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Derrida’s Seminars: Writing Before Writing Before the Letter

By Jonathan Basile.


After beginning with the end, we have ended up at the beginning. The newest of Jacques Derrida’s seminars is the oldest yet published, Heidegger: The Question of Being & History,which pre-dates the philosopher’s 1967 debut, the year he published three of the twentieth century’s most influential works of philosophy. Derrida died in 2004 and left behind more than 14,000 pages of lectures and notes from a half-century of teaching. Thanks to the critical work of the editors of the French editions and the Derrida Seminar Translation Project, five of his seminars have now appeared in book form in French and four in English translation. The editors began with the last seminars before his death, The Beast and the Sovereign and The Death Penalty, courses taught from 1999-2003, before returning to 1964-5, to a young scholar’s inchoate reflections on Heidegger, who would endure as a focus of Derrida’s career and the frequent subject of his close reading practice, which came to be known as deconstruction.

There’s an intuitive sense to this distribution. The seminars served as a sort of laboratory for Derrida’s published work, often presaging and developing the themes that would appear there. The final seminars, however, had not yet been elaborated in book form. The Beast and the Sovereign, begun in November of 2001 after the attacks of September 11th, dealt in particular with political themes that Peggy Kamuf, member of both the French editorial team and the translation project, described as “most pressing.” Where these texts open onto the future not quite foreclosed by death, allowing glimpses of the directions Derrida could not pursue himself but which will no doubt be developed in his name, Heidegger: The Question of Being & History, offers a comparable revelation of what lay before the beginning, of voices that resemble Derrida’s but were not to become the one we recognize as his today. Or so it seems—it is often difficult, in these texts that Derrida himself expressed misgivings about publishing, to distinguish what is spoken in his name from the patient exposition of the authors he is reading or the necessary reticence of the pedagogue. Furthermore, whatever voice one identifies in such a heterogeneous text must be compared with whatever image we carry in ourselves of the deceased; at least in my case, it is not without the prior instruction of this voice of Derrida in me that I even know to ask these questions.

Another justification presents itself for proceeding in this way. Derrida himself often liked to survey the work of an author by taking a text from the beginning and one from the end of their career. For example, in his reflections on “The Deaths of Roland Barthes,” Derrida re-reads the first and last texts of his deceased friend, Writing Degree Zero and Camera Lucida, a methodology that expresses an impossible desire for the summation of a life or an individual, “as if by reading the first and last without stopping… I were finally going to see and know everything” (37). If he pursued this desire, it was never with the aim of having the last word. Rather, alongside any continuity he discovered there, undermining the taxonomy of periodization that makes criticism the resource and failure of deconstruction, he would inevitably discover all that remained uncertain and open to the future in each text, the spectral force that prevented any assurance as to who was outliving whom. Thanks to the rigorous critical work of the French editors and the translation project (each volume is the responsibility of a single translator, in this case Geoffrey Bennington, though every seminar is reviewed by a team of the most experienced scholars and translators of Derrida’s work), we will remain, for years to come, in the undecidability of Derrida’s living on.

Perhaps the most curious specter of Derrida summoned by this translation is the one who never placed a special emphasis on the word deconstruction. The term appears here for the first time in Derrida’s work, but it appears alongside “solicitation” and “shaking up” as one of several possible translations for Heidegger’s Destruktion. Derrida insisted that he never intended to found a philosophy of deconstruction, but rather that the term which appeared in Of Grammatology (again as a translation or gloss of Heidegger) was fastened onto by commentators and eventually adopted by Derrida himself. To give a sense of the contingency of this transmission, solicitation is a term that recurs with no less frequency in Derrida’s early work, often with gestures toward its etymology, from solus, whole, entire, and ciere, to put in motion.

Encountering deconstruction (the word, perhaps the thing, if there is any)  in the context of this newest older publication can help to shake our conviction that we know what was meant by it. In his “Letter to a Japanese Friend,” written to a translator of Of Grammatology struggling with the term, Derrida emphasized, among other things, its unfamiliarity to French ears. He recalls having to check the dictionary to see whether the word had been naturalized in French or not, and was delighted to find that it combined meanings related to the disassembly of machines (Littré specifies that this dismantling is for the sake of transportation) and the decomposition of verse into prose. Notably, he remembers avoiding the French destruction or destruire, finding them both too negative for the range of significance he identified in Heidegger’s operation. The unfamiliarity of the term in French should serve as a caution against those who would embrace or attack “deconstruction” on the basis of the destructive force it suggests in English. Perhaps America became the site of the greatest furor on both sides of the debates about his work in part due to the negative, confrontational aspect of this term in English—to the perception he meant to destroy the tradition, rather than bundling it up like an itinerant salesman to unbind its operations in another locale. What would we English speakers have heard at that time if Derrida approached our shores as the philosopher of solicitation? What would we think of it, or would we think of it at all, today?

