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Cinders, Traces, Shadows on the Page:

The Holocaust in Derrida’s Writing

International Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 43, no.3, no. 171 (September 2003)

David Michael Kleinberg-Levin

“Writing is the anguish of the Hebraic ruah, experienced in solitude by human responsibility.

. . .” Derrida, “Force and Signification”1

“Le sens enseveli se meut et dispose, en choeur, des feuillets.” Stéphane Mallarmé,

“L’alphabet des astres”2


I want to give thought to the inscriptions that remind us of the Holocaust, the

Shoah, in Derrida's writing, reading his texts in a way that lets us recollect it from what

remains: cinders of fire, traces of darkness, shadows on the page. I would like to

demonstrate the peculiar configurations of presence and absence through which the Jewish

experience of the Holocaust haunts the writings of Derrida.

Derrida was born in Algeria, born into a Jewish family. Although living far from the

center of the Holocaust, he was deeply affected by it, and suffered certain displacements on

the margins of its terror. "I often feel," he said, once, in an interview, "that the questions I

attempt to formulate on the outskirts of the Greek philosophical tradition have as their

'other' the model of the Jew, that is, the Jew-as-other. And yet the paradox is that I have

never actually invoked the Jewish tradition in any 'rooted' or direct manner. Though I was

born a Jew, I do not work or think within a living Jewish tradition. So that if there is a

Judaic dimension to my thinking which may from time to time have spoken in or through

me, this has never assumed the form of an explicit fidelity or debt to that culture."3 I do not

dispute this point; but I will show the influence—an influence that continues to increase—

that Jewish culture and Jewish historical experience have had on Derrida's thought and work.

I want to suggest that in fact what we might call his "philosophical project", even the

very categories or vocabulary out of which he has wrought his reflections, may be read as

deriving from his experience as a Jew and as bearing importantly on the past and present

historical situation of the Jewish people. Many of the words in Derrida's work remind us

that the Jews were for thousands of years a people living in exile from their promised land.

Living in dispersal, living in dissemination, living on the margins of cultures, suffering the

victimizations peculiar to a racism based on the metaphysics of essence, of purity, of

sameness, Jews learned to live in a despair mixed with hope, accepting the deferral of the

Messiah's coming. And throughout their years of enslavement and bondage, they nurtured

their love of freedom and their respect for the other, and stubbornly preserved their

difference as a people, obeying a law which they nevertheless subjected to end-less

interpretation and contestation.

I will also suggest that much of what Derrida has to say in his writings bears

specifically on the Jewish experience of the Holocaust: on exile, deportation, displacement,

dispersal, death, ends, a theodicy of postponement and fulfillment, a history of racism,

essentialism, cultural purity, violence, the obligation to engage hermeneutics and undertake

the deconstruction of seemingly settled meaning, opening thought to the unthinkable.

Derrida makes visible the terrible connections between, on the one hand, the Western

discourse of metaphysics, a discourse of hierarchy, essence, monism, centralism, and

dualism, but also a discourse of humanism and Enlightenment, and, on the other, the history

of nationalism and racism, of states formed in the images of fascism, totalitarianism, and

authoritarianism. I will argue that Derrida accordingly sets out to deconstruct these

discourses, to reveal their latent violence, cruelty, hatred of the other and the different, and

that, even in texts not explicitly or directly concerned with the Holocaust—in philosophical

texts, for example, on structuralism—Derrida forces us to face the terror of the Holocaust

and the fate of its victims, weaving the marks, traces, signatures, and shadows that tell of its

reach into the warp and woof of his textual productions.

As we shall see, Derrida has written about the Holocaust (the Hebrew word is

“Shoah”, meaning “catastrophe”) in a number of textual forms and from a number of

strategic positions. Sometimes the references are explicit and sometimes more oblique; but

the subject is always approached with a certain hesitation, a certain fear and trembling—as if

neither keeping the silence nor breaking the silence could avoid some terrible indiscretion, or

as if in neither of the cases, different though they are, he could avoid the problem of an

anguished apology. But he knows that, come what may, he must speak: that he owes it to

the victims—and owes it to a justice still to come.

In Glas, an intricate meditation on Hegel’s “phenomenology of spirit”, on the fire of

the spirit, the fire that purifies, sacrificing the other, Derrida draws out the implications of

the fact that the word "holocaust" means "the all-burning" (le brûle-tout), suggesting that the

Holocaust was such an extreme event that it consumed, destroyed, even the possibility of its

own representation, its exemplarity as an essence, its signifiability.4 The Holocaust, he says,

is "without essence, without law," the pure limit of evil, unique and paradoxical, without

further example, perhaps not even capable of exemplifying itself. Thus, writing, as we say,

"about" it is more than difficult, more than painful. In fact, writing about it in the "normal"

philosophical way, and in the normal philosophical tone, is both necessary and out of the

question, morally impossible.5 And yet, we can see that Derrida feels, and recognizes, a

certain responsibility to talk about it, to remember it and question it in philosophical

discourse. That he writes about it so obliquely, so indirectly, is, however, a matter that

provokes thought. I will accordingly propose a reading, an interpretation, that attempts to

explain his deliberate "indirection", his “discretion”, his “caution”.

"The Ends of Man" does not mention the Holocaust; nor is the text anywhere

obviously interrupted, disrupted, terrorized or disfigured by the marks, the shadows of the

Holocaust.6 And yet, it is certainly informed by a consciousness formed in the wake of the

Holocaust. "The Ends of Man" is a critical examination of the metaphysical presuppositions

in humanism and in the "sciences of Man". This examination, questioning and

deconstructing our beliefs about the "unity of man", the difference between human beings

and animal beings, the relation between human nature and history, and the origins and ends

of "man", challenges cultural prejudices, superstitions, ideologies, categories and

classificatory schemes that for many centuries have functioned to support social practices

and institutions that have marginalized and destroyed Jewish life in the Western world,

causing Jews to suffer material and spiritual humiliations, poverty, hunger, and forced

conversions, to fear for their lives, and struggle for survival. Probing the prevailing cultural

discourse of human nature, origins and ends, unity, identity and essence, Derrida makes

explicit the social and cultural structures within which the violence of racism and

ethnocentrism—anti-Semitism, for example—still finds protection, justification, and

encouragement; and he deconstructs the various ways, in which "we" have constructed an

other, an outsider, an alien, an enemy, even within the precincts of a concept intended to be

universal, all-inclusive and morally right.

These matters, and the Holocaust itself, are the major subtext of a seminar that

Derrida gave in Paris, the topic of which was "Philosophical Nationality and Nationalism".

In "Geschlecht II: Heidegger's Hand",7 a lecture drawn from part of this seminar, Derrida

cites Fichte's use of the word "Geschlecht" in his "Discourses to the German Nation" and

pursues his questioning of Western assumptions regarding the essence of "man", the

prevailing cultural definition of "humanity", and the entire project of humanism. Many

questions are broached here, questions made urgent by the Holocaust: What is it to be

human? What is normatively essential? What is a brute? What makes the Holocaust so

monstrous? What turns a human being into a monster? How does a sense of destination give

rise to a nation? Here, too, as in other writings, Derrida problematizes the unacknowledged

assumptions at work in Western political thought.

