Deconstruction is America 3

  • 1.3

A third question: What would it take to remain faithful to deconstruction now, when Derrida is being read less and less, when his name has in large part vanished from the bibliographies and syllabi? How does one set about being a Derridean after Derrida? This is in the first instance an uncomplicated question about the specificity of Derrida’s procedures. How do thinking people even know that they are Derrideans (and not, say, Levinasians or Heideggerians)? Why might a person insist still on reading Derrida, rather than one of the several thinkers that his thought to some degree resembles? Among the many benefits of the disbanding of post-structuralism as an intellectual formation has been a certain opportunity it affords. With even radical philosophers largely de-cathected from the ideologeme of “Theory,” it has been easier to insist on the distinctive features of each of the many philosophical (and anti-philosophical) projects that had been indiscriminately indexed under that name. Now might be the time to disaggregate deconstruction from the period when every English-speaking graduate student in literature was producing vaguely Marxist, Barthes-loving, Lacano-Derridean analyses of discipline and the simulacrum.

This turns out to be harder than it sounds. The difficulty is that Derrida really does share most of his positions with other philosophers. The indistinct borders of deconstruction weren’t just the flattening effect of including it in intro courses and literary-theory anthologies. Nearly every argument that one associates with deconstruction could be assigned to other theorists, and not just piecemeal, but as an ensemble. This obstacle has a name, in fact, which is Adorno. Deconstruction so often presents itself as a replay of negative dialectics that one can legitimately wonder whether having mastered the intricacies of the one, it’s worth the effort to read up on the other. Having gone to the trouble to learn Swedish, are you going to bother studying Norwegian?

Here, then, is the biography of a much taught twentieth-century theorist, a Jew whose life was thrown into turmoil by World War II, and who performed much of the philosophical invention for which he is best known in the United States, first on the east coast, but mostly, having followed a colleague west, in California.

-The philosopher begins his career by writing a dissertation about Husserl, in which thesis he demonstrates that phenomenology was premised on the fantasy of an impossible immediacy, a determination—perhaps dishonest, certainly doomed—to coax thought into shedding its unsheddable mediations and via that shedding to recover some naked and pre-theoretical term. This work on Husserl will furnish the argument to which the philosopher’s later essays obsessively return—the idea, to wit, that there is always something in thought which disrupts its seeming immediacy, its claim to have successfully seized the world in language.

-He goes on to propose, as a counter to this philosophy of spurious immediacy, a method by which students would insert themselves into established intellectual systems in order to “dismantle” them from the inside, a dismantling that promises to open any given philosophy to its other, thereby unleashing “the multiplicity of the different,” releasing this latter from “the compulsive character of logic” or logos. The theorist, unsure now whether he wants to even go by the name “philosopher,” calls for a new intellectual commitment to the particular, the specific, and the singular, though on the understanding that one will never be able to hold on to such non-concepts in language, that they will always elude the language we bring to bear upon them.[i]

-At the same time, the no-longer-philosopher proposes a radical ethics to accompany this program of dismantling: an ethics of non-identity anchored, first, in the giving of gifts-beyond-exchange, in gifts understood as the practice of singularity or the incommensurable; anchored, second, in radical hospitality or the welcoming of “the guest who comes from afar,” of finding “joy in utmost distance,” of the menacing stranger who, observed a second time, is “transfigured into a rescuing angel”; and anchored, third, in the nebulous messianism already suggested by that last phrase—in the possibility, that is, of a great Event that we can do nothing to bring about.[ii]

The conundrum, of course, is that this biography, not all that skeletal, could serve equally well for Derrida or Adorno; the language I’ve just quoted is all Adorno’s, but equivalent formulations could be supplied for Derrida and nothing else would have to change.[iii] And it’s not clear that those verbal substitutions would matter much. The puzzle of this one-size-fits-both vita is compounded when we discover each philosopher’s master term in the other’s writing. The surprise of finding Adorno talking about deconstructing logical compulsion in 1966 is matched by the surprise of finding Derrida expounding on the doctrine of non-identity in 1968. The term “deconstruction” is usually thought of as an adaptation of Heidegger’s Destruktion, which was the older philosopher’s word for the work of clearing away the accrued meanings of ordinary language’s most metaphysically overloaded locutions. But Adorno’s demontieren means “to disassemble,” “dismount,” or “deinstall,” and is, unlike Destruktion, not easily misinterpreted to mean “obliterate” or “lay waste.” That’s enough to place it quite a bit nearer to “deconstruction.” And yet the real interest of the word lies elsewhere. For the German language does offer a native synonym to the Latinate demontieren (or Demontage, its more common noun form)—and that would be abbauen, literally to “de-build” or “de-construct.” But in the 1940s and ‘50s, the word Demontage took on some specific political associations in Germany, where it referred to the dismantling of German factories and the reallocation of heavy machinery to the Allies, mostly to the Soviets. It is a word, then, that when Adorno was writing carried strong associations with reparations and de-militarization, and his use of that term invites us to regard negative dialectics as the extension into philosophy of those projects: as restitution and the planned de-industrialization of thought, a Potsdam Agreement for the Ding an sich.[iv]

Derrida, meanwhile, places deconstruction in the service of what he, no less than Adorno, calls “non-identity.” What you’ll want to notice is that Adorno’s term sometimes appears in Derrida’s writing in the spot where you had been expecting to see “differance.”  The ibis-headed man who delivered writing to the Egyptians asks to be understood as “the god of non-identity,” because writing properly understood is a matter not of fixed things stably named, but of “non-identity, nonessence, nonsubstance.” Readers will have to learn to spot a given text’s “non-identity with itself,” and in doing so they will have begun to resist “the raging quest for identity” that otherwise pervades thought. Deconstruction is an ongoing lesson in “not giving in to proximity or identification.”[v] It has become common in the scholarship to refer to Adorno’s thinking as “the philosophy of non-identity,” but that’s a term he should by all rights have to share with Derrida. A common commitment to non-identity offers to render the two identical.

