Double Tounging: Derrida's Monolingualism
Towards the end of Le monolinguisme de l'autre, Derrida (or at least the prevalent voice in this text which is presented, perhaps rather half-heartedly, or at least intermittently, as a dialogue, a double-tongued text), offers a quick and rather dense résumé of the argument. Having set up a figure, supposed to be both unique and exemplary, according to a logic that will be exercising us, a figure or character of a specific monolingual individual (one who we'll come back to this of course 'has only one language but which is not his'), a character thus rendered in some sense 'aphasic', Derrida postulates the thought or fiction of a situation of radical translation (beyond the sense of radical translation as it was developed in analytic philosophy by Quine), with no source language, only target languages ('arrival languages', langue d'arrivée, in French). Given the situation in which there is no source language from which to depart towards a target or arrival point (and so, strictly speaking, no translation), these 'arrival' languages are never quite arrived at either (insofar as they don't know their point of departure nor, therefore, where they are going). Targets which are never hit, then, arrivals which are never arrived at. In a dense passage we may have to reconstruct in a moment, Derrida claims that this situation (a multiplicity of languages, then, in a relation of translation in some sense, but not translating any one source language) that this situation is originary, and that anything like a subject arises from it, secondarily. The 'subject', on this account, is born in this zone of arrival without arrivals, and is born as the desire to reconstitute the missing source language or departure language.1 In slightly displaced (translated) terms, we can recognise here a familiar deconstructive thought: namely that what comes first is already complicated or multiple ('originary synthesis', as the early work on Husserl put it, 'originary trace', as the Grammatology goes on to elaborate), and that attempts to assign a simple origin to this multiplicity emerge as a secondary formation from and against that originary complexity. But where the early work at least on occasion appears to condemn, as 'metaphysical' precisely, this gesture of assigning an origin from a point where it has always already been lost, here Derrida appears rather to celebrate it. If the source language, the first language, is not given, but is to be invented after the fact by the desire generated from the 'secondary' position of arrival, which is the position of the apparent contingency of events and situations , here that desire seems to be valorised, perhaps as a creative gesture. This desire to reconstitute or restore what the early work described as metaphysics is in truth, says Derrida, a desire to invent a language that never existed: not a first language, then, but a pre-first language (avant-première langue): 'As though the point were to produce, by avowal, the truth of what had never taken place. What, then, is this avowal? And the immemorial fault or the originary default on the basis of which one must write?'2
Again in a familiar deconstructive movement, Derrida connects this gesture towards an immemorial past, a 'past that has never been present', with a thought of the future or more precisely the 'to-come': and it is here that we encounter an ambiguity or an uncertainty that is my real point of departure today:
Invented for the genealogy of what has not happened and the event of which will have been absent, leaving only negative traces of itself in what makes history, such a pre-originary language does not exist. It is not even a preface, a foreword, a lost language of origin. It can only be a language of arrival or rather of the future (une langue d'arrivée ou plutôt d'avenir), a promised sentence, a language of the other, again, but entirely other than the language of the other as language of master or coloniser [and now I emphasise], although the two of them can sometimes announce between them, keeping them in secret or holding them in reserve, so many troubling resemblances.
Troubling because this equivocation will never be lifted: in the eschatological or messianic horizon that this promise cannot deny [dénier, perhaps in the strong psychoanalytical sense of denial] or that it can only deny , the pre-orginary language can always run the risk of becoming, or of wanting to be again, a language of the master, sometimes of new masters. It is at every moment of writing or reading, at every moment of the poetic experience that the decision has to come away [doit s'enlever] from a background of undecidability. This is often a political decision and a decision as to the political. The undecidable, condition of decision as of responsibility, inscribes threat in chance, and terror in the ipseity of the host. (pp. 118-9 [61-2])
This is clearly enough a dense and difficult passage, but we might take it to be in some ways the conceptual nexus of the book as a whole, so it demands our careful attention. In order to make progress here, we need to understand the motif of the promise, with its associated messianic-eschatological language, we need to understand the relation between the decision and the undecidable, and we need to understand at least something of the relation here at least suggested between the poetic and the political: this will perhaps give us some purchase on the unresolvable equivocation between the new inventive language called for and the language of mastery or colonisation that it always might turn into or turn out to be, the double-tonguing of a politically difficult undecidability.
As always in Derrida, a tendency to question oppositional structures of thought seems to set up a situation of continuity in which definition runs the risk of being lost (remember that this is the fundamental objection put up by Habermas in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, who thinks that deconstruction simply erases (or 'levels') the generic distinction between philosophy and literature (Derrida has some acerbic remarks about this type of reaction, and its associated operator of 'performative contradiction', near the beginning of the Monolinguisme book)), or at least where the most apparently or even obviously crucial distinctions (up to and including the very distinction between good and evil) appear to be in danger of getting blurred; in this situation, Derrida wants both to affirm the necessity of that trouble, and to deny that distinctions are lost on the contrary (and this is the point of the remarks I've just quoted about the undecidable and the decision) the claim will be that only in the context of that trouble or undecidability can decisions and responsibilities be taken, and singularities respected.
If only to make clear that there is a profound continuity on this issue of continuity in Derrida's own work, let me quote briefly an enigmatic moment from the end of his early text on Bataille:
It would be absurd for the transgression of the Book by writing to be read only in one determinate direction. It would be both absurd, given the form of the Aufhebung that is maintained in transgression, and too full of meaning for a transgression of meaning. From right to left or from left to right: these two propositions which are contradictory and too sensible both lack pertinence. At a certain determined point.
