Hägglund’s “The Necessity of Discrimination”

An example of Derridian dogmatism par excellence (which I think would be enough to make Derrida cringe, with Hägglund’s adherence to what he paradoxically describes as ‘deconstructive logic’), “The Necessity of Discrimination” aims to break apart Derrida and Levinas entirely by pointing to the violence Derrida understands as constitutive of every relation. By reading an ethical motivation into his method of deconstruction – understanding it as an aspiration to a non-violent relation, or an effort to preserve or restore a respect for alterity – one misses Derrida’s rethinking of time as fundamentally disjointed. In his writings on the trace, Derrida elaborates: every event is split between being no longer and being not yet. A succession of nows is without a present in itself, but an originary synthesis without such an indivisible presence is possible: the trace is this synthesis, and it is founded in ‘spacing’, or the becoming-space of time and the becoming-time of space. This spacing precludes the possibility of any present in itself (be it a past-present, present-present, or future-present) and allows Derrida to base his method of deconstruction in a metaphysics of erasure, of a past that has never been – and cannot be – present. Focusing his attention on Levinas’ early work, Hägglund contends that reading the Levinasian trace in the same way is to confuse what is merely a shared vocabulary. Opposed to Derrida’s, the Levinasian trace: 1) refers to an Absent One; 2) thinks what is to Derrida an impossible origin of temporality’s dissimulation; 3) thus imagines an in itself free from the necessity of erasure; and 4) due to an unreal thought of immediacy, derives violence from a primary peace. (I wonder, if Hägglund had thought more through the trace in Otherwise than Being, if he may have seen de-nucleated subjectivity as the possibility for Levinas’ own ‘hauntology’ (to borrow a word Hägglund borrows from Derrida) – a ghostly opposition to ontology in which self-identical presence in impossible and I am always already haunted by and filled with pre-original alterity. Perhaps both Derrida and Levinas can think a certain violence originating responsibility.) But Hägglund is clear enough in his aim. He believes this conflation of Levinas’ and Derrida’s understanding of temporality founds the misreading of so many (he names and attacks Robert Bernasconi, Drucilla Cornell, and Simon Critchley) of Derrida as a thinker of peace before violence – simply said, the ‘deconstructive logic’ grounded in the trace tells us why violence, and so both ethics and politics, is forever undecidable.

Hägglund then moves from Violence and Metaphysics through Specters of Marx and up to Adieu, opposing Derrida in every place to Levinas based on the two different readings of the trace he has developed. Arguing for a radically new sense of alterity in Derrida, for example, Hägglund writes, “Derrida argues that alterity is indissociable from the spacing of time. Spacing is irreducibly violent because it breaches any interiority and exposes everyone—myself as well as every other—to the essential corruptibility of finitude. Thus, when Derrida maintains the necessity of the other for the constitution of the self, he does not locate an ethical openness toward other human beings at the core of subjectivity. Rather, what is at stake is the primordial opening to corruption and dissimulation, which opens the possibility of every relation” (49). There is an almost constant recapitulation of similar arguments opposing Derrida to Levinas: responsibility is always more or less discriminating, the possibility of an infinite responsibility in line with Levinas precluded by Derrida’s trace (54-56); temporality is inscribed within justice, its undecidablilty making the very possibility of justice the impossibility of an absolute justice free of discrimination (62-63); the injustice thus within justice necessitates violence within every hospitable act (64-65); the messianic – the relation to a forever undecidable future – opens the possibility of a democracy that is always a negotiation without absolute justification, without end, always ‘a democracy to come’ (67-69). Throughout, against what I think is at times a shallow reading of Levinas (in reference to the trace first of all, which subsequently spreads throughout the paper), Hägglund develops a highly sophisticated reading of Derrida on violence, alterity, responsibility, infinity, justice, hospitality, and democracy. To what degree it is truly opposed to Levinas’ own understanding of these concepts I think is left (perhaps necessarily) undecided.


~ by dtomlinson on April 20, 2007.

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