Robert S. Gall
Originally published in Philosophy Today 38 (1994):167-180
They were offered the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings. The way children would, they all wanted to be couriers. Therefore there are only couriers who hurry about the world, shouting to each other -- since there are no kings -- messages that have become meaningless. They would like to put an end to this miserable life of theirs but they dare not because of their oaths of service.Franz Kafka(1)
In reading the texts of Derrida, one easily notes how they repeatedly exhibit the frivolous and joking character of writing (AF 125-127; D 93)(2) through puns, double entendres, and turns of phrase that, like jokes, are often untranslatable. Taking a closer look, we also recognize occasional allusions to the conventions and strategies of comedy in these texts. For example, Derrida's call for a kind of thinking at the end of philosophy that is affirmed "in a certain laughter and a certain step of the dance" (MP 27; cf. WD 136) recalls the feast and reconciliation typical of the end of comedy. One also cannot help but notice how Derrida, either as commentator (AT 30; EO 141; Ltd 82) or signatory (WD 300: "Reb Derrisa," a homonym of "Reb de risée", the "rabbi of the laugh" or the "laughing rabbi"), frequently reminds us of the comic implications of his texts. Add to that their playful and performative nature (which suggests a comparison with literary- dramatic forms) and their labyrinth of forms and styles that is reminiscent of comic texts, and it is no wonder that there are frequent references to the genres of comedy and the comic in characterizing the texts of Derrida.(3)
However, despite the frequent references to a comic quality in the texts of Derrida, little has been done to show what this means for understanding those texts. That is, commentators (including Derrida) use the trope "comedy" and the "comic" to suggest/promote an understanding of philosophy and a comportment toward the world that is "comic" in some larger sense, but they tend to leave that comic quality unexplored. It is, however, just this comic quality, and the larger sense of "comedy" that it implies, that I wish to explore in an effort to distinguish the texts of Derrida. Noting this comic quality and the comic strategies employed by Derrida will, I suggest, prove helpful for suggesting how we might better understand the texts of Derrida, their relationship to the philosophical tradition and such traditional concerns as ethics, politics, and religious thought.
* * *
It is difficult to find unanimity on the subject of comedy and the comic. As one critic has put it, not only comedy but its criticism is a labyrinth. Yet a labyrinth is an order as well as a tangle,(4)and we can take note of a number of features and strategies that are important, if not absolutely necessary, for characterizing the comic, and which are echoed in the texts of Derrida.
(1) The Arbitrary and Discontinuous. A variety of critics have noted that a common feature of comedy and the comic is an emphasis on discontinuity and the arbitrary.(5) On the one hand, this means that comedy usually represents the dominant society or practices of its play as operating according to arbitrary laws. The dominant order is a matter of chance, not necessity. For instance, Aristophanes attempts to show his countrymen in Lysistrata that war between Athens and Sparta is not necessary; another order (i.e., peace between Athens and Sparta) is not only possible but beneficial. So too Molière, in The School for Husbands, by contrasting the way in which two brothers treat their wards (and intended brides), shows that the traditionally 'proper' way to raise a faithful wife is not the only way and can in fact (does, in fact, in the play) fail. Figaro, in the 5th act of Beaumarchais' play, challenges his master by pointing out that his master's position is only an accident of birth. On the other hand, this emphasis means that the accidental and the discontinuous tend to dominate the comic rhythm. As far back as Aristotle, it was noted that plot was not very important for comedy. Comedy tends toward the episodic -- witness the comic strip, or Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. There is sometimes a jumping back and forth in time, as in Billy Pilgrim's "progress" through Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5. Chance encounters are the rule, rather than the exception. Magic and fantasy are not uncommon, as is the case when a magician enables a humanities professor at CCNY to become a character in Madame Bovary in Woody Allen's short story "The Kugelmass Affair."(6) Even the magic is chancy; Puck's magic is less than certain in Midsummer Night's Dream, and Kugelmass accidentally ends up trapped in a remedial Spanish textbook, chased ever after by the verb tener ("to have").
Of course, Derrida takes the arbitrariness of the sign acknowledged and repressed by Saussure as one of the starting points for his deconstructive enterprise of/from grammatology (OG 44ff; cf. MP 10f, AF 110-112). Since "the thing itself" is a sign, and what is represented is always already a representatum (OG 49, 50), the presumed necessity of any system of signs -- which assumes the priority of one sign as signified and others as properly or improperly signifying that signified -- is subverted. Since what is signified always already implies a sign that points to it, what is signified is itself a sign, a trace, the trace of a presence (an absolute origin) that never was there. By showing the interconnectedness and con-textual nature of sign/signified and all other metaphysical binary oppositions, deconstructive discourse, like comedy, shows that the presumably absolute, categorical authority of a law (BL 190ff; cf. Par 249-287) assumes an authority it does not have.
But then, like comedy, Derrida also shows this arbitrariness by enacting it. His texts often take their point of departure from accidental or incidental features, correlations or correspondences in language and texts. A footnote in Sein und Zeit (MP 31ff), an incidental piece by Kant (AT), an isolated comment by Nietzsche (SNS 123ff) become starting points for his analyses. The "mute irony" of substituting an "a" for an "e" creates the nonconcept différance (MP 3ff); the unheard accent grave changes a feminine pronoun into a place in Cinders. Seemingly incongruous commentaries are laid side by side in Glas and "Survivre" (Par 119-178). The writing is telegraphic, as postcard dispatches punctuate The Postcard, and aphorisms (even the less than aphoristic) leave their mark on Roland Barthes and architecture, and mark time in Romeo and Juliet (Ps 273-304, 509-518, 519-533). Seemingly odd associations are made, and concepts transformed: différance becomes the trace becomes hérisson (a hedgehog, also reminding us of hérisser, "to spike"; CCP), or fire and ashes (C; OS). The texts of Derrida are like the harlequin's costume -- patchwork and piecemeal -- showing us the pretense of our presentations to the world.
