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Presence and Appropriation Derrida and the Question of an Overcoming of Metaphysical Language*

DOMINIQUE JANICAUD Universite de Nice ... verlerne dich und jede Stelle wo du noch eine Heimat ' siehst.... 1 Gottfried Bennl It would be foolish on my part to deny the difficulty of trying to deal with Jacques Derrida's work in one short paper. But, of course length has nothing to do with it, since the actual difficulty lies in the hermeneutical conditions of the approach. Let us try to start: how is Derrida to be understood? Is it possible, at all? Is not. Derrida, especially since La dissmination and Glas, more and more difficult, enigmatic, disconcerting? Though everybody knows that contemporary thinkers-like musicians and painters-are less easily intelligible than their forerunners, one is reluctant to be paralysed on the threshold of the work. I suppose that many literary scholars are in such a situation when they try to read Derrida, since I have found philosophers in such a difficult state. Rest assured that I will not provide you with a fairy's wand to guide you through the labyrinth. I will only try to ask JacquesDerrida two questions at the end of this paper. But before reaching that point and in order to reach it, I have to make it clear what my guiding clue could be. It is easy to notice that Derrida's books and papers mostly consist in commentaries on other texts. Seldom do we find Derrida's thought isolated as such and for itself. This does not mean that Derrida is not an original thinker at all (I am, * This text wasfirst presentedat a conference "Philosophy LiteraryCriticism: on and The Post-Structuralist of Enterprise,"held at the State University New York at Stony in Brook,September30-October1, 1977,under a grant from the SUNYConversations the Disciplines Program. I would like to thank Robert Van Roden Allen for his kind assistance my text. with I Levkoienwelle, Gedichte,Wiesbaden,LimesVerlag, 1960,p. 115. 67

on the contrary, convinced that he has made a unique breakthrough in contemporary French thought). Derrida's frequent references to other thinkers help us to seek out a leading thread: Derrida very often alludes to metaphysical closure and, above all, to the Hegelian achievement of absolute knowledge. I, therefore, suggest that the convenient clue could be Derrida's relationship to the metaphysical tradition, provided we do not proceed in a naive way, that is, provided we try to do our best to take into account Derrida's hermeneutical warnings about the rereading of metaphysical texts. The first part of this paper, consequently, will take for the most part a negative approach. 1. Is it necessary to recall that metaphysics is understood by Derrida as metaphysics of presence, of what is proper, of Being (or, in better terms, of proper Being present to knowledge)?This also means,,put in a more linguistic way, that the main feature of our Western civilization, as the achievement of metaphysics, is logocentrism. It is thus not surprising that Hegel has been chosen as the best sample and as the apex of that achievement. One reads in De la Grammatologie (p. 39) that Hegel "has ... summed up the totality of the philosophy of the logos." Derrida, then, continues: "He (Hegel) has given to ontology the determination of an absolute logic; he has collected all the delimitations of Being as presence; he has assigned to presence the eschatology of parousia and of the proximity of infinite subjectivity to itself." Innumerable passages refer to Hegelian philosophy as a closure. I should like to cite a phrase from "An Hegelianism without reserve" (the paper on Bataille in L'criture et la diffrence, p. 405): "The Aufhebung is understood within the circle of absolute knowledge, it never exceeds its closure.... " Let me indicate, by underlining the last word, that the end of this extract remains ambiguous in English as well as in French. We do not know whether the closure qualifies the Aufhebung or the absolute knowledge. I think that this ambiguity is needed; there is a circle between the former and the latter, since the absolute knowledge is the Auf hebung of itself. This very difficulty leads back to the nature of metaphysical closure, instead of being a mere terminological parenthesis. As a matter of fact, metaphysics has never been an ontical closure which could have been included within definitive limits. For example, the Aristotelian Being outstrips any kind of logical genus. Therefore, the closure that Derrida indicates is the appropriation or, better said, the perpetual reappropriation of a moving limit, and .not at all the delimitation of a border line. As metaphysics breeds this perpetual possibility of reappropriation, and particularly through the Hegelian Auf7aebungwhich is always rising again from its " ashes, the question becomes the following one, as Derrida puts it in "Tympan," the Preface to Marges (p. VIII): "Under which conditions could it be possible to 68