Virtually every work that would follow in his forty years as an author can be read or sensed as foretold in this 1964 seminar. One could take almost any theme as an example, including that of exemplarity, but metaphoricity receives a sustained treatment that places it at the heart of Derrida’s discussion of history. Metaphor would later be the focus of some of Derrida’s most important deconstructions, in “White Mythology” and “The Retrait of Metaphor.” Traditional considerations of the use of metaphor in philosophical texts presuppose an established distinction between literal and figurative language on the one hand, and between the self-contained and antithetical fields of philosophy and rhetoric on the other. That philosophy deals in pure ideas, that its conclusions rest on unshakeable foundations outside of the vicissitudes of time, space, and the sensible, requires that those ideas be repeatable without any dependence on what in metaphorics is known as the vehicle, the image or figure. If it could be shown that one never accedes to such pure ideas, independent of any figuration, then the entire edifice of metaphysics is, shall we say, solicited, and philosophical discourse with its dream of a rigorous logic leading to absolute truth is indistinguishable from the stylistic flare or seductive persuasion of rhetoric.

Is this the relationship of metaphor to proper meaning in his early seminar? The theme arises in the context of his consideration of history or historicity in Heidegger. The latter’s project of Destruktion obeys conflicting, aporetic imperatives. On the one hand, Heidegger would do away with the metaphysical belief in a truth or a realm of true entities existing outside of space and time. On the other hand, if philosophy is not an ahistorical discourse, neither can it be a mere history or historicism that would accept any given historical account. A naive empiricism that accepts beings as present-at-hand occludes being just as surely as a metaphysical discourse that posits a supersensible realm populated with timeless entities, whether ideas or gods. They must be thought as the gift of being, without positing a giver behind the act.

This task brings with it a problem of language. Our everyday speech remains sedimented with past metaphysical definitions, even or especially if we remain ignorant of that history. Nevertheless, one cannot simply invent a new vocabulary, as this attempt to step outside of the history of language will retain its connection to the system of thought from which it necessarily begins. Derrida defines the task of Destruktion as it sets to work within a received language, a philosophical logos, “At every moment, uneasily but vigilantly, in the work of analysis, in the corrections and crossings out, the crossings out of crossings out, one will proceed slowly within the received logos, sometimes modifying it by itself, correcting itself by itself, and in this sense the destruction will always be an auto-destruction of the logos of ontology, and of philosophy by philosophy” (24). The question of the meaning of being necessarily presupposes the language in which it is asked; Heidegger indicates this sort of presupposition with the phrase always already. Derrida interprets this phrase by pointing out that it describes a condition of possibility yet reduces the otherworldly timelessness of the philosophical term a priori. The already embeds the always in history, while the always prevents the already from becoming an empirical fact. Readers of Derrida will recognize this ability to imbue the smallest details of a text with the entire weight of its thinking, despite his reputation as one who interpreted the history of philosophy willfully.

This presupposition of language, its always already being present whenever the question of being is asked, brings Derrida to a consideration of metaphor. He takes the phrase, “language is the house of being” as an example. Is this a metaphor? Does “house” here mean something like a logical condition of possibility, a familiar image being employed to help us think the abstract and unfamiliar? But why then does Heidegger caution us, “The talk about the house of being is not the transfer of the image ‘house’ onto being” (68)? At least two reasons:

1) To supplant the “house” with the language of conditions of possibility is to treat being as logical, conceptual, and abstract, despite Heidegger’s explicit exhortations to think of being as concrete. Neither language nor being has a trans-historical existence; if we allege that “house” is a rhetorical figure, then the proper or literal meaning of the sentence hypostasizes being and language outside of history, in a timeless conceptuality. (One of the benefits to readers of Derrida’s seminars is the patient explication of gnomic phrases from his published work. For example, “Violence and Metaphysics” condenses this argument to the assertion that being’s priority is “neither chronological nor logical” (182).)

2) According to the logic of rhetoric, “house” should be the immediately and intuitively familiar thing, which we employ to access the unfamiliar, language and being. Is this so? The house that binds being and language suggests proximity, nearness, familiarity, all the values of the shelter or the hearth. But we do not first learn these values from the house—rather, without our proximity to being, which grants us not merely this or that dwelling but the presence of every here and now, one could never learn what it is to be at home. The everyday, inauthentic existence that assumes language and being must be abstractions from its experience, thus that its experience is at best their figuration, must be shaken, solicited, to learn that the language and being that shelter its experience are nothing outside of that existence and its history.