(2) Repetition and Reproduction. The arbitrariness of laws leads to the arbitrariness of ends in comedies and in Derrida. On the one hand, this means that since the established order has no point or purpose, repetition overdone or not going anywhere belongs to comedy (Frye 168; et. al.). Comedy reveals that the dominant society is caught in obsessive, repetitive behavior that accomplishes nothing. Abbott and Costello's comic routine "Who's on First[?]", in which each participant asks the 'proper' questions and gives the 'proper' answers about the players on the new baseball team, over and over, to no avail, is a classic example of this point. "The Roadrunner" cartoons, where the predator (Wile E. Coyote) quite 'properly' pursues the roadrunner, over and over, even attempting, like a proper American coyote, to employ modern technology in his quest, would be another example. On the other hand, since there is no point, the end, i.e., the finish, of comedies likewise often enact this arbitrariness; they interrupt something that will go on ever after (happily or not). The Taming of the Shrew, at first glance, seems to end, happily, but Kate's submission is suspect (and is usually played so that we are not convinced she has submitted); we have the sneaking suspicion that the agon of this marriage (and all marriages) will go on indefinitely. Molière, much to the chagrin of drama critics, is often blatantly arbitrary, ending Tartuffe with the miraculous intervention of the king, for example, or rather incredibly tying together all sorts of loose ends in The Miser. And exactly how could you end the "Who's on First[?]" routine, or "The Roadrunner" cartoons, except arbitrarily?
It is much the same with deconstructive discourse. Derrida sees philosophical discourse ruled by a desire, an obsession, namely, a desire and obsession for "meaning", i.e., "wanting to say" (vouloir dire) something -- a full and unspoiled presence, a foundational and/or constant arche or telos. Yet this desire is infinitely deferred and comes to nothing. Why? There could be no meaning, no communication, without the absence of what is meant, and without the iterability of words and meanings. Hence all presentations (of meaning) are always already (possible) re-presentations. The purity of the origin or end is disrupted "from the start"; mimesis, imitation, 'rules' something like philosophy. But a mime (e.g., a philosopher) does not do anything (D 216), does not accomplish anything. Hence philosophy -- which thinks that it is going somewhere, from somewhere, i.e., that it has an absolute telos and/or arche -- is ultimately unable to justify its beginning or end (e.g., AF 108-109, 118-119; D 182n, 271). Meaning -- the burning desire and obsession of philosophy -- entails a wandering from sign to sign, trace to trace, deferring infinitely the presence it desires.(7)
The desire and obsession in comedy that is reproductive rather than productive often turns, not surprisingly, on sex. Old comedy such as survives in the work of Aristophanes included wearing huge artificial phalluses and telling obscene jokes. Ever since, from high comedies of manners to the low comedy of farce, whether it is women getting the better of men, youth overcoming obstacles to their desire, or the cuckold winning his horns, comedy has usually had something to do with sex. It is not hard to see why. Being perhaps the lowest common denominator among human beings, sex is a natural focus for a genre concerned with the common interests of mankind. Thus sex can serve as a great equalizer and leveller, an ideal focus for showing that the rich, the powerful, the unique, are really no different, no better, than anyone else. Likewise, if you wish, as comedy does, to show the impotence of the old order, there seems no better way to do that than by reference to sex.
Derrida and deconstruction have had recourse to much the same strategy, noting the "phallo-centrism" of "logocentrism" (= "phallogocentrism"; see, e.g., D 48-49 & n.47; Gl 113a, 188a; PSF 477ff) and the (intellectual) "masturbation" of trying to erect a philosophical system (OG 141-164). Deconstructive reading therefore involves castration -- "always at stake" (D 302) -- that cuts into the columns of text that are the erection of philosophy to note the gaps, the fissures, the openings (as in a woman) -- i.e., the radical alterity ("woman") -- on which philosophy depends, and which it therefore does not control. Deconstruction takes note of the feminine phantom haunting the smoke (and mirrors) of philosophy (C 33) and thereby seeks to think as a woman, "woman being one name for the untruth of truth" (SNS 51; cf. Gl 126a, 126bi, 187a; PSF 442ff). To think as a woman would not be to erect a philosophy but to be fertile in another way -- by playing, affirming an endless substitution that is neither signified nor signifier, presentation nor representation, showing nor hiding (P 86-87).
(3) The Ironic. The arbitrariness, discontinuity, and mimicry in comedy make meaning and self a tricky matter. Comedy usually deals in characters (a Falstaff, a Groucho Marx, Chaplin's Tramp) that fit any number of situations and therefore come across as representative figures, general "types" rather than "individuals." As representative figures, they do not evolve or change. But in order to maintain themselves in a hostile world, we find that comic characters need to show wide variances in their appearance and their language. Their persona become fluid and multiply; puns, double meanings, and the disguises of language proliferate. Thus Euripides, in Aristophanes' The Poet and the Women, appears in various parts from his plays (Menelaus, Perseus, Echo) in an attempt to save his once-disguised father-in-law Mnesilochus. Groucho Marx plays with language to say the unspeakable, i.e., to attack an enemy, or make lecherous advances toward a woman, all the while remaining Groucho. Woody Allen's Zelig is a "human chameleon" so as to fit in the world around him. The incongruity between character and mask, word and meaning, is ironic, and evokes laughter. In addition, as the designation of Zelig indicates, this duplicity often goes to the point of breaking the bounds of humanity, mixing (with) the divine, the bestial, or the mechanical. Many of Aristophanes' plays, with their bestial titles (The Birds, The Wasps, The Frogs), point to this breakdown between man and beast, as do stock comic figures like the cuckold (who grows horns), the shrew (as in The Taming of the Shrew), or the often inhuman babel of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. Likewise, the mechanization of comic characters by reducing them to the physical -- with emphasis on their predictable desires for food, shelter, and sex, or their routine bodily functions -- emphasize these breakdowns. Humanity is shown to be but one more mask. Indeed, everything is turned into mask and revealed as mask in comedy; everything reduces to pure surface and inessential appearance.
