Thinking (Between) Metaphors
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The title of the conference for which this essay was originally written, “Transformative Thinking,” invites two distinct modes of understanding what it is trying to say. It poses, on one hand, a question about the transformative potential that thinking might be said to offer today while, on the other hand, it seems to interrogate a possible transformation within thinking itself: thinking as transformation; transformation of thinking. I propose, first of all, that these two conceivable ways of hearing what is at stake in the title turn out to be the same: not identical but of the same cloth, inseparable in a fundamental way. However, each way of reading the title also unsettles the other in its complacency, displacing it from what would otherwise be the repose of a stable, unified, univocal sense. Thought, if it wishes to have a transformative effect, must effect or align itself with a transformation of its own methods, vocabulary and fundamental assumptions; to do otherwise would be to leave untouched and unquestioned the conceptual structures of the old order. If we take seriously this necessity of a reciprocal action of thinking and transformation upon one another, however, then it may be that we can no longer claim to be certain that we know what we are talking about when we speak of transformation and thinking.
The phrase “Transformative Thinking” recalls a basic problem posed by the philosophical tradition. Ever since Plato, philosophy has begun by postulating an archaic separation between the sensible and the intelligible or between being and thought; it then proceeds to propose how it can reconcile these alienated or warring opposites. The double question of thinking and transformation is as old as the history of metaphysics itself, as old as Aristotle’s tripartite account of human activity as theoria, poiesis, and praxis. It recurs within that history more times that can be counted, such as in Marx’s pronouncement that philosophy has hitherto only interpreted the world and that the point is to transform it, and in Hannah Arendt’s call to bridge the gap between vita contemplativa and vita active, based on the conviction that thought properly belongs to the entire vocation of humanity and ought not be restricted to what Kant called the “professional thinkers.”
Although this theme of separation is not itself new, the nature of the problem today is not the same as the one faced by Marx in the mid-19th century or Arendt in the mid-20th. To speak of transformative thinking today cannot simply mean reasserting this age-old metaphysical topos. Indeed, if the question still resonates today it would seem to require that we confront the possibility that this ancient story of separation, conflict, and reconciliation has now reached a point of exhaustion, and that we now need to develop new ways of looking at how thinking, acting, and being could be interrelated.
For Kant, the “professional thinker” named a privileged position from which thought could preserve its vital integrity against external interests and demands, steering clear of the oversimplifications that thought suffers when it strives to make itself accessible to a non-specialist audience. Today, however, the conditions under which thinking becomes professionalized are not what they were for Kant or Arendt. All work undertaken in the academy today has already been tendentially subsumed within the logic of neoliberalism, for which academic labor (“effort”) is justified according to the instrumental and exchange value it produces, students are conceived as consumers and teachers and researchers as entrepreneurs and as what Alberto Moreiras terms “self-entrepreneurs” (Moreiras 2018, np). To recur today to a Kantian position of seeking to defend thought’s integrity through professionalization would be to overlook the fact that the university today has become a place in which critical practice, as Brett Levinson puts it, can no longer claim any meaningful distance from the logic of the market (Levinson 2004).
What does it mean to speak of transformative thinking when the first principles of political modernity have now entered into crisis, with violent contradictions proliferating across the planet unchecked by any katechontic restraining structures? For one, it means that we can no longer cling to old conceits about critical thinking as a tool for unmasking ideological deception, and this unmasking as an indispensable step toward dismantling structures of oppression. The intellectual traditions that associate themselves with “critical thought” have in one way or another always understood themselves as bridging the work of understanding together with a transformative project, through which thought and freedom come to be seen in their essential interconnection. The crisis of political modernity, meanwhile, names a new historical conjuncture for which the conceptual vocabulary of modernity is no longer operative. Under such conditions, any interest in transformative thinking would be obligated to begin by thinking the inoperative nature of these concepts and thereby to face the question of what it would mean to think in the ruins of this conceptual vocabulary, in the absence of any emergent principles that could take its place, and in the abeyance of any thought of reconciliation of warring opposites.
As a preliminary attempt to flesh out these assertions, I draw the question of transformative thinking into relation with some of the central concerns of Jacques Derrida’s 1964-65 seminar on Heidegger: The Question of Being and History (Derrida 2013; 2016). I am interested in Derrida’s treatment of the Heideggerian confrontation with onto-theology and with the metaphysical tradition’s reduction of “being” to presence and the present. I will focus on Derrida’s fascinating discussion of the metaphorical basis of philosophy’s interrogation of being and of how the economy of metaphor effects or contributes to a dissimulation of the oblivion of being: metaphor as enabling a double suppression of the ontological difference and of the internal vacillation or difference of being.