Very determined. An acknowledgement [constat] of non-pertinence the effects of which must, then, as far as possible, be supervised. One would have understood nothing of general strategy is one absolutely renounced all control of the use of this acknowledgement. If one lent it, abandoned it, placed it in any hand at all: the left or the right.3
One way of understanding this gesture of Derrida's is to see in it a suspicion about the dogmatism, piety, moralism and self-righteousness that is the bane of all self-proclaimed 'political' and 'cultural' criticism. It may even be that, from a deconstructive perspective, the very concepts of 'politics' and 'culture' are already complicit with dogmatism, piety, moralism and self-righteousness (and all that goes with them, such as censorship and scapegoating) and if Derrida is right to claim that all culture is originarily colonial, as he does more than once in Monolinguisme (e.g. p. 68 ), then this suspicion would perhaps weigh more heavily or at least more acutely on so-called colonial and post-colonial studies than elsewhere (perhaps going some way towards explaining a certain tone of such work, a need, that Derrida's book also explores, more or less parodically, to establish personal credentials and the right to speak or write in one's own name or in the name of others, and conversely to cast doubt on the right of others in the field to speak or write: something strange and politically troubling is happening in such exchanges, no doubt something that the 'discipline' of colonial and post-colonial studies is, as such, unable quite to think through and escape). This seems to be the point of an aside Derrida makes in the double-tonguing context of distinguishing between two sorts of Monolinguisme de l'autre, here characterising the first form, the simpler, i.e. a monolingualism imposed by the (colonising) other. This remark comes in the context of a difficult argument about a sort of 'madness' of law and language:4
It is by banking on this fund [faisant fond sur ce fond: i.e. this fund of 'madness'] that the monolingualism imposed by the other operates here by a sovereignty whose essence is always colonial and which tends, repressibly and irrepressibily, to reduce languages to the One, i.e. to the hegemony of the homogeneous. This can be verified everywhere, wherever in culture this homo-hegemony remains at work, smoothing out folds and flattening the text out. In order to do this, the colonialising power itself, au fond de son fond, has no need to organise spectatular initiatives: religious missions, philanthropic or humanitarian good works, market-winning, military expeditions or genocides.
I'll be accused of mixing all this up. Of course not! But of course [Mais non! Mais si] one can and one should all the while taking note of the most rigorous distinctions, all the while respecting the respect of the respectable not lose sight of this obscure common power, this colonial drive that will have begun by insinuating itself, never taking long to invade, into what they call, with an expression threadbare to the point of expiring: 'relation to the other'! or 'opening to the other'! (p. 70 [39-40])
Here, then, is one way into the deconstructive analysis of 'the colonial': the attitude which might be assumed to oppose colonialism in all its forms (and indeed provide a principle of ethical and political righteousness), i.e. 'relation to the other' or 'opening to the other' is here presented as in some relation of continuity with the 'colonial' attitude it is supposed to oppose, as being contaminated or inoculated by it to some extent, so that good and evil here become to some extent confused or indiscernible: whence the imagined accusation of mixing things up, and whence, I am suggesting, the suspicion of piety or self-righteousness levelled at those who rapidly invoke 'relation with the other' or 'opening to the other' as antidotes to, say, colonial violence.
Against this 'homo-hegemony' and its reductions to the 'One', Derrida will, familiarly and even predictably enough, invoke a value of plurality or multiplicity. A good deal later than the passage I have just been quoting, for example, he returns to this issue with an argument that 'One language does not exist' and that the inventive 'gesture' he still calls 'writing' is intrinsically plural:
So that the gesture is always multiple I am still calling it writing here, even if it can remain purely oral vocal, musical: rhythmical or prosodic which tries to affect the monolanguage, the one one does not have. It dreams of leaving on it marks which recall this quite other language, in sum this degree-zero-minus one of memory.
This gesture is plural in itself, divided and overdetermined. It can always let itself be interpreted as a movement of love or agression towards the body of every given language thus exposed. (p. 124 )
But what can seem surprising elsewhere in the book, beyond even the sense of what we've just seen referred to as a 'beyond good and evil', an 'obscure power' of something like evil ('pervertibility') that is thought to give the good its chance, is that, where here colonialism is presented in perhaps not unfamiliar terms as a tendency to reduce things (here languages) to the One, elsewhere Derrida himself appears to be promoting, not simply a thought of plurality or multiplicity, as we might easily have supposed, and as is often supposed more generally of deconstruction (and certainly not promoting simply a multiculturalism, if that be understood to involve the negotiation of relationships between a number of cultures each thought to be identical to itself: perhaps we could relate this reservation to Homi Bhabha's distinction between cultural diversity and cultural difference5), but a thought of the 'unique' which is, apparently, to be opposed to plurality. For what will be put up against the One of colonial 'homo-hegemony' is not in fact so much plurality as singularity, but singularity as in some sense exemplary (this issue of exemplarity also motivating a certain autobiographical drift in Derrida's presentation, and perhaps obliquely casting light on the importance of an autobiographical moment in post-colonial studies more generally, as David Huddart has pointed out to me). This claim on the value of the unique is quite polemically presented here as the misrepresented truth of Derrida's earlier quasi-concept of 'dissemination'.6
Let's try to unpack this nexus a little. In Chapter 4 of Monolinguisme, Derrida presents himself as in some sense a (or the) exemplary franco-maghrébin, bearing witness in singular fashion to that singular situation. This situation itself leads to some difficult reflections on witnessing and bearing witness, involving a paradoxical structure that is becoming increasingly familiar in Derrida's more recent thought, whereby the only thing to which one can bear witness is something incredible7: just as he would want to say that one can only pardon the unpardonable, or indeed more generally that the only possible thing is the impossible thing. This passage also attempts a generalisation or universalisation of the very structure that Derrida is also apparently claiming to be unique or singular to him.
