Sunday, September 18, 2011

Aporias: Jacques Derrida's Deconstruction of Heidegger's Being-towards-Death

Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction of Heidegger’s Being and Time

This small word, ‘as’, might well be the name of the true problem, not to say the target, of deconstruction –Jacques Derrida, “University without Condition”


I believe (I am testifying) that this would have been a good one to read backwards, as I believed I knew where Derrida was going from the beginning and my own conclusions were confirmed when I reached the end (which remains in aporia). Here (because I must start from here, on this side of the border) I will merely try to summarize (say “in other words”—c.f. “Living On: Borderlines”) what I believe Derrida is (partially) trying to say.
I’d like to get at Derrida’s text in two, interrelated ways.

1.) Heidegger’s existential analysis as a fundamental ontology

2.) The question of Dasein and language with respect to” the human” and the animal

I. Fundamental Ontology

Heidegger is trying to elucidate universal structures of existence without slipping into metaphysical speculation. Heidegger’s project is to inquire into the meaning of being (as such), a question he believes we have forgotten. For instance, we use the word “is” but do we really know what it is to ‘exist’. For Heidegger, philosophy has been a history of being as presence; thus, being is a ‘thing’ rather than a mode of existence. Heidegger attempts to describe how even ‘being’ in a present-at-hand is actually derivative from a more originary ‘understanding’ that is constitutive of Dasein’s being (Being-there, usually understood to be what we would call “human existence”—although this is something he also puts into question).

However, Heidegger’s Being and Time is actually part of an incomplete project that Heidegger never ‘finished’, although the project was continued in later essays to figure the meaning of being “as such” and not just the being of Dasein (see pgs 63-64 for Heidegger’s outline of his entire project). In Sein und Zeit, Dasein was taken as an exemplarily instance of being. Heidegger writes, “This entity which each of us is himself and which includes inquiring as one of the possibilities of its Being, we shall denote by the term “Dasein” (Heidegger 27).

One of Derrida’ points is that Heidegger’s “existential analysis” claims a universality for Dasein, but because it is a historical text, conditioned by its time, it is already invaded by discourses of a particular culture. At the same time, however, it puts into question (and checks) the sort of naïve understanding of ‘death’ that is already assumed in anthropological and cultural discourses on death. In the most positive light possible, Thus, to a certain extent, Heidegger’s text serves as a “corrective” discourse to naïve statements of comparative religion taken up by Aries and Thomas, which argue that the West has displaced death, ignored death, and thus falls into a nostalgia for more ‘primitive’ cultures that seem to put death “in its right place” (Derrida 58). So, in this sense, “the existential analysis maintains itself well this side of all this foolish comparative predication” (58). But, again, at the same time, we must recognize Heidegger’s discourse as conditioned by cultural-historical events. In the case of Being and Time, this is the discourse of Christianity (even as Heidegger tries to separate himself from it). Derrida writes, “I’ll just say, without being able to go into it in any depth, that neither the language nor the process of this analysis of death is possible without the Christian experience, indeed, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic experience of death to which the analysis testifies” (80).

Derrida elaborates on this statement in “Faith and Knowledge” in Acts of Religion, noting that Heidegger’s concepts are inextricably tied up in Christian discourse: “conscience (Gewissen), originary responsibility or guilt (Schuldigsein) and Entschlossenheit (resolute determination)” and of course, we cannot forget “Verfallen” or “falling” (the ‘fallingness’ of the everyday)[1] (Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge,” 96). In this essay, Derrida takes up the question of Heidegger’s retaining of a notion of “sacredness” without the corresponding notion of ‘faith’ which falls short of true thinking (Der Glaube hat im Denken keinen Platz), but of course, the very concept of ‘authenticity’ and Bezeugung, ‘attestation’, involves a kind of belief and testimony.

Anyway, I am getting off track. Regardless, we see that Heidegger (and really, philosophy is general) seeks to escape the ‘accidental’ or ‘cultural’ contextual determination in order to get at the essential structures of human existence (or being in general). The kind of universal discourse is also sought in the anthropological studies, particularly Aries, when he speaks of the “more secret, more hidden motors, at the limit of the biological and the cultural, that is, at the limit of the collective unconscious” (47). But this concept of the collective unconscious is also a concept that came into being at a certain moment in history and thus will not be able to reveal the underlying structures of human existence, will it?

