Roundtable Discussion with Jacques Derrida

Villanova University, October 3, 1994

Question: Perhaps we can start today's discussions by talking about what we are in fact doing here now at this moment, which is this event being held to inaugurate an academic program in philosophy. That is a rich event and it suggests a lot of things and things that in many ways over the years you have been addressing in your work. Many people whose impression of deconstruction has come from public media might think that this is an odd thing for you to do, as in this country one thinks of deconstruction as the end of philosophy and here we are beginning something new in philosophy, and many associate deconstruction with a kind of destructive attitude towards texts and traditions and truth and the most honorable needs of the philosophical heritage. Furthermore, there are people who might think that deconstruction would be the enemy of academic progress; that you can't institutionalize deconstruction, that deconstruction resists the very idea of institutions, is anti-institutional, that it resists academic programs, it deconstructs them, it knocks them down, it can't accommodate itself to institutionality. Finally, you have often spoken about the very notion of the irruption of something new, and we are trying today to irrupt, and we would be interested to know what your reflections are on the inaugural moment.

Derrida: Yes...first of all I want to apologize for my awful English. I have to improvise here and this is a very difficult task for me and I hope that it passes. Before starting to answer the question I would like to thank the President and the Dean for their kind words...and to thank all of you for being present here. Of course it's an honor for me to be part of this exceptional moment in the history of Villanova University and I'm very proud of sharing with you this experience, especially because it's the inauguration of a philosophy program. I think it's very important to try and say something, some words about what I think this means, but before I do that I would emphasise the fact that the institution of such a program is not only important for you and for this university, it is important for the community of philosophers in this country and even abroad. ...

Space for them is reduced more and more in our, let's say, 'industrial societies', and I myself in my own appropriate way try as far as I can to struggle in order to impart a space for philosophy teaching and for philosophical research. It's important for your university, it's important for the country, it's important for other philosophical communities in this world first of all because at this university the philosophers who are running this program are already well known in this country and in Europe... I assure you that they are very, let's say, important philosophers for us, very precious thinkers and the fact that they are running this program is a guarantee for the future of this program - and we knew this in advance. Then, a moment ago I met for one hour with many of your students, graduate students, students who will work within this program, and I will release without any convention - not out of politeness - I will tell you that they are very bright students and I was very happy to discuss with them for one hour of intense, intense philosophical debate. They are very well informed, very organized, and it makes me very optimistic about the future of this program. So I will attempt to congratulate you and all of their colleagues who decided to have this program built and wish you the best.

Of course...hopefully, deconstruction - and I will be very, let us say, 'sketchy', for we don't have time to get into a very detailed analysis - but deconstruction, what is called deconstruction has never opposed institutions as such, philosophy as such, discipline as such. Of course, as we rightly say, it is another thing for me to be doing what I am doing here because however affirmative deconstruction is, as we recalled a moment ago, it is affirmative in a way which is not simply positive - that is, it is not simply conservative, it is not simply a way of repeating the given institution or the lack of an institution on the part of which we are able to criticize, to transform, to open the institution to its own future. The paradox in the instituting moment of an institution is that it continues something, is true to the memory of a past, to a heritage, to something we receive from the path of the assessors of the culture and so on, but if an institution is to be an institution it must break with the past and at the same time keep the memory of the past and inaugurate something absolutely new. So I am convinced that although this program looks to some extent like other similar programs there is something absolutely new and the indication of this can be found not simply in the status of the structural organization of the program but in the work, in the content of the work of the ones who will run this program, teach the new themes. The faculty for instance, the colleagues who inscribe in their programs things such as 'Heidegger and Deconstruction' or new themes indicate that they are not simply reproducing, they are trying to open something new and something original, something which hasn't been done in that way in other similar university programs. So the paradox is that the instituting moment in an institution is violent in a way, violent because it cannot guarantee, although it follows the premises of a past, it starts on the cusp of the new and this newness is not only a risk, something risky - it has to be something risky - it's violent because cannot be governed by any previous rule. So at the same time you have to follow a rule and to invent a new rule, a new norm, a new criterion, a new law. That's why the moment of the institution is so dangerous at the same time.