In the seminar, Derrida is not satisfied with uncovering a critique of metaphor in Being and Time. The point is not to do away with metaphor or to propose an alternative economy better suited to the truth of being. Rather, Derrida is intent on exploring how Heidegger turns the structure of metaphor on its side so as to open up a space for working through not only the assertion that “the history of Being begins with the oblivion of Being” (Derrida 2016, 24) but also the claim, in the 1968 essay “Différance,” that “if the word ‘history’ did not in and of itself convey the motif of a final repression of difference, one could say that only differences can be ‘historical’ from the outset and in each of their aspects” (Derrida 1982, 11). In that vein, Derrida locates in Heidegger’s work an attention to the inner workings of metaphorical economies that generates two decisive insights. The first, as I just indicated, is how metaphorics dissimulates the way in which the ontological difference itself falls into oblivion, the suppression not of difference but of its trace, the sign of its retreat. The second insight involves an unexpected turn within the metaphorical economy, pointing up the degree-zero of metaphor: an originary vacillation that is other than the movement of transport and cannot be reduced to the signifying economy of which the transport is vehicle, but to which that transport may well be indebted. The term Derrida reserves for this degree-zero is “metaphoricity.” Although by no means simply other than metaphor, metaphoricity announces the limit of the epochal history of being: a horizon-to-come of non-metaphor whose imminent appearance marks that epochal history as finite. That is to say, metaphoricity allows historicity as such to show itself to thought.
The histories of metaphysics and metaphor are, in a certain sense, one and the same. The story of the separation of being and thought, of the division between the sensible and the intelligible, runs from Plato through Husserl. It continuously reproduces, under changing terms, the old structure of metaphor [metaphora] that Aristotle thematizes as transport [epiphora] from one term and one idea to another, typically between an unfamiliar and a familiar term. We catch a glimpse of the unparalleled valor of Achilles when thought is transported to the familiar but awe-inspiring figure of the lion. If the history of metaphysics begins by positing a separation between ontological and ontical realms—between the Platonic world of eternal Forms and the world of appearances, for example—the structure of metaphor both repeats the separation and enacts the promise of bridging this divide. For Aristotle, metaphoric transport makes visible a likeness [homoiosis] that would not otherwise be apparent, a commonality of ideas, causes, or purposes. Metaphor brings being itself to light for thought. “To make metaphors well,” says Aristotle, “is to observe what is alike” [To gar eu metapherein too to homoion theōrein estin] (Poetics 4.5.5, 1459a7-8). “Metaphors must be drawn...from things that are related to the original thing, and yet not obviously so related—just as in philosophy also an acute mind will perceive resemblances even in things far apart” (On Rhetoric 3.2, 1412a). If, for Aristotle, the proper use of metaphor cannot be learned from anyone else, if the art of coining good metaphors cannot be taught, this is because metaphor constitutes the essence of thinking: disclosure of being in and through the figuration of likeness.
At a key point a little less than midway through the seminar, during the 17 December 1964 session, Derrida examines the famous poetic statement in “The Letter on Humanism” in which Heidegger informs his interlocutor that “language is the house of being.” While the turn of phrase may strike the reader as a simple metaphor coined in a Neo-romantic language—or, as Derrida succinctly puts it, “expressionist-romantico Nazi style” (Derrida 2016, 57)—the Heideggerian text here in fact performs a subtle but decisive overturning of the standard account of metaphor as transport that illuminates the unfamiliar through substitution of a familiar term or concept. In Heidegger’s “house of being” phrase, something happens that cannot subsequently be brought back within the economy of metaphor or reduced to the obvious exchange or transfer from one term to another: of the familiar “language” and “house” for the unknown X that is being. Despite what the sentence appears to be saying, in fact we do not learn what being “truly is” by turning our thoughts to the well-worn figure of the abode. If we think that is all there is to it, that in having understood what a house we then understand being, then we will have done nothing more than repeat the age-old metaphysical reductions: of being to presence; and of truth to a concealed essence that can be revealed. It is not a Romantic figure of the rustic house that allows us to grasp either the ephemeral idea of being or the enigmatic connection between language and being. Rather the inverse, or almost. What Heidegger’s text shows us, in Derrida’s reading, is that if we really want to know what an everyday house is or what it means to dwell, to set out from home, or even to be homeless, we must approach these phenomena and experiences from the site of a strange finite-transcendent poiesis through which “being” uses the human while also itself coming to be through language and symbolic praxis. Language is the shelter of being; being is not a thing or a phenomenon and has no hope of appearing except through the supplement that is language. But language cannot become the ground or guarantor of being, since that would require that what we call “language” comprise the unity and permanence of a substance or subjectum. The ontological difference can only appear through language, then, insofar as the immanence of its manifestation shows that we do not yet know what we are talking about when we speak of “language.” Thus in Heidegger’s phrase the transport from “house” to “being” and “language” produces no new knowledge, unless one counts the negative knowledge that obtains when we find that previously existing certitudes have begun to tremble.