mark a limit for a "philosophdme" in general, to mark a margin which that "philosopheme" could not infinitely reappropriate for itself, which it would be unable to conceive of as its own limit (regarding Hegel still and always), while beforehand generating and internalizing the process of its expropriation and inversion ?" From L'kriture et la diffrance to Marges and Glas, the so-called "deconstruction" will therefore primarily deal with Hegel's philosophy, struggling against it as well as showing its comprehensive powers. As one reads in the Preface to Marges (p. 11), the task will be "to start again, in all directions, the reading of the Hegelian Aufhebung, possiblybeyond what Hegel himself, as he inscribed it, has heard of what he said or has meant to say...." Hence all the procedures, known by every reader of Derrida, which consist in reversing, shifting the Hegelian text or proceeding to a double reading of it. Doing this, one already knows that the text keeps and reservessomething which has been so far misunderstood or undervalued by knowledge, would it be absolute; but, at the same time, one has to learn to know that textual traces or differences will never be actually caught nor grasped nor mastered. Let me recall that the "differance" (with an a) "is neither a concept nor a word" (Marges, p. 7). Now it seems that one may understand why I call this kind of work that Derrida does (and that we do after him and according to him) a negative approach, in so fir as metaphysics as such is no longer possible, since it always lets something escape from the textual network in which presence was intended to be caught. In fact, this kind of approach is doubly negative: it is negative in regard to Hegelian metaphysics as well as over against itself. The only certainty one reaches is that the metaphysical language of the absolute achievement of knowledge is not merely repeated. Could one therefore jump to the conclusion that metaphysical language is overcome, at least, that it is more successfully overcome than in Heidegger's Ereignis in which an appropriation is still supposed to be involved?Derrida is very cautious on this point. He says in Positions (p. 21) that "there is no transgression, if one hereby means a mere settling in a "beyond" of metaphysics ..." Further on, in the same little book (p. 27): "I do not believe that one could, one day, simply escape from metaphysics ..." Let me explain that, in my view, his underlying "simply" in this quotation means both "absolutely" and "in a simple way." A region which would be completely outside of metaphysics is absolutely impossible to reach; and, even if it were possible, it would never be in order to be endowed with a kind of miraculous simplicity or innocence (Derrida has probably thought of the Heideggerian Simple).. At this point, I recognize a complete reversal of Derrida's position about the Hegelian achievement. By reversal, I do not mean something historical implying a former and a later step, but rather an ambiguity which is so rich and so dense that it leads to an apparent contradiction of the former thesis regarding the 69

metaphysical closure. Even Hegel in his monumental certainties lets some hints of the difference pass through his writings: "... Hegel's text is inevitably .. fissured ..." (Positions, p. 103). This ambiguous splitting of the metaphysical text is not forced upon it by Derrida; it already lies in the very life of the text. Derrida knows that this kind of proposal itself may be directed against his own text. This means both that Hegel was at once outside and inside of the concept (for instance, when he wrote his Preface to the Phenomenology) and that Derrida himself cannot regress to the deconstructed system nor dwell in deconstruction considered as a new system(see, on this point, La dissmination, pp. 11 and 17). Hence a strategy of ruse, trick, double play by means of concepts (or anticoncepts), such as: trace, pharmakon, difference (or "differance"), etc. To be sure, all these concepts (or anti-concepts) are tied together and make up a concatenation which implies what Derrida calls "an operator of generality named dissemination" (see Positions, p. 61). But he adds immediately that "dissemination does not mean anything in the last instance ... " If allowed to explain this which "does not mean anything", I would dare to say that Derrida achieves the dissemination in blurring the generality or the meaning which was left in it by the very fact that it still remains a word and even a concept. That is: there is no ultimate ground for determining whether the dissemination means something beyond the mere task of deconstructing metaphysics. Let me suggest that the dissemination itself is not definitive. It is time now for me to try to conclude regarding the negative approach (which is both Derrida's and mine in the first part of this paper). This approach has been summed up and its negativity very clearly assumed at the end of the lecture "La Diff6rance" (Marges, p. 29): "There will be no unique name, even if it were the name of Being." Derrida could have added: even if it were the dissemination. Therefore, Derrida's philosophy may appear, at least approximately, as a negative onto-theology,its negativity lying in its way of writing as well as in its ' content. Confronted with the unthinkable, with the unspeakable, with the "unwritable", Derrida both thinks and does not, both speaks and remains silent, both writes and crosses out his most creative inscriptions. This negative onto-theology is not negative in a traditional way, that is: because Being and God could not be named. It rather points toward an "irreducible outside" and, by spatializing, still is "the index to a move, a shift which indicates an irreducible alterity" (see Positions, p. 107). Presence and appropriation are always "diff6r6es"(they differ and.they are postponed). The overcoming of metaphysics is thus an infinite task, because the very limit of metaphysics is = SeeMargesde la Philosophie,Paris, Editionsde Minuit, 1972, 6. p.


