“Eating Well”: Jacques Derrida on Subjectivity

Although Derrida insists that there is not one homogenous problematic of the subject, that it is discussed differently by different philosophers and theorists (Hegel, Husserl, Heidegger, Lacan, etc.) – thus 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; the subject ‘is’ this self-sameness. “Reappropriation” here means that we appropriate for ourselves the differences we encounter; we represent them to ourselves and make them our own; and, through this owning, something like the same returns, or can return. Difference and change over time thus refers 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. It is 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. All ‘self-presence’ is haunted from within by this call.

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 jokes in a footnote elsewhere that 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). Rather than a re-appropriation to an autonomous center, instead a simultaneous dislocation and gathering – for the sake of answering the call. To think dislocation and division simultaneously with a gathering together devoted to answering the other – perhaps even answering to leave the other other, to give the other 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 metonym 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, assimilate, interiorize, and understand it. That is why “eating well” refers not only to 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?

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

[The above is a reading of an interview between Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy titled Eating Well; or the Calculation of the Subject. My text was initially prepared for a discussion forum as part of a course on Deconstruction run by Giovanni Tusa through GCAS. It is the first in a series of texts: The Duties of Deconstruction (cf. Due to the Other, Emptying Recurrence)]

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2 Responses to “Eating Well”: Jacques Derrida on Subjectivity

  1. Pingback: Due to the Other | fragilekeys

  2. Pingback: Emptying Recurrence | fragilekeys

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