You are on page 1of 23

Northeastern Political Science Association

Palgrave Macmillan Journals


The Politics of Derridean Deconstruction
Author(s): Catherine Zuckert
Source: Polity, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Spring, 1991), pp. 335-356
Published by: Palgrave Macmillan Journals
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3235130
Accessed: 21-10-2015 06:52 UTC

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/
info/about/policies/terms.jsp
JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content
in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship.
For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.

Northeastern Political Science Association and Palgrave Macmillan Journals are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize,
preserve and extend access to Polity.

http://www.jstor.org

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

The Politicsof DerrideanDeconstruction


CatherineZuckert
CarletonCollege
The term "deconstruction," accordingto one of its champions,
JacquesDerrida, is more than merelya methodfor interpretingtexts;
it is a mode of political action as well, though it is not "political
action" as that term is ordinarilyunderstood.This articleexplores
Derrida'sclaim that the deconstructionof texts is essentiallyand
emphaticallya political act. It reviewsthe rationalefor deconstruction
as a way of readingtexts and shows why this rationaleleadsDerrida
to claim that deconstructionhas political consequences-that it is a
new way of constituting"the world." The authorgoes on to assess
what thesepolitical consequencesactuallyare.
CatherineZuckertis Professor of Political Scienceat Carleton
College. She is author of NaturalRight and the American
Imagination:Political Philosophyin Novel Form, named the
outstandingbook publishedin 1990 in philosophy and religionby the
Association of AmericanPublishers.
The term "deconstruction"usually refers to a radical technique of
readingtexts. As such, it should be of interestto studentsof political
philosophy,becausewe spend most of our time studyingtexts. But, according to its leading philosophicproponent, JacquesDerrida,deconstructionis not just a theoryof literaryinterpretationof interestsolelyto
scholars.It constitutesa mode of politicalaction whichaffects the lives
of philosophersand non-philosophersalike.
Deconstructivereadingsand writingsare... not simplyanalysesof
discourse.... Theyare also effectiveor active... interventions,in
particularpolitical and institutionalinterventionsthat transform
contextswithoutlimitingthemselvesto theoreticalor constativeutteranceseven though they must also producesuch utterances.1
1. Jacques Derrida, "CriticalResponse," trans. Peggy Kamuf, CriticalInquiry, 13
(August1986):168. He makesa similarclaimin "Du Tout," in ThePost Card,trans.Alan
Bass (Chicago:Universityof ChicagoPress, 1987)p. 507.

Poilty
Polity

Number 33
XXHI, Number
VolumeXXIII,

Spring 1991
Spring 1991

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

336 Politicsof DerrideanDeconstruction


Deconstruction,however, does not representpolitical action as we
usuallyunderstandit.2 To show how and why Derridamaintainsthat the
deconstructionof texts is essentiallyand emphaticallypolitical, I propose, first, to restate the rationale for deconstructionas a method of
readingtexts and, second, to indicatewhy this rationaleleads Derridato
claim that deconstructionconstitutesan entirelynew way not merelyof
thinkingbut more fundamentallyof constituting"the world." As such,
deconstructionnecessarilyhas political consequences.The question in
the last four sections of this article thus becomes what these consequencesactuallyare.
I. Deconstructionas a Mode of Reading
Deconstructionrests first on the claim or observationthat no word, and
hence no combinationof words or "text," has a single meaning.3The
reasonfor this claim, in the first instance,is that no wordhas meaningin
itself. Thereis no morenecessaryrelationbetweena soundand a particular idea or impressionthan thereis betweenthe existenceof such an idea
in the mind and the existenceof a correspondingentityin the realworld.
If neither words nor images nor ideas nor signs have any intrinsic
meaning, the question obviously arises, where do they get their
meaning?4The answeris, in relationto otherwords,ideas, or signs-or,
moregenerally,from a context. Derridarefersto threedifferentkindsof
context:that set by the language,that set by the historicalcircumstances
of authorand reader,and that set by the logical distinctionsin termsof
which the humanmind usuallyoperates.
To understandthe meaning of a word, one must see or use it in a
sentence,not in isolation. If a person points to a door in the wall and
makesa sound, it is not reallyclearto whatshe is referring-the color of
the door, the way out, a desire to use the exit, or somethingelse. To
2. Some commentators,like Alan Megill,Prophetsof Extremity(Berkeley:University
of CaliforniaPress, 1985),xii, have, therefore,expressedskepticismaboutDerrida'sclaim
that his work is political.
3. The first two sectionsof this paperare intendedmerelyto summarizethe basicposition. Readersfamiliarwith Derrida'stexts may wish, therefore,to skim or even skip the
next two sectionsand proceeddirectlyto the specificallypoliticaldiscussionbeginningin
sectionIII.
4. Derridafrequentlyre-iteratesthe FrenchlinguistFerdinandSaussure'sclaimthatthere
is no necessaryrelation between a "signified" and a "signifier." E.g., Speech and
Phenomenon,trans. David Allison (Evanston:NorthwesternUniversityPress, 1973),pp.
46-47.For this reason,Derridahimselfabandonsthe term"sign" in favorof "trace."Cf.
Of Grammatology,trans. GayatriSpivak (Baltimore:Johns Hopkins UniversityPress,
1974),pp. 14-15, 18-21,44-73;Speech, 139-42,145, 156.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Catherine Zuckert 337

make sense of the sound, one has to know not only the general sense of
the word, but also, at least in use, the rules of grammar, i.e., the way
language as a whole works. The meaning of words in general thus
depends upon the broader structure of the language, which itself changes
over time or in history.
The linguistic context thus points to the historical context, which is actually multiple. First, the meaning of the word changes a bit, if it
depends on its context, with each and every use. As any dictionary will
show, the current use or meaning of a word like "sinister" has grown out
of past uses, often in other languages, traces of which are still to be
found in present English usage, although the present meaning often differs significantly from the original. Derrida insists that no one can help
but import this multiplicity of meanings from the past when she uses the
word.
Just as the meaning of a single word depends upon its context, both
linguistic and historical, so Derrida reminds us, the meaning of any
sentence also depends on the context-literary and historical. When
someone says, "You're killing me," that statement may, depending
upon the context, mean that the speaker is actually being murdered or
that he is doubled over with laughter. The meaning is not simply in the
sentence read according to grammatical rules.
If the meaning of the text necessarily includes the state of affairs at the
time at which the text was produced-the state of the language, the
character of the audience, the character of the author-and that meaning
is further altered by the changed state of affairs or context when the text
is later read, the division between the text and the world begins to break
down. The text is written with or out of a language existing outside,
before the text, and it is read by an audience who will understand its
meaning in terms of yet a different context, which context or understanding of the world-to add yet a further complication-may well be
affected by the reading of the text. There is, therefore, a dynamic relation between text and context in which the meaning of neither is stable.5
Thus far Derrida's argument involves an historicism he shares with
many other modern thinkers, although he emphasizes one of its more
radical conclusions, namely, that the author can never control or determine the meaning of his or her writing 1) because that writing is done in,
and implies the structure of, an entire language which is not under the