One should not have an absolute guarantee, an absolute law, we have to invent the rules and be sure that the responsibility taken by the students implies that they give themselves the new rules. There is no responsible new decision without this inauguration, this absolute break. That is what deconstruction is about - not a mixture but a tension between memory, fidelity, the preservation of something of something which has been given to us, and at the same time heterogeneity, something absolutely new. The condition of this performative success, which is never guaranteed, is the blindness of these two rules. That's why - I am coming to the question of the program - in France, we have for a long time been confronted with similar issues... I have at the same time said two things which sum up the issue. On the one hand, I was - and I won't hide this here - I was fighting, I was opposing the rigid definition of programs, disciplines, the borders between disciplines, the fact that in my country philosophy was taught only at the university or in the last grade of the high school, so we founded another institution in 1975, a movement called the Group for the Research of the Teaching of Philosophy [GREPH, Groupe de recherche sur l'enseignement philosophique] which opposed the dominant institution, which tried to convince our colleagues and our presidents that philosophy should be taught earlier than in this last grade of the high school, that is, earlier than at [a student's] sixteen or seventeen years, that there should be philosophy across the borders - not only in philosophy proper, but in all fields such as law, medicine, so on and so forth. To some extent this struggle was a failure but I am still convinced that it was right, 'a good war', so to speak. But at the same time I was emphasizing the necessity of a discipline, that is, of something specifically philosophical that shouldn't dissolve philosophy in order to... that we need at the same time the interdisciplinarity, crossing the borders, establishing new themes, new problems, new ways or new approaches to new problems but while teaching the history of philosophy, the techniques, the rigor of the profession, what one calls discipline. I think we shouldn't choose between the two. We should have philosophers trained as philosophers as rigorously as possible and at the same time audacious philosophers who cross the borders and discover new connections, new fields; not only interdisciplinary research, but [research on] themes that are not even interdisciplinary.
If you allow me to refer to another institution I have been involved with in France - I mentioned GREPH in '75 - but in '82, some friends and I founded a new institution called the International College of Philosophy, in which - and we inaugurated this in 1983 - in which at the same time we tried to teach philosophy as such, as a discipline, and to discover new themes, new problems which had had no legitimacy, which were not recognized as such in the given universities. That was not simply interdisciplinarity because interdisciplinarity implies that we have given identifiable proper identities - we had a legal theorist, we had an architect, a philosopher, a literary critic, and they joined, they worked together on a specific type of academic object - that's interdisciplinarity. When you discover a new object, an object which up to now hasn't been identified as such or has no legitimacy in terms of any academic media or academic field you have to invent a new campus, a new type of research, a new discipline. The International College of Philosophy granted a privilege to such new themes, new disciplines which were not up to then recognized or legitimated in other institutions. So you see, at the same time I am a very conservative person. I love institutions and I spend a lot of time, let's say, sharing the interest of my work with institutions which sometimes do not work and at the same time trying to dismantle not institutions but some structures in the given institutions which are too rigid or are dogmatic or which work as an obstacle to any future research.

2nd Question: I'd like to ask you a question that's very much related to the material that you've just been discussing. It's a question really also about beginnings and inauguration. Specifically, I wanted to ask you about the relationship between your work and the Greeks as the inaugurators of the western tradition. This semester we're reading your essay on Plato [Plato's Pharmacy] in our class on Greek philosophy, and as a matter of fact this program in Continental philosophy is very much also a program in the history of philosophy, so I wonder how you might characterize the connection between your work, or the work of deconstruction which is a task of reading inherited texts from the tradition already established. Specifically, postmodernism is often situated at the end of this tradition and is often characterized as having the task of dismantling the founding texts such as those of Plato and Aristotle, yet in many ways your reading of the Phaedrus is so attentive to the structural integrity and composition; so I would like to ask you whether this is characteristic of your philosophy, this tension between disruption on the one hand and attentiveness on the other. How would you suggest to us as people of this age, what strategies would you suggest we employ in reading these texts?

Derrida: Thank you. First of all I will say yes, this tension as a tension is characteristic of the work I try to do. Now, at risk of being, let's say, a little oversimplifying - and we have to be simple simply for lack of time - at the risk of being too simple I will say I will take this opportunity to really reject, criticize a commonplace prejudice which has widely surfaced about deconstruction that is not only among journalists, you know, bad journalists, but among, let's say, the people of the academy who behave like... not much like journalists, for I have the deepest respect for good journalists, but like bad journalists, always repeating, repeating stereotypes without reading the texts. That's really something... perhaps we'll come back to this problem later on. This has been from the beginning a terrible problem for me; not only for me - the caricature, the lack of respect for reading and so on and so forth... because as soon as you approach a text - not only mine, but many of the texts of people close to me - you see that of course the respect for these great texts, not only the Greek ones but especially the Greek ones, is the condition of our work. We are constantly trying to read and understand Plato and Aristotle and I have devoted a number of texts to them and...if you will allow me this self-reference, the book which will appear tomorrow or the day after tomorrow in France on friendship is mainly a book on Plato and Aristotle on friendship. So I think we have to read them again and again and I feel however old I am, I feel that I am on the threshold of reading Plato and Aristotle. I love them and I feel that I have to start again and again and again; it is something, it is a task which is in front of me, before me.

Now, nevertheless, the way that I try to read Plato, Aristotle and others is not a way of, let's say, commending or repeating or conserving this heritage. It is an analysis which tries to find out how their thinking works or doesn't work, [an analysis] of the tensions, the contradictions, the heterogeneity within their own corpus, as well as the law of this self-deconstruction. Deconstruction is not a method or a tool that you apply from the outside to something, deconstruction is something which happens, which happens inside. There is a deconstruction at work within Plato's work, for instance. As my colleagues know, each time I study Plato I find, I try to find some heterogeneity in his own corpus, and to see how, for instance, the Timaeus - within the Timaeus the theme of the chora is incompatible with his so-called 'system'. So to be true to Plato, and that is a sign of love, of respect, I have to analyze the functioning, this functioning of his work, and I would say the same for the whole of Greek philosophy. Now, of course the Greek tradition is essential to philosophy; 'philosophy' is a Greek word and its legacy is reflexive. But as soon as philosophy as such appeared under this name in Greece there was a potential opening, a potential force which was ready to, let's say, cross the borders of Greek language, Greek culture, and I would say the same for democracy, although the concept of democracy is inherent in the Greek heritage.