This masking in comedy is the truth of deconstruction, a truth that will not be pinned down by truth, a truth that is no truth because it plays at dissimulation, ornamentation, deceit, and artifice (SNS 55, 59, 67, 69; cf. WD 263). Here the self is a trace, i.e., "the erasure of selfhood, of one's own presence" (WD 230; SP 66, 85), disrupting the proximity of self-presence necessary for self-identity and identification by "the proper word and the unique name" (MP 27; cf. OG 107ff). The self always exceeds the récit (story) it tells (itself) (Par 272-273), because it is not what it is unless it adds to itself the possibility of being repeated (of being a re-citation). As a result, the self withdraws in the supplement (e.g., its name) that presents it (D 168). Such is the "anonymity" of the trace in which the possibility of being repeated makes one's "own", "proper" name (e.g., one's signature) available to anyone (D 143-144; Ltd 29ff). The "democracy" of writing (D 144) that comes at the end of history, whereby the individual is 'lost' in the Dionysiac mirror-play of language, thereby marks the end of man and humanity (MP 111-136; cf. the inhumanity of the name, Ps 528). Thus Derrida too, like comedy, breaks the bounds of humanity, writing in a language that is monstrous, bringing forth monsters from the tradition (DO 123): Francis Ponge/sponge, or Hegel/eagle, or the death that haunts one's name, the Geist of humans reduced to fire and ashes.
(4) U-topia. Much of what has been said so far in characterizing the comic comes into focus with regard to what we may call the comic u-topia -- what others have called the argument or the discussion, reminding us of the links between philosophy and comedy since the (anti-tragic) dialogues of Plato.(8) Comedy aspires to, or culminates in, or takes its perspective from, a u-topia, literally, a "non-place" free of the constraints of the everyday world, detached from the old or dominant order and outside of time, a ludicrous context marked by the lack of (conventional) rationality, morality, and/or work in which the comic character is not threatened. Such a u-topia takes many forms. It might be the traditional, festive end of comedy, that "bliss beyond time" in which everyone lives happily ever after, or simply the carnivalesque atmosphere of a pilgrimage such as we find in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It might be a safe haven in the midst of the world -- the parlor (where women rule) in domestic comedies, the forests of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, the Boar's Head Tavern where Falstaff presides, the hospital ward where Yossarian finds refuge in Catch-22. It might simply be a different, detached perspective on things that is neither inside nor outside the comedy. A comedy of shifting perspectives like Thackeray's Vanity Fair that recognizes the universal folly of human being would be one such example; the ironic discussions that take place between author and reader in such works as Cervantes' Don Quixote or Fielding's Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews would be other examples. Whatever form it takes, the detached perspective of the comic u-topia thoroughly informs the play, for what is at stake is the conservation and survival of the comic, whatever his or her point.(9)
Correspondingly, Derrida has characterized the task of deconstruction in terms of a search for the non-place, the non-lieu, the non-site or u-topos from which to interrogate philosophy (DO 108, 112) (or any other dominant order). Deconstruction tends to what is neither inside nor outside, what does not 'take place' (n'a pas lieu), is not an 'event,' or is an event (événement) whose advent (avènement) is to come (à-venir). On the one hand, this involves constant reference to what are called "undecidables" or "quasi-transcendentals." Undecidables (non-concepts such as pharmakon, supplement, gram, etc.) are unities of simulacrum that inhabit but are not included in a system, resisting and disorganizing it instead (P 43; cf. 101n13). Undecidables might be described as u-topias of language, holes in the fabric of the text, punctures that punctuate the text and give it its texture (cf. Ps 274, 278-280). These "non-places" then are not resources and reserves of meaning, but mark a mise en abyme/abîme, an abysmal staging and setting of meaning, a simultaneous creation and ruination of meaning. On the other hand, what is 'accomplished' by Derridean deconstruction is not some new system but "undecidability" (D 93, 127, 219ff; S 64). In other words, it seeks in its writing to inhabit and enact a u-topia, a "non-place" of alterity and otherness that marks the end of history, the closure of the history of meaning and being.(10)
The way in which this u-topia shows itself and is inhabited, however, is crucial to understanding the debates surrounding the texts of Derrida. We might make this clarification by taking a closer look at comedy, and to a distinction made by Charles Baudelaire between the significative comic (le comique significatif) and the absolute comic (le comique absolu).(11)The significative comic includes comedy that has some sense of utility about it; for instance, it serves as a moral critique and corrective to whatever dominant society, order or practice is depicted. Its critique favors those (either a character in the play and/or the audience) who, in one way or another, inhabit the dominant society depicted in the play but are nonetheless marginal and left out by that society. To do this, it focuses on those interests common to all men (civic and private concerns such as making money, getting a mate, etc.) and, with regard to these interests, applies a standard that is perceived to be the social norm and mean (or should be the norm and mean).(12) In Aristophanes' satiric comedies, for example, the famous (Socrates in The Clouds, Euripides in The Frogs) or the powerful (government officials or armies in The Knights and The Acharnians) are shown to be ridiculous and thus the cause for the troubles of the heroes (Demos ["the people"] in The Knights, Dikeopolis ["honest citizen"] in The Acharnians). In comedies of manners, gentlemen and ladies of high and sophisticated society (and who thereby presumably sets standards for society) -- because of their foolishness and/or violations of social norms (that they have established) -- are shown to be really no different or better than anyone else. So the drama critic hero of Arsenic and Old Lace learns that he is a bastard and, indeed, exults in the fact, for it allows him to get the girl. In romantic comedies (such as are common with Shakespeare), the true lovers are prevented for a time from coming together by an often patriarchal figure and/or society that reveals itself as old-fashioned, stuffy, conventional -- but their love survives these threats. What is accomplished in all this, as Frye notes (169), is a movement "from a society controlled by habit, ritual bondage, arbitrary law and the old characters to a society controlled by youth and pragmatic freedom." In the 'end,' everyone gets together and is brought together. In its classic form, comedy 'ends' in a feast or banquet, often attendant upon a marriage, from which even those characters who served as obstacles to the comic hero's desire are not excluded. Taking its cue from its utopian perspective, significative comedy administers the quintessential pharmakon -- the laughter of comic relief -- which is both deadly to the old order or perspective, and therapeutic in providing a new, inclusive perspective on things.
