Doubling Down: Doing Deconstruction During Derrida’s Death

I’m doubling down on doing deconstruction, and apparently I’m doubling down on that phrase, “doubling down,” which I already said once (too much) in the title and have now used way too much at this point. I promise not to use it again here, but the excess is part of my point: an exercise in exorbitance, a propensity for verbosity…it’s all part of what draws me to deconstruction. There is something about the double movement, speaking in two directions at the same time, writing in a way that avoids the temptation to resolve ambiguity and paradox into something easily digested by normal opinion (doxa). That is stylistically interesting, like the apophatic rhetoric used in mysticism and negative theology. But it’s not only a matter of style. It’s never merely style for mystics and theologians either. The simultaneously inventive and destructive movement of deconstruction discloses something about wisdom, about the way things really are, about the basic orientation around which philosophy takes place. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

I remember, after Derrida died, in the fall of 2004, I read a few of the obituaries that came out, and one sticks out, a negative one. It came off more like tasteless literary criticism, and maybe it didn’t even purport to be an obituary in the first place, but it showed up exactly when all the other obituaries came out, so it’s basically a de facto obituary. The author expressed some kind of relief or happiness that Derrida wouldn’t be around anymore to write, because, you know, Derrida was some kind of hyper-intellectual snob who was confusing people and always being difficult for the sake of being difficult. This author wasn’t getting into the ignorant game of blaming Derrida for the world’s problems, which happens occasionally (like when anything really bad happens). However, like that blame game, this obituary wasn’t just making an ignorant or insensitive remark. It also demonstrates a profoundly wrong interpretation of what Derrida was doing at all, including what death means for Derrida and for the philosophical tradition.

Derrida’s the sort of philosopher that gets more powerful with death. Socrates remembered and rejuvenated by Plato is exemplary in this regard, as is the posthumous fame of Nietzsche, which is something Nietzsche knew about himself: Einige werden posthum geboren (“some are born posthumously”). Socrates remarks that death is the separation of body and soul. This is no naive dualism. It has something to do with the double movement of life and death, the doing and undoing of subjectivity. Death releases Derrida’s double, his ghost—his spectral other.

When it comes to some criminals, especially messianic vigilantes, when you see the kind of trouble they cause with hauntings, you’ll wish they never died. It would be far better to keep the ghost mitigated by having the living body around than it would be to release the ghost into the gift of death. Right? In the almost fourteen years since Derrida’s death, more deconstruction keeps happening, multiplying virulently. Gayatri Spivak, Jean-Luc Nancy, and John Caputo continue their decades-long dissemination of deconstruction in philosophical, theological, and literary milieus worldwide, while Catherine Malabou and Vicki Kirby bring deconstruction into deeper dialogue with biophysical sciences theology,  Jin Park and David Loy build connections between deconstructions and Buddhisms, and Timothy Morton, Ted Toadvine, and David Wood draw out the ecological implications of deconstruction. And those are just some of the rather famous names. There are lots of us. And a lot of the writing is still apparently confusing and complicated. Derrida’s difficult writing didn’t go away.

It’s important to note that it is simply wrong to claim that Derrida was difficult for the sake of being difficult. He says so himself, because he got that charge more than once. Consider this comment in an interview: “I assure you that I never give in to the temptation to be difficult just for the sake of being difficult. That would be too ridiculous. It’s just that I believe in the necessity of taking time or, if you prefer, of letting time, of not erasing the folds.” It’s a matter of engaging in the “problem of communication and receivability” in our globalized and globalizing world spaces, or in other words, it’s a matter of engaging “with the shared responsibility” of “a very great number of relays”—media, mediations and translations, sedimentations and “an accumulated reserve.”

I follow David Wood in aiming “to vindicate a certain species of difficulty in philosophy,” a restless difficulty that comes from the complexities engaged by philosophy and from the critical dimension of philosophy, whereby philosophy perennially exceeds itself and turns back on itself (Philosophy at the Limit, 153). The restless difficulty is a necessary part of philosophy. It emerges at the limit marking the edges of whatever conception of philosophy is dominant at a given time. Although it “may disturb the theatre of their performance,” the task of mapping the difficult limits of philosophy is done with the “hope that it will increase the demand for seats.”

The point of difficult styles, in other words, is not to make philosophy difficult for the sake of difficulty but to train (askein), to initiate people into exercises (askeses) that ensure that the would-be philosopher reaches the requisite limit-experiences and enters the most conducive moods. (Isn’t a philosopher always a would-be philosopher, in a subjunctive mood that neither conjoins nor disjoins the philosopher from wisdom?) The “difficult styles” of philosophy can thus be seen as “setting up initiatory thresholds to prevent any understanding below a certain level of active recognition and participation” (96-7).