As to this so enigmatic value of attestation, or even of exemplarity in witnessing, here is a first question, no doubt the most general. What is happening when someone comes to describe a supposedly singular 'situation' by bearing witness to it in terms which go beyond it, in a language the generality of which takes on a value which is in some sense structural, universal, transcendental or ontological? When the first-comer implies: 'What goes for me, irreplaceably, goes for everybody. Substitution is in progress, it has already operated, everyone can say the same thing for and about themselves. It's enough to hear me, I am the universal hostage. (p. 40 [19-20])
Here too, we might be inclined to try to refer this apparently new theme in Derrida's work to his earliest thinking. Indeed, it is tempting to describe deconstruction in general just as the attempt to think through this relationship between the singularity of the singular case and the generality or the universality of the structure which makes it (im)possible on the one hand allowing the singular to be marked or recognised as singular, and on the other tending to lose that singularity in the very structures thus brought out. For example, Of Grammatology is already asking such a question about the case of Rousseau (who is perhaps not just any case in this respect, but one who persistently laid claim to a singularity or uniqueness). In the important preambular 'Introduction to the "age of Rousseau"', for example, Derrida claims 'a singular situation' for Rousseau, 'between Plato's Phaedrus and Hegel's Encyclopedia',8 and elsewhere in the book returns many times to the question of what is 'proper' or 'idiomatic' to Rousseau in the structures revealed by, for example, the motif of the 'supplement'. And this question of the singularity or idiomaticity of what a given author writes, which appears many times in Derrida's writing (on Artaud,9 for example, but also, notoriously, on Ponge10), often around the motif of the signature (i.e. what is it that I sign of what I write; what in it is proper to me and no other, given the indubitable fact that my language in general is not my language, as we have seen and shall see again soon enough in the Monolinguisme text). This is a general and urgent issue for Derrida, or always (perhaps just because) each time a singular and urgent issue. For example, in 'Freud and the Scene of Writing', Derrida comes to consider the issue of the idiomaticity of dreaming. Once we move beyond the crude assumption that dreams are simply made up of general symbols the meaning of which can be read off from a general key, then we recognise that something singular is happening:
Psychical writing, for example the dream-writing which 'follows old facilitations', a simple moment in the regression towards "primary" writing, cannot be read on the basis of any code. No doubt it works with a mass of elements codified during an individual or collective history. But in its operations, its lexicon and syntax, a purely idiomatic residue is irreducible, which must bear the whole weight of interpretation in the communication between unconsciousnesses. The dreamer invents his or her own grammar.11
But this almost heroic singularity of the dreamer, which generates the thought that here we have a writing inaccessible to translation, one in which the distinctions between signifier and signified or between code and message simply do not hold, is again, as in the case of Artaud, say, immediately compromised by the force of repetition or what Derrida later calls iterability. In the 'Freud' text, this gives rise to the following difficult but important passage:
Force produces meaning (and space) by the sole power of 'repetition' that inhabits it originarily as its death. This power, i.e. this unpower which opens and limits the work of force inaugurates translatability, makes possible what is called 'language', transforms absolute idiom into a limit that has always already been transgressed: a pure idiom is not a language, it becomes one only by being repeated; repetition always already doubles up the point of the first time. In spite of appearances, this does not contradict what we were saying earlier about the untranslatable.12
Derrida's Monolinguisme question about the relationship (there reformulated in terms of witnessing) between the unique or the singular and the general or universal is, then, arguably just the question of deconstruction. (Parenthesis: In a more technical demonstration of this claim, it would be possible to show that this concern is one way of understanding Derrida's thinking about possibility and impossibility: once we try to understand the singularity of the event, for example, in its most concrete historical reality, then we are already going to be dissatisfied with any account of it in terms of conditions of possibility Derrida would say that an event that was merely the case of its conditions of possibility is not worthy of the name 'event', and that an event in the stronger sense can only supervene to the extent that it breaks with those conditions, thereby with the order of possibility itself, and to that extent events are, in their singular eventhood, always in a sense impossible, or at least stand in a relation of discontinuity to the conditions that also made them possible.13 Note too that this is directly comparable to the earlier arguments about Rousseau: Rousseau is in a sense made possible by the tradition that stretches back at least to Plato, but somewhere a residue of idiomaticity stands in a relation of impossibility to that tradition. However much we may find Rousseau's thinking about writing retrospectively predictable on the basis of the Platonic tradition, that thinking is also somewhere absolutely surprising. And this form of argument is also already applicable to Plato himself, who can himself be said to be impossible in terms of the tradition that is called 'Platonic'. One way of reading the interplay between the texts 'Derridabase' and 'Circumfession' is that the latter is playing impossibility against the former's setting up of conditions of possibility; whence too the apparent inevitability of the drift towards the autobiographical. End of parenthesis.)
