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This review appeared in Volume 10 (1) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

The Politics of Deconstruction

by Rex Butler

Derrida and the Political. By Richard Beardsworth. London: Routledge. 1996. 174 pp. ISBN 0-415-10966-3

The implications of Derrida's work for ethics and politics have been discussed for a long time now. On the one hand, deconstruction has been attacked by both traditional left and liberal positions. The British Marxist Terry Eagleton characterises it as an "appropriate ideological form for late capitalist society" (Eagleton 1984: 99), while the German theorist of "communicative rationality" Jürgen Habermas says only that it marks the collapse of those "validity claims" that would allow directed action (Habermas 1992: 209). Or, from the same perspective, deconstruction has been seen as a form of political liberation. Examples of this approach include Michael Ryan's Marxism and Deconstruction and Gregory Ulmer's Applied Grammatology. On the other hand, a number of Derrida's critics argue that deconstruction constitutes a profound challenge to our usual ways of thinking about politics, that there is no way of understanding it as either radical or conservative, of aligning it with existing polarities without also transforming them. Amongst the many examples of this second approach, we might mention Simon Critchley's The Ethics of Deconstruction and Jean-Luc Nancy's The Inoperative Community, and the special issues of Pli, the Warwick Journal of Philosophy, on the 'Responsibilities of Deconstruction', and the American journal Diacritics on the connection -- inspired by the then-recently published Spectres of Marx -- between Marx and Derrida.

One of the many innovative things about Richard Beardsworth's Derrida and Politics is that it does not, in fact, extensively treat those Derrida texts that appear most explicitly to engage with "political" themes: Spectres of Marx, The Other Heading, On the Right to Philosophy. Indeed, in a way not often approached even by those commentators who do understand deconstruction as involving a reconceptualisation of politics, Beardsworth sees the "political" aspects of deconstruction not as something directly or thematically expressed by it but as inhabiting its very structure. Politics is not something it may or may not choose to address, but is implied by it from the very beginning. As Beardsworth says in the opening chapter of his book: "My aim is not to politicise [Derrida's writings] regarding language and literature, nor to derive a politics from them. It is to show how [his work] regarding language and literature, by exceeding what we normally understand by these terms, as well as their fields of interest and influence, constitutes a serious engagement with the future of thinking and acting"(1). And it is this engagement itself that is political.

What is notable about Beardsworth's book, then -- and it is this which constitutes its distinction even from those other studies that understand this different notion of politics implied -- is the very "deferral" of any direct political consequences for Derrida's work (only to argue they are there all along). Throughout almost its entire length, he does not discuss what we usually regard as the burning political issues of our day: human rights, the distribution of wealth, the environment. In a sense, therefore, it is all the more effective -- a veritable coup de théâtre -- when towards the end of the book Beardsworth does finally proffer a recognisably political remark, apropos an interview the French-Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas conducted after the Israeli bombing of the Palestinian refugee camps at Shatila and Sabra in 1982. In this interview, when it is put to him by his interlocutor that, according to his own philosophy, the ethical "other" to the Jew must be the Palestinian, and that hence all care must be paid to him, Levinas replies that there is also a certain "limit" to this defence of one's neighbour. There is "also" (144) a responsibility towards the Palestinian victims, but this comes after or is secondary to that towards Israeli Jews as the very embodiment of the "other". As Beardsworth paraphrases: "the non-place of alterity has become the place of Israel's borders. And this because alterity is 'being-Jewish in every man'" (144). Beardsworth then continues, but it is, of course, his own irony that is cruel here: "The irony of Levinas' philosophy is cruel" (144).