Although Derrida rigorously deconstructs Heidegger, he preserves the uniqueness of Being and Time by calling it an ‘event’: “The event of this interrupted book would be irreducible to these categories, indeed to the categories that Heidegger himself never stopped articulating [. . .] Being and Time would belong neither to science, nor to philosophy, nor to poetics” (Derrida 32). This is perhaps why many would consider Heidegger (and those in the continental tradition) non-philosophy—this work “surpasses the limits of the concept of itself” (Derrida 32).

So this is why I want to call Being and Time and Heidegger’s project a kind of “corrective” discourse to comparative religious/death discourses in other disciplines that seem to be less “fundamental.” Derrida ends in an aporetic fashion, “each of these two discourses on death is much more comprehensive than the other, bigger and smaller than what it tends to include or exclude, more and less originary, more and less ancient, young or old” (81). This is the kind of “anachrony” that we also saw in “Living On: Borderlines,” where Derrida affirms that these two texts “love each other” even though they may have no noticeable “influence” on one another, with one difference: I am not sure that Being and Time and the anthropological/historical discourses “love” each other in the same way. Derrida notes that Thomas’s work incorrectly attributes a quotation to Heidegger (26).

II. Heidegger, Language;  the Human, the Animal

When I explain to others what Heidegger means by “Dasein,” I translate it (There-Being, Being-There), try to explain how this is tied up in Heidegger notion of language (which is the possibility of a “world” in Heidegger’s sense) and then simply come down to it and say Dasein is the kind of being that “we” (me and you, mon frère) *are*. We are the beings that question the meaning of being and we do this in language and this sets us apart from animals. Heidegger’s discourse, then, has been considered incredibly “humanist” and “anthropocentric.” Heidegger seems (at times, at least when we paraphrase him) to want to maintain a clear line, a border-line, between human and animal and this borderline is exemplarized in the concept of “death.”

On an ‘ontical’ level, we tend to assume that animals are not “conscious of” their deaths in the same way that we are: we are aware that we are going to die and this seems to affect the way we are in the world. Furthermore, there does seem to be something about “language” that sets us apart from animals, although further scientific evidence is calling this into question. Heidegger makes a lot of “language” because language is in a way the condition for truth and also untruth; Derrida writes “according to Heidegger, there is no nontruth for the animal, just as there is no death and no language. Truth is the truth of nontruth and vice versa” (73). As Derrida also notes, Heidegger will elaborate on this in his later work, particularly in an essay called “On the Essence of Truth” (here, Heidegger presents the concept in this way: “Errancy and the concealing of what is concealed belong to the primordial essence of truth” (134)).

All this is to say that we generally consider Heidegger as making a clear distinction between mortal Dasein (as human being) and animal as that without language and therefore without a world. But Derrida is going to press this very distinction, and he’s going to press it hard and he’s going to press it and permeate it and penetrate it through Heidegger’s own text in true deconstructive form. Derrida makes a distinction between Dasein and ‘man’:

Dasein or the mortal is not man, the human subject, but it is that in terms of which the humanity of man must be rethought [. . .]  Heidegger never stopped modulating this affirmation according to which the mortal is whoever experiences death as such, as death. Since he links this possibility of the “as such” to the possibility of speech, he thereby concludes that the animal, the living thing as such, is not properly a mortal: the animal does not relate to death as such. The animal can come to an end, that is, perish (verenden) [. . .] But it can never properly die. (35)

But then, Derrida notes in another text that this connection/distinction is not always finalized: “It does not say that the experience granted to the mortal, of which the animal is incapable, depends on language” (36).

Rather than taking the usual route to the question of the animal—that is, don’t animal’s ‘have’ language too? Derrida instead asks if Heidegger’s distinction between perishing, dying, and dying “properly,” can hold and ultimately if human being (or Dasein) can even relate to death “as such.” The ‘death proper’ is the authentic death, the way of “dying well,” so to speak.