5. Cf. Derrida's own reading of Plato in Dissemination, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 63-94, and his discussion of context and its infinite
expandability in "Passe-Partout," in The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and
Ian McLeod (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 1-13.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

338 Politicsof DerrideanDeconstruction


author's control, and 2) because the meaning depends on the context
which will changewith everyreading.6
The more radicalpart of Derrida'sargumentrests on a second observation, whichis that meaningis not simplyadditive.This is what I have
called the "logical" context, and it is, I believe, the argumentmost
distinctivelyDerridean.As thinkerssince Plato have pointed out, we
understandthings and ideas primarilyin distinctionfrom other things
and ideas. As the French student of linguistics FerdinandSaussure
argues,languagesare systemsof differences.7No word, remember,has a
meaning in itself, but rather acquiresits meaning in relation to and
especiallyin distinctionfrom otherwords.This meansthat whenI assert
that somethingis red, I am at the sametime implicitlyassertingthat it is
not blue, green, white, or anothercolor in the whole world of the notred. As Derridahimself often points out, we cannot understand"life"
withoutimplicitly,if not explicitly,referringto its absenceor negationin
death.8As thereis no life withoutdeath, so Derridageneralizes,thereis
no word, henceno complexof words,statement,or text, whichdoes not
implicitlyif not explicitlycontainits own negationas part of the fundamentallinguistic,logical, contextualstructurethroughwhichits meaning
was determinedin the first place. Words and the ideas they convey do
not, however,merelyswingbetweenassertionand negation.Becauseall
thinking,speaking,and writing,as well as life and actionfor that matter,
occurin time, the contextand hencethe meaningof each negationof the
previousnegation(or new affirmation)changes.9In everydifferanceor
negation, there is alwaysalso somethingleft over or in addition,which
Derridacalls the "supplement."As a result of the interactionof negation and supplementation,no text has a stable meaning.
The deconstructionistcritic bringsout the fundamentalinstabilityof
meaningat the core of everytext. She does not deconstructthe text; the
text necessarilydeconstructsitself.10Nor does Derridathink that this
deconstruction is essentially negative or destructive. Rather than
eradicateall meaningin undecidableambiguity,the unseverableconnec-

6. Derridatakes the first principlelargelyfrom MartinHeidegger.I will discussboth


Derrida'sincorporationand his criticismof Heidegger'sargumentsin more detailin Section IV.
7. Speech, p. 145.

8. Ibid., p. 54.
9. Derridacoins the neologismdifferanceto capturethis "play" betweenanalyticor
logicaldifferentiationand temporaldeferring.
10. Justas the authorcannotcontrolor determinethe meaningof his writing,becausehe
or she controlsneitherthe languagenor the changingcontext,so the criticcannotcontrol
his or her understandingof the text.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Catherine
Zuckert 339
contion betweenanyassertionandits negationthatmakeseverything
stantlyshiftfromone poleto its oppositein timecreatesthe spaceand
motionin whichnewmeaningis constantlyproduced.If things,words,
andhencedeterminable,
the
ideas,andtheirrelationsweredeterminate
worldwouldbe static.Therewouldbeno history;indeed,therewouldbe
characterof
no creationor life. Ratherthanbemoanthe self-negating
assertionsaboutthe world,whichwouldseemto makebothassertions
Derridacelebrates
whathe calls
andworldfundamentally
unintelligible,
the unending"jeuor play"or significance.
II. PhilosophyOvercoming
Itself
Derridadoes not, therefore,regarddeconstruction
merelyas a radical
of
As
deconstruction
constitutes
thelogical
texts.
he
sees
it,
way reading
conclusionof previousphilosophy,whichin revealingthe limitsor infoundationsof pastphilosophy,opensup an entirelynew
decipherable
1 Allpreviousphilosophy
of
theworld.
hadproceeded
by
way conceiving
that
areultithese
distinctions
distinctions.
By showing
makinglogical
bound
matelyuntenable,becauseapparentoppositesarefundamentally
Derridathinksthat he has both
to eachotherand henceundecidable,
of allpreviousphilosophyand
revealedthefaultyoriginsor foundations
concludedor endedit.
In stressingtheimportance
of negationfor establishing
or
distinctions
differencesamongand hencethe definitionsof things,Derridaclearly
and explicitlybuilds on Hegel, who also thoughthe had brought
the
philosophyto an end or conclusion.Hegel'slogic both represents
or completionof Platonicphilosophy,Derridaargues,and
culmination
revealsits fundamental
defect.12
that
the
are
Byshowing
processof negationthroughwhichdifferences
and
an
established
intelligibleordermademanifestcan occuronly in
timeor throughhistory,DerridathinksthatHegelhimselfindicatedthe
reasonswhylogiccannevergeneratea finalsolution,totalsynthesis,or
"absoluteidea"of the sortHegelhimselfattempted.Sucha finalsolution wouldentailthe endof negationor the processof drawingdistinctions in timethat Derridacallsdifferance.It is not philosophyas the
searchfor knowledgethatendswithHegelin the possessionof knowledge or science, Derridathus suggests, but ratherthe belief that such
knowledgeis attainablethat ends afterHegel. Theprocessof negationor

11. Of Grammatology, pp. 4-26; Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 43-44.
12. Dissemination, pp. 1-20, 107-08; Positions, p. 77.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

