It should not be surprising that Jacques Derrida’s “Letter to a Japanese Friend,” dated 1983, has some connections to Martin Heidegger’s “A Dialogue on Language Between a Japanese and an Inquirer,” published in 1959. Pablo Domínguez Galbraith said a few weeks ago that, in his opinion, Derrida in fact takes explicit distance from Heidegger in a few of his lines, when he says “I would not even dare to say, following a Heideggerian schema, that we are in an ‘epoch’ of being-in-deconstruction, of a being-in-deconstruction that would manifest or dissimulate itself at one and the same time in other ‘epochs.’ This thought of ‘epochs’ and especially that of a gathering of the destiny of being and of the unity of its destination or its dispersions . . . will never be very convincing” (4). But distance is a form of relation.
What is at stake in the Derridean letter to his Japanese friend? Apparently a definition of deconstruction, since it is the demand for a “schematic and preliminary reflection on the word ‘deconstruction’” that prompts it. The definition will not come: “What deconstruction is not? Everything of course! What is deconstruction? Nothing of course!” (5). Which leads Derrida to say that, therefore, deconstruction must not be a good word (“bon mot,” 5). It can be or could have been “of service” (5) in the European languages “in a highly determined situation,” that is, historically speaking (5). But translation may have more to say, particularly as “translation is [not] a secondary and derived event in relation to an original language or text” (5). Derrida then goes on to say that the Japanese translator, the “friend,” may be able to find a “more beautiful” word (5). And, in his last lines, hints, merely, that translation, as a “writing of the other,” is of the order of the poem (5). This is, then, the “positive” contribution of the letter, responding to the demand of the friend that Derrida’s reflection should “avoid, if possible, a negative determination of its [deconstruction’s] significations or connotations” (1).
But there is a little more, starting with the notion that, even in French, there is a shadowy (“somber,” 1) gap between the ostensible meaning of the word and its “usage itself, the reserves of the word” (1). How did it come about? Derrida tells us that the word came to him by itself at the time of Of Grammatology, as he was trying to translate the Heideggerian “Destruktion or Abbau” (1), for an operation “bearing on the structure or traditional architecture of the fundamental concepts of ontology or Western metaphysics” (1). The models or regions of meaning provided by the archive of the French language were only models for it—and they in fact “have been behind a number of misunderstandings about the concept and word of ‘deconstruction’ because of the temptation to reduce it to these models” (1). Against those models, Derrida invokes the “use value” of the term as he has been using it (1).
So, yes, at the time of structuralism, it seemed important to rehearse an “antistructuralist gesture” (2): “Structures were to be undone, decomposed, desedimented” (2). “But the undoing, decomposing, and desedimenting of structures, in a certain sense more historical than the structuralist movement it called into question, was not a negative operation. Rather than destroying, it was also necessary to understand how an ‘ensemble’ was constituted it and to reconstruct it to this end” (3).
The perceived negativity was hard to erase, particularly as one realized that deconstruction could not propose itself as an “analysis” (“the dismantling of a structure is not a regression toward a simple element, toward an indissoluble origin” ) or as a “critique:” “the instance of krinein or of krisis (decision, choice, judgment, discernment) is itself, as is all the apparatus of transcendental critique, one of the essential ‘themes’ or ‘objects’ of deconstruction” (3). And the same can be said about “method” (3), which has the pleasant/unpleasant corollary that deconstruction, therefore, is not a methodology for reading and interpretation and can therefore not be “reappropriated and domesticated by academic institutions” (3). Neither analysis nor critique nor method, it is also not an “act or an operation” (3), because there is something more passive about it than the passivity that is opposed to activity and because it does not return to an “individual or collective subject” (3). The most that can be said, therefore, is that deconstruction happens, there is deconstruction, ca se déconstruit, and the “se” “bears the whole enigma” (4).
If there is “that,” ca, then there is deconstruction. And that is one thing. But there is one other thing, and “all my essays are attempts to have it out with this formidable question” (4). This is the question of deconstruction’s timeliness or modernity or contemporaneity—and here is where Derrida introduces his “distance” from Heidegger. Right after it there comes what I think is the single most important determination of the use value of “deconstruction” in this text: “It is therefore only a discourse or rather a writing that can make up for the incapacity of the word to be equal to a ‘thought’” (4). This is rather enigmatic, and Derrida does not elaborate on it at all. What is this “thought” that hover beyond the word?
