Belonging without Belonging: Deconstruction, Literature and the Institution – Stephen Jarvis

The story ought to be simple enough, and it would seem that sufficient time has passed for those involved to get their stories straight. But some of the strands of this particular tale have yet to unravel. It would seem safe enough to say that the relation between the work of Jacques Derrida (conveniently designated as ‘deconstruction’) and the institution of the university (for which the part ‘Yale’ could stand for the whole) has a good deal to do with literature and departments of literature. One popular narrative would suggest that ‘deconstruction’ arrived in American universities some time in 1966 (October 21 at the Johns Hopkins Humanities Center, to be precise) and that its death knell was sounded during the 1980s (to be imprecise) with the discovery of Paul de Man’s wartime journalism. Yet something of ‘deconstruction’ lives on and some voices within the university continue to profess that ‘deconstruction’ might be telling us something about the institution itself. Jonathan Culler’s point that what became known as deconstructive literary criticism was based on Derrida’s readings of philosophical texts has become axiomatic (see 1992a: 10), and it raises a question about the remainder of the work in which Derrida specifically discusses literary texts. The story would then have to account for the following: the attempted institutionalisation of Derrida’s work within the university; the resistance to this process shown not just by elements within the university but also by the work itself; the implausible survival of this work within the university despite frequent proclamations of its demise; and the implications this survival holds for the institution of the university.

The university is concerned with knowledge and the transmission of knowledge, and it is therefore perfectly reasonable to ask: what is literature in deconstruction? What is it about literature and poetry specifically that interests Derrida? It would also be perfectly reasonable to expect a more or less coherent response. What follows is an attempt to formulate such a response but if this is a story, let it be said from the outset that there will not be a tidy resolution and that the narrator may not have an entirely firm grip on the facts. This is just to say that the story will be told but that it might appear not to have been told. These impossible questions concerning literature and deconstruction inevitably run into others about the institution of the university, philosophy, democracy, the law, and the literary institution itself. If these questions are to be answered or even approached something would also have to be said about survival, responsibility, mourning, translation, the future, ellipsis, blindness, the secret, re-mark, and madness; all of which may or may not pertain to literature.

The question of literature and deconstruction concerns an interrogation of the institution of the university and also the plight of deconstruction or deconstructionism within the university. The latter is partly the story of ‘deconstruction in America’ and tells of an attempted institutionalisation, specifically at Yale, a university whose name allowed those with an aptitude for wordplay to speak in terms of locks and keys. Hence, there was an attempt to lock away deconstruction, to confine it to the institution. But Derrida’s contribution to the so-called ‘Yale Manifesto’ – the volume Deconstruction & Criticism – was precisely concerned with demonstrating how and why deconstruction could not be contained by the institution while it is also not simply outside the institution. Deconstruction opens a space for a thinking of the institution, an institution which is always already in deconstruction (the foundational moment of any institution is one in which the institution is beside itself, not yet included in its own inauguration), and (some) literature is peculiarly suited to thinking through this impossible situation, somehow remaining an institution which exceeds the institution.

It is this thinking of simultaneity which is perhaps the most perturbing aspect of deconstruction. There is a tendency to think of the undecidable as either one thing or another – the arrèt de mort is either a death sentence or a suspension of death – whereas it is both things simultaneously, indistinguishably, both caught in what Paul de Man described as a movement of infinite acceleration. If it is one or two things then the undecidable has been fixed in terms of choice, a moment of interpretation, whereas deconstruction is a concern with chance and the possibility of an event. The impossible thinking of the simultaneity of an aporia or the undecidable is the possibility of the event precisely because of the impossibility of its formulation; there is always some residue or remainder, something which remains to be thought, something which cannot be brought to account. Certain moments in literature play out this complex relation to the institution, enabling a thinking of the philosophical institution of the university and the law. For Derrida literature or the literary event is elusive – there is hardly any literature – so it is not a question of setting up the literary in a privileged reflexive position, a shifting of institutional hierarchies. Nor is ‘literature’ the only possible locus for such thinking which is why much of what follows in this article might appear not to be about literature at all. This also has something to do with the maddening ellipsis of literature, the impossible moment in which it ceases to be itself as soon as it comes to the light of day; again, the moment of infinite acceleration in which something occurs simultaneously, superimposed, right on rather than alongside as a limited undecidability of either/or might imply.

The entire demonstration of the (non)specific place of literature in Derrida’s work which follows could be said to have derived from the on of ‘living on’ or – and here is an indication of the inevitable intervention of translation – the sur of ‘survivre’. That such a demonstration is conceivable indicates that this thinking around literature and the institution can be formalised up to a point but there will always be something elusive, in reserve, which cannot be called to account. Derrida talks of literature as an institution which is allowed to say everything, and this implies both the gathering of a totality and the breaking out of prohibition. It is the shift from the critical or theoretical (those who claim to be doing ‘theory’ in the name of deconstruction or Derrida often overlook the sense in which deconstruction would also be a resistance to theory) to dissemination and a limitless translatability which is troubling to the institution of the university whose pedagogical demands seek a controlled and transportable meaning. Deconstruction does not simply burst out of the university as if it were just too radical and new to be held there, but it also cannot be confined and defined – translated – within the university. Just as Derrida did not propose (all those years ago) replacing one theory or concept of translation with another, deconstruction is not and was not a new (it has never been new exactly, after all Derrida found deconstruction at work in the old testament and Plato) theory to be slotted or post-ed in somewhere after the new criticism and subsequently superseded (and finished off) by the new historicism and identity politics.

Derrida’s readings of literary texts are certain to disappoint those whose hopes may have been raised by the possibility of a new way of doing literary criticism. A glance at Signsponge or Glas would be sufficient to deter even the most optimistic, as it would rapidly become apparent that Derrida is not all that interested in the nuts and bolts of literary criticism. He has expressed a slightly envious admiration for Paul de Man’s engagement in an ongoing academic debate around Romanticism, or a desire to read more Shakespeare (see 1992a: 67), but showed a certain reluctance when presented with an opportunity to tackle Shelley. Instead of a contribution to the Yale manifesto detailing a reading method that might then be applied to the rest of the literary canon, a gesture that would have reassured many students and professors of literature, Derrida talks at considerable length about the remarkably elliptical work of Maurice Blanchot. What is more, he puts forward a number of ideas that are clearly intolerable to the institution of literary criticism, dwelling with something approaching relish on dissemination and madness. Other transgressions of the protocols of literary criticism include quoting lengthy passages of Blanchot without so much as a hint of close reading, and a conclusion that consists of a self-proclaimed ‘mad hypothesis’ (something about a secret marriage between two women) followed by another lengthy passage of unadulterated Blanchot.

Derrida’s work proceeds within the aporia between responsibility and irresponsibility, or madness and reason (‘a certain “madness” must keep a lookout over every step, and finally watch over thinking, as reason does also’ (1995: 363)), both before the law and outside the law, and thus living on the edge. His texts are neither philosophy nor literature, but somehow stuck in an aporia between the two – an impossible experience of both – a situation intolerable to many of those who have written on the subject. The desire to have either one or the other, philosophy or literature, overlooks what Derrida has to say about the question of choice. It has often been assumed that essays such as ‘Force and Signification’ and ‘Structure, Sign, and Play’ advocate a Dionysian/Nietzschean freeplay rather than an Apollonian/Rousseauistic nostalgia, but for Derrida there is no question of choosing between the two. A madness which works on thought is both constitutive of and necessary for the furtherance of rationality. Such is the impossible experience of the aporia, which is not then an impasse but rather serves as the impetus of deconstructive thought. Derrida does not choose either the sanity of Apollo or the madness of Dionysus, and nor does one lead to the other in a successive movement. Deconstruction begins in the uncomfortable and simultaneous experience of the aporia, which is neither the abdication of responsibility to an anything goes freeplay, nor is it an entirely sane and programmed scientific procedure that knows exactly where it is going. There is always a risk involved in this process: a literary writing must risk the madness which is the loss of meaning (see 1978: 12), a risk of which philosophy also partakes: ‘I philosophize only in terror, but in the confessed terror of going mad’ (1978: 62). Such a thinking does not simply abandon itself to irrationality but, in running the risk of madness or loss of meaning, remains open to the possibility of an event – something might happen – in the undecidable formulation of an irresponsible responsibility.