Like so many other texts by Derrida, Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question is an inquiry

set in motion by the need to understand who "we" are, we who call ourselves "human

beings".8 For Derrida, as for Heidegger, the historical discourse of humanism has not

dispelled all the darkness surrounding our understanding of "the human". In fact, they

think, it is necessary not only to consider the possibility that this discourse leaves the essence

of the human unthought—but also to recognize the possibility that it may even be a tragic

obstruction. For the greatest barrier to understanding is often the conviction that one

understands. Of Spirit is moved by the history of a philosophical discourse in and for which

spirit—Geist—has been of fundamental importance. What is "spirit"? And what does

Heidegger, the foremost German philosopher in the time of the Holocaust, have to say

about it? Hearing in the German word for spirit the word for ghost, Derrida tells us: "I shall

speak of ghost [revenant], of flame, and of ashes."9 On the surface, so to speak, Derrida's

text is again a reflection on humanity and the human—on what it is, or means, to be human.

On the surface, it is again a reflection on Heidegger's reflections on the essential difference

between animal being and human being. But there are many currents of thought, many

overtones and undertones, raging just below the surface. And these currents bring up

matters difficult to face. For Geist is always haunted by its double. What it forgets, ignores,

occludes, denies and opposes always, like a ghost, seems to return.10 Around the word

“Geist” there has traditionally been a discourse of humanism and Enlightenment, a

discourse denouncing racial prejudices based on naturalism and biologism.11 But in studying

the evolution of Heidegger's work, Derrida detected some fascinating and disquieting shifts

in Heidegger's relation to Geist. This is why he began his book, Of Spirit, by saying "I shall

speak of ghost, of flame and of ashes. And of what, for Heidegger, avoiding means."12

Derrida shows that at first, for example in the period of Being and Time, Heidegger

emphasized the need to avoid the word Geist, and used it only within quotation marks,

thereby indicating his reservations about the term and reminding us to be equally vigilant

and wary. But with the emergence of National Socialism, Heidegger threw his caution and

reserve to the winds of "destiny" and not only used the word frequently and with passion,

but used it unmarked, without the endistancing device of quotation. After the downfall of

National Socialism, however, Heidegger was again thinking about Geist and questioning its

meaning and historical significance—this time in the context of his interpretive readings of

Hölderlin and Trakl and his attempt to articulate the relation between thinking and

poetizing, Denken and Dichten. But in this post-war period, the Geist that has caught his

attention is not the "pneuma" of Christian theology; nor is it the "spirit" of the discourses of

humanism and the Enlightenment. And it is even farther from the discourse of ruah,

breathing life into the texts of the Jewish experience. Instead, it is the "spirit" that the poets

of a glorified Germany have inflamed. In "Bread and Wine", spirit is called "fire" and

"flame". "Jetzt komme, Feuer!"13


In words that will inevitably evoke the racially inflamed fires of the Holocaust,

Derrida contends that the last line of Hölderlin’s poem, “Bread and Wine”, "names the

consumption, the burning, fire, or even the cremation or incineration of the Beseeler, of the

one who animates, of the one who carries the soul, in other words, the gift of the spirit.

Hölderlin, the Beseeler, is consumed in fire, close to becoming ash."14 While acknowledging

the Greek pneuma and the spiritus of Christianity burning within the German fire and

flames, but drawing its inspiration from this peculiarly German spirit alone, Heidegger's

thinking moved closer and closer to this holocaustic fire, entirely suppressing, as Derrida

points out, the Hebrew ruah and nephesh.15

It may be argued that Heidegger was not the first German philosopher to conceive

of Geist in a way that would eventually suggest the "cleansing" and "purifying" fires of the

Holocaust, organized to reduce the entire race (Geschlecht) of Jews to ashes. And it may

indeed be true, as Derrida says, once again evoking the ghosts of the crematoria in Nazi

death camps, that, long before him, Hegel had already "situated the passage from the

philosophy of nature to the philosophy of spirit in the combustion from which . . . Geist, the

gas, rises up, or rises up again, above the decomposing dead, to interiorize itself in the

Aufhebung."16 Still, it cannot be denied that Heidegger's public speeches during the crucial

early years of the Nazi revolution, speeches passionate and inflammatory, helped to ignite

the fires of the Holocaust—and gave them a semblance of public and intellectual

legitimation by making it seem possible to relate these fires to the sublime historical

demands of the spirit.

Derrida's concern, however, is not to indict Heidegger or sit in final judgement on

the question of his moral duplicity, and on his complicity in the "Final Solution". Rather, his

concern, here, in Of Spirit, but also in all the other texts on which we are reflecting within the

framework of this paper, is to call attention to the ways in which all the discourses generated

by "spirit", however different they may be, are capable of fuelling the fires of racism, ethnic

prejudice, and nationalistic hatreds.

There are what I would call "perversions" of the spirit, forces of evil not easily

separated from the enlightenment and benevolence of the spirit. Thus Derrida undertakes

to deconstruct, to unfold, take apart and display the structures of belief, of conviction and

action, that have been constructed around the spirit—not in order to destroy this spirit

altogether, but rather to incite us to vigilance, reminding us of the dangers. As always, his

concern is for the people on the margin, the excluded, the oppressed, the people whose

difference makes them wholly other. For him, if "spirit" means anything, it must mean a

responsibility to think and care for the other. What he does with the Holocaust material—

letting it appear, but only, as if to acknowledge our sense of loss, of absence, and our

irremediable inability ever to respond adequately, by indirection, in cinders, shadows, and

traces—is intended, I think, to haunt us.

In many of his writings, the Holocaust, though not mentioned or implicated in the

way it is in the texts we have been considering thus far, nevertheless functions as an alien

subtext, underlying—or say, rather, haunting—the entire discussion: haunting it, but also at

the same time giving us a sense of what is ultimately at stake in the matter taken up for

thought. We shall accordingly begin, now, to consider some major studies in which the

Holocaust figures only obliquely, only indirectly, only in the shadows, traces, and cinders of a

subtext, hidden appearing only like the writing in a palimpsest, through the operation of

double meanings that play with the textual codes and display their relationship to regimes of

meaning that work by domination. Following this strategy calls for reflecting on subtextual

ghosts in essays such as "Violence and Metaphysics", "Force and Signification", "Structure,

Sign and Play in the Human Sciences", and "Signature, Event, Context". It is in these texts,

most of all, that the disfigurations of the Holocaust appear, figured in its cinders, like dust on

the page, figured in mere traces and shadows, double-crossing the surface text. And we

must consider why Derrida's writings let the Holocaust appear so obliquely and indirectly.

