Notes on “Différance” and the Ontological Difference. By Alberto Moreiras

Notes on “différance” and the ontological difference.

Following up on some discussions in the last few months I was led to reread “La différance” (Jacques Derrida, Marges de la philosophie, 1972, 1-29, but the text was a conference first given and then published in 1968) looking for the nuances and discrepancies, or the nuances in the discrepancies, Derrida establishes between his (non)concept, (non)word, “différance,” and the Heideggerian conceptualization of the ontico-ontological difference between Being and Time (1927) and The Fragment of Anaximander (1946). I will simply jot down a few comments for discussion. (I have to be selective in my quotes and references, otherwise I would risk reproducing within quotation marks the entirety of such a rich and carefully written essay.)

What is the nature of the differend, if there is a differend? Can we say that Derrida rejects the thought of the ontico-ontological difference?   Or does he merely continue it, taking it elsewhere?   Is there a differend in the sense of polemos, in the sense Derrida himself takes back to Heraclitus’ “diapherein”?   Or is it something other than that, itself inscribed in the différance of différance? And what is at stake? (For him or for me? For me, frankly, what is at stake is my interest in basing infrapolitics on some version—but neither the first one nor the last one: rather their progression in the path of thought, not only Heidegger’s, and whatever may come after it—of what was originally named the ontico-ontological difference; secundarily, my interest in supposing, like Derrida himself did, that “différance” unequivocally affirms a plurality of discourses not organized as a kingdom, that is, not organized as hierarchically dependent on the rule of any discursive king; in the third place, my interest in rejecting a certain notion of biopolitics and biopolitical reflection as the only or dominant “philosophy of the future,” in Giorgio Agamben’s phrase.)

In connection with an elucidation of the role of the ontico-ontological difference in Derrida’s 1968 essay, several things ought to be taken into account. The first is the one given in the only footnote to the text, which comes towards its end (27-28), and was obviously added during the preparation for the republication of the essay as the first chapter in Marges de la philosophie. There Derrida presents the essay as an introduction to the totality of the essays in the volume, as its “’élaboration préliminaire,” where what is intended is to deploy the notion of “texte général” not only against its metaphysical sequestering in the different disciplines (Derrida mentions political economy, psychoanalysis, semiolinguistics, rhetoric), but also against its metaphysical sequestering in general or fundamental ontology.   The idea is then to undo any claim of a monarchic or sub-monarchic priority for thought, of any kind of a hierarchical regioning of discourses.   Given the well-known Heideggerian insistence on the priority of philosophical thought, in his style, to any regional scientific production, the anti- or non-Heideggerian approach in this respect is explicit. (And shared by me: infrapolitical reflection is not merely or even primarily philosophical reflection.)

The second has to do with a certain genealogical determination of thought, hence a provenance of thought against the background of Hegelianism. Derrida establishes a line from Nietzsche and Freud and Levinas to Heidegger, with an important reference to Bataille as well, and with a special mention, but perhaps not in the same line, of Saussure. But the more extensive genealogical analysis is dedicated to Heidegger. Indeed, against the Hegelian background, Heidegger’s thought hangs heavy on Derrida’s vacillations concerning the notion of a philosophical epoch—there seems to be an epoch of thought, which those four or five thinkers punctuate or form (he says at one point that the names are themselves symptoms of a time), but at the same time Derrida will not allow that epoch of thought to be considered part of the Heideggerian history of being—so that the epoch of thought, written as “epoch,” will not be itself a part of the history of being: some other unmentioned horizon might determine it “historically,” but this is left ultimately unclarified in the essay. (The main statement is: “la différance . . . m’a paru stratégiquement le plus propre à penser . . . le plus irréductible de notre ‘epoque’” [7]. And he even says, echoing remarks from the seminar given in 1964 on Heidegger and the question of history and being, that différance constitutes a thematics historically situated to the very extent that it could and should be replaced “un jour,” becoming part of another tropological chain. At first Derrida says he parts, “strategically,” from our time and place, from a certain “’nous,’” although he warns the reader at the same time that it is only “différance” that marks who and where “we” are, therefore the epoch does not enframe différance; it is différance that enframes the epoch and any possibility of epochal time. Later in the essay, already confronting Heidegger explicitly, Derrida remarks that “epoch” always already belongs to the history of being, and is therefore, in its very notion, contaminated or captured by that thought.   This is the point where he says that différance is “plus ‘vieille’” than the history of being, claiming a precedence that destroys history and sinks itself into the immemorial. “Epochality,” like history, can be used strategically, then, but always under erasure.   I find this unsatisfying—there is no overwhelming reason why “history” must in every case be thought onto-theologically, particularly if “différance” makes a claim to exception for itself.)

And the third one, in my opinion, has to do with the fact that Derrida, while taking explicit exception to Heidegger, to a certain extent and after recognizing Heidegger’s thought as unavoidable, orients his notion of différance on the very path of the ontico-ontological difference, insofar as one can choose to read this particular essay at least as a mere correction to the Heideggerian text.   Looking into the correction might then elicit the question, and a possible answer, as to the status of it—does the correction imply a fundamental break away from Heidegger, or is the correction more in the order of a breaching, a Bahnung, a facilitation of the way? I think the latter is the case.

Différance: “On ne peut l’entendre et nous verrons en quoi elle passe aussi l’ordre de l’entendement” (4).  This surpassing the understanding probably makes reference to a certain impossibility for the understanding to master the labor of différance. To the extent mastering equals naming—or the naming is always already an (alleged) mastering–this remark is not casual, as it already contains, in cypher, what will ultimately emerge as the main criticism regarding Heidegger. The radical opening of différance to its own unnaming—this is why différance can neither be a concept nor a word—makes it ready to claim an endless and ceaseless surpassing: “La différance est non seulement irréductible à toute réappropriation ontologique ou théologique—onto-théologique—mais, ouvrant mëme l’espace dans lequel l’onto-théologie—la philosophie—produit son systéme et son histoire, elle la comprend, l’inscrit et l’éxcede sans retour” (6).