This inquiry hinges on a few very subtle, very complicated (read: we probably should read these passages closely in class) distinctions in Heidegger’s text concerning Heidegger’s claim that “Death is the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Dasein” (Heidegger 294). Now, we have to notice that this possibility of impossibility is different from the impossibility of possibility. This confusion has led me to mis-read Heidegger for several years. I must quote Derrida’s close reading in which he makes a crucial distinction verbatim:

Heidegger does not say “the possibility of no longer being able to be Dasein” but the “possibility of being able no longer to be there” or “of no longer being able to be there.” This is indeed the possibility of a being-able-not-to or of a no-longer-being-able-to, but by no means the impossibility of a being-able-to. (68)

The way I understand this distinction is that I used to think Heidegger’s notion of death in the naïve way: If Dasein’s ‘essence’ is its being-able-to (its possibility) then of course “death” is the impossibility of being-able-to because we are ‘dead’, no longer being-able-to do any particular thing—we cannot “be” our possibility any longer because we are dead—we no longer have the capacity to exist in this or that fashion because, for instance, we can no longer comport ourselves in such a way that we can use a hammer. But, according to Derrida’s distinction, this is not what Heidegger means at all. Derrida makes this clear later when he says that death “concerns the impossibility of existence itself and not merely the impossibility of this or that” (72).

I suspect that it is this distinction that is crucial to the rest of the Derrida’s deconstruction. However, at other points, it does seem like Heidegger understands death in the way I framed it above: “It [death] is the possibility of the impossibility of every way of comporting oneself toward anything, of every way of existing” (307). I’m not sure exactly how we could (and if we can) resolve these readings. Perhaps I am not getting Derrida’s “point” because I ignore the aporetic logic that constitutes a possible impossible. Maybe this is what Derrida is pointing out when he writes, “If death, the most proper possibility of Dasein, is the possibility of its impossibility, death becomes the most improper possibility and the most ex-propriating, the most inauthenticating one” (Derrida 77).

In a series of moves that I am not able to take up explicitly (hopefully this can be our task, our problem, our project that we take up in class) he comes to an important conclusion:

Although the innumerable structural differences that separate one ‘species’ from another should make us vigilant about any discourse on animality or bestiality in general, one can say that animals have a very significant relation to death, to murder, and to war even if they have neither a relation to death nor to the ‘name’ of death as such,, nor by the same token, to the other as such. But neither does man, that is precisely the point. (76)

I would like to explore how Derrida arrives at this remarkable conclusion, which also has implications for Heidegger’s claim that death is “my ownmost possibility”—that it is the most “proper” possibility. This claim of Heidegger is important because his claim is that it is death that individualizes me as me: “The non-relational character of death, as understood in anticipation, individualizes Dasein down to itself. This individualizing is a way in which the ‘there’ is disclosed for existence” (308). The key is that for Heidegger death individualizes non-relationally and Derrida is exposing that indeed, death cannot individualize “non-relationally.”

Derrida concludes, rather, echoing statements in his “Deaths of Roland Barthes,” that “the death of the other, this death of the other in ‘me’, is fundamentally the only death that is named in the syntagm ‘my death,’ with all the consequences that one can draw from this” (Derrida 76). If we agree with Derrida here, we can answer at least to a certain extent Derrida’s earlier question: “What if there was no other concept of time than the one that Heidegger calls “vulgar” [. . .] What if it was the same for death, for a vulgar concept of death?” (Derrida 14). The ‘vulgar’ concept of death is the death of the other, the “one dies,” which Heidegger says is inauthentic. Heidegger wants to maintain that there is a certainty of death from one’s own death (which individualizes) rather than merely certain of death because of the other’s dying. And can we even be certain of that?


A question we might explore is why Derrida invokes the name “Marrano” toward the ‘end’ of Derrida’s text: “Let us figuratively call Marrano anyone who remains faithful to a secret that he has not chosen” (81). Historically, as Derrida writes, “it is said that the history of the Marranos has just come to an end with the declaration by the Spanish court [in 1992]. You can believe that if you want to.” (77). The Marranos, according to the ever-useful Wikipedia refers to a Jewish people who publicly convert to Catholicism while secretly practicing their own rites—what are we to make of this odd reference? This intrusion of the question of religion, “the Jewish question,” in a discourse on Heidegger and the history of death, the religious culture that existential analysis tries to distinguish itself from [on “this side” rather than metaphysical speculation]: “What is analysis witness to? Well, precisely to that from which it demarcates itself, here mainly from the culture characterized by the so-called religions of the Book” (80).

[1] I personally love how the most recent translation of Sein Und Zeit tries to escape these Christian connotations of Maquerrie and Robinson’s translation (who, we should add, are theologians)  and of Heidegger’s discourse by translating “Verfallen” as “falling prey” to rather than simply “falling.” 

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