moving with (and within) our discourse and writing.' The question becomes: Is Derrida's way of writing (and erasing his writing) still an attempt to-dwell, assuming that some new nomadic thought may learn to dwell with (and at) this moving limit? If it is too early to answer this question, I hope that it is not too late to go on to the second step of my inquiry which is intended to be more positive, in spite of the challenge which consists in passing over the negative approach. 2. In fact, Derrida himself allows us to try a more positive approach, since he proposes some positions in the little book which is so entitled. Even if these positions should be understandable as moving like Calder's"mobiles", they build up "a certain system" (Positions, p. 11). Moreover, Derrida speaks of the "theoretical result" of his work (see Positions, p. 63). Most of the time, he very cautiously and interrogatively admits of a possibility which would be able to justify his whole attempt: at the very beginning of Marges (p. 1), he writes that the determination of a limit to the metaphysical discourse could bring out, even if in an oblique way "un coup de plus au savoir philosophique", one more hit for philosophical knowledge. And he just hints that crossingthis limit one moveson. But one knows that this movement will never be univocally fulfilled nor freed from the limit at which it works. Despite all these reserves (or because of them), it is clear that the only point which has been made is about the scattering of polysemia, that is to say: the recognition of the undecidable. It should be clear that this undecidable is not as directly bound up to the logic of non-contradiction as Godel's: Derrida's purpose is not to set up some propositions which would be neither demonstrable nor refutable within a logical non-contradictory system; it is not, on the other hand, a way to come back to a kind of Antithesis of pure Reason. Derrida's undecidable is rather what I would call in French un ind9cidable par exclusion (litteraly translated: an undecidable through exclusion). This point will become clear once it is related to the attempt Derrida himself makes to define the undecidable in an analogical way (Positions, p. 58). The expressions which he uses as undecidable are said to be "des unit6s de simulacre" (which does not exactly mean deceiving unities, but rather unities which are both true and false, both simulated and not). For instance, "the pharmakon is neither the remedy nor the poison, neither the good nor the evil, neither the inside nor the outside, ' See in Marges,p. 1, and the following passage Positions, 14:"I try to standat the p. limitof metaphysical I discourse. say:limit and not death, becauseI do not at all believe in what is today usuallycalledthe death of philosophy .... " 71

