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Jacques Derrida: Live Theory

James K. A. Smith

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Continuum
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@ James K. A Smith 2005

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any
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publishers.

British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

ISBN 0-8264-6280-4 (hardback)
0-8264-6281-2(paperback)

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Smith, K. A., 1970-

Jacques Derrida: live theory/James Smith.
p.cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-8264-6280--4-ISBN 0-8264-6281-2 (pbk.)

1. Derrida, Jacques. I. Title.
B2430.D484S54 2005
194-dc22 2005048474

Typeset by RefineCatch Limited, Bungay, Suffolk
Printed and bound in Great Britain by
MPG Books Ltd., Bodmin

For Jim Olthuis and jack Caputo:
teachers, mentors, friends,

and deconstructors par excellence

Deconstruction as such is reducible to neither a method nor an ana{ysis . . . .
That is why it is not negative, even though it has often been interpreted as such despite
all sorts qf warning. For me, it alwqys accompanies an qffirmative exigerlo/. I would

even sqy that is never proceeds without love.
--Jacquesi>errida, 1982

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66 Jacques Derrida: Live Theory

begin to emerge onto the centre stage of Derrida's work. But once
again, we shouldn't overinterpret this development; there is no Damas-
cus road experience for Derrida, no garden conversion; Derrida didn't
'get religion' at some kind of philosophical revival. Rather, there is an
intimate link between Derrida's work on justice and his interest in
religion. The link is the tandem of two of the most important figures
that have sha)?ed Derrida's thought: Emmanuel Levinas and Soren
Kierkegaard.(As he noted in the same 1989 lecture, for Levinas, the
relation to the other is a question of justice (FL, 22), and Levinas names
this relation religion. The call that resounds in this relation, what the
Other calls us to, is hospitality - making room for the Other, receiving
the Other as wholly OthefJ It would then be Kierkegaard that helps
Derrida articulate the axiom that every other is wholly other (in Gift qf Death).
So the emergence of themes of justice, ethics, religion and hospitality in
Derrida's later corpus represents not something new in the heart of
deconstruction, but rather an intensification of its original vocation and
apostolate as an advocate for alterity. In this chapter we will trace these
themes in key works from the last decade or so, beginning with the
question oflaw, moving to a more explicit consideration of the Levinasian
moment of Derrida's work, and finally considering the shape of a
deconstructive politics in what Derrida calls a 'democracy to come'.
This will also give us an opportunity to see deconstruction at work 'on
the ground', so to speak, addressing concrete questions of immigration
policy, international law and crimes against humanity.

3.1 Deconstruction as Justice: A Legal
Hauntology
When it comes to matters of law and justice, deconstruction is a gadfly
which seeks to do nothing more than remind the powers-that-be of their
finitude. Indeed, Derrida remains convinced that we are visited with the
most crushing injustice precisely when rulers, institutions, and their
agents .forget the finitude oflaw- forget that our ~ven institutions always
already fail to measure up to the call ofjustice.tWhen the powers-that-
be begin enacting policies that traffic under the triumphant banner of
'Operation Infinite justice', Derrida would like to do nothing more than
tap these 'world leaders' on the shoulder and point out the structural
impossibilities of such claims, reminding them (and us) of the limits of
law in the name qfjustice}rhis reminder- this quasi-prophetic function of
simply pointing out the finitude of law - is justice: that is why Derrida

Welcoming the Other: Ethics, Hospitality, Religion 67

could proclaim, without prophetic pretension, that 'deconstruction is
justice' (FL, 15). For to point out the limits of law and given socio-
political institutions (the state, international law, the university, etc.) is to
have one's eye on something other, that to which they don't quite (ever)
measure up. In other words, this painstaking indication of the limits of
given institutions lives off what these institutions are not (yet), what they
fail to be, but to which they are also called to be and to which they are
responsible. Derrida undertakes the work of deconstruction (of law, for
instance) in the name of what is undeconstructible (namely, justice [FL,
14]). Thus, he emphasizes that deconstruction inserts itself into the
difference between the two: 'deconstruction takes place in the interval
that separates the undeconstructability of justice from the deconstructi-
bility of droit' (FL, 15). In the language of Specters qf Marx, we could say
that justice haunts the law and its institutions, comes back (from its future)
to disturb us and keep us awake at night, reminding us that the law has
some answering to do to justice, that the law answers to justice for its
in~stices.