Inspired by Emmanuel Levinas, but also critical of him, "Violence and Metaphysics"

is a meditation on the violence inherent in the logos, the rationality, of Western philosophy:

a violence that denies difference, denies the meaning of the other, in order to affirm a unity

of origin and end. Formulating questions about the fundamental concepts of metaphysics,

Derrida says that "these questions must be examined unrelentingly, despite the diaspora [la

diaspora] of institutions and languages. . . ."17 Conjuring up, here, as he has also in many

other writings, the history and negative eschatology of the Jews—their numerous exiles and

deportations, their Diaspora, their always deferred entrance into (the meaning of) the

Promised Land, and the theological postponement of (the ultimate meaning in) the coming

of the Messiah—Derrida establishes an allegorical analogy between this historical narrative

and his "theory" of meaning.18 Challenging the "objectivating rationalism and theoretism"

that has prevailed in the discourse of Western philosophy, Derrida suggests that "meaning"

is always contextually relative, that it is never fully present or totally determinate in and by

itself, that it can never be transparently clear, that it cannot be logically private, that it is

always in dissemination or diaspora, and that it exists only in communicative interactions.

For Derrida, this understanding of "meaning" has ethico-political as well as

ontological consequences, and thus constitutes a part of his critique, and his retrieval, of

Western humanism, a discourse based on the universality of reason and committed,

theoretically and in principle, to tolerance and respect for all the differences among different

people, but which, in putting universal principles into practice, can negate its noble


Defending Heidegger's theory of meaning against Levinas's criticisms, Derrida points

to the "ecstasis" of temporality, and contends that this temporality subverts the possibility of

a totalized meaning and the reduction to sameness of the other, whose separation and

exteriority radically precede the division of Being into inside and outside: it therefore is

"not," he says, and here he agrees with Levinas, whom he quotes, "a transcendence of

theory, but already departure [sortie] from an interior toward an exterior."19 Later in the text,

he elaborates on this "departure", calling it not only a "displacement", but also a

“deportation”, and asserting that "deportation [déportation] from its own site toward the

Site, toward spatial locality, is the metaphor congenital to the philosophical logos."20

(Derrida here borrows the word “déportation” from Levinas, who uses it, for example, in

“Sans Identité”21 to refer to the appropriation and alteration of my ego-logical identity by the

other’s claim on my responsibility; but Derrida alters its sense, introducing it into a subtext

that recalls the Holocaust.) The "Site" in question, here, is of course the Site of "the Same",

a monstrous sameness that must exterminate whatever is different from the dominant order:

the sameness, for example, that ruled in Auschwitz, obedient to a logic that all Derrida's

work is determined to deconstruct.

Here the Holocaust subtext violently erupts, interrupting the text of a "civilized"

conversation (logos) taking place between two (Jewish) philosophers: tearing into the text of

their reflections on metaphysics and humanism, and on the violence for which, in regard to

the irreducible alterity of the other, these discourses have been responsible despite their

unquestionably good intentions, there are evocations of the Holocaust suddenly confronting

us: images of deportations and displacements, journeys in cattle cars destined for the camps.

Suddenly, Jewish history—the history of exiles and diaspora—takes on a grimmer

meaning—and precisely in a text examining the connection between theories of meaning in

Western metaphysics and the dimensions of violence toward the other in Western society

and culture. Even if we cannot avoid violence, Derrida argues, we can always use a lesser

violence against a greater: "If light is the element of violence, one must combat light with a

certain other light, in order to avoid the worst violence, the violence of the night which

precedes or represses discourse."22 Thus, our responsibility towards (for) the infinitely other

even entails, as Derrida phrases it—making his point by darkly suggesting a substitution of

the Gestapo for the "brother" whom Levinas wants to see in "the other"—the "necessity to

avoid the worst violence, which threatens when one silently delivers oneself into the hands

of the other in the night."23 Only now are we beginning to discern, darkly reflected in the

philosophical systems that we inherited, the shadows of violent death which have pursued

the Jews, guardians of a tradition of hermeneutics that resists fixities and totalities of


In "Force and Signification", Derrida formulates a critique of structuralism and of

structural historiography, arguing that an exclusive structuralism ignores the significance of

forces that are operative in the contexts or situations which first brought the structures it is

interested in articulating into being.24 Thus, the text is a reflection on meaning in relation to

force. But here, too, the Holocaust figures as a crucial subtext, so that the essay becomes, in

effect, a reflection on meaning in the sombre light of the violence of the Holocaust: a

reflection which displays the violence of forces that force us to take them into account,

forcing us to become accountable, as we give thought to questions and problems generated

by theories of meaning presumed to be safely within the framework of structuralism.


As he pursues his reflections, Derrida follows, as he says it, "the essential shadow of

the undeclared"—pursues, then, what an exclusive focus on structures occludes from one's

view.25 Continuing to provoke our historical memories and imagination while conceding a

point to the advocates of structuralism, he observes, in an extended simile, that "the relief

and design of structures appear more clearly when content, which is the living energy of

meaning, is neutralized somewhat like the architecture of an uninhabited or deserted city

[une ville inhabitée ou souflée], reduced to its skeleton by some catastrophe of nature or

artifice. A city no longer inhabited, not simply left behind, but haunted by meaning and

culture."26 We are reminded, here, of the Warsaw ghetto—and of all the other Jewish

ghettos, towns and villages emptied by the Nazis: “This state of being haunted [Cette

hantise]."27 It is during the "epochs of historical dislocation", he says, with words that speak

not only of the Holocaust, but also of the expulsion from the garden of Eden and the

expulsions from the site of the First and Second Temples, "when we are expelled from the

site [chassés du lieu], that this structuralist passion . . . develops for itself."28 In exile, in

displacement, the victims are tempted by delusions; forgetting that their strength comes

from hermeneutics, they are tempted to dream a structuralism of their own, tempted to

imagine a return to the site of their origin, tempted to imagine a final revelation. In extreme

displacement, they are tempted to dream of a place where all their suffering comes to an end

and its meaning is made absolutely clear.

Here, then, structuralism changes its face: whereas, in the earlier quotation, referring

to the "shadow of the undeclared", structuralism is accused of siding with the totalitarian

enemy and occluding the visibility of forces like the Holocaust, here, in this later quotation,

structuralism becomes the passion, rather, of the victims, those who have been expelled and

exiled. But if, in this surprising twist, structuralism now appears as a "pure" and "innocent"

vision, Derrida is quick to remind us of the darker side, the other side of this vision:

dictatorship over meaning, authoritarian regimes, fixation of sense, suppression of absence,

of polysemia, polyphony, the play of meaning. Therefore: "Emancipation [s’affranchir] from

this language [the language of the metaphysics of presence] must be attempted."29 With

these words, the dream of the victims is also rendered problematic, and the incipient

violence in its logic is indicted. Today's victims are tomorrow's oppressors. Until the order

that structuralism always proposes is vigilantly resisted, this dialectic will continue.

Derrida always writes in resistance to structure, totally closed systems—orders

imposed and therefore totalitarian.30 And in resistance to univocity, the authority of a

"proper tone". Thus, too, he writes in a way that compels us to acknowledge the endless

postponement, or deferral, of a final meaning, a final solution, drawing, as he has in so many

other texts, on allegorical analogies to Jewish theology, eschatology, and historical

experience: the Diaspora of the Jewish people matched by the end-less dissemination of

meaning, a wandering and drifting exemplified by Derrida's own ghostly doubling of

meanings in these texts with Holocaust subtexts.

To appreciate Derrida's palimpsests, his deconstruction of the metaphysics of

meaning, it is necessary, he says, to go into a certain exile, and to "grasp the operation of

creative imagination."31 Because, "in question here," he adds, "is a departure from the world

toward a place which is neither a non-place nor an other world. . . ."32 Is this "place", this

"site", a utopian world of virtually unimaginable freedom and play—or is it, instead, the site

of Auschwitz, where meaning as telos is exiled, mise en abîme, end-lessly deferred—or say,

denied. Can the matter be decided? Are we not once again, as Derrida likes to insist, in a

double-crossing of meaning, precisely that play which Auschwitz denied?


The structures that establish signification are no guarantee against force. Thus,

Derrida is not very reassuring: "the fraternal other is not first in the place of what is called

intersubjectivity, but in the work and the peril of interrogation; the other is not certain within

the place of the response, in which two affirmations espouse each other, but is called up in

the night by the excavating work of interrogation."33 In the world of the Nazis, the Jews

were precisely this other, called up in the night for brutal interrogation, and then sealed into

trains, in a departure from the familiar world toward a place, a Hell, which indeed was

neither a non-place nor an other world.

What can—and should—the philosopher say, now, about this? Putting this question

before him, Derrida begins "Force and Signification" with some words about the "anguish"

of writing": "the responsibility of angustia: the necessarily restricted passageway of speech

against which all possible meanings push each other, preventing each other's emergence",

and a situation "that makes the creativity of the classical God appear all too poor."34 A

palimpsest, a ghostly double meaning, again, for these words not only describe the

phenomenology of speech, which requires, as its condition of possibility, the restriction and

sealing of the passageways for breathing, but also evoke the horror of suffocation in the

cattle cars and the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the unimaginable experience of its victims, all

silenced, as one might attempt to imagine it.

If structuralism is related, as Derrida believes, to a certain "anxiety about language",35

and more particularly about the regulation, the control of meaning, the Holocaust is an event

that forces us to abandon our fantasies of a universal language of nature, and accession to a

single normative origin and telos for all languages; it is an event that forces us to concede the

impossibility of an a priori metaphysical correspondence between language and world.


Confronted with the Holocaust, our language is shattered, and words break off. The pain of

distance, of separation, is simply unspeakable.

Derrida closes the essay with a quotation taken away from Nietzsche’s Thus Spake

Zarathustra. But, when transposed into the context of Derrida’s essay, an essay haunted by

the Holocaust, the words assume a radically different meaning, a double meaning, reflexively

exemplifying the very claims that the essay attempts to make regarding force and

signification, meaning and context. The words Derrida steals are these:

Behold, here is a new table; but where are my brethren who will carry it with me to

the valley and into hearts of flesh?36

Where are they, Derrida’s Jewish “brethren”? Where have they gone?

"Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" is concerned with

many of the same questions and problems. In this essay, Derrida examines the assumption

that the "structurality" of structures requires closure and totality, and must therefore be

governed by (from) an ever-present center. In this essay, too, there is the suggestion of an

allegorical analogy between the historical experience of the Jewish people and the questions

and problems Derrida is exploring in relation to the human sciences. Just as the God of the

Jews is decentered in a hermeneutics of presence and absence, concealment and

unconcealment; and just as the Jewish people were driven away from their center into exile,

denied entrance into the Promised Land and denied the presence of the Messiah in the

present, so the "structurality" posited by the human sciences obeys, and is subverted by, "the

law of a central presence always already in exile from itself."37 Without a Temple as their

center, exiled from their chosen land, the Jews dispersed, finding opportunities for creativity

as well as adversity in the conditions of their Diaspora. Likewise, Derrida argues, structures

in which there is an absence of fixed center extend the play of signification (interpretation)

indefinitely, permitting a field, or space, for the creativity of the imagination. According to

Derrida, there is no "natural site" for meaning, no "fixed locus"; and every assumption

regarding arché, telos and eidos can be questioned and subverted by the play of signifiers set

in motion by deconstructive strategies.

Extending his affirmation of the importance of what he calls the "play" of signifiers,

Derrida connects his critique of structuralism to a critique of ethnocentrism, making explicit

the implications of his position for our understanding of the relation between European

culture and other cultures.38 Acknowledging that, in some sense, one cannot avoid being

centered in one's own culture and cannot avoid taking this cultural site as one's point of

reference, he argues that one can avoid the most extreme cultural relativism, for "this does

not mean that all ways of giving in to it [the logic of ethnocentrism] are of equal

pertinance."39 Consequently: "Here it is a question both of a critical relation to the language

of the social sciences and a critical responsibility of the discourse itself. It is a question of

explicitly and systematically posing the problem of the status of a discourse which borrows

from a heritage the resources necessary for the deconstruction of that heritage itself."40

Derrida shows how extreme cultural relativism, which begins with our openness to other

cultures, and with the acknowledgement of their claims to meaning and truth, ironically and

paradoxically turns this openness into its opposite, closure to other cultures, since it

translates a recognition of cultural pluralism into a logic of confinement within the

framework of one's own culture.

Derrida concludes this essay by claiming that there are two possible interpretations,

two possible positions one can take, in regard to the unavoidability of interpretation in the

discourses of the social sciences: the one seeks a truth or origin which "escapes play and the

order of the sign" and "lives the necessity of interpretation as an [unwanted] exile." By

contrast, the other, "no longer turned toward the origin, affirms play and tries to pass

beyond man and humanism, the name of man being the name of that being who,

throughout the history of metaphysics or of ontotheology . . . has dreamed of full presence,

the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play."41 ("Play," for Derrida, "is

disruption of presence.")42 Of course, Derrida declares his attraction to the second strategy;

but he admits that he is worried, because, while the order that tries to suppress the

contingencies of play and dreams of presence, of a center, of a foundation, of an origin and

an end may lead to a more repressive regime and come dangerously close to an authoritarian

and totalitarian order, nevertheless, when we leave humanism and its metaphysics behind us,

we are bereft of discourses that still have the power to resist the most extreme oppression,

and we are accordingly left vulnerable to the most "terrifying form of monstrosity."43

Another important essay is "Signature, Event, Context", in which Derrida reflects,

once more, on theories of meaning, speech and writing, and attempts, as in the other essays

we have considered, "the disruption of the authority of the code as a finite system of rules"

and "the radical destruction of every context as a protocol of a code."44 Here, too, then, he

deconstructs the metaphysical scaffolding that has supported theories of meaning—even

John Austin's, denying univocity and permanence of meaning, contesting the absolute

authority of the meaning-intention, challenging the doctrine of purity in meaning, rejecting

essentialism, insisting on a socially shared responsibility for all meanings, and repeatedly

reminding us of our mortality, of the inevitable absence, and eventual death, of authors,

addressees, and people signified.45

Each of these points of dispute carries significance in the wake of the Holocaust.

But, of course, we must be prepared, so to speak, to "break the code"—precisely that

defiance of the established forms of authority, that "double gesture", "double writing" and

"double reading" which Derrida wants to encourage.46 Breaking the code involves, here,

seeing the connections between, on the one hand, the logocentrism that Derrida submits to

critique, and, on the other, the signatures, events, texts and contexts that constitute what we

call "the Holocaust". And this involves understanding how Derrida's contention that

sameness always requires otherness not only disrupts classical theories of meaning, but also

challenges the Nazi strategy of scapegoating.47 It involves reading Derrida's references to

"displacements", "deportations" and "transports"48 as themselves capable of displacement

and transport, referring, therefore, not only to "meaning", but also, by displacement and

deportation, to the forced removal of the Jews and their internment in death camps. As if

emphasising these references, Derrida also writes, there—always reflexively demonstrating

his argument regarding meaning, context, and reference—of “radical destruction”, death,

absences, “future disappearance”. It involves reading the "marks" and "signatures" of which

Derrida writes, and which he describes as always "duplicitous", always "duplicatable",49 as

encrypted references to the Nazi tatoos, the numbers and yellow stars, with which the Nazis

branded all Jews. It involves reading Derrida's references to "grafts" and "grafting"

(“greffes”, “greffant”)50 not only in relation to "meanings", but also in relation to the

medical experiments that the Nazis performed. It involves reading the absence of the

signified not only as a reference to the absence of a fixed or essential meaning, but also as a

reference to all those whom the Nazis murdered. And finally, it involves reading references

to "traces", not only in relation to Derrida's arguments against prevailing theories of

meaning, but also in relation to the Holocaust, to the ashes and cinders of the crematoria.

But "writing", for Derrida, is a "disruption of presence in the mark",51 and this is, in

fact, precisely what Derrida's own writing does to the meaning of the Nazi tatoos, the Nazi

grafts, deportations and transports—and to the cinders and ashes that the Nazis left behind,

that they could not, in the end, in their end, destroy or conceal from the rest of the world.

"Disruption" is also what Derrida practises in relation to the theories of meaning that have

been hegemonic in the West; and his strategies of deconstruction have certainly interrupted,

if not also indeed disrupted, the discourse of metaphysics, a conceptual vocabulary and way

of thinking on which Western humanism and Western Enlightenment have depended and

without which they are conceivable only with difficulty.

Of paramount importance is the recognition and toleration of difference, an ethics

of respect for the otherness of the other. In terms of politics, deconstruction translates into

a formidible opposition to all totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. And, for Derrida, this

means opposing regimes of meaning in which the sovereign power of a permanent, univocal,

and central meaning dominates the field of interpretation. Words, he knows, are institutions

of power, institutions with regulative, adjudicative, punitive, celebrative, and performative

power. The Nazis knew this too!52

In "Racism's Last Word", Derrida points out that "there is no racism without a

language. The point is not that acts of racial violence are only words, but rather that they

have to have a word. . . . [R]acism always betrays the perversion of a man, the 'talking

animal'. It institutes, declares, writes, inscribes, prescribes. A system of marks, it outlines

space in order to assign forced residence or to close off borders. It does not discern, it

discriminates."53 —And it murders, using language in an attempt to legitimate as well as

conceal the traces of its violence.

Perhaps, as Derrida suggests, one cannot entirely avoid doing violence while living in

this world and on this earth. Perhaps, most uses of language are violent, for a "speech

produced without the least violence would determine nothing, would say nothing, would

offer nothing to the other. . . . There is no phrase which is indeterminate, that is, which does

not [at least] pass through the violence of the concept. Violence appears with [every]

articulation," and "only a language of pure invocation, pure adoration, proferring only proper

nouns in order to call the other from afar," could avoid all violence.54 Perhaps—but perhaps

not even in these. Still, it is necessary, and possible, as Derrida points out, to distinguish

different degrees, and perhaps different kinds, of violence, fighting greater violence with

lesser, "in order to avoid the worst evil".55

Thus, even if it is necessary to acknowledge the violence that takes place in all

writing about the Holocaust—all survivor testimonies, all documentaries, all historical

interpretations, all philosophical reflections—still, it is also necessary to recognize that, and

how, language has the power to evoke, to call, and in a sense, to make present.

In "Force and Signification", Derrida says: "Speaking frightens me because, by never

saying enough, I also say too much."56 What can and should a philosopher say about the

Holocaust when even one word is, in a sense, too much, and yet no multiple of six million

words could ever be enough? The philosopher must give thought to this event, must speak,

must write, however difficult, however painful. Because we must never forget—and never

let this Holocaust happen again.

Commenting, in L'au-delà du verset," on the multiplicity of interpretations

encouraged by the tradition of Talmudic interpretation, Levinas observes that: "It all

happens as though the multiplicity of persons . . . were the condition for the fullness of

'absolute truth', as though each person, through his uniqueness, ensured the revelation of a

unique aspect of the truth, and that certain sides of it would never reveal themselves if

certain people were missing from mankind."57 Suppose that we think this point in relation to

the Holocaust. For each person murdered, a unique perspective on the truth was silenced,

lost irretrievably, irrevocably, forever. Nothing that we, the living, can do will erase this loss.

And yet, by our writing, our speech, we can at least keep the memory of this loss alive

among us, breathing life into the still glowing embers, and making even the cinders speak

their horror. It is in this spirit, then, that Levinas tells a story about Rabbi Haim. It seems

that Rabbi Haim of Volozhin, Lithuania, living in the eighteenth century, was asked to

interpret a passage from The Sayings of the Fathers in which rabbinic commentary was

compared to "hot embers". The Rabbi then offered this explanation: "The embers light up

when one blows upon them; the intensity of the flame that thus comes to life depends on

the length of breath of the person who interprets.58

Perhaps, for those among us who feel themselves to be in closest communion with

survivors of the Holocaust, writing is, as Derrida suggests, "the anguish of the Hebraic ruah,

experienced in solitude by human responsibility."59 But writing may also be, despite its

anguish and its violence, its inevitable violations and transgressions, a gesture, not entirely

futile, that brings back, before the eyes of the world, and for all eyes to read, to see, the

telling traces, the shadows of evil deeds—all that is left, now, all that remains: inscriptions in

black ink, letters silently shrouded in the black of mourning.60 "I would prefer ashes,"

Derrida says, "as the better paradigm for what I call the trace—something that erases itself

totally, radically, while still presenting itself."61 Ashes, then, or cinders: "I understand that

the cinder is nothing that can be in the world, nothing that remains as an entity. . . ."62 The

Holocaust shatters all the ontologies with which the discourse of philosophy has been

satisfied. It ends the conversation—in both senses of the word "ends", for it calls into

question the intentions, the existential commitments, the very lives of those who continue, in

the wake of the Holocaust, to speak and write, to continue the conversation.


Why, in so many of his philosophical texts, has Derrida relied on cinders, traces and

shadows as a way to remember the Holocaust? Why has he avoided writing about it in the

"normal" philosophical mode? Why has he written about it only to deny its representability,

exemplarity and essentiality? Why has he preferred to weave it into philosophical texts that

are not in any obvious way "about" the Holocaust? Why has he insinuated it so obliquely, so

indirectly, so cautiously, and one might say hermeneutically, rendering it, not in the canonical

form of assertions and statements, but rather in traces, shadows, and evocations of cinders?

Why does he encrypt it?

With Walter Benjamin's writings in mind, I would suggest that Derrida's subtexts set

in motion an allegorical dimension of meaning. For Benjamin, allegory expresses the

impossibility of any identity, unity or adequation between image and concept, word and

thing, meaning and reference.63 For Derrida, there can be no adequate representation of the

meaning of the Holocaust: its all-burning nihilism creates an emptiness, a silence, a space of

horror so dead, so inimical to life that not even allegory can reach and retrieve it.

The anguish that overcomes anyone who attempts to write about the Holocaust in

the genres of literature also overcomes anyone who attempts to write about it in the

discourse of philosophy. No such anguish interferes with the task of writing in the human

sciences. Other problems, very different problems, confront those who want to inscribe the

meaning of the Holocaust in the texts of our history, sociology, political science, social and

clinical psychology, anthropology, economics, biology and medicine. But what is there for

the philosopher to say? In the discourses of the social sciences, this question, at least, does

not arise.

If, in the anguish of this question, the philosopher chooses silence, the evil is silently

accepted. If, however, the philosopher speaks out, whatever is said will never be enough—

and yet also, it will always be too much. Too much, precisely because whatever is said will

necessarily attempt to inscribe the Holocaust in a coherence, a logic, a rational order that

negates its singular horror, the monstrousness of its evil. Derrida understands this. He

understands that there is, with regard to philosophical writing about the Holocaust, a certain

"performative contradiction" that cannot be escaped and must somehow be acknowledged:

for what is being said is inevitably contradicted, or say "deconstructed", by the

presuppositions, implications, and effects of the discursive register peculiar to (our

conception of) philosophical thought.

Derrida is accordingly drawn to the use of heterological infrastructures—sudden

eruptions of extremely disruptive subtextual constellations of meaning—as a means of

alerting us to the tropic displacements that the discursive repressions of philosophical

thinking continally effect. Derrida's texts are always, and end-lessly, deconstructive: written

in such a way that they instance, reflexively, the impossibility of total interpretive control,

total closure, and totally determinate meaning.

—But there are other ways of answering the question about his use of "indirect

communication": his subtexts, his encrypting, his "trace-work" in shadows and cinders.

Perhaps, I suggest, to register the magnitude of the loss; to convey his sense of irremediable

absence; to acknowledge the concealments with which we need to defend ourselves against

the unbearable and unimaginable horror; to interrupt the comfortable and familiar normality

of discourse by an act of violence; and out of respect, too, so as not to profane or defile the

memories of those who suffered and died, citing/siting the events of the Holocaust

"outside" the categories and genres of familiar discourse, where they cannot be so easily re-

inscribed within the discourse of essence and accident, cause and effect, the exemplary, the

representable, the lawful.


For Sören Kierkegaard, indirect communication made it possible to respect the

existential inwardness and freedom of the other—the one being addressed.64 For Derrida,

indirect communication is a way of showing respect for the dead. But it is also a way to

shock, to ambush us, his readers, catching us off guard and exposing us, in our moment of

vulnerability, to a meaning against which we otherwise would be well-defended.

This reading is suggested, I think, in Cinders, where Derrida worries and asks: "If the

all-burning [Holocaust] destroys up to its letter and its body, how can it leave or keep the

trace of itself and breach/broach a history where it preserves itself [precisely] in losing

itself?"65 How is one to find any words to "tell of the all-burning, otherwise called, in

German, the holocaust and the crematory oven, in all the Jewish languages of the world?"66

Can he find a "word, unfit even to name the cinder in [the] place of the memory of

something else, and no longer referring back to it . . . ?"67 Indeed, "how can a word ever

present itself? The word, like the cinder, similar to it, comparable to the point of

hallucination. Cinder, the word, is never found here, but there."68 Away, beyond—there.

What can the philosopher say about ". . . the remains of a body, a pile of cinders . . .?"69

What can the philosopher find to say, as a philosopher, to the survivors of the death camps?

What can the philosopher find to say in commemoration, find to say to the living, that a

Holocaust may never happen again?

In writings that set in motion complex interactions between a surface text and a

subtext, Derrida demonstrates a secret complicity between some fundamental assumptions

of Western thought (assumptions which he critically examines in the surface text) and the

repression and violence that have shaped Western history (events which he weaves into a

subtext). This strategy makes three points: [1] It correlates the metaphysics of Western

culture with the historical suffering of the Jewish people, suggesting questions of complicity

and responsibility. [2] It draws an allegorical analogy between the story of the Jews

(displacement, exile, diaspora, dissemination, the absence of presence, the postponement of

fulfillment) and the story he wants to tell about meaning and language. And [3] It lets the

interactions between surface text and subtext—especially the subtextual interruptions and

subversions of the surface—instance in an exemplary way the discursive openness and

freedom he wants to encourage, demonstrating by his own practice, and not just in theory,

how to think and write without following the rules of an authoritarian and totalitarian theory

of meaning.

Into a text conveying his reflections on Heidegger's “Es gibt” ("There is", "It gives"),

Derrida weaves the shadows and traces of the deportations from the Jewish ghettos,

violently interrupting, breaching, but without himself adopting an apocalyptic tone, the

impersonal, dispassionate serenity of the philosophical work, which still today fancies itself

sub specie aeternitatis: "The night," he writes, "passes. In the morning, knocks are heard at

the door. They seem to be coming from outside, this time."70 Outside: outside the Jewish

home, evoked as if in the present—our own time! And outside the philosophical text, which

can no longer build walls high enough nor define disciplinary matrices strong enough to

keep these knocks outside.

This is Derrida's own violence: the violence of a philosopher, one who recognizes a

responsibility to make the discourse of philosophy somehow responsive to the force of


It seems to me that Derrida's indirectness is a way of acknowledging his distance—

the crucial fact that he was not—is not—a witness. It is a way to speak without speaking, to

speak with a certain silence, to let those who have a moral claim on us—those who died in

the camps and those who somehow survived the horror—communicate without his

intervention. It is a way of showing respect. It is also a way of blocking the appropriation

of the Holocaust by, and within, the discourse of philosophical thought. For there is, in

thinking, a deep resistance to feeling; and our philosophical tradition has not merely

acquiesced in this resistance, but has constantly reinforced it, giving it codification and

legitimation in the "rhetorical" norms that, for centuries, have regulated the discourse.

Derrida's indirectness is a way for him to subvert the discursive operations of this resistance,

this repression. The interruptions effected by the subtext, the suddenly audible overtones

and undertones, the startling shadow cast by a shade of meaning for which the reader was

not prepared, counteract processes of regularization, emotional distantiation and

commodification at work in the discourse. Derrida's subtextual strategies enable him to fight

the forces of repression, within philosophical discourse, that are always attempting to

dominate the subject—in this case, the Holocaust. Derrida's indirectness defies

normalization, institutional appropriation, instrumentalization; and it makes the otherwise

inevitable work of trivialization much more difficult, because there is nothing "substantial"

for the forces of repression to get hold of.

