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Interview with Geoffrey Bennington. By Alberto Moreiras. March 25, 2017.

Q: Part of what I want to do is to go back over some of the issues we have discussed
over the last couple of days and perhaps get a bit more precision regarding a few
things that were left more or less undecided. But let me start with a question about
a topic that you go into at some length in your book, concerning which there is
bound to be some misunderstandings given today’s political climate. Would you
care to expand your thoughts regarding the critique of the “politics of truth”?

A: The book does not advance a critique of the politics of truth as a general concept
or a general issue. I take the phrase from Michel Foucault, who uses it to define
philosophy at one point in his late courses, and then I try to show that, at any rate in
the way Foucault formulates the issues, his version of a politics of truth, of
philosophy as politics of truth, is unsatisfactory in a number of ways. I do not think
his focusing on the concept of parrhēsia generates, let’s say, a politically perspicuous
way of thinking about politics today—and that “today” includes the today of 30
years and more after his late courses. I also think Foucault has always had
throughout his work a great deal of trouble motivating, if I can put it like that, his
own historical presuppositions. The quick way of saying that, as I say in the book, is
that Foucault does not take account of what Derrida reading Heidegger calls
“transcendental historicity.” Foucault is doing a kind of history, but the conditions
under which he is able to make that history are never made explicit, and, I think, if
one tried to make them explicit, his very project becomes deeply problematic.

That is one set of problems with Foucault. Even assuming he did not have those
problems, what is very striking in the very interesting analysis of parrhēsia—and
there are several striking things—is that Foucault first of all uses parrhēsia to
develop a notion of truth as to do with the very gesture of speaking, so that the
parrhēsiast speaks the truth not in the sense that we can go somewhere else to test
whether what he says is true, but simply the enunciative or quasi-performative
gesture is a gesture of truth-telling. However, Foucault is keenly aware in some of
the texts he reads (and he has some, I think unsatisfactory, attempts here and there
to historicize these problems away), that that gesture of parrhēsia always might be
misleading, it always might not be truth-telling, it always might be a “bad” form of
parrhēsia, as he himself says reading Plato, and that need that he has to define
parrhēsia into a good form and a bad form obviously provokes the question, which I
do not think he ever answers, as to what parrhēsia might be prior to that distinction
between good and bad forms of it.

I think it is not hard to see in that distinction between what he sometimes calls “true
parrhēsia” and its “shadowy double,” what he sometimes calls good and bad
parrhēsia, that with it he leaves the status of the concept unclear, and that shows up
symptomatically in the way Foucault, repeatedly in the late seminars, defers dealing
with the issue of the relationship between philosophy and rhetoric, because after all
parrhēsia is the name of a rhetorical figure, in Quintilian for example—as Foucault
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mentions in passing but does not spend very long with it—in Quintilian parrhēsia is
that figure of speech which pretends not to be a figure, pretends only to be the
honest plain truth, and the only criterion Quintilian gives as to whether it is the
honest plain truth or is rather the rhetorical figure for the honest plain truth, the
only criterion he can give refers to the inaccessible interiority of the speaker, to
which we obviously have no access, to know what’s at stake.

So I think Foucault is driven, on the basis of the distinction between forms of


parrhēsia, to want to make a clean distinction between philosophy and rhetoric, to
associate the bad parrhēsia with rhetoric and the good one with philosophy, and
then indeed to identify himself with that position. But the undecidability of
parrhēsia “itself” seems to me to undermine the security of his claims. So in our
current situation, for example, where truth is obviously suffering in political
discourse, I don’t think Foucault’s notion of parrhēsia would help us. The claim to
be speaking the plain unvarnished truth is the basic claim that any lying politician
makes all the time, so I do not see how the concept of parrhēsia is going to help us in
that circumstance.

Q: I think that this critique of the relationship between rhetoric and philosophy—
only solvable through access to an inaccessible interiority—is fundamental to the
tradition of political thought and of metaphysics in general, a founding distinction
really, and it leads us to what you were referring to yesterday in particular as the
“interruption of teleological thought” as a condition for thinking today (teleological
thought obviously would have done away with bad rhetoric and would only pursue
a final truth). Perhaps you can elaborate a bit on that and particularly on the notion
of interruption.

A: The notion of interruption is one that I am actually less and less satisfied with
and the concept of scatter, or the figure of scatter, is a response to that
dissatisfaction. The first thought I had of interruptive teleology, which scatter is
then radicalizing, and I think the easiest example, which I have used a lot, came up
around Kant’s doctrine of perpetual peace. As you know, Kant says that the only
rational telos for political activity is peace, and for peace to be worthy of its name it
has to be perpetual, otherwise it is simply a suspension of hostilities that might
always break out again.