This heritage is the heritage of a model, not simply a model, but a model which self-deconstructs, deconstructs itself so as to uproot, to become independent of its own ground, so to speak, so that today philosophy is Greek and is not Greek. In this book on friendship I try to analyze what happened to the Greek thought with the Christian event, the Christian happening; it has to do especially with the concept of brotherhood. The way the Christian concept of brotherhood transformed the Greek concept of brotherhood was at the same time something new, an integration, a mutation, a break, but this break at the same time was developing, was something which was potentially inscribed in the Greek tradition. So we have to go back to the Greek origin, not in order to cultivate the origin or in order to protect the etymology, the etymon, the philological purity of the origin, but in order first of all to understand where it comes from and then to analyze the history, the historicity of the breaks which have produced our current world out of Greek tradition, out of Christianity, out of the Greeks meaning out of this origin, and thanking or transforming this origin at the same time. So there it is, this tension. Speaking of or going back to my own, let's say, tendency of taste or idiosyncratic 'style', I love reading Greek. It is difficult, this thing, a very difficult task, and when I read Plato I enjoy it, and I feel, if anything, it's difficult; I think it's an infinite task. The project is not behind me, Plato is in front of me. That's why today among so many stereotypes and prejudices that circulate about deconstruction I feel it's painful to see that many people about the question of the canon think they have to make a choice between reading Plato or the 'great white males' and so on and so forth and reading Black Woman writers. Why should we choose? Even before the question of the canon became so visible, even before then, no one in the university could be simultaneously a great specialist in Plato and in Aristotle and in Shakespeare; the choices have to be made and that is the distinction of our conditions. Nobody can at the same time be an expert in Plato and in Milton, for instance, and we accepted this, it was commonsensical. Why, today, should we choose between 'the great canon', i.e., Plato, Shakespeare or several texts of Shakespeare and Hegel, and others on the other hand?

The academic field is a differential field. Everyone can find his or her way and make choices and a program as such of course can become, let's say, specialized, but this doesn't mean that there cannot be other programs with no exclusivity which would specialize in other fields, and that is why I don't understand what's going on with 'the question of the canon'. At least as regards deconstruction, deconstruction at the same time is interested in what is considered 'the great canon' - the study of great works, western works - and open to new work, new objects, new fields, new cultures, new languages, and I see no reason why we should choose between the two. That is the tension in deconstruction.

3rd Question: If I might, I'd like to follow up on the remark you made about international philosophy in the sense of your founding of the International College of Philosophy and also what I take to be in your book Specters of Marx perhaps a new call for a new form of internationalism. Recently a distinguished American historian said apropos of the American motto 'E Pluribus Unum' that today in the United States we have "too much pluribus and not enough unum''. Now I've always considered deconstruction to be on the side of the 'pluribus', that is, as deconstructing totalities, identities in favor of loosening them up in terms of diversity, disruptions, fissures. I think that's a lesson we've all learned from deconstruction. What I'd like to ask regards any deconstructive salvaging of the 'unum'; that is, can the 'pluribus', can the diversity itself become too dangerous? What does deconstruction say, if anything, in favor of the 'unum' of community? Is there a place for unity in deconstruction? What might it look like?

Derrida: Thank you for your question. Let me say a word first about this 'internationality' you referred to at the beginning. The internationality I referred to in this book, it was, since Marx was the main reference of the book - this internationality was supposed to be different from what was called in the Marxist tradition internationality or internationalism. I think that today there are wars through a number of classes in the world upon which the international organizations such as the United Nations for instance have to intervene and cannot intervene in the way they should. That is, international rights, international law - which is a good thing - nevertheless is still on the one hand rooted - in its mission, in its axiom, in its languages - rooted in the western concept of philosophy, the western concept of state, of sovereignty, and this is a limit. That is, we have to deconstruct the foundations of this international law not in order to destroy the international organization - I think it is something good, something perfectible and something necessary - but we have to think, to rethink the foundations, the philosophical foundations of this international law and these international organizations. That's one limit.

The other limit, which is connected to the first one, has to do with the fact that these international organizations are in fact, in fact governed by a number of particular states which are the only which provide these international organizations with the means to intervene - the military power, the economic power - and of course the United States plays a major role in this. Sometimes it's a good thing but it is at the same time a limit. So, that is, the universality of this international law is in fact in the hands of a number of powerful, rich states, and this has to change and it is in the process of changing through a number of disasters, crises, economic inequalities, injustices, so on and so forth. The 'international' I think is looking for its own place, its own figure; it is something which would go beyond the current stage of internationality, perhaps beyond citizenship, beyond the belonging to a state, the belonging to a given nation-state. And I think that today in the world a number of human beings are secretly allying in their suffering against the hegemonic powers which protect what is called 'the new world order'. So that is what I meant by 'the new international', not a new way of, let's say, associating citizens belonging to given nation-states, but a new concept of citizenship, of hospitality, a new concept of a state of democracy - in fact, it's a new concept of democracy, a new determination of the concept, the given concept of democracy in the tradition of the concept of democracy. Now, having said this - again, very simply, in words which are too simple - I think we don't have to choose between unity and multiplicity. Of course, deconstruction - that was its strategy up to now - insisted on not multiplicity for itself but insisted on the, let's say the heterogeneity, the difference, the dissociation which is absolutely necessary for the relation to the other but disrupts the totality.

What disrupts the totality is the condition for the relation to the other. The privilege granted to unity, to totality, to organic ensembles, to community as a homogenized whole - this is the danger for responsibility, for decision, for ethics, for politics. That is why I insisted upon what prevents the unity to close itself, to be closed up. And this is not only a matter of description, of saying what is, the way it is, it's a matter of accounting for the possibility of responsibility, of a decision, of ethical commitment. For this you have to pay attention to what I would call similarity, and similarity is not unity simply, it is not multiplicity. Now this does not mean that we have to destroy unity, all forms of unity wherever they occur. I have never said anything like that. Of course we need unity, some gathering, some configuration and so on and so forth. You see, the pure unity or the pure multiplicity are synonyms of death. There is only death when there is only totality or unity and when there is only multiplicity or dissociation. What interests me is the limit which every attempt to totalize, to gather, versammeln - and I'll come to this German word in a moment because it's important for me - to this unifying, uniting movement, the limit that it had to encounter because the relationship of the unity to itself implies some difference.