340 Politics of Derridean Deconstruction

differentiation and the consequent generation of various intelligible


orders or structures of meaning continues, but that process must now be
differently characterized and understood.13
Because deconstruction grows out of previous philosophy and so carries traces of its past with it, we may refer to the works of some previous
philosophers in order to understand why Derrida thinks that deconstructionist principles of reading apply to the world as well, if not better, than
to literary texts. According to earlier modern philosophers like Locke,
Hume, and Kant, the world as we experience it is actually not composed
of "things."'4 All we know or experience are the impressions these
things make on us. We do not, as Kant argued, ever know the "things in
themselves."
If this is true, Derrida suggests, the "things in the world" are rather
like the marks a writer leaves on a page-traces of a cause, source, or
author who or which is never present. And we comprehend these traces
in the world in much the same way we comprehend the contents of a
book, i.e., by using the differentiating powers of the human mind to put
these things, experiences, or traces into traditionally inherited categories
which are themselves liable to change, indeed are changed, by repeated
applications in different contexts.15
If they are never present in the text itself, "things" like cause, source,
origin, or author are themselves constructs or interpretations we put on
the marks. The only way in which we can make sense of marks on a page
or things we experience is, indeed, to read them in terms of a system of
signification or language, i.e., a system of differences, the rules of which
are not in the marks or things themselves. Just as there are various particular languages with a certain amount of overlap but also with ineradicable differences, so there are various systems of thought or ways of
understanding the world.16 Just as no person can think, read, or write
without using a language, which he does not make up but rather acquires
from the society in which he finds himself, so no person can comprehend
a "world" without employing a system of signs or relations that he does
not invent but again acquires primarily as a result of his particular cir13. As Derridahimself stressesin Of Grammatology,pp. 4, 18-24, his thoughtthus
buildson and incorporatespreviousphilosophyratherthan simplynegatingit.
14. ChristopherMorris, Derrida (Cambridge:HarvardUniversityPress, 1987), pp.
142-71,also bringsout the roots of Derrida'sworkin Kantianphilosophy.
15. Cf. Martin Heidegger, Seinsfrage or The Question of Being, trans. William Kluback

and Jean T. Wilde(New Haven:Collegeand UniversityPress, 1958),pp. 81-93.


16. Here Derrida explicitly follows Nietzsche. Cf. Spurs, trans. BarbaraHarlow
(Chicago:Universityof ChicagoPress, 1978);BeyondGood and Evil, Part I; and "Differance," Speech, p. 148.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

CatherineZuckert 341
cumstances,heritage, and history, although in both cases he can and
does often changeboth languageand systemof thoughtthroughhis own
usage. He can, for example,changethe "system"as a whole by negating
or erasingcertainmarksor parts.
III. The Politics of "Onto-Theology"
On the basis of such an understandingof both the worldand the operation of the humanmind, therecan be no fundamentaldifferencebetween
theory and practice.Our "practice"is constitutedby the way in which
we live, i.e., by the way we see or experiencethings (which is to say,
literally,our "theory");our theoryis not merelya product,but is an inherent part or aspect of our practice. In all cases we are dealing with
tracesthat humanbeingsproduce,but do not control. Not surprisingly,
therefore,Derridathinksthat the deconstructionof Westernphilosophy
he sees in process has practical, political manifestationsas well. He
describesthe most importantof these in an anti-apartheidstatementhe
publishedseveralyears ago entitled "Racism'sLast Word."'7
As Derridaunderstandsit, the institutionof apartheidin SouthAfrica
has brought out the contradictionat the root of Westerncivilization
which is in the processof deconstructingitself in the worldwideprotest
againstthat nation'sdistinctiveinstitution.This may seemto be a rather
strangeclaim at first sight, because the fundamentalpolitical division
and so, perhaps,contradictionin the secondhalf of the twentiethcentury
has usuallybeen conceivedeitherin termsof the cold-waroppositionbetweenliberalismand communism,the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., or in terms
of the North-Southeconomicsplit betweenthe first and secondworlds,
on the one hand, and the thirdworld,on the other. Sincethe AfricanNational Congressincludessome self-declaredcommunists,the presentturmoil in South Africa could be interpretedas an extensionof the Cold
War. The conflict could also be describedin termsof a divisionbetween
the predominantlywhite, wealthy, first-worldand the predominantly
colored,poor third-worldnations. But in neithercase wouldit constitute
the foremost, dominant,or only example.Why then does Derridatake
events in South Africa to have such fundamentalimportance?
Apartheidobviouslybringsthe issueof raceto the fore and, with race,
what Derridacalls the "onto-theologico-political"question. He recognizes that the principlesupon whichWesternliberaldemocraciesare explicitly based proscribe discriminationon the basis of race. As the
AmericanDeclarationof Independencestates, "We hold these truthsto
17. CriticalInquiry,12 (Autumn1985):290-99.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

342 Politics of Derridean Deconstruction

be self-evident-that all men are createdequal, that they are endowedby


their Creatorwith certaininalienablerights, that among these are life,
liberty,and the pursuitof happiness;that to securethese rights,governmentsare institutedamongmen, derivingtheirjust powersfromthe consent of the governed." Neither the Declaration nor the philosophic
sources from which Jefferson took his ringingstatementsays that the
rights belong simplyto white men, or that by "men" they mean males
ratherthan humanbeings.This often appearedto be the effectivemeaning in the historical context, however, because Western democracies
limitedthe exerciseof such rightsaccordingto race and sex. This opposition betweenliteral and contextualmeaningwas rooted, Derridasuggests, in the basis of the principlesthemselves.
South Africa was first a Dutch and then a British colony, Derrida
notes, and its constitutionis basedon the Britishmodel. Its government
was, therefore, explicitly establishedto guaranteethe rights of all its
citizens.Blackinhabitantsof South Africa, however,are not citizensof
SouthAfrica;they belongto the so-called"homelands."But few foreign
observersin Europeand Americaacceptthe legitimacyof sucha division
of the land and its people. Western democraciesmay support South
Africa economically by continuing to trade with her, but, Derrida
observes,leadersof these democraciesneverthelesspubliclycastigatethe
injusticeof apartheid.How then can he maintainthat apartheidreveals
the defectiveroot of the West and so of Westerndemocraticprinciples?
To answerthat question,it is usefulto listen againto the wordsof the
Declarationwhich, I believe, providea marvelousexampleof the conjunction of ontological assertions about the characterof the natural
orderwiththeologicalclaimsthat areexpresslyintendedto havepractical
political results. Explainingthe reasons the colonists felt impelled to
separatefrom Great Britain, Jefferson appealsto the authorityof the
law of Natureand Nature'sGod in the first sentenceof the Declaration.
The Declarationthus providesa good, althoughby no means idiosyncratic example of the tendencyDerridasees in the history of Western
thought as a whole to observeregularitiesin natureand then to infer a
sourceor authorof those regularitiesbecausethey areintelligible,i.e., to
identifyontology with theologyand so to createa sourceof superhuman
standardsby whichto judge humaninterventionsand laws.1 Evenmore
18. Derrida himself emphasizes the implicit claim to divine authorship of the Declaration
(along with the corresponding effacement of its immediate human author, Jefferson) in the
prefatory statement he made at the University of Virginia which appears in the French edition of Otobiographies (Paris: Editions Galilee, 1984), pp. 13-32, but not in the English
translation, The Ear of the Other, ed. Christie V. McDonald (New York: Schocken Books,
1985). The "literal" reading of the Declaration as an example of "onto-theology" is my
own application of Derrida's principles.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