On Hegel Derrida says: “malgré les rapports d’affinité très profonde que la différance ainse écrite entretient avec le discours hégélien, tel qu’il doit ëtre lu, elle peut en un certain point non pas rompre avec lui, ce qui n’a aucune sorte de sens ni de chance, mais en opérer une sorte de déplacement à la fois infime et radical” (15).   Is it the same minimum but radical displacement that would constitute the relationship with Heidegger? Not in my opinion. I think the displacement vis-á-vis Hegel is of a much more extensive kind, to the very same extent that Hegelianism is the epitome of the privileging of presence as self-presence, through the notions of subject and substance, and through the ultimate equivalence between the two.   That this is Derrida’s fundamental target is made explicit by the fact that, always according to him, the thinkers that interest him—Nietzsche, Freud, Levinas, up to Heidegger—would have attempted to destroy it as well, and always following a thinking of diapherein against every possibility of consciousness’ “certitude assurée de soi” (18).

In any case, the differences between that particular, “epochal” constellation of thinkers and Hegelianism open up, up and through Derrida’s mention of Bataille. They remain obscure, certainly, but it is through such a darkness that tentative steps are taken in order to initiate a reinscription of the very project of philosophy, “sous l’espèce privilegiée du hégélianisme” (21).   It is interesting to quote Derrida on “la plus grande obscurité,” since its designation as such ought to be enough to let us understand that something like the proper “epochal” project of philosophy is presented there. If so, then it is a matter of importance to elucidate the answers given to it by the chain of thinkers Derrida is referencing, up to Heidegger and then Derrida himself. I will limit myself to pointing out in this context that not only are the following sentences as good a description of the task of deconstruction as any other we have, but also, more cryptically perhaps, that they also fit Heidegger’s work like a glove—if perhaps a different glove: “Comment penser á la fois la différance comme détour économique que, dans l’élément du mëme, vise toujours à retrouver le plaisir où la presence différée par calcul (conscient ou inconscient) et d’autre part la différance comme rapport à la presence impossible, comme dépense sans réserve, comme perte irréparable de la présence, usure irréversible de l´énergie, voire comme pulsion de mort et rapport au tout-autre interrompant en apparence toute économie” (20).

There is a redescription of that reinscription, we could say, in more familiar terms. It is simple enough: “delimiting the ontology of presence” (cf. 22).   Here is where the confrontation with Heidegger becomes focused.   If différance, or deconstruction more generally, interrogates and solicits “the determination of being as presence” (22), Derrida notes that it is not possible to avoid “l’incontournable meditation heideggerienne” on the ontico-ontological difference. Furthermore, that it is not possible to give “a simple response” to the question as to the difference between différance and the Heideggerian prompting.

There would be a necessity to pass through the Heideggerian meditation. If différance could be said to constitute “a more violent” approach than the thought of the ontico-ontological difference, in other words, if there is to be a critical difference between différance and the Heideggerian theme, “ce n’est ni se dispenser du passage par la verité de l’ëtre ni d’aucune façon en ‘critiquer,’ en ‘contester,’ en méconnaïtre l’incessant necessité” (23).

Derrida turns then to Heidegger’s 1946 essay on Anaximander. His leading question is whether it would still be necessary to understand the Heideggerian propositions in that essay, which include the highlighted notions of “early trace” (die frühe Spur) and usage (Brauch), as necessarily oriented towards the Wesen des Seins, or essence of being—that is, whether the Heideggerian vocabulary, engaged with truth, essence, being, and presencing, does not ultimately aim at preserving a certain kingdom (“Non seulement il n’y a pas de royaume de la différance mais celle-ci fomente la subversion de tout royaume” [22]), namely the kingdom of metaphysics. Derrida puts it somewhat awkwardly: “Pour nous, la différance reste un nom métaphysique et tous les noms qu’elle reçoit dans notre langue sont encore, en tant que noms, métaphysiques. En particulier quand ils disent la détermination de la différance en différence de la présence au present (Anwesen/Anwesend), mais surtout, et dejá, de la façon la plus générale, quand ils disent la détermination de la différance en différence de l´ëtre á l’etant” (28).

Différance has no name, Derrida says, but a perpetual dislocation in differing substitutions.   There is no name, and the name cannot be retrieved. “Il n´y aura pas de nom unique, füt-il le nom de l’ëtre” (29).

This is the site of the disagreement: according to Derrida, at least in Der Spruch des Anaximander, Heidegger sustains a metaphysical engagement through his attempt to search for “a proper word and a unique name” (29).   Différance, however, gives up on the name and lives in dissemination. “Telle est la question: l’alliance de la parole et de l’ëtre dans le mot unique, dans le nom en fin propre” (29). Ultimately, Derrida claims that the difference between the Heideggerian difference and his own différance is a matter of joy against nostalgic hope, in a context in which we should simply affirm hope and reject nostalgia.

It is indeed, or not, an “infime et radical” displacement.   For me, a displacement within a continuum that may enrich the epochal thought of the ontological difference by underlining some of its more promising features.   But it does not announce a break: only a breach that infrapolitical reflection can use, for instance, by recognizing that the Freudian thought of the death drive is not limited by its always already ontic rank (as Heidegger himself might have argued or did argue) and can thus not enter but rather entirely bypass the ontological kingdom. As itself nothing but the site of a non-administrative relationship with death, infrapolitics unashamedly links Heidegger’s existential analytics with Derrida’s determination of the greatest obscurity as the interruption of every economy.




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