In the case of the Monolinguisme text, though, this configuration itself takes on a singular turn. (One of the paradoxes of this thinking about singularity is that it always in spite of itself will gather singularities back into general structures: but it is just because positing a general structure (a philosophy, perhaps even an ontology) of singularities may not be the best way to respect or bring out or bear witness to the singularity we were interested in that Derrida is not a transcendental philosopher, but a writer of singular texts which attempt to inscribe their singularity each time in an event of writing. So my placing this gesture from Monolinguisme in a sort of internal tradition of Derrida's writing is of course already a treacherous thing to do, a betrayal, though perhaps a sort of betrayal written into the structure of witnessing itself, and indeed a necessary one if we are to avoid the fantasy and violence of a thought of pure singularity.) The singular singularity of the Monolinguisme text has to do with the explicitly 'colonial' context of the argument. But it would be a mistake to see this as 'just another singularity', one more pearl threaded on a string of singularities that would make up the line of Derrida's work. The point about the analysis of singularity as divided or folded is just this: that every singularity also contains (or is at least affected by) every other. So every singularity is in this way exemplary.14
This thought of exemplarity is again one that has often exercised Derrida. Here's how the Monolinguisme text presents it, carrying on from the quotation about the universal hostage:
How then this time are we to describe, how to designate this unique time? [Comment cette fois décrire alors, comment désigner cette unique fois?] How to determine this, a singular this whose uniqueness depends on witnessing alone, on the fact that certain individuals, in certain situations, attest to the features of a structure that is nonetheless universal, reveal it, indicate it, give it to be read more 'à vif', as we say and because we say it especially of a wound, more à vif and better than others, and sometimes alone of their sort? Alone in a sort which (and this makes it more incredible) becomes in turn a universal example, crossing and accumulating in this way the two logics, that of exemplarity and that of the host as hostage? (pp. 40-41 )15
It is this structure of exemplarity that is to motivate the maintenance of a double-tongued tension in this text (but, again, in all Derrida's texts) between on the one hand the extreme singularity of the detail (here, his own situation as a francophone Algerian Jew), and on the other the extreme generality of some of the claims made in the book (for example, the repeated assertion that all culture is essentially colonial, or that the sort of 'alienation' that Derrida describes with respect to his 'mother tongue' is a universally necessary fact of language in general).
The political objection to this type of analysis is of course both well-known and very understandable. The argument here would be that Derrida just misses the essentially political dimension of the problem (i.e. just what the practitioners of colonial or postcolonial or 'transnational cultural'16 studies are interested in) by forcing the issue in one direction towards the narcissistic singularity of his own case, and forcing it in the other direction towards a structure so general and supposedly necessary that it might be taken to justify (or at least to present as inevitable, as at best something to which one would have to resign oneself) the very coloniality that the point is to protest against. And just this suspicion brings us back inevitably to the quotation from which we began, where Derrida postulates a possible set of 'troubling resemblances' between the language of master or coloniser and the language to be invented in the complex gesture I tried to outline. Leaving aside still for a while the possible resemblances thus mentioned, let us return to the motif of the promise to which I promised to return a little earlier. For it is here that we will find some indications to help us make some progress towards understanding the motif of the unique which has been troubling us in the context of an easier and more familiar stress on multiplicity. We saw Derrida claiming that the gesture of invention around the pre-originary language to be invented was plural or multiple. What we need to understand still is how that intrinsic multiplicity or plurality brings in a thought of singularity or the unique for it is precisely this that will allow us to distinguish in principle (thought perhaps not always easily in fact) between the new promised language of invention and the language of master or coloniser which it also can resemble.
Derrida's argument goes like this. Suppose I want to write out, in the mode of anamnesis, the singular story of the singularity that I am, a sort of absolute autobiography. Respect for that singularity would require breaking with all available norms and forms in the interests of the sort of absolute idiomaticity we were talking about earlier in the context of the text on Freud. This, as we saw, is strictly impossible: for an event even to take place as an event, it must already compromise its singularity with the conditions of recognisability that take the form of structures of repeatability or iterability. In the Monolinguisme text, Derrida says 'the improvisation of some inaugurality is no doubt the impossible itself' (p. 125 ). But the attempt at such an improvisation, necessarily failing, leaves a trace or a mark that can be seen as a promise of such an inaugurality. We may not ever be able to perform something radically inventive but, in a movement of thought that brings Derrida interestingly close to the Kant of the Ideas of Reason and of the Sublime (and close too, thereby, to the later Lyotard), we can in some sense think and even call for something radically inventive. Derrida's reformulation of this structure is to say that we are thereby promising such a thing, and that is supposed to capture the sense in which the possible (or at least in some formal sense thinkable, i.e. the absolutely new or idiomatic) is nonetheless impossible.17 Whence his recourse, since the time of Spectres of Marx, to the structure of a 'Messianism' which is said to be purely formal in the sense that it is merely the announcement or promise of an advent or a coming or an arrival, with no specific