Boredom and Terror

Who is comforted by it?
Pent in the packed compulsory ring
Round father’s frown each famus waits his
Day to dominate. Here a dean sits
Making bedroom eyes at a beef steak,
As wholly oral as the avid creatures
Of the celibate sea; there, sly and wise
Commuters mimic the Middle Way,
Trudging on time towards a tidy fortune.
(The senator said: ‘From swimming-hole
To board-meeting is a big distance.’)
Financiers on knolls, noses pointing
East towards oil fields, inhale the surplus
Their bowels boast of, while boys and girls, their
Hot hearts covered over with marriage
To tyrant functions, turn by degrees
To cold fish, though, precarious on the
Fringes of their feeling, a fuzzy hope
Persists somehow that some day all this
Will walk away, and a wish gestates
For explosive pain, a punishing
Demanded moment of mortal change,
The Night of the Knock when none shall sleep,
The Absolute Instant.

From W. H. Auden’s “The Age of Anxiety” (1948)

I draw emphasis to this verse because of its reference to a “wish for explosive pain” that gestates in the anxiety wrought by life in Western societies.

The poem covers an array of diseases that afflict us: the obsession with ‘fathers’ of all sorts (founding fathers, nation states, religious fathers, but also sports-team fathers, etc.: masculine patriarchy, tied up with debt, compulsion, enforcement, etc.) by sons who are just waiting for the opportunity to take over and rule (to kill the patriarch, only to establish more fraternities); the erotic sloth of exorbitant consumption; the boredom of passing the time for meager achievements; the uncritical function of religion when it only greases the wheel of the machine of mobilization and production; the greed of investors bent on exploiting resources for profit; the impotent loud-mouthing of a political class disconnected from the people; the youth brought too soon into normalized roles and the resulting indifference; etc. I’m not so interested in this list of ills, but in what is described as the culmination of this (basically middle-class or affluent) ennui/depression: a “hope” that it will all go away, for an “explosive pain,” a necessary moment of punishment, the imposition of some change to wake us from our moral laxity and courage deficit, the Absolute Instant when attention must be paid, and so on. What sort of fantasy is this? And why does it appear here in affluence, where culture has largely achieved its goals (cleanliness, orderliness, taming of the instincts, adjustment to “reality,” etc.)?

I’m trying to root out certain continuities between what is registered in such a poem as part of the “affluent imaginary” and what might be called the “terroristic drive.” There is in the latter also a certain craving for an “Absolute Instant” in which all dissatisfaction and tension can be released in one devastating blow. As the poem makes explicit, this is a retributive moment, a time of payback against the past. This dream of obliteration has always been the stuff of apocalyptic thinking, but here we find it utterly secularized, without any horizon of salvation, Phoenix reduced to a kind of zero point of pyromania and arson. Here, the wish that, in this instant, everyone on earth be kept awake, is ambiguous: on the one hand, it could suggest the need for a certain existential awakening, and could perhaps represent heeding the call of justice (Levinas’ “insomnia”); but on the other hand, this sleepless vigil could be the mournful aftermath of the death and destruction spread in the “punishing moment” (which we should note in passing is the bad alternative to forgiveness).

We often try to trace a terrorists’ motives, for good reason, back to ideological causes, fantasies of fame or reward in heaven, social alienation, and economic situation, geopolitical entanglements (including access to weaponry). But I wonder sometimes if the dynamics of these decisions don’t have as much to do with something much less coherent, something essentially anti-cultural and anti-sensical: the aggression or death drive tacked on to all the other factors, feeding on them and aggravating them, and finally reducing them to rubble. I wonder how this death drive links up with the fantasy of the Absolute Instant (as much the answer to the anxiety of boredom as to the anxiety of oppression). Freud tells us this destruction drive is always dressed in the colors of Eros; I cannot help but recall the promise to martyrs that they will be welcomed by virgins after death, but in a sense any promise of reconciliation will work to justify the use of violent force. (There is an erotics to militarism which should be discussed, and in two directions: in the quest to found the One (founding and conserving violence) but also in the desire to have itself torn apart by the Other it can only feign to exclude from itself. According to the paradoxes of auto-immunity, the violent state wants contact with the very thing it says it wants to guard itself from contacting. The inevitable contact is devastating: the conflict goes on as if it wasn’t happening, as if without casualties or damage. But the drive for purity always ends up in contamination.)

Auden’s poem lacks a promise of reconciliation. It shows the abyss of the terror motive in the more general longing for the unprecedented (in truth, a longing for time). This section of the poem ends:

It [the Absolute Instant] is here, now.
For the huge wild beast of the Unexpected
Leaps on the lax recollecting back;
Unknown to him, binoculars follow
The leaping lad; lightening at noonday
Swiftly stooping to summer-house
Engraves its disgust on engrossed flesh,
And at tea-times through tall french windows
Hurtle anonymous hostile stones.
No soul is safe…
We are mocked by unmeaning; among us fall
Aimless arrows, hurting at random
As we plan to pain.

The nonchalance of the imagery should not blind us to the implication here. My suggestion is that, read in a certain way, this describes a terrorist attack, the fruit of an aggression drive attacking, but also delivered over the abyss of affluence and futility. In the broader arc of the poem, all the characters end up tired and without patience and join the “jaw-dropped / Mildewed mob.”

Two other anecdotes come to mind in connection with our problem: Baudelaire’s causing trouble for the fun of it, a punk-beat anticism which almost sounds proto-terroristic: “These nervous practical jokes are not without peril, and they may often cost one dearly. But what does an eternity of damnation matter to he who has found in a second an infinity of enjoyment?” (The Bad Glazier); and Breton’s comment that, “The purest surrealist act is walking into a crowd with a loaded gun and firing into it randomly. Anyone who has never felt the desire to deal thus with the current wretched principle of humiliation and stultification clearly belongs in this crowd himself with his belly at bullet height.” Puerility and belligerence are perhaps never too far apart. (And we will probably not escape the impression that these ennui-terror narratives chronicle a particularly male type of masculinity: virility, control, potency, pride, protection.)