At this point, Derrida begins to reach conclusions resembling his later thought of metaphor, though he frames their relationship to Heidegger differently. For Heidegger, we speak metaphorically, that is to say, improperly, when we speak of the house outside of any thought of being. Thus the thought of being brings us close to a language prior to figuration or impropriety, outside of metaphor. Of course, it cannot leave behind that inauthentic language entirely (due to the problem of history we have been pursuing all along), and so, “Metaphor does not occur in language as a rhetorical procedure; it is the beginning of language, of which the thinking of being is however the buried origin. One does not begin with the originary; that’s the first word of the (hi)story” (62). This conclusion begins to sound like Derrida’s later deconstruction of metaphor, which concluded that there could never be pure literal or figurative language but only different admixtures of language’s “tropic capacity.”  But in his later work Derrida will insist that Heidegger remained too close to the traditional metaphysical project by claiming that an authentic thought or event of being was possible; in other words, Heidegger separated being from history or facticity too much, despite his own protestations. In this early work, is Derrida locating originary metaphor in Heidegger’s own text, or reading Heidegger against himself, finding the lever for a deconstruction in Heidegger’s insistence on the history he nonetheless brackets? The difference remains undecidable.

There is one sure sign, however, that Derrida has not yet refined his deconstruction of Heidegger’s thought of being: the subordinate place Derrida grants to rhetoric. The point of Heidegger’s discourse, we are told, is to “return to the origin of metaphor or metaphoricity, and thus to think metaphor as such before it is seized upon by a rhetoric or technique of expression” (62). While Derrida recognizes that metaphor must in some sense be present at the origin, it remains an authentic metaphor untainted by “rhetorical derivatives.” This gesture dominates Heidegger’s thought—the essence of rhetoric is not rhetorical, just as the essence of technology is nothing technological, and the inability of all regional discourses (the sciences, for example) to think their own essence, their own being, opens the space and the necessity for an authentic thinking that would distinguish itself from all of them. Derrida will spend the next forty years tirelessly deconstructing this opposition of authentic and inauthentic thinking, to show that the impossibility of its pure manifestation makes authentic thinking indistinguishable from the inauthentic. For that, his students would have to wait a few more years.

Another lesson we could learn from the later Derrida is that these types of violent exclusions, exiling rhetoric to preserve the purity of thinking, have political consequences. Readers familiar with Derrida’s later work will be particularly surprised by the absence here of a consideration of Heidegger’s politics. While some of Heidegger’s most fascist texts had not yet been published, Derrida cites the Introduction to Metaphysics extensively, which spoke of “the inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism. One of Derrida’s only references to Heidegger’s Nazi affiliation, made in passing in the section we were just reading, seems to excuse him for it:

And now there appears what again resembles a pure and simple metaphor in the expressionist-romantico-Nazi style (which is perhaps—without a doubt even—also romantico-Nazi, but the problem, our problem, is that of knowing if it is only a metaphor and if its romantico-Nazi style exhausts it: and if, allowing oneself to be fascinated by this style, one is not missing, through another philological violence, the essential point). (57)

This passage preserves the most traditional and least Derridean relationship of style or rhetoric to the proper thinking of a philosopher. If something is “only a metaphor” then it belongs in its entirety to the inauthentic realm of style (“style exhausts it”) rather than to thinking, which is more than just style, which touches “the essential point.” Of course, if Heidegger’s Nazi involvement can be considered a mere stylistic similarity, then it is inessential according to this logic.

The irony of this easy forgiveness is that no one more than Derrida has interrogated not only the relationship of Heidegger’s thinking and his politics, but the inextricable bond of politics and philosophy. Derrida’s later work, for example, Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question or the Geschlecht essays, foregrounded this question with a nuance many critics failed to achieve. Where others sought to simply accuse or excuse Heidegger, Derrida showed that Heidegger’s most condemnable gesture was his critique of Nazism. Though Heidegger joined the party 1933 and never repudiated his membership, he insisted that he had always been an internal critic, particularly of its biologism. This would be fitting, because Heidegger saw the sciences as regional, inauthentic discourses, and thus would never base the essence of the German people on something as inessential as race. But Derrida shows that this gesture is always accompanied by raising the stakes of Nazism, by embedding German exceptionalism in spirit, essence, or being, rather than biology. Among other things, this shows itself in Heidegger’s pretense that the German language was closer to the ancient Greek and thus better suited for authentic thinking than any other. Derrida sees in this a sign that Heidegger remained too close to the metaphysical desire to transcend history: rather than stepping outside his historical particularity, he tried to elevate it to an ersatz absolute. The hope or ruse of an authentic thinking, whose essence must remain free of contamination from any regional discourse, can only lead to violence. Derrida makes a similar error in 1964 when he attempts to isolate Heidegger’s thinking from style or rhetoric—an error I can recognize and denounce only thanks to everything Derrida has taught us since.



Jonathan Basile is the creator of an online universal library, libraryofbabel.info. His non-fiction has been published in The Paris Review Daily, Guernica, and Electric Literature, and his fiction has been published in minor literature[s] and Litro. He is currently a Ph.D. student in Emory’s Comparative Literature department. 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, September 12th, 2016.