Is the utopian perspective of the texts of Derrida to be understood along the lines of a significative comedy, with its celebration of conversation and community? Is there some ethical/political point to its practice? Some have thought so.(13)Such a view has its source not only in his apparently political "attacks" against racism and nuclear proliferation (Ps 353-362, 363-386, 453-475) or in the apocalyptic tone of some of his early essays, but also in the apparently subversive nature of the texts of Derrida. For instance, Derrida's deconstructive strategy, like that of comedy, places a great deal of emphasis on the marginal. Indeed, Derrida is almost obsessed with margins, evidenced not only by his investigations of titles, frames, signatures, and footnotes, but also by his continual writing in the margins. This margin(al) writing is sometimes extensive, as when seven page footnote dominates the text and contains a key to the entire text(14) or when a borderline text runs along the bottom margin of a main text (JD, Par 119-218). Sometimes this margin(al) writing is exclusive, as in The Truth in Painting, which Derrida notes is composed entirely of writing "around painting" (9), or Glas, which can be seen as a text of two margins, side by side (with additional writing inscribed in these margins), or the recently published Jacques Derrida, in which Geoffrey Bennington's account of the thinking of Derrida ("Derridabase") is accompanied throughout by a co-text from Derrida ("Circumfession"). Margins are important for Derrida because they are neither inside nor outside the system of meaning which they enclose and thus indicate that the system does not have the self-control that it thinks it has (MP xff; P 40). Margins are "loose ends" that provide deconstructive discourse with a way of inhabiting the structures it seeks to demolish, whereby it can use the logic of the system to unravel it and thereby subvert and overturn its logic. This subversion, as in comedy, is accomplished by overcoming the paternal/patriarchal obstacles put in its way (by 'castrating' them, i.e., showing their impotence). So Derrida cuts into the texts of philosophy through imitation (of their desire for presence) and, looking for presence, does not find it. He thereby cuts down the "transcendental signified", Logos, God the Father (D 76-78) -- which seemingly had stopped "play" -- and thereby accomplishes the play (irony) that was always already there (e.g., in philosophy) by affirming it.
This affirmation is an affirmation of freedom and the future -- freedom from the unrealizable and illusory desires and obsessions that bound the past, freedom for the future and "an entirely different logic" (Ltd 157n) which is radically other, unfettered, and undefinable (by current standards). So we find Derrida speaking frequently in and of the future perfect, e.g., when he notes that the phrase il y a là cendre "says what it will have been" (C 35), or when he mulls over the phrase "He will have obligated" (il aura obligé; Ps 159ff), or when he disclaims any intention to present a work by saying: "This therefore will not have been a book" (D 3). Derrida, like comedy, gives priority to the future, the future that always already will have been perfect(15) -- perfect in that it is always already privy to the imperfection (the "dead time", "le passé absolu"; OG 66, 68) of the present (and the past). Moreover, just as this movement toward the future in significative comedy is a move toward greater inclusiveness and integration, so it is with Derrida. The value of truth is not contested or destroyed, but reinscribed within a wider context (Ltd 146). Past thinkers like Hegel and Plato are not ignored and dismissed but read over and over (P 77; EO 87). The thing attacked in the deconstructive 'attack' is not ruined but monumentalized (S 4; cf. Gl 1b); past thinkers are erected (relevé), elated, raised up, put into relief and relifted (relève) in the affirmative comic relief (relève) of deconstruction that shows that there always already was play (irony), and nothing but play (irony). As a result, speaking of ourselves and others "in a deconstructive vein is precisely to unfold their absolute sociability, their constitutive entanglement in alterity and difference."(16)
However, there is reason to doubt an ultimately significative reading of the texts of Derrida, just as there is reason to doubt that comedy has any ultimately significative function. The doubt arises from the double bind in which both comedy and Derrida are caught. The double bind of comedy is that if one defines one's u-topian perspective, it is no longer a u-topia: defined, it is placed within the oppositional order of the dominant society, and is appropriated into that society. Comedians and comic characters are aware of this and, since part of what animates them is a desire to be free of any appropriation, their attitude tends to be that of Groucho Marx: they do not want to belong to any club that would have them as members. As a result, the comic immediately turns against the goal toward which he seemed to work. The comic is only comfortable as the loyal opposition. This is hardly the basis for an ethical or political program, which may be why Prince Hal had to abandon Falstaff and the Boar's Head Inn in order to govern, and one reason why so much of comedy avoids making ethical or political points altogether. Indeed, when you come right down to it, one may forcefully argue that comedy does not lend itself to making ethical points; at best one can say that comedy can influence conduct in one way or another, which is to say that it could serve to deprave and corrupt just as easily as reform and elevate.(17)
