March 16, 2008

Derrida’s Two Alterities

Filed under: Derrida, Philosophy — duncan @ 5:24 pm

For some reason I’ve not felt like posting anything these last ten days. I’ve been happily – albeit slowly – reading away. (Perhaps I’ve got enough of the obvious objections to simplistic economic orthodoxy out of my system; I can read without feeling the need to complain. And reading, rather than whinging, perhaps seems a more productive use of limited time.) But I thought I’d put up a few thoughts on my favourite subject: Derrida. This stuff is way simplistic, to the point of being totally wrong. But hey ho, never mind.


Derrida is obviously a big fan of Levinas. One of the main goals of his work is to open up philosophy’s totalising ambitions to ‘alterity’ or ‘the other’. Derrida is certainly sceptical, in some ways, about Levinas’s ethics of alterity. For Levinas philosophy is egology; it is, in some sense, narcissistic. But Derrida insists (following a certain strand of Freud) that there is no such thing as non-narcissism – there are only more or less open or hospitable narcissisms. So Derrida is sceptical about the valorisation of alterity that seems prominent in Levinas’s, and in a lot of post-Levinasian, thought. But Derrida is still on side with the project. He still values some intellectual endeavours more than others because of their openness to ‘the other’ – whatever ‘the other’ might mean.

That’s what I want to focus on in this quick post: what Derrida means by ‘the other’, by ‘alterity’. I want to suggest that there are two concepts or directions of alterity at work in Derrida’s thought. I want to call them, simplistically, the materialist and the messianic concepts of alterity. I think that w/r/t the former Derrida can be seen as taking his bearings from Bataille, w/r/t the latter, from Benjamin. And I think that the changing emphases of Derrida’s work can be connected, to a large extent, to the changing weight he places on these two concepts of alterity.

Let’s say that we take Derrida’s project (again far too simplistically) as oriented towards a critique of the classical philosophical concept of being as form, where form is what guarantees being’s self-identity, and thus intelligibility. The materialist concept of alterity would then open an implicitly idealist concept of being to the non-idealist ‘formlessness’ of matter. It would take its bearings from a passage like this one. (Bataille, ‘Formless’, in ‘Visions of Excess’, p. 31).

“A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.”

I think this is the direction we see Derrida pursuing most consistently in his great middle-period works, particularly ‘Glas’ and the remarkable essay ‘Economimesis’. Derrida’s project here, I think, is to reroute the manoeuvres of transcendental philosophy – manoeuvres motivated, at base, by the need to see supposedly formless matter as always subject to the form-giving powers of a consciousness that transcends and remains untouched by formlessness… Derrida wants to reroute these manoeuvres into a thoroughly non-transcendental philosophy, by claiming that the ‘formless’ corporeal is always a (quasi-) transcendental condition of transcendental thought. This leads him to place great weight on what one could call a Bataillean ‘virulent materialism’; it leads him to use Genet’s profane blasphemy as a counterweight to Hegel’s idealist totalisations; and it leads him to write about how vomit, and how that which makes us vomit, is the (quasi- or, better, non-) transcendental condition of Kant’s entire philosophical project.

But Derrida finds himself unable to pursue this direction, for reasons I’ll hopefully get to in a minute. And in the later work we see a decisive shift away from materialism – virulent or otherwise – in favour of a Benjaminian emphasis on the other as messiah (albeit without messianicity). Here Derrida takes his bearings from passages like this one. (Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in ‘Illuminations’, p. 255).

“We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogenous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.”

Here Derrida is pushing not at the philosophical connection between being and form, but at the philosophical connection between being and time – and the inclination to see time as a totalising medium of intelligibility. This fundamental connection between form and time – the fact that both are used to produce an ontology of being as self-identity – is, I think, what Derrida means by the metaphysics of presence. In his later work Derrida wants to open homogenous time to the other in the shape of a messiah, or a messianism, that can divide every second of time against itself. And this opening of time is of a piece with the parallel opening of form. Derrida pursues this messianic project most forcefully in his later writings on religion – and in ‘Spectres of Marx’, where it is linked to the concept of ‘hauntology’.