The text ‘Biodegradables: Seven Diary Fragments’ is ostensibly a response to several articles published in Critical Inquiry on the subject of Derrida’s article ‘Like the Sound of the Sea Deep Within a Shell: Paul de Man’s War’. As well as being a forceful refutation of these responses (with the exception of a more reasoned response from Jonathan Culler) the text also consists of a reflection on what ensures a work’s survival: ‘What is it in a “great” work, let’s say of Plato, Shakespeare, Hugo, Mallarmé, James, Joyce, Kafka, Heidegger, Benjamin, Blanchot, Celan, that resists erosion?’ (1989a: 845). The question of biodegradability appears double-edged, a text must be at once culturally assimilable and resistant to assimilation. A similar scenario emerges in the privilege literature has to say everything, which implies a totality but also a freedom from prohibition. This situation is outlined by Derrida during an interview conducted by Derek Attridge:

literature seemed to me, in a confused way, to be the institution which allows one to say everything, in every way. The space of literature is not only that of an instituted fiction but also a fictive institution which in principle allows one to say everything. To say everything is no doubt to gather, by translating, all figures into one another, to totalize by formalizing, but to say everything is also to break out of [franchir] prohibitions. (1992a: 36)

This apparent freedom is complex and brings with it a certain responsibility, but also therefore the necessity of a certain irresponsibility – really an excessive responsibility1 – which would preserve literary freedom from political restriction, hence neutralisation:

This duty of irresponsibility, of refusing to reply for one’s thought or writing to constituted powers, is perhaps the highest form of responsibility. To whom, to what? That’s the whole question of the future or the event promised by or to such an experience, what I was just calling the democracy to come. (1992a: 38)

Derrida returns to the question of literature and democracy in ‘Passions: “An Oblique Offering”’. Here the right to an ‘absolute nonresponse’ is posited as a condition of a democracy to come rather than a historically limited sense of democracy in which a subject can always be called to account, to render the truth before the law. Certain literary texts refuse this calling to account, and also stage this refusal within themselves; Blanchot’s La folie du jour and Kafka’s Before the Law are two examples discussed by Derrida. The lectures collected in Mémoires for Paul de Man and the subsequently added ‘Paul de Man’s War’ are also partly organised around the idea of responsibility as the right to an absolute nonresponse. This can be seen in Derrida’s refusal to offer a narrative account of ‘deconstruction in America’, and the discussion of responsibility which, when faced with the fact of de Man’s wartime journalism, questioned the precipitous rush in some quarters to put de Man and deconstruction on trial.


The questions of literature and survival are approached in the essay ‘Living On: Border Lines‘. The book in which the essay first appeared – Deconstruction & Criticism – provides an opportunity to compare the approaches of the so-called ‘Yale Critics’ to a particular text, Shelley’s The Triumph of Life. Derrida does not engage in a close reading of Shelley but attempts to speak of The Triumph of Life through a reading of Blanchot.

The text consists of two bands, the band titled ‘Living On’ beginning: ‘But who’s talking about living? In other words on living?’ (1979: 75) The latter phrase is repeated shortly after (a similar structure operates in Mémoires, beginning with the phrase ‘I have never known how to tell a story’ which was subsequently repeated), a citation which effectively puts it within quotation marks, both around and within (‘survivre’, ‘sur’vivre, etc.), thus pointing to an inexhaustible divisibility linking citation and iterability, translation and contamination. This unarrestability is (dis)figured in Derrida’s text by the two parallel bands which at once mark and overrun the borders of the text. The overrunning of the border from one language to another indicates a problem of translation, as well as complicating the notion of what constitutes the identity of a text. There is also an institutional resistance to the limitless translatability which Derrida outlines here, that is limitless in so far as it can never be exhausted – always leaving a remainder, that which survives translation – and so would appear to be limited in the traditional sense of translation:

by making manifest the limits of the prevalent concept of translation (I do not say of translatability in general), we touch on multiple problems said to be of ‘method’, of reading and teaching. The line that I seek to recognize within translatability, between two translations, one governed by the classical model of transportable univocality or of formalizable polysemia, and the other, which goes over into dissemination – this line also passes between the critical and the deconstructive. A politico-institutional problem of the University: it, like all teaching in its traditional form, and perhaps all teaching whatever, has as its ideal, with exhaustive translatability, the effacement of language. (1979: 92-94)

What is intolerable to the institution of the University is a tampering with the form rather than the content of language: ‘It can bear more readily the most apparently revolutionary ideological sorts of “content”, if only that content does not touch the borders of language … and of all the juridico-political contracts that it guarantees’ (1979: 95 n.). The implications would be felt across all areas of the University, including the teaching of literature; it is clear that Derrida is not proposing that literary criticism could assume the privilege of an aloof and reflective position. The expectation that Derrida’s contribution to Deconstruction & Criticism would provide a clarification of his ‘method’, and lead to a teachable set of approaches to literary texts, is therefore thwarted from the very start. Derrida begins at the limits of the ‘pedagogical institution’, and moves on from there. The difficulty of Derrida’s argument is that he is not simply replacing one concept of translation with another, but rather insisting on translatability and untranslatability. This is the same undecidable structure which showed that a ‘great work’ must remain (non)biodegradable, both able to be assimilated by a culture yet also unassimilable – holding something in reserve, resistant to the saturability of context or meaning – if it is to survive or live on:

A text lives only if it lives on [sur-vit], and it lives on only if it is at once translatable and untranslatable … Totally translatable, it disappears as a text, as writing, as a body of language [langue]. Totally untranslatable, even within what is believed to be one language, it dies immediately. Thus triumphant translation is neither the life nor the death of the text, only or already its living on, its life after life, its life after death. The same thing will be said of what I call writing, mark, trace, and so on. (1979: 102-3)

Derrida explores the questions of survival and translation through the work of Blanchot – particularly in the use of the term récit (‘narrative’) in La folie du jour and the expression arrèt de mort in L’arrèt de mort – but not by a direct discussion of The Triumph of Life, which had been the original remit. There is nevertheless a link, a way of reading one text through another, such as when Derrida writes in the lower band of: ‘The relative synonymy or intertranslatability that I seek to produce between arrèt de mort and triumph of life’ (1979: 103/4).

