Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Jacques Derrida and Maurice Blanchot: Instant of My Death

Derrida's writing always asks for a response, just as his work is frequently contextualized as a response to a call for papers. The problem with responding to Derrida (rather than merely "using" him for our own purposes) is that his writing is hard to summarize and understand. This is the problem I see with a lot of literary criticism who use Derrida's critique of Saussure and then proceed to talk about the problem of "signification" in a given text.

Instead, Derrida's writing almost calls for a creative response, a response that somehow pays tribute to his method rather than his points. I'm not sure I am a strong enough writer to truly respond to Derrida's work.

Rather than appealing to experts on Blanchot, Derrida for the most part, uses Blanchot's other texts and his biography to make his points. Derrida has a personal relationship with Blanchot and so he wants to be faithful to the spirit of his work as a whole.

However, rather than begin directly with Blanchot, Derrida calls attention to his title and his rhetorical situation, citing something he had written about Paul De Man: "Funerary speech and writing would not follow upon death; they work on life in what we call autobiography. And this takes place between fiction and truth, Dichtung and Wahrheit" (16).

Dichtung is translated as "fiction," but Derrida wants to look at Warheit (truth) in terms of testimony. If
truth becomes testimony here, it is perhaps because as in Dichtung und Warheit, it will often be a question today of lies and truth: more precisely, of the biographical or autobiographical truthfulness of the witness who speaks of himself and claims to be recounting not only his life but his death, his quasi-ressurection, a sort of Passion. (16)
 This is how he gets into his topic of the "passions of literature." Derrida then detours (ish) into a discussion of the status of literature: is it particular or universal (as Goethe would have it)? Derrida answers: no. Even "literature" as a term is a latin word, an origin we cannot simply bypass. Derrida connects literature to death (a theme Blanchot takes up; thus, here, already, we see Derrida engaging Blanchot without engaging Blanchot) through a discussion of those authors who risk their lives in order to write literature (Rushdie, for example). This leads into a discussion of literature and politics and the judicial (bringing us back to testimony).

In all, we have these signifiers playing around each other: passion, religion, literature, death, fiction, testimony.

Rather than speaking of philosophy "as literature," which is what many people seem to think Derrida is claiming (collapsing the distinctions), Derrida here claims he wants to test the claim that "there is no essence or substance of literature: literature is not. It does not exist. It does not remain at home" (Derrida 20). Thus, literarity is not intrinsic to this or that artifact. Playing on a meaning of passion, Derrida argues that literature's "passion consists in this--that it receives its determination from something other than itself" (28).

Thus, Derrida suggests a kind of endless choice (that has no answer) to read something as testimony or as fiction. However, he then deconstructs this distinction.

Testimony and Fiction

Derrida argues that in order for testimony to remain testimony it "always goes hand in hand with at least the possibility of fiction, perjury, lie" (27). But Derrida doesn't make us take his word for this deconstruction.

Derrida attacks the distinction from two sides: the idea of the "instant" and the necessary diachrony of experience and the fact that to "bear witness" to something is the impossible task of making a secret public. 

Following his previous deconstructions of "presence," Derrida argues that the instant becomes divisible within testimony even though the assumption in testimony is that we testify to an instant. We must be physically present (in the courtroom, for example) to testify to an instant, but at the same time, it implies that we are testifying (at this very instant) to another instant, but this instant is divided by the temporal sequence of the testimony itself.

Furthermore, Derrida points out that testimony is always heard by a third person, a witnessing to the witness. In order for testimony to be "true" we have to assume an addressee that has sufficient mastery of the language (as well as an addressor) and that this person to whom the witness is testifying is "capable of the same mastery, that is, of hearing and translating in univocal fashion" (35). In other words, testimony involves interpretation and a decision (that may be without criteria) as to the 'truth' of the testimony. 

But testimony ideally cannot be reduced to a narrative (that is--a fiction?) Instead, Derrida argues, that testimony is always testifying to an act: "it does what it says at this very instant; it cannot essentially be reduced to narration" (Derrida 38). Derrida uses two examples. One i will modify for the sake of the language I am speaking: "I am speaking English." If I were to say "I am speaking French," (in English) then it would not be true. The English sentence, however,   performs what it says. Just as a martyr's testimony does not "tell a story," but rather offers his body. Testimony is an act.