By the same token, the figurative house can tell us nothing about being if we have not already begun to ask the question of being in a mode that avoids the hasty and unthinking equation of being [Sein] with a totality of things or beings [Seiendes] that are present at hand. But why, specifically, a house? Why not some other Heideggerian topos, such as a path or a Greek temple? Derrida’s answer is that the house, qua figuration of place, is not just a thing or a place that one possesses and maintains: it is also a manifestation of historicity. It names, in a way that no other place or space can, the originary “there” in which Dasein finds itself or into which it is thrown, and which must be presupposed every time Dasein thinks, speaks or acts.
Historiality is being in an always-aready, is to be unable to go back any earlier than the house, for to be born is to be born in a house, in a place that is arranged and ready before me; it is my originary here, qua here, that I did not choose but on the basis of which every explicit choice will make sense. (59)
Dasein can perfectly well decide to build its own house, of course, but a house is never built just as one pleases: one chooses from among the materials that are at hand, drawing from the resources that one already possesses, relying on pre-existing architectural templates, in conjunction with the environmental conditions of the locale, and so on. Whether it is built anew, purchased, or inherited, a house is the physical instantiation of historicity as understood in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire: “circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past” (Marx 1963, 15).
In following Derrida’s unpacking of this Ur-metaphor about language as the “house of being,” I am struck by a similarity to another scene of reading in the “Plato’s Pharmacy” essay (Derrida 1981, 79-81). It is the moment when Derrida unpacks the filial metaphorics used by Plato to describe the logos and its proper use. In the Phaedrus, Plato posits an equivalency between logos and paternity, where the origin of discourse is said to be its “father.” The speaker who produces a logos (a speech, an account) is a father engendering sons, logoi, words and arguments, for whom he bears responsibility. When it comes to writing, meanwhile, the father is always already an absentee father, while written words are orphaned sons and potential ne’er-do-wells. As Derrida shows, however, what Plato is doing in his logos of the logos deviates from the standard definition of metaphor, which would presume that what we already know about fatherhood can illuminate the proper meaning and use of that enigmatic thing that the Greeks call logos. Whatever Plato may have imagined he was doing, his figuration of the “paternal” origin of the logos is not a standard metaphor because, on closer examination, the concept of paternity turns out to presuppose the very thing it is being asked to explain or disclose. Simply put, for a being devoid of logos there could be no such thing as fatherhood qua concept and institution. Paternity presupposes logos, because it is the logos that organizes and authorizes everything that sustains patriarchal reason: filiation, inheritance, and the proper name. What happens at this point in Derrida’s reading of Plato is not just the failure or dismantling of a particular metaphor but the unravelling of metaphorics in general: there can be no access to the logos through metaphor, because logos is itself the originating impulse behind metaphor. But if the logos-father transfer does not make a standard metaphor, it is not simply a non-metaphor either. It marks a zero-degree metaphoricity in which an unthought relationality or proximity—or what I will later propose that we call interval—both opens up a space for thinking while also threatening to overturn the onto-theological structures of the philosophical tradition.
We are familiar by now with the idea that for Heidegger “being” does not refer to a substance or transcendental cause but to a quasi-immanent, quasi-transcendent opening that clears space for thinking, speaking, and acting in the world. Thought likewise presupposes such an opening that would come prior to the finite/transcendent distinction posited by metaphysics. Thinking only ever begins as a response to something that precedes it, to which it is indebted but which, insofar as there is thinking, continues to elude its grasp. As Paul de Man reminds us in “The Resistance to Theory,” there can be no theoretical labor without the resistance of what defies or shrinks away from the grasp of the concept, and thus resistance and theory are at once inseparable and irreducible to one another. It is no easy matter to say what this resistance might look like or to name it, as one must if one wishes to avoid getting mired in idealization: to name resistance is already to transform it into a concept, even if that concept goes by the name of the other of the concept. This may help to explain why Derrida is continually leaving behind the terms he coins or discovers—the trace, the pharmakon—and moving on to new ones: différance, the supplement, and so on. One can only destroy metaphor through other metaphors, and there is no language beyond metaphor. The point, however, is not simply to string together metaphors, substituting new ones for old ones: language already takes care of that for us. The point is to think the structure of metaphor as such and thereby to approach its limit: the non-metaphorizable condition of possibility of all metaphor. The point is to think the movement that is metaphoricity itself, which is also the movement of language and of history, to think this movement in order to destroy it, as Heidegger would say. The fact that this destruction can only be carried out with the assistance of other metaphors indicates, I propose, that the thinking of the limit of ontology as metaphorization is tantamount to a kind of war. I will return to that idea shortly. First, however, I turn to the theme of the interval.