CatherineZuckert 343
relevant,however,Jeffersongoes on to base the rightof the coloniststo
rebelon a claimexplicitlyrestingon birth:all men arebornequaland endowed by their Creatorwith certainrights. Not only does Jeffersonappear to equate natureor birth with divine Creation;he appearsalso to
make the naturalequalityof human beings a product of or derivative
from the natural difference between men and animals. Natural differencesor differencesfrom birthwould thus appearto be more fundamentalthan naturalequality.
The principleswhichappearto be liberaland egalitarian,Derridasuggests, rest on a conceptionof the naturalorderthat emphasizesthe fundamentalstatus of distinctions,first among species, but also between
sexes, and we now see, races. For what are racialdistinctions,after all,
but differences from birth? Indeed, the human species itself is often
referredto as the human "race." Such distinctionsare not merelymanmade or conventional;they are by natureand thus presumablywritten
into the unchangingcharacterof things. As such, they ought to be
respected,to be regardedas havinghigherdignityand morefundamental
status than any more transienthistoricalor culturalideas about significance or value. Liberalegalitarianprinciplesare thereforecontradicted
by their own metaphysicalbasis.19
To be free of invidiousdistinctionsbasedon raceor sex, he concludes,
it is necessaryto bringthesecontradictionsinto the open, to completethe
deconstructionof all of the varioushistoricalconceptionsof an enduring
naturalor intelligibleorderthat have characterizedWesternphilosophy
or metaphysics.What we actuallyhave is a series of overlappingsimilaritiesand differences,the significanceof which is determinedin different ways by different individualsand peoples at different points in
time. Traditionallyunderstoodas rational animals, human beings are
both like and unlikeotherlivingthings. Humanbeingsare also naturally
both like and unlikeeach other. Whereone drawsthe lines is, therefore,
somewhatarbitrary,subject both to affirmationand negation. Species
lines have traditionallybeen drawnaccordingto the abilityto mate and
procreate. But within the same species, so defined, Derridaobserves,
there are again differencesbetweenthe sexes-differences which cross
specieslines and whichare neverthelessabsolutelynecessaryto maintain
in order to preservethe race or species. Can one really say, therefore,
which distinctionis the essentialone?20
19. Cf. "Admirationde Nelson Mandelaou Les lois de la reflexion,"Psyche (Paris:
Galilee, 1987),pp. 453-76.
20. In German,Derridaemphasizes,the samewordGeschlechtsignifiesspecies,sex, and
race-all together."Geschlecht-differencesexuelle,differenceontologique,"Researchin
Phenomenology,XIII (1983):65-83.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

344 Politics of Derridean Deconstruction

There is, Derrida concludes, no natural order which justifies the allocation of rights or liberties according to birth. Such notions serve rather
to restrict the guarantee and exercise of rights-or human freedom-and
ought, therefore, to be deconstructed.
IV. Moving Through the Heideggerian Critique
Advocates of the political value of deconstruction emphasize the liberating results of the critique of traditional notions like "intention" and
"nature."21 But are such critiques sufficient to secure human liberty?
Or, do they simply undermine the foundations of institutions which, the
Declaration of Independence reminds us, were designed to secure
freedom without putting anything in place of these institutions?
Derrida is by no means the first modern philosopher to claim that
there is no natural, ontological, or theological order. That proposition or
conclusion is characteristic of most post-Hegelian philosophy. To take
the preeminent examples, both Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche agreed
that "God is dead."22 The problem, as Derrida knows, is that these
previous arguments did not inaugurate an era of absolute liberty. They
served rather to sanction the worst forms of political oppression human
beings have ever experienced, and it was not just that evil men misused
the arguments of innocent philosophers.23
How then does Derrida think he can avoid the problematic political effects of previous denials of the existence of principles of "natural
right?" Despite their evident political differences, the arguments of both
Marx and Nietzsche could be used to justify totalitarian governments,
Leo Strauss argues, because both philosophers deny there were or ought
to be any natural or divine limits on human power.24 If nothing natural
or human has any necessary order or structure of its own, everything is
open to manipulation, reconstitution, or re-form, including the human
beings doing the reforming. By denying the existence of a natural order,
Derrida would thus appear to be perpetuating the philosophical foundations of totalitarian politics.
21. E.g., John Caputo, Radical Hermeneutics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1987), pp. 260-61.
22. On the similarities between Marx and Nietzsche, see Nancy Love, Marx, Nietzsche,
and Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), and Tracy Strong, Friedrich
Nietzsche and the Politics of Transformation (Berkeley: University of California Press,
1975).
23. Derrida, Otobiographies, pp. 1-38, insists on the connection between Nietzsche's
writings (both early and late) and subsequent Nazi politics. His criticism of Marx in Positions, pp. 63-65, is more indirect.
24. Cf. Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1964), pp. 1-13.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

CatherineZuckert 345
Following Heidegger,Derridarespondsthat Marx and Nietzschedid
not becomeassociatedwithtotalitarianpoliticalmovementsbecausethey
deniedthe existenceof any naturalor divineorder;on the contrary,there
was a certaincomplicitybetweentheirargumentsand totalitarianpolitical movementspreciselybecause Marx and Nietzsche did not take the
critiqueof previousmetaphysicsfar enough. Despitetheir claimsto the
contrary, neither Marx nor Nietzsche completely ceased thinking in
traditionalphilosophicalterms.Althoughboth philosophersinsistedthat
therewas no necessary,intelligiblenaturalorder,both continuedto posit
an underlyingsubstanceor generaldefinitionof "being"-matter in the
case of Marx, will to powerin the case of Nietzsche.And the tyrannical
characterof both Marxist-Leninistand fascist politics is indissolubly
associatedwith this theoreticalfailure to destroy or move beyond the
fundamentalconcept of metaphysicsentirely.5
Insofar as Marxism-Leninismunderstands everything merely as
materialsubjectto transformationthroughhumanindustry,Heidegger
points out, it necessarilyjustifies the manipulationor exploitationof
human "matter" as well. If there are no distinctionsor differencesby
naturewhichmust or ought to be respected,thereis no reasonto distinguishhumanfrom otherformsof being. Whenhumanbeingsthemselves
become subject to technologicaltransformation,however, it becomes
difficult to describe the process in terms of serving human needs or
desires.26

In apparent opposition to Marx, Nietzsche protested the leveling


tendenciesinherentin both liberaland socialistpolitics.27But, Heidegger
suggests, Nietzsche underminedhis emphasison the qualitativedifferences among human beings by arguing that everythingwas fundamentallyonly a manifestationof the will to power.28Ratherthan overcome metaphysics,Nietzschethus took it to its logicalconclusionand so
revealedits essenceas the searchfor masteryor powerfor its own sake.29