LBy inhabiting this slippage between law and justice - or more for-
mally, between given institutions and institutions 'to come' - Derrida is
not interested in simply demeaning the given configurations of our
institutions, let alone out to destroy such institutions. Rather, he aims to
'bring them to justice', we might say- which doesn't mean (as in the
code of current political parlance) seeking revenge on such institutions
or 'hunting them down', but ~ather calling them to something better, to
more just configurationSJ The ghosts of justice that haunt our current
practices and institutions - like the ghosts that haunted Hamlet or
Scrooge - come to us with invitations: tbe.)Unvite __ us to see things other-
"Y_i§e~ and to then participate in effecting a transformation. Like the
'spectre' of Communism that Marx and Engels claimed was haunting
Europe- that is, calling Europe to different configurations, to be an other
Europe - so deconstruction is a witness to the hauntings of justice (see
The Other Heading). This is closer to the 'proper' monstrosity of
deconstruction - its vocation as a ghoulish threat to those who would
identify given configurations oflaw or given institutions as just, as having
secured or arrived at justice (as when an American President can calmly
appeal to the 'goodness' of America and thus justifY the extermination
of 'evildoers'). And precisely because the powers-that-be are interested
in securing the 'justness' of their policies, any deconstructive threat
to such self-confidence is construed as 'relativism' or 'nihilism' (or
'anti-Americanism').

We might say that there is a certain eschatology that is central to

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68 Jacques Derrida: Live Theory

Derrida's work, albeit a quasi-eschatology. 129tfhe haunting and destabil-
ization of given laws and institutions is undertaken with a view to a
future 'to come' -characterized, as we'll see, by a certain messianic wait-
ing1 So while Derrida interrogates 'the idea of an eschaton or telos in the
absolute formulations of classical philosophy', he emphasizes that this
'does not mean that I dismiss all forms of Messianic or prophetic
eschatology. I think that all genuine questioning is summoned by a cer-
tain type of eschatology, though it is impossible to define this eschatology
in philosophical terms.' 130 This eschatology underwrites a prophetic
critique of injustice which, more often than not, is the result of institu-
tions and the powers that govern them.forgetting the future -forgetting
this eschatological not-yet and identifYing given configurations with the
arrival of justice (a kind of realized eschatology).[Deconstruction is just-
ice because it remembers the future, remembers that justice has not yet
arrived, and reminds us that we have not yet 'arrived'; therefore the
institutions and laws we have created fail to measure up, in all kinds of
ways, to the vision of an institutional order 'to comel

Before exploring this further, it might be helpful to consider a few
concrete examples or 'cases' that will illustrate Derrida's concern and
give a picture of how deconstruction 'operates' on this score.

3.1.1 Opening Borders: Asylum, Immigration and Cities
of Refuge

~ustice, for.Derrida~ is ~os~itality: ~elcoming the other. Thus,~e is most
mterested m those mstltutwns which are called to be paradigmatic sites
of welcome but which, in their current configurations (undergirded, as
they are, by just the kind of metaphysical assumptions he has called into
question since the 1960s), have become J<-Stems of closure, shutting
down hospitality by shutting out the other.JThus he has shown a par-
ticular interest in questions of immigration and international law,
heightened no doubt by disturbing tendencies in France (and elsewhere
in Europe, particularly Germany and the Netherlands) which have given
rise to new justifications of xenophobia and shutting down borders in
order to protect against the threat of (especially Muslim) immigrants to
'French identity' (a major theme in Jean-Marie Le Pen's recent cam-
paign). In this context, in 1996, Derrida delivered an important address
to the International Parliament of Writers - an organization that seeks
to be an advocate for writers who are considered dissidents by their
hom~ nations and thus silenced. (fhe Charter of the IPW focuses on
creatmg a network of 'Cities of Asylum' - drawing on the biblical

Welcoming the Other: Ethics, Hospitality, Religion 69

notion of'cities of refuge' (Num. 35.9-32) -where writers could escape
oppressive regimes and be welcomed into democratic spaces that would
giye t:ll~~_XQiceJ