neither speech nor writing; the supplement is neither "a more" nor "a less", neither an outside nor the complement of an inside, neither an accident nor an essence, etc." (see Positions, p. 59). The undecidable is thus a status which has been reached through a sequence of exclusions, but in which one can never really settle nor-stop. It points out the undecidability of language itself rather than that of logical relationships. As a matter of fact, the main exclusion concerns every possible kind of "Hegelian solution", every possible way of coming back to a form of dialectics. Once more, one recognizes that Derrida's positions are set up over against those of Hegel, but in such a way that they try to build up a new system of significance. One could provisionally formalize the opposition toward Hegel as follows.Both systemsorganize the excess: in Hegel, the excessof the signified; in Derrida, the excess of the signifier. On the one hand, signs are fulfilled with significations in order to reach the sovereignty and overflow of the absolute knowledge. On the other hand, signs are emptied because of an excess of polysemia; nothing is ever defmitively signified; signifiers always overstep prior definitions and meanings. Now, the positive approach is already delineated, but it can be even more precisely outlined: not only through the opposition toward Hegel, but referring to the refusal of what Derrida calls the "Heideggerian hope" (see the paper on "La differance", Marges, p. 29). In Positions (p. 75), Derrida hints that the Heideggerian Erezknis might be "the deepest and most powerful defense of the thought of presence." He then invokesNietzsche over against Heidegger. Let me quote again this important passage, as I would like to analyse some of its keypoints :"There will be no unique name, not even the name of Being. It must be conceivedwithout nostal.gia;that is, it must be conceived outside the myth of the purely maternal or paternal language belonging to the lost fatherland of thought. On the contrary, we must affirmsit-in the sense that Nietzsche brings " affirmation into play-with a certain laughter and with a certain dance." This text is so rich that it would require more than a few comments. To be as brief and as accurate as possible, I want to point out that Derrida hereby attempts to reinclude Heidegger's thought within the metaphysics of proper presence which Heidegger, in fact, intended to overcome or, at least, to put into question. Derrida does this through a deliberately violent assumption of play, of dance, of the scattering of significations. A very strange reversal indeed for a thinker who so far has claimed that he wanted to question metaphysical mastery and now speaks, or writes, again as a Nietzschean master (one must affirm disappropriation). Let me stress the affirmative, definitive and even deontic side of this text. The meditation on the unthinkable (or so far unthought) is replaced by imperative forms: "this has to be ...", "one must ..." These imperatives contrast so


radically with the perpetual hyper-critical attempts which we have formerly viewed that we must ask: Why? before going on and better formulating my question, I would like to But, point out my disagreement with Derrida about his interpretation of Heidegger. It seems to me arbitrary to transform Heidegger into the last supporter of presence, whereas Derrida himself has well acknowledged that Heidegger has provided him with the critical basis for putting metaphysics into question. This debt having been confessed in Positions (at least, twice: pp. 18, 73), it is not quite clear how the two kinds of assumptions concerning Heidegger may be reconciled, are compatible, or can even merely be placed side by side in a kind of undecidability. In this sense, at least, I wonder how this undecidability about Heidegger may get along with the Nietzschean laughter (or dance) which, in principle, requires the affirmative strength of life. How could one be at the same time hyper-critical and fully affirmative? But, to come back to Heidegger, I do not think it right to claim that there is a nostalgia in Heidegger's works. If this were the case, I do not see how the withdrawal of Being (Entzug des Seins) could be so close to man. Moreover, the concluding sentence of the paper on "La differance" seems to me in contradiction with the so-called myth of the mother tongue; if Being "everywhere and always speaks through every language", this seemingly means that there is no privileged language.' Furthermore, let me recall that Heidegger was the first to crossout Being. Another argument I would like to present about this point is that it seems to me impossible, according to Heidegger's texts, to assimilate presence (Anwesereheit) and propriety (Eigentlichkeit), since the latter is continually distinguished from the former by Heidegger himself. The Heideggerian Ereignis does not mean any self-closureor self-achievement, but rather an ek-statikon. My last words about this point will be taken from "Time and Being" ("Zeit und Sein"): "Zum Ereignis als solchem gehort die Enteignung"5, which one might translate as follows:disappropriation belongs to appropriation as such. I thus do not see how one could assimilate the Heideggerian Ereignu to the appropriation of presence. I hope that you will forgive me for these condensed remarks which were only 4 Arguingfrom Derrida'sviewpoint,I have taken my bearingsfrom his translation has which,in fact, is misleading. Heidegger not writtenthat Beingspeaksthroughevery language("i traverstoute langue,"Marges,p. 29), but "durch alle Sprachehindurch" Germanedition,p. 338) whichmeans:throughoutlanguage(as the English , (Holzwege, translationof Heidegger's fairlyputs it: EarlyGreekThought, translatedby D. F. text Krell and F. A. Capuzzi,NewYork, Harper and Row, 1975,p. 52). I am gratefulto BruceFoltzfor havinghelpedme makethis point as preciseas possible. 5 "Zeit und Sein", L'endurancede la (Pour saluer J. Beaufret),Paris, Plon, auf 1968,p. 64. Seealso:"Seinohnedas Seindedenken,heisst:Sein ohneRilcksicht die denken"(ibid., p. 66). Metaphysik


