Some Notes Toward the Dignity of this Pipe (which is not one)
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In his analysis of the logic—but also the trepidation surrounding—the figure of “dignity” in Derrida’s work, Geoffrey Bennington presents a compelling picture of what we could think of as the shift of emphasis from Derrida’s “early” to “late” writings. Such a shift would not, as he shows, mark a “turn” or “discontinuity” from apolitical early texts to political late ones—for, minimally, the same political and philosophical questions can be traced on both sides of this so-called divide. Rather, beginning roughly with Derrida’s entitling of his seminars “Questions of Responsibility” in 1991, one sees at least a slight difference in his approach to metaphysical terms. Where the earlier work problematized metaphysically dominant figures such as speech or presence through secondary or devalued figures like writing, difference, supplement or trace—the “non-synonymous substitutions”—in the later work the metaphysical terms themselves are reclaimed by deconstructive thinking (Scatter, 256). Hence Derrida’s focus on justice, hospitality, the event, and to some extent, as Bennington indicates, also dignity. This shift in approach coincides as well with a new focus on certain “unconditionals,” such as hospitality and forgiveness, which likewise occupy more and more of Derrida’s seminars around 1991 and which, like the thought of dignity to which they are subjected, or to which they call, are marked, within their own conceptuality, by an autoimmunity or self-de(con)struction, an exposure to the other within the same. Hence, the law of hospitality, which, as unconditional, exposes itself to its own undoing by eliminating the host necessary for any act of welcoming, but which, in limiting itself, fails to accede to the unconditionality that is its condition. Its condition of possibility is its condition of impossibility, its condition of impossibility its condition of possibility. A hospitality worthy of the name would therefore also be unworthy of the name, or as Bennington puts it: “to be worthy of the name ‘hospitality,’ hospitality always is and must be limited: conditioned and conditional. Infinite hospitality is finite” (269).
The emergence of the idiom digne du nom around 1991 thus coincides with a turn towards those “sovereign” metaphysical concepts whose own logic, once taken to extremes, enact the auto-deconstruction of themselves (271-72). In this respect the “worthiness” or “dignity” of the name would be another way of expressing the haunting of the same by the other, or the necessary possibility of failure of metaphysical concepts within their own conceptuality.
Among the unconditionals whose thinking Bennington so compellingly aligns with the rise of the digne du nom idiom, the gift has for some time fascinated me, and I must admit, my interest was only piqued with the emphasis on the wonderfully palindromic date “1991,” as the pseudo-site of the pseudo-split between two emphases of Derrida’s thought. For, as everyone knows, Given Time was also published in 1991, although its writing in fact precedes the “Questions of Responsibility” designation given at that time to the seminars. It has always seemed an oddly timed text to me, having first been lectured in 1977-78, and relating very closely—as Derrida himself admits in the foreword—to early works such as Writing and Difference (1967), Dissemination (1972), and Glas (1974), while also being implicated, as Derrida goes on to explain, in texts such as The Post Card (1980) and Psyché (1987). The return to this material at around the same time as the movement toward those “Questions of Responsibility” also feels more than coincidental, considering the importance of the logic of the gift for that of forgiveness, the secret, hospitality, and other unconditionals that populate the later work. Indeed, in spite of its emergence in the late 70s, the gift material strikes as precisely one of those attempts to reclaim the “metaphysical concept” itself through its own auto-de(con)struction, which marks those texts of the 90s among which it is eventually published.
All of this to say that I was intrigued both by the general difficulty of dating Derrida’s “periods,” and of dating Given Time in particular, whose predicament is perhaps emblematic of the former. This whole situation made me rather curious, moreover, because I myself have spoken and written of a “gift worthy of the name,” which I’d always assumed to have emerged out of the ’91 publication, yet was rather distraught to find nowhere therein, when I ran a quick word search, at least not à la lettre, uttered in Derrida’s own name. I don’t doubt that Derrida said it, for example in a 2002 roundtable in Tilburg concerning money, nor that he may have written it elsewhere, nor even that it is implied by other remarks he wrote, and yet, to the best of my abilities, I could not locate the idiom in the one place I’d thought to find it, at the very point where the thinking of the unconditional begins to be formalized, and to which Derrida thought to return on the eve of dignity’s rise in his work. Which is not, however, to say that the motif—or even the phrase—is simply absent from Given Time. One in fact finds one instance of it, and another variant on it, placed on the same page of its fourth chapter. But they are smuggled in, so to speak, through the voices of others, and therefore do not technically have Derrida as their source or signatory. I’d like to briefly examine these two “coincidental” inscriptions, not so much because I’m interested in whether Derrida might have clandestinely drawn from them in his own use of the motif, but instead to see why he might have been drawn to them in the first place, even if he was not aware of such an unconscious attraction at the time. I’d also like to ask, by way of them, what traces of a self-combusting in-dignity might already be available in the tradition—beyond, that is, what Derrida later explores himself. As Derrida earlier says in Given Time of Poe’s having published The Purloined Letter in a review simply called “Gift,” this is a coincidence “worthy [digne]” of him (Donner le temps, 111n.1). A coincidence, then, digne de dignité, if such a thing can be said of a “coincidence.”
