Derrida, Jacques

As we noted, Derrida became famous at the end of the 1960′s, with the publication of three books in 1967. At this time, other great books appear: Foucault’s Les mots et les choses (The Order of Things is the English language title) in 1966; Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition in 1968. It is hard to deny that the philosophy publications of this epoch indicate that we have before us a kind of philosophical moment (a moment perhaps comparable to the moment of German Idealism at the beginning of the 19th century). Hélène Cixous calls this generation of French philosophers “the incorruptibles.” In the last interview Derrida gave (to Le Monde on August 19, 2004), he provided an interpretation of “the incorruptibles”: “By means of metonymy, I call this approach [of “the incorruptibles”] an intransigent, even incorruptible, ethosof writing and thinking …, without concession even to philosophy, and not letting public opinion, the media, or the phantasm of an intimidating readership frighten or force us into simplifying or repressing. Hence the strict taste for refinement, paradox, and aporia.” Derrida proclaims that today, more than ever, “this predilection [for paradox and aporia] remains a requirement.” How are we to understand this requirement, this predilection for “refinement, paradox, and aporia”?

In an essay from 1998, “Typewriter Ribbon,” Derrida investigates the relation of confession to archives. But, before he starts the investigation (which will concern primarily Rousseau), he says, “Let us put in place the premises of our question.”He says, “Will this be possible for us? Will we one day be able to, and in a single gesture, to join the thinking of the event to the thinking of the machine? Will we be able to think, what is called thinking, at one and the same time, both what is happening (we call that an event) and the calculable programming of an automatic repetition (we call that a machine). For that, it would be necessary in the future (but there will be no future except on this condition) to think both the event and the machine as two compatible or even in-dissociable concepts. Today they appear to us to be antinomic”(Without Alibi, p. 72). These two concepts appear to us to be antinomic because we conceive an event as something singular and non-repeatable. Moreover, Derrida associates this singularity to the living. The living being undergoes a sensation and this sensation (an affect or feeling for example) gets inscribed in organic material. The idea of an inscription leads Derrida to the other pole. The machine that inscribes is based in repetition; “It is destined, that is, to reproduce impassively, imperceptibly, without organ or organicity, the received commands. In a state of anaesthesis, it would obey or command a calculable program without affect or auto-affection, like an indifferent automaton” (Without Alibi, p. 73). The automatic nature of the inorganic machine is not the spontaneity attributed to organic life. It is easy to see the incompatibility of the two concepts: organic, living singularity (the event) and inorganic, dead universality (mechanical repetition). Derrida says that, if we can make these two concepts compatible, “you can bet not only (and I insist on not only) will one have produced a new logic, an unheard of conceptual form. In truth, against the background and at the horizon of our present possibilities, this new figure would resemble a monster.” The monstrosity of this paradox between event and repetition announces, perhaps, another kind of thinking, an impossible thinking: the impossible event (there must be resemblance to the past which cancels the singularity of the event) and the only possible event (since any event in order to be event worthy of its name must be singular and non-resembling). Derrida concludes this discussion by saying: “To give up neither the event nor the machine, to subordinate neither one to the other, neither to reduce one to the other: this is perhaps a concern of thinking that has kept a certain number of ‘us’ working for the last few decades”(Without Alibi, p. 74). This “us” refers to Derrida’s generation of thinkers: “the incorruptibles.” What Derrida says here defines a general project which consists in trying to conceive the relation between machine-like repeatability and irreplaceable singularity neither as a relation of externality (external as in Descartes’s two substance or as in Platonism’s two worlds) nor as a relation of homogeneity (any form of reductionism would suffice here to elucidate a homogeneous relation). Instead, the relation is one in which the elements are internal to one another and yet remain heterogeneous. Derrida’s famous term “différance” (to which we shall return below) refers to this relation in which machine-like repeatability is internal to irreplaceable singularity and yet the two remain heterogeneous to one another.

Of course, Cixous intends with the word “incorruptibles”that the generation of French philosophers who came of age in the Sixties, what they wrote and did, will never decay, will remain endlessly new and interesting. This generation will remain pure. But, the term is particularly appropriate for Derrida, since his thought concerns precisely the idea of purity and therefore contamination. Contamination, in Derrida, implies that an opposition consisting in two pure poles separated by an indivisible line never exists. In other words, traditionally (going back to Plato’s myths but also Christian theology), we think that there was an original pure state of being (direct contact with the forms or the Garden of Eden) which accidentally became corrupt. In contrast, Derrida tries to show that no term or idea or reality is ever pure in this way; one term always and necessarily “infects” the other.

Nevertheless, for Derrida, a kind of purity remains as a value. In his 1992 The Monolingualism of the Other, Derrida speaks of his“shameful intolerance” for anything but the purity of the French language (as opposed to French contaminated with English words like “le weekend”). Derrida says, “I still do not dare admit this compulsive demand for a purity of language except within boundaries of which I can be sure: this demand is neither ethical, political, nor social. It does not inspire any judgment in me.  It simply exposes me to suffering when someone, who can be myself, happens to fall short of it. I suffer even further when I catch myself or am caught ‘red-handed’ in the act. … Above all, this demand remains so inflexible that it sometimes goes beyond the grammatical point of view, it even neglects‘style’ in order to bow to a more hidden rule, to‘listen’ to the domineering murmur of an order which someone in me flatters himself to understand, even in situations where he would be the only one to do so, in a tête-à-tête with the idiom, the final target: a last will of the language, in sum, a law of the language that would entrust itself only to me. …I therefore admit to a purity which is not very pure. Anything but a purism. It is, at least, the only impure ‘purity’ for which I dare confess a taste” (Monolingualism, p. 46). Derrida’s taste for purity is such that he seeks the idioms of a language. The idioms of a language are what make the language singular. An idiom is so pure that we seem unable to translate it out of that language. For example, Derrida always connects the French idiom “il faut,” “it is necessary,” to“une faute,” “a fault” and to “un défaut,” “a defect”; but we cannot makes this linguistic connection between necessity and a fault in English. This idiom seems to belong alone to French; it seems as though it cannot be shared; so far, there is no babble of several languages in the one sole French language. And yet, even within one language, an idiom can be shared. Here is another French idiom: “il y va d’un certain pas.” Even in French, this idiom can be “translated.” On the one hand, if one takes the “il y va” literally, one has a sentence about movement to a place (“y”: there) at a certain pace (“un certain pas”: a certain step). On the other hand, if one takes the “il y va” idiomatically (“il y va”: what is at issue), one has a sentence (perhaps more philosophical) about the issue of negation (“un certain pas”: “a certain kind of not”).  This undecidability in how to understand an idiom within one sole language indicates that, already in French, in the one French language, there is already translation and, as Derrida would say, “Babelization.”Therefore, for Derrida, “a pure language” means a language whose terms necessarily include a plurality of senses that cannot be reduced down to one sense that is the proper meaning. In other words, the taste for purity in Derrida is a taste for impropriety and therefore impurity. The value of purity in Derrida means that anyone who conceives language in terms of proper or pure meanings must be criticized.

— original source —

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