Kant says that the very expression “perpetual peace” looks suspiciously like a
pleonasm. The problem that emerges interestingly and obliquely in Kant’s political
thinking is that after his earlier texts, where he is very optimistic about the
prospects for a realization or at least an approach to that telos, in his later political
writings, including the essay entitled “Perpetual Peace,” there is an at least obscure
sense that there is some trouble in that schema, and that trouble seems to be what
shows up in the very opening of “Perpetual Peace,” where, as you know, Kant makes
a joke about the Dutch innkeeper whose inn is called The Perpetual Peace: on the
sign above the door there is an image of a cemetery. So the danger that emerges
uneasily in Kant through this joke, and in a couple of other places in the text where
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he talks about graveyards, the possibility that makes him uneasy, is that the best
realization of the telos of peace might well take the form of universal destruction.
You want peace, go look in the graveyard. It is not just in Kant, I think this is a very
prevalent schema in many philosophers in many different periods. Wittgenstein, to
choose a rather different example, says in the Investigations that he philosophizes in
order to find peace (Kant himself has a little text on perpetual peace in philosophy).
So this is not just a political issue in the narrow sense of the term, it is also an issue
about what it is to do philosophy and what the possible outcomes and purposes of
doing philosophy might be. Once you place some suspicion on the telos, which I try
to capture some times by using idioms like “the end is the end” (so the end in the
sense of the telos is the end in the sense of the finish, of the coming to an end, the
death of whatever we are talking about), then I think the obvious conclusion, which
I think Kant does promote to some extent in his political writings, is to think that
realizing the most obviously rational telos would be the worst possible outcome.
And so the best possibility for peace is not that it be perpetual but that it perpetually
put off or defer its own perpetuity in some other configuration, which is not that of
absolute or perpetual peace itself.

And that, then, led me to the thought that the teleology is therefore to be interrupted
at a certain point. And it seemed to me and it still seems to me that nothing in the
way that those problems are formulated allows a prediction of where the
appropriate point of interruption is to be found. So it may well be that we still need
in a vaguely Kantian way to move towards, or attempt to move towards, what we
think is peace, with the uneasy realization that at a certain point something else will
have to happen, that in a simply rationalistic spirit aiming for the telos can bring
about a catastrophic reversal.

What I now tend to think, however, is that the motive of interruption is itself still a
little teleological in its thinking. I am now starting to wonder what a situation would
look like where that interruption had always already affected the teleological setup,
and that is really what the motive of “scatter” is trying to capture. Scatter in my
thinking at any rate has now moved into the place that first opened up as a thinking
of interrupted teleology. So my book on Kant, for example, makes a lot of use of the
motive of interruption, but this later work makes greater use of the notion of
scatter.

Q: Let’s say Kant’s idea of a universal cosmopolitanism, what he sometimes called


the cosmopolitan republic, could be identified or transposed to the idea of a fully
democratic sovereignty. This would be the republic of the last human, where the
state of nature has been completely reduced, where everything is rational and
according to the law, everything is therefore according to freedom. But of course, if
I follow your thinking, there is a problem with this fully realized, fully democratic
sovereignty. My next question would be for you to elaborate on the relationship
between sovereignty and democracy.
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A: In Kant of course the republic could not be democratic in the normal sense. Kant
thinks democracy is despotic, and what he calls republicanism is not quite the same
as democracy, but I take your point on the way this schema seems to work in
democracy, which I think it does. I think in fact this schema is generalizable to all
teleological concepts, of which democracy seems at least at first to be one, and here I
think Aristotle is the clearest guide to what might happen. In the Politics Aristotle
lays out different versions or forms of democracy. (One of the nice things about
Aristotle is that he is aware that there is an irreducible plurality always involved in
politics. One of his big complaints about Plato is that Plato is always trying to
reduce that plurality). Aristotle says that, just because there is plurality, there are
different ways of organizing it, and that within the democratic way of organizing
plurality there are further different ways of organizing it. And he gives a list of, I
think, five versions or forms of democracy; each one, as we read through them,
seems to be getting more democratic than the last. It involves more of the people,
more of the time, the power really being in the demos rather than in some part of it,
and this leads to Aristotle’s fifth type of democracy, which is where, or which we
might think to be, the place of the realization of the telos of democracy. It is a form
where the people are sovereign (not exactly an Aristotelian concept but never mind,
the point remains the same here), the people are sovereign at each instant, so it is a
situation in which there is no need to establish laws because the case, anything and
everything that comes up, can be decided by the majority in the moment that it
comes up. And Aristotle points out that not only is this not in fact the realization of
the telos of democracy, but that it is a radically unstable situation which would
collapse immediately into a form of tyranny. In Aristotle’s view, in that final form of
democracy the demos is functioning like a monarch, like a tyrannical monarch, and
in fact this would give rise to the collapse of the political space as such. There, it
seems as though—without of course accepting every detail of Aristotle’s analysis or
imagining it could simply be transposed to current conditions, the thought seems to
be a very powerful one—it seems as though, as we approach the telos more nearly,
mutatis mutandis as with perpetual peace in Kant, at a certain point a catastrophic
reversal will collapse and ruin the space, which leads us into a situation where we
are, let’s say, radically disoriented, and where it is unclear where to go from that
situation in which we are left by a certain internal and, I think, originary failing in
teleological thinking.

For me that is where politics starts. For me political philosophy, in wielding


teleological concepts, is systematically trying to reduce the politics out of politics,
whence my polemical formula “the politics of politics” as a way of stressing the
situation where those teleological or more generally philosophical or metaphysical
schemas have failed, or are giving rise to these catastrophic scenarios. That’s where
politics starts.

Q: Let me ask you a follow-up question on the basis of what you just responded,
which is about the possible connection of the beginning of politics in the problem
opened up by the possibility of a catastrophic reversal, we can call it the problem of
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the catastrophic reversal, and what you were mentioning yesterday: the
immunitarian drift or the auto-immunity drift. What is the connection there?

A: I actually have some reservations about the way Derrida mobilizes the question
of auto-immunity, but if we take it to mean something like a system, or an ipseity, or
an autos attempting to establish itself, protect itself, secure itself, and in so doing
leading to its own collapse, sickness, undoing, then I think what I am describing is
comparable to what Derrida calls auto-immunity. As I say, I think there are some
problems with the way Derrida uses this concept, probably because his medical
references are a little simplistic, let’s put it that way—Derrida, for example, tends to
present auto-immunity as a situation where the body’s defenses turn on themselves,
as though auto-immunity occurs when the immune system turns on the immune
system, whereas an auto-immune disorder is when the body’s defenses turn on the
body itself more generally; it is not just defenses turning on defenses, so Derrida’s
might be described as an exacerbated version of auto-immunity. I think that puts a
little lack of clarity into Derrida’s use of the concept, but in his early invocations of it,
almost the first or the second time he mentions it (the first time is in Specters of
Marx, the second time is, I think, Politics of Friendship), he says, without this explicit
medical footnoting, that this is a universal structure and no area of being is exempt
from it, which is a satisfyingly broad claim. I think in this sense it is comparable to
what I have worked through, in a slightly different way through a slightly different
set of texts, to what I initially called the interruption of teleology and I now tend to
refer to with the more general motif of scatter, which is of course a contribution to,
or another term that would now enter into, the series of Derridean terms such as
différance, text, pharmakon, dissemination, and so on.

Q: Could you connect all of this—scatter, auto-immunity, catastrophic reversal,


interruption of teleology—to two of the master notions of 20th century thought in
the tradition we favor, the Heideggerian notion of destruction and the Derridean
notion of deconstruction? How do you see the difference between those two master
tropes and how do you install “scatter” between them?

A: It is certainly close, it is related, it is within the same movement of thought, as


you say, and Derrida of course notoriously and explicitly derives his use of his
notion of deconstruction explicitly from his explication of Heidegger’s notion of
destruction, and more especially the destruction of the history of ontology or the
destruction of ontology itself, as Derrida says very firmly in the 1964-5 seminar on
Heidegger that has recently been published. But I think there are probably some
differences. Derrida in those early uses, where the term is closely linked to
Heidegger’s notion of destruction, tends to present this as a task, a philosophical
task, a way that we need to recognize the tradition from which we inherit, which
gives us all the vocabulary and all the concepts with which we can think—we can´t
simply refuse it—so it is a way of receiving that tradition and shaking it up, in some
more radical way. He often suggests in his early work that you might translate
“destroy” or “deconstruct” as to solicit, solliciter as “shaking up the whole,”
reorganizing it, disorganizing it, to some extent. I think in some of his later works he
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tends to suggest that it is perhaps a less willfully operated task than some of those
early formulations might suggest, so I think he would tend to say, in slightly later
work, that metaphysics is in deconstruction from the start; it is not that there was
metaphysics doing its ontology, doing its metaphysical thing for many centuries, and
then at a certain point somebody deconstructed it—that sounds like a rather
subject-object, instrumentalized version of things. So I think he would say more
readily, even in fact in some quite early texts, that metaphysics was always already
in deconstruction from the start. And that, I think, is an understanding that is quite
close to his use of some other terms: it relates deconstruction to terms like “text,”
“dissemination,” and so on, where the fundamental thought, which to some extent
Derrida derives from Heidegger but to some extent he also finds in Saussure and
others too, is that everything, everything one might want to give an account of, so
everything we might be inclined to think of in ontological terms, has to be thought of
in terms of the structure of the trace, where there are never any self-present
elements. It is not even relational in the way that relation-talk is sometimes used
these days, which can often presuppose that first there are some kind of atoms or
objects that then interrelate in some fundamental way. In Derrida there are no such
atoms or objects. There are trace structures where everything is what it “is” only in
being fundamentally and originally involved with what it is not. So this is a way that
is not entirely unlike what Heidegger is doing with the ontological difference. But
Derrida’s claim, which is an ambitious one of course, is that his notion of différance
is more general or prior to the ontico-ontological difference—this is a difficult and
controversial claim, but the thought is that, given the primacy of difference,
radicalized as différance in Derrida’s sense—so not just a static set of differences
between given things but a kind of ongoing dynamics of difference and
differentiation—the basic terms with which ontology has always dealt are no longer
available. That is why he is very keen to express in the opening of that seminar on
Heidegger from the 1960’s that Heidegger is not just proposing a destruction of the
history of ontology, but a destruction of ontology itself.

Now, my feeling is that today, when of course ontology is all the rage again—the
word, and the concept, and the project of ontology are back in many forms and on
many sides, as though there were something desirable, as though it were an object
of philosophical desire to formulate an ontology, as though the very word “ontology”
were a badge of honor—my feeling is that those attempts have not registered the
force of Derrida’s arguments, nor thereby of Heidegger’s, if we accept that Derrida is
radicalizing Heidegger. So I don’t think that these new ontologies, new realisms,
object-oriented, whatever they want to call it, speculative realisms, I don’t think
those movements of thought have registered the force of Derrida’s account of the
trace structure, différance, dissemination, deconstruction. As I’ve said, my own
notion of scatter is obviously entering into some kind of relation with those
Derridean terms. It is a tenet of deconstruction, and it flows directly from the
structures I have just been describing, that there is no proper final word; so trace is
a word that is useful, but it is not the real word, the true word, or the proper name
for what we are talking about. What we are talking about can have no proper name
in this kind of an account. Derrida uses a lot of terms which are in a relation of what
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he calls “non-synonymous substitution,” and I offer “scatter” as one of those, with


some specificities to the word—its Anglo-Saxon etymology, the fact that it rhymes
with “matter,” that it seems to take a slow step back from what Derrida calls
dissemination, which it might seem to be translating (dissemination has a notion of
seed in it, and we do scatter seeds, but we also scatter ashes, for example, ash, which
comes to be Derrida’s privileged figure for the trace), so it is in a relation with all of
those things.

Q: Let me insist on the issue of destruction vs. deconstruction, Heidegger vs.


Derrida. At some point you refer to the fact that things are no longer available the
way they once were or used to be, which seems to introduce the notion of a
historical break, a historical epoch, but, if the trace structure is an “always-already,”
an “immer-schon,” has always already been around, if metaphysics has therefore
always been in deconstruction, from where can we get the notion of an epochal
distinction, of an epochal differentiation between the various times of metaphysics,
including those that enable you to affirm that conceptual tools once available are no
longer available? In other words, is there an epochal structure of metaphysics, is
there a history of (the thought of) being, or is that something Derrida would have
denied?

A: That is a very difficult question. Derrida would certainly not simply have denied
it. I think he is concerned, in that seminar I have mentioned, to suggest that in
destroying ontology and bringing the question of being to the fore, Heidegger falls
somewhat short in his account of the history question. The seminar is entitled
“Heidegger: The Question of Being and History,” and he suggests that already Being
and Time runs out of breath, as he puts it, towards the end, when Heidegger is
developing the structures of historicity. Derrida would certainly want to say that
there is a fundamental historicity entailed by the thought of the trace. But he would
then be very suspicious of most of the concepts of history that have been developed
to account for it. And, even though he is extremely interested and extremely
respectful of Heidegger’s way of thinking, this returns as one of the motifs in
Heidegger that he is suspicious of, and that he lays out in Of Spirit, where he lists
four areas or “open questions,” as he puts it, around Heidegger. One of those open
questions is the notion of the epoch, of epochality, which of course is already
complex enough in Heidegger, but Derrida thinks that Heidegger is still too
confident that epochs can be gathered, identified, separated, and this perhaps is also
a way of restraining, a restriction on the force of the “immer schon,” the always-
already insight. It does not mean there is no history.

Q: So the Derridean revision of the history of being is, we could say, an internal
revision, it does not mean to do away with it altogether.

A: It does not mean to do away with it. You know, all of these terms, as always in
Derrida, come freighted with a lot of metaphysical connotations and sedimentations,
and history is a term such as that. It is not that history comes as the triumphant
answer to a metaphysics of presence. Most versions of history, almost all versions
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of history, as far as Derrida can see, are fundamentally grounded in a metaphysics of


presence, and that is exactly their problem: that they can only see history and time
on the basis of the privilege of the present, of the presence of the present, as indeed
Heidegger already diagnoses it. But then Derrida thinks Heidegger is not quite as
radical as he might be in carrying that insight through. This is an extremely difficult
question, because at the same time Derrida is very impressed, already in that
seminar but elsewhere too, by that wonderful essay of Heidegger’s, “The Age of the
World-Picture.” Partly because Heidegger there complicates any suggestion that he
is simply writing a history of Weltanschauungen, because that view of history, that
view of epoch as world-picture, is itself the product of a particular epoch, the
Cartesian-Hegelian period, as Heidegger sets it up. Derrida is prepared to
acknowledge the force of that argument, but still thinks Heidegger is overconfident
on the notion of epochality. And probably too, that would mean Derrida would be
suspicious of some of the other historical or quasi-historical motifs in Heidegger,
like the “new beginning,” “other inception,” those kinds of things, I think, do not
really reappear, at least in that form, in Derrida himself.

Q: There is a point in the 1964-65 seminar where Derrida is moving towards a


correction of Heidegger having to do with the substitution of history for being, in
other words, Derrida intimates—he passes through it, he does not say it very
clearly--, he hints at the possibility that everything is to be gained by talking about
the question of history rather than about the question of being. If being were to be
defined as history and history were to be defined as being, that might clear up some
of the problems regarding epochality, the ontico-ontological difference, and so forth.
But of course it would then open up other problems. Do you think Derrida takes a
definite position on this?

A: I think so. I think he wants to say that, given the trace structure, being —if we
want to maintain the term “being”— being is historical through and through, but the
radicality of that historicity is not captured by any available philosophy of history or
doctrine of history as we have inherited them. So that puts the very term “history”
in difficulties, sous rature, and so on. It is not as if Derrida thinks a simple verbal
substitution or even a conceptual substitution would solve all the problems. I do
think he thinks Heidegger’s notion of being runs the risk—not always, not
systematically, not in every case, not equally in every case—runs the risk of
immobilizing or stabilizing the movement that Derrida formulates in terms of the
trace, so he is a little suspicious of the being-talk in Heidegger, even though he
recognizes that being has a very special status both conceptually and linguistically.
He is very sensitive to the complexities of the ontico-ontological difference. He says
many times in his early work, not just in that seminar, that being is not just one
word among others, that it is the only non-metaphorical word in language, as he
says, I think more than once, in Writing and Difference. So he certainly thinks that
Heidegger has provided a thinking which in his view—he is very clear about this in
the 1964-65 seminar—has definitely had insights that are not available via Hegel or
Husserl, to mention the two other philosophers he talks most about, nor indeed by
anybody else. Derrida wants to attribute to Heidegger some unique insights. On the
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other hand, he still thinks that Heidegger here and there, perhaps not entirely
consistently, limits some of those insights or determines them too specifically or
precisely, and that gives rise to some difficulties in Heidegger that seem not to have
their equivalent in Derrrida—such as, for example, the privileging of the German
language, the ignoring of certain figures in the history of philosophy, Spinoza for
example—perhaps not such a good example because it is not as if Derrida had much
to say about Spinoza either, but Derrida does sometimes say that it is interesting
that Heidegger chooses to exclude Spinoza from his history of being, and that seems
an odd gesture. But Rousseau, why not?, Rousseau—does Heidegger ever talk about
Rousseau? I don’t think so, but Derrida takes Rousseau quite seriously and thinks
quite interesting things about him, so there are a number of things of this sort, we
could go on. But I do think it is extremely important to say that Derrida never thinks
he is finished with Heidegger, that Derrida seems to think that, of all the
philosophers he is interested in reading, Heidegger is the one who intrigues him
most, sets him the hardest tasks of reading and elucidation. So Derrida is not
against Heidegger except in the sense that he is right up against him, as close as he
could possibly be.

Q: There is a very early definition of philosophy in Heidegger, from 1922, that I


think he maintained throughout his life, until the very end. I would think that
definition could be happily shared by Derrida, or by you, certainly by me. It is that
“philosophy is the explicit interpretation of factical life.” Of course there is a notion
of facticity there that we can discuss, but the notion that philosophy is always, in
every case, the explicit interpretation of facticity, not of some theoretical idea, not of
some transcendental world, not of some willed hypothesis, but of life as it is and as it
happens, brings up the question of history in a forceful way, because factical life is
an existentiell in the midst of history, it in fact opens history itself in every case. To
that extent I think Heidegger could say that, from the very beginning, from his early
encounter with Aristotle and then with Husserl, he always already refused the
notion that his thinking could produce a philosophy of history, since his angle was
the opposite of it: it was not history but factical life he was after. The Heideggerian
notion of history is always secondary to and dependent upon the interpretation of
factical life, which in a sense drastically liberates history. I think that would be the
case for deconstruction too, as opposed to, say, for Hegel or for Marxism. What do
you think?

A: I think that is interesting. I suspect Derrida would indeed have questions about
the notion of the factical and also about the notion of life, of course, which he does
talk about quite a lot towards the end of his own life. With some reservations or
some suspensions around those terms, I think Derrida would say philosophy is at
any rate about the response to an explicitation of what happens. If factical life
means what happens, or that what happens happens, if that is what factical life is,
then absolutely, there is a convergence. And the fact that Heidegger is not proposing
a philosophy of history and that Derrida is not proposing a philosophy of history—it
is clear that neither of them is interested in doing that—is not to say that they are
less interested in history, because they think that history as a discipline and that
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philosophy of history as a branch of philosophy have really been dedicated to


reducing and even repressing the historicity of history—that is their real interest.
Perhaps this is another take on something we might find ourselves talking about:
when Derrida makes a distinction between metaphor and metaphoricity, he is
extremely interested in metaphoricity but he thinks that the concept of metaphor
qua philosophical concept is fundamentally employed to reduce metaphoricity, that
it is a way of not allowing metaphoricity to do its thing. And that, I think, is true of
many things in philosophy—the philosophical concept of something, in Derrida’s
case, but also very often in Heidegger’s case, is seen as a way of avoiding the
problem that it also obliquely names.

Q: A katechon, right?

A: Perhaps a little of the nature of that. Metaphor names a problem, something it is


interesting to talk about, but the concept of metaphor blocks one’s thinking of it, at a
certain point, which is why Derrida would propose his notion of metaphoricity, and
similarly with history and historicity. The concept of history tends to block the
historicity of history itself. I also think that can go back to some of the things I was
saying about Foucault. My suspicion is that Foucault does not have an account of
transcendental historicity, and that leads the history he does or the historical
aspects of what he does into some difficulties when it comes to accounting for its
own possibility. I know some philosophers will say: why would he have to account
for his own possibility? That is still a Kantian demand. But I think it is part of the
task and the promise of philosophy to explain itself as far as it possibly can, and I
think in Foucault and indeed in many other philosophers that task is not being
carried through, that there is a refusal or foreclosure of, broadly speaking, what
Derrida calls the trace structure, which entails this fundamental historicity that is
not being registered by the concept of history as mobilized by philosophies of
history even though they be as sophisticated as Hegel’s or even Rousseau’s.

Q: I think this restraining of the trace, if we can refer to it in those terms, marks of
course the difference between ontology and the attempts at producing or
reconstructing ontology and the kind of postontological thinking that perhaps
Heidegger and Derrida exemplify in 20th century thought. So I find something
interesting there, particularly in the context of the trend you have already identified,
that “rage” you mentioned to reconstruct ontology. That history blocks historicity,
that metaphor blocks metaphoricity, that mechanism seems to be the reason for
ontology to rise in every case or in the first place. In other words, ontology has the
function of keeping things away from every possible scatter.

A: I think that is exactly right. This could be formalized, as I tried to do in the book I
co-wrote with Derrida, because after all one way of approaching these questions is
in terms of what is now often called the quasi-transcendental, or at least a
relationship with the unsatisfactory dealing with transcendental terms. Take for
example history, because history is a very good example here: the discipline of
history, the work historians do, obviously presupposes a concept of history, and that
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concept has a transcendental function with respect to the historian’s discourse


which that discourse is as such quite unable to address. Now, that does not mean to
say that the transcendental concept of history given by the metaphysical tradition is
adequate to the discipline of history or to the work historians do, but it does mean
that there is a question the discipline itself cannot ask, and if that question is going
to be asked it falls to something like philosophy to ask it, and in falling to philosophy
the further Derridean and quite possibly already the Heideggerian question puts
pressure on that transcendental position itself, not to retrieve it as transcendental,
but rather to de-transcendentalize it somewhat , not simply, but somewhat de-
transcendentalize all the transcendentals that are otherwise holding regional
discourses in place. And that work on the transcendental position complicates the
status of all of those discourses, including the philosophical discourse doing that
work. As a result of that process, philosophy is not quite the philosophy it grew up
to want to be, nor indeed are those regional discourses, at least if they are able to
hear what is being said. So, even though of course historians quite rightly,
structurally, resist this kind of talk—they have their work to do, they do not
necessarily want to spend their time reading philosophy—sooner or later one
imagines the discipline of history is impacted and interestingly impacted by a
thought which questions the transcendental notion of history that, unbeknowst to
itself, history was already presupposing and relying on as it did its work. After that
point . . .

Q: This leads me to perhaps the last question, although I may perhaps add some
post-scriptum questions later. It would be: there was a reason to think, back in the
1980’s or 1990’s, that Derridean deconstruction was a moment from which there
was no return, that it was a turning point that would preempt regressions to a pre-
deconstruction state of affairs. That awareness seems to have vanished from the
scene today, most people in philosophy (not to mention the other humanities
disciplines, where the situation is even more dismal) are now taking deconstruction
as just another curious tendency of the past, and as a result deconstruction is today
either ignored or under siege in terms of its claims and pretensions. Postontology,
the attempt to have destroyed or the pretense to engage in the destruction not just
of the history of ontology but of ontology itself, which obviously has huge
implications for those regional, disciplinary discourses that must or should have
undergone their own destruction, seems to have vanished from contemporary
consciousness, or at least to be in a radical retreat. So my question is about the
future of deconstruction, and particularly about the institutional future of
deconstruction. What do you think is going to happen?

A: I agree with you there has been a retreat. There have been retreats in many of the
disciplines that were impacted by deconstruction in the 1980’s and 1990’s,
including the literary disciplines, but also the discipline of philosophy itself. And
even that nebulous non-discipline we sometimes call theory. Retreat is not the same
as vanishing or disappearance. I think deconstructive insights and motives have
somewhat embedded themselves in some of the practices of those disciplines, even
though I agree that there has been a very reactive turn, especially at the institutional
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level, where deconstruction is, generally speaking, not favorably looked upon by the
institution of the university and the current disciplinary organization of that
institution. I am nevertheless resolutely optimistic, because I think these insights
are radical. I think things are complicated by the fact that structures that have the
character of the “always-already” do not happen in simple datable ways, so in some
ways the effect of Heidegger and Derrida might be that we read Plato and Aristotle
differently, or indeed Kant, or indeed Hegel, or indeed anybody else, and the effects
that can have on the institution are certainly not immediate, are certainly not
guaranteed, nor are they even immediately clear—so even those of us who are most
enthusiastically propounding the merits of deconstruction are probably not entirely
sure what the best institutional arrangements might be in the university, for
example, to take account of those insights. That is an ongoing task, in the face, I
agree, of a quite reactive moment. On the other hand I think we are not the only two
people talking about these materials, and there are students and colleagues in many
places who are pursuing, more or less independently, more or less in dialogue with
others, something that is recognizably influenced by and sustained by a reading of
Heidegger and Derrida. I also find it hard to read the supposedly new realisms or
ontologies as anything other than reactive movements. I believe the thinking of the
trace as Derrida has developed it is so powerful and in a sense so simple and
luminous that it is irresistible. I am reasonably confident, not in a predictive way—I
am not saying what things will be like 20 or 50 years from now—I am reasonably
confident that the force of that way of thinking is ongoing and will prevail in a
certain sense.

Q: If the discovery of the trace structure in metaphysics marks what we are calling a
turning point, or even perhaps an “epoch” in the Heideggerian sense (!!), in other
words, if it organizes a “before” and an “after,” which would probably only relate to
interpretative practices and not to states of affairs, since the trace structure claims
that, within states of affairs, “things” have always already happened, I would like to
ask you to comment on the relationship between all of that and the famous sentence
that Of Grammatology proposed and that quickly became such a fetish, such an
overwhelming tag for deconstruction, which is the sentence “there is nothing
outside the text.” What is the relationship between the trace structure and “there is
nothing outside the text.”

A: They are exactly the same thing! The context in which Derrida makes that
italicized, emphasized claim in Of Grammatology is one where he is talking about
the place of the word and the concept “supplement” in Rousseau, and more
especially he is talking about Rousseau’s use of that word in a context of reference to
his mother and other women who might be supplements or substitutes for his
mother. Derrida is entertaining the thought that we could perhaps find out the truth
about this by looking into Rousseau’s biography, the real facts of his life, who his
mother really was, if she really died in childbirth the way he said, how these other
women might fit into that, and he says that in fact we cannot go outside the text to
find any really stopping or starting point for those supplements, because there is no
such point: the chain of supplements continues “outside” the text, which means
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there is no outside the text.. There is nothing outside the text because what we
think of as outside the text in the classical sense of text is itself organized according
to the structure of the trace. So text in the narrow, old-fashioned sense is a trace
structure. But the world we thought was outside the text is also organized in terms
of trace structures. That is why ontology is not the proper approach to thinking
about it. This is extremely general, absolutely general—for Derrida “nothing outside
the text” means nothing outside the trace structure, nothing that could ground it or
bring it to an end, or be its origin or anything of that sort. “There is only the trace
structure” means that—as Derrida insisted very many times, knowing that perhaps
he would be misunderstood—it is not simply a matter of making a claim about
language. One of the most important facts about Derrida’s insight is that there is no
clean distinction to be made between language on the one hand, language over here
if you like, and the world over there. That distinction is subsequent to, and
secondary to, the absolutely primordial trace structure, which is the structure of
what we used to call being in general. It doesn’t mean there is no difference
between language and objects, it doesn’t mean that objects are only language, or
anything like that. It means that, prior to that standard distinction we make,
perhaps usefully sometimes, between language over here and a world over there,
prior to that secondary distinction, there is this primordial trace structure which in
Derrida’s ambitious claim even precedes what Heidegger calls the ontico-ontological
difference.

