The Counter-Overflowing.  A Commentary on (the First Half of) Jacques Derrida’s  Théorie et pratique.  Cours de l’ENS-Ulm 1975-76 (Paris: Galilée, 2017). Draft for Discussion,Transformative Thinking Workshop, U of Michigan, Sept 29-30, 2017.


“Faut le faire/ca me regarde” (37).

(At two points in Théorie et pratique Derrida mentions the “ambiguous homage” Heidegger renders Marx in “Letter on Humanism” by saying that Marx “recognizes historicity in the essence of being” [106-07]. This seems to me the common link between the 1964-65 seminar on Heidegger and the question of being and history and the 1975-76 seminar I will be discussing. I will only have time to make a summary presentation of the later seminar, I am afraid, but I wanted to make sure we had this on the table for our discussion. On the basis of the 1975-76 seminar, one could hypothesize that Derrida’s interest in the question of history in the earlier seminar was already deeply inflected by a desire to take a critical position regarding Marxism from a certain Heideggerianism.   Except that it was Hegel, of course, in the 1964-65 seminar, who stood in for Marx and the Marxists. In any case, the “ambiguous homage” to Marxism Derrida takes on for himself is not decisive in the 1975-76 seminar, and it is for the most part limited to a repetition of the Heideggerian critique. Or is there more? Is there a third position? The question can only be prepared. I will not have the time to pursue it over the next half an hour in Sessions Six through Nine, although we can refer to them in discussion. I will limit myself to preparing it through an analysis of Sessions One through Five, although we may already anticipate: perhaps Sessions Six through Nine are only preparatory as well, perhaps they do not solve anything, do not settle anything. Can we–we ourselves, forty years later–remain within the confines and restraints of such a preparation? Or do we need a breakthrough? Some breakthrough, some new air?) 

One gets the impression at times that the 1975-76 seminar was not conceived as anything but a pedagogical enterprise–it really was a matter of letting the students know something that Derrida had established for himself long before, and where there wasn’t a lot of room for further discoveries.   This is no 1964-65 seminar, where a genuine Auseinandersetzung with Heidegger took place and where an astonishing blueprint for thinking that it would take Derrida years to turn into extensive writing was developed.   Here, in the 1975-76 seminar on Althusser, it is more a matter of recognizing the specificity of the Althusserian take on a Marxism that could not take flight from its roots in Hegelian productionism, which seemed to condemn it to endless variations on the metaphysical theme of the production of the subject or the subject as production, to examine the Heideggerian critique of it avant la lettre, and then to come to terms with the Heideggerian critique itself. One can perhaps argue that this seminar is at the genealogy of Derrida’s 1992 Spectres de Marx, but, I think, only in a very general and secondary sense. Obviously Derrida had thought enough about Marxism and the Marxists and about Marxist politics many times, like everyone in his generation, but he never was particularly interested. Yes, he was politically on the left, which meant he did not want necessarily to overdo the critique of his Marxist friends, including Althusser.   But he truly was not particularly interested. I think that does show in the 1975-76 seminar. The question is whether there is anything else that should excite us.

In my reading, the first session, playful in its use of the French expression “faut le faire,” can already barely hide an impatience with it, with the possibly arrogant demand that translates politically into possibly dangerous idiocy every time, but is nevertheless a staple of the Althusserian Marxists who were dominant in his Academic milieu and, at that time, possibly in Marxist milieus everywhere in the West.   In the seminar, it introduces the theory-practice opposition that will be the ostensible focus of the seminar.   Sessions Two through Five develop an analysis of it through the study of powerful inversions and counterinversions of the opposition in the work of Louis Althusser. But the analysis culminates, perhaps predictably, in the confrontation with Martin Heidegger’s notion of technology, on the basis of the 1947 “Letter on Humanism” and “Science and Reflection” and “The Question of Technology” (1953) in particular. Sessions Six through Nine are of uneven quality in the way they have come down to us, hard to read or at least hard to follow, but they are entirely consumed in a continuation of the reading of Heidegger’s essays on technology.   (I will not have the time to treat those in this paper, but perhaps in the discussion we can look at them to see whether something new in or for the Derridean approach emerges there.)

Il faut le faire: the opposition theory/practice calls for deconstruction. But we are not going to do it as a more or less standard complication and dismantling of what is oppositional in an oppositional logic. Instead, we will look at the specifically philosophical field where the opposition is today prominent. That is, at Marxism. Which always takes its point of departure in this respect from the eleventh of the “Theses on Feuerbach” that show up in Marx’s The German Ideology: “Philosophers have only variously interpreted the world, what matters is to change it.” Or: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” A priority of practice is announced, seems to be announced, or a certain priority of practice–let us change the world, interpreting it is a waste of time, or perhaps interpreting it in various ways is a waste of time. Perhaps, then, this priority of change no longer belongs to philosophy, leaves philosophy behind. Or, alternatively, perhaps this priority of practice is still a philosophical thesis, perhaps the first change is that there is a priority of a practico-theoretical engagement now, or practico-critical, that is, revolutionary philosophy, the new thing.