In an interview with Jean-Louis Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta conducted in 1971 and published a year later in Positions, Derrida describes his own critical-theoretical practice as performing a double gesture whose unity is “both systematic and in and of itself divided” (Derrida 1981, 41). He goes on to describe the divided unity of what will come to be known as deconstruction as a project consisting of two “phases.” The first phase involves an “overturning” that engages with the history of metaphysics—its inherited structures of thought and narratives—in order to tease out the dissimulated violence that inheres within their logical development and their holding sway. Making violence visible and calling attention to contingency are not enough by themselves, however; it is also necessary to overturn these structures. Critical exposition can only make itself poignant if and when it contributes to dissolving such structures, for instance by dispelling the sense of necessity and inevitability that so often envelops structures of power. But we should not rush to the conclusion that Derrida’s use of “overturning” reaffirms the oppositional relationship between reflection or thought and practice. “Overturning” [Umwendung], let us recall, is Heidegger’s characterization of what Nietzschean thought does to Platonism. And yet, as Heidegger demonstrates, the work of overturning, no matter how destructive, remains dependent on that which it overturns; the inversion of metaphysics is itself metaphysical (Heidegger 1979, 151-61).
The second phase involves generating space for the emergence of new ways of thinking that have not yet have become the bearers of metaphysical structures, new concepts or pseudo-concepts that do not yet have metaphysics adhering to their skin. This second impulse, while affirmative, should not be equated too hastily with the substitution of old structures and concepts by new ones. The double science that is deconstruction promises no reconciliation or synthesis, no incorporation of the ruins of overturning within the unity of a higher, more inclusive truth. Derrida describes the emergent pseudo-concepts of deconstruction as dissonant concepts. Dissonance here has as much to do with theoretical practice or thinking itself as with its antagonistic relation to structures of domination, exploitation, and suppression. Dissonance marks an internal difference of thinking, a thinking of dissonance and a dissonance of thinking with itself, of deconstruction itself. This is why deconstruction can never become a school dedicated to the reproduction of knowledge (“deconstructionism”). Tonal discord signals a dissidence or rebellion within thinking that cannot be subsumed within a higher unity of the concept or converted into the organizing principle of a system. What resists thinking is inseparable from thinking, and yet their uneasy coexistence does not constitute a harmonious whole, a unity of unity and dissidence.
The role of dissonance within deconstructive thought is evident, in the same interview, in Derrida’s subtle parsing of the relationship between the two facets of what he calls the double science of deconstruction. He begins, as I noted a moment ago, by referring to these two elements as “phases” (Derrida 1981, 41). However, in his response to Houdebine’s further questions he hastens to point out that the term “phase” is problematic. It risks reintroducing a conceptualization of time that belongs to the metaphysical tradition; it is one of those bearers that already has metaphysics adhering to its skin like a parasite. The need for overturning of structures cannot be confined to a segment on a longer chronological timeline; it is not a step in a process that could be fulfilled and its necessity thereby lifted. The work of overturning remains dependent on what it overturns and structures have a way of returning. Thus there will always be the need for yet another overturning. “The necessity of this phase is structural,” Derrida tells Houdebine, “it is the necessity of an interminable analysis: the hierarchy of dual oppositions always reestablishes itself. Unlike those authors whose death does not await their demise, the time for overturning is never a dead letter” (42). If the urgency of overturning never passes, this is because metaphysical structures inhabit a strange temporality in which they operate like automata or the undead, returning even despite our best intentions because, as Althusser pointed out, they reside in and reproduce themselves not only in the structures of thought but in forms of action, in the practices and rituals of everyday life.
The point I want to bring to the fore here is that temporal language, or at least the language through which metaphysics has always tried to grasp time, proves inadequate for characterizing what goes on in the double science or critical-theoretical practice that is deconstruction. In attempting to understand this double science as a critical practice as a process that is partitioned into two phases—the one of “overturning” the old structures and the one of allowing the new to “irrupt”—one introduces a temporal metaphor that would have difficulty separating itself from the sequential, progressive, and eschatological conceptualizations of time that characterize the history of metaphysics. According to this phasic model, deconstruction would seem destined to emerge as the next new story about the demise of the old ways of understanding and doing, and the onset of the true way of seeing. While Derrida does not say all of this explicitly, he seeks to account for the difficulty by abandoning the temporal metaphor of the phase and turning to a different rhetorical register in order to mark the point at which the two impulses or exigencies of deconstructive thinking touch on one another. This contiguity, it must be stressed, inveighs against conceiving of deconstruction as a system unified under a single organizing principle. Derrida names this point of touching and difference the “interval.” Whereas metaphor is a figure of understanding and the metaphysics of equivalency, the interval is a figure of conflict and dissonance in the absence of any promise of reconciliation. This term appears four times in succession in the Houdebine interview; it also shows up frequently in other work that Derrida was producing at approximately the same time.