La folie du jour bore the title ‘Un Récit?’ when it was first published, raising a number of ‘borderline questions’ (‘Is it the same text, except for the title? Or are these two versions of the same écrit … , the same “récit“?’, etc. (1979: 88)) that above all are concerned with the law of framing or frames, which is also therefore an institutional question:

I am here seeking merely to establish the necessity of this whole problematic of judicial framing and of the jurisdiction of frames. This problematic, I feel, has not been explored, at least not adequately, by the institution of literary studies in the university. And there are essential reasons for that: this is an institution built on that very system of framing. (1979: 88)

Derrida writes of La folie du jour that: ‘This “narrative” seems indeed to begin with a certain sentence that will subsequently be quoted towards the end as part of the narrative, unless the first sentence quotes in advance the one that comes at the end and that relates the first words of a narrative’ (1979: 92).2 The structure is one of double invagination, in which there is dissymmetry and the self-identity of the narratorial ‘I’ is no longer assured. The law demanding a coherent narrative uttered by a unified, self-identifiable narrator, is thus overrun in La folie du jour, which even includes the demand for narrative truth within its folds. The structure of double invagination by which the text is folded back upon itself is also that of the re-mark. The re-mark is a doubling but also an effacement, so that – in La folie du jour – ‘the story effaces itself from the story by making itself more noticeable, by re-marking itself, with a “double exposure”, a superimprinting’ (1979: 101). This double bind of re-mark and effacement can also be thought in terms of a structure of belonging without belonging, wherein the mark which designates belonging no longer simply belongs to that which it designates.

Derrida draws on Blanchot’s distinction between the ‘narrative voice’ and the ‘narratorial voice’. The narrative voice is neutral, uttered from ‘the placeless place where the work is silent’, whereas the narratorial voice would correspond to ‘the voice that literary criticism or poetics or narratology strives to locate in the system of the narrative, of the novel, or of the narration’ (1979: 104). The narrative voice ‘takes place placelessly, being both atopical, mad, extravagant, and hypertopical, both placeless and overplaced’ (1979: 105), overrunning the determined place of the narratorial voice. The narrative voice remains neutral, caught in the ‘”-less” [sans, without] syntax’ which Derrida identifies in Blanchot’s texts: the placeless place, distanceless distance, secretless secret, and so on. It is not negative, however, but surpasses dialectical opposition. The affirmation of The Triumph of Life is read through the syntax of l’arrèt de mort:

a reading oriented by the problems of narrative [récit] as reaffirmation (yes, yes) of life, in which the yes, which says nothing, describes nothing but itself, the performance of its own event of affirmation, repeats itself, quotes, cites itself, says itself, says yes-to itself as (to an-) other in accordance with the ring, requotes and recites a commitment that would not take place outside this repetition of a performance without presence. This strange ring says yes to life only in the overdetermining ambiguity of the triumph de [‘of’, ‘over’] life, sur [‘over’, ‘on’, etc.] life, the triumph marked in the ‘on’ of ‘living on’. (1979: 104)

The double affirmation that is re-marked in the ‘on’ of ‘living on’ will come to indicate the specificity of literature in Derrida’s work, although it will become clear, as the argument progresses, why this is also a nonspecificity. The progress of this argument derived from the ‘on’ of ‘living on’ will be organised around three provisional points: blindness, the re-mark, and the secret.

A number of points concerning blindness are announced in Memoirs of the Blind where it is suggested that blindness gives drawing its potential. This seemingly paradoxical formulation can also be followed through the texts on Blanchot: ‘According to an old, omnipotent logic that has reigned since Plato, that which enables us to see should remain invisible: black, blinding. La folie du jour is a story of madness [histoire de la folie], of that madness that consists in seeing the light, vision or visibility, from an experience of blindness’ (1979: 90/1). It is also the blinking of an eye – a split second of blindness – which describes the instant in which literature comes to the light of day.

The examples of the re-mark that marks itself according to the double affirmation of ‘living on’ will include the following: the singular date which indicates a multiplicity of events all at once (a secret affinity), and is termed a marked or marking multiplicity in ‘Shibboleth’, Derrida’s reading of works by Paul Celan; the invisible which is positioned right on the visible (secreting itself) as a condition of possibility in Memoirs of the Blind; the description in ‘The Double Session’ of a system of writing which is open and closed at the same time; the undecidability outlined in ‘Passions: “An Oblique Offering”’ wherein ‘I’ may be speaking autobiographically or on autobiography; the arrèt which intervenes not between but rather within each sense of the word arrèt in ‘Living On: Border Lines’; and, in the same essay, the unreadable which situates itself on readability in order to facilitate the latter. The question of readability is linked to that of singularity and generality and crosses the line of the secret.

The date, for example, must efface its singularity to become generally readable but, in the same moment, it also encrypts itself to ensure survival (living on): ‘It must expose its secret, risk losing it if it is to keep it. It must blur the border, crossing and recrossing it, between readability and unreadability’ (1994: 43). A similar movement is apparent in ‘Biodegradables’ where it is seen as necessary for a text to be ‘assimilated as unassimilable, kept in reserve, unforgettable because irreceivable, capable of inducing meaning without being exhausted by meaning, incomprehensibly elliptical, secret’ (1989a: 845). It is this secret ellipsis or encryption which is intolerable to the representatives of the law in La folie du jour who ‘demand the narrative of the other, seek to extort it from him, like a secretless secret, something that they call the truth’ (1979: 87). The ‘mad hypothesis’ put forward at the conclusion of ‘Living On: Border Lines’ is that of a secret marriage or hymen between the two women in L’arrèt de mort. Theirs would be a disjunctive relationship of belonging without belonging, a connectionless connection (‘d’un sans rapport’). Derrida offers a reading of unreadability which perturbs the laws of reading3 because the reading he suggests is also unreadable (the unreadable on the readable),4 rather than preserving a decidable dialectical opposition between readability and unreadability: ‘No normal category of readability, then, could give credence to the mad hypothesis according to which the double invagination that attracts us in this récit could make it possible to read [donner à lire] the unreadable hymen between the two women: one with(out) the other’ (1979: 170). The secret encrypted within the text survives, elliptically preserving its unreadability without exhausting itself in readability, the totalisation of a demand for narrative truth required by the laws of conventional reading: ‘This unreadability will have taken place, as unreadable, will have become readable [se sera donné à lire] right here, as unreadable, from the very bottom of the crypt in which it remains. It will have taken place where it remains: that’s the proof’ (1979: 171/2).5

Derrida points out that he has analysed the structure of the ‘”-less” syntax’ in ‘Pas’ and ‘Le “sans” de la coupure pure’,6 thus shifting the limits (as he does on several occasions with references to other texts) of what appeared to be enclosed within ‘Living On: Border Lines‘. As Derrida writes in The Truth in Painting, ‘The tulip is exemplary of the sans of the pure cut’ (1987c: 89), an example which is discussed in Kant’s third Critique. The tulip conforms to the analytic of the beautiful because it represents a finality without end, meaning that:

everything about the tulip, about its form, seems to be organized with a view to an end. Everything about it seems finalized, as if to correspond to a design … , and yet there is something missing from this aiming at a goal [but] – the end [bout]. … The feeling of beauty, attraction without anything attracting, fascination without desire have to do with this “experience”: of an oriented, finalized movement, harmoniously organized in view of an end which is never in view, seen, an end which is missing … (1987c: 85-87)

The flower is beautiful because it is cut from its goal, yet must also be straining towards that goal. It is the purity of the cut maintained by the without [sans] of its syntax which determines beauty:

The tulip is beautiful only at the edge of this cut without adherence. But in order for the cut to appear – and it can still do so only by its edging – the interrupted finality must show itself, both as finality and as interrupture – as edging. Finality alone is not beautiful, nor is the absence of goal, which we will here distinguish from the absence of the goal. It is finality-without-end which is said to be beautiful … . So it is the without that counts for beauty; neither the finality nor the end, neither the lacking goal nor the lack of a goal but the edging in sans of the pure cut … , the sans of the finality-sans-end. (1987c: 88/9)

The structure of a trait which does not belong to that which it designates will also indicate the specificity of literature in Derrida’s work. It is formulated again in Memoirs of the Blind during a discussion of blindness, drawing, and self-portraiture.