In broad strokes, the question is about the relation between our boredom with modern life (a problem that technology and relative affluence make possible but that, in my opinion, cannot be answered by them, especially when it is so organized to fill the void and never let it appear to us) and the increasing level of “explosions” now punctuating our lives with terrorism and its threat (the void manifesting in frustrations and murders). Not only do the authorities consider us all potential terrorists, but we ourselves are confronted with these possibilities, it is being advertised to us, flaunted even, as an answer to “nihilisitic” culture and its dreariness. It would be fruitful to ask how we are “terroristic” in our own messages and behaviors. To what extent do we demand “punishing moments” and hurtle “hostile stones”? How is this possible when we lack a goal for it?

To plan to pain is to let the mockery of unmeaning reign. Wherever this takes place, however, the arrows fly aimlessly. The “enemy” cannot be located, and to target one is to target civilians. And, we should add, it is to always hit the wrong target–or to hit it as haphazardly as the gunman. Perhaps we know this, but we keep shooting. The reason, I would argue, is an inability to confront the tedium and tyranny of our own world, to address it from the void that both boredom and terror reveal to us in concealed forms, and their apparent reversibility and mutual energetic.

Because the border between the two is not as wide as we might think. A few months ago, in Dubuque, Iowa, a young man accosted, raped, and murdered an elderly woman. His reason? He was bored. I neither mean to discount the other factors involved in that attack, nor do I mean to suggest that Islamist terrorism is at all traceable to boredom. I’m trying to tease out the more complex chain, as it seems to emerge in affluent-media culture, from boredom to restlessness to desensitization… to the rage for consequences, destruction, and conquest. What does it tell us about our emptiness within, our refusal of it? What does boredom share with oppression tout court, if they can both lead to such outbursts, to hellfire visions of revolution where they meet on the horizon with innocent vandalism? (Should we speak of a sublimation of the death drive in art? Is that why philosophy is so “boring”? This is, after all, an age of struck canvases.)

What exactly is this lust for the Absolute Instant? We could never recall all the ways religion and philosophy are looped around such a concept. Nor could we count all the atrocities committed underhandedly in its name. The fight for the Unique, the Absolute, the Ultimate–this is a fight for mockery and unmeaning, its result a sorry string of futile appropriations (patriations, patriarchializations, etc.) on the way to terror and, in their failure, boredom. At any rate, this is a psychic space that is very poorly understood, which I think can be seen in our collective inability to critically address either of these problems. In lieu of this confrontation, I fear we risk slipping even further into a world that is increasingly terrifying, boring, and anxious.

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Joy and Justice

Poetry and philosophy could be described as two modes of intervention in language that seek to reinvent what human discourse means or can do, and so to reinvent what it means to speak and be.

The one, poetry, would speak a beyond of language in language for the sake of contacting things: to make language “itself” a thing, to give it the weight of a body; or to bring “things” directly into language, to give bodies the power and flow of a voice. The other, philosophy, would speak a beyond of the concept through concepts for the sake of altering language, where language is understood as our basic “medium” of thought: to give body to concepts and to weigh that body; or to think what remains unthought in the concepts that guide our normal ways of thinking, our relationship to reality, world, and others. Poetry would affirm an outside of language in language, in the name of joy, that elevates language into a unique sphere of expressive life, while philosophy would affirm a strike on language, in the name of justice, that integrates language into thought’s struggle for the future and for peace.

One might account for the sparkle of poetry and the alarm of philosophy in this way. Poems would be like lightning strikes, philosophy the laborious thunder coming after, the one surrendering to the speed of ungraspable realities, from love to anger to grief, affirming sensation and the singularity of experience, the very mystery of earth and birth, while the other submits itself to a sedulous investigation of that speed, endeavoring to bring the lightness of sense into thought’s clarity, tragically aware that ultimately it cannot be grasped. Both would undo the “naive evidence” of the world as it is given, normalized, and prescribed by prevailing uncreative modes of discourse, yet in opposite directions: poetry amplifying that naivety, celebrating innocence and its fervor, such that the world appears afresh in its ever-renewed inaugural emergence; philosophy engaging that naivety as both its enemy and its resource, drawing from it without stalling content with it, sustaining it alive in a way that contends with the passage of time and the ordeal of history.

They would seem almost incompatible: what remains intolerable for poetry (explication, labor, analysis, mediation) would be philosophy’s wellspring; and what remains intolerable for philosophy (plays on words, unbridled inspiration, spontaneity, intimation) would be poetry’s. And yet both would be urgent interventions, the one reinvigorating language as tangible and tactile vehicle for emotional life, tending toward singular and irreplaceable experiences; the other reinvigorating thought as a material operation capable of remaking history, tending toward universalization and peace. But both would be destined to redesign our bodies and recalibrate our minds. And they would need each other–not to be each other’s answer, but to communicate the full range of experience, the syncopated rhythm of life and thought. To communicate what it means to communicate as such: to reinvent it.

I have retained the conditional tense here (“would be…”) because of course I do not believe in a simple bifurcation between poetry and philosophy. Although I can’t deny that these names represent different things, two “genres” with different modes of expression, it would be foolish, especially today, to believe in any natural division of labor between the two. I’m playing on it here to illuminate some features, but also to emphasize the need to imbue the one with the other: not so much poetry with philosophy and vice versa, but spontaneity with mediation, inspiration with thought, and so on. Thinkers and poets both “divine and anticipate,” they both use language to question the automatic course of things and to ready us for unprecedented events, encounters, pivots, and perils. In so doing, they re-destine humanity beyond its merely instrumental purpose, and first of all by treating language as something more than a tool. That is the common aspiration of their intervention: to rework language such that we may teach ourselves how to “pay a different kind of attention,” which amounts to relearning what it means to be and share a world, remembering always that what counts for beauty counts for politics and vice versa.