To be more concrete, let's take the example of a person of a culture. We often insist nowadays on cultural identity, for instance national identity, linguistic identity and so on and so forth and sometimes the struggles under the banner of cultural identity, national identity, linguistic identity are noble fights, but at the same time if the people who fight for their identity don't pay attention that the identity is not the self-identity of a thing - a glass for instance, or this microphone - but implies a difference within the identity, that is, the identity of a culture is a way of being different from itself... a culture is different from itself, a language is different from itself, a person is different from itself; once you take into account this inner and other difference, then you refer, you pay attention to the other and you understand that fighting for your own identity is not exclusive of another identity, it is open to the identity of the other and it prevents totalitarianism, nationalism, ethnocentrism and so on and so forth. That is what I tried to demonstrate in a book called The Other Heading, that the identity in the case of cultures, persons, nations, languages is a set different item, it is identity as différance from itself, that is, within an opening within itself, a gap within itself. That's not only a fact, a structure, but it's a duty, it's an ethical and political duty to take into account this impossibility of unifying, of being one with oneself. It is because I am not one with myself that I can speak for the other, that I can address the other, which is not a way of avoiding responsibility; on the contrary, it is the only way for me to take responsibility and to make decisions... [One] recurrent critique of deconstructive questions has to do with the privilege Heidegger grants to what he calls, for example, this gathering; gathering is always more powerful than dissociation. I would say exactly the opposite. Once you grant some privilege to gathering and not to dissociating then you leave no room for the other, for the radical otherness of the other, for the radical similarity of the other. I think that separation, dissociation is not an obstacle to society or to community, it is the condition.

This dissociation, the separation is the condition of my relation to the other. I can address the other only to the extent that there is a separation, there is a dissociation, that the other is not the other, that I cannot replace the other and vice versa. That's what some French-speaking philosophers such as Blanchot and Levinas call the rapport sans rapport, relationless relation... that's the structure of my relation to the other; it's a relation without relation - it's a relation in which the other remains absolutely transcendent. I can't reach the other, I cannot know the other from the inside. That is not an obstacle, that is the condition of love, of friendship - of war too - it's a condition of the relation to the other. This dissociation is the condition of community, the condition of any unity as such. So a state - to come back to the state - a state in which there will be only 'unum' will be a terrible catastrophe, and we have unfortunately had a number of such experiences. So a state without 'pluribus', without plurality and the respect for plurality, would be first either a totalitarian state... it's a terrible thing, it doesn't work, we know that it doesn't work, it's a terrible thing and doesn't work; and finally it wouldn't even be a state, it would be like... a what... a stone, if you like, a rock. So a state as such must be attentive as much as possible to the plurality... of what... of people, languages, cultures, ethnic groups, persons and so on and so forth, and that's the condition for a state.

4th Question: I have a very simple question, actually, and it follows somewhat the remarks you've just made on the nature of community, of the impossibility of ethical right, the impossibility of justice as being one of the conditions of justice. In some of your more recent work the topic of justice has certainly grown more explicitly, more clearly, even though we might argue, one might argue that it's been there all the time; and I'd like to ask you to elaborate a bit more on the nature of justice... You speak, for instance in the Marx book, of a sense of justice that's so strong, so powerful that it shatters every calculus, every possible economy and can only be described in terms of the gift. In a number of little texts that you have... Passions, Sauf le Nom, the Chora text, you say that these texts together form a sort of essay from you, and then you say that this essay has been least understood from those other dimensions as political, as truth. So if you could elaborate a little more on the meaning of this justice that can only be described as a gift, that can't be linked to any calculus, to any kind dialectic, no set of exchanges going on, impossibility of vengeance, of un-punishment, if you could say - and that might be an impossible question - but if you would say a little bit more about that, and if you would say something about that in relation to the question of the name of singularities, the ones you just made a response to in answering your question.

Derrida: Yes, all right. You see, before I start trying to answer this question I will again say this, that, as you see, these questions cannot be really dealt with in such a forum because they are difficult... really, to do justice to them you have to read texts, to revise a number of conditions, so it's very imprudent to address this question in such a way and if I were, let's say, more responsible I would simply say 'No, I won't play this game'. Nevertheless I think sometimes it's not a bad thing, at least sometimes, if you don't do that too often, it's not bad that we try to encapsulate 'in a nutshell' so that, one day, let me try... one day, I was in Cambridge three years ago. There was this terrible honorary degree crisis in Cambridge and a journalist said, 'Well, could you tell me, in a nutshell, what is deconstruction?' So sometimes, of course, I confess, I was able to do that, and sometimes it may be useful to try 'nutshells'. So what is this problem of justice...'in a nutshell'? It is true that all of the problem of justice has been all the time in my mind and in previous texts; its only relation here is that I address this problem thematically. And it was in a context in which, reading, at the moment of a conference in a law school on 'Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice' I had to address a text by Benjamin on violence and I find it, I found it useful to make a distinction between law and justice, what one calls in French le droit, that is, 'right', or Recht in German, and Gesetz... in English when you say 'law' you say at the same time 'right' and 'law', le droit et le loi; in French we distinguish between le droit et le loi, so there is a distinction between the law - that is, the history of right or legal systems - and justice.