content at all, least of all a determinate figure of a Messiah, an 'expectation without horizon of expectation' (p. 42 ). On this view, the Messiah will never come or have come, just because his coming, if it were possible, would close off the messianic structure itself as perpetually promising a coming: this is why Derrida (from The Other Heading onwards) distinguishes a to-come from a future, an à-venir from an avenir. It is just this pure formality that allows Derrida to say that a promise cannot be rigorously distinguished from its apparent opposite, a threat, nor that it must in principle be something one might keep, or that one must mean, and so on. For a promise to be a promise, it must, as Derrida recalls here in a footnote (p. 127 ) be possible for it to be broken, but also for it to be insincere, and in general haunted by the possibility of its perversion. Just as, in the famous reading of Lacan that first explicitly develops the fundamental Derridean thought of necessary possibility,18 a letter's arrival at its destination is dependent on a structure whereby it always might not arrive at its destination, so a promise is a promise only to the extent that is always possibly pervertible.19
This structure of the promise is, in the specific context of the Monolinguisme text, at work in the description of the pre-originary language to be invented. Derrida's rather startling claim is that every time I speak, I promise,20 and I promise a language to come which is none other than this pre-originary language desired in its absolute past, this absolute idiom: 'the promise of an as yet unheard language of a single poem inaudible yesterday' (p. 126 ). It is this gesture which also defines what Derrida calls here and elsewhere 'the New International' as a sort of virtual set of addressees of that promise, or of translators of that promise.21 Now if we accept the analysis according to the necessary possibility of pervertibility (and it should be clear that this is a quite devastating thought for all traditional ways of thinking about ethics and/or politics, because it comes down to postulating a necessary contamination and undecidability in principle of the best and the worst as a positive condition for 'the best' to have a chance), then this rather lyrical promise of the new language that is the fulfilment of the immemorially lost pre- or archi-originary language we all desire, or the desire for which individuates us as anything like subjects then this promise must also, necessarily, accommodate the threat of the worst, i.e. the becoming-colonial or the becoming-oppressive of just that promised language which is the promise of liberation from the colonial. One immediate consequence of this is that any claim to be or to embody the arrival or fulfilment of that promise, to constitute it in presence, in the present, is already falling to the side of the coloniser and the oppressor. Whence, perhaps, the discomfort always generated by discourses of emancipation, and, perhaps too, a certain sense of inevitability when, as Lyotard puts it in Le différend, and as is of course poignantly true in the case of Algeria, 'proud independence struggles give rise to reactionary young states' (§262). This necessary possibility of the promise turning into the threat, of the best turning out to be also the worst, just is a deconstructive account of politics in general and, in this case, of colonialism and of culture as always already colonial.22
Which is why Derrida will claim that just the structure of exemplarity/singularity that he has postulated is the condition for the sort of radical politicisation that is here being suggested:
In spite of appearances, this exceptional situation is at the same time exemplary, of course, of a universal structure; it represents or reflects a sort of originary 'alienation' which institutes every language as language of the other: the impossible propriety of a language. But that should not lead to a sort of neutralisation of differences, to the misrecognition of determinate expropriations against which a combat can be conducted on very different fronts. On the contrary, that is what allows one to repoliticize the stakes. Where natural property does not exist, nor property rights in general, where this de-propriation is recognised, it is possible and it becomes more necessary than ever to identify sometimes in order to combat them movements, fantasies, 'ideologies', 'fetishisations' and symbolics of appropriation. Such a reminder allows one both to analyse the historical phenomena of appropriation and to treat them politically, avoiding in particular the reconstitution of what those fantasies were able to motivate: 'nationalistic' (always more or less 'naturalistic') aggressions, or mono-culturalist homo-hegemony. (pp. 121-2 [63-4])
We should now be in a position to grasp the solidarity of the various elements we have ranged over. The point of uncertainty or undecidability, the double-tonguing from which we began, namely that the new language to be invented presents troubling resemblances with the language of the master or coloniser, now has an argumentative context: if any language is a language of the other, according to the fundamental structure of 'alienation' which now seems quite familiar (though in fact it defines a sort of radical failure of familiarity in general, its perpetual becoming-unfamiliar, unheimlich,23 and even 'mad, as we saw earlier) quite familiar as a basic feature of the relation with language, then each singular case is also exemplary of that situation. That situation of radical 'alienation' guarantees that no-one is in principle master of the language from which I am alienated, but simultaneously opens the space ('culture') in which violent claims to such mastery can be, and are, made, with accompanying violence of various sorts and degrees of gravity, and always a constitutive illegitimacy insofar as they tend towards the fulfilment of a singular, unified goal in some form of naturalised unity. But that 'alienation' is each time singular (constituting the singularity of the each-time-I in exactly the same movement as it compromises that singularity through the operator of iterability, the compromise of that singularity with the de facto coloniality of the language I cannot simply choose not to speak), and calls each time for an analysis in terms of that singularity, which is, just because of its singularly 'alien' inscription in the violent field of culture, an irreducibly political analysis.