Nor do the affinities end there. If it is one kind of surprise to find Adorno and Derrida swapping their keywords, it is another kind of surprise to find them pooling even their more local word-choices and passing claims. Adorno published his essay “Heliotrope” in 1955; Derrida published “The Flowers of Rhetoric: The Heliotrope” in 1971.[vi] Here’s Adorno in translation: “The name of dialectics says no more, to begin with, than that objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder”—that objects in ihrem Begriff nicht aufgehen, they don’t melt into their concepts like pedestrians into a crowd; they don’t go up in conceptual smoke; they don’t evanesce. Derrida, meanwhile, agrees with the proposition that “the Logos can never englobe everything. There is always something which escapes, something different, other and opaque which refuses to be totalized into a homogeneous entity.”[vii] Or again, the most infamous sentence in Minima Moralia declares that “Homosexuality is totalitarian.” You can imagine that the queer theorists have made a habit of going after that one; it can seem like Exhibit A for anyone arguing that homophobia lurks at the heart even of one’s most emancipation-minded allies. It has often been necessary to explain that Adorno, at least, was making an impeccably queer point: If you embrace a radical ethics of non-identity and alterity, then you have no choice but fret about the possibility that homosexuality is a “desire for the same.” The etymology alone has got to make you wonder. You can’t frame an erotic practice as “homosexuality” and not face the philosophical baggage of the “homo-“. And so we pick up Derrida’s Politics of Friendship and find him arguing in just these terms that logocentrism’s drive for purity is incarnated by “the essential and essentially sublime figure of virile homosexuality.”[viii]

We can describe the problem in front of us a few different ways. It’s all a bit flummoxing. Most of what we know as deconstruction, the arguments that have been reported to us as its core tenets, are actually re-statements of Adornian positions. Book-length primers on Derrida can cover a lot of ground and barely even begin to explain ideas that are specific to their chosen philosopher. So again: What would it mean in the present to stay loyal to Derrida, singularly and precisely Derrida? Or if you prefer: What are the positions that you can derive from deconstruction that you can’t reach as readily via negative dialectics? We already know enough to say that these distinctively Derridean positions won’t be the ones you probably filiate to his name. It will be other positions—the precepts of an un-discussed Derrideanism. So what is that other deconstruction?

Those, then, are my three questions: Can anyone and everyone be a Derridean? Who are deconstruction’s true adversaries—who or what is it out to discredit, if not Western metaphysics? And what does it mean to be a Derridean rather than a generic post-structuralist or negative dialectician? Those queries are most expediently posed together for the simple reason that they all have the same answer; or that the answer to each opens up onto the others’; or that the answer to the second question, in particular, will make answers #1 and #3 fall into place. If we can figure out who Derrida took to be his real rivals rather than his official ones, then we will know who is not welcome in deconstruction, which we will then be able to distinguish from theoretical programs that do not share those enemies.

[i] All quoted phrases are from Adorno’s Negative Dialectics (1966), translated by E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), pp. 6 – 8.


[ii] All quoted phrases are from Adorno’s “Heliotrope,” in Minima Moralia (1951), translated by Edmund Jephcott, (London: New Left Books, 1974), pp. 177-178.

[iii] The standard biographies are Stefan Müller-Doohm’s Adorno: A Biography (2003), translated by Rodney Livingston (Cambridge: Polity, 2005); and Benoit Peeters, Derrida (2010), (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2013).

[iv] For Adorno’s use of demontieren, see Negative Dialectics, p. 6. On the policy of Demontage, see Lutz Budraß and Stefan Prott’s “Demontage und Konversion. Zur Einbindung rüstungsindustrieller Kapazitäten in technologiepolitische Strategien im Deutschland der Nachkriegszeit,” in Innovationsverhalten und Entscheidungsstrukturen. Vergleichende Studien zur wirtschaftlichen Entwicklung im geteilten Deutschland 1945–1999, edited by Johannes Bähr and Dietmar Petzina (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1996).

[v] Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” p. 93, p. 70; The Politics of Friendship, p. 106, p. 65.

[vi] Derrida’s “Heliotrope” is a section heading in “White Mythology” (1971), in Margins of Difference (1972), translated by Alan Bass (Brighton, UK: Harvester Press, 1982).

[vii] The bit about logos comes from a question that Richard Kearney put to Derrida in the interview published as “Deconstruction and the other” (1981), in States of Mind: Dialogues with Contemporary Thinkers (New York: New York University Press, 1995), pp. 156-176, quotation at p. 167. Kearney is paraphrasing Derrida back to him, and the latter accepts the gloss: “Just so.”

[viii] Adorno, Minima Moralia, p. ???; Derrida, The Politics of Friendship (1994), translated by George Collins (London: Verson, 1997), p. 279. For Derrida, see also Points, p. 101: “Phallocentrism and homosexuality can go, so to speak, hand in hand.”

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