25. Introductionto Metaphysics(New Haven:Yale UniversityPress, 1959),pp. 35-39,


199; Nietzsche (New York: Harper and Row, 1982), Vol. IV, pp. 69-75; "Letter on
Humanism,"pp. 219-20;"The Wordof Nietzsche,'God Is Dead' " and "The Age of the
World View," in The QuestionConcerningTechnologyand OtherEssays (New York:
Harperand Row, 1977), pp. 53-154; WhatIs Called Thinking(New York: Harperand
Row, 1968),pp. 48-73.
26. The QuestionConcerningTechnology,pp. 15-35.
27. E.g., in Beyond Good and Evil, ChapterVII.
28. Heidegger,Nietzsche,IV: 58-84. In Spurs,pp. 49-71, Derridathus arguesthat the
"natural" distinctionbetween men and women Nietzsche emphasizeswas necessarily
unstable.
29. Cf. Heidegger,Nietzsche;"Nietzsche'sWord," in Technology,pp. 53-114.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

346 Politicsof DerrideanDeconstruction


As Nietzschepredicted,Heideggerand Derridaobserve,the twentieth
centuryhas seen variousphilosophicaldoctrines,presentedoriginallyas
truths about the world, become transformedinto "ideologies." These
sets of ideas are adoptedby variousnations, parties,or sects which set
out to provetheirtruth,not throughargumentso muchas by demonstration of superiorforce which, if successful,resultsnot merelyin the conquest, but in the completedestructionand consequentsilencingof all oppositionor dissent.Confrontedwith the possibilityof theirown total annihilation,nationsfeel a needto dedicateall theirresources-intellectual
as well as physical-to the defenseeffort. Sincequestionsof strategyinvolve techniquesof persuasionor rhetoricas much as calculationsof
force, Derrida points out, formerly useless humanistic studies like
rhetoric begin to receive governmentsupport along with theoretical
physics as part of the national securityeffort.30The dedicationof all
intellectualeffort to practical,politicalends, however,is not a product
of extraordinaryor merely external conditions. Once all ideas were
understoodas theoriesto be verifiedin practice,therecould no longerbe
any real distinctionbetweenbasic and appliedresearch.Impelledby the
same need to defend themselvesfrom the prospectof total annihilation
and utilizingthe same rational,bureaucraticor technocraticmethodsof
organization,the various "superpowers"become more and more like
each other.3' Ironically, as the stakes purportedlybecome higher, it
makesless and less difference,in fact, whichpoweractuallywinsthe war.
V. DeconstructingHeidegger'sConceptionsof the "Ontological
Difference," "Man," and "History"
Althoughhe incorporatesand, in effect, endorsesmuch of Heidegger's
critiqueof the end of metaphysicsin Marxand Nietzsche,Derridais not
content with Heidegger'sanalysis of either the essential defect of the
Westernphilosophictradition or its practicalpolitical results. On the
contrary,he suggeststhat both Heidegger'semphasison the ontological
difference in opposition to the reductive uniformity of an ontotheologicalunderstandingof Being, and his redefinitionof "man" in

30. Cf. "The Principle of Reason," (in which Derrida bases his analysis explicitly on
Heidegger's Der Satz vom Grund as well as his Rektoratsrede), and "No Apocalypse, Not
Now," Diacritics, 14 (Summer 1984): 20-31.
31. From this perspective, the "reforms" promulgated by Mikhail Gorbachev merely
represent an attempt on the part of the Soviet Union to adopt the most efficient way of
organizing economic enterprise, i.e., the market, in order to compete more effectively with
the American, European, and Pacific Rim "powers."

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

CatherineZuckert 347

historicalratherthan biological(animate)terms, necessarilybears fatal


tracesof the metaphysicshe sought to overcome.32
Heidegger'sAccount of the End of Philosophy
and Its Political Implications
Heideggerthoughtthe competitionof ideologicalsuperpowersfor world
dominionin the twentiethcenturywas an expressionof the forgettingof
Being at the root or origin of Westernphilosophy.33To remedythis
oblivion and its disastrouseffects, he urgedhis readersto rememberthe
fundamental"ontological difference," the unbridgeablechasm yet inseparablerelationbetweenBeing and the beings.34
No particularform of being appears as such except in relation to
others, Heideggerreminds his readers;both parts and their relations
become visible or intelligibleonly in the light of a broadercontext or
whole. Neither the "light" (or intelligibility)nor the temporallimitations, and hence the changingcharacterof the context with respectto
which human beings understandall things, can be tracedto eitherthe
particularforms of being or their relations.Both light and its historical
variationshave to be attributedto somethingfundamentallydifferent,
namely,to Being, which, becauseit appearsonly in and throughthe particularforms of being and their relations,itself remainsessentiallyand
always unknowable, shrouded in darkness, and hence inherently
mysterious.
This truthabout the essentiallymysteriouscharacterof Beinghas been
discoveredonly in moderntimes. Rememberingthe ontological difference does not mean merely returning to the origins of Western
philosophy, therefore, although the first philosophershad recognized
such a differenceand the moderndisclosureof the truth of Being thus
entailssuch a returnas a first step.35Becausethey conceivedof Beingas
the "Being of the beings," i.e., as the generalcharacter,property,or
substratumcommonto all particularformsof being, Greekphilosophers
necessarilyunderstoodBeingitself to lack any definingcharacteristicsor
32. Cf. "Ousiaand Gramme:Note on a Note from Being and Time," and "White
Mythology:Metaphorin the Textof Philosophy,"in Marginsof Philosophy,trans.Alan
Bass (Chicago:Universityof Chicago Press, 1982), pp. 29-68, 207-72;Of Spirit, trans.
GeoffreyBenningtonand RachelBowby(Chicago:Universityof ChicagoPress, 1989),pp,
39-40; and HermanRapaport,Heideggerand Derrida(Lincoln:Universityof Nebraska
Press, 1989),pp. 22-67, 155-74.
33. Introductionto Metaphysics;"Nietzsche'sWord."
34. NietzscheIV: 150-58;Identityand Difference(New York:Harperand Row, 1969).
35. Being and Time,Introduction.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