Derrida, like a (good) comic, is also conscious of his double bind. All too aware of the trap of becoming entangled in the order of metaphysics, he insists that he opposes nothing to the oppositional logic of philosophy (Ltd 117; PSF 259f); any apocalyptic tone he has taken in the past is "ironic," and does not try to lead or conduct (AT 30, 33ff). In addition, this irony is not the traditional sort of irony that masks some secret knowledge or presence (as the "good" irony or play in Plato presumably does). There is no secret knowledge (C 41, BL 205), no law behind the representation (BL 207ff); this is why Derrida works so hard sometimes to distance himself from negative theology (Ps 535-595; cf. MP 27). The texts of Derrida supplement rather than supplant, mimicking the desire of philosophy by continuing to desire, to play, endlessly. Put another way, one always begins again, one is always beginning; "the whole does nothing but begin" (Par 275; cf. Ps 649-650). So Derrida's 'hope' is not to erect another truth in the place of metaphysics (which would only re-establish an opposition), but simply to neutralize the system by laughing at it. But even that is not quite right, for the subversions playing about the law that he shows us do not mock or transgress the law; these games would not be possible, would have no force, without the instance of the law they seem to defy. There is no reason for Derrida's "play" unless he draws reason from the law, unless he provokes it. Hence he must produce the desire of philosophy in twisting it; he must demonstrate the madness of philosophy rather than oppose it from the outside with another madness (Par 246; cf. Par 285-286). As castration and mimesis (P 84), transgression and affirmation (WD 274), the double reading (writing/bind/science) of deconstruction might be either conservative or revolutionary, depending upon how it is deployed (Ltd 141). Or, put another way, despite whatever ethical/political stance it takes, Derrida's theory of deconstruction "leaves the world as it is and was," though "our grasp of why it is and must be left as it is and was" has changed.(18)
(5) Living On. This seems to completely deconstruct Baudelaire's distinction between the significative and absolute comic, and return us to the singular purpose of any and all comedy: to go on, to survive. As W.D. Horwath has put it (6),
comedy may be said to be 'moral' if it is based on a wholesome, positive attitude to life. Though it does not normally set out to change men's attitudes, nevertheless its effect is to reinforce our acceptance of a viable social order, a norm of behavior based on an unwritten compact between the playwright and the audience. The misfits, the social schemers, those who would upset the order of things are rendered harmless; if they are not converted to a right way of thinking, at least they are excluded from the social microcosm that the dramatist has created. The tricks and deceits, the moral turpitude of the rogues and villains, become part of a larger scheme which flatters the spectator's need for security and sends him home reassured.
In other words, comedy in its many forms is a celebration and affirmation of life, of living on, of conserving oneself and/or society. The fertile imagination of the comic ironist is put in the service of securing the comic and/or his view of the world. This is the case from the simplest fairy tale, where everyone (all the "good" people, anyway) lives (happily) ever after, to the grandeur and abstractness of life everlasting in Dante's Divine Comedy (where both the good and bad live on ever after, both happily and unhappily), from philosophy's escape into the magical forest of the Academy and Plato's dialogues, where Socrates lives on to play the fool who makes the wise seem foolish as he carries on endless discussions that espouse a multiplicity of views (and hence no particular view) of no one in particular, to Kierkegaard's "transcendental buffoonery" (Simon, 78ff) that parodies systematic philosophy (and even his own work) from behind pseudononymous masks. Ethics is incidental or irrelevant to the ultimate task of salvation, of being saved in order to live on.
So too the Derridean u-topia seems to consist of a comedy of ever-shifting perspectives that refuses to take a stand, or takes a stand "to be specified," because it is self-conscious that every stand is always already contaminated by what it is not, every point of view no view (point de vue; PSF 442, 459) with the goal of making us more self-conscious of the games we play, including the fact that there is nothing else but games. What lives on with Derrida? The text, including the text of philosophy, lives on, like some inhuman hypertext on computer that goes on being written from semester to semester in contemporary university writing classes.(19) Or, more precisely, what lives on is the law and desire of texts, and of philosophies. Indeed, Derrida wants it to live on, for if it were to reach its goal, its telos (a conclusive thesis), the desire of philosophy, and its telos, would disappear, become paralyzed, immobilized, die (Ltd 129; Par 119ff; PSF 285). Hence deconstruction strives to keep the discussion going, living on, open (Ltd 111,116); that is the ethics of this discussion, this u-topia. As a result, we can see Derrida as the end of philosophy in the sense that philosophy attains its goal in Derrida: to go on, to survive and continue in a world that is especially hostile to it.
Nevertheless, it is far from clear that we should rejoice in this prospect, for there is much despair in comedy, a despair that comes from the recognition that the repetitive, obsessive, foolish behavior depicted in the comedy will go on and on, indefinitely. In Stanley Kubrick's black comedy "Dr. Strangelove," Joint Chief of Staff "Buck" Turgidsen relishes the future life underground proposed by Dr. Strangelove (complete with numerous women for every man!) to the point of worrying about a shelter gap; the film then closes with shots of mushroom clouds accompanied by the song "We'll Meet Again." In Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo," the heroine (Cecilia), having foresaken the ideal man come to life from the screen for the "real" actor (who played the ideal man), only to be dumped by the actor, returns to her escape into the movies. In both cases, nothing has been accomplished, nothing has been learned; both stories begin again. Or, as Derrida says, we are always beginning; the arche-originary "yes" with which we "begin" and "end" can only be a fiction, a fable, hearsay (Ps 647-648; UG 57ff). We are given over to affirming an endless recitation of ourselves that never takes place (Par 243, 266ff).
Walter Kerr puts an escapist twist on this theme, suggesting not only that "within comedy there is always despair," but also adding that it is "a despair of ever finding a right ending except by artifice and magic."(20) Comedy is an escape-aid; its celebration and affirmation of life requires a triumph of fantasy and imagination over the realities of life (and death). One must rise above (beyond) the 'real' world, without gravity -- one must detach oneself from the way things are -- in order to accomplish one's desire. Comedy's triumph of life involves a triumph over life. But detachment, distance, tends to make one insensitive. This is certainly true of comedy, where we laugh at the faults, foibles and injuries of others. Comedy is the original theater of cruelty, the comic the original assassin whose highest aspiration is "to kill the audience." Horace Walpole's famous line -- "The world is a comedy to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel" -- rings true.