One might ask: If the difficult styles are set up for the sake of initiation, then shouldn’t the writing styles be simple again once I’m initiated? Does this mean there are secret books by Derrida that are super simple and easy to read, but only an esoteric club of initiates gets access? No, the difficult styles never stop. The would-be philosophy doesn’t leave, transcend, or overcome the threshold after arriving. Philosophy is a liminal practice, but unlike the rites de passage that the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep describes in terms of a preliminal/liminal/postliminal progression, the practice of philosophy stays on the line, like Plato’s divided line, like the mark of G. S. Brown, and the margins inhabited and displaced in queer and decolonial philosophy. The would-be philosopher does not stop with one passage through liminality, one passage through an event in which one’s sense of “I” (ego) and of existence become undone and redone. Philosophy stays with the liminality, staying close to the ceremonial fire where transformation takes place. “Philosophy is an everlasting fire,” as Wood says, “sometimes damped down by setting itself limits, then flaring into new life as it consumes them.  Every field of inquiry is limited, but philosophy has an essential relation to the question of limits, to its own limits” (xiii).

Such philosophy is not just theory, but theory that takes place. If we can imagine the double movement of deconstruction as a horizontal series of affirmations/negations—to avoid speaking: denials… or…the step (not) beyond—then we can imagine that horizontal series spiraling downward into place (lieu), which is a milieu, a mid-place, like the chora of Plato’s Timeaus, a place that is neither psyche nor cosmos, neither intelligible nor sensible, but a receptive site in between. The double movement is a doubling that also moves down, bringing theory into place.

This means more than getting into theory as a practice (praxis), a process of habituation (hexis), and part of one’s character (ethos). A theory that takes place is becoming theatrical. Theory (theoria) derives from Greek words for viewing (thea) and seeing (oros). It is speculative activity. A speculative activity that takes place happens in and as the theater: theatron (the suffix –tron connotes “place”). As we know from Diogenes and Socrates, philosophy does not simply perform for an audience but attempts to engage the audience, breaking the fourth wall, getting people in on the act, even when people really don’t want it (cf. Diogenes’ public masturbation).

The theoretical theater of philosophy is a place of participatory performance, a ritual theater of transformation. The theater of deconstruction was always already haunted by Derrida’s death, so Derrida’ death wasn’t some finality that would conclusively close the book on Derrida, deconstruction, or the difficult styles of initiatory philosophy. Far from final, the end is the beginning. The beginning opens out of the middle of the end, like the riverrun of Finnegans Wake.

The end is the milieu the beginning, the place of initiation. Doing deconstruction is and has always been a matter of doing deconstruction during Derrida’s death. Deconstruction is always already over…and over and over again.

2 thoughts on “Doubling Down: Doing Deconstruction During Derrida’s Death

  1. I think this would all be foreign to Derrida (which is fine but it’s what it is) who was trying to show as well as say the evolving complexities of /writing/thinking/world but had little time for advice or self-improvement or the sorts of things that worried Foucault, there are arguments about how generally Wittgenstein intended to be therapeutic but not Derrida.
    In general concerns about complex versus simple/straightforward are anglophone concerns.
    There is a telling moment in the documentary about him where an activist student (in South Africa I think) asks him for advice and he explains that he isn’t in that business.
    Most of yer list seems more constructionist than deconstructionist, a deconstructionist project that Ithink comes close to what yer after is Avital Ronell’s book on the drive to test:

  2. Yes, I would imagine this is foreign to Derrida. Philosophy blogs in general don’t seem like his style. In any case, better to be foreign to Derrida than native to Derrida, I suppose. I don’t think I gave any advice on self-improvement here. I said deconstruction is theatrical, not therapeutic. David Loy is the only person I mentioned who has a therapeutic interpretation of deconstruction (Healing Deconstruction).

    The complex/simple difference isn’t just an anglophone concern. Of course, anglophone folks use different words, but plex/pli/fold is a continental concern, hence the quote I mention about “not erasing the folds.”

    Right, Avital Ronnel could definitely be added to the list of contemporary thinkers working with deconstruction. She stays very close to Derridean style guidelines. I don’t think sounding like Derrida is an important part of doing deconstruction. As someone who works with ecological philosophy a lot, people like Jean-Luc Nancy, Vicky Kirby, Tim Morton, and David Wood are much more interesting to me. Mark C. Taylor is another person who could be added to the list, particularly in the register of theology and religion.

    I can’t imagine calling Nancy, Caputo, or Spivak constructionist as opposed to deconstructionist. They have very constructive or inventive aspects of their thought, but that’s crucial for deconstruction. As Derrida says: “Deconstruction is inventive or it is nothing at all.”

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