Derrida is completely consistent in opposing what he sees as ontology in general: the understand of being as form as self-identity as presence. But the non-ontology which Derrida aspires to create by emphasising the non-self-identity of being has a very different character at different locations in Derrida’s work. A profane materialism on the one hand; a quasi-religious messianism on the other. And, to get to the point concerning me personally – I am considerably more in sympathy with the former than with the latter. When I deploy Derridean arguments in this blog, it’s the ‘materialist’ Derrida I want to emphasise. I want to push this Derrida’s arguments as far as I can, and counter the arguments of the second, messianic Derrida where possible. Specifically (and to bring things back to economics; which is, after all, the ostensible subject of the blog): I think a ‘Derridean’ reading of Marx would be possible that is radically different from the reading Derrida actually proposes in ‘Spectres’ – because in ‘Spectres’ Derrida is at his most ‘messianic’; whereas a discussion of Marx is precisely where, in my opinion, Derrida should be at his most ‘materialist’.

Now, any deconstructionist worth their salt is going to be deeply suspicious, not to say laughing out loud, at my attempt to isolate two distinct and self-contained ‘Derridas’. Have we learned nothing?! Doesn’t it seem more than likely that the ‘materialist’ and the ‘messianic’ already contain and constitute each other? (And that they and philosophy in general are also open to countless other forms of ‘alterity’ – to countless other others?) Didn’t Bataille describe himself as one of the mystics of the ages? And isn’t Benjamin’s ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ precisely an attempt to articulate a form of ‘historical materialism’? Well sure. But I’m going to run with this for a while, I think.

If we want to give some space to this reading of Derrida, we need an account of the relation between the two ‘Derridas’; and we need to explain what logic governs the shifting emphases of materialism and messianism in his (or their) work. And that means going considerably deeper into Derrida’s thought than I think I can – because I haven’t read any Husserl, and I’ve not read nearly enough Heidegger. Husserl and Heidegger are, of course, the two most important objects of and influences on Derrida’s whole method. And without a decent knowledge of the two H’s (which, believe you me, I’m not going to acquire any time soon) I don’t see how I can adequately comment on, or understand, the fundamentals of Derrida’s project.

All the same, I’m going to end with the beginnings of a critique. The following quote is, in my opinion, the most important in Derrida’s corpus. It occurs at least twice: once in a footnote in ‘Speech and Phenomena’; then again, as a self-citation (with all the Derridean ambiguities this implies) in ‘Glas’. And when the sentence is repeated (but, the voice of deconstruction tells us, its repetition or iteration was already part of its original inscription), it describes a project that Derrida still sees as essential, but still feels unable to attempt: a project continually deferred – which is perhaps connected to deconstruction’s constant emphasis on constant deferral. The sentence (or sentence-fragment, really): “the very concept of constitution itself needs to be deconstructed.” (Speech and Phenomena, p. 85 I don’t have ‘Glas’ to hand.)

My overly simplistic claim (perhaps an obvious one) is this: the concept of constitution cannot be deconstructed, because deconstruction presupposes and utterly depends upon the concept of constitution. No doubt this is true of all the metaphysical concepts that Derrida mobilises and transforms, shifting their meanings as he takes his bearings away from the metaphysical projects from which he partially extracts these concepts yet within which his work partly remains. But in my opinion the concept of constitution is different, for deconstruction, from all the other metaphysical concepts Derrida deploys and displaces. Derrida’s critique of transcendental philosophy – and Derrida’s critique of philosophy is based on a prior assimilation of all philosophy to transcendental philosophy… Derrida’s critique of transcendental philosophy always depends on a use of the concept of constitution – a search for conditions of possibility, whether they be ‘transcendental’ conditions in the full sense or not… and so Derrida cannot allow this concept of constitution to be subject to the vicissitudes of meaning-contamination under the pressure of which all the other terms of the metaphysical tradition are made to tremble. The concept of constitution is, in my opinion, the stable centre around which Derrida’s critique of the philosophical search for a stable centre revolves.