Following Benjamin and at the same time trying to deconstruct Benjamin's text or to show how Benjamin's text was deconstructing itself I made this statement 'in a nutshell', that the law could be deconstructed. There is a history of legal systems, of rights, of laws, of political laws, and this history is the history of the transformation of laws. That's why you can improve law - you can replace laws by other ones, there are constitutions, there are institutions, this is a history and a history as such can be deconstructed. Each time you replace a legal system by another one or a law by another one or you improve... it's a kind of deconstruction, a critical deconstruction. So the law as such can be deconstructed, it has to be deconstructed; that is the condition of historicity, revolution, morals, ethics and progress. But justice is not the law. Justice is what gives us the impulse, the drive, the movement to improve the law - that is, to deconstruct the law. Without a call for justice we wouldn't find any interest in deconstructing law. So that's why I said that the condition of possibility for deconstruction is a call for justice. Justice is not reducible to the law, to a given system of legal structures. Which means that justice is always unequal to itself, it's non-coincident with itself.

Then in the book on Marx I went back again to the Greeks, to the word dike, to the interpretation of this word which is translated by 'justice' and I protested the interpretation by Heidegger on dikh and injustice and I tried to show that justice again implied non-gathering dissociation, heterogeneity, non-identity with itself and, less an adequation, infinite transcendence. That's why the call for justice is never, never, let's say, fully answered. That's why no one can say 'I am just'. The one who does you injustice, you can be sure that he or she is wrong because being just is not a matter of theoretical determination. I cannot know whether I am just. I can know that I am right; I can say, well, I act in agreement with norms or with the law; I stop at a red light, I am right, there is no problem, but this does not mean that I am just, which is to say that justice is not a matter of knowledge or theoretical judgement. That's why it's not a matter of calculation. You can calculate the law, the right; a judge can say, well, this misdeed deserves according to the code ten years of imprisonment and so on and so forth; that may be a matter of calculation but the fact that it's rightly calculated does not mean that it is just. Now a judge if he wants to be just cannot content himself with applying the law, he has to reinvent the law each time. That is, if he wants to be responsible, to make a decision, he has to not simply apply the law as a coded program to a given case but to reinvent in a singular situation a new judgement relationship. Which means that a law, that justice cannot be reduced to a calculation of sanctions, punishments or rewards. That is already right or in concurrence with the law, but it's not justice.

Justice - if it has to do with the other, the infinite distance of the other - is always unequal to the other, is always uncalculatable; you cannot calculate justice. Levinas says something like that - his definition of justice is a very minimal one which I love, which I think is really rigorous - he says, 'Justice - that is the relation to the other'; that's all. Once you relate to the other as the other then something incalculable comes in which cannot be reduced to the law, to the history of the legal structures. And that is I think what gives deconstruction its movement, that is, constantly to suspect, to criticize the given determinations of a culture, of institutions, of the legal systems not in order to destroy them or simply to cancel them but to be just, give justice, to respect this relation to the other as justice. Yes... I missed the last point of your... not only that, but also the last point of your question about politics. Indeed as you had mentioned I tried to read in a number of texts - mainly in a text by Plato, the Timaeus, in which the question of the place, the chora which disturbs and undermines the whole Platonic system - all the couples or positions which build the Platonic system - this reflection on chora is part of a political discussion and I tried to reconstitute this political scenario in order to suggest - and that's all that I can say here without reopening the text, Plato's, for instance - in order to suggest that if you take into account this strange structure of the chora, of the place which is the opening for any inscription, for any happening, for any event, then you have to not only deconstruct the traditional concept of politics but to think of another way of interpreting politics that is the place for the place, the place for hospitality, the place for the gift, and to think politics otherwise.

So that's part of a number of gestures I've tried in the recent years, to deconstruct the political tradition not in order to depoliticize but in order to interpret differently the concept of the political, the concept of democracy and so on and so forth and to try and articulate this concept of the political, this concept of democracy with what I said about the gift, about singularity, a gift. The gift, which is... that's the only thing that I will say about the gift, this is an enormous problem... but the gift is precisely - that is what it has in common with justice - something which cannot be reappropriated; a gift is something which never appears as such and is never equal to gratitude, to commerce, to compensation, to reward. When a gift is given, first of all it cannot be... no gratitude can be proportionate to it. A gift is something that you cannot thank for. As soon as I say 'thank you' for a gift I start cancelling the gift, I start destroying the gift by proposing an equivalence that is a circle and circumscribing the gift in a movement of reappropriation. So a gift is something that goes beyond the circle of reappropriation, beyond the circle of gratitude. A gift shouldn't even be acknowledged as such. As soon as I know that I give something, because I can say, well, I'm giving you something, I just cancel the gift and I'm just starting to congratulate myself or to thank myself for giving something and then the circle has already started to cancel the gift. So a gift should not be rewarded, should not be reappropriated, and should not even appear as such. As soon as the gift appears as such then the movement of gratitude has started to destroy the gift. So a gift - if there is such a thing, I'm not sure, but is there assurance that there is a gift, that a gift is given? - If the gift is given then it should not even appear to the one who gives it and the one who receives it, not appear as such. That is paradoxical but that's the condition for a gift to be given. So that is the condition the gift shares with justice. A justice which could be, could appear as such, that could be calculable, if you can calculate what is just and what is not just, let's say, well, what has to be given in order to be just and so on and so forth, it is not justice, it's just social security, it's just economics, it's just... So justice and gift should go beyond calculation, which doesn't mean that we shouldn't calculate, we should calculate it as rigorously as possible but there is a point or a limit beyond which calculation must fail and we must know it and must fail. And so what I tried to think or to suggest is a concept of the political and of democracy which would be compatible, which could be articulated with these impossible notions of the gift and justice. If a democracy or a political system which would be simply calculatable without justice and gift could be, it is often this horrible gift, this terrible thing.

