In the “Fifth Study” of his The Idol and Distance, Jean-Luc Marion asks a “brutal question.” His question is whether “distance,” which refers primarily to the distance between the human and the divine, would “amount to the ontological difference” (200). That is, he wants to know whether the very possibility of a new thinking of God and the divine must first of all come to terms with Heidegger´s presentation of the difference between Being and beings. He quotes Martin Heidegger in Identity and Difference in order to underline two particular terms, namely, Unter-Schied, or, di-mension, and Austrag, or, conciliation. The quote reads:
If Being, in the sense of the uncovering Coming-over, and beings as such, in the sense of arrival that keeps itself concealed, realize themselves as different, they do so by virtue of the Same, of the di-mension. The latter alone grants and holds apart the “between,” in which the Coming-over and the Arrival are maintained in relation, separated one from the other and turned one toward the other. The difference of Being and beings, as di-mension of the Coming-over and the Arrival, is the uncovering and concealing Conciliation of the one and the other. (200-201)
We can bracket Marion´s own theological interests, which will of course lead him towards an understanding of Being beyond idolatry and representation but in the direction of paternal distance. We can simply point out that Unter-Schied and Austrag are also political terms, or rather, terms that have a bearing on political experience. One could even say that politics is the mediation of the two, in the most obvious of ways. I wonder whether the thought of the ontological difference has yet informed any explicit thought of the political, or rather whether it is the forgetting of the difference as such that still inspires political thought today, certainly against and in spite of Heidegger himself. And then of course there is Jacques Derrida.
Heidegger recommended a step-back from the forgetting of the difference, without which, he claimed, metaphysics would continue to obtain in all realms of human experience: “The step back goes from the unthought—from the difference as such—toward what it is necessary to think. That is, toward the forgetting of the difference. The forgetting that it is necessary to think here is the veiling thought on the basis of lethe (occultation), a veiling of the difference as such, a veiling that for its part has, from the origin, withdrawn itself” (Heidegger, quoted by Marion 206). How could we conceptualize a thinking of the political that would at the same time be commensurate to the difficulties of the step-back? We know that Heideggerian thought stopped short of such a task.
For Marion “the stakes of contemporary thought become to think nonmetaphysically the difference as such; but these stakes appear as a task and a test for such thought only inasmuch as, precisely, the passage from the difference towards metaphysics and what it leaves unthought had nothing accidental about it, but came from an historial rigor whose constraints we barely measure” (207). In his own critique of Derrida´s early attempts at dealing with the step-back through the very notion of differance, through which Marion determines that Derridian differance marginalizes the ontological difference “in favor of an older difference” (226) that “enframes it, situates it, and exceeds it” (232), Marion concludes that “Derrida´s path . . . leads us further forward, certainly not in the way of an answer, but in the seriousness of the question. But it is in these questions first that the seriousness of thought is experienced” (232). Marion, however, is tracing his critique in the wake of a thought of the divine that Derrida is said to forestall. What remains to be thought for us is whether the political occupies the place of the divine in Derrida´s register; in other words, whether “the stakes of contemporary thought,” in Marion´s phrase, are taken up by Derrida in the political field as an attempt to think politically starting from a nonmetaphysical understanding of the ontological difference. It is important to keep in mind Marion´s emphasis on the “historial rigor whose constraints we barely measure.” The possibility of a thought informed by the ontological difference is first a historical possibility, that is, a historial possibility, as it is nothing but a possibility opened up by history itself.
I believe we can find an indication along the same lines in the pages of Specters of Marx where Derrida talks about his need to come to terms with historicity. He prefaces it, as he prepares to initiate a commentary on Alexander Kojève´s famous footnote on post-history in his book on Hegel´s Phenomenology, with the remark: “A set of transformations of all sorts . . . exceeds both the traditional givens of the Marxist discourse and those of the liberal discourse opposed to it. Even if we have inherited some essential resources for projecting their analysis, we must first recognize that these mutations perturb the onto-theological schemas or the philosophies of technics as such. They disturb political philosophies and the common concepts of democracy, they oblige us to reconsider all relations between State and nation, man and citizen, the private and the public, and so forth” (70). And then he says: “This is where another thinking of historicity calls us beyond the metaphysical concept of history and the end of history, whether it be derived from Hegel or from Marx” (70).