Opening up the 'politics' like this naturally still feeds the suspicion about abolishing differences and making everything the same. It will often be thought, for example, that Derrida's way of thinking makes the situation of the integrated metropolitan Jew that he undoubtedly is, as Spivak keeps saying, in some sense 'the same' as that of the racially oppressed Kosovar Albanian, for example, or that of the Australian Aborigine, or the independendist East Timorese, or the Tibetan exile, and that it concomitantly and scandalously makes these situations 'the same' as that of any Straight White Male. One of the hardest challenges Derrida throws down for us is no doubt this: to think together the economy of sameness and difference (i.e. singularity). Here the claim is radical (and radically anti-Hegelian): making the opposite move from Derrida (who postulates, then, a dispersion of heterogeneous singularities that are in some sense nonetheless 'the same'), in the interests of establishing more marked differences (i.e. by formulating them oppositionally), ends up, paradoxically enough, by homogenizing the heterogeneous (so that the singularities on each side of the oppositionally construed difference become mere examples in the sense of samples of the category they now represent), and, just by dint of that oppositionality (the form of opposition itself), it also, perversely enough, tends to the homogenising of the very terms of the opposition itself, insofar as the oppositional form, in its rigorous Hegelian working out, just tends towards the overcoming of the opposition through the movement of sublation. Whence the tendency for this type of thinking to resolve itself into unity: either on the side of the particular (and this is the sort of multiculturalism that Derrida questions here in passing (pp. 31-2, what elsewhere, in The Other Heading, he calls 'selfish little particularisms', the sort of thing that, as we have seen, Homi Bhabha calls 'cultural diversity' as against 'cultural difference'), or on the side of the general or universal (humanisms of various sorts). Derrida's thought maintains as radically political a situation of dispersion of singularities which remain singular insofar as there is no horizon of resolution written in to the description of the dispersion (for the structure of the Messianic promise is such that it is precisely not the promise of arriving at a horizon of resolution); but which still, via the argument of originary 'alienation', gathers that dispersion as a field of 'the same', without implying any identity at all.24 The claim would be that only this understanding of difference as an always relatively gathered dispersion or scatter of singularities25 allows for a thinking that is radically political: i.e. one where the promise (for example of a democracy to come) is not absorbed by, or mortgaged to, the phantom of its ontological fulfilment.
The elementarily uncomfortable upshot of this is that there is no prospect of an end to 'alienation' or coloniality (if it is true that every one is alienated with respect to the language of the other, and if it is true that all culture is colonial), but that the politics of culture and the colonial consists in the type of repeatedly insecure act of invention for which Derrida calls (and which he also, regularly, appears to bring off, marking the one alienated language-of-the-other he speaks with the event of a signature), and which invents in the affirmed risk of compromise with a new language of mastery or of the master.
If Derrida is right (or if I am broadly right to present his thinking as I have presented it), then in some ways he is not asking for assent in the sense of adherence to a political position of some sort. Rather proposing a 'clarification' of the concepts of 'the political', 'the cultural', 'the colonial', 'hospitality' and so on. The principles of certain political positions seem to flow from this (so that Derrida's recent stances around the status of immigrants in France, or about 'villes-refuges' seem as though they can be related in some way to this type of 'clarification'), although of course such clarifications cannot be tantamount to (nor a substitute for) the formulation of a political programme. No doubt it is this 'reticence' that allows Spivak to dismiss Derrida's remarks about a 'New International' as 'feeble' in her recent Critique of Colonial Reason. But the point would be that the sort of political radicalism Spivak herself clearly thinks she succeeds in embodying would itself be unthinkable without the sorts of structures Derrida uncovers in this and other texts, and its own, sometimes oppressive, effects of mastery unthought.
1 This description bears comparison with the description of translation in Benjamin's famous essay 'The Task of the Translator' (tr. Harry Zohn, in Illuminations (London: Fontana, 1973), pp. 69-82, commented upon at length by Derrida in 'Des Tours de Babel', in Psyché: Inventions de l'autre (Paris: Galilée, 1987), 203-35.
2 Jacques Derrida, Le monolinguisme de l'autre ou le prothèse d'origine (Paris: Galilée, 1996), p. 118. All translations from Derrida are my own, implying no criticism of Patrick Mensah's excellent version (Monolingalism of the Other, or the Prosthesis of Origin (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998), here p. 61), or indeed of any other published translation of Derrida.
3 Jacques Derrida, L'écriture et la différence (Paris: Seuil, 1967), p. 407.
4 This 'madness', which would itself have to be read through Derrida's early text on Foucault, but also his work on Blanchot and Joyce, stems from the fact that language, like the law, is fundamentally heteronomous, coming from the other, always before me, before I have a chance to choose it or assent to it (Saussure already made a similar connection), that my 'autonomous' acceptance of it happens against the background of that heteronomy, which cannot be reduced.
5 Cf. The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 34. Derrida says forcibly in The Other Heading that what is proper to a culture is not to be identical to itself, and in the Monolinguisme text itself returns to the concept of the identical as the root of the problem (pp. 31-2).
6 'for it is as a thought of the uniqueand not of the plural, as has too often been thought, that a thought of dissemination was previously presented as a folding thought of the fold, a thought folded to the fold.' (p. 49 ). Derrida helpfully adds a footnote to back up this assertion, including four references to the book Dissemination. Of these four references, three are to the notion of the fold as it is developed in 'The Double Session', and only one, to the pre-liminary text 'Hors Livre', to the thought of the unique. But this reference is far from clear or straightforward, and says only this, in the context of a polemical discussion of the relation between text and context or hors-texte (this is the moment where Derrida re-writes a famous slogan from Of Grammatology into 'There is only text, there is only out-text'): 'The space of dissemination does not only put the plural into effervescence; it is agitated with endless contradiction, marked in the undecidable syntax of the plus' (La dissémination (Paris: Seuil, 1972), p. 50). Elsewhere, we might feel fully justified in assuming that dissemination is indeed a pluralising concept, directed against the One: for example, the first of the three further references Derrida gives includes the sentence 'Le pli (se) multiplie mais (n'est) pas (un)' ['The fold multiplies (itself) but (is) not (one)']. The point here seems to be one that is perhaps more straightforwardly grasped in some famous and still quite enigmatic comments by Barthes in S/Z, to the effect that meaning or sens is plural in its being or essence, but that this does not mean simply that there are many (singular) meanings. (See my comments on this, and Descombes misconstrual of it, in Outside Language (Oxford Literary Review, 11 (1989), 89-112)). This comes down to saying that there is not one meaning, and that that is what meaning is. Similar descriptions can also be derived from Jean-Luc Nancy's Le Sens du monde or Etre singulier pluriel.