Question: Can we talk a little bit about theology?

Derrida: We have started...

Question: You have written... I don't know how many of us, how many of our audience know this, but you have written a book called Circumfessions which is constantly drawing an analogy to St. Augustine's Confessions. You were raised in the Rue Augustin, and born there, were you not?

Derrida: No, I wasn't born there... three months after I was born I went back to the house in which was in Algiers, which was on the Rue Augustin.

Question: And so like St. Augustine you were born in North Africa. Circumfessions draws a constant analogy... and one of the things that appears in the Confessions that you single out is that like St. Augustine your mother was worried about you and she thought that you were... she was worried about whether you still believed in God, you said, and that she wouldn't, she didn't ask you about it but she was asking -

Derrida: - Never.

Question: - She was afraid to ask you... so she asked everyone else. And you go on to say that you quite rightly passed for an atheist but that the constancy of God in your life was called by other names. Now I've always been interested in the way in which figures like Heidegger... my earliest work was on the relationship between Heidegger and the religious tradition... and one of the things that has fascinated me about your work and which comes back to me again as I listened to your answer to the previous question about justice is how much what you say about justice reminds me of the Biblical tradition of justice about singularity rather than the philosophical one where justice is defined in terms of universality, the blind... the blindness of justice. Now, the question that interests me, and you come back to this again in the Marx book where you make a distinction - you talk about the messianic, all this thematic of 'a venir' , 'viens', all of that is... you describe it as the impossible future, it is the messianic in which you distinguish a kind of quasi-atheistic messianic from a more garden variety messianic... if a messianic can have a garden variety... or the organic messianic. So here is the question: What does Judaism and the Biblical tradition, the prophetic tradition of justice, what does that mean for you, for your work, and how do, how can religion and deconstruction commune with each other? Could they do each other any good? Are they on talking terms?

Derrida: First of all, I'm really intimidated here not only by this question but by this reference to St. Augustine. The way that I refer to St. Augustine is really not very orthodox, not very... it's rather... let's say... it's a sin. I have to confess that my relation to St. Augustine is something strange. If I had to summarize what I did with St. Augustine in this text you refer to, Circumfession, I would say this: on one hand, I played with some analogies, that is, the fact that he was coming from Algeria, that his mother died in Europe, and my mother was dying when I was writing this, my mother was dying and so on and so forth... so I was constantly playing figures of mine off this and quoting sentences from the Confessions in Latin, but trying through my love and admiration for St. Augustine, because, say, I know I never met St. Augustine, but to ask a question to Augustine... it's a number of accidents, not only in these confessions but in their context. So there is, let's say, a love story and a deconstruction between us. But I won't insist on St. Augustine here, it's too difficult, and the way that this text is written cannot begin to account for such and such. See... so, to address more hurriedly the question of religion - again, in a very oversimplifying way - I would say this: first, I have no stable position as to the texts you mentioned - the prophets, the Bible and so on. For me it's an open field and I can at the same time receive the most necessary provocation from these texts as from Plato and others.

In Specters of Marx I try to reconstitute the link between Marx and some prophets and Shakespeare, through Shakespeare. This doesn't mean that I'm simply a, let's say, a religious person or that I simply, unscrupulously believe. For me, the concept we think of, the 'religion' within what one calls religions - Judaism, Christianity or other religions - there are again tensions, heterogeneities, disruptive 'volcanoes', so to speak, in the text - even, especially in the prophets - which cannot be, let's say, reduced to an institution, to a corpus, to a system. So I want to keep the right to read these texts in a way which has to be culturally reinvented. It is something which can be totally new at every moment. Then I would distinguish between - with what I told you before about this tension - I would distinguish between religion and faith. If by religion you mean a set of beliefs or dogmas or institutions, church and so on and so forth, I would say that religion as such can be... not only can be deconstructed but should be deconstructed, sometimes in the name of faith. For me Kierkegaard is here as a minimum a great example that is some paradoxical way of contesting the religious discourse in the name of a faith which has that can't be simply mastered or domesticated or taught or logically understood... paradoxical, paradoxical faith.

Now what I call faith in this case, this has something to do with justice and the gift, it is something which is presupposed by the most radical deconstructive gesture. You cannot address the other, speak to the other without an act of faith, without testimony. What are you doing when you testify, when you attest to something? You address the other and ask belief. Even if you lie, even if you are in a perjury you are addressing the other and asking the other to trust you. This 'trust me, I'm speaking to you' is of the order of faith. It cannot be reduced to a theoretical statement, to a determining judgement; it is the opening of the address to the other. So this faith is not religious, strictly speaking. At least, it is not, it cannot be totally determined by a given religion. You find it - that's why this faith is absolutely universal. And this attention to the singularity is not opposed to universality - I wouldn't oppose as you did universality to singularity, I would try to keep the two together - and the structure of this act of faith I was just referring to is not as such conditioned by any given religion. That's why it is universal. Which doesn't mean that in every given religion, determined religion you do not find a reference to this pure faith which is not either Christian nor Jewish nor Islamic nor Buddhist nor anything. Now I would say the same with the messianic. When I insisted in the book on Marx on messianicity - which I distinguished from messianism - I wanted to show that the messianic structure is a universal structure, that as soon as you address the other, as you are open to the future, as you are, have temporal experience, you are waiting for the future, you are waiting for someone to come...that the opening of the experience, someone is to come... is now to come, and justice, peace will have to do with this coming of the other - with a promise.

