“Da-sein, first letter to Being”: Reading Heidegger’s Decree of Ipseity in Derrida’s 1964-65 Seminar
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In the second year of his last seminar, The Beast and Sovereign, Derrida is explicit about how sovereignty is at work in Heidegger’s thought, particularly with respect to Heidegger’s use of the word Walten, which Derrida reads as a self-emerging and originary violence that exceeds the purview of theologico-political sovereignty in the direction of an “ontological super-sovereignty, at the source of the ontological difference” (BS2 208). Yet little attention has been paid to how sovereignty might figure in Derrida’s first sustained engagement with Heidegger’s work during his 1964-65 seminar given at ENS, Heidegger: The Question of Being and History. The tendency, instead, has been to privilege questions that play a more explicit and central role in Derrida’s exposition, such as historicity and metaphoricity. My hypothesis in this essay is that Derrida’s reading of Being and Time in his early seminar shows that Heidegger incurs in a series of gestures that late in his life Derrida wouldn’t have failed to identify with sovereign ipseity.
In order to substantiate this hypothesis, I take a cue from session four of the seminar, where Derrida claims that Heidegger’s privileging of Dasein at the beginning of the existential analytic happens as a “decree.” To the extent that some of the fundamental structures of Dasein can be read as a self-referential recounting of the philosophical operation of Being and Time, one is drawn to suspect that the sovereignty of Heidegger’s decree will also be staged in the existential analytic. Following this suspicion, I trace Derrida’s characterization of Dasein in session four as a “text,” and more specifically, as the “first letter to Being.” This leads me to sessions seven and eight of the seminar, where Derrida retrieves the motif of Dasein’s textuality (or “texturology”) and situates Entschlossenheit (resolute decision) within the horizon of metaphysics. In doing so, Derrida allows us to think of Sichüberlieferung (autotransmission), “texturology,” and “autoaffection,” in terms of the structural passivity of historicity that ruins (Dasein’s) sovereign ipseity.
Section I: From Autoaffection to Autoimmunity; or, the Proper and the Ipse.
Since his early writings, Derrida is concerned with showing that the logic of appropriation is characteristic of metaphysical discourse, which, in a nutshell, does not fail to either incorporate the relation of the self to the other within a movement of self-reference, or turn said relation into the production of a one-sidedly determined exteriority. The most salient instance to see how Derrida reads this appropriating gesture of metaphysics happens during his early analyses of autoaffection, which take place against the backdrop of his deconstructive take on phonocentrism. According to Derrida, the privileged element of autoaffection is the voice and, particularly, the interiority implied in hearing oneself speak. When one hears oneself speak, the voice immediately returns to touch its origin without having ventured at all to the dangerous outside, thus reducing without delay both the exteriority of space and the signifier of expression into the ideal interiority of self-presence. In Voice and Phenomenon, Derrida’s early book (1967) on Husserl’s phenomenology (particularly devoted to the first Logical Investigation), Derrida explains that in autoaffection
the subject is able to hear himself or speak to himself, is able to let himself be affected by the signifier that he produces without any detour through the agency of exteriority, of the world, or of the non-proper in general [...] This is why hearing-oneself-speak is lived as absolutely pure autoaffection, in a proximity to self which would be nothing other than the absolute reduction of space in general. (VP 67–68)
Already in 1967, Derrida makes clear that metaphysics is always engaged in this business of reducing difference—exteriority, space, the world, the non-proper in general—by postulating itself as relentless appropriation and self-activated affection. This is why in Voice and Phenomenon Derrida famously claims that “the history of metaphysics is the absolute wanting-to-hear-itself-speak” (VP 88).
But the question of the proper is not only characteristic of Derrida’s early writings. In fact, Derrida’s concern with the proper reappears in his late works, particularly in his use of the term ipseity to describe the logic of sovereignty. For Derrida, the Latin term ipse, like the Greek αὐτός (autos), designates the self that is properly and presently itself, the self that has the power to present and posit itself as itself and therefore claim to be acknowledged as such. But besides a self-enabled, self-possessed, and self-identical self, the term ipse also designates the masculine self, and thereby the brother, the father, the owner, the lord, and, ultimately, in the very pinnacle of this masculine chain, the sovereign (Derrida, BS1 66–67). Hence, the term ipse denotes the masculine self that is in absolute possession of itself, the sovereign self with enough force to posit itself as self-identical and to demand to be recognized and addressed as such. As Derrida explains: “the ipseity of the ipse [...] implies the exercise of power by someone it suffices to designate as himself, ipse. The sovereign, in the broadest sense of the term, is he who has the right and the strength to be and be recognized as himself, the same, properly the same as himself” (BS1 66). And a few lines below: “the concept of sovereignty will always imply the possibility of this positionality, this thesis, this self-thesis, this autopositon of him who posits or posits himself as ipse, the (self-)same, oneself” (BS1 67). To the extent that it has the right and the might—the force of law, as Derrida says elsewhere—to designate and present itself as itself, in other words, because it has the power to continuously refer to itself as a relentless “autodeictict ‘I’” (Derrida, BS1 115), the sovereign ipse is the blueprint of the modern ego, and hence also the name for an older logic of circular self-sameness, one that has played a determining role in metaphysics—in autoaffection, for example—as well as in the more specific operation of grounding politics in reference to the One as the ultimate principle of sovereign power. This is why, following Émile Benveniste, Derrida usually ascribes the power of an “I can,” understood as the limitless power of self-determination, self-positing, and self-possession, to the ipsocentric logic of sovereignty. In light of this, Derrida’s late writings reveal that to the extent that the concept of sovereignty bears one of philosophy’s fundamental traits in spite of its lack of philosophical dignity—namely, the self-appropriating tendency of the proper—there is something inherently sovereign about philosophy.
Accordingly, the deconstruction of ipseity must be situated as the latest variation of a reading gesture that runs through Derrida’s corpus from beginning to end. To this extent, “autoimmunity,” the word with which Derrida designates the deconstruction of ipseity, is, as many commentators of Derrida have suggested, the iteration in Derrida’s work of the deconstructively inflected notion of autoaffection—which is to say: an iteration of deconstruction tout court. Briefly put, a deconstructive approach to autoaffection affirms exposure to alterity as the condition of (im)possibility of presence and self-identity. What in his early work Derrida calls “exteriority” (which stands in for space, writing, death, technically enabled memory (or hypomnēsis), in short, for every term enacting the work of différance) is not something added to an already existing presence. Rather, it is the enabling possibility of presence, which is accordingly split by alterity in its very constitution. In Of Grammatology, Derrida claims that “auto-affection constitutes the same (auto) by dividing it” (OG 166; DG 237. Modified trans.). More than thirty-five years after Of Grammatology, Derrida takes up the language of autoaffection and defines autoimmunity as follows: “autoimmunity is always [...] the autoinfection of all autoaffection. It is not some particular thing that is affected in autoimmunity but the self, the ipse, the autos that finds itself infected. As soon as it needs heteronomy, the event, time and the other” (Rogues 109). In what follows, I will situate Derrida’s early reading of Heidegger within his broader project of deconstructing the sovereign “proper,” which stretches from autoimmunity back to autoaffection.
Section II: Metaphors Are Not Innocent—Despite Metaphoricity
Derrida’s relation to Heidegger’s thought is far from simple. During his lifelong engagement with Heidegger’s work, Derrida usually incurs in a twofold reading strategy: he acknowledges his indebtedness to Heidegger and even repeats many of his operations all the while putting pressure on a series of gestures that in his (Derrida’s) view inevitably neutralize the deconstructive force of Heidegger’s language. Derrida’s analysis of “metaphoricity” in his 1964-65 seminar foreshadows a great deal about the ambivalence he sees at work in Heidegger with respect to metaphysics and that he, Derrida, will exploit in the years to come in works such us Margins, Of Spirit, Memoires, the Geschlecht series, Aporias, and The Beast and the Sovereign seminars.
Derrida’s early seminar, which is mostly concerned with the existential analysis of Dasein in Being and Time but also considers texts that came after the so-called turn in Heidegger’s thought, shows how Heidegger’s thinking of being entails a destruction of ontology as a whole and how such destruction liberates an unprecedented thinking of history—or “historicity”—that escapes the metaphysical determination of being as presence altogether. Because “defin[ing] the meaning of being as presence is quite clearly to reduce historicity” (HQBH 142), Derrida claims that Heidegger’s elaboration of the question of being immediately brings about the destruction of the ontic metaphors by means of which the metaphysics of presence (or ontology) has historically buried the meaning of being by telling stories (of presence) about it. Derrida makes clear that Heidegger’s destruction of ontic metaphors does not grant access to a virginal locus of meaning where one would bear witness to the epiphany of the truth of being. Instead, Heidegger aims at thinking the historicity of the truth of being as the movement of metaphoricity itself. Heidegger’s point, accordingly, “is not to use metaphors as instruments of rhetoric [...] but to return to the origin of metaphor or metaphoricity, and thus to think metaphor as such before it is seized upon by a rhetoric or a technique of expression” (HQBH 62). Yet, a return to the origin of metaphor, which is the truth of being, can only be done metaphorically, because the as such of metaphor is inscribed in the movement of metaphoricity. In other words:
The thinking of the truth of being is to come but to come as what was always already buried. It follows that metaphor is the forgetting of the proper and originary meaning. Metaphor does not occur in language as a rhetorical procedure; it is the beginning of language, of which the thinking of being is however the buried origin. One does not begin with the originary; that’s the first word of the (hi)story. (HQBH 62)
To this extent, Heidegger’s destruction of the ontic metaphor “does not mean that one leaves the metaphorical element of language behind” (HQBH 190). Instead, the movement of metaphorization in Heidegger’s discourse acts as “de-metaphorization” insofar as “in a new metaphor the previous metaphor appears as such” (HQBH 190). This implies that metaphoricity amounts to the movement of language itself, and that, as Derrida puts it in Of Grammatology, “being is produced as history only through the logos, and is nothing outside of it” (OG 22). Hence, as Derrida states in the Heidegger seminar, de-metaphorization “is not a matter of substituting one metaphor for another, which is the very movement of language and history, but of thinking this movement as such, thinking metaphor in metaphorizing it as such, thinking the essence of metaphor (that is all Heidegger wants to do)” (HQBH 190). This is to say that even if Heidegger’s task is oriented by “the thinking of being as the horizon and the appeal of an impossible non-metaphorical thought” (HQBH 190), the project of dismantling the metaphorics of ontology can only be “carried out with the certainty that one will only ever destroy metaphors with the help of other metaphors” (HQBH 189). For Heidegger, then, the dissimulation of the truth of being is insurmountable and originary; it follows, for Derrida, that “metaphor is interminable,” and that, as the “ontic covering over the truth of being [...] metaphoricity is the very essence of metaphysics” (HQBH 63). Consequently: “there is no possible overcoming, no Überwindung of metaphysics” (HQBH 63)—instead, there is destruction.
Even if this means that Heidegger must attempt the destruction of metaphysics from within, provided that a simple refutation or overcoming of metaphysics would subject the destruction of ontology to the gulping force of Hegelian dialectics, it is still necessary to pay heed to the metaphors Heidegger uses to do so. This necessity follows from Derrida’s characterization of de-metaphorization as a practice of vigilance. De-metaphorization is not only a matter of substituting one metaphor for another, as “that is what has always happened throughout history, that universal history that Borges says is perhaps the only history of a few metaphors or of various inflections of a few metaphors” (HQBH 190); it is also a matter of “destroying metaphor while knowing what it is doing” (HQBH 190). In “The Ends of Man,” a text originally delivered as conference in New York in 1968 and later included as a chapter of Margins of Philosophy, Derrida recapitulates on the thinking of metaphoricity he formulated for the first time in his Heidegger seminar, and claims that “Being, which is nothing, is not a being, cannot be said, cannot say itself, except in the ontic metaphor” (Margins 131). In other words, the thinking of being “can only metaphorize, by means of a profound necessity from which one cannot simply decide to escape, the language that it deconstructs” (Margins 131). Despite this “profound necessity,” the fact remains that “the choice of one or another group of metaphors is necessarily significant” (Margins 131). So, which metaphors stand out in Derrida’s reading of Heidegger in his 1964-65 seminar?
Section III: Two Metaphors
As Heidegger makes clear in paragraph §2 of Being and Time, when we ask the question “what is ‘Being’ [‘Sein’]?” (Heidegger, BT 4) we already understand what being “is” even if we cannot not provide a systematic account of its meaning. This is what gives the question of being its direction. In his description of the formal structure of the question, Heidegger famously claims that every question is a seeking, and that in asking a question one must be already aware of what it is that one is looking for. In other words, one must “pre-comprehend” what one is asking about. But then, a question is not only a matter of what one asks about (the Gefragtes), but also of what one interrogates to find an answer to the question (i.e. the Befragtes), and, finally, of what obtains from the interrogation, which is the point at which one arrives at the formulation of an answer to the question (the Erfragtes). Having parsed the formal structure of the question, Heidegger asks:
In which being is the meaning of being to be found; from which being is the disclosure of being to get its start? Is the starting point arbitrary [beliebig], or does a certain being have priority in the elaboration of the question of being? Which is this exemplary being [Seiende] and in what sense does it have priority? (BT 6; SZ 7)
The answer to this question leads to the very possibility of the question, that is to say, to the being for which the question about being is a possibility. This being is of course Dasein, which is closer in proximity to the Gefragtes (i.e. being) than any other being based on the fact that the meaning of being must “already be available in a certain way” (BT 4) to Dasein in order to ask the question about being. Here is Heidegger’s answer:
Asking this question, as a mode of being of a being, is itself essentially determined by what is asked about in it—being. This being [Seiende], which we ourselves in each case are and which includes inquiry among the possibilities of its being, we formulate terminologically as Dasein. The explicit and lucid formulation of the question of the meaning of being requires a prior suitable explication of a being [Dasein] with regard to its being. (BT, 6-7; SZ, 7)
Let us follow Derrida’s reading of Heidegger’s move here and see which is the metaphor at work in the opening of Being and Time.
In session four, Derrida is ready to praise Heidegger for what he calls “the sign of a vigilance that has never appeared as such in the history of ontology” (HQBH 77). Heidegger’s formal structure of the question implies that all ontologies without exception must be oriented by the pre-comprehension of being; and yet, such ontologies “implicitly chose as their guide such and such a type of being without making a theme or a question of their choice” (HQBH 77). Now, alongside this acknowledgment of Heidegger’s vigilance, Derrida puts pressure on the language that Heidegger uses to formulate the question about the starting point of the existential analytic. Here is the passage of Being and Time on which Derrida focuses, now in the version included in the English translation of the Heidegger seminar:
On which being is the meaning of being to be read [An welchem Seienden soll der Sinn von Sein abgelesen warden], from which being is the opening up [Erschließung] of being to get its start [soll ihren Ausgang nehmen]? Is the starting point arbitrary, or does a certain being have priority [Vorrang] in the elaboration of the question of being? Which is this exemplary being and in what sense does it have priority? (HQBH 77)
Heidegger’s use of the verb ablesen, to read, in this passage prompts Derrida to identify a metaphorical operation in Heidegger’s language, one which turns the meaning of being into something legible and also turns Dasein, by extension, into a text. Here is Derrida’s interrogation of Heidegger’s terminology:
So one might wonder: to what extent is this metaphor of reading innocent? To what extent innocent the definition of a question that makes—at least by metaphor—of the questioned Gefragtes a meaning (Sinn, the meaning of being) and of the Befragtes, of the interrogated, a text on which the meaning is deciphered? Which transforms, at least metaphorically—but what a metaphor—the Sinn into Bedeutung. And it is Da-sein (often too rapidly translated as man) that will be determined as the right text [...] the other forms of being will, then, be determined as bad texts for the deciphering of the meaning of being, as apocryphal texts: that is, as bad crypts, as crypts which conceal by distancing (apo-kruptein), whereas Dasein will be the good crypt that still hides, of course but in such a way that it does not distance us but brings us close to the meaning it gives us to read. (HQBH 78)
As Derrida explains, Dasein is the right text because it brings us close in proximity with the meaning of being. And it does so because “writing,” or a certain understanding of “writing,” allows for said proximity to come about.
In Derrida’s view, Heidegger incurs in a fundamental metaphysical operation by presenting Dasein as the “right” or “good” text. Despite what is usually thought, Derrida does not think that metaphysics entails a sheer exclusion of writing in the name of living speech. Rather, what Derrida claims is that writing is not so much a degradation of living speech as what gives living speech and its degradation its matrix. In other words, the metaphysical exclusion of writing that Derrida so poignantly interrogates especially in his early work answers to an internal division of writing—i.e. to a division between good and bad writing. And this is exactly what Derrida describes in his early seminar with respect to Heidegger’s textualization of Dasein: for if one the one hand Heidegger claims that the meaning of being should be read and that Dasein is the right text or good crypt to do so, on the other he will deem writing “a degradation, a lethargy, and thus already a dimming, a forgetting of living speech. And already the beginning of chatter” (Derrida, HQBH 81). The metaphorics of writing is, then, a “Platonic” residue in Heidegger’s text. In lines that anticipate one of the central arguments of “Plato’s Pharmacy,” Derrida writes:
With this wariness [with respect to writing] Heidegger is more than Platonic [...] In fact, it would be easy to show that Plato [...] submits in spite of the protestations of the Phaedrus to the model of writing; he submits to it without realizing it and here too in the metaphorical register since he says he prefers to sensory writing, to the invention of the God Thot, the writing of the truth inscribed in the soul. (HQBH 82–83)
Heidegger then reiterates the Platonic or “quasi-somnambulistic gesture by which Western metaphysics let itself be guided without knowing it by the grammatical model” (HQBH 82), and this gesture allows him to justify his treatment of Dasein as text. But this also requires subjecting the notion of reading or hermeneutics to what in his seminar Derrida calls reversal of metaphor, according to which any interpretation or textual deciphering belonging to a regional, historical science will be revealed as depending on the historicity of Dasein. This operation of reversal is necessary if the metaphor of the text is not work as yet another ontic story about being. It follows that by posing a grammatical model at the ontological level, “writing is indeed not the irruption of something new in speech, it is not a mode of essential rupture with speech, even if it is its first degradation, because living speech, legein, saying, was already a text” (HQBH 83). Since Dasein is the text in which the meaning of being is to be read, it is also the ontological precursor of ontic textuality in general. Derrida summarizes this with the following formulation: “Da-sein, first letter to Being” (HQBH 80).
The first stage in the drift of this letter brings us to the second metaphor at work in Heidegger’s privileging of Dasein as the exemplary being. Heidegger’s first letter to being is Dasein because “Dasein will be the good crypt that still hides, of course but in such a way that it does not distance us but brings us close to the meaning it gives us to read” (HQBH 78, emph. Derrida’s). Accordingly, the second metaphor at stake at the beginning of the existential analytic is that of proximity. Having fleshed out the writing metaphor in the opening of the existential analytic, Derrida broaches another element of the first passage of Being and Time I quoted above: “from which being is the disclosure of being to get its start? Is the starting point arbitrary [beliebig], or does a certain being have priority in the elaboration of the question of being?” (Heidegger, BT 6). Derrida explains that Heidegger’s choosing criterion is justified because he does not follow any metaphysical presupposition in privileging Dasein, which is to say that “the exemplary being from which we will set out will have to be determined in its exemplarity by the sole possibility of the question” (HQBH 84). Yet, two proximities will be at stake in the exemplarity of Dasein, namely: a proximity of Dasein to being and of us to ourselves in the question—since Dasein is the “being [Seiende], which we ourselves in each case are” (Heidegger, BT 6). Just as the metaphor of text, the notion of proximity also has to undergo the reversal of metaphor if it is to be distinguished from its metaphysical version. Hence, proximity here is not the proximity of the self-same “I am” of the subjective ego. Conversely, the latter is to be thought in light of Dasein’s proximity to being in language, which introduces a notion of ontological distance that neither subjectivity nor anthropology can account for (HQBH 56). In session three, Derrida claims that “it is when one speaks of the proximity of being that one destroys the metaphor and by the some token thinks of propositions such as ‘I am,’ and so on, as metaphors” (HQBH 54, emph. Derrida’s). This, Derrida says, “allows us to understand—and this is perhaps its operational efficacity—what Heidegger means, not only [...] when he chooses the strange expression Dasein [...] but also what he means when, for example in the ‘Letter on ‘Humanism,’’ he speaks several times of the proximity of being” (HQBH 54, emph. Derrida’s). Accordingly, the metaphysical metaphor of proximity at the beginning of Being and Time is not to be read as the self-identity of the subject. Derrida makes this clear in session six, during a commentary on Dasein’s Jemeinigkeit (or “mineness”): “Dasein is always mine, essentially Dasein as self-relation, a not necessarily subjective and conscientious self-relation in Jemeinigkeit” (HQBH 135).
Late in the seminar, Derrida singles out another metaphysical lure in Heidegger’s analysis of the existential structures of Dasein, one that flows precisely from the overlapping between the metaphors of writing and proximity, and which will complicate what so far seems to be a successful protection of Dasein from metaphysical determinations. But before getting to it, there is another moment in session four that I would like highlight. I think it is worth our while doing so since it will allow us to see how Derrida elaborates for the first time a motif that will show up again and again in his reading of Heidegger. Additionally, this motif will grant an entry point to an admittedly difficult problem addressed by Derrida in the final sessions of his seminar, which is precisely where we will find the remaining metaphysical lure that Derrida reads in Heidegger’s existential analytic.
Section IV: Heidegger’s Decree
This other element—or, to keep up with our own metaphorical register, the second stage in the drift of Heidegger’s first letter to being—complicates what just looked as a satisfactory justification for the way in which Heidegger chooses Dasein as the exemplary being. After parsing the metaphor of writing and the proximity entailed in it, Derrida moves on to exploit a possibility Heidegger himself entertains before choosing Dasein: “Is the starting point arbitrary [beliebig]”? Derrida’s commentary on this question presents Heidegger’s relying on proximity as a protective operation vis-à-vis metaphysics; proximity, in other words, allows Heidegger to close any gap through which metaphysics could sneak in and dictate the choice for the exemplary being:
What Heidegger wants to avoid is letting a gap open between the meaning of being and the privileged being, between the question and the example, a split through which some presupposition or metaphysical option could slip and, by dictating the choice of the example, predetermine the whole enterprise. (HQBH 85, emph. mine)
And Derrida continues, now doubling down his insistence on Heidegger’s protective gesture, which he depicts as a counter-dictate that posits proximity by suturing the distance between the question and the example, being and Dasein: “For there to be a suturing of this split between the question and the example, which is the first beginning of the response, the example must not simply [uncertain word] be chosen but prescribed on the basis of some absolute proximity” (HQBH 85, emph. Derrida's). The example is, therefore, not simply chosen but also prescribed.
It is with respect to Heidegger’s gesture of suturing or prescribing where the there of being’s meaning is, that Derrida will express uneasiness. In session four, during a discussion about the possibility of understanding the hermeneutic situation of pre-comprehension in terms of a vicious circle, Derrida describes Heidegger’s privileging of Dasein as follows:
the name Heidegger gives to the questioning being that we are is introduced in the most abrupt way, without the least show of explanation. Heidegger, who in general is careful to guarantee patiently every one of his moves, never explains in this opening of Sein und Zeit the choice for the expression Da-sein. And moreover he will never explain it as a concept but as a mysterious and enigmatic focal point, with complex inflections, separating more and more Da from Sein, making Da not simply determinative of Sein, adjective or adverb, but a sort of noun-verb as originary as Sein. (HQBH 87, emph. mine)
Although Derrida immediately tones down this description by adding that Heidegger’s choice answers to a “profound necessity”—namely, to avoid determining Dasein too fast with a metaphysical category—Heidegger’s “arbitrariness” remains unexplained or unjustified. Derrida writes: “This apparent arbitrariness hides a profound necessity even if the necessity does not absorb into itself all the arbitrariness” (HQBH 87, emph. mine). What is this excess of arbitrariness that cannot be fully justified by the criterion of proximity that flows from pre-comprehension? Derrida’s own metaphorical slippage during these lines suggests what might be at stake here, for he claims that: “In Sein und Zeit this denomination [of Dasein] intervenes like a decree [décret]” (HQBH 87, emph. Derrida's).
Heidegger’s first letter to being is a decree. Hence, the excess we are dealing with here is the sovereign excess that by definition escapes any justification and which always entails, according to Derrida’s understanding of ipseity, the self-referential and self-authorized operation of autoposition and self-presentation. The name Dasein—which designates the “being [Seiende], which we ourselves in each case are”—irrupts like a decree. Now the word “decree” does more than just braid Derrida’s characterization of Heidegger’s naming of Dasein to a set of historical, legal, theological, political, and etymological dimensions of sovereignty. It communicates Derrida’s description of Heidegger’s privileging of Dasein with the dictating logic that Derrida himself describes as the very essence of sovereignty. In session three of The Beast and the Sovereign 1, Derrida asserts that to the extent that sovereignty speaks in the form of unconditional dictations, orders, and prescriptions—i.e. of decrees—sovereignty always is, accordingly and essentially, “a moment of dictatorship”:
Dictatorship (and in a minimal and strict sense sovereignty is always a moment of dictatorship, even if one does not live in a so-called dictatorial regime) is always the essence of sovereignty, where it is linked to the power to say in the form of dictation, prescription, order or diktat. From the Roman dictatura, where the dictator is the supreme and extraordinary magistrate, sometimes the first magistrate, and so the master of certain cities, to modern forms of dictatorship such as Führer or Duce or the Little Father of the People or some other “papadoc,” but also in the figure of the dictatorship of the proletariat, in dictatorship in general as power that exercises itself unconditionally in the form of the Diktat, of the ultimate saying or the performative verdict that gives orders and has no account to render other than to itself (ipse), and not to any superior agency, especially not a parliament—well, that dictatorship, that dictatorial agency, is at work everywhere, wherever there is sovereignty. (BS1 67)
In sum, when Derrida says that Heidegger’s choice of Dasein at the beginning of Being and Time happens like a decree, he immediately invites the thought that Heidegger’s first letter to being is stamped with the seal of ipsocentric sovereignty. If so, the arbitrariness that Derrida identifies in Heidegger’s privileging of Dasein is none other than the sovereign autoposition of self-reference—even if it marks the there of an inscrutable question mark that therefore is, as Derrida clarifies, “totally in-determinate” (HQBH 86).
Although Derrida ceaselessly returned to Heidegger’s decree, to my knowledge commentators have seldom singled out this insistence. Four years after his Heidegger seminar, in “The Ends of Man,” Derrida argues that despite Heidegger’s protective measures, the privileging of Dasein at the beginning of Being and Time is nonetheless dictated by metaphysics, because Heidegger’s choice remains
governed [commandée] by phenomenology’s principle of principles, the principle of presence and of presence in self-presence, such as it is manifested to the being and in the being that we are. It is this self-presence, this absolute proximity of the (questioning) being to itself, this familiarity with itself of the being ready to understand Being, that intervenes in the determination of the factum, and which motivates the choice of the exemplary being, of the text, the good text for the hermeneutic of the meaning of Being. It is the proximity to itself of the questioning being which leads it to be chosen as the privileged interrogated being. The proximity to itself of the inquirer authorizes the identity of the inquirer and the interrogated. We who are close to ourselves, we interrogate ourselves about the meaning of Being. (Margins 125–26)
Similarly, in “Ousia and Gramme,” Derrida claims that
this value of proximity and of self-presence intervenes, at the beginning of Sein und Zeit and elsewhere, in the decision to ask the question of the meaning of Being on the basis of an existential analytic of Dasein. And one could show the metaphysical weight of such a decision and of the credit granted here to the value of self-presence. This question can propagate its movement to include all the concepts implying the value of the “proper.” (Margins 64n39, emph. mine)
Derrida’s concern with Heidegger’s decree returns thirty years later, between December of 2002 and January of 2003, during the second and third sessions of the second year of The Beast and the Sovereign. In the context of a long discussion where Derrida turns to Kant’s 1786 “little great text” (BS2 59), What Does it Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking?, in order to thematize how decisions always answer to the necessity of orienting oneself and thus of choosing a specific path to follow, we read that in The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics Heidegger—or Robinson Heidegger, as Derrida says (remember that The Beast and the Sovereign 2 unfolds as a parallel reading of Robinson Crusoe and The Fundamental Concepts)—is always in the look for an Ausweg or way out of all the detours or Umwege that prevent us from experiencing what philosophy truly is:
Heidegger may well often make fun of those who seek the security of the safe passage or of the ground, of the grounding ground and the sure route, but he doesn’t want to get lost either, he is a thinker of wandering who does not want to wander when he is philosophizing, when he is thinking, writing or above all teaching (for this [The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics] is a seminar), and he wants not only order and a map, but also the exit route, the way out [Ausweg]. He wants the right orientation and the right direction to escape from enclosure or circular insularity. (36)
At one point in this discussion, Derrida tells us that at the beginning of §46 of The Fundamental Concepts, Heidegger has to decide how to orient himself with respect to the question “what is world?” insofar as he, Heidegger, does not seem to know where to look for an answer. What interests us here is that Heidegger decides for the closest path: “Der nächste Weg zu einer ersten Klärung [the closest path for a first clarification]” (FC 176, quoted in Derrida BS2 61). To which we must add that, according to Derrida, Heidegger does so “without thematizing the sense and necessity of this decision” (BS2, 58).
In the closing remarks of this discussion, Derrida does not fail to describe Heidegger’s choice for the closest path with reference to three expressions that evoke the unforeseen and abrupt irruption of violence, the second of which Derrida employs elsewhere to describe the sovereign operation that founds the law (FL 32–33), namely: coup de théâtre and coup de force, respectively. The third term Derrida uses to describe Heidegger’s decision is also laden with sovereign connotations. Such term is Walten:
Now here he goes (it looks like a coup de théâtre or a coup de force, although that is not Heidegger’s tone, but I maintain that more than once he is taking decisions that are so many arbitrary coups de force or coups de théâtre, so many unjustifiable decisions: that would be Heidegger’s Walten), here he goes starting to name the first path, as the closest path (“Der nächste Weg zu einer ersten Klärung”). (BS2 61)
Immediately afterwards, Derrida relates this “sovereign” gesture of The Fundamental Concepts with one of Heidegger’s previous decisions, namely: Heidegger’s privileging of Dasein at the beginning of Being and Time:
What does “the closest” mean here? And why begin this way, with the one closest to us, as Heidegger already had done in Sein und Zeit, right at the beginning, to take Dasein as point of departure and exemplary being as to which to ask the question of the meaning of Being? (BS2 61)
But it is in “Geschlecht 1,” a text that appeared for the first time in 1983—that is to say, halfway between the Heidegger seminar (1964-1965) and The Beast and the Sovereign (2001-2003)—where Derrida transcribes his own formulations from 1964 with respect to Heidegger’s decree:
If the choice of that exemplary entity [Dasein], in its “priority,” becomes the object of a justification (whatever one may think of it and whatever may be its axiomatics), Heidegger on the contrary seems to proceed by decree, at least in this passage, when it becomes a matter of naming that exemplary entity, of giving it once and for all its terminological title [...] This “terminological” choice undoubtedly finds its profound justification in the whole enterprise and in the whole book by making explicit a there and a being-there that (almost) no other predetermination could command. But that does not remove the decisive, brutal, and elliptical appearance from this preliminary statement, this declaration of name. (Psyche 2 10–11, emph. mine in “decree”)
But does Derrida further elaborate Heidegger’s decree of self-reference in his early seminar? The answer to this question brings me to the third stage of Heidegger’s first letter to being, which, far from drifting (as one could expect a letter at least at some point might), always returns to itself. Having arrived at this point, a brief sketch of Derrida’s parsing of the authentic temporality of Dasein proves indispensable for contextualizing one of the most intricate moments of the Heidegger seminar. I am referring to the analysis of Entschlossenheit in sessions seven and eight, where a structural dislocation of presence and the movement of ipseic self-gathering are problematically entangled with one another.
Section V: Temporal Ecstasy
After focusing on the point of departure of Being and Time in session four, Derrida claims to be ready to move ahead into the existential analytic in order to address the historicity of Dasein and interrogate whether it allows to open the history of being. Derrida begins his explanation of the existential structure of historicity by arguing that the latter is rooted on originary temporality. Flowing from the always already implied in Dasein’s pre-comprehension of being—“We intimated that we are always already [immer schon] involved in an understanding of being” (Heidegger, BT 4)—, which according to Derrida translates historically the a priori that gives the question of being its possibility, temporality is the single most important structure in the existential analytic; it is the very horizon where the meaning being will be disclosed—“The being of Dasein finds its meaning in temporality” (BT 19). Consequently, in order to gain access to the historicity of Dasein, one has to step back into the structure of authentic temporality. Given that “what Heidegger wants to transgress, is in its entirety a philosophy of the Present” (Derrida, HQBH 137), and since the analysis of temporality guides “the totality of the destruction” (HQBH 137) of metaphysics, Heidegger proposes to think authentic temporality in terms of a structural and anticipatory going out-of-one-self:
The phenomena of toward..., to..., together with... reveal temporality as the ἐκστατικόν par excellence. Temporality is the primordial, “outside of itself” in and for itself. Thus we call the phenomena of future, having-been, and present the ecstasies of temporality. Temporality is not, prior to this, a being that first emerges from itself; rather, its essence is temporalizing in the unity of ecstasies. (BT 314, emph. Heidegger's)
Derrida will exploit two dimensions of temporality that stand out in this passage, namely: (1) the constitutive going out of itself (or ek-stasis) of Dasein that, as such, does not answer to the movement of the present, and (2) the synthetic unity that nonetheless characterizes Dasein’s ek-stasis. Rejecting the possibility of reading Dasein’s ek-static temporality as riddled with metaphysical determinations, Derrida asserts that the synthesis of temporal ek-stasies is itself ek-static. To put the matter simply: if ek-static temporality is to upset the atemporality of the present, the unity of ek-stasies can only be understood as a synthesis originating in, and subsequently leading to, a structural out-of-itself. Ek-stasis, Derrida writes, is not
an exiting out of itself in itself of the present (a formula that is Hegelian as well as Husserlian), but an absolute exiting, an ek-stasis that is radical, originary and without return. It is ek-stasis and not presence that is the fundamental origin of temporality [...] The unity of temporalization is an ek-static and not a static unity. (HQBH 173)
And this unity, Derrida further clarifies, is “a unity of the ek-stases of temporality (present, past, future) that constitutes the past as a future having been, as a future having been presentified itself” (HQBH 173–74).
Ek-static temporal synthesis gives Dasein’s Zusammenhang des Lebens—the continuity of life that goes from birth to death—its structure. Derrida claims that the temporal Erstreckung or stretching that goes “in-between” birth and death is the region of Dasein’s ek-sistence where the displacing of the primacy of the Present stands out most clearly and, consequently, also where authentic temporality and historicity become untethered from metaphysics. Derrida accordingly explains that perhaps due to its apparent banality, the continuity of life has always been missed by philosophy, either because the constancy or identity of the self is considered unsubstantial (this is the empiricist position) or because the continuity of the self is determined as the self-identity of the ego (this is the transcendental position) (HQBH 135-36). The latter case is particularly important for Derrida, insofar as it represents an atemporal and thus ahistorical version of ek-static temporal synthesis—i.e. the metaphysical reduction of authentic temporality and historicity. As Derrida argues, Dasein’s ek-static synthesis “had always been delegated as much by metaphysical idealism as by transcendental idealism to an ahistorical agency [...] that is at bottom without past because it is the present of the present, the newness of the now [la maintenance du maintenant]” (HQBH 145). This ahistorical agency is none other than subjectivity, which fundamentally neutralizes the historicity of Dasein by determining being as Vorhandenheit—even if such (inauthentic) determination is inherent to Dasein.
The synthetic continuity of Dasein’s life or the constancy of its self cannot be understood, however, more metaphysico. To the extent that the continuity of life unfolds as a simultaneous relation to a past and a future that are not modifications of the present—namely birth and death, respectively—the ek-static synthesis of Dasein’s temporality is disclosed as more originary than, and therefore different from, its egological determination in Husserl (HQBH 116–21) and its articulation as consciousness in Hegel (HQBH 148–50). Birth and death, past and future, are never absolutely behind or ahead of Dasein but always traversing its now—which is therefore not a now but the very stretching in-between:
In this in-between, the past and the future are not simply left behind as past present or future present but more than that, are still or are already, but in a still or an already that no longer have the sense of presence. Dasein is its past and is its future, is its birth and its death. But the is [ist] here designates a Being that can absolutely not have the form of presence or phenomenality. We are dealing here with an estance of being that does not have the form of consciousness. (HQBH 148, emph. Derrida’s)
Hence, as Heidegger puts it, “the movedness [Bewegtheit] of existence is not the temporal movement [Bewegung] of a Vorhandenheit [of something present];” and this constitutes “the Geschehen of Dasein: the historicity of Dasein,” for “the question of the ‘Zusammenhang’ of Dasein is the ontological problem of its Geschehen” (Heidegger, BT 358; quoted in Derrida, HQBH 151).
Derrida tells us that by thinking Dasein’s historicity in terms of temporal ek-stasis, Heidegger begins “to shake up, to solicit the epoch that dissimulates the history of being under the history of beingness determined as presentness.” And yet, Being and Time does not step into the history being. Rather, it “still belongs” to the epoch of the dissimulation of being insofar as it remains caught in the existential analysis of a specific being (Dasein) (HQBH 145). This is why Derrida says that Being and Time “runs out of breath.” The occlusion brought about by this glottal-stop in Being and Time gulps Dasein back into a dangerous proximity with what it allegedly comes to destroy.
Section VI: Entschlossenheit, Texturology, Sichüberlieferung, and Autoaffection
Which brings us back to the non-subjective determination of Dasein’s self-relation, particularly to its gathering or synthetic aspect, which in turn will lead us once more to the textual metaphor as well as to Heidegger’s decree. In session four, Derrida suggests historying as a plausible (and yet ridiculous) translation for Geschehen—occurring or event; what gives history, Geschichte, its structure. The advantage of historying is that it retains the verbal form of Geschehen, thus giving a better sense of the “originary movement” (HQBH 96) of Dasein’s historicity or Geschichtlichkeit; which is to say that “history-ing” evokes “the synthetic operation that is produced in the Geschehen which is precisely a gathering (Ge-), a sketch of a totalization that has its possibility in the synthesis of temporalization, precisely” (HQBH 96). This synthetic, gathering movement of temporalization on which Dasein’s historicity is necessarily rooted remains, accordingly, an “irreducible nucleus [...] because if one undid its synthesis, Zusammenhang, tissue (Text, texture, fundamental phrases) one would lose all chance of understanding history other than as empirical accident foreign to the movement of truth (Kant and time)” (HQBH 97). In sum, the self-relation of Dasein involves as a necessary analytic element a gathering synthesis of ek-static temporalization fashioned after a textual model. Besides displacing Husserlian and Hegelian notions of temporal-historical deployment, Dasein’s ek-static gathering also resists being put in terms of a Kantian version of synthesis. Indeed, in session six Derrida clarifies that one of the forms in which the “historical unity” of Dasein’s stretching is “entrusted to a ground that is not itself historical” is “the case of the formal I think in Kant’s sense, as a principle of unity whose relations with the temporality of experience pose the difficult problems of which you are aware and which are broached by Heidegger in Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics” (HQBH 136).
It is to these problems that Derrida turns in sessions seven and eight of his seminar, which mark the arrival of what Derrida anticipates in session four when he says that “following the thread of this question [about the historicity of Dasein and its relation to the meaning of being-history], we are going to see reappear, in an apparently surprising way, at a certain decisive turn in our path, grounded in necessity, a connotative signification of what a moment ago I called the text or the originary texture. Texturology, as J. Dubuffet says” (HQBH 91). We are about to reach, accordingly, the fourth and last stage of Heidegger’s first letter to being in Derrida’s seminar.
At the end of session seven, a remarkable moment occurs that gives session eight its thematic thrust. During the closing remarks of session seven, Derrida claims that although historicity is always elucidated on the basis of temporality in chapter five of section two of Being and Time, there is nonetheless one concept that corresponds to the primordial historicity of Dasein without immediately depending on the structure of originary temporality; namely: the repetition of the past at stake in inheritance, which Derrida associates with the notion of “auto-transmission” or Sichüberlieferung, meaning “originary historical synthesis of ek-sistence in ekstases” (HQBH 176). Let me quote a crucial paragraph of §74 of Being and Time that Derrida retrieves at the end of session seven in order to substantiate his reading of autotransmission:
Only a being that is essentially futural in its being so that it can let itself be thrown upon its factical there, free for its death and shattering itself on it, that is, only a being that, as futural, is equiprimordially having-been, can hand down to itself [sich selbst überliefernd] its inherited possibility, take over its own thrownness and be in the Moment [augenblicklich] for “its time.” Only authentic temporality that is at the same time finite makes something like fate, that is, authentic historicity, possible. (Heidegger, BT 365–66)
In order to prepare the reader for this admittedly difficult passage, Derrida reintroduces the textual metaphor he traced in session four and tells us how the text of Heidegger’s first letter to being is written, thus marking the return of the definition of text he advanced earlier in the seminar—“A text, as its name indicates, is a tissue, written or not, printed or not. A tissue means a synthetic multiplicity that holds to itself, retaining itself [se retenant elle-même]” (HQBH 83). So, at the end of session seven, Derrida writes:
Sichüberlieferung, this passage from self to self that constitutes the nuclear synthesis of historicity and is, properly speaking, the first tissue, the first text, the text that I was saying a few sessions ago we would see appear, or reappear at the point where it would ground in return the hermeneutic intention; this first tissue, this first text is authentically historical only if it is constituted, I would almost say written on the basis of an Entschlossenheit, a resolute anticipation and a freedom from death. (HQBH 176)
Following Derrida’s account of Sichüberlieferung or autotransmission in this passage, Entschlossenheit must be understood as the syntactical operator of Heidegger’s first letter to being; that is to say, as what allows Dasein to retain, gather, and transmit itself (to itself) through its temporal ek-stases as an authentically historical tissue. Heidegger’s first letter to being is written on the basis of an Entschlossenheit. All this seems to be in keeping with Heidegger’s formulations of the self-constancy or Selbstständigkeit of Dasein, which is based on Entschlossenheit: “Existentially, the constancy of the self [Selbst-ständigkeit] means nothing other than anticipatory resoluteness [vorlaufende Entschlossenheit]. Its ontological structure reveals the existentiality of the selfhood of the self [Selbstheit des Selbst]” (BT 308); and with Heidegger’s anchoring of Entschlossenheit in the moment or Augenblick: “Resoluteness would be misunderstood ontologically if one thought that it is real as ‘experience’ only as long as the ‘act’ of resolution ‘lasts.’ In resoluteness lies the existentiell constancy which, in keeping with its essence, has already anticipated every possible Moment arising from it [...] Thus the constancy of existence is not interrupted, but precisely confirmed in the Moment” (BT 372).
But yet again, how should one understand the self-retention of Dasein in Entschlossenheit if what we are dealing with here is a self-synthesis that is not static but ek-static? In other words, how should we understand the selfness at stake in Sich-überlieferung, and the decisionist aspect of Entschlossenheit, such that they do not immediately refer us back to the ahistorical agency of subjectivity and the ipseity that underpins it?
To answer these questions, we must turn to session eight of Derrida’s seminar. There, Derrida reassesses the affirmation that the ek-static unity of Dasein should be distinguished from the temporal synthesis of the Kantian “I think.” Turning to Heidegger’s Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, Derrida claims that Dasein’s Sichüberlieferung answers to the structure of the Kantian notion of temporal autoaffection, which poses the problem of elucidating a form of receptivity that does not involve the affection of a subject by an external being (what Kant calls intuitus derivativus), but the affection produced by the mind’s own activity. Derrida writes:
Auto-affection and auto-tradition—such is the movement of the temporalization of time [...] What does being affected by time mean, given that time is nothing, is not an already-given being, is nothing external to us? [...] Heidegger shows what time as pure intuition must signify: originarily, it can in no way signify affection of something by something, affection of a being by another being, affection of an existing subject by something outside of it: because time is nothing, as such it cannot affect anything. It is affection of self by self. Auto-affection, a concept that is as incomprehensible as is, in truth, the movement of temporalization. (HQBH 180)
Derrida explains that the difference between Kant and Heidegger is that whereas Kant defines the “I think” as atemporal by insisting on a vulgar conception of time (what Heidegger calls Innerzeitigkeit and Joan Stambaugh translates as “within-timeness”), Heidegger claims that the autoaffection of time, which answers to the movement of authentic temporality, is the “essential structure of subjectivity” (Heidegger, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics 132). In Being and Time, this idea is found in §68, where Heidegger describes the authenticity of time held in resoluteness in terms of the Moment. According to Heidegger, the Moment must be distinguished from the now because the latter answers to the vulgar conception of intra-temporality, which describes the presentation of things as happening in time. Conversely, in the Moment “nothing can happen” (BT 323), because what happens in the Moment of Entschlossenheit is temporal autoaffection. Since autoaffection is nothing, that is what happens in the Moment.
At this point, historicity is still formulated in terms of temporality: it remains anchored in Entschlossenheit and its unfolding answers to the autoaffection of time. Another condition is then required to elucidate something about historicity that does not simply repeat the structure of temporality. Derrida claims that such element of historicity is “repetition”—i.e. “the movement of Etnschlosseneheit when it resolutely and explicitly, expressly, takes up transmission, the return of the past, going back to the origin, and so on; repetition will be the phenomenon of the freedom of auto-transmission” (HQBH 202, emph. Derrida’s). Derrida makes clear that this concept—repetition—needs to be understood on the basis of Sichüberlieferung, which means that the structure of autoaffection is never really left behind, but blown up so as to incorporate the synthesis produced by Entschlossenheit within a broader synthetic deployment that enables the transmissibility of the possibilities that Entchlossenheit does not invent but inherits from the past. Derrida describes this broader synthesis as the structural condition for the historicity of Entschlossenheit itself, which stands for the possibility of an authentic relation to history:
The transcendental condition of all the determinate projections through which I shall determine myself with regard to history and the situation is, for these projections to be authentic, that they transmit themselves authentically [...] So one must pose the problem of the traditionality of Entschlossenheit before that of the relation of Entschlossenheit to traditionality in the world. The authenticity of historicity requires the historicity of authenticity. (HQBH 191)
The inversion Derrida proposes at the end of this passage will prove crucial for understanding the difficult role that autoaffection plays in Derrida’s seminar. When Derrida claims that authenticity necessitates historicity, he announces a displacement of autoaffection with respect to the running out of breath of the language of Being and Time—i.e. a non-metaphysical and non-ipseic inscription of autoaffection.
Section VII: The Passivity of Autoaffection
Although Derrida insists throughout session eight that Sichüberlieferung does not answer to the movement of consciousness, that it does not describe the deployment of something present, and that, in sum, “the Sich [self] of Sichüberlieferung is not primary with regard to the Überlieferung but is constituted by and in the Überlieferung” (HQBH 193), accepting these claims depends on us putting some pressure on autoaffection and its relation to the notion of Entschlossenheit, which remains laden with metaphysical import.
Autoaffection makes its first appearance in session seven of Derrida’s seminar, during an explanation of the main reasons for the turn in Heidegger’s work after Being and Time. Derrida’s explanation consists of three main points: (1) after the turn the analysis of the existential structures of Dasein will lose its centrality; (2) rather surprisingly, the theme of historicity is not going to disappear alongside temporality, but will be untethered from its temporal enrootedness; and finally, (3) after the turn it is not going to be a matter of the historicity of Dasein anymore but of the history of being—with the caveat, however, that such history will still require the Da of Dasein. These three elements entail leaving behind the categorial system of metaphysics, which can only announce by metaphor the history of being that still remains to be thought in Being and Time. It follows that all the ethico-metaphysical references that are central to Being and Time, especially the pair authenticity/inauthenticity, must also be left behind. Derrida argues that this turn in language answers to the impossibility of distinguishing between authenticity and inauthenticity, which follows from Heidegger’s recognition that the truth of being is inseparable from its untruth and its revelation from its dissimulation. After the turn, any attempt at preventing things from signifying their opposite—for example, preventing revelation from meaning dissimulation—becomes a nonstarter. This impossibility of separating truth from untruth precipitates the ruin of the role played by Entschlosshenheit in the existential analytic, and by extension also of the possibility of distinguishing between the vulgar now of presence and the authentic Moment of ek-stasis. In short, “Entschlossenheit, the condition of authenticity, will be just as much precipitation toward inauthenticity” (HQBH 168).
Which just means that the retentional structure of Entschlossenheit still retains its reference to a metaphysical backdrop. There are at least two major consequences that flow from this situation: the first one being Entschlossenheit’s reference to a free subject, and the second one being the specific emphasis Entschlossenheit introduces into the ek-stasis of time. As to the first problem, in a crucial passage of session seven Derrida argues that Entschlossenheit always runs the risk of concealing the “originary passivity” of Dasein’s ek-sistence that opens the “historicity of history” (HQBH 169). It is here that Derrida introduces autoaffection for the first time in the seminar, but now to describe the originary passivity that is threatened, and not enabled, by Entschlossenheit:
If there is an a priori signification that cannot be erased from history—and that Heidegger is moreover the last to want to erase—it is a certain irreducible passivity of ek-sistence and Da-sein. Passivity, nucleus of passivity, which must not be understood on the model of thingly intra-wordliness or as sensibility, but at the very least as auto-affection of time by itself. Now is this originary passivity that Entschlossenheit runs the risk of dissimulating. (HQBH 169)
Autoaffection here designates the exposure to an originary and irreducible alterity that Derrida relates to passivity in order to contest the priority of subjectivity as the enabling ground of time, experience, and history. Prior to the movement of Entschlossenheit, autoaffection designates a passivité plus passive que toute passivité, a passivity more passive than every passivity, as Derrida says quoting Lévinas (Adieu 58), which at once exceeds and enables the distinction between activity and passivity of an already constituted subject.
As to the second problem, later in session seven Derrida interrogates the privilege of the future in Entschlossenheit. In Being and Time, Entschlossenheit discloses authentic temporality as the anticipatory projection of Dasein’s ownmost potentiality of being in its being toward death. As such, Entschlossenheit discloses the privilege that Heidegger grants to the ek-stasis of the future in authentic temporality, because the future, which is “the primary phenomenon of primordial and authentic temporality [...] is temporalized primarily by that temporality which constitutes the meaning of anticipatory resoluteness” (Heidegger, BT 314–15). This leads Derrida to question the privilege of the future (or death) over the past (or birth), which, considering Heidegger’s own analysis on the Zusammenhangs des Lebens, and his understanding of Dasein’s pre-comprehension of being in terms of an always already, does not go without saying. Briefly put, privileging the ek-stasis of the future might be yet another way of dissimulating the originary passivity, or the irreducible anteriority, that opens historicity:
Getting back to the questions posed earlier, one will wonder whether, in order to dethrone the present, Heidegger is not illegitimately privileging here the ekstasis of the future—and this is consistent with the privileging of Entschlossenheit and the finite horizon of death [...]—and whether in so doing he is not dissimulating historicity for the reasons I gave earlier. (HQBH 174)
Derrida concludes that insofar as Heidegger illegitimately privileges the future over the past, he “cannot get out of the enigma of the origin of historicity” (HQBH 174). The notion of enigma seems to concentrate everything that interests Derrida here and that Entschlossenheit ends up dissimulating by anchoring temporality in the futural projectedness of a resolution that still hides a subjective-metaphysical core. Derrida ends up coining the term enigmaticity to describe what is at stake in this obscure ek-stasis of the past:
Enigmatic is the discourse on the past, enigmatic is the past as origin of discourse, enigmatic is historicity as discursivity. The time of the past in discourse and the past of time in ek-sistence are the enigma itself. They are not enigmas among others but the enigma of enigma, the enigmatic source of the enigma in general, enigmaticity. (HQBH 174)
Enigmaticity is the name, in other words, for the precedence of historicity over authenticity. This is to say that enigmaticity affirms the irreducibility of historicity as an anteriority that Entschlossenheit necessitates in order to temporalize authentically. But if such anteriority reveals that the autoaffection of time has a passive origin, then at least two consequences follow: first, that autoaffection is not activated by Dasein’s resoluteness, which accordingly always starts late; and second, that its origin never leads to an absolute beginning since it can be traced back only up to an always already—which means that historicity always begins by repeating a possibility that was already available. Thus, the “passive synthesis”  of autoaffection marks a limit to presence and escapes the metaphysical sway of Entschlossenheit—inviting, instead, a thinking of inheritance (that Derrida identifies in Heidegger and rewrites later on in his life) as a more suited alternative to come to terms with the movement of historicity. Enigmaticity is, in short, Derrida’s name for a past that resists being gathered in the presence that Entschlossenheit still privileges, and that already in his early seminar Derrida refers to Lévinas’s thinking of the trace.
If this is so, then how are we to read Derrida’s assertion that the texturology of Dasein’s Sichüberlieferung is written by Entschlossenheit? We must begin by saying that what Derrida claims in session seven of his seminar poses serious problems for his own affirmations about Entschlossenheit in the following session. If Entschlossenheit cannot reduce its reference to the metaphysics of the subject, and if it ends up repressing the most important condition of historicity, then all the caveats one finds in the following passage begin to tremble:
The translation of the notion of Entschlossenheit is difficult and heavy with philosophical decision. We will keep the translation “resolute decision,” making quite clear that this is not the decision of a consciousness that deliberates, initiates absolutely, decrees, is decisive, all these significations designating precisely the interruption of historicity, the progress of a voluntarist radicalism, a philosophy of consciousness deciding and tearing the tissue and the text of [illegible word] history with its verdicts and its absolute beginnings. If that is what resolute decision means, then we should not translate Entschlossenheit as resolute decision. (HQBH, 186. emph. mine)
As long as Dasein’s Sichüberlieferung is written on the basis of Entschlossenheit, the movement of historicity remains caught within the metaphysics of a decreeing subjectivity, which now discloses, as in a domino effect, the ipseity at work in all the terms that depend on Entschlossenheit in Being and Time, such as temporality, the structure of care, destiny, selfness, self-constancy, and so on. Derrida’s analysis of autoaffection in session seven of his early seminar then allows us to read the following passage found in §64 of Being and Time as a clear description of the ipseity of Entschlossenheit: “In terms of care [which is anticipatory Entschlossenheit] the constancy of the self [Ständigkeit des Selbst], as the supposed persistence of the subject, gets its clarification” (BT 308).
Derrida warns us about this at the end of session seven, immediately after a passage I read above: “This first tissue, this first text is authentically historical only if it is constituted, I would almost say written on the basis of an Entschlossenheit, a resolute anticipation and a freedom for death. I have already given a glimpse of what the consequences of this proposition should be” (HQBH 176; emph. mine). To drive the point home: all the terms related to Entschlossenheit now seem to point in the direction of a self-gathering tendency of Dasein marking the interruption of the passivity of historicity in the name of authenticity, which then yields a temporality of ipseity threatening with reinstalling the metaphysical sway of presence and appropriation. In the wake of Derrida’s comments on enigmaticity, we must then ask ourselves whether ek-sistence escapes the self-appropriating tendency of ipseity, and consequently whether Dasein is not driven by a sovereign lure. All the more so, since Entschlossenheit seems to enact the self-referential gesture that, besides turning Heidegger’s book into authentic thinking, also situates the structure of resoluteness in close proximity to the dictating ipseity driving Heidegger’s decree.
Section VIII: Postal Autoimmunity
By way of conclusion, I would like to suggest that Derrida’s formulations on the enigmatic and passive origin of historicity begin to erode the exemplarity of Dasein—which isn’t also a mark of its sovereignty?—when one thinks through them in reference to the characterization of Dasein as the first letter to Being. When Derrida calls Dasein a letter, he exposes another dimension of autoaffection that intensifies the postponement of Entschlossenheit as what opens Dasein to the authenticity of its ek-sistence. What I would therefore like to suggest is that when in 1964-65 Derrida calls Dasein a letter he allows us to draw conclusions about the writing ipseity of resoluteness that are similar to the ones he draws regarding the convergence of ipseity and the figure of the wheel in the second year of The Beast and the Sovereign.
In lines that retrieve the language of metaphor, Derrida argues that the wheel is an “incorporated figural possibility” or a “metaphora” (BS2 75) for every movement of self-reference in general, and, by extension, also the metaphoric core of the autodeictics of ipseity. Yet, this metaphor immediately threatens ipseity by bringing the exteriority of the world into the interiority of its autoaffection. Which is also to say that the metaphor of the wheel turns the circular interiority of ipseity into a prosthesis: it inscribes it out, in the exteriority of the world, which now stands as anterior to and irreducible for ipseity. In the session of January 22 of 2003, Derrida explains:
I am thinking [...] of a structural configuration, both historical and genetic, in which all these possibilities are not separated, and in which everything that can happen to the autos is indissociable from what happens in the world through the prosthetization of an ipseity which at once divides that ipseity, dislocates it, and inscribes it outside itself in the world, the world being precisely what cannot be reduced here [...] The wheel is not only a technical machine, it is in the world, it is outside the conscious interiority of the ipse, and what I want to say is that there is no ipseity without this prostheticity in the world, with all the chances and all the threats that it constitutes for ipseity, which can in this way be constructed but also, and by the same token, indissociably, be destroyed. (BS2 88)
The inevitable prosthetization of ipseity brought about by the incorporated metaphoric possibility of the wheel reveals that the ipse is constructed and historical, and that because of this, it is also subject to destruction (and, we should also add, to deconstruction). This means that in its freewheeling movement of self-reference, the ipse finds itself at once confirmed and threatened. In other words, in the inevitable metaphoric turn or “metaphoricity” of the wheel, the movement of which has lead us, as in a wheel of fortune, from the first to the last seminar of Derrida, autoaffection becomes autoimmunity: “The metaphora of this extraordinary apparatus [i.e. the wheel] is a figure, the turn of a trope that constructs and instructs in the relation to self, in the auto-nomy of ipseity, the possibility for unheard-of chances and threats, of automobility, but also, by the same token, of that threatening auto-affection that is called autoimmunity in general” (BS2 75).
But are we really allowed to bring Derrida’s analyses on the autoimmunitary effects of the metaphor of the wheel to bear upon his characterization of Dasein as a letter? Is there anything in the movement of the wheel that could lead us to the letter such that both objects, the letter and the wheel, reveal an inner relation with one another? The answer is yes, and providing a fully-fledged elaboration of it would require a parallel reading of The Post Card and Rogues that I leave for another occasion. Suffice it to say here that a letter is implied in the wheel of ipseity to the extent that the self-reference of the ipse is also the propelling of a self-sending. Moreover, the sending reveals that the reference that the ipse necessitates to return to itself inevitably entails the dangerous detour of venturing outside—and thus also enables the relation of the ipse with the prosthesis of the wheel. The sending accordingly doubles down the passivity of ipseity in its exposure to the non-proper exteriority, which now refers ipseity not only the irreducible anteriority of the world but also to the unforeseeability of the event. In other words, the figure of the letter brings into our analysis what Derrida calls the postal principle in order to designate the necessary possibility of non-arrival that affects every sending in both its origin and its end. For if “even in arriving the letter withdraws itself from the arrival (se soustrait à l’arrivée)” (Derrida, CP 135), the possibility of non-arrival is also the positive condition for a sending to occur: “A letter can always—and therefore must—never arrive at its destination. And this is not negative, it’s good, and is the condition (the tragic condition, certainly, and we know something about that), for something to happen” (CP 133; PC 125. Slightly modified translation).
What if following the logic of the postal principle we were to say that the first letter to being is originarily and endlessly affected by non-arrival? Doesn’t Derrida allow one to say this when he asserts that Dasein finds the possibility for its self-reference and its autoaffection as something bequeathed to him from an enigmatic anteriority? If so, aren’t we then also allowed to say that Dasein does not activate its own self-reference but re-sends it in re-acting and responding to the enigmatic otherness of the past; that is to say, by ceaselessly referring back, and passively so, to it? Doesn’t it follow from this that Dasein’s self-reference never really attains activity or activation? And does not this passive re-sending of Dasein in turn implies that its self-constancy also becomes immediately affected, if it propels ahead at all, by the chance of non-arrival that flows from the irreducible exposure to the coming of the event that late in his life Derrida did not fail to relate to autoimmunity (Rogues 210)? How are we therefore to read Heidegger’s first letter to being if its retentional operator, Entschlossenheit, not only retains metaphysics but also is internally affected by what we might want to call postal autoimmunity? An answer to these questions is that Entschlossenheit can never secure in advance the gathering, constancy, and selfness, in one word, the authenticity that it supposedly secures because it might always not arrive at destination (even in arriving). So one should at least remain suspicious of the language of ek-sistence in Being and Time, which hinges on the distinction between the authentic and the inauthentic, as Derrida tells us Heidegger himself did. Instead of reading just the first and authentic letter sent to being we should perhaps trace the “originary texture” (HQBH 91) of historicity by following the trajectory of many other letters, now taken as “envois without destination” (Derrida, PC 66) giving way to a broader textual drift, the retentional structure of which would have to be distinguished from the ipseic self-reference of Entschlossenheit in the direction of Derrida’s thinking of the trace.
As Derrida himself makes clear in some of his texts, the disseminating drift of the post cannot be grafted onto the thinking of the epochality of being that Heidegger elaborated after the turn—despite, that is, of Heidegger’s leaving behind the language of authenticity/inauthenticity that Derrida comments in his seminar. The turmoil introduced by postal autoimmunity into the language of Being and Time does not unfold in the direction of a history of being but of historicity as différance—and this is perhaps what is at stake in the very last lines of Derrida’s early seminar. To be sure, this does not mean that Derrida will simply dispense with Heidegger’s thinking of history and being, which still proves crucial for key aspects of Derrida’s thinking, as is attested by the following line we read in session three of the early Heidegger seminar: “one does not begin with the originary; that’s the first word of the (hi)story” (HQBH 62).
And yet, this impossibility of beginning with the originary prompts Derrida to propose différance as perhaps anterior than the ontico-ontological difference. In accord with the Greek forgetting at the dawn of metaphysics, the ontico-ontological difference still determines the difference of being in reference to a (present) being. Moreover, as Derrida explains at the end of session six of the seminar, to the extent that Heidegger must say being and thus determine it linguistically, he makes “appear in the Present the very thing he is saying cannot be gathered up in presence” (HQBH 151). Now even if after Being and Time Heidegger attempts to erase the determination of being as presence by crossing out the word “being,” such attempt at erasure still leaves the word being legible. This reveals an insistence on one specific word on Heidegger’s part, which Derrida associates in the closing lines of “Différance” with a Heideggerian “hope” to arrive at the “alliance of speech and Being in the unique word, in the name, in short, proper” (Margins 27; slightly modified translation). For Derrida, the ontico-ontological difference and the language of being then remain derivative with respect to the older drift that characterizes the general text of différance, which withdraws inevitably from determination and nominal fixation in traces that cannot be thought more metaphysico because they are only produced under erasure (Derrida, OG 23; Margins 65–67). In other words, as Derrida writes in The Post Card, différance “does not await language, especially human language, and the language of Being, only the mark and the divisible trait,” to which he adds that as soon as “there is” (il y a, es gibt) différance—i.e. always already—“there is postal maneuvering, relays, delay, anticipation, destination, telecommunicating network, the possibility, and therefore the fatal necessity of going astray, etc.” (PC 66). In “Différance,” this difficult thought of a difference older than the ontico-ontological difference, which is perhaps Derrida’s own elaboration of what he meant by the enigmaticity of the past in 1964-65, also entails thinking différance (and its historicity) as what corrodes the proper name and its concomitant sovereign rule: “[différance] governs nothing, reigns over anything, and nowhere exercises any authority. It is not announced by any capital letter. Not only is there no kingdom of différance, but différance foments the subversion of every kingdom” (Margins 22). Is it possible to resist and withhold in deconstruction the capital letters we keep stumbling upon in our reading? And in doing so, can we write back in the direction of the enigmatic text of différance without majuscules or mayúsculas, that is to say, away from the politics of majesty they foreshadow?
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- —-. Psyche: Inventions of the Other. Vol. 2. Ed. Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008. Print.
- —-. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. Trans. Michel Naas and Pascale-Anne Brault. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005. Print.
- —-. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
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In session two, Derrida writes: “It would be easy to show, and I will not dwell on it, that never in the history of philosophy has there been a radical affirmation of an essential link between being and history. Ontology has always been constituted through a gesture of wrenching itself away from historicity and temporality, even in Hegel, for whom history is the history of the manifestation of an absolute and eternal concept, of a divine subjectivity that, in its origin and in its end, seems to gather up its historicity infinitely—that is, to live it in the total presence of being with itself (i.e., in a non-historicity)” (HQBH 21). See also Derrida, HQBH 27. For a helpful outline of the scope of Derrida’s seminar, see Krell, 88-90.
Since the access to the meaning of being is “secured in advance” (BT 5) in Dasein, the temporality and historicity implied in the “always already” of pre-comprehension will provide the ultimate horizon for the meaning of being (HQBH 41–42). See also Derrida, HQBH 173. I will return to this issue later in this essay.
A proof for Derrida that this textual metaphor is not an accident is Heidegger’s use of the noun Auslegung to designate his understanding of phenomenology as the science of the being of beings (and particularly of the being of Dasein). Auslegung “is translated [into French] as ‘explicitation’ [and into English as ‘interpretation’] — which is indeed what it means. It is indeed the action of unfolding that spreads out and turns over what is enveloped — but it is also the word used to designate exegesis—for example of sacred texts—and interpretation: hermēneuein. An act of deciphering reading” (HQBH 79).
Which means, as Derrida puts it in A Taste for the Secret, that “good writing is thus always hanté by bad writing” (8). A fully-fledged version of this argument is found at the beginning of Of Grammatology. See Derrida, OG 6-7.
Heidegger quotes a crucial passage of the second edition of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (B 67-68), which, he claims, is but an elaboration of an earlier formulation of autoaffection found in the first edition, which is the one Derrida provides in the eighth session of the seminar, relating to the fact that time must “affect the concept of the representation of objects” (quoted in Derrida, HQBH 180). The passage of the second edition of the first Critique that Heidegger quotes is the following: “Now that which, as representation, can be antecedent to every act of thinking anything, is intuition; and if it contains nothing but relations, it is the form of intuition. Since this form represents nothing except insofar as something is posited in the mind, it can be nothing other than the way the mind, through its own activity (namely, this positing of its representation), consequently comes to be affected through itself, i.e., according to an inner sense of its form” (quoted in Heidegger, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics 133).
The reference is of course to Derrida’s analyses on the “passive synthesis of time” in The Problem of Genesis in Husserl’s Philosophy, which are perhaps the first formulations leading to what later on some commentators, and Derrida himself, will come to designate as the “quasi-transcendental.” In his early book on Husserl, Derrida writes: “The empirical order is the always already constituted order. Now, if it is recognized, as Husserl will, that the originary ‘now’ appears only through a passive synthesis of time with itself and through an immediate retention of the past, that the present is constituting only because, in emerging from the radical newness of an immediately constituted past, it roots itself in it and appears to itself as present only against the background of its passive continuity with the former moment, then one has the right to pose the following question: What radical discontinuity is there between this already constituted past and objective time that imposes itself on me, constituted without any active intervention on my part?” (56). Later on in the book, Derrida adds: “Now, to the degree that it refers at the limit to an ultimate passive synthesis where the ego has not yet taken possession of its sense as an ego—and here comes the compromising of phenomenology with psychology, sociology, biology, and so forth—the egologic science, thus defined, is not autonomous in its foundation; it causes the frames of an idealism to burst asunder” (146–47).
At the end of session six, Derrida writes: “let me point out the attempt made by Levinas, claiming to go against Heidegger but in many respects still in his wake, to destroy this privilege of phenomenality and the Present [...] let me point out that the latest stage of this Enterprise [...] consists in elaborating a thematic of the Trace, as opposed to the Sign. The Trace being precisely the appearing of what, irreducibly and therefore infinitely, withdraws from phenomenality and presence, and that Levinas most often calls the infinitely other but also the Past, a past to which one has a relation as to an absolute past that can absolutely not be thought as past present, as a modification, in whatever sense, of the Present of a consciousness” (HQBH 151-52).
For some time now, scholars have interrogated whether Heidegger actually succeeds in distinguishing Dasein from both the subject and ipseity in the existential analytic. For example, in an insightful commentary on §64 of Being and Time, Jean-Luc Marion argues that “what is formulated at the beginning of the [existential] analytic as ‘mineness’ [Jemeinigkeit] is said at the end of it as ‘ipseity’ [Selbstheit]” (81). Marion goes on to claim that the self-constancy of Dasein enabled by Entschlossenheit “rediscovers [...] the metaphysical avatar of constituting subjectivity,” because despite destructing the project of transcendental subjectivity that goes from Descartes to Husserl, the ek-stasis of care grounded in Entschlossenheit still “mimics the latter in reestablishing an autarchy of Dasein, identic to itself by itself to the point that this ipseity stabilizes itself in an auto-positing.” After which Marion concludes: “the shadow of the ego always extends over Dasein” (82). Marion’s commentary stands in close proximity to the following remarks made by Derrida in his interview with Jean-Luc Nancy “Eating Well: or the Calculation of the Subject”: “Dasein cannot be reduced to a subjectivity, certainly, but the existential analytic still retains the formal traits of every transcendental analytic. Dasein, and what there is in it that answers to the question ‘Who?’ comes to occupy, no doubt displacing lots of other things, the place of the ‘subject,’ the cogito or the classical “Ich denke.” From these, it retains certain essential traits (freedom, resolute-decision, to take up this old translation again, a relation of presence to self, the ‘call’ [Ruf] toward a moral conscience, responsibility, primordial imputability or guilt [Schuldigsein] etc.)” (98). In the introduction to Premises, Werner Hamacher arrives at a similar conclusion: “However much Being and Time may reclaim a pre-positional and pre-propositional structure for the Being of Dasein, it nevertheless conceives of Dasein in its ‘before’—to the extent that it is its ‘before’—as a position and thus grasps Dasein within the horizon of ontotheseology” (28). This affirmation must be read against the backdrop of Hamacher’s understanding of ontotheseology in reference to Kant (Hamacher 12) and Fichte (Hamacher 250). It is therefore noteworthy that (a quite young) Derrida had already prefigured this argument as early as 1964-65.
In Entschlossenheit Dasein attains Selbst-Ständigkeit and also gathers (or appropriates) dispersion absolutely: “Everyday Dasein is dispersed in the multiplicity of what ‘happens’ daily [...] So if Dasein wants to come to itself, it must first pull itself together [Zusammenholen] from the dispersion and the disconnectedness of what has just ‘happened’” (BT 370-71). In Ecstasy, Catastrophe, David Krell argues that “there is something about dispersion and distraction that dominates the entire question of the meaning of being, the history of being, and every single one of Heidegger’s principal themes; it is the dispersion and distraction of human beings that Heidegger most wants to combat. They are his worst nightmares” (44-45). See also Geoffrey Bennington’s exhaustive account of Heidegger’s references to dispersion in Scatter 1 125–133.
See “Envoi” in Derrida, Psyche 1. In “Différance,” Derrida writes: “The movement of différance is perhaps not solely the truth of Being, or of the epochality of Being” (Margins 22). For a discussion of this problem, see Geoffrey Bennington’s essay included in this issue, “Epochages.” Derrida also addresses the epochality of being in PC, 63-67. For an interrogation of Derrida’s attempt at distancing his thinking of the envoi from Heidegger’s Ge-schick of Schicken, see Mitchell “The Extent of Giving: Sending in Derrida and Heidegger.”