Derrida says that what matters to him is the following question: “does the last thesis mark the end of philosophy (which would have been contented with interpreting) or does it mark the end of the only philosophy that would have been contented with interpreting, so that what Marx calls forth is still a philosophy, but a practico-revolutionary philosophy, a world-transforming philosophy?” (28-29).   Derrida opts for the latter: taking Marxists at their word, following, for example, Antonio Gramsci and also Louis Althusser, he prefers to accept the notion that Marxist philosophy, that is, dialectical materialism, is still a philosophy and not something else: but a new, practico-revolutionary philosophy. (In this workshop named “Transformative Thinkingwe of course need to come to terms with what transformation might mean for us. There is a discourse on the “trans-” in Théorie et pratique I will not be able to comment on, or perhaps only later.   The crucial thing, it seems to me, is whether transformation is to be taken in the direction of production–one transforms the world through, say, manufacture, through production: is Transformative Thinking Productive Thinking? Or in the direction of an ecstatic trans- that takes us into a new–non-productive–relationship to ex-istence.)[1]

But the question itself–are we within philosophy or in excess of philosophy?–brings up the notion of a philosophical border. Derrida points out that an investigation into the genealogy of this border, in Althusser, will produce “different effects in terms of content, but structurally similar to a different genealogical perspective, namely, the Heideggerian-type text” (32-33).   This is the end of the first session in the seminar, and a certain ambiguity occurs here that should be underlined.   Derrida has just announced that he is going partially to interrogate “Althusser’s systematic trajectory” (32) and he has also said that Althusser’s trajectory will produce effects similar to the trajectory of texts of the Heideggerian type.   And then he says: “to its genealogical purpose, to its general type at least, we shall compare . . . a different purpose, a different perspectival take, a different interpretation . . . of the theory/practice couple” (33). The ambiguity that I want to underline: it is not clear to me whether Derrida is suggesting here that he is going to develop a third genealogical perspective, one to be compared to the Althusserian and to the Heideggerian one, or whether he is simply saying that he will in fact oppose a Heideggerian type of genealogical investigation to the Althusserian one.   In Sessions Six to Nine Derrida will attempt a reading of the Heideggerian texts on technology because those texts incorporate and develop Heidegger’s fundamental critique of Marxism.   Derrida presents that reading as a critical reading. But is the critique strong enough to offer a third position, an alternative reading? Or does the critique remain within a fundamental Heideggerian approach?

In the third session Derrida highlights Althusser’s interest, not so much in the 11th of the Theses on Feuerbach, but rather in the eighth, that is, “All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.” He has already commented on it in the previous session, showing how the notion of rationality in this eighth thesis solicits the apparent priority of the practical in the 11th thesis: if practice solves rational conundrums, then practice still has theoretical ends, practice still serves interpretative goals. It is unavoidable. The whole situation has to be taken on in the right way. Althusser, in fact, says that “there is only one step” between taking the 11th thesis too seriously and falling into a “theoretical pragmatism” (63).

This theoretical pragmatism is the other side of mystical theory. If a theory unrestrained by practice will go into the mystical, theoretical pragmatism is a practice without theory, which amounts to saying: “a practice in the horizon of philosophy’s death” (67). But Althusser’s project is not that. Well to the contrary, his interest in developing Marxist philosophy, or even his interest in turning Marxism into not just a philosophy but philosophy in general, cannot survive within the region of theoretical pragmatism. This is why he calls for “giving a bit of existence and theoretical consistence to Marxist philosophy” (69), where Derrida finds solid confirmation of the fact that Althusser, far from abandoning theory, seeks “a subordination of the philosophical in its totality to a theoretical instance or criterion” (70).   Here are Derrida’s words: “the Marxist philosophical construction must be theoretically consistent, in other words . . . the theoretical instance is the principal instance, the tribunal of last instance to judge the philosophical character of philosophy. The theoretical is no longer an aspect, a side, a determination of philosophy, but the reverse” (69). It does sound as if Marx’s eleventh thesis were completely out of luck.

Derrida salutes the Althusserian take by calling it “a singular and absolutely new displacement . . . in the history of philosophy” (71), because it adds to the traditional or fundamental gesture of regional subordination within a field of knowledge a different one: “This strongly classical gesture is strangely worked over, detoured, turned over, displaced . . . by another one” (71). The new gesture is of course precisely the subordination of the philosophical to the theoretical in the context of an epistemological break, a passage into science, which in itself relegates the totality of the theses on Feuerbach to the border of the break, on the bad side, the side that must be left behind or merely taken over as a historical residue (74).   The “dialectical circle” of Marxist philosophy is construed precisely through the radical theoreticism that confronts practical history as such, and that only Marxism can or could accomplish. Derrida quotes Althusser: “this theory that alone permits an authentic reading of Marx’s texts, a reading at the same time epistemological and historical, is in effect nothing but Marxist philosophy itself” (78).

