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Judith Butler - On Never Having Learned How to Live

Judith Butler - On Never Having Learned How to Live

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Published by Germán Bicego

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Published by: Germán Bicego on Oct 17, 2012
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05/08/2013

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Copyright 2005 by
 Radical Philosophy 
judith butler
On Never Having Learned How to Live
 D
errida offers a set of meditations and inquiries about deathin his final interview with
 Le Monde
, published on August 18 of 2004.
1
If he
could learn how to live, he remarks, he would also learn how to die, and this
 would mean to die without any sense of resurrection or redemption; this would be an absolute death. It is interesting that at this revealing moment,Derrida the philosopher should find in Socrates his proper precursor, thathe should turn to Socrates to understand that, at the age of seventy-four,he still did not quite know how best to live. In fact, he claims in this inter- view that he is “not educable” on the matter of knowing how to live andhow to die. He says to his interviewer: “So then, to answer you plainly, no,I have never learned how to live. Not at all!” and then a few lines later, heis clear that he has not learned to live because he has never learned to die:“I have not learned to accept death.” So we can accept what he says, sincehe is, after all, speaking plainly here, or we can ask what he might meanby this declaration. There’s a paradox that emerges, since at the end of theinterview there seems to be a nearly ineffable acceptance of his death, and we might pause then to consider whether learning how to live and to die isthe same as a certain capacity for affirmation, a yes-saying.
 
28On Never Having Learned How to Live
At the end of the interview, he remarks that everything thathe has said since 1986 about survival “proceeds from an unconditionalaffirmation of life. Survival,
la survie
, is,” he explains, the “affirmation of a living being who prefers living and, hence, surviving, to death, becausesurvival does not refer to what is left, what remains; it is the most intenselife possible.” If, then, he is uneducable on the matter of learning how to live and to die, it is because his relation to living and dying is not onethat can be instructed or learned; it is a matter of affirmation, and thisaffirmation is not learned or acquired, and it is most certainly not basedon evidence that supports the case that, yes, affirmation is warranted.The yes-saying of affirmation is not based on evidence; it proceeds withindifference to evidence, and it takes the form of the “yes,” though I takeit that this “yes” can happen in various ways.So knowing how to live and knowing how to die are somethingthat he cannot do, has never been able to do, a task in relation to whichhe is permanently
inéducable
. He clearly did not expect to achieve that
knowledge in this life since, at the time that he is speaking, he knows that
he is nearing his death. So is this a biographical insight into the person,
Derrida? Can we say that Derrida happened to be uneducable in this regard
but that surely other people are, that they have successfully learned how to live and how to die? And though the insight may well be biographical,it seems to be what he would call “structural” as well. He remarks,
 As for the formula you refer to (“to finally learn how to live” 
[apprendre à vivre enfin]), it came to me after the book [ 
Specters
of Marx
 ] was finished. First of all, it plays, but seriously, withthe common meaning of the phrase. To learn how to live is to
mature, also to educate. If you shout at someone and say, “Je vais
t’apprendre à vivre” [I’m going to teach you how to live], some-times in a threatening way, it means I am going to coach you,even train you [te former voire te dresser]. And the ambiguity of 
this play on words—between
enseigner
and 
apprendre
—is even
more important to me, this sigh [le soupir] opens up to an evenmore difficult interrogation. Living, can it be learned? Can onelearn through discipline or apprenticeship, by experience or by experimentation, to accept or, better, to affirm life? 
 
difference
s
29
The conversation reminds me of Plato’s
 Phaedo
, also a dialogue,
in which the questioner, Simmias, asks Socrates on his deathbed whether
it is true that a philosopher is always preparing for death. Socrates answersthat “if a man has trained himself throughout life to live in a state as close
as possible to death, would it not be ridiculous for him to be distressed when death come to him?” Simmias answers with characteristic acquies-
cence, “It would, of course.” Then Socrates elaborates: “True philosophers
make dying their profession, and that to them of all men death is leastalarming” (lines 68d–e). So here it would seem that whereas Socratesunderstands dying as a practice, a training, and even a profession, Der-rida clearly differs. Derrida has failed at this philosophical task; he is, ashe tells us, “uneducable” on the matter of learning how to live and how todie, this “sagesse” or wisdom. But if we ask further about Socrates’ voca-tion, he tells us quite clearly that death is welcome only because there isno wisdom to be attained: “A true lover of wisdom who has firmly grasped
this conviction [. . .] that he will never attain to wisdom worthy of the name
elsewhere than in the next world—will he be grieved at dying?” (68a–b).So for a moment, we can see that Derrida is characteristically Socratic inunderscoring his uneducability. There is no wisdom that he can acquire,that he can be taught, on how to live and how to die. For Socrates, the wisdom he acquires constitutes an insight into what he cannot acquire within the constraints of this life, and so both are left with a conviction, we might say, that they are uneducable in this matter. If for Socrates it isa training and practice that leads him to this conclusion, it is preciselya training that strips away beliefs that such wisdom can be acquired, acertain rigor associated with a systematic ascesis of thought. But once we see this moment of convergence between Derrida and Socrates, theyclearly depart again, since Derrida makes clear that there is, regardlessof the impoverished state of wisdom in this life, an imperative to affirmthis life, a life for which there is no redemption, a life that is not justifiedthrough reference to another, more perfect life.Indeed, there is no afterlife for Derrida, no soul that separatesfrom the body, but there is an afterlife of words. In this final publishedconversation, he takes up the question of what survives and so offers, wemight conjecture, a certain consolation to his readers and to his friendsin much the same way that Socrates spends most of the
 Phaedo
doing thesame for those who will survive him.

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