Derrida suggests that drawing is blind, that its operation ‘would in some way regard blindness’, and that ‘a drawing of the blind is a drawing of the blind’ (1993: 2). The latter, seemingly tautological, proposition is that the theme of blindness often comes to be represented through the figure of a draftsman or draftswoman in the very act of drawing. A continuity with the texts in which Derrida discusses the work of de Man can be seen in the resistance of a self-reflexive structure to an economy of the same, both through the intervention of allegory and the invention of the other: ‘[The draftsman] invents drawing. The trait is not then paralyzed in a tautology that folds the same onto the same. On the contrary, it becomes prey to allegory, to this strange self-portrait of drawing given over to the speech and gaze of the other’ (1993: 3). The aporia of a blindness at the origin of drawing does not paralyse, it gives drawing its potential in much the same way as the blindness identified by de Man in Blindness and Insight is not simply opposed to insight but enables the possibility of its emergence. The idea of blindness as a gift to drawing leads Derrida to formulate this apparent paradox or aporia in terms that also organise the reading of de Man in Mémoires: ‘There is in this gift a sort of re-drawing, a with-drawing, or retreat [re-trait], at once the interposition of a mirror, an impossible reappropriation or mourning, the intervention of a paradoxical Narcissus, sometimes lost en abyme, in short, a specular folding or falling back [repli] – and a supplementary trait’ (1993: 3). At work here is a trait which simultaneously adds and withdraws in a movement of différance, belonging without belonging to that which it designates (drawing, for example, or literature). It thus resembles the work of an (im)possible mourning, caught between the successful interiorisation of the other and a respect for the alterity of the other which ‘leaving the other his alterity, respecting thus his infinite remove, either refuses to take or is incapable of taking the other within oneself, as in the tomb or the vault of some narcissism’ (1989b: 6).

Derrida supports his contention that the draftsman is blind by pointing out aspects of the trait which are directly attributable to a form of blindness or invisibility. The first is that the invention of the trait does not follow the presently visible but proceeds, as it were, in the night. There remains an abyssal heterogeneity between the thing drawn and the drawing trait which operates in memory, a formulation that appears in Baudelaire’s Le peintre de la vie moderne. Baudelaire, according to Derrida, writes himself into an ‘iconographic tradition’ that substitutes memory for perception, a narrative which ‘relates the origin of graphic representation to the absence or invisibility of the model’ (1993: 49). Another aspect is that the tracing, the outline of the trait, cannot be seen: ‘One should in fact not see it … insofar as all the colored thickness that it retains tends to wear itself out so as to mark the single edge of a contour: between the inside and the outside of a figure’ (1993: 53). This is the limit at which the trait is no longer what it is and ‘never relates to itself without dividing itself just as soon’: ‘drawing always signals toward this inaccessibility, toward the threshold where only the surroundings of the trait appear – that which the trait spaces by delimiting and which thus does not belong to the trait. Nothing belongs to the trait, and thus, to drawing and to the thought of drawing, not even its own “trace”’ (1993: 54). This is a version of the structure of an end without end, or a belonging without belonging, that was identified in Kant and also organises Derrida’s approach in ‘The Law of Genre’. A further link with ‘Living On: Border Lines’ is also apparent in the institution of borders which are also traversed by the trait, a disjunctive conjunction of the death sentence and the Shibboleth:

The outline or tracing separates and separates itself; it retraces only borderlines, intervals, a spacing grid with no possible appropriation. The experience or experimenting of drawing (and experimenting, as its name indicates, always consists in journeying beyond limits) at once crosses and institutes these borders, it invents the Shibboleth of these passages (the chorus of Samson Agonistes recalls that which links the Shibboleth, this circumcision of the tongue, of language, to the death sentence: ‘… when so many died / Without reprieve adjudged to death, / For want of well pronouncing Shibboleth’). (1993: 54/5)

A connection with Derrida’s reading of Paul Celan in ‘Shibboleth’ would also suggest itself here. The want of a well pronounced shibboleth was a matter of life and death for the Ephraimites, and involved the crossing of an actual border which was also a linguistic border.7

Derrida’s complex examination of the date in Celan’s work is concerned with a singularity which is preserved through repetition or iterability, but without losing the uniqueness of its occurrence (its secret, enigma, or shibboleth). He follows Celan’s ‘Meridian’ address in taking the example of the date 20th of January which, in order to preserve its singularity or readability, must expose itself to repetition and expropriation. Such a date, according to Celan, marks each poem and thus implies a generality which is nevertheless always unique:

But despite the generality of this law, the example remains irreplaceable. And what must remain, committed to the keeping, in other words to the truth of each poem, is the irreplaceable itself: the example offers its example only on condition that it holds for no other. But it offers its example in that very fact, and the only example possible, the one which it alone offers: the only one. (1994: 8)

Derrida is interested in the play between singularity and multiplicity in the date, the poem, the shibboleth. Celan’s poem ‘In Eins’, for example, ‘announces the con-signing and co-signing of a multiple singularity’ (1994: 24) through its title, the date it invokes (‘Thirteenth of February’), and the untranslatable aporia in which four languages are used at once.8 This ‘multiplicity of languages may concelebrate, all at once, at the same date, the poetic and political anniversary of singular events, spread like stars over the map of Europe, and henceforth conjoined by a secret affinity’ (1994: 26), but such a commemoration is also possible within a single language:

But already within the habitation of a single language, for example French, a discontinuous swarm of events may be commemorated all at once, at the same date, which consequently takes on the strange, coincident, unheimlich dimensions of a cryptic predestination. The date itself resembles a shibboleth. It gives ciphered access to this collocation, to this secret configuration of places for memory. (1994: 26/7)

Derrida writes that ‘Like the date, shibboleth is marked several times, several times in one, “in eins”, at once. A marked multiplicity but also a marking one’ (1994:27), and it is this conjunction of multiplicity and singularity which provides a link with both Memoirs of the Blind and ‘Living On: Border Lines’.

In the former Derrida discusses Baudelaire and the necessary invisibility of the model at the moment of drawing. The heterogeneity of the invisible to the visible is ensured by the invisible inhabiting the visible rather than in dialectical opposition: ‘In order to be absolutely foreign to the visible and even to the potentially visible, to the possibility of the visible, this invisibility would still inhabit the visible, or rather, it would come to haunt it to the point of being confused with it, in order to assure, from the specter of this very impossibility, its most proper resource.’ (1993: 51) The visible would be invisible ‘as the singular body of the visible itself, right on the visible – so that, by emanation, and as if it were secreting its own medium, the visible would produce blindness’ (1993: 51/2). The discussion of the arrèt de mort can be said to resemble the singular multiplicity identified in ‘Shibboleth’, and the similar moment in Memoirs of the Blind where invisibility is shown to retain its heterogeneity to visibility by its very proximity to (right on) the visible. In ‘Living On: Border Lines’ undecidability and an impossible decision are found in the syntax of the arrèt de mort which is at once a decision and a deferral of death. This is not a matter of choosing between two possible meanings or senses of the word arrèt – which would then be accomodated by the law of interpretation, a moment of literary criticism – but of an indivisibility, an undecidability within the word itself. The arrèt could also be said to be an aporetic structure, and does not simply arrest but also sets things in motion, which is why deconstruction, if it is anything, is a thinking of affirmation rather than the negative or nihilistic dead-end many critics have claimed it to be:

The arrèt arrests itself, but in stopping [s’arrètant] (as arrèt), it imparts movement, sets things in motion [donne le mouvement]. It makes them come and go, go and come again. It gives life; it gives death. And it gives them to itself, with a consent that ‘unfortunately’ is not ‘sure’, fortunately not sure. The arrèt arrests itself. It stands (but gets no foothold), stays (with no mainstay) on this unstable line, this ridge [arète] that relates it to itself (the arrèt arresting itself) without being able to constitute it in self-reflection and reappropriation of self. (1979:115/6)

It is the very unreadability of the title L’arrèt de mort (or La folie du jour) which makes reading possible, and is therefore affirmative. The unreadable would not be opposed to the readable, but rather would inhabit the readable in much the same way as the invisible was said to have situated itself right on the visible in Memoirs of the Blind. The play between readability and unreadability also emerges during ‘Shibboleth’ where it is seen as encompassing both the singular and general, and a structure of belonging without belonging.9


In approaching the specificity of literature, Derrida points to an essential referentiality which would not be confined by the borderlines of an inside/outside dichotomy determined by a sign and its referent:

we vaguely feel that what is at work in this text retains an essential rapport with the play of framing and the paradoxical logic of boundaries, which introduces a kind of perturbation in the ‘normal’ system of reference, while simultaneously revealing an essential structure of referentiality which does not make reference, which does not refer, any more than the eventness of the event is itself an event. (1992a: 213)

This ‘essential structure of referentiality’ – a reference without referent – is an effect of the re-mark. The abyssal play of a reference to a referent which is never present is outlined in ‘The Double Session’ during a discussion of the hymen, blank, or fold in Mallarmé’s poetry: ‘in the act of inscribing itself on itself indefinitely, mark upon mark, it multiplies and complicates its text, a text within a text, a margin in a mark, the one indefinitely repeated within the other: an abyss’ (1981: 265).10 The abyss is also a relation to the law performed by literature in the singularity of its idiom: to ask the question ‘what is literature?’ is perhaps to ‘betray the rustic simplicity of a man from the country’ (1992a: 212/3), who failed to grasp the fact of the law’s singularity in Kafka’s Before the Law:

there is no literature without a work, without an absolutely singular performance, and this necessary irreplaceability again recalls what the man from the country asks when the singular crosses the universal, when the categorical engages the idiomatic, as a literature always must. The man from the country had difficulty in grasping that an entrance was singular or unique when it should have been universal, as in truth it was. He had difficulty with literature. (1992a: 213)

The question ‘what is literature?’ indicates the philosophical desire to uncover the truth and the transcendental essence of literature. Derrida questions the determination of literature as truth in ‘The Double Session’ by looking at a certain interpretation of mimesis put forward in Plato. This interpretation is a system of the 1 and the 2, the simple and the double, the imitated and the imitator, in which the first term is always both anterior and superior. It is therefore ‘the precedence … of the imitated, that governs the philosophical or critical interpretation of “literature”, if not the operation of literary writing. The order of appearance is the order of all appearance, the very process of appearing in general. It is the order of truth’ (1981: 192). Mimesis is only judged with reference to truth (‘reference itself’), but this reference is perturbed by the re-mark: ‘This double mark escapes the pertinence or authority of truth: it does not overturn it but rather inscribes it within its play as one of its functions or parts’ (1981: 193). Derrida argues that this redoubling and displacement is exemplified by Mallarmé’s text Mimique: ‘The system of illustration is altogether different there than in the Philebus …. There is no imitation. The Mime imitates nothing. And to begin with, he doesn’t imitate. There is nothing prior to the writing of his gestures’ (1981: 194). The question of reference opens onto an abyssal textual network, so that the referent for Mallarmé is neither simply the spectacle of the mime (which he may not have seen) nor the booklet in which the ‘action’ of the mime was transcribed:

a mimodrama ‘takes place’, as a gestural writing preceded by no booklet; a preface is planned and then written after the ‘event’ to precede a booklet written after the fact, reflecting the mimodrama rather than programming it. This Preface is replaced four years later by a Note written by the ‘author’ himself, a sort of floating outwork [hors-livre]. (1981: 199)

There is a possible objection that the system closes upon itself between the act of the mimodrama and the retrospectiveness of the booklet, with the writing of the booklet referring to the ‘writing’ of the mimodrama. Derrida’s response to such an objection is to point out that a writing is always already double:

A writing that refers back only to itself carries us at the same time, indefinitely and systematically, to some other writing. At the same time: this is what we must account for. …. It is necessary that while referring each time to another text, to another determinate system, each organism only refer to itself as a determinate structure; a structure that is open and closed at the same time. (1981: 202)

Another objection might be that, since it imitates nothing, the mime would be the presentation without mediation of truth itself. There is mimicry, but it does not follow the Platonic interpretation of mimesis based on the presence somewhere of something that is being imitated. Mallarmé’s text ceases to function in accordance with the truth demanded by philosophy (‘we are indeed in the process of determining in what way there is no “philosophy” in his text, or rather that that text is calculated in such a way as no longer to be situated in philosophy’ (1981: 207, n.24)): ‘What is marked [in Mimique] is the fact that, this imitator having in the last instance no imitated, this signifier having in the last instance no signified, this sign having in the last instance no referent, their operation is no longer comprehended within the process of truth but on the contrary comprehends it’ (1981: 207). The term ‘literature’, having eluded the demand for truth, would no longer be defined within the terms implied by the question ‘what is literature?’ Such a moment was also apparent in ‘Shibboleth’: ‘Perhaps philosophy, as such, and insofar as it makes use of the question “what is . . . ?”, has nothing essential to say about what bears Celan’s date or about what Celan says or makes of the date – and which might in its turn say something to us, perhaps, about philosophy’ (1994: 16).

Derrida’s interest in literary texts such as those of Kafka and Blanchot would seem to derive from the way they remark on the traits of literature and law within themselves. This is not, however, a theory of symmetrical self-reflexivity, for literature, in speaking of itself as literature, comes to exceed literature: ‘The text also points obliquely to literature, speaking of itself as a literary effect – and thereby exceeding the literature of which it speaks’ (1992a: 215). This recalls the formulation of genre in ‘The Law of Genre’:

The re-mark of belonging does not belong. It belongs without belonging, and the ‘without’ (or the suffix ‘-less’) which relates belonging to non-belonging appears only in the timeless time of the blink of an eye. The eyelid closes, but barely, an instant among instants, and what it closes is verily the eye, the view, the light of day. (1992a: 230)

The blinking of an eye is the instant in which literature comes to the light of day, but it is also the moment in which the end of literature begins. The structure of ‘referential equivocation’, enabling a literary text to refer to itself while in that moment ceasing to be identical to itself, is that of literature’s ‘subversive juridicity’. This ensures that literature is capable of evading the law to which it also submits. The irony is that this capacity which ‘belongs’ to literature simultaneously carries literature away from itself, and to such a point that the ‘event’ and ‘identity’ of literature becomes uncertain. It is in this sense, perhaps, that there is ‘hardly any literature’.11 The limit point at which literature comes to jouer la loi is where it also begins to resemble the movement of différance: its position would be both before and prior to the law and therefore deferred, as well as differing from itself to such a degree that the term ‘literature’ no longer seems an appropriate designation:

In the fleeting moment when it plays the law, a literature passes literature. It is on both sides of the line that separates law from the outlaw, it splits the being-before-the-law, it is at once, like the man from the country, ‘before the law’ and ‘prior to the law’… Prior to the being-before-the-law which is also that of the doorkeeper. But within so unlikely a site, would it have taken place? Would it have been appropriate to … name literature? (1992a: 216)


Literature, then, preserves its secret in ellipsis, it is not called to account by the representatives of truth. Derrida discusses this necessity in ‘Passions: “An Oblique Offering”’ during a discussion of responsibility. The refusal to give an account revealing the whole truth (the situation described in La folie du jour) is intolerable to authorities such as the law:

And is there any worse violence than that which consists in calling for the response, demanding that one give an account of everything, and preferably thematically. Because this secret is not phenomenalizable. Neither phenomenal nor noumenal. No more than religion, can philosophy, morality, politics or the law accept the unconditional respect of this secret. These authorities are constituted as authorities who may properly ask for accounts, that is, responses, from those with accepted responsibilities. (1992c: 20)

This is not to say that literature is the privileged locus of a secret which could then be deciphered and revealed, but that it is an ‘exemplary secret’, ‘in place of the secret’. Derrida’s readings of certain texts demonstrate how literature can exceed the limits of an hermeneutic deciphering, as in the apparent untranslatability of the title L’arrèt de mort which was also affirmed as a limitless translatability, or the shibboleth:

Nor does this mean, on the other hand, that possession of the shibboleth effaces the cipher, holds the key to the crypt, and guarantees transparency of meaning. The crypt remains, the shibboleth remains secret, the passage uncertain, and the poem only unveils this secret to confirm that there is something secret there, withdrawn, forever beyond the reach of hermeneutic exhaustion. A nonhermetic secret, it remains, and the date with it, heterogeneous to all interpretive totalization, eradicating the hermeneutic principle. There is no one meaning, from the moment that there is date and shibboleth, no longer a sole originary meaning. (1994: 28)

The necessity of well-pronouncing shibboleth precedes meaning: ‘it is the ciphered mark which one must be able to partake of with the other’ and therefore ‘presupposes participation in a cultural and linguistic community’ (1994: 29). The cipher precedes any hermeneutic decision or demand concerning responsibility, but never settles the system by becoming present, remaining an example – the cipher of the cipher – an ellipsis that is also a passion:12

And when a cipher manifests itself as what it is, that is to say, in encrypting itself, this is not in order to say to us: I am a cipher. It may still conceal from us, without the slightest hidden intention, the secret which it shelters in its readability. It moves, touches, fascinates, or seduces us all the more. The ellipsis and caesura of discretion inhabit it; there is nothing it can do about it. This pass is a passion before becoming a calculated risk, prior to any strategy, any poetics of ciphering intended, as with Joyce, to keep the professors busy for generations. (1994: 29)

As Derrida remarks in ‘Passions’, it is the secret which ‘impassions us’, even if there has never been a secret. The fact that something remains (whether or not it is a secret) is a condition of responsibility and democracy: ‘There is in literature, in the exemplary secret of literature, a chance of saying everything without touching upon the secret’ (1992c: 23). Literature has been defined within the institution of democracy: ‘Literature is a modern invention, inscribed in conventions and institutions which, to hold on to just this trait, secures in principle its right to say everything. Literature thus ties its destiny to a certain non-censure, to the space of democratic freedom … No democracy without literature; no literature without democracy’ (1992c: 23). This authorisation must entail a certain irresponsibility, giving the author ‘a right to absolute nonresponse’ which is ‘more original and more secret than the modalities of power and duty because it is fundamentally heterogeneous to them’ (1992c: 23). Literature must therefore exceed a certain ‘historically limited’ concept of democracy: ‘a concept which links it to the concept of a subject that is calculable, accountable, imputable and responsible, one that has-to-respond, has-to-tell … the truth (‘the whole truth, nothing but the truth’) before the law, having to reveal the secret’ (1992c: 23).

Literature exceeds truth through an uncertainty or undecidability which is formulated in ‘Passions’ in terms of the exemplary secret of literature:

Something of literature will have begun when it is not possible to decide whether, when I speak of something, I am indeed speaking of something (of the thing itself, this one, for itself) or if I am giving an example, an example of something or an example of the fact that I can speak of something, of my way of speaking of something, of the possibility of speaking in general of something in general, or again of writing these words, etc. (1992c: 33/4, n.14)

Undecidability extends as far as the ‘I’ which would normally carry the weight of truth (‘I promise to tell the whole truth …’), signifying a unified subject accountable before the law:

For example, suppose that I say ‘I’, that I write in the first person or that I write a text, as they say ‘autobiographically’. No one will be able seriously to contradict me if I claim (or hint by ellipsis, without thematizing it) that I am not writing an ‘autobiographical’ text but a text on autobiography of which this very text is an example. No one will seriously be able to contradict me if I say (or hint, etc.) that I am not writing about myself but on ‘I’, on any I at all, or on the I in general, by giving an example: I am only an example, or I am exemplary. (1992c: 34, n.14)

Literature is then linked with irony in that it ‘can all the time play economically, elliptically, ironically, with these marks and non-marks, and thus with the exemplarity of everything that it says and does’, and allegory in so far as ‘it can always mean, teach, convey, more than it does, or at any rate something else’ (1992c: 34, n.14). The ellipsis by which literature would no longer be itself if it were only itself, has been traced through the discussion of genre and the law. Literature does not belong to literature, it is before the law (the validation of the literary institution) but can also subvert the law by remarking elliptically on its status before the law. The discussion of genre showed that literature does not belong to literature, that it cancels its essence in an unremitting ellipsis. In this literature is not so different from any other institution (the foundation of the philosophical institution of the university is not a philosophical moment, and the law is not founded in a moment of legality). But as Derrida remarked to Derek Attridge: ‘The law of literature tends, in principle, to defy or lift the law. It therefore allows one to think the essence of the law in the experience of this “everything to say”. It is an institution which tends to overflow the institution’ (1992a: 36).

Institutions such as the law, the university, and philosophy, cannot reflect upon themselves in order to maintain their own concept. This is due to the moment of foundation that Derrida describes in ‘Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties’:

An event of foundation can never be comprehended merely within the logic that it founds. The foundation of the law is not a juridical event. The origin of the principle of reason, which is also implicated in the origin of the university, is not rational. The foundation of a university institution is not a university event. An anniversary of the foundation may be, but not the founding itself. Though such a foundation may not be merely illegal, it also does not arise from the internal legality it institutes. And while nothing may seem more philosophical than the foundation of a philosophical institution, whether it involves a university, a school or a department of philosophy, the foundation of the philosophical institution as such can never be already strictly philosophical. (1992b: 30)

Literature would facilitate an understanding of this foundational moment, describing what it is to be before the law and also making its own law (the law of itself) through a referential equivocation. The structure of referential equivocation owes a good deal to the possibilities of irony (belonging without belonging), and allegory (literature can always ‘mean’ something else, something other than itself). This is the exemplarity of literature which Derrida describes in ‘Passions’: ‘it always is, says, does something other, something other than itself, an itself which moreover is only that, something other than itself. For example or par excellence: philosophy’ (1992c: 35). La folie du jour or Before the Law are able to relate the ‘storyless story’ of the law, whereas other discourses could not tolerate a state of non-knowledge, that which would not submit to the question ‘what is … ?’:

[In Before the Law] we know neither who nor what is the law, das Gesetz. This, perhaps, is where literature begins. A text of philosophy, science, or history, a text of knowledge or information, would not abandon a name to a state of not-knowing, or at least it would do so only by accident and not in an essential or constitutive way. Here one does not know the law, one has no cognitive rapport with it; it is neither a subject before which one could take a position. Nothing holds before the law. …. The law is produced (without showing itself, thus without producing itself) in the space of this non-knowledge. (1992a: 207)


It is impossible to gather together or thematise the guiding threads of blindness, the re-mark, and the secret. They are, up to a point, interchangeable, and have been shown working across a number of texts in various guises. It might be said (taking a cue from Derrida who talks about the circulation of blood in L’arrèt de mort and even of a ‘madness of blood’ (1979: 171)) that they bleed into each other, spilling across the borders that might contain or define them. Certainly these threads overrun themselves and into each other. The re-mark, for example, crosses the path of the blindness that permitted vision as described in Memoirs of the Blind and the blindness in the blinking of an eye which brought literature to the light of day. It is also a structure of double invagination, of impossible mourning, mise-en-abyme, re-trait, of belonging without belonging, the ‘-less’ syntax, the sans of the pure cut, and therefore of the law of genre. The re-mark is also a superimprinting, that which is marked in the ‘on’ of ‘living on’ or the ‘sur’ of survivre, and therefore follows the theme of translation: ‘The sur, “on”, “super”, and so forth, that is my theme above [in ‘Living On’], also designates the figure of a passage by trans-lation, the trans– of an àœbersetzung’ (1979: 87 n.). As such it is also linked to the double affirmation (that which re-quotes or ré-cites itself), the arrèt de mort and différance. All this would also be traversed by the secret, which can follow a course running into the date and on into questions of singularity and iterability, readability and unreadability, questions which themselves include or fold back on all of the above.

‘Living On’ speaks of how deconstruction has transformed the boundaries of a text so that it would no longer be enclosed within the margins of a book but ‘a differential network, a fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself, to other differential traces’ (1979: 84). Derrida stresses that the result is not an undifferentiated homogeneity but a greater complexity, ‘dividing and multiplying strokes and lines’ (1979: 84). There is a similar formulation in ‘The Double Session’: ‘A writing that refers back only to itself carries us at the same time, indefinitely and systematically, to some other writing. At the same time: this is what we must account for’ (1981: 202). A text that quotes and folds back onto itself causes the reader to lose sight (a form of blindness) of its edges, and a certain drowning takes place out of reach of the shoreline.13

The situation is one in which ‘One text reads another’ and ‘Each “text” is a machine with multiple reading heads for other texts’ (1979: 107), so that The Triumph of Life can be read through L’arrèt de mort. This overrunning of textual borders allows ‘Living On’ to be read through Kant’s third Critique (the ‘-less’ syntax which runs into the structure of belonging without belonging and into ‘le “sans” de la coupure pure’ and back again), to cite just one of a potentially endless series of possible examples.

A madness runs through deconstructive thinking, as witnessed by the frequent references in Derrida’s work. He affirms neither responsibility nor irresponsibility, neither fidelity nor infidelity – describing each separately as a kind of madness – but an ‘experience between the two’ (1995: 152). This is impossible, but deconstruction never claimed to be possible.14 Deconstruction lives on the edge of madness and rationality without quite belonging to either. Madness and blindness: the blinded narrator of La folie du jour who brings forth the madness of the day; the more redoubtable blindness in Rousseau that may have been madness to which de Man refers in a letter to Derrida (see 1989b: 130). The aporetic and madness: ‘The figures of rationality are profiled and outlined in the madness of the aporetic’ (1989b: 132). The narrative voice in Blanchot is mad because it is both atopical and hypertopical, ‘both placeless and overplaced’ (1979: 105). There is the madness of La folie du jour / a ‘récit’ (?), ‘a story whose title runs wild and drives the reader mad’ (1979: 89), a madness infecting Derrida’s readings of Blanchot which in turn have the potential to drive a reader mad. The madness in Blanchot (and in any text) is protected by the law for the purposes of copyright and the archive, becoming another version of the aporetic structure between madness and rationality: a madness dependent on the law, but equally a law that is mad.

The representatives of the law in La folie du jour demanded a story, a narrative account of events, from the blinded ‘narrator’, the ‘I’ of the text. What they themselves could not see was that the narrator had offered an account, albeit an impossible account, a ‘storyless story’. This is also the case in Before the Law where the text relates nothing, jealously guarding its significance, but in so doing becomes like the law, doing what it is that the law does, or rather does not do because the law exceeds being and knowledge. The law would be described as mad in so far as it cannot be grasped by a reasoning subject. The law is found wanting: it lacks essence, generality and universality, it is atopical and secretive about the fact that nothing is secret. All this is sufficient to drive reason out of its mind. It is sheer madness to the discourses of philosophy, science, and history, but oddly suitable for literature which begins where the long arm of reason cannot reach. The literary text is before the law in that it is protected by the laws of copyright, and some authors are put on trial and called before the law to answer for the contents of a book to which they have put their name, but a literary text can also make the law.15

Having said this, would it then be reasonable to demand an account of literature, to ask ‘what is literature?’ If literature partakes of the law’s madness, then surely it would be madness to ask such a question.

This, however, is perhaps not a satisfactory conclusion. It might infuriate those who have come this far; certainly as a resolution of the arguments presented it is lacking finality, but is it not also excessive in its refusal to acquiesce? Derrida’s work, therefore, provides no easy answers for the institution of literary criticism, no new readily identifiable theory or method enabling professors and students to go about things with a renewed vigour. Nor does it provide an easy answer for the institution of the university so that the university can proceed safe in the knowledge that this is what it ought to be doing. All that might be said is that deconstruction ‘teaches’ the university that in order to be open to the possibility of an event, to be able to allow for the possibility of something new, a novel occurrence, it must be maintained within a situation that is impossible, uncomfortable, intolerable, and perhaps unthinkable precisely because it is an affirmation rather than a negation.


1. Literature would be exemplary of a certain irresponsibility, but offering resistance to the complacency of an unquestioned responsibility which would be irresponsibility itself. Derrida, commenting on his ‘Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties’, outlines the excessive responsibility which is central to the affirmative thought of deconstruction:

This surplus of responsibility – for me, the very experience of deconstruction – leads to interrogating, suspecting and displacing those tranquil assurances in whose name so many moralisms, today more than ever, organize their courts, their trials and their censures. So long as those assurances are not interrogated or put to the test of a vigilant deconstruction, these moralisms will signify above all else a repressive violence, dogmatism and irresponsibility: the very irresponsibility that claims to speak in the name of responsibility, the well-known immorality of edifying moralism. …. If it were not excessive, if it could assign limits to itself, appease itself, arrest itself or calculate its own proportions, then the meaning claimed for ‘responsibilities’ would include anything but the meaning of responsibility. It would confuse responsibility with a calculation of causalities and programs. Responsibility is infinite or it is not, excessive or null, forever disturbed or denied. So the surplus of responsibility that I recognize in deconstruction is only an ‘excess’ of responsibility itself. (1992b: 202/3)

2. Mémoires ironically refers to such a structure by beginning with a phrase that is subsequently quoted (as does ‘Living On: Border Lines’ itself). Derrida is concerned with the very (im)possibility of narrative (‘I have never known how to tell a story’), just as Blanchot’s ‘narrator’ concedes: ‘I was forced to realize that I was not capable of forming a story out of these events. I had lost the thread of the narrative.’ (1979: 97)