Tiemda took this proposal as an occasion for thinking about the very
nature and conditions of hospitality as such.(Because hospitality is ethics
for Derrida, what is at stake in considering hospitality as such is not just
international law or immigration but also the nature of intersubjective
relationshipS') It is in the consideration of hospitality, we might suggest,
that we get something like Derrida's philosophical anthropology. By
thinking about this in terms of the city (the 'city of refuge'), he was taking
up an ancient strategy for discussing the nature of the human person:
when Plato wanted to discuss the matter of justice, and ultimately the
nature of the just person, he first engaged in a thought project: 'first
we'll investigate what justice is like in the cities', Socrates asserted.
'Then, we'll also go on to consider it in individuals, considering the
likeness of the bigger in the idea of the smaller' (Republic 368e-69a). The
city, then, was considered as a macro-exemplar of the individual person.
In a way, Derrida takes up a similar strategy: 'cosmopolitanism' poseS\
the question of the relation between states and their citizens in a way
that will function as a 'large scale' version of the relations between
persons on a micro-level. The result is a new 'cosmopolitics' oriented .
around the core value of hospitality. --~

Derrida suggests that the 'Charter for the Cities of Refuge' is an
occasion to re-think the nature of hospitality- the 'right to asylum' and
the corresponding 'duty to hospitality'. This is occasioned by a particu-
lar context: the realities of global violence and persecution, often car-
ried out by and in the name of the state, or in a way that the state is
powerless to prevent ( OCF, 5-6). On top of this is the erosion of asylum-
granting in Europe and elsewhere. Here, the supposed 'distinction'
between economic and political immigration becomes problematic:
nation-states will grant political asylum 'only to those who cannot expect
the slightest economic benefit upon immigration'. But what kind of
welcome is that? '[H]ow can a purely political refugee claim to have
been truly welcomed into a new settlement without entailing some form
of economic gain' (OCF, 12)? And ifwe take the specific case ofwriters
(the focus of the IPW), if a writer is seeking asylum precisely because she
or he has been silenced, this silencing is not 'purely' political but obvi-
ously also entails an economic impact: the political censorship has also
compromised one's profession and livelihood. If the 'Cities of Refuge'
will welcome writers, this would clearly also entail an economic benefit,
since the writers would finally be free to practise their craft.

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148 Notes

Derrida - perhaps in the sense in which polite society in the Morningside
district of Edinburgh used to talk of cats being taken to the vet to be
"improved".' See Bennington, 'For the Sake of Argument (Up to a Point)',
Ratio (new series) 13.4 (2000), pp. 332--45 (p. 336).

223. See the special issue of Ratio (new series) 13.4 (2000), with contributions
from Glendinning, Bennington, A. W. Moore, Stephen Mulhall, Thomas
Baldwin and Darren Sheppard, with responses from Derrida.

224. Derrida in ibid., pp. 351, 381.
225. Alain Badiou, /'!finite Thought: Truth and the &turn to Philosophy, trans. and

eds Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens (London: Continuum, 2003),
pp. 45-6.

226. Ibid., p. 48.
227. Ibid., p. 56.
228. See, for instance, Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime 0/Jject I![ Ideology (London:

Verso, 1989), pp. 153-200; and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Five Inter-
ventions in the (Mis)Use I![ a Notion (London: Verso, 2002), pp. 141-189. For
a critique of Derrida's 'religion without religion', see Zizek, The Puppet and
the Dwarf: The Perverse Core I![ Christianiry (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
2003), pp. 5--6, 139--43.

{229. Terry Eagleton, 4fter Theory (Cambridge, MA: Basic Books, 2003), pp. 46,
L 153--62.
230. Ibid., p. 165.
231. Ibid., p. 160. For Eagleton, this also points to the need for a certain reasser-

tion of theology and the concrete practices of religious communities. As
such, he echoes the critique ofDerrida offered by 'Radical Orthodoxy' in
the work of Graham Ward and John Milbank. See especially Ward, True
Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003) and John Milbank, The Word Made
Strange (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), pp. 219--32 and Being Reconciled (London:
Routledge, 2003), pp. 138--61. I have discussed this further in Introducing
Radical Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), pp. 240--3.

Chapter 5

232. Even the imposition of the word 'theory' in the title is a bit of an injustice.
As Derrida once noted, 'I never use the word "theory" in the way that you
do here; I don't use the word "theory" after you, after the Americans and
English speakers.' So if one talks about working 'after theory', Derrida
remarks that he 'would translate this into French as "life after philosophy",
after deconstruction, after literature' ('Following Theory', p. 8).

233. Derrida once remarked: 'In certain cases, the interviews may orient
someone toward a reading of the books. For the greatest majority, how-
ever, they "take the place of'; an image is constructed that gets along very
well without texts, without books. And I find that worrisome' (Points, 154).

234. 'Between Brackets', in Points, 5-29, conducted in September 1975. A
I

, I

Notes 149

follow-up interview was conducted in late October 19 7 5 and is republished
as ']a, or thefoux-bond' in Points, 30--77. Both employ a similar strategy.

235. Or consider the case ofDerrida'sfaux-dialogue with Le Monde, in which he
cites a Latin phrase (again in brackets), to which his interlocutor responds:
'So now you're speaking Latin over the telephone?' (Points, 178).

236. Jacques Derrida, 'Passions: "An Oblique Offering",' in On the Name,
Thomas Dutoit, (ed.) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), p. 23.

237. These risks of response are discussed in ibid., pp. 18-21.
238. Ibid., p. 21.
239. The risks ofnonresponse are outlined in ibid., pp. 21-2.
240. See, for instance, MP, pp. xiii-xvi.
241. Ibid., p. 13.
242. See/HOG45n.37, 72n.70; MP 121.
243. 'Deconstruction and the Other', p. 119.
244. 'Derrida seems to me as good a humanist as Mill or Dewey. When Der-

rida talks about deconstruction as prophetic of "the democracy that is to
come", he seems to me to be expressing the same utopian social hope as
was felt by these earlier dreamers' (Rorty, 'Remarks on Deconstruction
and Pragmatism', p. 14).

245. Derrida, 'Remarks on Deconstruction and Pragmatism', p. 83.
246. Jacques Derrida, 'The Last of the Rogue States: The "Democracy to

Come", Opening in Two Turns', trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael
Naas, in South Altantic Qyarterly 103 (2004), 329, 331.

24 7. Ibid., p. 333.
248. See 'The Villanova Roundtable: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida', in

Deconstruction in aNutshell,John D. Caputo, (ed.) (Bronx, NY: Fordham Uni-
versity Press, 1997), pp. 23--4. The same hesitation is seen in 'Foi et savoir'.

249. Derrida, 'The "World" of the Enlightenment to Come', p. 52.
250. Ibid., p. 48.
251. 'For a Justice to Come: An Interview with Jacques Derrida', first published

in De Standaard Letteren, March 18, 2004, available (in French, English, and
Dutch) at http:/ /www.brusselstribunal.org/derrida.htm.

252. Derrida, Sur parole, p. 45.
253. 'For a Justice to Come', op. cit.
254. 'For aJustice to Come'.
255. See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: Jtar and Democracy in the

Age I![ Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004), pp. 99--100.
256. 'For aJustice to Come'.
257. Jacques Derrida, 'The University Without Condition', in Without Alibi,

and trans. Peggy Kamuf, (ed.) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002),
p. 208.

258. 'For aJustice to Come'.
259. Derrida, 'The "World" of the Enlightenment to Come', p. 45.
260. Derrida, 'Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides', pp. 116-17.
261. Derrida, 'Following Theory', p. 26.

Page 84

150 Notes

Bibliography
262. For other bibliographic efforts, see Joan Nordquist, Jacques Derrida: A

Bibliography, Social Theory: A Bibliographic Series, No. 2 (Research and
Reference Services, 1986); James Hulbert, Jacques Derrida: An Annotated
Bibliography, Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, No. 534
(London: Taylor & Francis, 1988); William R. Schultz and Lewis L. B.
Fried, Jacques Derrida: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography,
Garland Bibliographies of Modern Critics and Critical Schools, Vol. 19
(London: Taylor & Francis, 1993) - a work of 882 pages; and Joan
Nordquist, Jacques Derrida II: A Bibliography, Social Theory: A Biblio-
graphic Series, No. 37 (Research & Reference Services, 1995). Geoffrey
Bennington provides an almost exhaustive bibliography of Derrida's
works up to 1990 in Bennington and Derrida, Jacques Derrida, pp. 356-73.
See also the bibliography complied by Peter Krapp at http:/ I
www.hydra.umn.edu/ derrida/jdyr.html.

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