And perhaps, in Derrida's indirectness, which understands that such presence as he

can give to the victims of the Holocaust is something that can figure only in the shadows of

print cast, like dust, or like ashes, over the silent whiteness of the page, there is also a certain

recognition of what Benjamin once called "that irredeemability of things, that recalcitrance,

that heaviness of things, indeed of beings, which in the end allows merely a little ash to

survive from the efforts of heroes and saints."71

A singularly deep sense, I think, of mourning thus figures in Derrida's way of writing

the Holocaust into the timeless discourse of philosophy. Mourning is both a making-present

and therefore a denial of death, and also, at the same time, a letting-go, a letting-die, an

acceptance of death. Finally, therefore, I would suggest that Derrida's indirectness is a way

of recognizing both the impossibility and the necessity of mourning. Subtextual indirectness

is thus a way of subverting the work of cultural repression that encloses the process of

mourning, the tendency to totalize and essentialize the meaning of the Holocaust deaths, an

incommensurable event, denying singularity to singular human beings, reducing them to a

bare, animal life that must be destroyed to save the German “race” and the “spirit” of its

“culture”. Indirectness is the philosopher’s way of inscribing the Holocaust into his texts,

letting them be touched, but not destroyed, by its all-burning and all-consuming fires, fires

threatening the possibility of the impossibility of any essential as such.

Writing about the function of allegory in Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, Benjamin

asserted that "Unmitigated evil exists only in allegory, is sheer allegory, means something

other than what it is. Namely, the non-existence of what it presents."72 Like the recurrent

nightmare that interrupts a deeply peaceful sleep, the Holocaust repeatedly interrupts, and

disrupts, Derrida's philosophical writing, breaching the assumed securities of the text and

always forming itself precisely at the blind-spot, always when and where it is bound to be

most disturbing, most likely to create anguish, a double bind. Open and vulnerable,

Derrida's writing allows itself to be breached, disturbed, so that, whenever they are

repressed, the ghosts of the Holocaust may return. Derrida's philosophical writing is thus a

writing inflamed by a deeply spiritual sense of responsibility. But it is also a writing haunted

by ghosts, the always invisible faces and voices of the dead, gathered by the words of the

spirit. It is a writing that lets these faces haunt its surfaces, compelling us, his readers, to face

an otherness we are. It is a writing that lets these echoes of these voices, and the other

sounds of the Holocaust, interrupt the high tone, the monotone of the philosophical

register.73 But the interruption is oblique, out of respect for the dead, for the victims, for the

irredeemability of their suffering and absence, which our gestures of remembrance, however

deeply felt, are powerless to alter.

In Derrida’s work, we are faced with a writing in palimpsest that encrypts traces of

the Holocaust in subtexts of double meaning. His texts are a weave of memory and

mourning, a writing that uses the dark alphabet of mortals to remind us of the absent ones,

departed to fire and smoke, spelling—and at same time en-graving—the disaster that still

smoulders in the ashes, each sacred name glowing like a star in the night.74 Thinking in the

eerie light of the Holocaust, conscious that the memory-work of mourning is both necessary

and impossible, Derrida has let his writing shatter and open, taking on the anguish of a

ghostly writing.

What this writing shows is that not even ashes can entirely conceal the traces of an

almost unimaginable evil, nor escape the judgement of history—a redemptive history that we

must continue to write, a history, however, that we are still learning to write, breaching the

defenses of a memory that time and again takes refuge in a historicism of the present which

petrifies the past, thereby denying a future yet-to-come for its persistent and still unrealised


Jacques Derrida, “Force et signification,” L’Écriture et la différence (Paris: Éditions du Seuil,
1967), p.19; "Force and Signification," Writing and Difference (Chicago: The University of
Chicago, 1980), p. 9.
Stéphane Mallarmé, Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), p. 372. I translate: "The
buried meaning moves by itself and arranges, like a choir, the pages."
Richard Kearney, Dialogues with Contemporary Thinkers (Manchester: Manchester University
Press, 1984), p. 107.
See Derrida, Glas (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1974), pp. 265-71. He asks: “S’il détruit jusqu’à
sa lettre et son corps, comment le brûle-tout peut-il garder trace de lui-même et entamer une
histoire où il se conserve en se perdant?” (op. cit., p. 267) Perhaps we should read Feu la
cendre as something of an answer to this question. For the English translation, see Glas
(Lincoln: The University of Nebraska, 1986), p. 243ff. Also see “Nazism and the ‘Final
Solution’: Probing the Limits of Representation”, the second part of “Force of Law: The
‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’”.
See the essays in Berel Lang, ed., Writing and the Holocaust (New York: Holmes & Meier,
1988) and an excellent book by James E. Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative
and the Consequences of Interpretation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990). Also see
Steven T. Katz, Post-Holocaust Dialogues: Critical Studies in Modern Jewish Thought (New York:
new York University, 1983); Alan Rosenberg and Gerald Meyers (eds.), Echoes from the
Holocaust: Philosophical Reflections on a Dark Time (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988);
and Jürgen Habermas, “On the Public Use of History,” Aus der Geschichte lernen: How to Learn
from History (Bonn: Blätter Verlagsgesellschaft, 1997) and his earlier essay with the same title,
“On the Public Use of History,” in the collection of his works edited by Shierry Weber
Nicholsen, The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historians’ Debate (Cambridge: The

MIT Press, 1989), pp. 229-48.


See Derrida, “Les fins de l’homme,” Marges de la philosophie; “The Ends of Man,” Margins of
See Derrida’s lecture at Loyola University in 1985, “Geschlecht II: Heidegger’s Hand,”
published in John Sallis (ed.), Deconstruction and Philosophy: the Texts of Jacques Derrida (Chicago:
The University of Chicago Press, 1987), pp. 161-96.
Derrida, De l’Esprit: Heidegger et la question (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1987); Of Spirit: Heidegger
and the Question (Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1989).
Ibid., p. 1 in the English, p. 11 in the French. These are the opening words of Derrida’s
intervention in the conference: “Je parlerai du revenant, de la flamme et des cendres”.
Ibid., p. 40 in the English, p. 66 in the French.
Ibid., pp. 39-40 in the English, pp. 65-66 in the French.
Ibid., p. 1 in the English, p. 11 in the French.
Ibid., p. 81 in the English, p. 128 in the French.
Ibid, p. 81 in the English, p. 129 in the French.
Ibid., pp. 100-2 in the English, pp. 165-67 in the French.
Ibid., p. 99 in the English, pp. 161-62 in the French.
Derrida, “Violence et Metaphysique: Essai sur le pensée d’Emmanuel Levinas,” L’Écriture
et la différence, p. 118; “Violence and Metaphysics,” Writing and Difference, p. 79.
Ibid., p. 145-46 in the English, pp. 213-15 in the French.
Ibid., pp. 88-9 in the English, p. 132 in the French.
Ibid., p. 112 in the English, p. 166 in the French.
Emmanuel Levinas, “Sans Identité,” Humanisme de l’autre homme (Montpellier: Fata
Morgana, 1972), p. 91.
Ibid., p. 117 in the English, p. 172 in the French. Also see pp. 130-1 in the English, pp.

190-91 in the French.

Ibid., p. 152 in the English, p.226 in the French.

