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

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

Abstract

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?

Keywords

Ethical Relation Subject Unable Democratic Politics Symbolic Order Symbolic Distance 
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Notes

  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
  4. 4.
    Ibid.: “Confined and abandoned then to this silence of memory, the name will resonate (etc.)…”.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    J. Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money,Chicago / London, The University of Chicago Press, 1992. The ‘Foreword’ locates the origin of the ideas developped in this book in a seminar given in 1977–78 at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. (Henceforth: GT).Google Scholar
  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
  7. 7.
    For this point, see the clarifications in J. Derrida, Spectres de Marx,Paris, Galilée, 1993, e.g. p. 110 (with regard to the similar distinction between a ‘démocratie à venir’ and a ‘future democracy’).Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    The quote in note 6 continues: “And this is produced as soon as there is a subject, as soon as donor and donee are constituted as identical, identifiable subjects …”.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Cf. ‘The Deconstruction of Actuality. An Interview with Jacques Derrida’, Radical Philosophy,1994 (68), esp. pp. 32 ff. (henceforth quoted as DA); Spectres de Marx,pp. 110 ff; GT 122: “There must be event… for there to be gift.… And this event… must remain in a certain way unforeseeable.… [The gift] must appearchancy or in any case lived as such, apprehended as the intentional correlate of a perception that is absolutely surprisedby the encounter with what it perceives …” (last italics mine).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    J. Habermas, ‘Citizenship and National Identity: Some Reflections on the Future of Europe’, Praxis International,1992 (12:1), esp. p. 18: “The arrival of world citizenship is no longer merely a phantom, though we are still far from achieving it. State citizenship and world citizenship form a continuum which already shows itself, at least, in outline form”.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Cf.J. Derrida, ‘Force de loi. Le “Fondement mystique de l’,autorité” /Force of Law. The “Mystical Foundation of Authority’,”, Cardozo Law Review,1990(11), pp. 962 ff, 968 ff.Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    Cf. Cl. Lefort, The Permanence of the Theologico-Political?’, in ID., Democracy and Political Theory(transi. D. Macey), Oxford, Polity Press, 1988, pp. 213-55.Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    J. Habermas, art. cit.,p. 17.Google Scholar
  14. 16.
    J. Derrida, Ulysse gramophone. Deux mots pour Joyce,Paris, Galilée, 1987, p. 127.Google Scholar
  15. 17.
    J. Derrida, ‘Violence and Metaphysics. An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas’, in ID., Writing and Difference(transi. A. Bass), Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1978, pp. 79-153, and cf. our discussion in chapter 6. Derrida’s essay will be quoted as VM.Google Scholar
  16. 18.
    Cf. GT, e.g. 14 (ad ‘phenomenality’), 15 (irreducibility of the gift to its phenomenon or its meaning), 24 (ad ‘odyssey’) — in all these passages the word ‘gift’ comes to occupy a structurally similar place as the word ‘face’ in Levinas.Google Scholar
  17. 19.
    For Levinas on “absolute surprise”: OB 99.Google Scholar
  18. 20.
    J. Derrida, ‘Force de loi/Force of Law’, l.c.,p. 971.Google Scholar
  19. 21.
    J. Rogozinski, ‘Vers une éthique du différend’, in H. Kunneman — H. DE Vries (eds.), Enlightenments. Encounters between Critical Theory and Contemporary French Thought,Kampen, Kok Pharos, 1993, pp. 92-119 (my translation). For a similar analysis see the title-essay in J.-L. Nancy, L’impératif catégorique,Paris, Flammarion, 1983.Google Scholar
  20. 23.
    See the brilliant commentary in D. Henrich, ‘Die Deduktion des Sittengesetzes. Über die Gründe der Dunkelheit des letzten Abschnittes von Kants ‘Grundlegung der Metaphysik der Sitten’‘, in A. SCHWAN (ed.), Denken im Schatten des Nihilismus,Darmstadt, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1975, pp. 55-112.Google Scholar
  21. 24.
    Cf. e.g. TI 58-9, 89 and 104: “Infinity is produced by withstanding the invasion of a totality, in a contractionthat leaves a place for the separated being”.Google Scholar
  22. 25.
    For this link between mancipiumand e-mancipation, see J.-Fr. LYOTARD, ‘The Grip (la Mainmise)’,in ID., Political Writings(transi. B. Readings / K. Paul), Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1993, pp. 148-58.Google Scholar
  23. 26.
    E. Levinas, Dieu, la Mort et le Temps,Paris, Bernard Grasset, 1993, p. 132.Google Scholar
  24. 27.