Each time I open my mouth I am promising something; when I speak to you I am telling you I promise to tell you something, to tell you the truth - even if I lie. Even if I lie, the condition of my lie is that I promise to tell you the truth. So the promise is not a speech act among others; every speech act is permanently a promise. So this universal structure of the promise, of the expectation for the future, for the one, the coming, the coming, and the fact that this expectation of the coming has to do with justice - that is what I call messianic structure. And this messianic structure is not limited to what one calls messianisms, that is, Jewish, Christian, or Islamic messianisms with a determined figure, a determined form of the messiah. As soon as you reduce the messianic structure to messianism then you are reducing the universality and this has big political consequences; then you are, let's say, accrediting a tradition among others, the notion of elect people, of a given ritual language...and so on and so forth. So that's why I think that the difference however subtle it may appear between the messianic or messianicity and messianism is very important. So...on the side of messianicity there is faith. There is no society without a faith, without a trust in the other. Even if I abuse this, if I lie or if I commit perjuries, even if I am violent because of this faith, there is no...even on the economic level, no society without this level of faith, this minimum act of faith. The credit, what one calls credit in capitalism, in 'capital', in the economy, has to do with faith; one knows this. The economists know that faith. This faith is not and should not be reduced or defined by religion as such.

Now... and I will end with this point here... now the problem remains, and this is really a problem for me, an enigma, whether what one calls 'religions', let's say for instance the western religion of the book, whether the religions where specific examples of this structural, general structure of messianicity there is a general messianicity as a structure of experience...and on this modest ground there have been revelations of a history which one calls Judaism and Christianity and so on and so forth, so that's a possibility; and then you would have, in a Heideggerian gesture or style you would have to go back from these religions to the ontological or phenomenological condition of possibility of religions to describe a general structure of messianicity on the modest ground of which religions have been made possible. That's one hypothesis. The other hypothesis - and I confess I hesitate or oscillate constantly between the two possibilities - the other possibility is that the event of revelations in Biblical or Jewish traditions, Christian traditions, Islamic traditions, have been absolute events, irreducible events which have unveiled this messianicity. We wouldn't know what messianicity is without messianisms, without these events which were of Moses, Abram, Jesus Christ and so on and so forth. So in that case singular events would have unveiled or revealed this universal possibility and it's only on that condition that you can describe this, the messianicity. Between these two I must confess I oscillate and I think some other schema has to be constructed to at the same time do justice to the two possibilities. That's why - and perhaps it's not a good reason, perhaps one day I will give up this - that's why for the moment, the time being I keep the word 'messianic' because the word 'messianic', even if it's different from messianism, it's a reference to the word 'messiah'; it doesn't simply belong to a certain culture, a Jewish/Christian culture. I think that for the moment being I need this word to...I wouldn't say to teach but to convince and to make people understand what I am trying to say when I speak of messianicity, but in doing so I still keep the singularity of a single revelation, that is, the Jewish/Christian revelation with its reference to the messiah. It's a reinterpretation so to speak of this tradition of the messiah. Let me tell you just... a story, something I read, I reread recently and which I quote in the book on friendship which will be published in a few days. It's Blanchot, Maurice Blanchot tells this story.

When the messiah in a sort of soiled robe was not recognized, was walking in... ah, quelle chose?... he was poorly, poorly dressed and so on and so on... and a young man recognized him, recognized that he was the messiah and came to him and addressed him and asked the question, 'When will you come?' I think it's a very profound reading which means that something, some inadequation between 'the now' and now that he is coming now... the messianic doesn't wait for... It's a way of waiting for the future, but right now; and the responsibilities which are assigned to us by this messianic structure are responsibilities for here and now. So the messiah is not some future present, it's imminent. It's this imminence that I am describing when I talk in the name of this messianic structure. Now there is another possibility I imagine also in this book... that the messiah is not simply the one, the other that I am waiting for constantly - there would be no experience without the waiting of the coming of the other, the coming of the event and justice - the messiah might also be the one I expect while I don't want it, him, to come. There is this possibility that my relation to the messiah is that I won't like it to come. I hope that he will come, that the other will come as other; that will be justice, peace, and revolution because in the concept of of messianicity there is revolution - not revelation, but revolution - but at the same time I'm scared. I don't want what I want and I would like the coming of the messiah to be infinitely postponed. And the reason, this desire... that's why the man who addresses the messiah said 'When will you come?' It's a way to say that, well, as long as I speak to you, as I ask you the question 'When will you come?' at least you're not coming, and that's the condition for me to go on asking questions and living and so on and so forth. So that is this ambiguity in the messianic structure. We wait for something we wouldn't like to wait for. That is another name for that.

[The panel conversation is closed and questions are invited from the floor.]

Question from the Floor: I'd like to ask you about your work on literary texts and the reverse - in particular, about your works on James Joyce, where the influence seems to go from him to you and to you to back from him, so you're deconstructing Joyce while Joyce is deconstructing you.

Derrida: No... I mean, what is the question?... You're right, but what is the question?

Question from the Floor: ... Expand.

Derrida: Expand... It's already very difficult to write on Joyce, but to speak on Joyce is an even more difficult task, but I'll try to say something. First of all, since the Dean referred to the time a long time ago when I spent one year in Harvard, in '56, what I did at Harvard was read Joyce in the library, what I encountered was Ulysses, and since then Joyce has been reserved for me... the most gigantic attempt to gather in a single work, that is, in the singularity of a work which is irreplaceable, that is a singular event, to gather - I'm referring here to Ulysses and Finnegans Wake - to gather the totality, the presumed totality not only of one culture but of a number of cultures, a number of languages, literatures, religions and so on and so forth. And this impossible task of decided gathering in a totality, in a potential totality, the potentially infinite memory... is at the same time for me exemplarily new in its modern form and very classical in its philosophical form. That's why I have often compared Joyce's Ulysses to Hegel's, for instance, Hegel's Encyclopedia or Hegel's Logic. It is an attempt to read the absolute knowledge through a single act of memory; this being possible only by loading every sentence, every word with a maximum of equivocalities, of possibilities, of virtual associations, that is, by making this organic linguistic totality as rich as possible.