Theoretical practice in Marxist philosophy is precisely the practical concept of conceptual production, that is, the dialectical determination of a new knowledge that was already previously there in a practical state: “this irreversibly marks the anteriority, the primordiality of practice over theory, of the practical state over the theoretical state, an overflowing anteriority since it announces that theory remains a development of practice, a kind of practice, theoretical practice insofar as it produces knowledges that were already there in the practical state” (83).

Derrida is particularly interested in the way in which a practical state is elaborated or belabored into a theoretical concept. There is a transformation, that is, a production, a manufacture. From matter to product: that is itself practice. Transformation is always production, and production is always human production. Derrida’s seminar reaches at this point its main critical articulation, in my opinion.   This Marxist discourse, says Derrida, “makes of practice (hence of transformative production, or human labor, or human technique) the essential determination of being, of that which is and of that which is to be thought; this discourse does not say ‘that which is essential is the primal matter’ or ‘the product,’ but, as Althusser reminds us, the ‘labor of transformation,’ the transforming production of human technique. From this point of view one understands, in its principle in any case, what Heidegger says of Marxism, and also the perspective he proposes, for example in ‘Letter on Humanism'” (89).

If Heidegger is right that metaphysics is the technical interpretation of truth, then clearly Althusser’s Marxism or Marxism tout court is a metaphysical enterprise. Marxism would be “a humanist metaphysics founded on a technological determination of being as production” (90). There is, Derrida says, another possibility, perhaps, that he, for the moment, will leave unattended, only registered, which is: “whether Marxism does not precisely come to think for the first time that which was involved in [certain] philosophemes (production, technique, humanity, labor, etc. and to articulate the possibilities of these philosophemes, so as to render account of metaphysics as technological humanism rather than to let itself be understood as such, and to render account no longer theoretically but rather through a practical, essential transformation, etc.” [91-92]. This is not, cannot be, an anticipation of the results of Specters, but it is perhaps what in 1975-76 Derrida thought it was possible for him to do. It seems to me the idea of what is possible in 1975-76 is more philosophically ambitious, from the perspective of Marxism, than what Derrida ended up doing, where quod erat demonstrandum is far from demonstrated, or even no attempt is offered.

Derrida had already quoted Heidegger in the fourth session to the effect that the emphasis on materialism in Marxist philosophy had little to do with matter vs. spirit and was much more interested in material labor, that is, in the essence of labor as the “self-organizing process of unconditioned production, that is, as the objectivation of the real by man, himself experienced as subjectivity” (Heidegger, quoted by Derrida 91). Now, in the fifth session, Derrida will refer to “the secular struggle between idealism and materialism” (103) as the crux of the Marxist redefinition of philosophy, which is also the determination of Marxist philosophy as philosophy tout court. Marxist philosophy, in the Althusserian sense, engaged as it is in the “dialectical circle,” may claim for itself a reciprocal overflowing of practice by theory and of theory by practice.   This dialectical circle is presumably the mechanism that allows Marxist philosophy to conceive of every philosophy that is not itself as merely idealist. If materialist philosophy must be understood restrictively as class struggle in theory, it is not because other philosophies are not very precisely also class struggle in theory, except that they are on the side of the wrong class, not on the materialist side of the proletariat.

So, Derrida, in this fifth session, announces that he wishes to interrogate the Marxist silence on Heidegger, as he has “no doubt that this non-reading hides the assured certainty that Heidegger is always already understood within ‘the secular struggle’ between idealism and materialism, and that he represents a variation, more or less subtle, unheard-of or overdetermined, of the possibilities of this struggle” (106).   In other words, Derrida wants to examine the Heideggerian critique of Marxism, notwithstanding what he now announces as a project that is not immediate, only eventual, which is “an eventually deconstructive reading of Heidegger and of the questions Heideggers posits to Marxism, on the subject of Marxism and on what Heidegger considers the sense of Marxism” (106). Again: was that the original idea for Specters of Marx? If so, we have to admit that things changed considerably. But is this “eventual deconstruction,” probably never done, of the Heideggerian critique of Marxism what Derrida considered essentially his own position on Marxism?   Can we read Specters of Marx from that perspective and find something there that would confirm this “third position”?