It does not go without saying that Derrida´s engagement with Marx, because it is first of all an engagement with a certain understanding of historicity, cannot be understood as a mere critique of Marx or Marxism. It is fundamentally an engagement with an ontological understanding of history, summed up in the previous quote in the phrases “onto-theological schemas” and “philosophies of technics,” of which Marxism is very much a part. Consequently, the wager of Derrida´s political thought must be situated in a post-ontological understanding of the political. We must come to grips with what that means. If deconstructive politics are to be thought in their promise and possibility, they must first be understood as a post-ontological politics that attempt to come to terms with the ontological difference in the Heideggerian sense. Derrida himself points it out, although only tangentially, in the passage of Specters that culminates his reading of Marxian use-value. He says:
The commodity-form, to be sure, is not use-value, we must grant this to Marx and take account of the analytic power this distinction gives us. But if the commodity-form is not, presently, use-value, and even if it is not actually present, it affects in advance the use-value of the wooden table. It affects and bereaves it in advance, like the ghost it will become, but this is precisely where haunting begins. And its time, and the untimeliness of its present, of its being “out of joint.” To haunt does not mean to be present, and it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept. Of every concept, beginning with the concepts of being and time. That is what we would be calling here a hauntology. Ontology opposes it only in a movement of exorcism. Ontology is a conjuration. (161)
If ontology is a conjuration, if ontology, and that means, each and every one of them, is only an apotropaic warding-off, what it wards off is the ontological difference itself, which is the structural origin of every ghost and of every conjuration of the ghost. The theme of the time out of joint, which is a phrase that orchestrates not just the Derridean reading but both Heidegger´s essay on “The Fragment of Anaximander” and William Shakespeare´s Hamlet, and which runs like a leitmotiv through Specters, precisely indicates “hauntology” as the postontological avatar of ontology itself. But let us return to the Kojève passages. Derrida talks of Kojève´s reading of Hegel as “neo-Marxist and para-Heideggerian” (72). The secret of both designations is perhaps what Derrida ciphers in the last passage of the postscript to Kojève´s footnote. There Kojève says: “post-historical Man must/should continue to detach ‘forms’ from their ‘contents,’ doing this not in order to transform the latter actively, but in order to oppose himself as a pure ‘form’ to himself and to others, taken as whatever sorts of ‘contents’” (74). And Derrida´s commentary is:
This law should signify the following to us: in the same place, on the same limit, where history is finished, there where a certain determined concept of history comes to an end, precisely there the historicity of history begins, there finally it has a chance of heralding itself—of promising itself. There where man, a certain determined concept of man, is finished, there the pure humanity of man, of the other man and of man as other begins or has finally the chance of heralding itself—of promising itself. In an apparently inhuman or else a-human fashion. (74)
Let me suggest that the notion of the messianic, that is, the messianic without messianism that Derrida puts forth as a summary representation of his own commitment to a democracy-to-come, is derived from the very difference, hence the relation, between what we earlier named Unter-Schied and Austrag. The messianic, in Derrida´s conceptualization, is the excess that the ontological difference always already inscribes into the ontic. “It is this law,” Derrida says about the Kojèvian “man must/should,” “that dislodges any present out of its contemporaneity with itself. Whether the promise promises this or that, whether it be fulfilled or not, or whether it be unfulfillable, there is necessarily some promise and therefore some historicity as future-to-come” (73).
I can finally refer to what I earlier called an “indication” that Derrida´s thought on the political is the result of an engagement with the Heideggerian issues of historicity in the wake of the ontological difference. Indeed, in the last few paragraphs of Chapter Two in Specters Derrida even defines deconstruction along those lines, which means that deconstruction gets redefined in these pages as always already political deconstruction. My apology for the long quote:
A certain deconstructive procedure, at the one in which I thought I had to engage, consisted from the outset in putting into question the onto-theo- but also archeo-teleological concept of history—in Hegel, Marx, or even in the epochal thinking of Heidegger. Not in order to oppose it with an end of history or an anhistoricity, but, on the contrary, in order to show that this onto-theo-archeo-teleology locks up, neutralizes, and finally cancels historicity. It was then a matter of thinking another historicity—not a new history or still less a “new historicism,” but another opening of event-ness as historicity that permitted one not to renounce, but on the contrary to open up access to an affirmative thinking of the messianic and emancipatory promise as promise: as promise and not as onto-theological or teleo-eschatological program or design. Not only must one not renounce the emancipatory desire, it is necessary to insist on it more than ever, it seems, and insist on it, moreover, as the very indestructibility of the “it is necessay.” This is the condition of a re-politicization, perhaps of another concept of the political. (74)
A liberation of historicity, now against its sequestering in the historical thinking of Hegel, Marx, and “even” Heidegger, is for Derrida a condition of repoliticization and the opening of another concept of the political. This means that we must imagine a post-ontological politics, in a context in which post-ontological politics means deconstruction. It would be a politics where the game of arrival and concealment, of Austrag as conciliation, would not be spirited away towards the injustice of forgetting. This is perhaps all Derrida is saying or has ever said on the subject of politics, and the heart of his proposal for a democracy-to-come.
And yet, it was covered over right after it was said, and first of all by a Marxism singularly reluctant to abandon its own presuppositions. In Fredric Jameson´s response to Specters we can witness the operation in two simple steps, after the tongue-in-cheek recognition that Derrida´s position cannot be reconciled with ontology as such: “Derrida´s reserves about Marx, and even more strongly about the various Marxisms, all turn very specifically on this point, namely the illicit development of this or that Marxism, or even this or that argument, of Marx himself, in the direction of what he calls ontology, that is to say, a form of the philosophical system (or metaphysics) specifically oriented around the conviction that that it is some basic identity of being which can serve as a grounding or foundational reassurance for thought” (37).
The first step is the statement according to which Derrida consistently took shelter in a device called “the Heideggerian problematic,” “which assigns a minimal narrative to the entire project, and thus converts an otherwise random series of philosophical texts and fragments into an implicitly grand history” (34). Derrida, according to Jameson, would have managed to invest his own texts “with a certain dignity” by getting under Heidegger´s skirt and claiming for himself whatever was grandiose in Heidegger´s undertaking, “after which Heidegger himself . . . can be thrown to the winds and deconstructed as so much metaphysics in his own right” (34). This would be a singularly ungenerous take were it not immediately recognizable as yet another old Marxist attempt at defusing a threatening position from some infinitely superior knowledge of things. It is the same move that prompts Jameson disingenously to ask in the opening of his essay, referring to “Derridean strictures” or work, “is it fair to sense a new complacency in its dealings with this particular ghost [Heidegger], whose hauntings seem particularly inescapable?” (28).
The second move, consistent and even of a piece with the first, is a falsified reading of Heidegger´s essay “The Fragment of Anaximander,” which comes right after the statement that such an essay “is virtually the dead center of all of Derrida´s meditations on Heidegger” (41). For Jameson, who equivocates Heidegger here with some idealist postcolonial thinker, Heidegger´s Anaximander essay posits that, “if we are able to imagine the temporality of such radical otherness [as the one invoked through Anaximander by Heidegger], we ought to be able to bring it into being as concrete social possibility and thereby to replace the current system altogether. In this way, an idealism which conceives of the mind as being free enough to range among the possibilities and sovereignly to choose to think a form radically excluded by the dominant system, leads on into a voluntarism that encourages us to attempt to impose that alternative system on the present one” (42). But Jameson´s critique is not as crude as to attempt to make us believe such is the Derridean position. He hastens to add that “this side of Heidegger´s thought” is “unacceptable to Derrida, or, if you prefer, inconsistent with the Derridean aesthetic . . . , for which the positing of a realm of difference, the positive description of such a realm, is inadmissible” (42). His strategy proceeds rather by way of an inversion of that very crudeness into which he has placed Heidegger—since Derrida cannot accept the positing of a realm of difference, then the inescapable conclusion would be that, in the present, “the past and history, along with historiography and narrative itself (grand or not), have for whatever reason been eclipsed.” Such a situation “calls for a revision of the past . . . but does so by way of a thoroughgoing reinvention of our sense of the past altogether, in a situation in which only mourning, and its peculiar failures and dissatisfactions . . . [open] a vulnerable space and entry-point through which ghosts might make their appearance” (43). And this is the way in which one of the great representatives of Marxism actually conjures away, to the extent that he can, the Derridean welcome of Marxian spirits. But it is not good enough, starting with the thorough misrepresentation of Heidegger´s intent on the Anaximander essay, about which I do not have the time to go properly into.
Still, it is fair to say that Derrida´s Specters pays considerable attention to Heidegger´s “The Fragment of Anaximander,” even over and beyond the various explicit mentions and quotations in the first chapter. But it is not because Heidegger would have managed to rescue a positive account of an altogether different experience of the world whose restitution today might inaugurate a new political epoch. In fact, such a position would be abhorrent not just to Derrida but also to Heidegger, who never stopped insisting on ultrasubjective historicality and repeatedly said, for better or for worse, that the human can only prepare for the dispensations of the history of Being and never force their arrival. If “The Fragment of Anaximander” is significant for Derrida in his book on Marx it is because it reemphasizes all the thematics of thinking through the ontological difference I mentioned at the beginning of this paper, and because it does so through a peculiarly political language, since it talks about justice and restitution, about order and disorder, about usage, about the dislocation of time dispensed and time withheld, and about surmounting. If “standing in disjunction would be the essence of all that is present” (Heidegger 42), then the action of politics might introduce a corrective, in the form of “reck,” which is the ancient English word used to translate the Greek tisin, which comes to figure as the essential word of a democracy-to-come, as letting-belong and letting-be. Heidegger says: “The experience of beings in their Being which here comes to language is neither pessimistic nor nihilistic; nor is it optimistic. It is tragic” (44). I am not sure, and therefore I am not willing to risk the statement, that the Derridean engagement with the political is also tragic. But I think it should become a question for us.
But is it enough? The future of deconstruction might well hinge on our capacity as followers or successors to continue the engagement with a postontological understanding and practice of the political. This is also to say that the future of a possible repoliticization along postontological lines depends on our ability to bring it into language. It is easier said than done. We may want to consider the inability of deconstruction to have done so a failure of deconstruction, and why not? Derrida´s words are clearly not enough to institute a political practice, as it has been said many times. They can only count as indications. Let me finish this presentation with four theses or hypotheses that I submit to you in the form of questions. For me they are four of the questions of political deconstruction.
- Hegemony and legitimacy become synonims in the epoch of the end of metaphysics, which is also the epoch of accomplished nihilism. A deconstruction of the foundational concepts of political modernity, which is a necessity for any attempt at thinking political ontology through the ontological difference, undoes any conception of power based on legitimacy, and therefore suspends the very possibility of a katechon (since a katechon restrains the loss of legitimacy before it restrains anything else.) Posthegemony emerges as a theoretical practice at the end of political legitimacy. It dwells between the assumption of nihilism and its solicitation.
- The political function of the intellectual in postontological times can only approach an irreducible real, that is, a real irreducible to any claim for legitimacy. Such permanent approximative drift keeps command and obedience from becoming anything but impostures, but it also organizes the possibility of a critical, deconstructive, and genealogical task. The latter, because postontological, can only be posthegemonic in a strong sense of the post-: the post- is the very place of the tribunal of reason when reason has forfeited any principial or grounding logos, any archilogos.
- From deconstruction, hegemony theory does not work, or its work is not enough. Decolonization is also unsatisfactory, as there can be no return to a positivization of historical difference. Deconstruction approaches the tragic because it fails to deliver a full theory of the political, but it fails essentially though a refusal to assume hegemonic piety as the ground of collective subjectivity. The failure, as postontological hyperbole or as postontological syndrome, opens the space for another thought of the political, which I call posthegemony.
- Posthegemony does not mourn, it does not lament the loss of hegemonic legitimacy, and it does not look for a substitute formation. It thrives on the end of legitimacy as the sad passion of democratic politics, as itself the katechon of democratic politics. As a decapitation of the principle, posthegemony gives up on the primacy of thought as logos, on the primacy of logos as gathering. It installs itself in the aporia between thought and experience. The experience (the in-experience) of such an aporia radicalizes the Derridean notion of double articulation (the diastemic [Specters 64] articulation of a non-fatal idealism and a non-dogmatic eschatology [Specters 87]), and forces the exodus towards another thought and another relation with experience. Infrapolitics is the style of posthegemony—an unjust or excessive democracy, a savage democracy.
Derrida, Jacques. Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning & the New International. Peggy Kamuf transl. With an Introduction by Bernd Magnus and Stephen Cullenberg. New York: Routledge, 1994.
Heidegger, Martin. “The Anaximander Fragment.” In Early Greek Thinking. The Dawn of Western Philosophy. David Farrell Krell and Frank A. Capuzzi transl. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984. 13-58.
Jameson, Fredric. “Marx’s Purloined Letter.” In Ghostly Demarcations. A Symposium on Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. Introduced by Michael Sprinker. New York: Verso, 1995. 26-67.
Marion, Jean-Luc. The Idol and Distance. Five Studies. Translated and with an Introduction by Thomas A. Carlson. New York: Fordham UP, 2001.