348 Politics of Derridean Deconstruction

properties. It was only a matter of time before their successors denied the
intelligibility or existence of what was essentially, by definition, nothing.
If there was no such thing as Being, as both Marx and Nietzsche saw,
there was no reason or necessity for the existence of any particular form
of being. There was no reason not to treat all forms of being, including
human beings, as "material" to be re- or transformed at will.
The truth disclosed by the prospect of a technological transformation
of all previous forms of existence is that there is no logical or other
necessity to or for being at all.36 If human beings do not open themselves
to a possible disclosure of Being, it will no longer continue to be. But if
there is no Being-no ground or source of intelligibility and existence
beyond human ken and potential mastery-there is no ground or reason
to expect human being to remain a distinct form of existence. The future
existence of human beings thus depends upon their somehow recalling
the "meaning of Being."
Traditionally, human being had been defined as zoon echon logon,
i.e., as an animal endowed with speech. Human being was understood to
be a particular kind of living thing; speech or logos, the faculty or accident which distinguished men from animals. In fact, Heidegger suggests,
the possession of logos makes human being qualitatively different from
all other forms of existence or life. Animals react instinctively to their environment so as to preserve the species; some are able to express their
feelings vocally. But only human beings understand and are able to articulate their lives in terms of a world composed of meaningfully related
"things" and inhabited by other beings endowed with an understanding
like their own.37 As such, human being is not self-contained or merely
reactive. On the contrary, because it is structured, organized, and so
defined in terms of an articulated set of relations to other forms of existence, human being is essentially, in itself, open. Because human being is
not "in itself" but is rather always "being-in-the-world," its particular
or concrete form and content varies from time to time and place to place.
Neither Being nor human being is necessary, determinate, or selfsubsistent, because each is dependent upon the other. Like Marx and
Nietzsche, Heidegger maintains that no intelligible order exists apart
from or independent of its human articulation. But in opposition to
Marx and Nietzsche, he insists that the order of the world is not merely a
36. The most dramatic, but by no means only form of this "prospect," according to
Heidegger, is the possibility of a nuclear holocaust.
37. Heidegger made the rooting of both "being-in-the-world" and "being-with-others"
in language (Sprache) clearer in lectures he gave after Being and Time. Cf. Holderlin's
Hymnen "Germanien" und "Der Rhein, " Gesamtausgabe (Frankfort: Vittorio Klostermann, 1980), Band 39, pp. 61-75.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Catherine Zuckert 349

human creation or product. Human beings can name only the things
which come into their purview, and their view is always limited, both
spatially and temporally.3 Human beings, moreover, do not have to
look; they do not have to recognize the limitations of their own existence
and knowledge or to respect the independent existence of other things or
people. They can continue to attempt to master and transform. Once it
becomes clear that their attempts to impose order result in the destruction of all order, purpose, and humanity, however, human beings confront an ultimate decision. They can persist on the path of technological
transformation, or recognizing the non-sensical, if not purely destructive, character of the search for power for the sake of power, they can
admit their limitations as human beings and so become open to a new,
explicitly historical "dispensation of Being" by "letting things be" (an
attitude Heidegger calls Gelassenheit).
The political implications of a Heideggerian decision to turn away
from the struggle for world mastery are clearly parochial, if not provincial. To avoid the leveling effects of the technological application of universal rational principles, Heidegger urges his readers not merely to
recognize but to affirm the particular historical, geographical, languagebased definitions, which is to say, limitations, of their own existence.39
Such an unqualified embrace of their own would necessarily shut people
off from others. Derrida has reason, therefore, to ask whether Heidegger's notion of Ent-scheidung (usually translated "resolution," but
literally meaning not-closedness) constitutes an adequate conception of
human "openness."
Derrida's Differences
Derrida sees that Heidegger's insistence on the indissoluble connection,
yet unbridgeable chasm between Being and the beings marks a fundamental break with the onto-theological attempt characteristic of previous
38. In On "Time and Being" (New York: Harper, 1972), Heidegger admitted that his attempt to reduce space to time in Being and Time was not valid.
39. In his late works, Heidegger thus identified Being with a "four-fold" definition of
human existence in terms of the opposition between "earth" (the impenetrable "ground")
and "sky" (the temporal horizon as it appeared from that particular spot), "men" or mortals (who lived for a limited time on the surface of the earth) and "gods" (the "immortal"
sources of the categories of intelligibility hidden behind the clouds in the sky). Cf. Poetry,
Language and Thought (New York: Harper, 1971). Heidegger emphasized the provincial
character of his own thought in "Why Do I Stay in the Provinces?" trans. Thomas
Sheehan, Martin Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker (Chicago: Precedent, 1981), pp.
27-30. He also attributed some of the special affinity he felt for Hoelderlin to the fact that
they both grew up in and loved the same part of Germany.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

350 Politicsof DerrideanDeconstruction


metaphysicsto identify a first principle, substance, or cause. But he
thinksthat Heideggerholds open the possibilityof a returnto partof the
onto-theologicaltradition by using the word "Being" and suggesting
that there is an ever-hidden,ineffable, and hence essentiallymysterious
sourceof intelligibilityand existence.Ratherthan attemptto re-callBeing and all the oppressivepoliticaleffects of metaphysicswithit, Derrida
concludesthat we shouldavoid not merelythe language,but the question
of the meaningof Being altogether.He does so by arguingthat everything is continuallyfracturedand reconstitutedby an emphaticallynonontologicaldifferance.
Heideggerhad emphasizedthe ontologicaldifferencein his late work
in opposition to Nietzsche's proposition that everythingis merely a
manifestationof the "will to power." But, Derridasuggests,it is possible to move throughHeidegger'scritiqueto a new readingof Nietzsche
that is free not only of the metaphysicalbaggageof the "will to power"
but also of the fascist politicalassociationsof the thoughtof both German philosophers.40Insofar as Nietzschearguesthat the differentperspectiveshumanbeings take on life or the world are all, ultimately,expressionsof a sublimated,spiritualized,and so unintentionallyintensified "will to power," he did, literally,reduceeverythingto a matterof
will or force.41But we do not have to follow Heideggerand posit a
mysterioussource or conditionof intelligibilitybeyond humanken and
control to avoid the tyrannical, technological effects of Nietzsche's
metaphysics.Likeall otherformsof existenceor ex-pression,Nietzsche's
writingsare riddledby internalcontradictionsor fissures, so that they
necessarily,in time, deconstruct.If there is no "truth," as Nietzsche
maintains, his proposition that everything is "will to power" and
nothing else cannot itself possiblybe true.
Nietzschedoes not follow the logic of his own insightwhen he argues
that a few especiallycreativehumanbeingshave the poweror abilityto
transformthe world. If individualhuman psyches are composed and
constitutedby a dynamiccongeryof opposedforces, as Nietzscheargues
at the beginningof BeyondGood andEvil, no one controlsthe wayhe or
she sees the world, much less the perspectiveof another.42On the contrary,Derridaargues,all humanbeingsconstantlychangethe way they
see the world without even realizingit. All receivea multitudeof impressionsfrom the externalworld which leave internaltraces of which
40. Cf. Grammatology, p. 19; Spurs, pp. 73-95.
41. Cf. Gilles Deleuze, "Active and Reactive," in The New Nietzsche, ed. David Allison
(New York: Dell, 1979), pp. 80-106.
42. Cf. Dissemination, p. 230: "What the hymen undoes, outwits ... is the assurance of
mastery. "