Derrida then takes on a related word to "instant"--instance. Meaning, "exemplary." I think that this may be his strongest argument for how testimony's structure makes an impossibility necessary. In order to give testimony, I have to have had an experience that makes me irreplaceable. AND YET, my testimony has to be exemplary, that is, "anyone who in my place, at that instant, would have seen or heard or touched the same thing and could repeat exemplarily, universally, the truth of my testimony [. . .] The singular must be universal" (41).

Blanchot's Story

Blanchot's story, then, concerns the impossiblity of testifying to one's death. On one hand, I am the only one who could ever testify to my death--on the condition that I survive it (Derrida 45). But its not only that we can never testify to our death, we can also not testify to a previous experience because at every "instant" we are someone different. We cannot even replace ourselves, we cannot put ourselves back in that position: "And yet is there not a witness who must not say this, in all conscience, namely: 'At the moment of my attestation I am no longer the same as the witness who lived that and how remains irreplaceable" (Derrida 65). He cannot analyze what he experienced at the previous time (when he really was the "witness" to an event, but a witness to who? The bearing witness always involves another instant than the instant of my experience).

Like the passage we read from Specters of Marx, Derrida here is questioning the possibility of death, concluding that it is the "necessary impossible." We cannot testify to the instant of our death, only the imminence of our death, the death to come. Indeed, we can understand our lives as a perpetual dying--death is always to come. We know its coming, eventually. We do not know when. Furthermore, there does seem to be a 'general death' that is very different from Heidegger's sense of Being-Toward-Death, Jemeingskeit.

The narrator begins the story with the claim that the man was "prevented from dying by death itself" (3). This is not "his" death (is it?) but rather the death of another, which he bears responsibility for. Blanchot writes, "prevented from dying by death itself--and perhaps the error of injustice" (3). Derrida comments that "two orders" intersect the ethical and the epistemological even though the "remain incompatible" (54). The question of death is inevitably tied into the question of the ethical and the question of the (im)possiblity of justice.

The young man may have "saved himself" in one sense--that he was able to "move away" (not escape!). But on another level, "he has benefited from an injustice, and he will not case to suffer from this privilege. This torment will be the torment of an entire life, life as the torment of an injustice, as an inexpiable fault" (87). The "error" in injustice is his home, his abode (demeure)--the Chateau. By 'accident', by what Sartre would call his 'facticity', he is spared death, but is he spared dying? Is he spared a different kind of death? Is he ever spared death "in general"? No, he must suffer, he must undergo this suffering.

The "death" that the young man undergoes is the realization of his finitude, his substitutability. The "lightness" he experiences at the instant of his death "neither frees nor relieves of anything; it is neither a salvation through freedom nor an opening to the infinite because this passion is without freedom and this death without death is a conformation of finitude (Derrida 90).

This is the paradoxical condition that Derrida claims Blanchot gets at: a logic of a neither/nor, and "X without X." For instance, Blanchot writes in The Step Not Beyond: "To live without living, like dying without death: writing returns us to these enigmatic propositions" (Blanchot qtd. in Derrida 89). Indeed, we return to the "unexperienced experience." The 'experience' (that is not an experience) of literature remains an x without x. To read a novel, we have an "experience" without an experience--on both the side of the author and the reader! As Derrida writes,

It is on this condition (the condition of the possibility of fiction in experience) that we understand something of this narrative, to the extent that we understand anything at all about it [. . .] we only judge it to be readable, if it is, insofar as a reader can understand it, even if no such thing has ever "really" happenned to him, to the reader. We can speak, we can read this beacuse this experience, in the singularity of its secret, as "experience of the unexperienced," beyond the distinction between the real and the phantasmatic, remains [demeure] universal and exemplary. (Derida 93)

This takes us back into the question the film After. Life asked (perhaps poorly): what does it mean to live? (rather than what does it mean to die). The mortician (played by Liam Neeson) argues that this girl wasn't really "living" but just taking up space. But who has the right to claim that we are not 'living"? Who has the right to actually declare the instant of my death? 

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