Of course this at the same time reassembled the history of literature and inaugurated and produced a break in the history of literature, and what I tried to show also in the texts you are referring to is the fact that at the same time the writing of these works functioned as an injunction to the canon, that is, to the common literary critics, to the institutions of Joycean scholarship, to build a sort of beehive, an infinite institution of people working as interpreters, people deciphering Joyce's signature as a singular signature. From that point of view I think that Joyce is a great landmark in the history of deconstruction; that's why the reference to Joyce is involved with me... In a book on Husserl, my first book on Husserl, I tried to compare the way Joyce treated language and the way classical philosophers...also treated language. Joyce wanted to make history and the resumption, the totalization of history possible through the accumulation of equivocalities, of metaphoricities, tropes and so on and so forth whereas Husserl thought that historicity was made possible by the transparent univocality of language, that is, scientific, mathematical language, pure language. There is no historicity without the transparency of the tradition, Husserl says, and there is no historicity without this accumulation of equivocalities in language, as Joyce has said, and it's from that tension between the two interrelations of language that I try to address questions of language.

I would mention only two other points in Joyce in reference to our current discussion. One has to do with the question of the 'yes'. In my short essay on Joyce I tried to deal only with the word 'yes' as it was...performed, so to speak, in Ulysses; and I tried to show how all the paradoxes which are linked to this question of the 'yes'...this has to do with the fact that deconstruction is a 'yes', is linked, is an affirmation. When I say 'yes' - as you know, 'yes' is the last word in Ulysses - when I say 'yes' to the other in the form of a promise or an agreement or an oath, the 'yes' must be absolutely inaugural. In relation to the theme today, inauguration is a 'yes', I say 'yes' as a starting point, nothing precedes the yes, the yes is the moment of the institution, the origin; it's absolutely originary. But when you say 'yes', if you don't imply that the moment after that you will have to confirm the 'yes' by a second 'yes' - when I say 'yes', I immediately say 'yes, yes' - I commit myself to confirm my commitment in the next second, and tomorrow and after tomorrow and so on, which means that the 'yes' immediately duplicates itself, doubles itself. You cannot say 'yes' without saying 'yes, yes', which implies memory in the promise; I promise to keep the memory of the first yes and when you, in a wedding for instance, in a performative, in a promise, when you say 'yes, I agree, I will' you imply, 'I will say 'I will' tomorrow and I will confirm my promise', otherwise there is no promise. Which means that the 'yes' keeps in advance the memory of its own beginning. That's the way it's a different word. If tomorrow you don't confirm that you have founded today your program you will not have any relation to it.

Tomorrow, perhaps next year, perhaps twenty years from now we will - if today there has been any inauguration; we don't know yet, we don't know, we can't today, where I am speaking... who knows? So 'yes' has to be repeated, and immediately, immediately it implies what I call 'iterability', it implies the repetition of itself. Which is a threat, which is threatening at the same time because the second yes may be simply a parody or a record or mechanical repetition; it may say 'yes, yes' like a parrot, which means that the technical reproduction of the originary 'yes' is from the beginning threatening to the living origin of the 'yes', which means that the 'yes' is hounded by its own ghost, its own mechanical ghost, from the beginning. Which means that the second 'yes' will have to reinaugurate, to reinvent the first one. If tomorrow you don't reinvent today's inauguration... it will have been dead. Every day the inauguration has to be reinvented. So that's one thing.

The second thing I would select here has to do with what Joyce calls at some point the legal fiction of fatherhood. This is a very Christian moment - I am referring to this text; I cannot quote it here - but that's when Stephen says, well, 'Paternity is a legal fiction', and he refers to Christian texts, the Biblical text. Why is it so? Because one is supposed to know who the mother is; there is a possibility of bearing witness to who the mother is, whereas the father is only... only sort of reconstructed, inferred. The identification of the father is always resounding in a judgement - you cannot see the father. And I think that today we experience that not only is the father a legal fiction from which it draws and it has drawn its authority, and before I confirm this by saying, well, patriarchy has been a progress in the history of mankind because the father... to determine who the father is you need reason; for us to determine who the mother is, you only need sensible perception. I think he is wrong and he has always been wrong but we don't... there is not only this paternal preterite because the mother is also a legal fiction from that moment, that is, the motherhood is something which is interpreted. The theme of a reconstruction of an experience - what one calls today surrogate mothers for instance, with all the enormous problems that, you know, attest to the fact that we do not know is who is the mother - who is the mother in the case of surrogate mothers? And when we realize that the motherhood is not simply a matter of perception we realize that it has never been so, that the mother has always been a matter of interpretation, of social construction and so on and so forth, and this has enormous political consequences. We don't have time probably to deal with this but I would, if we had time I would try to show what the political consequences may be of this fact that the situation of the mother is the same as the one of the father in that respect.

[The conversation is brought to closure.]

Transcribed by J. Christian Guerrero; this interview is now in print in John D. Caputo, ed.: Deconstruction in a nutshell, Fordham UP 1997. Contact the webmaster fort details.



  J. Christian Guerrero

April 4, 2016 at 9:15 PM

Thank you. This unexpurgated version was the intention of my initial transcription.