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Heidegger, Derrida and the Aporia of Death

Heidegger, Derrida and the Aporia of Death

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Published by Rafael Pangilinan
LUMINA, Vol. 21, No.2, October 2010, ISSN 2094-1188

HOLY NAME UNIVERSITY

HEIDEGGER, DERRIDA, AND THE APORIA OF DEATH
Rafael D. Pangilinan, M.A. University of Santo Tomas España St., Manila

INTRODUCTION Jacques Derrida is now generally agreed—by both devotees and critics alike—to be one of the most influential philosophers of the late twentieth century. To put it simply, Jacques Derrida became not just one of the best-known names in contemporary philosophy in the 1970s and 1980s, but something
LUMINA, Vol. 21, No.2, October 2010, ISSN 2094-1188

HOLY NAME UNIVERSITY

HEIDEGGER, DERRIDA, AND THE APORIA OF DEATH
Rafael D. Pangilinan, M.A. University of Santo Tomas España St., Manila

INTRODUCTION Jacques Derrida is now generally agreed—by both devotees and critics alike—to be one of the most influential philosophers of the late twentieth century. To put it simply, Jacques Derrida became not just one of the best-known names in contemporary philosophy in the 1970s and 1980s, but something

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Published by: Rafael Pangilinan on Mar 16, 2011
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LUMINA, Vol. 21, No.2, October 2010, ISSN 2094-1188 HOLY NAME UNIVERSITY
 
1 of 29
HEIDEGGER, DERRIDA, AND THE APORIA OF DEATH
Rafael D. Pangilinan, M.A.University of Santo TomasEspaña St., Manila
INTRODUCTION
Jacques Derrida is now generally agreedby both devotees and critics aliketo be oneof the most influential philosophers of the late twentieth century. To put it simply, JacquesDerrida became not just one of the best-known names in contemporary philosophy in the 1970sand 1980s, but something of a media phenomenon whose fame stretched far beyond the walls of the university. His mode of philosophywhich quickly acquired the famous or notorious brandname of ‘deconstruction’has influenced almost every academic discipline from art history tosciences. For Derrida, his early explorations of the problem of writing in western thought onlyrepresented the beginning of a much wider enquiry and his many subsequent texts develop thistheme in new, singular and surprising directions. After the 1960s, he went on to explore suchdiverse areas, themes and disciplines as art and architecture, literature, linguistics, politics andinternational relations, psychoanalysis, religious studies and theology, technology and the media,and witnessing and testimony. From the 1980s onwards, it also becomes possible to detect anincreasingly marked ‘ethical’ or ‘political’ turn in Derrida’s work and thought. The philosopherat least appears to move away from the seemingly abstract philosophical questions of the earlierwork and to gravitate towards concrete political problems such as apartheid, the fall of communism and the future of Europe. This impression is confirmed by the appearance of anincreasingly ethicaleven theologicalvocabulary in the later work which draws on suchthemes as the gift, sacrifice, the impossible, and perhaps most intriguingly, the messianic.This paper will not comprehensively thresh out the entire deconstructive project of Derrida
via
negotiating his more than 60 books translated into English, as well as his numerousessays and manuscripts in French that are still unavailable for English readership. Instead, it willconcentrate on the expatiation of Derrida’s deconstruction of Martin Heidegger’s existentialanalysis of Dasein’s death in
Being and Time
,
1
which Derrida theorized as aporetic, throughallusions to his
Aporias
and other related writings.In
Aporias
, Derrida asks: Can we be “certain” of death? Not of what might happen afterdeath,
2
but of the “brute” fact that each of us will meet with his or her own death? For SigmundFreud, who has exerted a considerable influence on Derrida, it is impossible to imagine our owndeath, let alone be certain about it, because whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive thatwe are in fact still present as spectators. In fact, we could say that we assist at our own death, asif the one who dies in our imagination were a different person. We cannot imagine how wewould be like dead, without being able to think or see, for example. We cannot accept our owndeath; at bottom no one believes in his own death. As Freud claims, in the unconscious every oneof us is convinced of his own immortality. There is no sense of the passage of time; time doesnot work chronologically in our unconscious. This unconscious belief that nothing can happen to
 