What we “need,” then, is an agile poetry coextensive with daily speech, a careful philosophy coextensive with daily thought. But while the task must reach into the most minute aspects of daily life, we still have to learn what we’re called to do from those who came before us. What do they tell us? What do they ask us to receive? What do they ask us to give? The answers here are not univocal, and we shouldn’t expect them to be. Their difference is the gift of plural tendency, a diversity of ambition in which they invite us to share. Because although each teaches us something unique, I believe it is their desire to reach that unites them. That desire is a quasi-universal, and they invite us in unison to cultivate it.

For before and beyond everything they say, they speak to us. They address us as irreplaceable and call us to discover it. That could be the irreplaceability of a feeling or a moment, as in poetry, or the irreplaceability of a thought or a trajectory, as in philosophy. But they never ask us to emulate them. They call us to make it our own, and so to re-direct it into our own rarity. Re-direct me, take me with you, abandon me, it matters little, they seem to say, so long as you reach, believe, and live outside your caricature. At stake is always a reinvention: of language, of things, of life in common, of the future. And so of them, of the very beings from whom we learn to live, who call us. And so of us, who are still learning to live, who are still learning to receive and to call.

This could be an awakening to the truth of what is already there, or it could be a refusal of what is with an eye to its total transformation. Poetry or philosophy, it’s always a question of being-reaching, of letting oneself be reached, for it is our landscape and light to rediscover, it is our responsibility to love. The weight of time and the exposure to the other is ours. The re-destination of humanity is for us–to express and to think, to breathe and to sing. Joy and justice, the rhythm of your rhythm in ours.

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Due to the Other

(The following is the transcript of a short talk I gave to my GCAS class on Deconstruction. I want to thank Giovanni Tusa, the course instructor, and the other students for giving me this opportunity, for listening in, and for opening such a good conversation afterwards (which unfortunately is not reproduced here). I imagine this text as part of a series titled, “duties of deconstruction.” One final note: this text is ‘punctuated’ with direct quotes from Derrida’s book The Post Card to get what is at stake to speak to you.)


To render what is due to the other. How could I?

As I tried to prepare these comments, I was overwhelmed by an inadequacy to which I felt rather doomed. To measure up to Derrida’s work, especially on the other, to measure up to the other, could only mean letting myself be put in question, and it felt necessary to acknowledge this and begin from there: from where an other, Derrida, and from where others, all of you, put me in question, where I feel obligated to let my response remain haunted by an inadequacy, and more importantly, by an indebtedness to Derrida and to you that I feel: a debt to the other that no response, no discourse, no act, could ever fulfill. [Punctuation 1: “), how we would have loved it. The wound can have (should only have) just one proper name. I recognize that I love—you—by this: that you leave in me a wound I do not want to replace.”[1]]

A debt, therefore, announces itself. I must have felt it when I proposed this presentation, too, with the idea of sensitizing us to a certain priority of the other in Derrida’s work. A debt to the other, to render what is due to it in that work. Perhaps I also felt a debt to indebt others to the other, by calling attention to it, by calling attention to the other that calls us first to think. That will be my topic today. What is due to the other? How to render it?

This sentence, my opening sentence, can be read in at least two ways. First, to render what is due to the other means: to give it what is owed to it, to pay the debt, to give it its due. The offering or payment could be many things: a sacrifice, an act, a word, or just gratitude and appreciation. But whatever it may be, this reading already confronts us with something immeasurable: how to know, calculate, or even guess what I owe? And how to know when? According to what timescale does the debt come due? Such a question is abyssal, and I want to emphasize it, because it should already lead us to question any economy of restitution: I will never be able to give what I owe, because I could never guess its true extent. I can never know what’s expected of me in full, and perhaps the other also does not know. And so I must always start over from the start. I must calculate words and deeds, negotiating with an incalculable debt that only increases the more I try to pay it back, to the point of near-paralysis. I would have to give to the other more than I could give, more than they asked for, more than was due. I would even owe it what I did not have to give. To render what can’t be rendered, to an other or to others whose call is not always so clear, and is multiple and conflicting: that would be what is “due,” and what I must do, in excess of what I have to give, what I can say, in excess of my very capacity to act. It’s due to happen, it can’t wait. But there’s no guarantee that it will, or that it can.

And yet there is a second way to read the sentence. Without nullifying what I’ve just said, we could read this “due” to mean: because of, by reason of, from the other. To render what is due to the other would take on a paradoxical form: to render back to it what it caused, to give to you what the other in me instigated or sparked up. As if the other had first given me what I will have given. As if you gave it to me, so I could give it to you. As if the other had given me to give, to render what was due to you by giving me to give, before I even knew who I was. Something like: giving the gift of giving itself. [Punctuation 2: “But this is impossible, in any case it can only await your grace, if you are willing to give me what I write to you, you my immense, you my unique destiny.”[2]]

However we choose to hear the phrase, “to render what is due to the other,” it puts us in question right where we are called to be responsible. The other indebts me, obligates me beyond my capacity to know and to give; but it also interrupts me, destabilizes me and breaks the economy of the same in which I could still identify myself as myself, as one. And this interruption only magnifies the obligation. For while it is due to the other that I can say “Here I am” and respond, it is also due to the other that I can’t be so certain. The “here I am” is itself put into question from the moment I must ask, “Yes, here I am, but where? Due to what or to whom?” Due to the other, yes, but who or what is that?

I’ve promised to talk about it, the other, about what is due to the other in Derrida’s work, with a suggestion that this work “revolves” around it, around a respect for the other and its chance. (The best I can do, perhaps, is give it a chance myself.) If there is a “revolution” in his work, or in deconstruction, I believe it finds its center of gravity there, around the other and the chain of thoughts associated with it. But if I say “center,” it’s important to stress (and I’m sure you could have guessed) that this center is not a center, but rather the “centrality” of a displacement, the force of an alteration or alterity that comes before any center. Not a decentering that would come secondary, but something at the center’s very core, a core which it perhaps does not have.