intended to approach Derrida's thought in a more accurate way. In my view, the deconstruction of metaphysical texts, particularly those of Nietzsche and Heidegger, considered both as metaphysical and non-metaphysical, betrays a positive project which has been assumed in a Nietzschean style and in what I shall call: a wz7l misappropriate (at which the deconstruction seems to aim). to Beyond the acknoweldged ambiguity of the undecidable (or the undecidables), I see, on the one hand, a more hidden oscillation or hesitation between the hypersceptical negativity of a deconstrucxionwhich is led to let the undecidabilities be (and perhaps to jeopardize any kind of assumption whatsoever) and, on the other hand, the utiu to perform tasks, to assume the very deconstructive style in an always more daring way. I shall merely give some quotations which will provide us-if needed-with new indications of this positive will: "Grammatology must deconstruct ... It is an immense and endless work (Positions, p. 48); "the difference is involved in a work..." " (ibid.,p. 55); "If one does not work out a general strategy, both theoretical and systematic, of philosophical deconstruction, the textual irruptions alwaysrun the risk of falling back, all along the path, in excess or in an empirical attempt..." (Ibid., p. 93).6 It seems that I am now ready to formulate the first question that I would like to propose to your attention and especially to Jacques Derrida. Forgive me for the exaggerated length of this question: If there is no longer any "truth" of the text, why should it be presupposed that our work (I mean: the work of contemporary thinkers and writers) should lead to the most extreme disappropriation? Does not this project imply (or hide) the revival of a urill7If that Nietzschean will is thought (and experienced) as non-metaphysical, the question becomes: where does metaphysics really lie? Does it lie in the will qua suillor only in the will to appropriate presence? 3 Let me now quote two texts, in order to be able to set up my final question. First passage: "It [that is to say: my discourse] is trying to deploy a dispersion that can never be reduced to a single system of differences, a scattering that is not related to absolute axes of reference; it is trying to operate a decentering that leaves no privilege to any center." Second passage: "Text means texture; but, whereas this texture has so far been taken as a product, a ready-made veil behind which a more or less hidden significance (or truth) stands, we now stress, in the texture, the generative idea that the text makes itself, works itself through a perpetual intertwining. Lost in this fabric, this texture, the subject thereby undoes itself, like a spider which would dissolve itself in the constructive secretions of its web ..." , 5 Emphasisadded to: must, work a generalstrategy. 74

These two quotations have not been taken from Jacques Derrida's works. The former has been taken from Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge (English translation, p. 205); the latter from Le plaisir du texte by Roland Barthes (Paris, Seuil, 1973, pp. 100-101). I have quoted them just to show how close they are to Derrida's thought. Without denying some slight differences in the style, I claim that they both point out a decentring of the subject, which has been also one of the main concerns of Derrida. I mean that these writers share, that we share a certain modernity which, if my memory is faithful, was defmed by Derrida (in a paper delivered in Nice) as "1'irruption de 1'ext6rieur"(the irruption of the outside). It seems to me that Jacques Derrida claims that modernity requires specific tasks-a point on which I agree-but that, at the same time, he holds an a-historical conception of the limits of metaphysical language, from its origins to our time. He presupposes that the work at the limits of metaphysical language will be endless, which is a way of denying that any decisive historical turn could occur. This implicit denial is, in my view, an unjustified presupposition which is perhaps linked with the lack of a meditation on modern technology and of the possible relationship between the essence of technology and the will to disappropriate. My last question is thus beginning to take form: How is one to explain the previously noticed convergences between contemporary thinkers, this common will to think the decentering of signification and to build up a "polylogic" (or a Polylogue, as Julia Kristeva says)?How is one to explain it, if one does not admit of some kind of Zeitgeist (by which I do not mean any substantial principle)? Reformulated, my question would be: What is the relationship between modernity and historicity in general? Or, in better and perhaps clearer terms: Are not the deconstruction and the will to disappropriation still ways of appropriating . modernity, that is, a minimal historical convergence? A few words of my own, just to anticipate what my answer would be: Why not accept this task as a kind of appropriation of our time? Why try to avoid any kind of appropriation whatsoever, since the present world goes its way and demands to be understood?