The question is important first because it refers back to the great question of the 1964-65 seminar, namely, whether Heidegger’s understanding of history or historicity marked an epochal break with the Hegelian, (hence also with the Marxist) idea; whether there is a radicality in Heidegger that the Althusserian radicality, still a metaphysical radicality, simply cannot measure up to.   Is Derrida still a thinker of Heideggerian radicality or does he claim for himself a third position? But the question is also important, second, because in my opinion the issue is not just a philological issue in Derridean criticism; rather, it constitutes still today an impasse for us that we must solve. And this is the reason why I wanted to bring these notes here for discussion: can we really thrive in the perplexity regarding whether the Heideggerian critique of Marxism is terminal, in the sense that it marks the need for a new and epochally post-Marxist determination of thinking?   Do we not have the means to decide whether Marxism can be rescued from it? Derrida’s ambiguity is a double ambiguity: he says to the Heideggerian critique something like “yes, but . . . ” “Yes, but . . . ” regarding the critique itself, that is one ambiguity developed in Sessions Six through Nine, not conclusively, though, but also “yes, but . . .” regarding Marxism, second ambiguity which Derrida talks about eventually resolving.   And that, perhaps he did. But we must come to some clarity ourselves. Perhaps the classical place of the ambiguity will become this 1975-76 seminar.   In my opinion, the ambiguity is overdetermined and it should be critiqued.   We need to break out of this epochal impasse which is really the contemporary form of the impasse of what some have called and will continue to call “left Heideggerianism.”   (I do not need to say, but I will, what some of you must have already thought, which is that infrapolitics is already an answer to the issue: but it must be specified.)

If Marxist philosophy postulated an overflowing of philosophy and of the history of philosophy, if Marxist philosophy posits a new philosophy which must be the philosophy, that is, philosophy, then Heidegger does the same: “because there is an enterprise of overflowing of Marxist discourse and its metaphysical space by Heidegger” (106). Derrida calls it: a “counter-overflowing” (106).  This Heideggerian counter-overflowing in the context of the history of philosophy, of the history of thought, is presumably what starts to be critically examined and determined in the sessions that follow session five, and which have come down to us in a less elaborate form than the previous ones, and with less than full clarity (the editors do not explain why, though.)

But is this counter-overflowing not the decisive site of contemporary thought?   Do not call it “left Heideggerianism.”   In the Heideggerian critique of metaphysical productionism the question of an epochal politics is involved, hence the question of the possible relation between politics and thought.   Is that not our question?

Still in the fifth session: “every being, as matter, appears as a relation of production between one subject and another, a humanity and a nature that are fundamentally identical. The ground is then nature as production, the unity of the totality of being as production, whatever the differentiations and the further determinations of this production” (109). The world is an unconditioned and self-organizing process because this production is “the last instance, the ultimate determination of being as nature put into work by human praxis” (109).

Still in the fifth session: “the essence of dialectical materialism cannot be understood without reference to the essence of technology” (109). This is a derivation or a corollary of the Heideggerian analysis of Marxism in “Letter on Humanism,” or even more: this is the Heideggerian fundamental thesis. Dialectical materialism, that is, Marxist philosophy, is a productionism thoroughly subservient to the metaphysical understanding of being and of the being of beings as production. Within this context, the opposition theory-praxis must be rethought all over again: theory is an effect of practice, indeed, a form of praxis, a form of technology as praxis. With this, the pretention of a Marxist philosophy to philosophy as such is contained. Within the Heideggerian machine, Marxist philosophy is nothing but an example–the most contemporary one, maybe–of the old philosophy of metaphysics, of old metaphysics as philosophy.

Towards the end of the session Derrida hints at the questions he will now orient against the Heideggerian text–and of course this is the moment when the possibility of a third position starts to be developed. There are, he says, two types of questions to be addressed to Heidegger here. The first type: is Heidegger’s counter-overflowing a real counteroverflowing, or is it still to be contained? In other words, how can one, or can one, ascertain the Heideggerian pretension to a real difference from metaphysics as a thinking of technique, as a productionism that is consummated in Marxist thinking through the notion that the being of beings is the being of production, which radically involves human subjectivity? The second question: if the Heideggerian critique of contemporary philosophy, in the form of Marxism, condemns it to being a follower of a certain reactive deviation from an origin, the follower of a conception of truth that obscures a more primal meaning that we must now recover, how is this return to the origin not simply another metaphysical ruse?   The two questions are really one question only, and they are well-known, they are in a sense the questions, or they are the question, Derrida always addresses to Heidegger, namely, is your pretension to a radical recovery of historicity as being, of being as historicity, anything but a pretension? Is it fake? Can we trust it?

(Second part of this, an analysis of sessions five to nine of the seminar, to follow. But there is no way we may have time to discuss everything now.)[2]


[1]  [Add note on Derrida’s “trans-“]

[2]   [Add notes on that, eventually finish paper]

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