Since Derridean deconstruction works on the basis of, and directed toward, an undecidable, undefinable, all-inclusive u-topia of endless re-presentation and re-production, with a faith that, at bottom, it all comes to the same thing (a will-to-presence, "wanting to say") and the superior, comprehensive view that "one politics is always being played against another (Ltd 135), it is not surprising that the detachment, violence and insensitivity of comedy shows itself in the texts of Derrida as well. We can see it in the lack of feeling for Romeo and Juliet (Ps 519-533) or for the country man denied access to the law (BL). We can see it in the priority given to freedom, to the unfettered future rather than the limited past, for in giving the future priority, Derrida would seem to exhibit the revenge that characterizes metaphysics, the will's ill will toward time and its 'It was'. 'It was,' the imperfect: that is "the fundamental trait of time in its authentic and entire unfolding as time,"(21) whereas the future is "the incognito of the eternal which is incommensurable with time" (Caputo, 15). To be is to be in time and therefore imperfect or, shall we say, questionable and questionworthy. Dissatisfied with such 'imperfection', such "questionable-worthiness" [frag-würdigkeit], Derrida and comedy seek to suspend time and achieve the perfection of some transcendental archilimbo ("neither inside nor outside") that exceeds the grasp of history though it is only realized within the context of history (Ps 648). Everything is contretemps (Ps 521). Or, as pointed out before, for Derrida "the whole does nothing but begin", such that history is mastered in a total and present resumption (Par 275; IOG 103). Such a suspension of time is revenge against time -- and that is the project of philosophy (metaphysics).
From its superior, u-topian perspective, comedy thrives on representation; caricature, for instance, is a staple of comedy. Derrida shares this strategy with comedy; Derrida in fact finds representation, as a posited image, to be the necessary character of all presentations (Ps 120, 123). However, in this Derrida would seem to repeat the slippage that takes place in Aristotle whereby all being is something produced, reproduced, ultimately, in the modern era, by man himself.(22) The world then becomes how I see it, how I produce it, how I want to represent it, since there is no authority other than the representer (D 195). So Derrida (like comedy) claims to be free of destiny; all sendings are messages without message or destination (see "Envois" [PSF 3-256]; cf. AT 34-35; Ps 391-392, 519ff). What, for example, is left of Hegel? Just quotations (Gl 1a), quotations which, like aphorisms and names, can be quoted infinitely out of any context (Ltd 65; MP 316-317; Ps 520) -- which is exactly what Derrida does in a text like Glas (196bi-198b; see his comments in AT 30) or the whole of Cinders. Everything is thus at the deconstructionist's disposal (AF 118, 134). Derrida's will to control is on display in several areas: his effort to control the 'undecidability' of language by intending (like Joyce; see IOG 102) the ambiguity of various signifiers in his texts, in his desire (like Plato and others) to choreograph a multiplicity of voices (EO 183-184; see, e.g., Cinders), and, most recently, in his refusal to allow his thought to be characterized without having a say (JD). This even goes so far as to affirm an "active forgetfulness" (MP 136; WD 247, 265; cf. Ps 649-650) whereby one tries to control one's forgetfulness and oblivion, at least a little -- by affirming it. The result of all of this would seem to show deconstruction as manipulative and frivolous as philosophy, but self-consciously so, a willful dissemination of fictions and constructs by which one is aware of being the fool.
Indeed, the self, characterized as a network of traces, a tele-phone exchange (UG 84), or (like Plato) a post-master (PSF 200, 207; Ps 271), is not attached to others but to a multiplicity of disembodied voices and languages. As a result, for all the apparent sociability of the comic-Derridean u-topia, an isolated, narcissistic individualism seems to prevail here. This, not surprisingly, is in keeping with what Frye notes as the final stage of comedy: the comic society collapses and disintegrates such that "the social units of comedy become small and esoteric, or even confined to a single individual," with "the love of the occult and the marvelous, the sense of individual detachment from routine existence" becoming more prominent (185; my emphases). Such a para-sitical individualism -- constantly subjecting all others who profess even a provisionally unified meaning to continual analysis and criticism that it always already will have been inadequate (whereby the other does not speak to deconstruction) -- coupled with a self that is no self, unbound by limits that would define it and give it responsibility, makes for the ultimate u-topia. It constitutes an escape into a faith that grants that "kind of certainty which is safe even in the uncertainty of itself, i.e., of what it believes in."(23) With Derrida, that faith is an affirmation of the innocence of becoming that aspires to the immortality of Dionysus (who survives, though torn to pieces, and who is the technician of and spectator to tragedy [e.g., in Euripides' Bacchae]) rather than mortal participation in the play of the world, an affirmation of fantasy and imagination over reality.(24) One puts on the mask of Kierkegaard's knight of faith, or Zen Buddhism's laughing Buddha, safe and secure behind an ironic smile.
To conclude. In conjuction with the comic, we have seen that the task of delimitation as set forth in the texts of Derrida is u-topian in the radical sense of the word, attempting to breach the very limit that it marks. Unravelling the texture of philosophy and its obsession for a presence infinitely deferred, Derridean deconstruction laughs at the old order, breaking the rules as it defines them, marking the end of authority, of history, of the self. Freed from constraint, deconstruction affirms the irony and play that is always already there, scattering meaning to the winds in an infinitely repeatable dissemination of significance. But this, as Derrida shows us, is what philosophy always already has been doing. Thus philosophy lives on in the texts of Derrida, for better or for worse, in the hands of couriers from a king that was never present, (doubly) bound by their oaths of service. On the one hand, there is the apparent duty and desire to be significant, to matter, to be relevant, to be useful, to impart a secret knowledge, even if that secret knowledge is only knowing that one does not know, that no one knows. On the other hand, there is a desire for freedom, bound not to be bound by the past, or even the desire for significance. One longs to retreat from politics in the streets to the magic forest of the Academy, from the world to the labyrinth of the (cogito's) imagination. Such is the double bind of comedy, of Derrida, of philosophy.(25)
1. "Couriers," in Parables and Paradoxes, bilingual ed. (1958; rpt. New York: Schocken Books, 1971), p. 175.