The real strength of Beardsworth's approach, however -- a result of the concern he has for analysing philosophical systems in their own terms before pursuing their philosophical implications -- is that he is able to show how Levinas' response here, beyond any all-too-human prejudice or error, is fundamentally the outcome of a difficulty he has in thinking "otherness". Drawing on Derrida's well known piece, 'Violence and Metaphysics: An Essay on the Thought of Emmanuel Levinas', Beardsworth is able to make the point that Derrida's seemingly obscure quibble there about the necessity for a certain ontology in Levinas' system, the impossibility he would have in simply prioritising ethics over ontology, is exactly what is at stake in Levinas' comments about the relative degrees of "otherness" in Jews and Palestinians. For precisely what Levinas is not properly able to think -- but what always returns within his thought -- is the requirement for a certain comparison or measure between the same and the other. That is, the necessity for something in common -- a shared medium or material -- to allow us to think their very difference. It isLevinas' refusal to contemplate this, in other words, the necessity for an ethics of otherness to submit to a certain being, that means he is unable to assess the rival claims of Israel and Palestine; or, rather, as his comments in the interview suggest, he does in fact judge without being able to acknowledge it, without any real way of evaluating what is involved in doing so.

To put it another way, if what is implied here is an aporia between the same and the other -- in which we both must and cannot distinguish between them -- what Levinas misses is the necessity to distinguish between them. Being aporetic, however -- that is, unable to choose one alternative without the other -- this necessity always returns. Levinas does end up preferring one party over the other, defining one as the same and one as the other. In not thinking through this necessity to decide, Levinas thereby loses the proper sense of the limits to or impossibility of deciding. Although it is never finally a matter of resolving this aporia or even of taking it into account, he is able, without seeing the "irony", to speak of Israel as the very place of the other. If he starts out as opposed to Heidegger's determination of Being as German, he nevertheless ends up repeating him in simply leaving it undetermined -- or, in doing so, he ends up defining it regardless: the Other is Israel. As Beardsworth writes:

In apparent opposition to Heidegger's philosophy of presentation Levinas goes too far in the other direction, losing the aporia of the law by surrendering a differentiated articulation between the other and the same [...] The effect of this loss is the loss in turn of the incalculable nature of the relation between the other and its others (the community at large) [...] The second effect is that of a politics of locality at the very moment that Levinas is thinking, contra Heidegger's understanding of authentic Unheimlichkeit, the other as 'non-place'. We shall therefore see that Levinas' very resistance to Heidegger's conflation of logic and time leads him at the same time to a political logic of aporia (124-5).

Earlier in the same chapter, Beardsworth takes up the case of Heidegger and his infamous "accommodation" with the Nazi authorities throughout the years 1933-4. Here, through a reading of Derrida's Of the Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, he is able to show how Heidegger's political thinking is in a way the antithesis of Levinas': not so much a failure to ontologise the other as to see the limits of this ontologisation, the necessity for a certain ethics. It is this ontologisation, of course, that Levinas has already protested against and tried to elaborate an alternative to in his own philosophy; but the complicated path Beardsworth, followingDerrida, must tread is how to distance himself from Heidegger while at the same time acknowledging the unsurpassability of his discovery, how in a sense the other always has to be ontologised (123-4). Heidegger seeks to present the aporia between the same and the other in wanting to determine it, while Levinas merely sees it as unpresentable: "Neither, therefore, articulates adequately the limit between the unpresentable and presentation, that is, the limit between aporia and decision" (104). How to think at once the necessity of a certain ontologisation of the other while not reducing it to ontology? This is the very problem of politics itself for Beardsworth. It is, we might say, the question of how to reconcile politics in the worldly sense (programmes, platforms, policies) -- what the French call la politique -- and the non-narratable, non-deducible ideals that guide politics -- le politique. (It is the "distinction", if we can recall the terms of Beardsworth's first chapter discussion of Derrida's important late essay 'Force of Law: The "Mystical Foundation of Authority"', between law and justice: "It turns out that droit [law] claims to exercise itself in the name of justice and that justice is required to establish itself in the name of a law that must be 'enforced'" (Derrida 1992: 22.)

This aporia between the same and the other, the presentable and the unpresentable, is the essential subject of politics for Beardsworth, and one he is to return to many times throughout his book. How are these two realms, which we might also call the "empirical" and the "transcendental", to interact? In the opening chapter, in the first of the paired case studies that make up the text, Beardsworth looks at two different conceptions of the singular: the first that of Claude Lévi-Strauss in his Tristes Tropiques; the second that of Franz Kafka as seen in his short story 'Before the Law'. Although Lévi-Strauss is aware of the disparity in power between European ethnology and those native communities it studies, Beardsworth is able to show how he cannot help replaying this imbalance even in his attempts to correct it. Beardsworth speaks of the way that the keeping of secrets, the prohibition against speaking the name in native societies, is only possible as an effect of the symbolic power of language; that it is only on the basis that the proper as such is lost that the name referring to it and even its interdiction can come about (22). It is the necessary "violence" of this law forbidding linguistic appropriation -- the analogy with the anthropologist trying to protect the integrity of his field of study is obvious -- that Lévi-Strauss is unable to think and that means, within a certain "economy of violence", he is unable to choose the "lesser" violence (24). Kafka, on the other hand, reflecting one of the "privileges" of art andliterature, is literally able to "re-mark" (26) this impossibility of reconciling the law and its applications, to show how the effect of "singularity" as what exceeds the law does not so much come before it like some kind of secret, but only after it. (It is "before" the law in another sense.)

In his second chapter, Beardsworth takes up the debate between Kant and Hegel over the limits to human knowledge, the status of ethics and morality as what cannot be reduced to cognition, what must always remain a question of faith. For Kant, it is always a matter of philosophy specifying and respecting these limits: morality can only be guaranteed and exercised in the freedom of the "unconditioned" (52). For Hegel, however, this is no solution because this limit and its freedom are always implicitly determined by what is known. The transcendental is never really transcendental, but only ever a reflection of the world as it is. In Beardsworth's resonant paraphrase: "Kant thereby leaves the world exactly where it stands, suspended, in all its bourgeois ugliness" (53). As opposed to Kant's indetermination of the limit between the transcendental and the empirical, Hegel proposes its mediation via the Sittlichkeit of the Volk, the identity of the universal and the particular in the "ethical life" of the "people" (75). Finally, in his third chapter, as we have already seen, Beardsworth takes up Heidegger and Levinas on the time and space of the other: neither simply ontological and localisable (Heidegger) nor ethical and unlocalisable (Levinas).

In each case here, Beardsworth is able to bring out the "undecidable" nature of this aporia of alterity. Thus, the discussion of Kafka in Chapter 1 allows us to think that, despite Lévi-Strauss' attempts to respect the native other, to maintain a distance from it, this is only to circumscribe it all the more, an effect of the "suppression of originary difference" (23). In Chapter 2, Beardsworth takes Hegel's point that Kant's defence of the limits to human knowledge is already implicitly to determine them -- and the book in general is very good on the simplifications involved in the strident anti-Hegelianism of much French post-structuralism, and Derrida's distance from this (47-8) -- but also points out that Hegel himself attempts to resolve the aporia produced as a mere dialectical "contradiction" (91), with the subsequent ontologisation of this left-over in that great post-Hegelian Marx (94). In Chapter 3, similarly, Beardsworth shows both the limit to Heidegger's localisation of the aporia of time and space as German "Dasein" (114) and to all attempts by Levinas to avoid this, the way that this fixing always ends up taking place (135-6). (In fact, in this last case at least, we might say that Beardsworth's commendable desire for expository clarity by means of these paired examples, as thoughthey spoke to each other, were two "sides" of the same problem, potentially leads him into difficulties. Can we truly say, as seems to be implied, that Heidegger's and Levinas' respective "injustices" and "misunderstandings" are of the same order? Is Levinas' support for a militaristic and Zionist Jewish state the "match" and "counterpart" of Heidegger's support of the anti-Semitic genocide of the Nazis? Though Beardsworth's book is coolly and dispassionately written -- and to its credit does not fall into the ultimately unproductive trap of speaking of a philosopher's "mistakes" and "errors" or of trying to save their work against its supposed "abuses" -- this is perhaps something that might be looked into. Beardsworth himself briefly alludes to the issue (153), but we wonder if indeed his argument here is over-determined by the logical structure of the book; or, to repeat his own criticism of Levinas, whether his presentation of the aporia between the presentable and the unpresentable is at times insufficiently "political" (104).)

