Can Only a ‘Yes’ Save Us Now? Anti-Racism’s First Word in Derrida and Levinas

  • Rudi Visker
Part of the Phaenomenologica book series (PHAE, volume 155)


In November 1983, an exhibition was opened in Paris containing paintings and sculpture by eighty-five of the world’s most celebrated artists. The artworks would travel round the world until the day had come when the itinerant museum thus constituted could be “presented as a gift to the first free and democratic government of South Africa to be elected by universal suffrage”. I presume that in the meantime this gift has been offered, but I don’t know whether it has been accepted. And in reading over the touching piece on “Racism’s last word” which was Derrida’s contribution to the catalog of that travelling exhibition, I cannot but wonder whether it should have or even could have been accepted. “A memory in advance”, that is how Derrida back then had called “the time given for this exhibition” (291): “if one day the exhibition wins, yes, wins its place in South Africa, it will keep the memory of what will never have been, at the moment of these projected, painted, assembled works, the presentation of some present” (298, italics Derrida). Will one ever be able to accept such a memory? Can one accept it without rendering loquacious the “silence” with which that exhibition “called out unconditionally” as long as it did not “take place”, did not take “its place” (293) ? Would accepting it not suggest that we have reached that “future for which apartheid will be the name of something finally abolished”3?


Ethical Relation Subject Unable Democratic Politics Symbolic Order Symbolic Distance 
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  1. 1.
    Preface to the catalog of the Paris exhibition, quoted in the Translator’s Noteto J. Derrida, ‘Racism’s Last Word’, Critical Inquiry1985(12), p. 290. References to this article will be given in the text by pagination number only.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Ibid.,p. 299: “This silence calls out unconditionally; it keeps watch on that which is not, on that which is not yet,and on the chance of still remembering some faithful day”.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ibid.,p. 291: “the rearview visionof a future for which (etc.)…”.Google Scholar
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    Ibid.: “Confined and abandoned then to this silence of memory, the name will resonate (etc.)…”.Google Scholar
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  6. 6.
    Cf. ibid.: “The simple intention to give, insofar as it carries the intentional meaning of the gift, suffices to make a return payment to oneself. The simple consciousness of the gift right away sends itself back the gratifying image of goodness or generosity, of the given-being who, knowing itself to be such, recognizes itself in a circular, specular fashion, in a sort of auto-recognition, self-approval, and narcissistic gratitude”.Google Scholar
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    From Derrida’s reply to André Jacob who is questioning him as to his difference with Levinas (in J. Derrida — P.J. LABARRIÉRE, Atténtés,Paris, Osiris, 1986, pp. 74-5, my translation. In the light of this quote the virtual absence of any distantiation from Levinas in Derrida’s recent Adieu à Emmanuel Levinas(Paris, Galilée, 1997) becomes perhaps a bit more understandable (one of the very few reservations Derrida expresses is in a footnote on the Palestinians (p. 196), but as I tried to show elsewhere, it would seem as if Derrida has by that time already accepted too much from Levinas for him still to be able to thinkthat distance (cf. my ‘“And Cain said to Abel:”. Filling in the blanks while moving “beyond the tribal” with Levinas and Derrida’, in E. Berns (ed.), Derrida s ‘Politics of Friendship’,to appear from Tilburg U.P./Purdue U.P.).Google Scholar
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    IfI am informed correctly, African-Americanism could function here as an example (R. Hughes, The Culture of Complaint,Oxford U.P., 1993, chapter 2 sections VI-VIII).Google Scholar
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    As in a number of Derrida’s most recent texts to which I must confess I am totally deaf: De l’hospitalité. Anne Dufourmantelle invite Jacques Derrida à répondre,s.l., Calmann Lévy, 1997 and Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort!,Paris, Galilée, 1997. The movement in these texts is, it seems, Levinasian and thus open to the kind of objections we are trying to make here and in the following chapters.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1999

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  • Rudi Visker

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