So, let me suggest that the thought that there is a thought that hovers beyond the word organizes in this text the proper distance from the Heideggerian “Dialogue on Language.” Which is also very much a relation.
Let me attempt a few brief indications—I have to give up in advance on the pretense of doing justice to the later Heidegger’s text. It is one of the texts where something like a cosmopolitical perspective insinuates itself in the Heideggerian oeuvre. And let me say it right out, but tentatively: Heidegger’s cosmopolitanism would here be organized around the notion that there is some incapacity of the word to be equal to a possible thought.
The Japanese visitor is a student of Count Shuzo Kuki’s, one of Heidegger’s Japanese students in the early 1920’s. They rememorate the fact that many conversation with Kuki revolved around the Japanese word Iki. The word “incapacity” shows up in the second page. According to the Japanese, the encounter with European thinking has brought to light “a certain incapacity in [Japanese] language” (2). Because Japanese would be deprived of a certain power to produce concepts. The Inquirer is skeptical about the claim and refers to an inconspicuous “danger” that emerges through the very claim, but is left unspecified for the time being. What is said is that the danger is embedded in the dialogue, on the basis of the fact that the near-impossibility of translation shows up in it, but also remains concealed. The Inquirer says, “I do not yet see whether what I am trying to think of as the nature of language is also adequate for the nature of the Eastasian language; whether in the end, which would also be the beginning, a nature of language can reach the thinking experience, a nature which would offer the assurance that European-Western saying and Eastasian saying will enter into dialogue such that in it there sings something that wells up from a single source” (8). The question, the question that remains, is therefore whether a single thought can come into language, or whether language, in and through its very multiplicity, will remain incapable of reaching it.
Hermeneutics has everything to do with this, as defined: “the art of understanding rightly another man’s language” (11). The example of Iki comes up again. What is Iki? Can a non-Japanese grasp Iki through a European language? Or is that word, and other words such as Ku and Iro, inevitably destined to be betrayed by the metaphysical structuration of the European language? The danger is then that, in dialogue and through dialogue, the very possibility of saying “that of which we are speaking” be destroyed—and it is a danger that is only increased by what the Inquirer calls “the complete Europeanization of the earth and of man” (15). Kurosawa’s Rashomon is now discussed as another example of dangerous translation, since, on the one hand, says the Japanese, Rashomon is a symptom of the fact that “regardless of what the aesthetic quality of a Japanese film may turn out to be, the mere fact that our world is set forth in the frame of a film forces that world into the sphere of what you call objectness. The photographic objectification is already a consequene of the ever wider outreach of Europeanization” (17), and on the other hand, there are in the film inconspicuous gestures that point in the direction of something other than Western. But how can such gestures be discussed?
A brief discussion of gestures in No plays seems to take a step forward, as they are said to be a “gathering which originally unites within itself what we bear to it and what it bears to us” (19), in such a way that the gesture, “so gathered, bears itself to encounter emptiness in such a way that in and through it the mountains appear” (19). But is this mention of emptiness not similar to what the Inquirer attempted to describe as “nothingness, that essential being which we attempt to add in our thinking, as the other, to all that is present and absent” (19)? If so, this is a nothingness that a Japanese could never understand as “nihilistic” (19). At this point in the conversation the notion of an “overcoming metaphysics” comes up to be described as neither a destruction nor a denial, but rather “an original appropriation” (20).
The danger of a dialogue, and the danger of language, is always to opt out of the concealed original appropriation, the concealed essence or nature of language. How would the Japanese refer to language? Is there a Japanese word that can express the appropriation of language, the ‘thought’ of language? If so, as a word about essence, in terms of language, it would not refer to anything linguistic. Languate cannot represent language—and this is a limit where the danger conceals itself. Conceptual representation is not adequate to a manifestation of the nature of language—perhaps only gestures or “hints” will do. Perhaps only hinting at the nature of language is possible (24). Perhaps a word “is a hint, and not a sign in the sense of mere signification” (27). And a hint of what? The ontological difference, here called the “two-fold,” the “ambiguity of Being” as Being and beings, is perhaps already hinted at in the Japanese’s words: “And while I was translating, I often felt as though I were wandering back and forth between two different language realities, such that at moments a radiance shone on me which let me sense that the wellspring of reality from which those two fundamentally different languages arise was the same” (24).