We are all probably familiar with the initial iterations of this displacement, this thought of alterity, in Derrida’s work: the concepts or non-concepts of différance, the supplement, and the trace. He began this work with an interrogation of purity, of the purity of being, of presence, of the same, of identity, of the logos, of full speech in the voice, and more generally, of the idea of purity itself, of indivisibility, incorruptibility, and sovereignty in all its forms. He highlighted an alterity that came before the same, a supplement that came before the origin, an archi-originary contamination of the same by the other, in an attempt to account for an initial or pre-initial play of differences without which no center, no system, no effect of presence whatsoever could even arise. These early deconstructions sought to mark a non-coincidence of the same with itself, even where it appears to have won a center; an irreducible hiatus in the circle of self-representation or self-identity; a division or non-contemporaneity of the present with itself; in sum, a non-closure, openness, or incompleteness without which there could be no interpretation and, furthermore, no future.

I don’t want to dwell on these points, only to reference two moments in his early work to help orient us. The first comes from an article entitled Différance, where he speaks about its “point of greatest obscurity,” of the very enigma of différance. He asks:

How can we, on the one hand, conceive of différance as the “systematic detour,” within the element of the same, that always aims at regaining the presence or pleasure that is in one way or another deferred, and, at the same time, to conceive of différance as “the relation to an impossible presence, as an expenditure without reserve, as an irreparable loss of presence, an irreversible wearing-down of energy, or indeed as a death instinct and a relation to the absolutely other that apparently breaks up any economy”?

He goes on to add that the system and the nonsystem, the same and the absolutely other cannot be conceived together[3]At the risk of overstating it, I would say that Derrida never abandoned this enigma, which I would reformulate in the following experimental ways (and these are questions, restatements): How to negotiate between the calculations that must be made by a subject, whose “sameness” or “system” is in a sense inescapable, and the incalculable other that one must respect, lest that system close in on itself and lose its future? How to negotiate the drive to presence or pleasure with this “impossible presence” or “irreparable loss” that marks a certain never-there, that exposes that drive to presence or pleasure to a death that cannot be reduced and in fact insinuates itself at the heart of life? How to negotiate between the necessary assimilation of the other, however failed, and the relation to the absolutely other that lets it be other and leaves it its chance? How to negotiate discourse, action, and economy, while at the same time exposing oneself to a call that carries discourse beyond itself, beyond every norm and toward a sort of aneconomic “expenditure without reserve”? What I can only suggest here is that, while Derrida never gave up meditating on the aporia of such questions, and never simply resolved them, at the same time he never ceased to inflect his work in the direction of the inappropriable, the risk of incineration and death, the beyond-economy, the wound, the incalculable. In other words, he never stopped striving to render what was due to the other. [Punctuation 3: “You will follow me everywhere. And I will never know if I am suffering in you or in me. This is my suffering.”[4]]

The second moment from his early work that I wanted to share comes from 1971 in Positions, where Derrida summarizes in a correspondence with the interviewer, “No more than it is a form of presence, other is not a being (a determined being, existence, essence, etc.)” and he asks, “If the alterity of the other is posed, that is, only posed, does it not amount to the same…? From this point of view, I would even say that the alterity of the other inscribes in this relationship [to the same] that which in no case can be ‘posed.’”[5] Here Derrida contests the conception of the other in Hegelian dialectics, in which the self poses itself as other, with the aim of reappropriating the other into itself, “in the infinite richness” of its own determination (I’ll return to this a bit later). As he will say twenty years later in Aporias, “Each time the decision concerns the choice between the relation to an other who is its other (that is, an other that can be opposed in a couple) and the relation to a wholly, non-opposable, other, that is, an other that is no longer its other.”[6] (That may be a bit confusing, but I think his relation to Hegel is somewhat summarized in the inability to presume that the other could be posed in any way.) We could see here an echo of the enigma of différance we spoke about above: the choice is between an other caught up in my own schema of representation, reappropriation, and presence, and an other that is not my other, that is wholly other and remains so, that cannot be incorporated into me, and that, on the contrary, exposes and expropriates me beyond any self-return. An other that even calls the self to its own interruption, from the innermost interior of its self. In other words, to a deconstruction. [Punctuation 4: “But you, you know that I wrote you something entirely other, you are this itself (for me this is your only good determination): the one who knows that I am not there, that I have written you something entirely other.”[7]]

I would now like to jump, no doubt too quickly, to a provisional outline of “the other” as Derrida tries to think it. Although it never becomes a “theme,” precisely because it resists all thematization, I think some characteristics can be outlined. This outline is truly just a sketch. Here are three brief points:

  • The other is not a present being, it is not a determined being or presence, and in this sense, it “is” The other is not and is never present to me. It does not present itself. As Levinas would say, it is beyond being; ontology and phenomenology do not reach it. Derrida often returns to Husserl’s discovery that the alter ego can never be originarily presented to my consciousness. The other is never intuited, I apprehend it only through what Husserl calls appresentation or analogy. Put a bit more strongly, the coming of the other is what the subject never sees coming. It is defined in this way. It is the absolute surprise. But what is interesting here is that, for Derrida, this appellation of “other” applies to any and every other, to any living thing, if not to any thing, animate or inanimate. One of his favored formulas is, in the French, tout autre est tout autre, every other is wholly other, every other is every bit as other. This forumla signifies that, “every other is singular, that ‘every’ is a singularity, which also means that every is each one.”[8] In other words, the alterity of each other makes each other an exception. It makes the exceptionality and unconditionality of the Absolute Other universal. As he writes in The Gift of Death, each other as other is, “absolutely singular, inaccessible, solitary, transcendent, nonmanifest.”[9] [Punctuation 5: “Sometimes I wish that everything remain illegible for them—and also for you. To become absolutely unknowable for them. For me the absolute mystery is you.”[10]]
  • As mentioned in the quote from Positions, the other cannot be posed, positioned, or situated, topologically or temporally. The other and its call are atemporal, an-archic or, as Levinas again would say, ana-chronic. Just as the other is not a present being, it doesn’t belong to a past present or a future present either. It is linked to an immemorial past that is indistinguishable from what comes. Such is why it deconstructs the very opposition between life and death, obeying what Derrida calls a spectral logic that exceeds ontology: its first arrival may always seem like a return, and its return may always seem like a first arrival. We can’t be certain. But one can also never be sure that the other has arrived, just as the other may never arrive. That the other may never arrive is not, however, a limitation, but its chance, its freedom as other. Without the possibility of leaving, of changing the destination, of interrupting the trajectory, the other would lose its otherness and would become part of a program determined in advance. It can always arrive elsewhere, or not arrive at all. And it can always abandon. All of this renders any mapping of the present, of history, or of a context in general, not impossible, but interrupted by the other’s surprise event. However, to put it the other way around, we could also say that this uninsurable relation to the other, the possibility of its coming and going in excess of any teleological process, is what opens history. Without the open and unknown destination, the possibility of divagation or what Derrida calls destinerrance, nothing would come. [Punctuation 6: “And now, because I love you better still, I leave you: more undetermined than ever.”[11]]
  • Third, the other is not the possible. It is here that all we have said regarding the other links up with a chain of thoughts closely associated to it, namely: the event, the gift, hospitality, forgiveness, invention, bearing witness, the promise, and death (of course I say this just to orient readings, in some manner). All of these retain something of the other, of an inconceivable relationship to that which overwhelms and exceeds the self. They all contend with the aporetic structure he tried to formalize in which the “condition of possibility” for something is simultaneously its “condition of impossibility.” Such is why deconstruction was often defined as an experience of the impossible, as it applies to all the thoughts I mentioned. This is an impossible that is not negative, but which says, for example: the other is only possible as impossible. Or again, to quote from Psyche, “invention invents nothing, when in invention the other does not come, and when nothing comes to the other or from the other,” meaning that the only possible invention would be the invention of that which did not appear to be possible, since otherwise it would just be the product of a program in the economy of the same.

