TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Status of the Political in Derrida’s Work

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Robert Ramos looks at Jonathan Blair’s’s “Context, Event, Politics: Recovering the Political in the Work of Jacques Derrida” from Telos 141 (Winter 2007).

In “Context, Event, Politics: Recovering the Political in the Work of Jacques Derrida,” Jonathan Blair asks us to reconsider the standard narrative that has been used to categorize and also mischaracterize Derrida’s work. This is the position that Derrida’s early work begins with the institution of deconstruction and that at a point in the late 1980s Derrida’s thinking experienced a shift or a turn from deconstruction and to an explicit focus on the ethical and the political. Against this narrative, Blair argues that the question of politics appears as early as 1970. Blair writes, “I want to argue that this turn does not come in the 1980s or 90s, nor is it a change in focus to different themes; but rather it is clearly present in the early 1970s (1971, to be specific) with the writing of his essay ‘Signature, Event, Context'” (150).

Blair develops this thought through a simple question: Was Derrida a political philosopher, and deconstruction a political philosophy? He answers yes to both questions. To ground his answer, Blair reconsiders what does it mean for a thinker or a text to be considered political? He writes:

I will argue that it is not merely a matter of theme or content, but rather the work’s transformative capacity. That is, not only the normative critique it offers, but also a form or structure whereby something new can be brought into being, and thereby alter the pre-existing situation. Thus a political work is . . . the transformation of what is. (149)

By transformative capacity, this means something new comes into being. The suggestion is that a text of political philosophy is about the possibility of the event of politics. The event is a future, though not the vulgar future of the predictable, programmed, and repeatable. Derrida’s future to come, on the other hand, is unpredictable, without anticipation, and unconditioned. It is a repetition with difference. If transformative political philosophy is about the event, then this would be in contrast to politics as a science, or political science. Why? Science is calculative thinking and it limits the very possibilities and horizons of politics. It is a closure of the event. Blair writes, “In treating politics as science, in attempting to describe or explain the ‘what it is’ of politics . . . one essentially shuts the door to change, at least in the form of the unprecedented and unpredictable” (151).

In focusing on the event of politics, Blair argues that Derrida is a political philosopher. To make this case, Blair argues that Derrida’s “Signature, Event, Context” provides a structure for a theory of the event. Blair suggests that the later text, “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundations of Authority,” which was given at a conference in 1989, applies many of the themes to the former.

Blair follows Derrida’s analysis of language through his appropriation and criticism of J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. Austin discusses the occurrence of the performative utterance, which is the phenomena where saying something is not merely an assertion of a state of affairs but to do it (151). For example, at a marriage ceremony a couple says “I do.” This is not merely a report of marriage but a performative utterance that necessarily results in the couple being married. A performative utterance instantiates or creates a world. At the same time, Derrida criticizes Austin’s performative utterance for being too descriptive and not performative enough. He gets to this conclusion based on two points on the essence of language. First, Blair shows how Derrida turns to Condillac. Derrida says that “writing is considered a special form of language because of its ability to function in the absence of the original sender (and receiver)” (154). That is, writing is possible through its ability to function in a repeatable manner in the absence of the sender and the receiver. The iterability of a sign allows it to enter new situations even after it has been removed from the original context that it was written. Blair summarizes Derrida when he writes, “Hence, iterability has the dual quality of allowing for the rupture of the old situation/origin and the transformation of the meaning of the very signs that have been displaced, through the possibility of the graft” (155). Derrida’s second point is that the repetitive nature of writing is not limited to writing but is a structural possibility for all language and all experience.

Finally, Blair reminds us that Derrida takes these two points to form the radical conclusion:

The essence of language, so to speak, is not its ability to transfer or communicate meaning within a given context or situation. It is rather, the possibility of its being taken out of context, its ability to create new meanings by repeating certain signs in the absence of their original meaning or intention (156).

In other words, the essence of language rests in its capacity to break from its given context. Without a referent preceding the performative utterance or even without a referent outside of it as a constraint, the performative is at play and free. So a performative is not merely descriptive. Rather it transforms the situation it effects (157). What Derrida argues is that there is a repetition but not of the same but of difference. It is not an eternal recurrence of the same but a repetition as a singular happening, as an otherness.

In Austin’s hands, the performative utterance is defined through a context, which is certain and definable. But for Derrida, a context is never certain. The consequence is that Austin only focuses on successful examples of performance utterances. Derrida asks the reader to look at failed performatives. The reason is that “it is only with those events that fail . . . that we gain rupture or displacement of the system, engendering a new situation, necessarily unforeseeable under the rules of the old one” (159). The result of failed performative utterances is that these are a form of repetition but with alterity, a radical kind of singularity.

How does this relate to the world and politics? Blair asks us to draw from Derrida’s later essay “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundations of Authority.” Any system of justice needs a system of signs. These signs must be performative as such. As a consequence, the force at work here is the performative utterance. If language is about the possibility of being taken out of context and creating new meaning, then deconstruction involves the displacement and reinscription of language. By doing so, deconstruction necessarily intervenes and changes in all discourses, including politics. Therefore, deconstruction is justice and it is politics.

Blair’s essay brings the reader face to face with the question of the political in Derrida’s work. However, this is only a prolegomena to the more crucial question. Putting aside chronology, we must ask what is in Derrida’s thinking that motivates his concern with the ethical and political. To address this question, we have to move away from categorizing and labeling Derrida’s thinking (deconstruction, poststructuralism, politics, etc.). The problem is that this strategy of labeling excludes what is most at stake in Derrida’s thinking. This is where I suggest looking to Levinas’s influence on Derrida. Derrida’s concern, even in deconstruction, is to find that which is excluded, as other. Expanding Blair’s argument, the political as the event would be concerned with making room for the Other.

In closing, Blair’s essay opens many doorways to reconsider Derrida’s texts. But it also implores us to ask about the status of political philosophy. In this time of uprisings against governments in Libya and Egypt, etc., the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, and the Occupy Gezi movement in Turkey, what all of these have in common is that these are events in the Derridian sense because they were unexpected and unforeseen. Consequently, what is needed is a political philosophy that responds with and for these movements, as a transformative or performative doctrine. Blair’s essay demonstrates that Derrida is one to whom we should return when we consider the possibility of the political in the post-9/11world.

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