Which is far too simplistic. At certain moments in his text – specifically, the ‘materialist’ moments I value – Derrida seems to push his idea of ‘quasi-transcendentals’ to a point at which the whole post-Kantian apparatus of conditions of possibility threatens to collapse. It’s this Derrida – the Derrida who imagines a wholly material transcendental, which can therefore no longer function in any way as transcendental, or as a means of constitution – that I value (and it’s this Derrida, I think, who’s close to Wittgenstein). Yet Derrida repeatedly pulls back from the consequences of his assault on the Kantian problematic; and substitutes for the material ‘transcendental’ a logic of spectrality which is explicitly opposed to ‘ontologising’ materialism. We could see this as a characteristic deconstructionist double-movement, ceaselessly alert to the lures of onto-theology (which can ally itself as powerfully with materialism as with religion). But we can also see it as a flaw in Derrida’s work: a refusal to reject the terms of the Kantian, critical tradition, because this would also mean a rejection of the discursive strategies that Derrida has developed in response to it.

The very concept of constitution itself needs to be deconstructed. But the concept of constitution cannot be deconstructed. Which means, in my opinion, that it simply needs to be rejected. This is, I’m sure, no surprise to anyone. But as I’ve said before, I’m behind the curve, trying to catch up.

Anyway, economics-related service will be resumed in about a year and a half, when I’ve read some books.


  1. gah! Just a quick note that I completely missed your reply about Specters, in our earlier discussion (now some weeks back…). I’ve been to the site between now and then – I don’t know why I didn’t see it :-( I am, though, planning on picking up a copy of Specters later this week (er… if I can find one… but am planning to look) and, if I can find a copy, will write something no it soon. One of the things I wanted to look at, is the issue of whether the whole concept of “hauntology” is as… non-materialist as you’re suggesting (and it’s been far too long since I’ve the book, so I don’t have a position on this). Both Marx and Benjamin, though, play with the notion of a past that hasn’t passed – with the material accumulation of potentials in the present that render the potentials of the present multiple – and therefore allow an immanent grounding for critique. Derrida’s vocabulary, at least, isn’t a terrible way to express such a thing – whether he is using the vocabulary for that purpose or not…

    It’s interesting what you say about the confrontation with Hegel. Strangely, I think Hegel could be “desconstructed” – there are places where his narrative (I think – it’s always a bit complicated to make arguments about Hegel, and I’m far from a specialist) points in directions it “shouldn’t”, based on his other commitments. Certainly Marx seems to have felt that Hegel could be in some senses hoisted on his own petard – although it didn’t trouble Marx to move outside Hegel’s system to do this, embedding Hegel’s work in a more contradictory “system” with a different intent. I think some tensions pointing in this direction could probably be pulled immanently out of Hegel’s own work, but it’s not something I’ve tried to think through in any detail.

    Thank you for your kind words the other day, and again my deepest apologise for missing your much earlier attempt to extend the conversation over here – I am interested in the discussion, and wouldn’t have dropped it, if I had seen it… Apologies…

    Comment by N Pepperell — March 17, 2008 @ 6:32 am

  2. Don’t worry about not responding to my blather on Derrida! It’s beyond the call of duty to even comment here. (so thank you… :) ) I’m sure you’re right that Hegel can be ‘deconstructed’ – in that sense what I said before was altogether simplistic and inadequate. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that that a deconstruction of Hegel nonetheless remains within Hegel’s gravitational pull – and that this can cause problems when deconstruction tries to articulate some vision that stands outside the Hegelian system. But I’m just arm-waving; I need to read the guy. (And I will, I think.) I’m sure you’re right when you say that Marx moves outsides Hegel’s system to hoist Hegel with his own petard – that’s one of the things I love about him. But, as always, I just don’t know enough to say more…