But if this simultaneous necessity and impossibility of determining the other is the essential problem of politics for Beardsworth, this does not mean that it is in any way a matter of resolving it. It is not a question of siding with any one of those interlocutors above, suggesting that they have the answer. (If literature is in some sense privileged, it is because this simultaneity is better able to be marked there: literature is the space of this "law of the law" (25).) The attempt to resolve this aporia undoubtedly defines a certain politics, perhaps politics as such. For Beardsworth, however, what is crucial to think is how it can never be simply overcome; or, if it always has to be for there to be law and literature at all, how in this itself something always escapes, precisely the singular, let us say the literal. In this sense, as Beardsworth emphasises, all efforts to resolve this aporia can only be temporary, must always be repeated. Or, perhaps more plainly, they must take time into account. If we wanted to summarise Beardsworth's argument at this point, we would say that it proposes a politics of time: time as both the aporia of something both being and not being at the same time (Aristotle) and as that necessary reiteration of all signifying marks (Derrida). Indeed, time is this necessary reiteration of all signs. Beardsworth's politics of time is also a politics of the sign. As he says:

It is futile to approach Derrida's philosophy in political terms unless one has 'come to terms' with the reach of his understanding of originary repetition. It is equally futile to talk of Derrida's thinking in strictly political terms, or to derive a politics from it, without arresting this thinking within a originary structure of repetition and contamination forwhich it wishes, precisely, to render an account (18).

It is in this context, finally, that we might go back and look again at what will doubtless strike many readers as the most notable feature of Beardsworth's book: the virtual absence of "politics" in a volume ostensibly devoted to the subject. As we have seen, however, this can in part be explained because so much of the book is devoted to a reading of the problem of the presentation of the other within a series of philosophical texts, what would allow us -- in all seriousness -- to begin to address the question of the political in Derrida's work. But, in another sense, this delay in presenting any immediate consequences of Derrida's thought is just that "différance" Beardsworth is trying to confront us with. A politics based on Derrida's thought would be precisely a questioning of the im-mediate, the direct connection between a body of thought and any practical outcome, the ability to say that something necessarily entails something else. Politics for Beardsworth is a passage through the unprogrammed, the unpredictable, chance, just like that famous "purloined letter" which arrives only on the basis that it might not have. Again, this is not to say that all political thinking is undetermined and arbitrary, but rather that the effects of these mediations must always be -- impossibly -- taken into account. Indeed, in perhaps the most important connection the book makes, the determined (the "technical") and the undetermined (the "promise") must be seen as two sides of the same process (155). This process -- this is why it is once more a question of the sign -- is iteration. As Beardsworth says, making a connection between Derrida's earliest work involving the radicalisation of the sign in Husserlian phenomenology and his more recent political excursions:

What we have seen is that the 'method' of deconstruction, its reorganisation of the empirico-transcendental difference, leads to a 'middle ground' [...] As the condition of the possibility of all marks as well as the condition of their essential contamination, this 'middle ground' can be neither instituted nor projected as a horizon or end of thinking or action. There can, accordingly, be no 'politics' of deconstruction. Deconstruc-tion's concern to recognise the 'middle ground' of all marks does not, however, make it apolitical. Almost the contrary (19).

Derrida and the Political, therefore, is not simply the best account so far of the question of the "political" in Derrida's work, but also one of the clearest and most far-reaching accounts of his arguments with both phenomenology (Husserl) and structuralism (Saussure, Lévi-Strauss) and their respective concepts of the sign. It is impossible to do justice to therigour and originality of Beardsworth's various readings here, not only of Derrida's own texts but also those of, especially, Kant, Hegel, Heidegger and Levinas. In fact, we are tempted to say that it is "authoritative", essentially correct, about Derrida's work in a way that very few other commentators are (Samuel Weber and Geoffrey Bennington are two others who come to mind). In other words, it can be relied upon for the validity of its interpretations; it sets the horizon within which all future readings of Derrida must take place. As a result, when in his Conclusion Beardsworth is critical of a number of aspects of Derrida's work, this is not as is usually the case a matter of begging the question, putting objections to it that do not really apply to it. As with Rodolph Gasché's term "quasi-transcendental" -- which is even used by Derrida himself as a way of articulating what he is trying to do -- it exerts a kind of pressure upon Derrida's work; it allows us a perspective onto it that is not simply Derrida's own. (The paradox here of how it is only through a highly authoritative reading of Derrida's work that we are able to challenge its authority would be well worth following up.)

