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.”]
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.”]
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. 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.”]
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.’” 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.” (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.”]
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” not. 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.” 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.” [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.”]
- 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.”]
- 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.”]
 The Post Card, pg 25
 The Post Card, p 80.
 Différance, pg 293
 The Post Card, pg. 227
 Positions, p 94-95
 Aporias, pg 18
 The Post Card, pg. 229
 The Gift of Death, pg. 87
 The Gift of Death, pg. 78
 The Post Card, pg 205
 The Post Card, pg. 186
 The Post Card, pg. 122
[The above is a transcript of a talk I gave to my GCAS class on Deconstruction. I want to thank the course instructor, Giovanni Tusa, for giving me this opportunity, and the other students for listening and for opening such a good conversation afterwards (which sadly cannot be reproduced here). This text builds upon “Eating Well” and belongs in a series of texts titled, The Duties of Deconstruction.]