As my title has already indicated, it is a matter, in each of these two instances, not of the gift, but of tobacco: a tobacco worthy of the name, a tobacco irreducible to mere “market-price,” and, as a consequence, the worth of a life with and without tobacco. Derrida is asking, in order to understand why the narrators of “The Counterfeit Coin” could only have departed from a tobacco shop, what the sense of this drug may be within the economy of Baudelaire’s prose poem. As a symbol for the symbolic, a luxury good, and an element of what is an ostensibly wasteful or extravagant behavior that culminates in smoke and ash, smoking offers something of a corollary for poetry itself within the poem: it is a figure for dissemination as well as the threat of sacrificial recuperation, and in this way it bears the air both of a dignified, unconditional expenditure, and of an undignified, always possibly calculated, token. Derrida thus begins chapter four by offering three reductive, interpretive hypotheses, or three conditions for what would be an unconditional act: we could understand tobacco a) psychoanalytically, with the oral inhalation of tobacco corresponding to a real or symbolic need; b) economically, with tobacco representing a vast industry and the source of enormous revenue; and c) socially, as a tobacco fulfilling the function of forming alliances, as when one entices another with the prospect of a smoke. It is above all in terms of its social function, however, that glimpses of tobacco’s dignity will be made to come forward.
The first glimpse is located in a footnote dedicated to Lévi-Strauss, whose sequel to The Raw and the Cooked is entitled From Honey to Ashes, and who there examines the “ultra-culinary” quality of tobacco, which is neither consumed raw nor cooked, but incinerated so as to be inhaled. It is this liminal character with respect to foodstuffs that leads Lévi-Strauss to identify the dignity of tobacco, and I cite Derrida citing him: “Only tobacco worthy of the name [digne de ce nom] unites attributes that are generally incompatible” (Given Time, 112 n.2). Sounds pretty good, right? Tobacco, as tobacco, would thus necessarily exceed the principle of non-contradiction and serve as a site where incompatibilities may multiply. Any reading of the dignity of tobacco in Lévi-Strauss would have to ask, however, whether such a figural meeting point of incompatibility would go so far as to turn the concept itself into ash, and incinerate incineration, if you will.
Which brings me, incidentally, to the second appeal to dignity within Derrida’s discussion of tobacco, this time taken from Sganarelle’s encomium to snuff at the opening of Molière’s Don Juan, or the Feast of Stone. Snuff, or powdered tobacco, is of course not smoked, but sniffed. It is still, then, ultra-culinary, but consumed without the requisite production of ash, indeed, without incineration, which makes perfect sense once one considers its significance for Sganarelle. “Whatever Aristotle and all of Philosophy might say,” Derrida, citing Molière, recounts, “there is nothing to equal tobacco [il n’est rien d’égal au tabac]” (112/144). Nothing equals tobacco, which is to say that it has no equivalent, and is removed from the circuit of exchange even as it circulates—and circulate it must. It circulates therefore as the unequaled, the inequivalent, the incalculable. The citation continues: “It is the passion of gentlemen and whoever lives without tobacco does not deserve to live [qui vit sans tabac n’est pas digne de vie].” The dignity of life itself would depend upon life’s relation, according to Sganarelle, to the incomparable, which tobacco names. I need not remind you that the scene that ensues between Sganarelle and Gusman develops around the question of Don Juan’s infidelity, which undermines his rank (and title) and therefore his dignity, as a dignitary of the nobility. “What! You mean that this sudden departure is an infidelity of Don Juan?” responds Gusman, “He would do such a wrong to the chaste [aux chastes feux] and devoted Don Elvira?” (Don Juan, 34) One might initiate an entire reading of Molière’s play around the opposition between the dignity of unsmoked snuff and of the chaste fires or passions of Don Elvira on the one hand, and the indignities perpetrated by Don Juan’s burnt out flames, on the other, that of his indefatigable lust for new flames, which sets him in stark contrast to the temperance of Sganarelle’s democratic snuff box.
For Derrida, through this multiplication of examples, I would argue that tobacco comes to embody the self-combustibility of the unconditional, the dignity of which lies in the possibility that it might always either go up in smoke or suffer an ashless obliteration.
The full French text reads: “Mais notons dès maintenant une coïncidence dont on voudrait penser qu’elle est ‘digne’ de Poe, si on pouvait jamais le dire d’une coïncidence: ‘The Purloined Letter’ fut publié pour la première fois dans une revue dont le titre était tout simplement Gift.”
- Bennington, Geoffrey. Scatter 1: The Politics of Politics in Foucault, Heidegger, and Derrida. New York: Fordham UP, 2016. Print.
- Derrida, Jacques. Donner le temps 1: La fausse monnaie. Paris: Editions Galilée, 1991. Print.
- —-. Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992. Print.
- Molière. Don Juan: and Other Plays. Trans. by Ian Maclean and George Graveley. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.