Derrida, "Force and Signification," Writing and Difference, pp. 26-27; pp. 43-44 in L’Écriture
et la différence, the French original.
Ibid., p. 4 in the English, p. 11 in the French: “l’ombre essentielle du non déclaré”.
Ibid., p. 5 in the English, p. 13 in the French.
Ibid., p. 6 in the English, p. 14 in the French.
See ibid., pp. 26, 28 in the English, pp. 43-44, 46 in the French.
Ibid., p. 28 in the English, pp. 46-47 in the French.
Ibid., p. 8 in the English, p. 17 in the French.
Ibid., pp. 29-30 in the English, p. 49 in the French.
Ibid., p. 9 in the English, p. 18 in the French.
Ibid., p. 3 in the English, p. 9 in the French.
Ibid., p. 30 in the English, p. 49 in the French.
Derrida, "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," Writing and
Difference, p. 280; “La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discours des sciences humaines,”
L’Écriture et la différence, p. 411.
Ibid., p. 282 in the English, pp. 413-14 in the French.
Ibid., p. 282 in the English, p. 414 in the French.
Ibid., pp. 292-93 in the English, pp. 426-27 in the French.
Ibid., p. 292 in the English, p. 426 in the French.
Ibid., p. 293 in the English, p. 428 in the French.
Derrida, “Signature, événement, contexte”, Marges de la philosophie (Paris: Éditions de

Minuit, 1972), pp. 375-76; "Signature, Event, Context," Margins of Philosophy (Chicago: the
University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 316.

Ibid., p. 376 in the French, pp. 315-6 in the English.
Ibid., p. 392 in the French, pp. 317, 329 in the English.
Ibid., p. 392 in the French, pp. 328-9 in the English.
Ibid., pp. 368, 375-76, 392 in the French, pp. 310, 316, 321, 322, 329 in the English.
Ibid., p. 381 in the French, p. 320 in the English.
Ibid., p. 377ff in the French, p. 317ff in the English.
Ibid., p. 390 in the French, p. 327 in the English.
See Berel Lang, "Language and Genocide," in Alan Rosenberg and Gerald Myers (eds.,),
Echoes from the Holocaust, pp. 341-361.
Derrida, "Racism's Last Word," Critical Inquiry, vol. 12 (Autumn, 1985), p. 292.
Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics,” op. cit., pp. 147-8; “Violence et Metaphysique,” op.
cit., p. 218 in the French.
Ibid., p. 117 in the English, p. 172 in the French.
Derrida, "Force and Signification," op. cit., p. 9; p. 18 in the original French.
Emmanuel Levinas, L'au delà du verset (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1982), p. 163.
Emmanuel Levinas, Nine Talmudic Readings (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990),
pp. 135-6.
Derrida, "Force and Signification," op. cit., p. 9; p. 19 in the French.
See Derrida, Feu la cendre (Paris: Des femmes, 1987), especially pp. 27, 41, 46; Cinders
(Lincoln: The University of Nebraska Press, 1991), especially pp. 53, 55 On p. 27 of Feu la
cendre, Derrida reflects that perhaps “the best paradigm of the trace” is “la cendre (ce qui
reste sans rester de l’holocauste, du brûle-tout, de l’encendie l’encens) . . .” Mute cinders,
which one can see but not hear, are, I think, somewhat like the “la” and the “là” in the
phrase “il y a là cendre”: the difference between these two little words can be seen in their

written form, but not heard. The living voices of the dead, the victims of the Nazis, are

reduced, now, to mute traces of print on the page. But are the ashes dead? Can ashes still
speak? Can they still tell their story? Are these traces visible on the page really inaudible?
Derrida, "On Reading Heidegger: An Outline of Remarks to the Essex Colloquium,"
Research in Phenomenology, vol. 17 (1987), p. 177. Also see Cinders, p. 43.
Derrida, Cinders, p. 73.
See Walter Benjamin, Origin of German Tragic Drama (London: New Left Books, 1977).
The more accurate translation of the title of this work would be The Origin of the German
Mourning-Play. This work points towards an important motif in Benjamin’s later work, viz., a
process of mourning for the failure of revolutionary movements to achieve social justice and
redeem the utopian promise hidden within the dialectic of history.
See Sören Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1941), transl. D. F. Swenson, pp. 232 and 247. Concerning the communication of
inwardness and the inwardness into which an existential communication is to be received,
see p. 232: "The direct expression of inwardness is no proof of its presence; the direct
effusion of feeling does not prove its possession, but the tension of the contrasting form is
the measure of the intensity of inwardness. The reception of inwardness does not consist in
a direct reflection of the content communicated, for this is echo. But the reproduction of
inwardness in the recipient constitutes the resonance on account of which the thing said
remains absent. . . ." (Note the reference to the absence of the said.) Concerning the
importance of indirectness, see p. 247: "To stop a man on the street and stand still while
talking to him, is not as difficult as to say something to a passer-by in passing, without
standing still and without delaying the other, without attempting to persuade him to go the
same way, but giving him instead an impulse to go precisely his own way. Such is the
relation between one existing individual and another, when the communication concerns the

truth as existential inwardness."


Derrida, Cinders, p. 44; p. 28 in the French: “jusqu’à sa lettre et son corps”. I have
somewhat modified Ned Lukacher's translation here. On the topic of "cinders", see Herman
Rapaport, "Time's Cinders", in David M. Levin (ed.), Modernity and the Hegemony of Vision (Los
Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 218-33. On the question of mourning,
see Derrida’s remembrance of his friend, Paul de Man in his Wellek Library lectures at the
University of California, Irvine, published under the title Mémoires: For Paul de Man (New
York: Columbia University Press, 1989) and also The Gift of Death (Chicago: The University
of Chicago Press, 1995) and The Politics of Friendship (New York: verso, 1997). Also see
Rebecca Comay, “Materialist Mutations of the Bilderverbot”, in David Michael Levin (ed.),
Sites of Vision: The Discursive Construction of Sight in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge: The
MIT Press, 1997), pp. 337-78 and my own essay, “Keeping Foucault and Derrida in Sight:
Panopticism and the Politics of Subversion,”op. cit., pp. 397-465 in that same collection.
Derrida, Cinders, p. 57, p. 41 in the French.
Ibid., p. 71 in the English, p. 55 in the French.
Ibid., p. 77 in the English, p. 61 in the French: “un corpus, un tas de cendre”.
Ibid., p. 58 in the English, p. 42 in the French.
Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p. 157.
Ibid., p. 233.
See D’un ton apocalyptique adoptée naguère en philosophie (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1983),
translated into English as “Of an apocalyptic tone adopted recently in philosophy,” in
Robert Detweiler (ed.), Derrida and Biblical Studies, Semeia 23 (Baltimore: The Society of
Biblical Literature, Scholars Press, 1982. This is Derrida’s reading of Kant’s critical essay on
the apocalyptic tone he heard in the speculative metaphysics and ethics favoured by many of

his contemporaries.

See Stéphane Mallarmé, "L'alphabet des astres", Quant au livre, p. 370 and "Igitur", §5, p.
443, Oeuvres Complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1983).
For more discussion of the problematic of time, see my essays on “The Invisible Face of
Humanity: Levinas on the Justice of the Gaze” and “Justice in the Seer’s Eyes: Benjamin and
Heidegger on a Vision out of Time and Memory,” in David Michael Levin, The Philosopher’s
Gaze: Modernity in the Shadows of Enlightenment (Los Angeles: University of California Press,
1999), pp. 234-335 and 336-407; reprinted in paperback by Duquesne University Press, 2003.