Q: As you know, because we talked about it yesterday, I am now rereading with


great interest a series of lectures that Heidegger gave in Freiburg in 1957, fairly late
in his life. In these so-called Freiburg lectures he uses the Latin expression
“singulare tantum,” probably making it mean not a word that has no plural, but
rather a word that means only one thing in his usage. He uses that expression twice,
the first time to refer to Ereignis, of which he says there is no reason to give it
multiple meanings, for instance through translation. Ereignis is simply just Ereignis,
meaning what it means in his usage, and for example the standard English
translation as “event of appropriation” would already be a betrayal. But he uses
singulare tantum a second time in the lectures for another German word, Be-reich,
that he invents (so perhaps not quite German in that sense), from the prefix Be- and
Reich, which means “realm” but also “reach” and other things, it is a semantically
rich word. Be-reich, realm of play, he says, applies in his usage to language.
Language is a Be-reich of play, of infinite play, where all conflicts and reconciliations
happen, all conflicts follow each other, turn on each other, reproduce each other,
surmount each other, overcome each other, and so forth. This seems to me perhaps
an approach, in the late Heidegger, to the Derridean tropology of the trace structure,
it could be taken to be precisely that in my opinion, it could be interesting to do it at
any rate, a formulation of a similar intuition. Heidegger claims in the final lectures
of the 1957 lecture course that language is the place where thinking and being come
together, it would be the place of the Parmenidean autós, the place for worlding as
the autós of language, for every language, and world, since world happens in every
case through language and language is not prior to world. For me this is important
as one tries to think at this limit a notion of infrapolitics that hinges on the
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possibility of making a distinction, an internal distinction, within that autós,


between modes of relationship to the trace structure. So “there is a trace structure,”
which does not necessarily mean we know how to relate to it. How do we relate to
it historically, factically, how do we relate to it experientially or existentially?
Making those distinctions is difficult, that is what I am struggling with. And my
question to you, perhaps a question beyond the questions, a post-scriptum question,
since I do not mean to put you on the spot, and I am asking you about my thinking
rather than about your work, is whether you would accept the possibility of a
neighborhood, a nearness, between what you call “politics of politics,” taking that
phrase as a summary of the current state of your thinking, and the notion of
infrapolitics.

A: I came here not really knowing what to understand by the term “infrapolitics,”
and I think I now have a better sense because of the conversations we have had with
the group, and I am grateful for that. And I do think there is more than a
“neighborhood,” perhaps. In my own view, as I said, what I used the formula
“politics of politics” to get at is the thought that philosophy in its metaphysical
configurations, when it thinks about politics, reduces the politics out of politics, or
would like to reduce the politics out of politics. By insisting on the politics in politics
I am opening a space: you remember I said “this is where politics starts,” that this
moment when the teleological thinking is complicated, interrupted, perhaps
scattered, to use that term, that this is where politics starts. By that I did not exactly
mean that that place is already a political place. When I say “it is where politics
starts” I think I am on the verge of saying “infrapolitics.” It is not unconnected to
politics, obviously, it is the condition of possibility, if we can still use that language,
for there to be politics, it is not yet exactly politically determined, but it is a way of
trying to reflect on how we could then think about politics. So if I am understanding
it aright, I think we are in some extreme proximity here. The other thing I would say
about the Heidegger reference you brought up is, if you read Derrida’s difficult
formulations around the trace in Of Grammatology, which is one of the places where
he says the thought of the trace precedes the ontico-ontological difference, he also
says the trace precedes all sorts of other differences, in fact all differences in
general, it is the opening of differences in general. So the trace precedes the
distinction between the living and the non-living, the animate and the inanimate,
and I think it also precedes, perhaps in a unique way, the distinction between
language and something other than language. I do not think in Derrida we have to
wait for language for the trace structure to happen. The trace structure has always
already happened and language is imbricated with it in a complex way. That might
not be quite the same thing Heidegger is doing with that very appealing notion of
Be-reich, or Spielraum, or Spiegel-Spiel, as he calls it in some of the texts on the
fourfold. Having said that, my familiarity with the later Heidegger is less that it is
with the Heidegger of the 1920’s and 1930’s, so I would be hesitant to lay claim to
any authority here: but I suspect there might be interesting things to pursue in
exactly the point at which language—obviously an extremely complex thought in
Heidegger—enters the picture in which difference or differences appear in thought.
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Q: This is a great place to finish, thank you very much.