3. ‘The readability of unreadability is as improbable as an arrèt de mort. No law of (normal) reading can guarantee it in its legitimacy. By normal reading I mean every reading that insures knowledge transmittable in its own language, in a language, in a school or academy, knowledge constructed and insured in institutional constructions, in accordance with laws made so as to resist (precisely because they are weaker) the ambiguous threats with which the arrèt de mort troubles so many conceptual oppositions, boundaries, borders. The arrèt de mort brings about the arrèt of the law.’ (1979: 171)

4. Just as, for the narrator, the two women might be united in their difference and without him: ‘In him, before him, without him, they are the same, the same one, “two images superimposed on one another”, a “photographic” superimposing; they are utterly different, completely other, and they unite and call to each other: “Come”.’ (1979: 170)

5. ‘Shibboleth’ describes a secret encounter as between two dates, the movement by which a date preserves its singularity while seeming to efface itself in readability:

One must, while preserving its memory, speak of the date that already speaks of itself: the date, by its mere occurrence, by the inscription of a sign as a memorandum, will have broken the silence of pure singularity. But to speak of it, one must also efface it, make it readable, audible, intelligible beyond the pure singularity of which it speaks. Now the beyond of absolute singularity, the chance of the poem’s exclamation, is not the simple effacement of the date in a generality, but its effacement faced with another date, the one to which it speaks, the date of an other strangely wed or joined in the secrecy of an encounter, a chance secret, with the same date. (1994: 10/1)

Derrida goes on to give the following example:

In the unique ring of its constellation, one and the ‘same’ date commemorates heterogeneous events, each suddenly neighbouring the other, even as one knows that they remain, and must continue to remain, infinitely foreign. It is just this which is called the encounter, the encounter of the other, ‘the secrecy of encounter’ – and precisely here the Meridian is discovered. There was a 20th of January, that of Lenz who ‘on the 20th of January was walking through the mountains’. And then at the same date, on another 20th of January, Celan encounters, he encounters the other and he encounters himself at the intersection of this date with itself, with itself as other, as the date of the other. And yet this takes place but once, and always anew, each time but once, the each-time-but-one-time- alone alone constituting a generic law. (1994: 12)

6. ‘Pas’ appears in the collection of Derrida’s texts on Blanchot Parages (1986); ‘Le “sans” de la coupure pure’ in The Truth in Painting (1987c).

7. Derrida relates the story from the Book of Judges in the following way:

The Ephraimites had been defeated by the army of Jephthah; in order to keep the soldiers from escaping across the river (shibboleth also means river, of course, but that is not necessarily the reason it was chosen), each person was required to say shibboleth. Now the Ephraimites were known for their inability to pronounce correctly the shi of shibboleth, which became for them, in consequence, an ‘unpronounceable name’; they said sibboleth, and, at that invisible border between shi and si, betrayed themselves to the sentinel at the risk of death. (1994: 24/5)

8. The first stanza of ‘In Eins’ runs from German to the use of the Hebrew term ‘Schibboleth’ and then to French and Spanish: ‘Dreizehnter Feber. Im Herzmund / erwachtes Schibboleth. Mit dir, / Peuple / de Paris. No pasarà¡n.’ Derrida discusses a similar multiplicity in ‘Two Words for Joyce’ (1984: 155).

9. The date must offer itself up to the risk of annihilation as that which permits its emergence, its readability: ‘It is incident to the date’s erratic essence to become readable and commemorative only in effacing that which it will have designated, in becoming each time no one’s date’ (1994: 39). ‘Shibboleth’ is also a meditation on the Jew ‘who has nothing of his own, nothing that is not borrowed, so that, like a date, what is proper to the Jew is to have no property or essence. Jewish is not Jewish’ (1994: 37).

10. The process of the re-mark (mark upon mark) is outlined succinctly in Positions:

In ‘La dissémination’ and ‘La double séance’ (these two texts are inseparable) it is a question of re-marking a nerve, a fold, an angle that interrupts totalization: in a certain place, a place of well-determined form, no series of semantic valences can any longer be closed or reassembled. Not that it opens onto an inexhaustible wealth of meaning or the transcendence of a semantic excess. By means of this angle, this fold, this doubled fold of an undecidable, a mark marks both the marked and the mark, the re-marked site of the mark. The writing which, at this moment, re-marks itself (something completely other than a representation of itself) can no longer be counted on the list of themes (it is not a theme, and can in no case become one); it must be subtracted from (hollow) and added to (relief) the list. (1987a: 46).

11. Derrida writes in ‘The Double Session’ that ‘there is no – or hardly any, ever so little – literature’ (1981: 223). For Derrida’s response to a question about this line, see Acts of Literature (1992a: 72/3). It is also discussed by Gasché in The Tain of the Mirror (1986: 255-270).

12. In ‘Passions’ Derrida describes his enthusiasm for literature in terms of the secret and passion: ‘But if, without liking literature in general and for its own sake, I like something about it, which above all cannot be reduced to some aesthetic quality, to some source of formal pleasure [jouissance], this would be in place of the secret. In place of an absolute secret. There would be the passion. There is no passion without secret, this very secret, indeed no secret without this passion.’ (1992c: 22)


Take this text. What is its upper edge? Its title (‘Living On’)? But when do you start reading it? What if you started reading it after the first sentence (another upper edge), which functions as its first reading head but which itself in turn folds its outer edges back over onto inner edges whose mobility – multilayered, quotational, displaced from meaning to meaning – prohibits you from making out a shoreline? There is a regular submerging of the shore. When a text quotes and requotes, with or without quotation marks, when it is written on the brink, you start, or indeed have already started, to lose your footing. You lose sight of any line of demarcation between a text and what is outside it. (Derrida, 1979: 82)

14. See ‘Psyche: Inventions of the Other’ (1987b: 36).

15. ‘The text guards itself, maintains itself – like the law, speaking only of itself, that is to say, of its non-identity with itself. It neither arrives nor lets anyone arrive. It is the law, makes the law and leaves the reader before the law.’ (1992a: 211)


Derrida, J. (1978) Writing and Difference. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

– (1979) ‘Living On: Border Lines‘, pp.75-176 in H. Bloom et al, Deconstruction & Criticism. New York: Continuum.

– (1981) Dissemination. London: The Athlone Press.

– (1984) ‘Two Words for Joyce’ in D. Attridge and D. Ferrer (eds), Post-Structuralist Joyce: Essays from the French. Cambridge: CUP.

– (1986) Parages. Paris: Galilée.

– (1987a) Positions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

– (1987b) ‘Psyche: Inventions of the Other’ in L. Waters & W. Godzich (eds), Reading de Man Reading. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

– (1987c) The Truth in Painting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

– (1989a) ‘Biodegradables: Seven Diary Fragments’, Critical Inquiry 15.4: 812-73.

– (1989b) Mémoires for Paul de Man. New York: Columbia University Press.

– (1991) A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

– (1992a) Acts of Literature. New York and London: Routledge.

– (1992b) ‘Mochlos; or, The Conflict of the Faculties’, pp.1-34 in R. Rand (ed.), Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

– (1992c) ‘Passions: “An Oblique Offering”‘, pp.5-35 in D. Wood (ed.), Derrida: A Critical Reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

– (1993) Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

– (1994) ‘Shibboleth for Paul Celan’, pp.3-72 in A. Fioretos (ed.), Word Traces: Readings of Paul Celan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

– (1995) Points… Interviews, 1974-1994. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Gasché, R. (1986) The Tain of the Mirror. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Leave a Reply