7 See especially Demeure: Maurice Blanchot (Paris: Galilée, 1998) for an extended discussion of the structure of witnessing.
8 De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967), p. 146.
9 See for example, 'As soon as I speak, the words I have found, given that they are words, no longer belong to me, are originarily repeated I must first of all hear myself. In soliloquy as in dialogue, to speak is to hear oneself. As soon as I am heard, as soon as I hear myself, the I that hears itself, that hears me, becomes the I that speaks and takes the floor [prend la parole]The word proffered or inscribed, the letter, is always purloined. Always purloined because always open(ed). It is never proper to its author or its addressee and it belongs to its nature never to follow the trajectory leading from a proper [self-same] subject to a proper [self-same] subject. [The whole of the later Postcard book can be read in this brief passage.] Which comes down to recognising with its historicity the autonomy of the signifier which before me says all by itself more than I think I mean' (L'écriture et la différence, pp. 264-6). Derrida's 'style' of 'commentary' of course dramatises this situation, presenting that difficult juxtaposition of singular utterances from the text being read with apparently universal claims which are both 'in' that text and excessive with respect to that text.
10 Signéponge (Columbia University Press, 1983/Paris: Seuil, 1988).
11 L'écriture et la différence, p. 310.
12 L'écriture et la différence, p. 316. This is also a major theme of Derrida's important text 'Psyché: Invention de l'autre' (in Psyché, 11-61): see for example pp. 16 ('Invention begins by being able to be repeated, exploited, reinscribed'); 23 ('a repetition or an originary reflexivity that, while dividing the inaugural act, both inventive event and relation or archive of invention, also allows it to deploy itself so as to say nothing but the same, itself [le même, lui-même], dehiscent or folded back invention of the same, at the instant it takes place'); 47 ('the "one time" or the "first time" of the act of invention finds itself divided or multiplied in itself, for having given rise to an iterability Once invented, if you will, the invention is only invented if, in the structure of the first time, repetition, generality, common availability and therefore publicity are already announced To invent is to produce iterability and the reproduction machine, simulation and simulacrum.'). Again, it would be possible to trace the genealogy of this back into Derrida's earliest writing : see for example the analysis of the sign in La voix et le phénomène (Paris: PUF, 1967), or even the 1953 master's thesis Le problème de la genèse dans la phénoménologie de Husserl (Paris: PUF, 199*).
13 See, for an early formulation of this argument, 'Psyché', pp. 26-7, linking deconstruction, 'experience of the impossible', and literature; cf. too Apories (Paris: Galilée, 1996), developing the possible/impossible around Heidegger's death-analysis, and Politiques de l'amitié (Paris: Galilée, 1994), pp. 46, 58, 86-7, working out the concomitant thought of the event in more detail in terms of a sort of transcendental 'perhaps'. This analysis of conditions of possibility would be one of many points at which to probe further the relation between Derrida and Hegel.
14 This is explicitly how the description of the fold operates in 'The Double Session', where Derrida affirms that 'A writing referring only to itself simultaneously refers us, indefinitely and systematically, to another writing. Simultaneously: that is what we have to account for.' (La dissémination, p. 229). See my discussion in 'Derrida's Mallarmé', in Michael Temple, ed., Meetings with Mallarmé in Contemporary French Culture (Exeter University Press, 1998), 126-42, reprinted in my book Interrupting Derrida (London: Routledge, 2000).
15 The logic of exemplarity is in fact laid out a little later in the text: 'there are situations, experiences, subjects who are precisely in situation (but what does situate mean in this case?) to bear witness exemplarily. This exemplarity is no longer simply reducible to that of the example in a series. It would, rather, be the exemplarity remarkable and remarking that gives to be read in more searing, intense or even traumatic fashion, the truth of a universal necessity. The structure appears in the experience of wounding, of offence, of revenge and of lesion. Of terror. A traumatic event because here the question is one of blows and wounds, sometimes of mass murder. That's reality, the carry of all férance, of every reference as différance.' (pp. 48-9 ) (Again, it would be possible to trace this problematic of exemplarity throughout Derrida's work, and possible to read each of Derrida's own texts as exemplary in just this way too. The extreme condensation of the final sentence of this passage makes it a challenge to the very structure it is also describing).
16 This is the new label Spivak proposes at the beginning of Critique of Colonial Reason (p. x).
17 Cf. in 'Avances' (preface to Serge Margel, Le Tombeau du dieu artisan (Paris: Minuit, 1995), a text to which Derrida refers the reader several times in Monolinguisme: 'But as, in order to be a promise, it must remain keepable [tenable] without any assurance of being kept, it must be able to remain unkeepable, possibly unkeepable in order to remain what it will have been, i.e. a promise.' (p. 33)
18 In fact that thought is 'present' in Derrida's earliest writing, for example in the idea that a poem, in order to be a poem, necessarily runs the risk of meaninglessness. See for example, in a 1964 text on Jabès, 'A poem always runs the risk of having no meaning and it would be nothing without this risk' (L'écriture et la différence, p. 111).