LUMINA, Vol. 21, No.2, October 2010, ISSN 2094-1188 HOLY NAME UNIVERSITY
 
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us may be seen as the secret of heroism. Since we have not gone through the experience of death(as we have never died before) and since death does not exist in our unconscious, we cannotactually fear death itself. When we say we are afraid of death, according to Freud, we may fearsomething elsesuch as abandonment, castration, various unresolved conflicts, or otherwise fearof death may be the outcome of a sense of guilt. Yet Freud also specifies that fear of deathdominates us oftener than we know. It is not amiss to note that he posits the existence of deathdrive, a destructive drive, which has an aim to lead what is living into an inorganic state. “Theaim of all life is death,”
3
he said. This leads Freud to the paradoxical conclusion that life is adetour on the way to death, based on “the drive to return to the inanimate state.”
4
 Seen in this light, the theoretical importance of the drives of self preservation, of self assertion and of mastery greatly diminishes […] We have no longer to reckonwith the organism’s puzzling determination to maintain its own existence in theface of every obstacle. What we are left with is the fact that the organism wishesto die only in its own fashion.”
5
Self-preservative drives are conservative drives,because they ensure that the organism will die “only in its own fashion.
6
 This makes life circuitous paths to death, faithfully kept by the conservative drives andplaces the struggle for life, and so also the Erotic drives in the service of the death drive.
7
Therepetition compulsion therefore overrides the pleasure principle, replacing the striving forpleasure with a striving for death.Even though Freud admits that death is something natural, we do try to deal with it invarious ways, and we react to it differently. Our different attitudes towards death may accountfor the existence of various behaviors, for the creation of beliefs such as those in life after death.Of course, it is our unconscious that is the cause of most of our beliefs and behaviors, or evenfeelings in relation to death.Again for Freud, none of us has “certainty” with regard to death. We all say “I know I amgoing to die,” but deep down, behind the one-way mirror of the unconscious, the archivalrepository of the repressed, none of us believes it. For Heidegger, on the other hand, death ismore certainor better, is certain in a more “primordial” (
ursprüngsliche
) waythan epistemiccertainty or even cognitive certainty. Heidegger is no skeptic; for him, “holding to the truth of deathwhich as we will see means maintaining ourselves in the unconcealedness of thephenomenon of our own deathreveals a certainty which is absolutely basic to the totality of lived contexts constituting world intelligibility. As being-in-the-world (
In-der-welt-Sein
), Daseindies; there is nothing more certain: “More original than man is the finitude of the Dasein withinhim.”
8
 If, accordingly, Heidegger and Freud are taken as two extreme characterizations of thecognitive relation one stands in relation to one’s own death, then it becomes easier to imaginewhy Derrida might ask such a strange, perhaps incredible, question; for this seems to be anirreconcilable opposition, an either/or of the type notoriously most vulnerable to Derrida’sdeconstructions. Thus, when Derrida asks, “Is my death possible?” he is not simply speculatingas to whether one can be certain of death’s obtaining; his is a more radical questioning: Can I
 
LUMINA, Vol. 21, No.2, October 2010, ISSN 2094-1188 HOLY NAME UNIVERSITY
 
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die? Is it even possible for me to die? Can I meet with death? In what sense can death happen tomecan “it” happen to “me” at all?
DECONSTRUCTION: TYING THE KNOT TIGHTER
9
 
Deconstruction is an approach, introduced by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, whichrigorously pursues the meaning of a text to the point of undoing the oppositions on which it isapparently founded, and to the point of showing that those foundations are irreducibly complex,unstable or impossible. It generally tries to demonstrate that any text has more than oneinterpretation; that the text itself links these interpretations inextricably; that the incompatibilityof these interpretations is irreducible; and thus that an interpretative reading cannot go beyond acertain point. Derrida refers to this point as an aporia in the text, and terms deconstructivereading “aporetic”. By demonstrating the aporias and ellipses of thought, Derrida hoped to showthe infinitely subtle ways that this originary complexity, which by definition cannot ever becompletely known, works its structuring and destructuring effects. An aporetic reading can, inaddition, show the failure of earlier philosophical systems (like that of Heidegger) and thenecessity of continuing to philosophize through them with deconstruction.The book 
Aporias
, a relatively recent addition in a long line of Derrida’s interpretation of Heidegger’s thinking, is surely best heard as speaking out of the rich heritage of that lineage.
10
 The term “aporia” literally means “nonpassage” or “without passage” and involves an experienceof not knowing what path to follow or coming to the point where no path can be found.’ AsDerrida points out, the experience of the aporia is not at all foreign to the philosophicaltradition.
11
In fact, following Heidegger, Derrida notes how, especially in Kant and Hegel, theexperience of the aporia is rendered dialectically or dialecticized.
12
However, Derrida choosesthe term aporia instead of “antinomy” (which Kant, of course, uses) since an antinomy involves“contradictions or antagonisms among equally imperative laws” that can be solved or overcome,whereas an aporia involves an irreducible and constitutive experience of impossibility ornonpassage.
13
The contradiction of equally valid and necessary propositions found in anantinomy is solved by showing how it is “apparent or illusory,” by dialecticizing thecontradiction in a Hegelian or Marxist manner, or by rendering it as a “transcendental illusion ina dialectic of the Kantian type.”
14
 In contrast to these experiences of the aporia, the deconstructive articulation of the aporiashows it to be irreducible and constitutive to the degree that it cannot be overcome. While aHegelian or Marxist thought, for example, would exploit the constitutive and necessary nature of the aporia in order to engender a dialectical progression, for Derrida the irreducible andinterminable nature of the aporia will always disrupt this progress by showing how thought andaction remain caught in the movement of the “double bind.”
15
Instead of being sublated orovercome, the aporia for deconstruction becomes the very ordeal of all experience. The aporiamust be endured as interminable in order for experience to take place. As opposed to acontradiction of equally valid and necessary statements, the deconstructive aporia is perhaps bestformulated by showing how the conditions for the possibility of something also prove lo be theconditions for its impossibility.
16
The deconstructive aporia is thereby iterability itself, anineradicable “doable bind” or an “experience of the impossible.”
17
Or, one could render aporia asundecidability, as the undecidability involved in a determinate vacillation between determinate

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