It is here—on this logic of the possible and impossible, and its relation to the subject—it is here Derrida most forcefully contests the traditional models of decision, performativity, and freedom (and I can of course only touch on these today). He speaks of a decision that “only returns to the other,” a passive decision that affects me by an other in me who precedes me and to whom I have no access, a decision that would always be “of” the other. He speaks of a freedom that would not be the possession of a subject but would break the subject open, disrupting the fabric of the possible, disrupting the very texture of its context, in an unexpected, unforeseeable, and uncontrollable way. And he speaks of a meta-performativity without power, exposed to the arrival of an event that outstrips the capacity of any “I can” and touches its “exposed vulnerability.” He says in fact that “ethics begins in this performative powerlessness” in which the other overloads responsibility exorbitantly, forcing us to invent something not only beyond the norms and rules, but something beyond the possible; to suspend the horizon of knowledge out of an urgency to respond, without waiting; and to refuse all the ruses of good conscience, in other words, never to overlook the debt. The other instigates, then, a responsibility that I cannot assume, and that demands that in the end only the other come back. I can only know this responsibility as an infinite debt that overwhelms my finite powers of assuming it, in other words, a responsibility that I can only assume in an impossible assumption, forever haunted by indecision and inconclusiveness: have I really assumed it? Have I even begun to respond? Have I ever, could I ever, render what is due to the other?

Let me close by giving Jacques the last word, on thought and what thought is due to. It comes from the end of his book on Nancy—and speaks to you:

In spite of thought: thought thinks only in spite of itself, or, I would say, à son corps défendant [i.e., reluctantly, unwillingly, notwithstanding itself]; [thought] thinks only there where the counterweight of the other weighs enough so that it begins to think, that is, in spite of itself, when it touches or lets itself be touched against its will. That is why it will never think, it will never have begun to think by itself. That is what it is necessary to think of thought, to ponder and weigh of weight. [Punctuation 7: “Promise me that one day there will be a world. And a body.”[12]]

[1] The Post Card, pg  25
[2] The Post Card, p 80.
[3] Différance, pg 293
[4] The Post Card, pg. 227
[5] Positions, p 94-95
[6] Aporias, pg 18
[7] The Post Card, pg. 229
[8] The Gift of Death, pg. 87
[9] The Gift of Death, pg. 78
[10] The Post Card, pg 205
[11] The Post Card, pg. 186
[12] The Post Card, pg. 122

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“Eating Well”

(The following is a reading of an interview between Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy titled Eating Well; or the Calculation of the Subject. It was initially prepared for a discussion forum as part of a course on Deconstruction run by Giovanni Tusa through GCAS. I post it here as the first in a series of essays attempting to deal with the “duties of deconstruction.”)

Although Derrida insists that there is not one homogenous problematic of the subject, that it is discussed differently by philosophers and theorists (Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Lacan, etc.), warning against any generalized usage of the term and that we must take account of all these differences, he does suggest what they all, roughly, have in common: They all find their point of departure in a “structure of relation to self ‘as such’ and of reappropriation” (267). Let me begin by unpacking this structure.

The relation of the self to itself ‘as such’ is what makes the “self-same” subject–what we think of as “ourselves”–possible: the subject as that which remains the same through difference, which incorporates difference as a moment of itself. “Reappropriation” says that we appropriate for ourselves the differences we encounter; we represent them to ourselves and make them our own; and that, through this owning, something like the same returns, or can return. We refer difference and change over time back to one underlying substance, substratum, hypokeimenon. From here, it is a quick leap to other predicates we associate with “ourselves” as self-same, as a present-being, present to itself: “identity to self, positionality, property, personality, ego, consciousness, will, intentionality, freedom, humanity, etc.,” but also, “stance, stability, permanence, sustained relation,” and so on. All these predicates are predicated upon a conception of the subject as center: center of its possibilities and powers, center of its activity and its relations, center of its representations and its world. A center that supposedly creates its own reality, expresses ‘itself’, and, as Derrida later notes, dominates and masters nature, the animal, and the other (in a mode that is, if not exclusively virile/male, then at least ‘human’). Again, all of this begins from this structure of ‘relating to self as such’, of reappropriating differences as part of the ‘same’ self, and of returning to oneself and of returning as oneself as such.

