the “metaphysics of presence”, with its equally problematic conception as a hypostatized absolute absence. Th is means that our relationship with the Other cannot be one of active hermeneutic uncovering. Instead, we must respect the purity of the absolute Other by renouncing any determinate structure involving real people in real circumstances and embracing a “primordial passivity, sentiency, of responding, of being infinitely indebted to and responsible for the call of an Otherness that never acquires positive features” (ibid.). This move, Žižek argues, underpins the unacceptable “lesson of deconstruction”: facing the impossible, we may justly renounce any demand for determinate decisions concerning practical measures.

By contrast, Žižek adopts Lacan’s supposedly alternative understanding of the Real as one ontological region, whose “immanent transcendence” presents as trauma. Lacan argues that the Other can neither be hypostatized nor negated and thus, as Copjec notes, “eternally returns or repeats” (Copjec 2002: 96). The “hard kernel” of the Real that halts analytical interpretation because we cannot make complete sense of it is also a seed, as disseminative as différance, because we are obliged nevertheless to strive for sense. Th is describes the dynamic of immanent “sublimation”. It is in its determinate interpretations that an event is constituted as a phenomenon, but precisely because they cannot be definitive these interpretations themselves require interpretation. Th us the determination of an event endlessly calls for more determination and the event becomes self-transcending.

To explain why Žižek’s encounter with Derrida is misconceived, one must address Derrida’s adjudication between phenomenology and Levinasian ethics in “Violence and Metaphysics” (Derrida 1978: 79–153). Ironically, Žižek’s critique of “Derrida’s operation” precisely echoes Derrida’s critique of Levinas for: (a) opposing a centripetal Greek spirit of totality (sameness, immanence, history, philosophy) to a centrifugal, eschatological, implicitly “Hebraic”, spirit of infinity (otherness, transcendence, ethics); (b) insisting on an abyssal gap between these poles; (c) assuming an either/or choice between supposed opposites; and (d) rejecting what he sees as violent, phenomenological “totalization” for the pure non-violence of an appeal to infinity, which he calls Ethics (Derrida 1978: 82–3). Derrida shows in multiple ways that Levinas’s insistence on the purity of the wholly Other remains inconsistent, since his discourse in fact requires the “contaminating” phenomenology he rejects (ibid.: 133). Derrida argues accordingly that we have no access to any pure spirit of non-violence, but can only choose the passage of least possible violence between the paralysing extremes of totality and infinity. This passage, he argues, is achieved better by Husserl than Levinas. For Levinas, the alterity of the wholly Other is respected only by abandoning hermeneutic uncovering. Phenomenology, by contrast, can tolerate the inescapable violence of active appropriation by accepting that inadequation (the impossibility of perfect evidence) marks transcendence. Th is imperfection accommodates both an indefinite potential in the other for phenomenality (for showing, illumination and evidence) and respects its alterity (its wonder, terror, surprises and secrets). Derrida does appreciate Levinas’s power to highlight the structural violation of otherness built into traditional philosophy (including phenomenology). Against strict Husserlian phenomenology, he launches an adapted wholly Other, which points not to an external Other in opposition to the sphere of immanence, but to the unpredictability inscribed within every immanent horizon of expectation, which opens all phenomena to potentially traumatic shattering. Th is precisely aligns his discourse with the paradox of “immanent transcendence” described in Lacan’s version of the traumatic Real.

To deal with this ontology of immanent transcendence in order to show, for example, that genuinely ethical action is neither purely phenomenal (obedience to moral codes) nor a passive, abject response to the call of an inscrutable Other, both Lacan and Derrida develop complex logics of contamination. As Žižek explains, to understand the logical structure underpinning Antigone’s act as an act of decision rather than proto-totalitarianism, one must develop a “spectral analysis” of the “other” as a three-fold concept. Th e imaginary Other names other people like me (my neighbour as my mirror image); the symbolic “big Other” refers to the impersonal codes that coordinate intersubjective co-existence; and “the impossible Thing” indicates an unfathomable, monstrous otherness in every person (“The Real of Sexual Difference”: 70).

Notably, this is aligned with Derrida’s contention that terms like “the other” cannot cohere, since they encompass incompatible senses, which can neither be reduced to one another nor ordered hierarchically. Instead, these senses are bound together in complex forms like the Borromean knot of circular opposition and interdependence. Here the linkage between them is such that each holds the other two together and apart in a tensioned relationship, and suspending one term engenders the collapse of the other two. To understand Antigone’s act, Žižek explains, one must first note that the monstrous Thing only becomes a “fellow human like me” through a third, mediating agency: the impersonal Symbolic Order to which all of us are willing to submit. To suspend the functioning of the Symbolic Order, as Antigone did, is to collapse the border between knowable “friendly neighbour” and unfathomable “monstrous Thing” (ibid.).

Žižek argues that the ethical act, the moment of genuine decision, is made possible only when the symbolic order is suspended and the actual Antigone becomes the Thing. In this brief, passing moment of collapse, she herself becomes singular, unfathomable and inimitable. Th us she excludes herself from the networks that constitute communal life, becoming the traumatic cause of her own framework of value. But the moment of decision is fleeting. Caputo articulates precisely this insight in Derridean terms, where he argues that justice slips our grasp. To pin justice to an event by drawing maxims from a decision, or to individuals by calling them just, is to lose what justice “is”, for in the former case justice is reduced to the application of rules, whereas in the latter justice is reduced to a knowable character trait in the friendly neighbour. Justice “appears” only “in a singular action in a singular situation, and this only for the while that it lasts, in the instant of decision” (Caputo 1997: 138). This is just as well, for were this not the case no intersubjective life would be possible at all.

To re-establish intersubjective life subsequent to the decisive moment, the world’s Antigones and their communities must come to terms with (make sense of, codify) the traumatic reconfiguration of value, and therefore face again Creon’s kind of unprincipled pragmatism that the decision disrupted. Derrida argues that without this circular predicament, there would be no call for decisions, but only calculative application of laws under the illusion that we know enough, or the abdication of responsibility under the illusion that we know nothing. But it is because individuals can neither know for sure nor claim absolute ignorance that we are subject to the singularizing trauma of making decisions and taking responsibility for them. The “lesson of deconstruction” sounds rather a lot like the “lesson of psychoanalysis”.