    J. DE Sllentio, Fear and Trembling, in S. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling I Repetition(transi. H.V. Hong & E.H. Hong), Princeton U.P., 1983, e.g. p. 93: “[Abraham’s] silence would not be due to his wanting to place himself as the single individual in an absolute relation to the universalbut to his having been placed as the single individual in an absolute relation to the absolute”.Google Scholar
  25. 28.
    E. Levinas, Noms Propres,s.l., Fata Morgana, 1976, p. 90. One can find a less literal translation in the KCR volume from which I quoted in the second section of the preceding chapter.Google Scholar
  26. 29.
    I have restored the capitals left out in the translation (De Dieu qui vient à l’idée,Paris, Vrin, 1992, p. 113).Google Scholar
  27. 32.
    J. Derrida, The Gift of Death(transi. D. Wills), Chicago & London, The University of Chicago Press, 1995, p. 76-7.1 will abbreviate as GD with the pagination of the French original after the solidus, when appropriate (’Donner la mort’, in L’éthique du don. Jacques Derrida et la pensée du don(Royaumont 1990), Paris, Métailié-Transition, 1992).Google Scholar
  28. 35.
    Cf. D. Henrich, ‘Ethik der Autonomie’, in ID., Selbstverhältnisse,Stuttgart, Philip Reclam jun., 1982,pp.34 ff.Google Scholar
  29. 37.
    E. Levinas, Transcendence and Height’, l.c.,p. 18.Google Scholar
  30. 39.
    One could confront the quote from VM in our previous note with a host of quotes from later works, as we have in a sense been doing since our introduction. Here is one more example indicating a shift at some point in Derrida’s work: “when there is âyes… the otherno longer lets himself be produced by the same”, Ulysse Gramophone. Deux mots pour Joyce, o.c.,p. 127 (I italicized ‘other’ and’ same’).Google Scholar
  31. 40.
    E. Levinas, Nouvelles Lectures Talmudiques,Paris, Minuit, 1996, p. 30.I will return to this quote a number of times in this chapter (abbreviated as NLT 30).Google Scholar
  32. 42.
    E. Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings (transi. A. Aronowics), Bloomington/ Indianapolis, Indiana U.P., 1990, p. 100.Google Scholar
  33. 47.
    A. Neher, L’exil de la parole. Du silence biblique au silence d’Auschwitz,Paris, Seuil, 1970, pp. 192 ff.Google Scholar
  34. 48.
    On this expression, cf. Levinas’s remarks in Autrement que Savoir. Emmanuel Levinas (avec les études de Guy Petitdemange et Jacques Rolland),Paris, Osiris, 1988, p. 28.Google Scholar
  35. 49.
    E.g. E. Levinas, ‘La vocation de l’autre’ in Racismes. L’autre et son visage. Grands entretiens réaliséspar Emmanuel Hirsch, Paris, Les Editions du Cerf, 1988, p. 96.Google Scholar
  36. 50.
    For an extremely violent attack on ‘rootedness’ see Levinas’s ‘Heidegger, Gagarin and Us’ in DF, pp. 231-4, e.g. 232: “One’s implementation in a landscape, one’s attachment to Place,… is the very splitting of humanity into natives and strangers”. As Derrida had already remarked in Violence and Metaphysics(p. 145) Levinas obstinately insists on treating the ‘Place’ as “an empirical Here” or “a given proximity”, instead of seeing in it “a promised one”, “an Illic”. This prevents him from ever considering the possibility that natives could themselves be seen as strangers.Google Scholar
  37. 51.
    La vocation de l’autre, l.c.,p. 94.Google Scholar
  38. 53.
    E. Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings, o.c.,p. 43 (I have restored the French original which speaks of ‘un pacte avec lebien’: Quatre Lectures Talmudiques,Paris, Minuit, 1968, P. 95).Google Scholar
  39. 54.
    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
  40. 55.
    J. Derrida, Politics of Friendship(transi. G. Collins), London/New York, Verso, 1997, p. 305. Quoted as PF.Google Scholar
  41. 57.
    E. Levinas, Ethics and Infinity. Conversations with Philippe Némo(transi. R.A. Cohen), Pittsburgh, Duquesne U.P., 1985, p. 85.Google Scholar
  42. 58.
    J.P. Sartre, Being and Nothingness. An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology(transi. H. E. Barnes), New York, Philosophical Library, s. d., p. 258: “If I apprehend the look (regard),I cease to perceive the eyes”. We will explore this parallel (and what is hidden by it) between Sartre and Levinas more fully in chapter 11.Google Scholar
  43. 64.
    Cf. Jerry Adler’S report ‘Thought Police. Is this the new enlightenment on campus or the new McCarthyism?’, NewsweekJanuary 14, 1991, pp. 42-8, esp. 47.Google Scholar
  44. 65.
    Being and Nothingness, o.c., pp. 257-8. We will return to what is suggested here, in our next chapter.Google Scholar
  45. 66.
    J. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis(transi. A. Sheridan), Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1979, p. 84.Google Scholar
  46. 68.
    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
  47. 72.
    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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