To make it a bit less abstract, we could say that reappropriation involves everything we maintain about ourselves when we answer the question, “Who are you?” In answering this question, we bring ourselves back as the same. It is this conception of the subject (as a present being who speaks in the present and persists over time in presence) that shapes not only our relationship to law, economy, and politics, but also to everyday life. It is our basic and quasi-intuitive way of relating to ourselves: present, as ourselves, as such. The big questions in deconstruction begin here: what exactly is this relation that I have to myself? Can I really relate to myself ‘as such’? Is there a myself ‘as such’ to which or to whom I would relate? And if not, who then asks this question? Who or what says ‘I’? Let’s leave these questions aside for now and say something briefly about how this structure of relation-to-self and of reappropriation gets displaced by various thinkers before Derrida, since their work paved the way for deconstruction.

In the course of his phenomenological reduction, Husserl analyzes consciousness, the ego, and intentionality as minutely as possible, and he makes a curious discovery: rather than leading back to a self-same point, constitutive of the whole world, it leads to pre-subjective and non-egological zones. At the heart of the living present, the subject, “conjoins with the nonsubject.” The ego is “marked” by the non-ego or alter ego, and the ego can never have an originary experience of this alter ego. Meaning: it is never present. The paradox is that, although we are conjoined with this other in some fashion, it never appears for us, it is never there ‘as such’. But if, at the heart of its constitution, the subject is linked or marked by something that is never there ‘as such’, how could it ever relate to ‘itself‘ as such? Not only does this displace the conception of the subject as the center (since it introduces otherness at the heart of the same); not only does it lead us to say the subject is constituted rather than constitutive, but we also have to ask: how could the subject ever be constituted in a full, self-present way, if this ‘constitution’ always remains haunted by an other that could never be its ‘own’? Such is what the analysis of time and the other in relation to the constitution of the transcendental subject reveals: a horizon of questioning that is not exclusively egological or subjectively determined. It is already here that a ‘deconstruction’ is underway: a self interrupting itself due to the transcendence of another.

The second displacement is Heidegger’s: to replace the classical subject with Dasein. His existential analysis in Being and Time emphasizes that our being is not vorhanden (ready to hand, available, present, existing) but something more like an event stretching out through time (be-ing as a verb, not as an entity or substantive). Heidegger also talks about the ‘call of friendship’, a friend “within” us who calls us and provokes in us a responsibility that precedes any subjective determination. But although along these and other lines of thought Heidegger represents an “immense displacement,” Derrida is of the opinion that he does not go far enough. Heidegger marginalizes the idea of Geworfenheit (a being-thrown more primordial than subjectivity) and, more consequently, tries to rescue the subject through the idea of Eigentlichkeit–a word that is often translated as ‘authenticity’, but which contains the word ‘eigen‘: once again a thought of the “own” and “proper”. In other words, Dasein retains the possibility of relating to itself ‘as such’ (namely, by relating to death ‘as such’ (cf. Aporias)). Even if it is differentiated from any merely present being, Dasein is still defined as a being that asks questions about its own being. But why its own? Here, Derrida is extremely cautious: even the seemingly innocent question “Who?” risks reverting to the structure of the ‘as such’ and reappropriation. This caution will lead him to an affirmative thought that comes even before the “who” question, before any dilemma of the subject and certainly before any quest for identity.

Derrida thus seeks a trajectory of thought that does not return to self, to the ego, to an “atomic indivisibility,” or to any propriety, property, or appropriateness, but instead tries to think division and dispersal at the heart of any ‘same’, at the heart of an affirmative and responsive ‘yes’. Let’s try now to follow this trajectory, following Derrida’s comments.

I mentioned above how, in Husserl, the other is linked to or marks the subject at the level of its most basic constitution, so much so that it thwarts or prevents any constitution of the subject as itself, as self-present. It insinuates difference and errancy at the heart of the self ‘itself’. But does it then make sense to speak of the self ‘itself’, of the self ‘as such’? Hardly. Presence-to-self is already marked by difference, by a delay, an absence, or a loss–by the insistence of the other and time that disrupts or interrupts all reappropriative measures. Reappropriation, whereby the traditional subject feigned to come back to itself and take possession of itself, “necessarily produces the opposite of what it apparently aims for” (269): rather than producing self-sameness, it produces just more difference (alterity, traces without return to self, without proper origin, outside the duality of present-absent). Here, any ‘same’ that would be deviated from is ‘itself’ simply an effect of differential traits. It is from here that Derrida tries to rethink the relation to self as différance and alterity without reappropriation, or where reappropriation is determined as ex-appropriation.

It can’t be emphasized enough: ex-appropriation “implies the irreducibility of the relation to the other” (270). It is never closed off, it never totalizes itself, and never ends. And it never began, for it began before any beginning. At the most basic level, exappropriation signifies that the other is never just a moment in the subject’s self-development and reappropriation process (it is a not dialectical passage to the outside for the sake of returning, strengthened, to the center). But more striking here is how, in some sense, exappropriation signifies that the other is always already ‘over there’ undermining every attempt at reappropriation (but what kind of ‘over there’? not a presence, but a coming and going… which can always mean a non-arrival). Our exposure “from the inside out” to the other (non-locatable, non-identifiable, non-subjectivizable, not-present) always makes for a dehiscence and effraction from within, an ‘intrinsic dislocation’ in the subject. This relation (without relation) to the other can not be controlled, predicted, or programmed. It can only be undergone and experienced. This experience of ex-appropriation, exposed to the other without ever stabilizing it, without ever pretending to relate to it ‘as such’ or to exhaust this relation, is “deconstruction” in its most vivid, pertinent, and responsible form.

The duty of deconstruction, then, is to keep vigil: to protect the other’s otherness. This injunction comes without prescriptions and requires inventions. At the same time, it takes place, if it takes place, outside the ‘autonomy’ of any subject, beyond a subject’s powers, possibilities, and performances. Derrida summarizes, “Beyond even the force of critique, it situates a responsibility as irreducible to and rebellious toward the traditional category of ‘subject’” (274)–rebellious because it resists the reappropriation of the other into the same, irreducible because it never stabilizes the other. Rigorously speaking, the other is what the subject never sees coming. “Vigilance” begins in an unwavering respect for the not-even-recognizable other, a vigilance that lets the other remain inappropriable, non-subjectivizable, non-identifiable, thus letting it remain a sheer call to responsibility–a responsibility that carries within it “an essential excessiveness” and that, as Levinas wrote, only increases to the extent that we respond.