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Catherine Zuckert 351

the human beings themselves are not aware. By deepening or writing over
existing nerve "paths," these internal traces nevertheless both determine
and constantly change the categories into which the human being sorts
the impressions he or she receives. The world is thus continually being reconstituted anew in somewhat different form by each and every individual, but these individuals are not conscious, much less in control of
the process.43
Fundamental changes in the view people have of the world take time to
develop, Derrida admits, for they occur only in and through history.
They do not require a new dispensation of Being, however, nor are they
products of a sublimated "will to power."
Just as Heidegger's emphasis on the ineluctable character of Being
maintained an opening back toward traditional theology, if not metaphysics per se, so Derrida suggests, Heidegger's privileging of human
being on the grounds of its possession of logos also pointed back to the
traditional definition of "man" in contrast to other species of animals.44
In opposing an historical understanding of "man" to the traditional
naturalistic one, Heidegger overstates the "identity" or unitary character
of human existence by ignoring sexual differentiation, associated as it is
with biological generation, and understates the continuity or overlap between human and other forms of animate existence.45 Heidegger's opposition of an emphatically historical understanding to that naturalistic
traditional definition prevents him, ironically, from seeing the sensitive,
i.e., animal or bodily, as opposed to the geistlich (the spiritual or intellectual and historical) origins of all systems of meaning, differences, or
languages.46 Once Heidegger has completed his destruction of the metaphysical tradition, however, it becomes possible to de-construct his
definition of both "man" and history as well.47
Heidegger thought he was confronted with the possible end of man,
because he was living at the end of history that had commenced with the
dis-covery or e-vent of Being in Greece. But, Derrida suggests, if human
existence is historical in the way Heidegger himself indicates, there is no
reason to predict such an end. If human existence is essentially historical
43. "Freudand the Scene of Writing," in Writingand Difference,trans. Alan Bass
(Chicago:Universityof ChicagoPress, 1978),pp. 196-231.
44. "The Ends of Man," in Margins,pp. 111-36.
45. "GeschlechtI," "GeschlechtII," in Deconstructionand Philosophy,ed. JohnSallis
(Chicago:Universityof ChicagoPress, 1987),pp. 161-64.
46. Of Spirit,pp. 47-57; "GeschlechtII," pp. 172-74.
of Daseinhe pro47. Heideggerhimselflateradmittedthat the historicalunderstanding
posedin Beingin Timein oppositionto the traditionwastoo "subjective."(Cf. Nietzsche,
IV: 141).

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

352 Politics of Derridean Deconstruction

because it is essentially temporal, and time consists not of an unending


sequence of discrete moments but each present moment is constituted
only in relation to past and future, there is actually no such thing as the
present. All that occurs and continually recurs is the conjunction (which
is at the same time necessarily a disjunction) of past and future. If the
future is per se open and indeterminable, an end of history is as inconceivable as an unprecedented, totally inexplicable beginning ex nihilo on
an utterly clean slate. If past and future exist only in con(dis)junction
with one another, there is no future without a past. Dependent upon the
future, the meaning of the past is also open and indeterminate. History
has no necessary or predictable direction or end.
In sum, Derrida concludes, if there is nothing "in itself," as Heidegger
argues, there is no unit or unity-no subject or ego, no unitary or universal world or "world view," no determinative or decisive history. Everything exists internally divided, and hence constantly, if gradually changing in time. All forms of existence are, therefore, essentially unstable,
and "totalization" in the form of complete mastery or totalitarian
politics is fundamentally impossible. Any superpower which attempts to
conquer the cosmos will generate its own opposition from within as well
as without. If everything is a "trace," it is impossible to escape or erase
the past without destroying existence entirely. If the prospect or possibility of their non-existence is the abyss over or in the face of which
human beings have lived in the past, then modern times are essentially no
different. Heidegger's insight into the radical rupture at the root of all
things should have given rise to an appreciation of the continuity in
human life or history as well.
Recognizing the impossibility of escaping the past entirely, Derrida
does not claim to have overcome metaphysics entirely. Following Nietzsche and Heidegger, he thinks that he has brought the Western
philosophic tradition to an end in the sense of exposing its limits and
thereby opened the way for others to move beyond it.4 Rather than
usher in an era of totalitarian politics, he concludes, a radical
deconstruction of the tradition constitutes our best defense.
VI. The Trace of Heidegger
Because Derrida is so explicitly and extensively indebted to Heidegger,
the question repeatedly arises as to whether he has successfully avoided
Heidegger's politics. Suspicions of a covert connection or "complicity"
between deconstructive criticism and National Socialism surfaced quick48. On Grammatology,pp. 19-26.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Catherine Zuckert 353

ly, especiallywhen a young researcherdiscoveredthat Derrida'scolleague, friend,and fellow deconstructionist,Paul de Man, hadpublished
articlespraisingGermanyand bemoaningthe influenceof Jewishintellectualsin Belgiumin 1942.
Respondingto the charges, Derridastated that what he "practiced
underthe name" of "deconstruction"was designedprimarily"to free
oneself of totalitarianism as far as possible."49 This mode of analysis

had developed"more than twentyyearsafter the war. Its relationto its


premises,notably Heideggerianpremises,was from the start itself both
criticaland deconstructive."50
Derridahimself was certainlynot consciouslyor intentionallya racist
or a fascist. He remindshis readers:
I am Jewish, I was persecutedas a child duringthe war, I have
alwaysbeen knownfor my leftist opinions, I fight as best I can, for
example against racism (for instance, in Franceor in the United
States .. .), againstapartheidor for the recognitionof the rightsof
the Palestinians.I have gotten myself arrested,interrogated,and
imprisonedby totalitarianpolice [in Czechoslovakiafor holdinga
seminar]so I know how they ask and resolvequestions.
But, he concedes, such declarationsof "what is called the objective
truth" do not suffice. "Therecan still be ... residualadherencesto the
discourseone is claimingto combat."51The intentionof the authordoes
not, after all, determinethe meaningof the text.
By deconstructingHeidegger'sconcepts of Being and Man, Derrida
thought that he had moved even further away from any notion of a
naturalorderor hierarchy,as, for example,betweenhumanbeingsand
animals,and towardmoreopennessand freedom.He had shownthat the
significanceof things or events is not historicallydeterminedany more
than it is mandatedor set by nature. Since there is no "ground," i.e.,
Being, thereis no reasonto privilegeany systemof signs or differences,
like Greekor German,as Heideggerhad, becauseof theirspecialrelation
to that ground. Distinctionsamong languagesand peoples do not have
any more foundationsthan those among speciesor races.52
Derridadid not apparentlysee that, in pushingHeidegger'scritiqueof
49. "Likethe Soundof the Sea Deep withina Shell:Paul de Man'sWar," trans.Peggy
Kamuf, CriticalInquiry, 14 (Spring1988):648. "It is no doubt my principalmotivation
[!]."
50. Ibid., p. 649.
51. Ibid., p. 648.
52. This observation (or argument)is responsiblefor the multilingualpuns and
ahistorical"etymologies"that troublemanyof Derrida'sreaders.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