Interval can name a pause or syncope within a temporal sequence, such as an interval of mourning that marks a pause in the rhythm of everyday life. Similarly, in music theory it names the contiguity of distinct tones that resonate either simultaneously (a vertical interval) or consecutively (a horizontal interval). Interval is first and foremost a spatial metaphor that derives from the Latin intervallum, used to designate the space or gap between inner and outer defensive structures in a fortification, such as the walkway or terreplein located atop a rampart. Drawn from the conflictuality of polemos, interval is more than just one spatial metaphor among many: it is a metaphor of spacing as such, of the partitioning and division of space into such categories as “inside” and “outside.” As we will now see, however, what Derrida calls interval does not simply affirm or confirm the partitioning and ordering structure from which it receives its name. The interval, in Derrida’s usage, is no longer just a name for what delineates between inside and outside, ours and not ours, proper and improper, civilization and barbarism. Alongside those inherited concepts, the interval also points to what renders such conceptual and practical delineations unstable—and hence subject to transformation.
The epistemological and critical import of the interval, as Derrida explains in a 1968 interview with Julia Kristeva (“Semiology and Grammatology”) also published in Positions, is that it names a spacing operation that theoretical practice must make its own, a procedure that critical thought must carry out and impose on itself if it hopes to intervene effectively in the structuring discourses of the philosophical tradition. The interval, in this metacritical context, names both a proximity and a difference with respect to conceptual labor: the nearness of the deconstructive vocabulary to the traditions with which it engages on the one hand, and on the other hand a dissonant force that both takes issue with the ostensible unity and univocality of the philosophical tradition while also extending its disruptive capability to the discourse of deconstruction as critical practice.
“Différance,” for instance, only acquires its dissonant force through the intervallic proximity it establishes with respect to the Hegelian lexicon of difference, contradiction and Aufhebung. I say proximity and not distance because the interval that separates différance from Hegel’s text is infinitesimal: not just minute but without measure and unstable. The difference of différance must be without measure because, if a measure were to be established, then différance would already have been incorporated within the Hegelian system. Différance is not a concept, Derrida reminds us, but that assertion by itself does nothing to ensure that différance will not share the fate of the “Something” [Etwas] in the first book of Hegel’s Greater Logic: as the first illustration of determinate being, the Something becomes what it is by virtue of not being the Other. In other words, the assertion that “différance is not a concept” cannot alone prevent différance from becoming the other of the Concept—which is to say, yet another concept. The interval, in this context, names both the positionality that is proper to the concept and a gap that traverses the concept, dividing it in a way that no postulated unity could ever suture.
“In the last instance,” Derrida says to Houdebine of the interval, “it is impossible to point it out [il est impossible d'y faire le point], for a unilinear text, or a punctual position...” (42). The interval, that is, can only be located in, or teased out of, a text that is heterogeneous, not One, divided by its own contradictions. Alan Bass’s translation of faire le point as “to point it out” captures the way in which the interval resists being identified and subsumed within the coordinates of a system. The interval names not only the proximity of distance but the impossibility of assigning a position to the dissonant term, the impossibility of determining what its difference truly is. Thus the importance of emphasizing the gerundial spacing in distinction from the nominal space.
The interval is not just one space among many but the differing-from-itself of space as such. It illustrates that the essence of space is not anything spatial, and that the essence of time is not itself temporal. According to it standard metaphysical understanding, space is an extension that can be divided into parts—planes and lines, and finally to the points on a line—while time is understood a sequence of presents or “Nows.” The conceptualization of time as sequence of instants turns out to have relied on a spacial metaphorics of the point. By the same token, the metaphysical understanding of space as a series of points strung together to form a line proves to rely on a temporal metaphorics of the sequence. Thus, for space as for time, the interval marks the fact that the determination of an inside (the essence of time, time properly speaking) already includes an outside that should by all rights be foreign to it (the spacing of time, the temporalization of space).
In the passage just cited, it is worth noting that Bass’s translation misses the idiomatic association of faire le point with the activity of integrated reflection and synthesis, as when members of a committee meet to compare notes or report on and take stock of progress. The interval proves refractory to any dialectical operation in which differences are synthesized as the parts of a greater whole or unity. If positionality is one of the ways by which the metaphysical tradition thinks being—that is Heidegger’s reading of Kant—then the deconstructive interval would be an attempt to think the difference of being itself, being as the in-between or unmeasured excess of spatial positioning.