    On hauntology – I’d be fascinated to read your thoughts. But I don’t want to come across as a raving Derrida fanatic – I apologies if I tend to sledgehammer things in that direction. :)

    Re Benjamin: I haven’t read nearly enough of his stuff, and I always find it quite hard to get a philosophical grip on it: unsurpassible on an aphorism-by-aphorism level, it tends to slip through my fingers when I try to see it as a whole. Which is, I guess, part of the point. Nonetheless: I think one of the things going on is an attempt to short-circuit the entire ‘materialist’/’anti-materialist’ debate by finding exemplary materials – materials that fulfill the function of the Platonic form. (As in Goethe’s Urphenomenon.) But as I say, ignorance, ignorance, ignorance.

    Anyway, thanks for your time & thoughts. It’s much appreciated…

    Comment by praxisblog — March 18, 2008 @ 9:36 pm

  3. Benjamin is tricky for a whole range of reasons, although I tend to read him as having far more of a social theoretic core than many interpretations seem to find there – his theological vocabulary, for many people, I think gets in the way (it also gets in the way, if this is the right term to use, that many people assume Marx is up to something very different from what I think he’s doing – the way I read Marx, certain parallels with Benjamin scream out – which is as much to say that, the way I read Marx, causes me to see Benjamin to be doing something very different than what many people see Benjamin to be doing. I should note, though, that I’m no Benjamin expert and, when I do refer to him, am usually thinking fairly exclusively of the Arcades Project and things like “On the Philosophy of History”). I wouldn’t myself phrase it in terms of Benjamin trying to find exemplary materials to fill the function of the Platonic form, but this may just be because I have a different set of associations to attach to that term – I see Benjamin as a fairly thorough-going materialist (in the works that are the major reference points for me), but as a materialist trying to deal with a social context that has “metaphysical” properties – a context that is characterised by a strange layered quality that can be expressed through notions of “haunting”. Marx’s metaphors often emphasise the degree to which capitalism functions as a kind of Frankenstein’s monster, reanimating past potentials, without, however, allowing those potentials to serve life; I see Benjamin picking up on such metaphors, and effectively extending them by arguing that emancipatory transformation can be metaphorised in terms of a shift from reanimation, to redemption of these constituted potentials. But I’ve never written systematically on Benjamin – to the degree that I’m starting to feel my failure to do this is a bit symptomatic: I’ve actually proposed papers on his work a number of times, only to end up changing the topic at the last minute ;-P And I don’t know the literature on Benjamin well at all – I seem to have a sort of recurrent tryst with his thought, but haven’t settled down and decided to become serious about him… ;-P

    Don’t worry that you’re forcing the topic of Derrida – not at all. If nothing else, the person with whom I organise the Hegel reading group locally has a past life as a Derridean, before he somehow got hijacked by the IT profession for ten years… ;-) He looked over my latest thesis chapter draft, and was verging on apoplexy that I wasn’t discussing more explicitly my relation to deconstruction… ;-) (I suspect this isn’t a normal reaction to my thesis chapter drafts… ;-) ) He is so keen to have me write on Specters, that he is actually planning to walk with me from Thursday’s reading group to the bookstore most likely to have a copy in stock… ;-)

    And please don’t experience anything I write here as being informed by a sense of anything like duty – this is one of my favourite places to visit on the net, and I’m always happy to find new content here.

    Comment by N Pepperell — March 18, 2008 @ 10:46 pm

  4. [...] remained in memory – bears little relation to what strikes me now. I have been promising a number of people that I would at some point re-read and comment on the work here – tonight’s post will at best [...]

    Pingback by » Speculation — March 23, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

  5. Thanks! I’ve responded at more length in the other thread. But now I need to run off to re-read ‘Specters’…

    Comment by praxisblog — March 23, 2008 @ 3:14 pm

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