19 Cf. again 'Avances', p. 38: 'And then, to bequeath an unkeepable promise, is this to promise or to threaten? For, as is well-known, a healthy, classical theory of the promise cannot take into account an ill-intentioned, harmful or maleficient promise. A promise belongs to the order of benediction. I can only promise 'good'. I cannot promise the other that I will kill him, rob him, lie to him or curse him. That would be a threat and not a promise. Can one threaten with a promise? Promise a threatening gift? Perhaps. Perhaps that is the most profoundly worrying question. For if that perversion were excluded from the start, if its exclusion were assured, there would be no viable promise [qui tienne]. Nor threat.', and a closing remark: 'for [the promise] to remain safe and sound, pure of all threat. But if this purity were assured, there would be no promise either For a promise to remain a promise, must it not continually, incessantly risk, in an interminable imminence, perverting itself into a threat? Not merely that it threaten to remain untenable but that it threaten to become threatening?' (pp. 42-3); and for a more general statement, see also pp. 41-2: 'No doubt, in order to promise, one must know seriously, above all [avant tout], what is promised. By whom and to whom and what we mean to say and know when we say we promise (ourselves). Knowledge and seriousness, self-presence of intentional consciousness as such belong without doubt to the essence of promising. But if what is promised in the promise (including the meaning, the subject and object of the act of promising which are part of the promised content) is absolutely known, determined, presentified or presentable, if even it already has an adequate name, then there is no longer any promise, there is only calculation, programme, anticipation, providence, prediction, prognosis: everything will already have happened, all is previous, repeated in advance. As what it is, i.e. (as a certain Aristote would perhaps have said) as what it will have been or will have been destined to be: to ti hn einai. We are only conjugating the future perfect here. Ruining the stake, the antecedence of the before puts in danger the pro-position of the promise which however it opens and puts to work. Prior to the promise, prior to the operative calculation of the worker, it haunts the very advance in a work of mourning begun, then, on the eve of everything. So there would, previously, be two advances of the 'before', an anticipation which sees coming and a precipitation that no longer sees coming. The precipitation we're talking about here is not an empirical blindness or imprudence. Heterogeneous to calculation, it lets come or makes come on condition, and it's the condition of the event, of no longer seeing come, on condition of overflowing seeing or knowledge [le voir ou le savoir], to outstrip them [les gagner de vitesse] at the very place they remain necessary. For there to be promise, nothing must overtake it nor deny it by assuring it of a guarantee, a provisional assurance on life, a mutuality, a social or communitarian security, the calculable probability of a prognosis: absolutely nothing on the horizon, neither god, nor man, nor world, nor being. For everything to depend on this and to be inscribed in it without knowing, 'we' must be wanting for names. Names are wanting [il faut les noms], names must be missing, but this missing must not be the negativity of a lack. Nothing must, moreover, nothing ought, duty ought not [il ne devrait pas devoir].'
20 Cf. pp. 42-3 [21-2]: 'An immanent structure of promise or desire, an expectation without horizon of expectation informs every act of speech. As soon as I speak, before even formulating a promise, an expectation or a desire as such, and at a point at which I do not yet know what will happen to me or what is waiting for me at the end of a sentence, no who, nor what is expecting who or what, I am in this promise or in this threat which thenceforth gathers the language, the promised or threatened language, promising even in its threatenings and vice versa, thus gathered in its very dissemination', and p. 126 : 'Each time I open my mouth, each time I speak or write, I promise. Whether I want to or not: the fatal precipitation of the promise must here be dissociated from values of will, intention or meaning which are reasonably attached to it. The performative of this promise is not a speech act among others. It is implied by all other performatives; and this promise announces the uniqueness of a language to come'.
21 See pp. 97 ff [55ff] for the relation between the idiomatic and the translatable, up to: 'Compatriots of all countries, poet-translators, revolt against patriotism! Every time I write a word, you hear me, a word I love and that I love to write, for the time of that word, the instant of a single syllable, the song of this new international rsies up in me. I never resist it, I take to the streets at its call, even if apparently, from dawn, I'm working silently at my desk' (pp. 107-8 ).
22 In a slightly different idiom, this is the structure I have presented in terms of legislator and charlatan in Rousseau: see my Sententiousness and the Novel: Laying Down the Law in Eighteenth-Century French Fiction (Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 168-71, and especially Dudding: des noms de Rousseau (Paris: Galilée, 1991), pp. 69-80.
23 Derrida invokes this concept on pp. 55 and 66 [29 and 37].
24 'This call to come gathers language in advance. It welcomes it, gathers it up, not in it identity, in its unity, not even it its ipseity, but in the unicity or singularity of a gathering of its difference from itself: in difference with itself rather than difference from itself [dans la différence avec soi plutôt que dans la différence d'avec soi.] It is not possible to speak outside this promise which gives, but by promising to give it, one language, the uniqueness of the idiom. There can be no question of escaing this uniqueness without unity. It is not to be opposed to the other, nor even distinguished from the other. In is the monolanguage of the other. The 'of' here does not so much signify property as provenance: language is the other's, coming from the other, the coming of the other' (p. 127 [67-8]). Here again, we should have to place this in the perspective of some of Derrida's earliest formulations which explicitly relate différance to the same (which is not the identical).
25 Cf. here p. 43 , and 'Point de folie: maintenant l'architecture' (in Psyché, 477-93) on the gathering and dispersion of gathering and dispersion; this apparently marginal text on architecture in fact concentrates all our major themes in a few inventive pages, according to the law of exemplarity we have invoked.