The interval, it seems to me, marks a decisive juncture in Derrida’s engagement with Heidegger’s analysis of the temporal horizon that makes possible the question of being and the thought of the ontological difference, as well as with the association between the metaphysical and metaphor. As Derrida elaborates in the 17 December session of the seminar (Derrida 2016, 53-55), beginning with Descartes modern philosophy has grounded its determination of truth in the postulated veracity of the statement “I am.” But this assertion turns out to be neither a simple empirical or nor a purely transcendental statement but a metaphorical proposition that derives its proper meaning from elsewhere: the question of being as such. The proximity that is asserted in the statement “I am” (I = I) is borrowed from another form of proximity—that of being—that remains unthought and unquestioned (54).
Let us now look at what the question of the interval can say to us about temporality. The existential structure of Dasein is rooted in a non-linear temporality whereby it inherits a past and a heritage that is not of its making but which it must nonetheless assume as its own. Similarly, Dasein can pose for itself the question of being—its own being as well as being as such—only because it has its own death before it as possibility, or more precisely as the possibility of its own impossibility. What is at stake there is an “experience” of death, not as eventuality that will someday impose itself from outside but as immanent to its very existence, death or mortality as a way of being that Dasein must take over from its very beginning: being toward the not-yet and being toward the past that Dasein inherits without always being fully aware of it. “As soon as a human being comes into life,” writes Heidegger in Being and Time, citing Johannes von Tepl’s 15th century prose poem Der Ackermann aus Bōhmen, “he is old enough to die” (Heidegger 2010, 236). Not unlike the interval in Derrida’s account of deconstruction, death marks a nontemporal hiatus, a break in the continuity of Nows, that is constitutive of and hence internal to the temporalization of time for Dasein. By the same token, the “not yet” that characterizes Dasein’s anticipation of death signals a futurity that could never become present, never be made into an object for a subject, since we can neither experience another’s death by standing in for him or her, nor experience our own by surviving it. Nonetheless, it is from this interval that the future might be said to arrive, to the extent that for Dasein all being is being toward—in anticipation of—death.
Heidegger’s determination of temporality as horizon for Dasein and its relation to being also leads to one of the critical questions that Derrida will raise concerning what Heidegger terms the vulgar conceptualization of time, or the reduction of time to the sequence of Nows or self-contained presents. It may be, as Derrida puts it in “Ousia and Grammé,” that there can be no concept of time that is not already vulgar, because the grasping movement of the concept invariably activates the presupposition that truth and meaning are a whatness that is waiting to be revealed through ontological inquiry (to ti esti: what is it?).
If time has a meaning in general it is difficult to see how it could be extracted from onto-theo-teleology. . . It is not any given determination of the meaning of time that belongs to onto-theo-teleology, but it is the anticipation of its meaning. Time already has been suppressed at the moment one asks the question of its meaning, when one relates it to appearing, truth, presence, or essence in general. (Derrida 1982, 52 n.32; my emphasis)
Not unlike the question of being, the interrogation of time opens up the intervallic difference—it exposes the fact that the essence of time is not itself temporal—while also foreclosing any possibility of grasping the true being or nature of time, insofar as apprehension and grasping can only operate through a metaphorical proposition that remains incapable of interrogating its own origin. In positing a “true being” or an “essence” to be discovered, the language of the understanding has already been appropriated by an ontotheologically-based precomprehension of the world that takes truth and essence to be a property waiting to be disclosed and grasped.
What Derrida calls interval is thus both a metaphor—a term derived from a spatial concept, which names an originary differing that insists prior to any delineation of positions, a term that points to the spacing of time and the temporalization of space—and an operation of demetaphorization that marks the impossibility of arriving, through metaphoric transport, at anything like essence or truth. Rather, what the interval shows us is how the transport precisely entombs the traces of the unthought in its own circuitry. But metaphors do not simply fall from the sky premade. There is, still awaiting us, the question of the historicity of the deconstructive vocabulary, the historicity of the interval. Derrida says of his neologism différance that it “strategically seemed to me the most proper one to think, if not to master—thought, here, being that which is maintained in a certain necessary relationship with the structural limits of mastery—what is most irreducible about our ‘era’” (Derrida 1982, 7). By placing “era” in scare quotes, Derrida raises the question of whether what is irreducible about the here and now could still be thought in terms of epochality. Like the concept of “worldview,” the understanding of history in terms of epochs already belongs to a certain history of being whose limits it is imperative to think. In trying to assess the historicity of the deconstructive idiom, we must thus avoiding the trap of reflexively reproducing the concepts of periodization and teleology that constitute modern philosophies of history from Kant, Hegel and Marx through the neoliberal Consensus.
It is perhaps no accident that the intervallic metaphor would happen to have come from the technological language of warfare. The language of polemos points to a strife within language itself. The interval indicates a setting-apart and a bringing-together as what languages gives for thinking. Thinking, if it aspires to be transformative, must first confront within itself a strife that underlies and survives all attempts at synthesis while banishing any hope of uncovering an undifferentiated origin. I noted at the beginning of this discussion of the interval that the term derives from a Latin word used to designate a gap atop a defensive structure such as a rampart. Let us recall that for Derrida the interval describes the deconstructive necessity of thinking both proximity and difference, both at the same time but in their irreducibility to one another, and thus aporetically. By way of conclusion, I propose that this metaphor that is drawn from the history of warfare can take on new meaning, and can bring new light to, a situation in which conflicts are global and no longer organized and regulated according to the conceptual vocabulary of political modernity. Carlo Galli has thematized how the latest wave of mediatic and economic globalization combines with new forms of conflict that stem symptomatically from the dissymmetries engendered by deregulated modernization; just as importantly, these conflicts are no longer directed by or confined to the territorial logic of the national state. The conceptual vocabulary of political modernity—derived as it is from an array of spatial concepts: nation, territory, state, sovereignty, and so on—loses its explanatory power in a context where conflict is no longer tied to geopolitical spaces to be taken or defended. The interval, which brings to light the conceptual heterogeneity of space and time, would seem to be an indispensable tool for thinking the exhaustion of the political geometry of modernity.
In the transcription of a 1935 seminar that would be published some twenty years later under the title An Introduction to Metaphysics (Heidegger 2000), Martin Heidegger takes up Heraclitus’s Fragment 53, for which he proposes both a conventional translation—“War is the father of all and the king of all, and it has shown some as gods and others as human beings, made some slaves and others free”—as well as his own translation: “Confrontation [Aus-einandersetzung] is indeed for all (that comes to presence) the sire (who lets emerge), but (also) for all the preserver that holds sway. For it lets some appear as gods, others as human beings, some it produces (sets forth) as slaves, but others as the free” (Heidegger 2000, 65). As Gregory Fried has shown in Heidegger’s Polemos (Fried 2000), one of the key moments in Heidegger’s seminar occurs with his translation of the Greek term polemos as Aus-einandersetzung, the possible meanings of which include conflict, discord, contestation, and debate. Two important points need to be made about this translation for the purposes of this discussion of the interval. First, polemos names an originary conflictuality, a setting apart (Aus-einandersetzung) from which any and all positionality derives. Polemos in Heraclitus’s statement is not war in the usual sense of a militarized conflict organized by human decision, as the standard translation would have it, because war in that sense would presuppose an opposition between existing positionalities: states, leaders, armies, nations, etc. Polemos comes before organized war between positions and is perhaps prior to (at least logically speaking) history itself. The second point is that polemos or conflictuality is intimately related to language and discursive practice, as can be intuited in the possible translation of Aus-einandersetzung as contestation or debate. Polemos is confrontation that takes place through language and perhaps even with language itself.
The polemos named here is a strife that holds sway before everything divine and human, not war in the human sense. As Heraclitus thinks it, struggle first and foremost allows what essentially unfolds to step apart in opposition, first allows position and status and rank to establish themselves in coming to presence. In such a stepping apart, clefts, intervals, distances, and joints open themselves up. in con-frontation, world comes to be. [Confrontation does not divide unity, much less destroy it. it builds unity; it is the gathering (logos). Polemos and logos are the same.] (Heidegger 2000, 65)
Heidegger goes on to thematize his reading of the Heraclitus fragment in terms that resemble his account of Ereignis as the reciprocal appropriation and “usage” of the human and being through language. Aus-einandersetzung is the “originary struggle” that articulates for the first time what was previously unthought and unspoken. In this formulation we can already intuit the work of a non-linear temporality of retroaction in which strife activates in new ways potentialities inherited from the past. This archaic struggle is then taken up again and carried forth by human poiesis in the form of art, philosophy and politics (Heidegger 65). If polemos and logos are the same then each presupposes the other. There can be no violence prior to language, and every reference to violence in turn presupposes the very language it deploys in order to refer. Language, by the same token, presupposes violence. Modifying slightly the von Tepl poem mentioned earlier, we could say that as soon as a being is named it is old enough to die. Indeed, the name is the bearer of both universality and death, at once the preserving articulation of singularity and an act of violence against singularity; indeed, preservation/articulation and violence are inextricably bound together in this double register that is polemos and logos.
As I suggested earlier, “Global War” and “interregnum” name a historical conjuncture proper to global modernity and its discontents, dominated by the twin nihilisms of global capital and fundamentalist reaction. It is the time of seemingly endless proliferation of contradiction and conflict across the planet, following the systematic dismantling of modernity’s katechontic restraining devices. It is, in Galli’s words, a time of “contradiction without system” (Galli 2010, 110), of proliferation in the mode of what Hegel would call a “spurious infinity” devoid of limit. But does Galli’s diagnosis of global war truly describe the final exhaustion of the governing principles of modernity? Does it designate the end of modernity and the beginning of something else for which we do not yet have a name? Does global war name an epochal rupture? Can we even ask the question of rupture and new beginning without unwittingly reintroducing a conceptual framework that is proper to modernity? Or does global war instead describe the continuation of modernity through the intensification of certain tendencies, such as the incorporation of nature and culture within the logic of equivalency, and the subjugation of life to the logic of sovereignty? While I cannot claim to possess the answer to this question, I confess to finding the latter (intensification) to be more compelling than the former (rupture).
Allow me now to recall Derrida’s account of the interval in the passage from the “Différance” essay that comprises the epigraph for this essay. An interval separates—must separate—the present from what it is not, but this interval also divides—must divide—the present from itself, just as it splits in twain everything that the concept of presence engenders or sustains: subject, history, being. The double imperative, the “must divide” and “must separate,” mark these differences as matters for thinking: they are not given in their self-evidence but await the work of articulation and elaboration. Following this description, we could say that the intervallic moment that is global war brings to light and heightens certain contradictions that were latent or restrained during the time of modernity and which only now begin to emerge in the light of day, awaiting thought. For that reason, this moment would be neither fully inside modernity as a simple continuation and extension of modernity’s philosophical and political legacies, nor simply outside of modernity, since the contradictions that drive global war are precisely those of modernization (in its unrestrained fervor). Global war thus signals the difference of modernity from itself, the intervallic difference that has always prevented modernity from constituting itself fully and on a planetary scale. For the same reason, global war offers an unparalleled opportunity for thinking, one in which thinking confronts the ruins of its inherited conceptual vocabulary together with the need to derive new concepts—not from out of thin air but precisely from the ruins of the tradition. In order to be truly new, and not the mere continuation of dead concepts, theoretical production needs to confront and take seriously the reciprocal unsettling that obtains when thinking comes into contact with the world. The thinking of transformation must make itself into a transformation of thinking itself, but it can only do this when it pays heed to the intervallic difference that troubles thinking from its onset.
- De Man, Paul. “The Resistance to Theory.” The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.
- Derrida, Jacques. Positions. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1972.
- ———. Speech and Phenomena. Trans. David Allison and Leonard Lawler. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973.
- ———. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
- ———. Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
- ———. Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
- ———. Heidegger: la question de l’être et l’histoire. Paris: Galilée, 2013.
- ———. Heidegger: The Question of Being and History. Trans. Geoff Bennington. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
- Dove, Patrick. “Metaphor and Image in Borges’s ‘El Zahir’.” Romanic Review 98:2 (Mar-May 2007): 169-87.
- ———. Literature and “Interregnum”: Globalization, War, and the Crisis of Sovereignty in Latin America. Albany: SUNY Press, 2016.
- Fried, Gregory. Heidegger’s Polemos: From Being to Politcs. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
- Fynsk, Christopher. Language and Relation: . . . that there is language. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.
- Galli, Carlo. Political Spaces and Global War. Trans. Elisabeth Fay. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
- Heidegger, Martin. “Letter on Humanism.” In Basic Writings. Trans. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.
- ———. Nietzsche, vols. 1-2. Trans. David Farrell Krell. New York: Penguin, 1979.
- ———. An Introduction to Metaphysics. Trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.
- ———. Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: SUNY Press, 2010.
- Levinson, Brett. Market and Thought: Meditations on the Political and Biopolitical. New York: Fordham University Press, 2004.
- Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York: International, 1963.
- Moreiras, Alberto. “Reshaping Academic Subjectivities I: Post-Tenure Review.” Infrapolitical Deconstruction Blog. 29 March 2018. https://infrapolitica.com/author/albertomoreiras/
The conference, “Transformative Thinking: A Conference on Jacques Derrida’s Seminars,” was held at the University of Michigan on 29-30 September 2017. The meeting focused on the recent publication of the English-language translation of Derrida’s 1964-65 seminar, Heidegger: The Question of Being and History and, to a lesser degree, the still-unpublished and untranslated 1975-76 seminar on Max, theory and praxis. I take this opportunity to thank Gareth Williams, Cristina Moreiras-Menor, Kate Jenckes and Thom Chivens for both the invitation to participate and for their generous hospitality.
See, for instance, the chapter in Of Grammatology entitled “On the Interval and the Supplement” (Derrida 1976), “Freud and the Scene of Writing” and “From a Restricted to a General Economy” in Writing and Difference (Derrida 1978), and “Différance” in Margins of Philosophy (Derrida 1982). The “interval” is also thematized in the discussion of the trace and the specialization of time in Speech and Phenomena (Derrida 1973). This is by no means a comprehensive list of the term’s mentions in Derrida’s writings from the 1960s and 70s.
This is a historical conjuncture that I describe elsewhere as a time of “interregnum” or of interregnum without interregnum. See my Literature and “Interregnum”: Globalization, War, and the Crisis of Sovereignty in Latin America.