2. The abbreviations of the texts of Derrida cited in this article:
AF Archeology of the Frivolous: Reading Condillac, trans. trans. John P. Leavey, Jr. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987).
C Cinders, trans. Ned Lukacher (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991).
CCP "Che cos'è la poesia?", trans. Peggy Kamuf in A Derrida Reader, ed. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 221-237.
BL "Before the Law," trans. A. Ronell and C. Roulston in Acts of Literature, ed. Derek Attridge (New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. 183-220.
DO "Deconstruction and the Other," in Richard Kearney, Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984).
D Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
EO The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, trans. Peggy Kamuf (1985; rpt. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988).
IOG Edmund Husserl's "Origin of Geometry": An Introduction, trans. John P. Leavey, Jr. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).
Gl Glas, trans. John P. Leavey, Jr. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986).
JD Jacques Derrida by Geoffrey Bennington and Jacques Derrida. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
Ltd Limited Inc, ed. Gerald Graff (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988).
MP Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).
AT "Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Philosophy," trans. John P. Leavey, Jr., Oxford Literary Review 6 (1984), pp. 3-37.
OG Of Grammatology, trans. G. C. Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
OS Of Spirit. Heidegger and the Question, trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).
Par Parages (Paris: Galilée, 1986). Three of the four essays in this text ("Survivre," "Titre à préciser," "La loi du genre") have appeared in English translation in various books and journals.
P Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
PSF The Postcard: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
Ps Psyché: Inventions de l'autre (Paris: Galilée, 1987). Most of the essays in this text have appeared in English translation in various books and journals.
Sb "Shibboleth," trans. Joshua Wilner in Midrash and Literature, ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sandford Budick (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), pp. 307-347.
S Signéponge/Signsponge, bilingual ed., translated by Richard Rand (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).
SP Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973).
SNS Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles, bilingual ed., translated by Barbara Harlow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).
TP The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).
UG Ulysse gramophone: Deux mots pour Joyce (Paris: Galilée, 1987). The two essays in this book, named in the title, have been translated separately in collections of essays on Joyce.
WD Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).
3. Geoffrey H. Hartman, Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), p. 24 and passim notes the constant "jesting" and "comedy" of Derrida's texts, and Eve Tavor Bannet refers to the way in which Derrida "parodies traditional forms of scientific discourse in the humanities" in Structuralism and the Logic of Dissent: Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), p. 225, while Allan Megill, Prophets of Extremity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), p. 267, makes reference to the wit and possible recovery of the comic in Derrida. David Farrell Krell, Intimations of Mortality (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986), p. 151, hints at the comic character of Derrida's though by noting its playful (almost silly) nature, and John D. Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 195, 291-293 notes the comic nature of Derrida's thinking as characteristic of one side of postmodern thought. While Mark Taylor, Erring: A Postmodern A/theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 15, 158-168, makes reference to the "levity of comedy" that results from a deconstructive a/theology that exploits the insights of Derrida, and Candace D. Lang, Irony/Humor. Critical Paradigms (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), pp. 3-4, 55-58, and passim refers to Derrida's "humorous" (i.e., postmodern ironical) critical strategies, Stephen W. Melville hints at the laughter of deconstruction in the title of his book, Philosophy Beside Itself: On Deconstruction and Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).
4. Richard Keller Simon, The Labyrinth of the Comic (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1985), pp. 8, 10.
5. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957), p. 169; Maurice Charney, Comedy High and Low: An Introduction to the Experience of Comedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 5 and passim; Harry Levin, Playboys and Killjoys. An Essay on the Theory and Practice of Comedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), p. 20.
6. Side Effects (New York: Random House, 1980), pp. 41-55.
7. See, e.g., SP 50, 52, 57, 67, 99 and MP 162-163, regarding the issues of "meaning", "wanting to say", representation, repetition and "nonproductive re-production." See also "Différance", "Signature Event Context" (MP 3-27, 309-333), Ltd 29-110, Par 173-174, 241, concerning these matters. Regarding the desire of philosophy, see AF 119, 129-131, 133-135, and DO 126.
8. See Levin, pp. 29-39, regarding the comic ethos as "the argument," and George McFadden, Discovering the Comic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), pp. 35ff and passim, regarding the comic ethos as "the discussion". Regarding the anti-tragic character of Plato's dialogues, see Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness. Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 122-135; regarding the figure of Socrates as comic, see, e.g., Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Irony, with Continual Reference to Socrates, ed. & trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 129, 152, and Wylie Sypher, "The Meanings of the Comic" in Comedy. ed. Wylie Sypher (1956; rpt. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 215, 229-230.
9. W. Moelwyn Merchant, Comedy (London: Methuen and Co., 1972), p. 82. Regarding the superiority, detachment and comprehensive vision of comedy, see also Horwath, p. 6, Ricoeur, p. 323, and Kern, p. 8, 19, 37 and passim. Regarding the definition of the comic context as "ludicrous", see Neil Schaeffer, The Art of Laughter (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981).