Perhaps we could measure the deconstructive displacement by returning to the question, “Who?” This question no longer has much pertinence if it is understood in the normal mode of self-inquiry that asks after the self (“Who am I?”), because then it remains caught in the logic of reappropriation and of relating to the self ‘as such’. It has to become a more reaching question of the type, “Who is it that says I?”: no longer a self-reflexive question, meant to discover “who one is,” but instead a question that asks after the other coming to the same and “obsessing” it; the other who puts the same in question before it is the same. (As Derrida kids in a footnote elsewhere, he always dreamed of writing a self-centered text, but always “fell upon the others.”) Perhaps there is an experience of ex-appropriation that comes to us even before these questions, an experience that affirms the other before even asking, and without needing to ask, who it is. Perhaps there is an experience of falling upon the other that renders the “who” question irrelevant.

At any rate, if there is a thought of singularity here (which would not involve the same questions as identity), it is articulated along the lines of a responsibility before an other that transcends: “It is a singularity that dislocates or divides itself in gathering itself together to answer to the other, whose call somehow precedes its own identification with itself” (261). To think dislocation and division simultaneously with a gathering together devoted to answering (to) the other–perhaps even answering in order to leave the other other, to give the other (and so us) a chance–such is our task: to turn the “shattering of the subject” in the direction of another type of ethics, politics, and responsibility.

One last comment. Why is the interview titled, “‘Eating Well’, or the Calculation of the Subject”? ‘Eating’ is obviously not restricted to the mere ingestion of food. It serves, rather, as a metonymy for everything that happens at the edge, at the orifices, at all our senses, at all our points of contact with and absorption of the other, living and non-living. For it is not a question of refusing to eat the other; that, Derrida suggests, is not how best to protect the other’s otherness. At any rate, we cannot not eat. Already in reading these words, you are eating. When we stare into our computers and watch the screen-apparitions of each other, we are eating. To “eat well” is to make sure that “the meal” is nourishing not only for me (that would be to eat badly), but also for the other. “One must eat well” means: “learning and giving to eat, learning-to-give-the-other-to-eat” (282). The “ethical frontier” lies between the many different modes of conceiving-appropriating-assimilating the other, where it is a matter of, “determining the best, most respectful, most grateful, and also most giving way of relating to the other and of relating the other to the self.”

Indeed, there is something of the impossible here: To eat well is to respect the other–to protect the other’s otherness–at the very moment when I am called upon to identify with it, to assimilate, interiorize, and understand it. Such is why “eating well” refers not only to all our sensual and intellectual relations to the other, but also to the very concept of experience–since, as we have seen, any reappropriation of the subject is already a relation to an inappropriable other (that is, an ex-appropriation). The calculation of the subject, then, the subject as a principle of calculability: How to calculate with the incalculable? How to give the encounter a chance? How to be hospitable? How to eat well? How to give the other to eat?

Thank you for your patience. I hope this writing has not wasted too much of your time. I am sorry that I had to leave out any discussion of sacrifice and animality; footnotes should have punctuated every sentence with reference to them. I also apologize if my writing here causes more confusion than clarity–though perhaps that is part of the experience at stake in deconstruction and the thought of ex-appropriation. Perhaps there is something to risk in the night of nonknowledge that goes beyond the attempt to make things clear. At any rate, please feel free to question, comment, respond, and correct at will. We are, at least in some sense, though not ever the same, at the same table, still learning how to eat, read, and live.

“I fell in well with you, so I remain.”–Derrida, The Post Card

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General Energy

I sought in vain this morning for the place in Bataille’s books that, some years ago now, inspired in me an unforgettable “epiphany.” It has to do, at bottom, with the question of energy and exuberance, and with the rhythms and workings (accumulations, savings, exhaustions, expenditures) of energy in our being.

Bataille’s argument is relatively simple: society, the world of work, poses us human beings like an object among others, like a tool that is destined to have function or a goal. In Bataille’s opinion, and out of all the horrors that society imposes on our being, this is the worst, paradoxically because it forces us to constantly to think of our being as “our being,” with all the nametags and fabricated identity-crises that follow from this lie: an actual subjugation to our alienation and separateness from others and from the universe, as isolated beings with “our own past” we must preserve and “our own future” for which we have to constantly take precautions. This separate being is defined by its servility to the “use” to which rational, goal-oriented, accumulation-oriented society puts it (and not only in the sphere of employment) and by the inevitable anguish associated with dying, which we all know is inevitable and imminent.

What does this have, then, to do with energy and exuberance? Precisely what everyone already knows: this regulation of our energy cycles–down to the hours of sleep we have to get, the three-square meals we have to get, the hours of exercise per week, the hours of down time, relaxation, and entertainment scheduled in, and so on–all this regulation, the imperative to be “regular,” is geared toward the end of functioning like a “well-oiled machine,” i.e., to run the maintenance routines so that the past-present-future continuum of our separate isolated being isn’t jeopardized, so that our role-oriented and aim-oriented lives experience as few hiccups as possible and do not clash too often with all the other isolated beings’ road-schedules, work-schedules, marriage-schedules, retirement-schedules, and so on.

The threat that hangs over all this is, no surprise, the threat of death, the threat of poverty, of a loss of standing, a loss of sustenance and socio-economic and physical integrity as an isolated, self-same, and in this set-up necessarily self-proud, self-displaying, self-defending being. If we were not caught in the grip of all this servile “regularity,” society would not recognize us, and neither would anyone else, precisely because there would be no one, no me-separate being to recognize. We would not “be” in the sense that we are regulated to experience being; we would not-be; we would “effectively” be dead, and in relation to society and history, useless (the accursed share). At this level, the anticipation, that with the argument of a “necessary future for ourselves” shackles us interminably to anguish and all the measures meant to stave it off, dissolves and disappears.