Perhaps language, or a thoughtful reflection on language, can only aspire to produce tidings of that sameness—we may want to call it hermeneutics if we are to say that “language defines the hermeneutic relation” (30) as the relation of human nature to the two-fold. “But the word ‘relation’ does want to say that man, in his very being, is in demand, is needed, that he, as the being he is, belongs within a needfulness which claims him” (32). This is the needfulness of the two-fold, which aims to be preserved. But can this needfulness be represented? It can only be “used” (33). “The two-fold is not an object of mental representation, but is the sway of usage” (33). Usage names the “originarily familiar,” which, the Japanese tells the Inquirer, “is what your thinking pursues” (33).
This “originarily familiar”—“our dialogues speaks historically precisely in its attempt to reflect on the nature of language” (34)–, would it not be what the Japanese must strive for? “Professor Tanabe,” says the Japanese, “often came back to a question you once put to him: why it was that we Japanese did not call back to mind the venerable beginnings of our own thinking, instead of chasing ever more greedily after the latest news in European philosophy” (37). The question can then be turned to the Inquirer regarding his own interest in the Greeks. If the Japanese must turn to their venerable beginnings, says the Inquirer, “our thinking today is charged with the task to think what the Greeks have thought in an even more Greek manner” (39), which seems impossible, but has a plausible twist, or a twist of plausibility: it has to do with thinking the unthought of the Greeks, and “to see it so is in its own way Greek, and yet in respect of what it sees is no longer, is never again, Greek” (39).
The unthought of a thinking is the concealment of the two-fold, the non-appearance of appearance. “In the source of appearance, something comes towards man that hold the two-fold of presence and present beings” (40). It is a “voice,” the “almost imperceptible promise announcing that we would be set free into the open” (41). Heeding that voice implies a “transformation of thinking,” to be understood as “a passage . . . in which one site is left behind in favor of another . . . and that requires that the sites be placed in discussion. One site is metaphysics. And the other? We leave it without a name” (42).
Can we then speak of Iki not aesthetically, that is, metaphysically, but on the other trail? Let us venture that Iki might be grace, or the gracious. Iki is a hint of the two-fold, “the message of the veiling that opens up” (44).
What about Koto ba, as the Japanese word for the non-linguistic essence of language? Is it also graciousness? Would there be a connection with the Sophoclean “charis,” which is also called “tiktousa—that which brings forward and forth” (46). As Dichten and tikton say the same, “graciousness is itself poetical, is itself what really makes poetry, the welling-up of the message of the two-fold’s unconcealment” (46). Yes, there would be, as Koto ba refers to the “petals that stem” from “the happening of the lightening message of the graciousness that brings forth” (47).
We would now have to find a Western word that could match Koto ba, that could establish a relation and a dialogue with Koto ba. The word is Saying, as “let appear and let shine, but in the manner of hinting” (47), “the beginning of that path which takes us back out of merely metaphysical representations, to where we heed the hints of that message whose proper bearers we would want to become” (48).
But it is a beginning, and it still guards a danger. The danger is, Saying cannot be a word “about” language, because “speaking about language turns language almost inevitably into a concept” (50). Saying speaks from out of language not about language. But this means, saying could only be a dialogue (51), a “saying correspondence” (52) in usage.
So that there can be dialogue.
Can there be? Deconstruction may not be a good word for it. But it can be used. And it can be used in order to let the “se” of se déconstruit come into its own. That “se” is the mark of the two-fold, of ontological difference, of a transformation in favor of a passivity anterior to the difference between passivity and activity, an originary passivity that breaks, graciously, into poetical (or infrapolitical) dwelling. It is, in other words, a matter of translating, through dialogue, the untranslatable—historical thought, for the sake of cosmopolitical “appropriation.” Or, if the word “appropriation” “will never be very convincing,” perhaps we should stick to the more modest “transformation” as a mere passage to another site.