In his Conclusion, Beardsworth, through a reading of a book by one of Derrida's own students that he has recently translated -- Bernard Stiegler's Technics and Time I: The Fault of Epimetheus -- raises the question of whether there is a certain underdetermination in Derrida's notion of the other with regard to technology. That is, whether in his discussion of technology Derrida does not consider enough in practical terms how this other is determined, which is to say both brought under control and produced. As Beardsworth writes: "Quasi-transcendental analysis remains [in this case] the other of the logics which it deconstructs, thereby remaining itself logical. Derrida's mobilisation of the aporia of time, as irreducible to the logical and the technical, is a logic! It refuses to lose itself in matter, in technics!" (154) Perhaps this complaint can even be extended. For what Beardsworth puts his finger on here is the sense that at times there is an unacceptably high degree of generalisation and factual indetermination in Derrida's political statements. We think the widening of this accusation is certainly implied by what he says. But the crucial thing -- missing in all other similar contentions we know of -- is that Beardsworth is thoroughly aware of the philosophical context in which such arguments have to be made. On the one hand, that is, he knows that Derrida's work is always in a sense determined, that he cannot simply leave its context open. On the other hand, he also knows that it can never be entirely determined, that any attempt to do so would necessarily fail.The paradox of Beardsworth's position, therefore -- one which at once he knows and is beyond him -- is that he is asking Derrida to do something that he both cannot and cannot fail to do. How to negotiate this aporia -- which in a way is that between the particular and the universal -- is the very question of justice and politics. (And Beardsworth himself speaks of this in terms of that impossible choice between a "left-wing" -- active, determinant -- and "right-wing" -- passive, undetermined -- Derrida at the very end of his book (156-7).)

We can even see Derrida himself "responding" to all of this. In 1996 he released the book Echographies, a series of texts and interviews on the subject of television with Stiegler himself. It is precisely that attention to the "irreducibility of the aporia of time to technics" (149) and the "mediation between the human and the nonhuman" (154) Beardsworth demands. And in a sense we cannot but see it as a response to Beardsworth's book, such is its power. It testifies in a manner beyond anything we could do here as to why we are henceforth unable to read Derrida outside of the issues Beardsworth raises, cannot but see Derrida in dialogue with him. There are very few secondary texts on Derrida that we would recommend reading with -- let alone instead of or as an introduction to -- Derrida's own. Derrida and Politics is one of them.


Critchley, Simon (1992). The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas. Blackwell: Oxford.

Derrida, Jacques (1990). On the Right to Philosophy [Du droit à la philosophie]. Paris: Galilée.

--- (1992). The Other Heading: Reflections on Today's Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

--- (1992). 'Force of Law: The "Mystical Foundation of Authority"', in Cornell, Drucilla et al. (ed.), Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice. New York: Routledge.

--- (1994). Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. New York: Routledge.

--- (1996). Echographies -- de la télévision. Paris: Galilée. Diacritics. 'Marx After Derrida'. Winter 1985.

Eagleton, Terry (1984). The Function of Criticism: From the Spectator to Post-Structuralism. London: Verso. Habermas, Jürgen (1992). Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Nancy, Jean-Luc (1991). The Inoperative Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Pli, Warwick Journal of Philosophy. 'Responsibilities of Deconstruction'. Vol. 6, Summer 1997.

Ryan, Michael (1982). Marxism and Deconstruction: A Critical Articulation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Stiegler, Bernard (1997). Technics and Time I: The Fault of Epimetheus. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Ulmer, Gregory (1985). Applied Grammatology: Post(e) Pedagogy from Jacques Derrida to Joseph Beuys. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rex Butler is a Lecturer at the Department of Art History, University of Queensland, Australia. He has written a book on contemporary Australian art, An Uncertain Smile (Sydney, Artspace), and edited an anthology of writings, What is Appropriation? (Melbourne: World Art Books).

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