Which implies acceding to anxiety to the point that it breaks into laughter, ecstasy, tears–and dying (ellipsis to Paul’s, “I die daily”). This is what Bataille calls the “sovereign moment,” a moment insubordinate to language, social worth, stable meaning, and integrity whatever its form, and in no way servile to the activity- and maintenance-oriented regulations of self-isolating society–since here there is no longer some “one” to persevere. This loss or dissolution, this halt of knowledge and function, means for Bataille a return to “intimacy”: the distinctions that once separated me from my fellow human beings and from the entire universe no longer hold, and I communicate or rather “am” communication (elsewhere, loyalty). Such is sovereignty: NOTHING: the exuberance of a useless expenditure that is not regulated and, more importantly, not owned or used up by anyone. That is the passage I wanted to find, where he said that: theoretically, it is the difference between a particular economy, where energy is the possession of set beings that they expend for the sake of self-preservation, and general economy, where energy is continuous, without ownership, and squandered exorbitantly without any thought of saving it for any future.

Bataille’s contention is not that we jump by a leap of faith or force of will outside of our isolated being (as you could guess, any attempt contradicts the sovereignty of the moment; it accesses us like a strike, like tears), but rather that, in this “return to intimacy” (dissolution, dispossession, destruction and fiery consumption of ourselves, of everything that once tied anguished being to death, since here death is nothing (and the contiguity here with sovereignty is not accidental)), there is an unleashing of energy that is unimaginable to a knowledgeable subject of action in the world, since it is the very subversion and ‘transformation into light dust’ of the latter and all its regulations (just see how far you can push the resources that aren’t yours and are beholden to no one: what can a body?). It is the unleashing of an energy that is general and uncontainable precisely because the only thing that ever contained it was the container that we “falsely,” however normally and conventionally, held ourselves to be (and let’s not kid ourselves, this illusion is inescapable: we cannot not “traverse the fantasy”).

In the continuity of being, where our discontinuity with being reaches its zero limit and the “intimate dark” dawns; in this world where there is nothing to anticipate because death is nothing and you are nothing, “Exuberance is beauty” (William Blake) and, “What is intimate, in the strong sense, is what has the passion of an absence of individuality, the imperceptible sonority of a river, the empty limpidity of the sky…” (Bataille). I remain quite curious to see what we will do with this freedom, when it reaches us.

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At the End of a Still Day

At the End of a Still Day in the Hut
Martin Heidegger
September 12th, 1931

Rare days, that want to become a blessing for us.

And how often do we fail to hear their step, quieter than a deer on the moss of the forest floor.

Mostly we catch only what is useful and its varieties, for we are not ready or willing to see the simple.

Though all things bear their secret, the inner greatness of man is the deepest; because it is given to him to become struck by suffering, in order to transform it into the power of his soul.

Humans wander paths full of striving that lead out from each other. But each of us finds, if only we hold true to ourselves, our way back into that ambit of the heart that ought to remain our innermost protection.

That man is permitted to win the sure ripeness and beauty of his essence makes him potent to transform the other invisibly into the truth of their own essence. Where such a transformation happens, there awakens that genuine solitude from out of which man truly encounters the other, so that henceforth his heart acts in the clear presence of the other.

Only what we receive as a blessing—and not as an benefit obtained falsely—overcomes what is small, partial, and greedy in our aspirations.

Rare days of blessing—their image is similar to that of many others, but their hidden power is that rareness that we safeguard only when we are strong enough for thankfulness and big enough to revere the truly great.

(trans. Timothy Lavenz, 2015)

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I rest my hand on your head, bowed in prayer in stress, weeping, out here in never-after-never land, where listening alone kept life alive, welcoming in you my death, how I feel.

How could I have gone further with this enchantment? My connection to peers meant everything to me, who I held. But I was the least assured of them; I sat at the table, amazed by the lure of presence; I used my voice then, but couldn’t believe it; I gave myself to the common experiment, but nothing was proved; I had no place, will have no place; and no group of medics or magic men will ever come to resuscitate me. I say I, but am phantom. The future is for me because I’m absent from it. Because an experience “chose” me, writing the play I’m lost in (no one chose anything).

Thus I “am”: sky surface, leaves dancing, cars on the curb, trains panting. I am your anxiety and change.

To which no one answers. To which I respond. Gladly.


I was going to write you your favorite poem, one you’d like and cherish, one to make you laugh crysmile.

Miles away eyes tick faster: trickle-down Heaven jimmied together with Hell phrase, no-going non-conceptual pithy blather, ironic stylings of the beloved doom. Oven of ash of bridegroom. Air, breathing room.

My project? To house an unsustainable architecture of ghosts, of sonic waves and orchids gasping (this last day of humanity, tomorrow the middle of the letter): take my hand.


What did I see, you would say. Depraved appetites, overwrought lassitude, I’m falling in love with infinity’s abandoning me, where I began and ended, for the very first text that completed me, back then, is the final puzzle piece fit in for here. Picture a solid drab color making out with its life. My life, too, on cardboard.


But then what is my condition of possibility, that smile, the notion of my grip? What is it that prevents me from remembering?

God is sadness, my chill.

Is… which is my answer, chasm, supplement, cancer. You saw it come back to me, riveted to my place. You saw my heart–in the space you offered it. Saw me laughing, under the canopy of unquotable graces. And were all the better for it: time displaced.

Here, you have my hand, take it.


Such is why the voice cried long and after. Such is my Medusa-fantasy. Such is matter.

My experiment? No, my marathon rattle, my eye-standing, my made-up center. I took it to that edge so I could cradle it and face you.

That grave was the starlight of my saving, that smile, the notion of my grip: ourselves, on the reverse of naming, in step with all there was to say and be, silently.

I’m talking about my infancy, my lightwave contingency, my your health spree. I’m talking about the insistency of love.


Small… like the back I rubbed or the breast I touched or the hand I clutched. Transparent body, in human offering, pure praise.

And I didn’t want it to end, but couldn’t stalk. Could only get stuck in your throat coughing trust. To be your outlier–your same.

An image: arrow shavings.

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