10. Regarding "undecidables" and "undecidability," see also Ltd 116, 145, 148-149. Regarding "quasi-transcendentals", see, e.g., Ltd 127, 152; Par 273; Ps 640ff. See D 183-184; MP 63f; P 56ff; SP 68, 102; WD 165-168 regarding the 'concept' of time and the end of history in deconstruction. For references to, and play on, the "en abyme/abîme", see, e.g., Gl 137bi, 151a, 257a; PSF 488; TP 17, 24. The u-topian character and aspirations of deconstruction (i.e., "no place", not taking place, not having a place, an event to come) emerge in a variety of ways and contexts; see, e.g., AT 33f; BL 205-206, 208-209; EO 14, 168-169; Gl 56b, 232ai; MP 22, 24; Par 150-151, 181, 234, 244-245; P 6-7; Ps 15-16; PSF 274; Sb 335; SNS 61, 63; and A. J. Cascardi, "Skepticism and Deconstruction," Philosophy and Literature 8 (1984), p. 4.
11. See "De l'essence du rire" in Oeuvres Complètes (Paris: Pléiade, 1961), pp. 985-986; translated by Jonathan Mayne as "On the Essence of Laughter," The Mirror of Art (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956), p. 143-144. Edith Kern has made use of this distinction to explore the comic genre in her book The Absolute Comic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980).
12. Herbert J. Muller, The Spirit of Tragedy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), p. 15. See also W. D. Horwath, "Introduction: Theoretical Considerations" in Comic Drama: The European Heritage (London: Methuen and Co., 1978), pp. 2-3, and W. G. McCollom's discussion of comedy in terms of The Divine Average: A View of Comedy (Cleveland: Case Western Reserve University Press, 1971), p. 7 and entirety.
13. E.g., Christopher Norris, What's Wrong with Postmodernism: Critical Theory and the Ends of Philosophy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990); Caputo, pp. 257ff ("An Ethics of Dissemination"), 293; Lang, p. 66; Melville, pp. 154-155. Bannet, pp. 184-227, locates Derrida within the "logic of dissent" of structuralism in post-war France. Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), attempts to find an ethical demand in Derridean deconstruction via the thought of Emmanuel Levinas.
14. In De l'esprit, nearly 8 pages (147-154) are dominated by a footnote, a textual matter that is obscured in the English translation, Of Spirit. What is even more remarkable is that the footnote in many ways ties together much of what Derrida is trying to bring to light in the "main body" of the text, and is therefore hardly "mariginal" in the sense of "unimportant."
15. See Andrew J. McKenna, "Postmodernism: It's Future Perfect" in Postmodernism and Continental Philosophy, ed. Hugh J. Silverman and Donn Welton (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), pp. 228-242. Cf. David Farrell Krell's "The Perfect Future: A Note on Heidegger and Derrida" in Deconstruction and Philosophy, ed. John Sallis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 114-121.
16. Melville, p. 154. Cf. WD 118-119 and the "community" of the question(s) (of philosophy).
17. A parallel between the comedian's attitude toward utopia and philosophy's can be seen in Plato: Plato excluded himself from his dialogues, and excluded all philosophers of his type (i.e., "poets") from the utopia he portrays in The Republic. And, of course, the Platonic dialogues have been used in a variety of ways politically.
Regarding the unclear formulation of the 'conclusion' of comedy, see Frye, p. 169. Regarding the ethics of comedy, see Charney, p. 145, and Levin, p. 22.
18. Joseph Margolis, "Deconstruction; or The Mystery of the Mystery of the Text" in Hermeneutics and Deconstruction, p. 149.
On deconstruction's inhabiting the text, see, e.g., OG 24; WD 194, cf. 284-285. Regarding the nonoppositional character of deconstruction, see, e.g., D 3ff; MP 329; P 40-42; MP 27, 136; WD 252, 256-257; cf. D 201; Gl 187a-188a, 232ai.
See DO 120 on how Derrida's political stances are detached from his intellectual project of deconstruction. See also WD 274, Ltd 141, Christie MacDonald's comments in questioning Derrida at EO 174, and Hartman, p. 24, regarding the conservative nature of Derrida's deconstruction.
19. It is interesting in this regard to note the following prefatory remark in JD: "The guiding idea of the exposition comes from computers: G.B. would have liked to systematize J.D.'s thought to the point of turning it into an interactive program which, in spite of its difficulty, would in principle be accessible to any user."
20. Walter Kerr, Tragedy and Comedy (1967; rpt. New York: Da Capo, 1985), p. 79.
21. Martin Heidegger, "Who is Nietzsche's Zarathustra?" in Nietzsche, Volume Two: The Eternal Recurrence of the Same (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 224.
22. For an account of this slippage, see Reiner Schürmann, Heidegger on Being and Acting: From Principles to Anarchy, trans. Christine-Marie Gros (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 83, 86, 97-105, 255f.
23. Martin Heidegger, The End of Philosophy, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), p. 23.
24. See Merchant, pp. 79-82 ("The Metaphysics of Comedy") and Clifford Leach, Tragedy (London: Methuen and Company, 1969), p. 77, regarding the ultimate attitude of comedy. See also, Kern, pp. 13, 41-49, 114-15 and passim, regarding the triumph of fantasy and imagination over reality that occurs in comedy. See Hartman, p. 24, regarding the forced nature of Derrida's jesting, Schürmann, p. 321n.44, regarding Derrida's apparent regret over the loss of the One, and the readiness of some Christian theology to take up deconstruction (see, e.g., note 3), all of which suggest these conclusions. Carl Raschke, "The Deconstruction of God" in Thomas J.J. Altizer, et. al., Deconstruction and Theology, (New York: Crossroad, 1982), pp. 29-30, suggests the link between deconstruction and the immortality of Dionysus.
25. An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy in Boston, MA in October, 1992. My thanks to Jim Walter at Sinclair Community College, who read a draft of this paper and provided helpful suggestions. Some of the work for this paper was done while attending an NEH Summer Seminar during 1991 at the University of California-Riverside, "Postmodern Postures: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Derrida and Rorty." My thanks go to the NEH and especially the seminar director, Bernd Magnus, for their support.
[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1994 by the author.]