354 Politics of Derridean Deconstruction

"subjectivity"even further,he also moves furtheraway from the origin


and sourceof politicalaction, if indeedhe does not destroyit altogether.
As Aristotle points out in the first systematic description of the
phenomenon,political life is emphatically"logocentric."Humanbeings
do not merelyexpressand communicatetheirfeelingsas animalsdo; they
are also able to deliberateabout rightand wrong,the useful and the disadvantageous,becausethey possesslogos, the facultytraditionallyassociated with speech and reason. They (s)electofficials and enact laws in
order to secure liberty, provide for the common defense, promote the
generalwelfare,or servesome otherpurpose.Politicalactionis, in other
words, explicitlyand emphaticallyintentional.
In arguingthat thereis no stablesystemof meaningor order-natural,
logical, or historical-Derrida may free his readersfrom the spectreof
"totalization,"but by virtueof the same argument,he deprivesthem of
the capacityto think, much less to act on their own behalf. If all opposites are fundamentallyand inseparablylinked, as Derridamaintains,
thereare no alternatives,no "either-or's"betweenwhichto choose. We
may be freedfrom completedomination,but we arenot free to do much.
Differancecontinuesto operatewhetherwe will it or not.
Although Derrida regards himself and is generally regarded as a
radicalcritic,his workhas an anti-activist,if not strictlyspeakinga conservativethrust.If the meaningof any text is neitherdeterminednor controlledby the author'sintention,as Derridaargues,the authorsof legislation will not be able to specify its meaning or predictits effects, in
which case they will find it extremelydifficult, if not impossible, to
justify programmaticpolitical change. Political scientistslike Edward
Banfieldhave used repeatedexperienceswith the unintended,unanticipated effects of political reform to argue against its advisability.Like
Derrida,MichaelOakeshottalso arguesthat it is impossible"to imposea
single characterupon significanthuman speech;" and since "activity
springingfrom and governedby an independentlypremeditatedpurpose
is impossible," he concludes that the range of governmentalaction
should be severelylimited.53
Like EdmundBurke,Derridasuggeststhat social and politicalinstitutions representthe unintended,incrementalaccretionsor traces of past
actions. They are not productsof intentionaldesign;and if subjectedto
radical,rationalisticanalysis,they will be shownto have deep fissuresor
contradictionsat their very foundations.54WhereasBurkethought the
53. Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hill,
1981), pp. 197, 100).
54. William Corlett, Community Without Unity (Durham: Duke University Press,
1989), pp. 118-41, also points to a connection between Burke and Derrida.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Catherine Zuckert 355

fundamentallyfragilecharacterof social and politicalorderconstitutesa


reasonto try to protectand preserveit from rationalcritique,Derridais
not only willing but anxious to bring the fundamentalcracks to light.
The oppositionsat the root of all things make it impossibleto preserve
any particularorderor mode of existence;the most we can do is hope to
generatenew systemsof meaningby deconstructingthe old.
Derrida'sworkis not conservative,therefore,but it is profoundlyantirevolutionary. Although history has no set meaning, according to
Derrida,it is neverthelessimpossiblefor us to escapethe past. It is not
possible to overcome or negate the contradictionsat the root of all
humaninstitutions.It is neverpossible,therefore,to replace,immediately and completely,one orderor systemof authoritywithanother.The interactionof the binaryoppositions of human reason with ever-varying
historicalcircumstancesconstantlyproducesgradualchangesof meaning, the cumulativeeffects of whichareessentiallyunpredictable.Historical developmentsdo occur,but only gradually,and we arenot in control
of the process.
Becausehis "interventions"underminethe legitimacyof all existing
forms of authorityby showing that they are fundamentallycontradictory, withoutpromisingto replacethem with anythingessentiallybetter,
the practicaleffects of Derrideandeconstructionappearto be primarily
negative.55As Derrida himself observes, "it is not certain that such
thinkingcan bring togethera communityor found an institutionin the
traditional sense of these words."56 According to Derrida, we do not

completelyand simplyshareanythingwith anyone-ourselves, muchless


our nation or species. Theremay be a good deal of historicaloverlapin
languageand customs,but thereis no commonroot or ground.Thereare
only and alwaysdifferencesand, hence, opposition,division, and strife.
The tellingtraceof Heideggerto be found in Derrida'spoliticsis not a
residueof racismor of the "biologism" Heideggerhimself criticizedin
official Nazi ideology. The trace is ratherto be found in the essential
passivityof an historical-poeticattemptto oppose the totalitarianeffects
of the ideological,technocraticpolitics of the will to power with receptive openness.57Just as the late Heideggerurged his readersto open
themselvesto a new "dispensationof Being" withoutany assurancethat
suchan eventwould occur, so Derridawouldpersuadehis readersto rely
55. Cf. AlisdairMaclntyre,WhoseJustice?WhichRationality?(NotreDame:University
of Notre Dame Press, 1988),p. 369.
56. "The Principleof Reason," p. 16.
57. On the passivityof Heidegger'slate stancein oppositionto his own earlierNietzschean"willfulness,"cf. AlexanderSchwan,PolitischePhilosophieimDenkenHeideggers
(Cologne:WestdeutscherVerlag, 1965).

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

356 Politicsof DerrideanDeconstruction


on the impersonal,unpredictable,althoughemphaticallyembodiedoperation of differancewithoutany notion of the outcome. Indeed,Derrida
goes even furtherthan Heidegger.Accordingto Heidegger,peopleliving
in moderntimesat least had to makea fateful decision.Derridasuggests
we have no more control over our futurethan we have over our past.
As Alexis de Tocquevilleobserves,radicaluncertaintyhas a debilitating effect on politicalaction.58By deconstructinghis own Heideggerian
premises,Derridaundermineswhat he himself identifies as the "principalmotivation"as well as the philosophicbasisof his own endeavor.If
the origin of twentieth-century
competitionbetweentechnocraticsuperpowersfor world dominionis not to be found in a philosophicmisinterpretationor "forgetting"of Being(becausethereis no Beingor origin),
we have to find anotherexplanationof and responseto the currentstate
of affairs. But in seekingsuchan explanationand responsewe againconfront the problematicbasis and politicalconsequencesof both the affirmation and the denial of the existenceof a naturalorder.

58. Democracy in America, trans. Phillips Bradley (New York: Vintage, 1945), Vol. II,
Part I, Ch. 5, 2, pp. 9, 21.

This content downloaded from 128.248.155.225 on Wed, 21 Oct 2015 06:52:34 UTC
All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions