To Ashley, Hannah, and Sarah

The question about nationalism seems always inclined to prompt a certain philosophical prudery, as well as its flip side, i.e. a sort of transgressive fascination. There seems to be something incredibly trivial and philosophically shallow about the question of nationalism. Anything other than political disdain seems suspicious or frivolous at best, and can be entertained only as a guilty pleasure. Discussing nationalism and nationality—or, to use Benedict Anderson’s term, nation-ness—philosophically would be either flirting with someone else’s—the historian’s, the anthropologist’s, the sociologist’s, the political scientist’s—legitimate object of concern, or prostituting philosophy in a justificatory practice of the self-explanatory manifestation of the natural human tendency to organize plurality into collective subjects, of some merely accidental result of historical contingencies, or even, worst case scenario, of an abominable political perversion. In this perspective, Derrida’s choice of Philosophical Nationality and Nationalism as topic for a series of four—still mostly unpublished—seminars at the EHESS (1984-88) needs to be understood as the avowal of the thoroughly philosophical character of any affirmation of nationality or assertion of nationalism, rather than merely as a claim for the philosophical dignity of these concepts and their discussion. Derrida is very clear about the scope of his concern from the very beginning of his 1984 seminar:

What I am saying is not limited to a reminder- although this is also true and I expect that we shall verify this- that the concept and the word “nation” are philosophical, and could not have been constituted, historically, outside a philosophical-type milieu and a discourse marked by a certain history of the philosophical as such. [...] No what I am saying is not limited to that. What I am saying concerns the structure of national consciousness, feeling and demand which means that a nation posits itself not only a bearer of a philosophy but an exemplary philosophy, i.e. one that is both particular and potentially universal- and which is philosophical by that very fact. (Onto-theology 10)

One of the main and most significant moments of the long engagement of Derrida with the question of the philosophical essence of nationalism, is represented by a sustained and intense reading of Heidegger traceable in part, but not exclusively, in the series of texts gathered under the title Geschlecht.[1] Yet the general topic of Derrida’s seminar does more than simply provide his philosophical-political engagement with Heidegger with some broader context. If Derrida is turning to a meticulous reading of Heidegger, this is not first and for the most part to offer his stands on vexata quaestio of Heidegger’s implication in Nazism. Nor is it, or at least not solely, because such an implication provides him with a solid ground for a philosophical discussion of nationalism. Rather it is because—as the last part of the present essay shows—Heidegger’s gesture of situating philosophy in the reading of Trakl’s poetry reveals something essential about the relationship between thinking and place (about the place of thinking as much as about the thinking of place) that stands at the very core of the philosophical discussion of nation-ness and nationalism.

Under the title Philosophical Nationalism: Topology and Tropology, my intention here is to follow Derrida in his reading of Heidegger, towards offering a philosophical account of the relationship between thinking and place as the proper critical theoretical site for the question about the nation and nationalism. To this end, I borrow the binomial topology-tropology from Derrida's “Faxitexture,” a lecture given at a 1991conference in Tokyo with architects and urbanists regarding the city of the new millennium. Beginning his intervention, Derrida says:

No less than architecture, as much as urbanism, rhetoric presents itself as a theory of places: topology and tropology. Tropes are tours, changes of place, from somewhere to somewhere else, displacement, voyage, transfer or transposition, metonym or metaphor, translation or transhumance. (20)

Etymologically, topology[2] refers to the logic of meaningful space, i.e. it is a semantic rather than a geometric understanding of space. Topology is concerned with qualifying space, it is concerned with organizing the meaning of spaces and spaces according to meaning. And this logic of meaningful space is both a logic of gathering and also a logic of order. On the other hand, tropology refers to a logic of displacement, transfer, transposition, transfiguration of meaning. Tropology is concerned with the turns, deportations, translations, and arrivals of meaning from elsewhere. Evidently, there is no tropology without a topology, but in a certain way the opposite can also be true. A tropology is also constitutive rather than only derivative of a topology. This is indeed the case of the tropological constitution of the place of the nation as site of a return.

The interplay between topology and tropology constitutes the enigma of nationalism and nation-ness as a legitimate problem for philosophical thinking. Such an interplay emerges clearly in Derrida’s reading—which occupies most of the text of Geschlecht III: Sex Race, Nation, Humanity—of Heidegger’s thinking dialogue with Georg Trakl’s poetry in the 1953 essay “Language in the Poem: A Discussion of Georg Trakl’s Poetic Work” (“Die Sprache im Gedicht, Eine Erörterung von Georg Trakls Gedicht”). In this reading Derrida recognizes “a typically nationalist posture” (173) in Heidegger’s thought, yet his concern is more radical and has to do with inquiring into the philosophical posture that provides for all nationalism(s) with its ultimate foundation, which Derrida refers to as national-humanism. However, this way, and along the way, he is also showing and diving into Heidegger’s own philosophical nationalism and humanistic relapse.

At stake for me in what follows is the question around the relation of reciprocal implication between topology and tropology, as well as its consequences for the understanding of the philosophical ground of nationalism.

Topology and Tropology of National Humanism

What makes intriguing the question about the philosophical foundation, or the philosophical status of all nationalisms, is the paradoxical character of the idea of nationalism, which is at the same time one of the simplest and one of the most ambiguous in political thought. In this sense, the idea of nationalism is also probably one of the most irritating—almost disturbing—for political theorists, since while pretty elementary, it challenges the need for any substantial theoretical elaboration to the point that such a lack of sophistication seems to be the very key to its incredible power to command political legitimacy.

As Gellner defines it in the very first page of his 1983 book Nations and Nationalism: “Nationalism is primarily a political principle, which holds that the political unit and the national unit should be congruent”(1) and, just a few lines later, “In brief, nationalism is a theory of political legitimacy, which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones” (1). Nationalism is nothing more than the idea that what grants legitimacy to the political institution of the state and its legal order is the congruency of its territory and jurisdiction with the space, the site, the place of a given cultural community, the “national unit.”

The idea is quite simple indeed in its predicate, however quite enigmatic in its presuppositions and philosophical foundations. And the enigma rests mostly on the side of the national unit. As the title of Derrida’s seminar also would indicate, the crucial question is the question of Nationality. And the question of Nationality is the question of the topology of the cultural ethnic community, whose supposed natural and self-evident existence—or, better, spatial existence—would grant legitimacy to the political boundaries of the state. To add qualifying power to Gellner’s paradigmatic definition—still without touching at all the philosophical enigma behind it—then one could say that Nationalism is a topological theory of political legitimacy. As a topological theory of political legitimacy though, nationalism is also a tropology, since it is the figure of the displacement (i.e. transfer or transposition) of the quest for political legitimacy into the quest for the topology of human communities.

In asking the question about philosophical Nationality, Derrida is explicitly addressing it as a trope, i.e. as a synecdoche for the question of the topology of all humanist metaphysics—to which nationalism defers. Paraphrasing Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism, all humanism is first and foremost concerned with establishing the humanitas of humanity on the base of a metaphysical understanding of beings as a whole, of nature, of history, and of the word. The essence of man is the gathering principle of the subject—singular or plural—that is in history. It has to do with the thinking of the proper place of humanity in the order of the totality of being. It is an arché-logic thinking on the tracks of the originary universal principle that gathers humans and assigns them to their proper place. This is the “Onto-theology of National-Humanism” that Derrida identifies in his 1984-85 seminar as the philosophical structure of nationalism and cosmopolitanism alike. Even though the lack of theoretical elaboration of nationalism tends to obscure such a philosophical structure, one can spot it in the fact that paradoxically nationalism is asserted as a universal principle of political legitimacy, even though its historical existence is marked by a plurality of particularistic claims. As Derrida notes during the first session of the seminar:

Nationalism never presents itself as a particularism but a universal philosophical model, a philosophical telos, is why it is always philosophical in essence, even in its worst and most sinister manifestations, those that are the most imperialistic and most vulgarly violent. (11)

The question of nationality refers to the question about the topological dimension of humanism. It is the question about the construction of the “we” that constitutes a community based on a particular logic of the site, or one can say it is the question of the community gathering based on a topology of “the propium.

Nationalism is the philosophical universal call for the gathering of humanity in the site of its unique essence, the proper place of the co-belonging of origin and destiny, of the continuity between nature and history. This is a logic that institutes continuity and symmetry rather than opposition, between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, as the Kantian foundational texts of modern cosmopolitanism[3]—with which Derrida has dialogued multiple times—among others, most clearly show. In the Letter on Humanism, Heidegger already denounced the isomorphism between nationalism (-cosmopolitanism) and humanism:

Every nationalism is metaphysically an anthropologism, and as such subjectivism. Nationalism is not overcome through mere internationalism; it is rather expanded and elevated thereby into a system. Nationalism is as little brought and raised to humanitas by internationalism, as individualism is by an ahistorical collectivism. (Basic Writing 244)

Derrida does not quote or explicitly discuss these passages of the Letter until later in the 1984-85 seminar (11th session, Geschlecht III 140), when the time came for him to question Heidegger’s text about his suspicion that while trying to mark a distance from humanism, Heidegger would fall prey to the very axiomatic of the gathering that can be seen as the latter’s core:

I suspected, and still suspect Heidegger of not escaping the formality of this schema when calls us to think the homeland from the origin and horizon of the history of being and the world, and when he places the human as Dasein in this more originary place than the human as the animal rationale of metaphysical humanism, or when he laments Heimatlosigkeit as destiny of the world and as an effect of metaphysics. (140)

The Tropologies of Nationalism

Nationalism claims legitimacy for the state on the basis of a humanist logic of proper-ty. Nationalism is the topological theory of political legitimacy according to which the proper site for political legitimacy emerges only from and in the congruency of the institutional space of the state with the communitarian place of the nation. The nation itself is the figure that gives to the community its proper place in order for it to claim a meaningful legitimate political space.

The legitimacy of both the state’s territoriality and its sovereignty is determined on the ground of the axiomatic ontological assumption of the topological character of human communities that is tropologically (both metaphorically and analogically) transferred to the political level.

On the one hand, the boundaries of the state’s territorial jurisdiction are to be considered legitimate when they coincide with the ideal boundaries of the proper place of the national community. The proper place of the national community is the site of gathering that constitutes the community as such, to which all the members of the community (are supposed to) belong because this is where they find their proper meaning, i.e. the “identity” that allows for their proper subsumption into the community. So, analogically (and almost catachrestically) such a site belongs to the community since the community gives it its meaning as originary place. The semantics of proper-ty becomes the semantics of property. Nationalism legitimates the territoriality of the state through a tropological transformation of “semantization” into appropriation.

On the other hand, the exercise of sovereignty within the boundaries of the national territory is to be considered legitimate if the ruling authority can claim both belonging to and identity with national community. This is a doubly tropological claim meant to ambiguously justify the relationship of sovereignty between the rulers and the community in terms of representation. The rulers present themselves as synecdoche for the whole community, while at the same time, they are meant to stand metaphorically for the community as an indivisible whole. This way, the community is ruling itself rather than being ruled over, excluding in principle any possibility of domination, while the integrity of the political property of the territory also is guaranteed in principle.

Community itself is first and foremost a trope. It is the topological trope par excellence: it is the figure that signifies the topological dimension of humanism. Community is the metaphor of the gathering as the proper topos for humanity. Conceiving the community topologically as the place for an essential human gathering lays the foundation for its ipseity, namely its integrity as subjective totality. In the figure of community, the gathering is assumed to be what is most essentially proper to humanity. As Roberto Esposito suggested, “the community remains doubly tied to the semantics of the proprium” (Communitas 2). The nation—or the national community—is therefore first and foremost a trope: it is the figure of the community of the proper. The nation is the metaphor of the topology of communities as triply tied to proper-ty. The nation is the metaphor of the proper topos of human communities; in the figure of the nation, the properly human gathering finds its proper place, which is the place for the gathering of people in the name of what is supposed to be the most proper to them.

Starting the 1984-85 seminar, Derrida makes clear how the structure of nationality is always philosophical rather than empirical. Even if it presents itself as exemplarily embodied in a particular nation, the affirmation of nationality is always “a sort of potentially universal discourse” (Onto-theology 10). It depends on a ontotheological relationship with the world, and the tropical structure of metaphysics is constitutive of it.

Even before any elaboration of the concept of nation and of philosophical nationality, of idiom as national philosophical idiom, we know at least this much - it’s a minimal but indubitable predicate – namely that the affirmation of a nationality or even the claim of nationalism does not happen to philosophy by chance or from the outside, it is essentially and thoroughly philosophical, it is a philosopheme. What does this mean? It means at least that a national identity is never posited as an empirical, natural character of the type: such and such a people or such and such a race has black hair or is of the dolicephalic type, or else we recognize ourselves by the presence of such and such a characteristic. The self-positing or self-identification of the nation always has the form of a philosophy which, although better represented by such and such a nation, is none the less a certain relation to the universality of the philosophical. (Onto-theology 10)

Nationality results from the process of metaphorization that posits the nation. This is a process of metaphorical-metaphysical conceptualization and, as such, implies a sort of double tropology that posits both a figural entity and its referent.

The concept of metaphor is built on the assumption—itself philosophical—that the abstract figure is hiding an original sensory one. As Derrida shows in White Mythology, the double fiction of metaphorization is what is fundamentally metaphorized in the concept of “metaphor,” that is, “the opposition of the proper and the non-proper” (Margins 229). Such a semantic structure is “an elliptical comparison or analogy” (Margins 243) that permits a substitution at the same time as it implies an opposition (proper-improper; literal-figurative; sensible-intelligible). The metaphor presents itself as resulting from the displacement of a proper meaning, yet both depend on the originary tropology that constitutes language itself. It pretends to be just the result of the transfer of a given meaning from its originary proper semantic place to the improper figurative place of its metaphorical signifier. Yet this is itself what is already metaphorized in the concept of metaphor. The metaphor of metaphor is “a metaphor par excellence, a metaphorical redoubling, an ellipsis of ellipsis” (243). The metaphor of metaphor is the philosopheme that constitutes the catachrestical structure of metaphysics that itself obscures the metaphorical character of language. Derrida explained it thoroughly during one of his seminal encounters with Heidegger, in the 1964 seminar Heidegger: the Question of Being and History.

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.

This means in particular that there is no chance, that there will never be any chance for those who might think of metaphor as a disguise of thought or of the truth of being. There will never be any chance of undressing or stripping down this naked thinking of being which was never naked and never will be. The proper meaning whose movement metaphor tries to follow without ever reaching or seeing it, this proper meaning has never been said or thought and will never be said or thought as such. We must not turn away from, but be wary of, the very opposition of proper meaning and metaphor if we are tempted to think them as the opposition of two terms. It is in rhetorical derivatives, in the deportation far away from the poetic or from thinking, it is in philosophy that this opposition hides its meaning by presenting itself as a bipolar operation (rhetorical and philosophical). (The Question 62-63)

The philosophical structure of nationality and nationalism has then to do with the metaphorical redoubling of the catachrestical structure of metaphysics, as it has to do with the metaphorical character of language. Though these dimensions are intrinsically interconnected, it is worth attempting to address them one at the time.

Through metaphysical-metaphorical economy, the trope of the nation posits nationality as the proper character of those gathered in it. Nationality emerges from the metaphysical conceptualization that names the figural-fictional entity of the Nation which stands metaphorically for an equally fictive referent that is posited as “literal” and “proper,” that is, as an always-already-there originary ethnic community. This means—to paraphrase Derrida—that there will never be any chance of undressing or stripping down this naked being-there of a given originary community waiting to get dressed in its promised political attire.

The process of metaphorization of the nation is grounded in what one could call, following Derrida, a topological axiomatic of the gathering. The gathering itself should be understood as a particular process of metaphorization, that is to say, a process of separation, isolation, and determination, through naming that creates the impression of expressing a preexisting given idea or reality which is linked to a specific topology, that is, the topology of the proper originary place.

The structural ellipsis of any metaphor always requires a systematic logic of metaphoric productions that deals with and compensates for it, that is, a more general syntax that arranges the multiple metaphors together narratively. In the case of the metaphor of nation, the main organizing narrative syntax that ties it with the whole supporting system of metaphors is a narrative of return to this proper originary place.

So, the tropology of philosophical nationalism is a tropology of the return to the originary place. The proper originary place is the place of the gathering in the sense that it is its always already lost and mourned arché as much as it is its anticipated and awaited telos. The place as origin, i.e. the homeland (Heimat), as site of the gathering, is also the site from which the promise of a destiny is announced. The narrative syntax that ties up the gathering of the nation is a narrative of a return and of a promise that topologically coincide, because they coincide in the place of their enunciation and announcement. The originary place which is the core of the topology of nationalism is constituted as such by and through the tropology of return.

Heidegger and Trakl: Philosophical nationalism

Derrida’s reading of Heidegger’s path of thought as exemplary topos of inscription of all those philosophical tropes that provide nationalism with its philosophical foundation, and that are metonymically tied in the word Geschlecht, is from its very beginning[4] “already magnetized” by the reading of 1953 text of Trakl. This is not, or at least not exclusively, because of the passage of the essay where Heidegger directly addresses the “matter of Geschlecht” offering an interpretation of the “Ein” of the syntagma “Ein Geschlecht” from Trakl’s Abendländlisches Lied, though that certainly represents a pivotal moment for the seminar. What is even more crucial in this text is Heidegger’s topological concern that emerges as an idiomatic concern from the very opening lines that address its subtitle “Eine Erörterung von Georg Trakls Gedicht” (“A Discussion of Georg Trakl’s Poetic Work”).

To situate (erörtern) here means first of all: to indicate the place (in den Ort weisen). It then means: to be attentive to the place (den Ort beachten). These two, to indicate the place and pay heed to it, are the preliminary steps to a situation (die vorbereitenden Schritte einer Erörterung). But we will have already shown enough daring (wagen) if, in what follows, we content ourselves with these preliminary steps. In a manner that corresponds to a path of thought (Denkweg), the situation ends in a question (endet [...] in eine Frage). It questions towards the locality of the place. (42-43)[5]

The path of thought that is going to go through Georg Trakl’s poetic work is an adventure, yet is always already directed toward a question. This is the question about the place, or rather, the question around the being place of the place. As Derrida points out:

Heidegger proposes from the outset to rethink place, locality, site, situation: so many translations that are already inadequate since they lose the unity of co-belonging among Ort, Ortschaft, Erörterung. This last word, which in everyday language is more or less synonymous with discussion, debate, etc., is here called back, from the opening lines, toward the situation of the place, the gesture that seeks to indicate the proper site. (39)

This question is the destination that leads the philosopher in his thinking through the work of the poet. Yet this question is a destination only insofar as it is an origin, and as an origin it also provides the traces to follow to return to it. The question of the being-place of the place, which is also preliminary[6] to any topology of being, is indeed the key to Heidegger’s philosophical nationalism in so far as it is grounded in a topological axiomatic of the gathering. As Derrida puts it:

We might say that “before” Being and Nothingness there is Place, that which gives rise [donne lieu] and makes it so that there are (es gibt) Being and Nothingness gathered together. If place is regularly, typically defined by gathering (Versammlung), our entire approach to the Heideggerian gesture will have to question this privilege of gathering and all that it entails. (Geschlecht III 42, Emphasis mine)

From the beginning of the text, rather than actually addressing the being-place of the place, which would imply questioning the axiomatic of gathering that organizes the logic of the place, Heidegger is actually asking for its locality. Rather than questioning the axiomatic of the gathering behind any topology, he is tropologically translating the question about topology in the question about the topography of topology. And this way, one can see that he is not only assuming the topological axiomatic of the gathering, but that he is doubling it (or in a certain sense even quadrupling it). Because the question around the being-place of the place as proper site of human existence is the question about the being language of language as such a place.

Once more it is clear that Derrida’s question about philosophical nationalism does not engage with Heidegger at a superficial level, it rather invests his thought in the most radical way. The question about the philosophical foundation of nationalism becomes the question of Heidegger’s topological understanding of historicity based on “the relation of implication that binds together being, language, and man” in terms of dwelling—which was already at the core of Derrida’s engagement with Heidegger in 1964:

Because being is not a being, it appears only in language. It is in language. If language were to disappear, being and the difference between being and beings would also collapse. So language is the shelter of being, language guards being. This shelter is historical, that is to say it has not been constituted for all eternity (a historical determination [uncertain word]), it is history itself, which is to say it is a constructed shelter, one that is constructed, assembled: a dwelling. But the dwelling is not only that, it is also the originary place, the here starting from which I measure my movements; I go out of my house, I stay in my house. But there would be no movement possible for me without reference to an originary place outside of which I am exposed. (59)

What marks Heidegger’s understanding of the human being as Da-sein is this topology of the dwelling, of being there in the exposition to the historicity of Being. And such a topology is a topology of language: the proximity to Being in which Da-sein exists historically is the proximity of language. Language is how the human being as Dasein historically exists, since it is how the possibility of asking the question about Being is given. In language, human beings dwell in their proprium, in their proper place. There is where the assumed topological gathering is (topographically) inscribed. So, asking the question of the being-place of the place means dwelling in a language in a way that reveals this dwelling itself as the most proper originary possibility of existing historically. This is what Derrida calls “an omnipresent ‘logic’ in Heidegger’s approach: “what is more originary bears the future, the more originary is more to come” (Geschlecht III 141).

Language is the originary place of the gathering. Yet such a gathering is a historical possibility to which one returns, not a given. Dasein exists initially and for the most part in the everydayness, that is, a historic condition of errancy. There it can be hit by a strike, a blow (a Schlag) that announcing, promising its destination would take it back to the originary place of the gathering of its properness. The event that makes it come to itself is always a return in the perspective of the ecstatic and horizontal unity of temporality. And the topology of the gathering is ultimately grounded in Dasein’s temporality.[7] The gathering happens in the unity of the temporal ecstasies as the “future that makes present, in the process of having being” (Being and Time 334). In the wake of the Heideggerian understanding of temporality, one would seem to find the matrix of the narrative of the gathering in the destiny of a return to the originary place, which is the narrative that closes the structural gap. This is the syntax that sutures the fundamental ellipsis between the two side of the metaphor of nationality. One can see, in the short-circuit of Dasein’s topology of dwelling and its ecstatic temporality in the “gathering in return,” the core of Derrida’s problematic of philosophical nationality and nationalism:

This value of return, of gathering in return, allows us perhaps to see more concretely the link between this reading of Heidegger and our problematic: philosophical nationality and nationalism, supposing that this link is not or no longer overly obvious. Of course, it is not a question of nation in the strict and everyday sense in all of this, and Heidegger would protest very strongly against this reduction. He would quickly show that the concept of nation and the nationalist claim alike are dependent on a metaphysics in which the theme of Geschlecht is not thought in a sufficiently originary way, dependent on a degradation of the decomposed humanity, precisely, which, because it has lost its “Heimat,” wanders between the two symmetrical, antagonistic but indissociable poles of cosmopolitanism and nationalism, these two having in common the same uprootedness with respect to Sprache, and so on. (Geschlecht III 172)

So, in the text on Trakl, Heidegger is on his way to returning to the originary place of the dwelling (language) in order to find there the promise of a passage. This is an opening to the future. The possibility of such a return is given and anticipated as a pre-directed way in the dialogue between the thinker and the poet, which is itself possible only on the basis of the assumption of a common originary place where they can gather.

What clearly echoes here is the famous formula that directs Heidegger in “The Way to Language”: “To bring language as language to language” (Basic 398). To be able to be on the trail that will bring language as language to language, Heidegger is assuming the unity of language as language, that is, language as the proper place of human existence, as well as the of the idiom to which it is brought. The unity, or gathering, of language is assumed axiomatically as what allows to point at language as the place for humans as those that gather in listening to language (in language). In “The Way to Language,” Heidegger says, “The saying is a gathering that joins every shining of a showing. The showing, for its part, is multiple; everywhere it lets what it shown stand on its own” (Basic 414). While language as showing the place for the human dwelling (as gathering) is gathering, the showing of what is shown is multiple. So, the way to language as gathering implies traveling through the manifold showing that is at work both in the words of poets and in everyday language (415). What then this traveling seems to imply is the displacement of the thinker to different sites of the poetic saying where he could hear the echoes of the originary gathering language and follow these echoes to return to it. So, the thinker and the poet become travel companions on a path of thought that is meant to return them to the originary place of their dwelling in language. And their traveling, though seemingly erratic and adventurous, is rather organized by the assumption that they can orient themselves toward the originary place. They can pick up what traces of an originary meaning are still to find in everyday language and in the poetic word.

Here, one can see already an example of the fundamental interplay of topology-tropology, which marks philosophic nationalism as a tropology of the return to the originary place as the place of necessary gathering, though even more relevant is the idiomatic component of such fundamental interplay that brings language as language to language. The return is also a return to the authentic possibility of asking the question of Being taking a distance from everyday language and from the metaphysical humanism embedded in it, where Dasein is always already displaced. The philosophical promise of a new beginning of thought is announced in the repetition-destruction of the history of being. And this new beginning is itself understood as a “return to” the originary possibilities of being at home always already implicit in the experience of homelessness (Heimatlosigkeit) of Western Metaphysics. Dasein is a stranger on the way to language. And his repatriation follows the call of language, itself announced in the thinking dialogue of the philosopher with the poet, who have both a distinctive originary relation to language, and who happen to share dwelling in one idiom. So the call for the future, which is a call for the original destination as well as a promise that makes performativity happen in the metaphorical gathering, is a fundamental event of language, grounded in the privilege of one idiom. Derrida explains: “In his writing, in his manipulation and maneuvering of language, Heidegger’s manner (Heidegger’s hand) practices the return to the German idiom, to what links language to place, even if this place is not an empirical national territory” (Geschlecht III 182). Indeed, in his dialogue with the poet, Heidegger is following the tracks left not by any language, but by the old High German idiom. From the very beginning of the text, the German idiom informs each of Heidegger’s steps and determines his direction. This idiom emerges as the proper place for the originary gathering of language, that is, the destination to which the philosopher through his tropological adventures returns, and which also has oriented him from the beginning. Paradigmatic of such a determination is Heidegger’s hunt for the originary value of the German word for sense, about which Derrida notices:

Here the recourse to the High German idiom is not simply one more recourse among others, it is even more decisive because it is a question of the sense of the word “sense.” If the word “sense” is an idiom, once we recognize that like every idiom it entails untranslatability, then it is the very concept of translation – and thus of idiom – that becomes problematic because it is based on at least some implicit consensus as to sense and as to the sense of the word “sense,” as to the translatability of sense and of the sense of sense. Now, not only is the word “sinnan,” in the originary value that Heidegger wants to resituate or restore to it, untranslatable, but its “sense” has an essential affinity, as you will see, with this word “fram,” the stranger that could only say what it says in German and whose originary sense orients the entire “situation” (Erörterung). (93)

If Heidegger’s question about the topology of existence was tropologically translated into the question of the topology of language-as-language, then this ends up translated and returned to language as the German idiom. “To bring language as language to language” (Basic 398), means to engage with the idiom that is “our language,” assuming that this is where the originary gathering is to be possible. [8] The gathering as what is more proper to humanity happens performatively as it is idiomatically named. The topology of language as the place of the gathering has to be uncovered through a tropological errancy within Trakl’s Gedicht—poetic saying—which is always already assumed as gathered in its site. The dialogue with the poet proceeds there by way of jumps and metonymic sliding from one poem to another in its tropological return to the gathering of Ein Geschlecht:

Accordingly, the word “Geschlecht” retains here its aforementioned full manifold meaning. It names first the historical Geschlecht of humans, humanity (das geschichtliche Geschlecht des Menschen, die Menschheit), as distinct from other living beings (plants and animals). The word “Geschlecht” names then the Geschlechter [generations], the stocks, clans, and families of this Menschengeschlechtes. (Geschlecht III 169)

The gathering assumed in the Ein of Ein Geschlecht that metaphorically gathers humanity in its proper place—itself determined from its difference “from other living beings (plants and animals)”—happens only in German. Outside the place of the German idiom the polysemy of Geschlecht is at best assigned to a metonymical collection. The proper uniqueness of humanity and human historicity as an essential relation to language itself cannot be announced as destiny without the German idiom—at least as a philosophical and poetical idiom. The gathering of the idiom is not pointing at the being-place of any place. Here the interplay between topology and tropology produces a vertigo of thought: a whirling vortex that sucks down any nationalist teleology philosophically grounded, as well as any philosophical messianic possibility of a deconstructive passage from metaphysics to its other.[9] The vortex tip, the force of whirlpool originates in the axiomatic of the gathering that organizes overall the topology of the language where the passage of the new beginning also finds its place. It seems indeed quite difficult to keep together the topology of Ein Geschlecht in the dialogue with Trakl and the topology of the place without a name that marks the Erörterung, i.e. the discussion about the overcoming of metaphysics, the text “Dialogue on language” included in the same collection.

I: The transformation occurs as a passage...

J: ... in which one site is left behind in favor of another...

I: ... and that require the sites to be placed in discussion.

J: One site is metaphysics.

I: And the other? We leave it without a name. (42)

Ultimately, what Derrida’s reading shows in Heidegger is a short-circuit between what one can see as an implicit philosophical foundation for nationalism and a philosophical nationalist posture in his thought. And it is such a short-circuit that is dictating the singular rhythm of jumps, leaps, and zigzags at work in Derrida’s reading dance.[10] First, in the reciprocal implication between man, language, and historicity topologically grounded, and, subsequently, in the Heideggerian understanding of Dasein’s historicity, nationalism finds its philosophical topology both as originary ground and destination. Derrida’s reading of Heidegger slowly untangles the philosophical enigma behind the apparently simple political principle of nationalism whose multiple layers of complexity seem indeed to be somehow exposed by the polysemy of the word Geschlecht. And, overall, this patient and meticulous dissection of the Heideggerian text also suggests that Heidegger does not remain only accidentally entangled in some of the metaphoricity associated with a typically nationalist posture, but that his understanding of Dasein’s existence and historicity would actually be what brings nationalism to a new level of philosophical dignity, which is precisely what allows for its deconstruction.[11] As Geoffrey Bennington puts it in his discussion of Derrida’s use of dignity in the last chapter of Scatter 1: “The initial deconstructive attention to the supposed dignity of metaphysical concepts locate in all of them a kind of constitutive indignity, a failure to live up to their promise” (273). Indeed, in Derrida’s attention to the dignity of the question about Nationalism there seems to be at stake more than just the dignity of nationalism as philosophical question. For it brings into question also philosophical dignity tout court, in its idiomatic and its topological dimensions. Both dimensions of the question and its dignity have indeed to do with the historical topological possibility of the originary gathering in language, in the name of which something like a thinking dialogue between poetry and thinking occurs. And this is because “Philosophical Nationalism” means at the same time the philosophical foundation of nationalism and a nationalist turn that compels philosophy to find its own privileged place in the absolute and inimitable propriety of an idiom.


    1. Two of the texts (Geschlect II and III) are actually extracts from the 1984-85 seminar (sessions VI-XII). For a thorough account of Derrida’s Geschlecht series, please see: David F. Krell Phantom of the Other: Four Generations of Derrida’s Geschlecht (Albany: SUNY, 2015) and Rodrigo Bueno Therezo “Heidegger’s national-Humanism. Reading Derrida’s Geschlecht III” Research in Phenomenology, 48 (2018) 1-28; as well as Rodrigo Bueno Therezo “Preface” to Geschlecht III in J. Derrida, Geschlecht III, i–xvi)return to text

    2. The term “topology” is used in different disciplines with significant variation in the meaning associated with it. My main reference in this context beyond Derrida is Reiner Schürman’s Broken Hegemonies. It is important to note that if in linguistics, geography, and political theory the specific disciplinary use of the term is overall consistent with the etymological use of the term as “logic of sites/places,” on the other hand in mathematics topology refers to the study of the properties that are preserved through deformations, twistings, and stretchings of geometrical objects, and Jacques Lacan’s introduction of topology in psychoanalysis refers precisely to the use of topological geometry (in particular certain topological forms) to understand the structure of human subjectivity.return to text

    3. Here, I am thinking of Kant’s texts Perpetual Peace and Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose, both of which present cosmopolitanism in continuity with nationalism, and cosmopolitan law—which is ground in people’s “common possession of the surface of earth” (82)—as rational universal framework to control international antagonisms and guide national civil societies toward the realization of Nature’s teleology (“a plan of nature that aims at the perfect civic union of the human species” 14).return to text

    4. See the first footnote of Derrida “Geschlecht I 7: “First and wholly preliminary part of an interpretation by which I wish to situate Geschlecht within Heidegger's path of thought. Within the path of his writings too, and the marked impression or inscription of the word Geschlecht will not be irrelevant. That word, I leave it here in its language for reasons that should become binding in the course of this very reading. And it is indeed a matter of ‘Geschlecht’ (sex, race, family, generation, lineage, species, genre/genus) and not of the Geschlecht: one will not pass so easily toward. The thing itself (the Geschlecht), beyond the mark of the word (Geschlecht) in which, much later, Heidegger will remark the ‘imprint’ of a blow or as tamp (Schlag). This he will do in a text we shall not discuss here but toward which this reading will continue, by which in truth I know it is already magnetized: "Die Sprache im Gedicht, Eine Erörterung von Georg Trakls Gedicht" (1953) in Unterwegs zur Sprache (1959, pp. 36 ff.)” (7).return to text

    5. Here and later, I am choosing to quote the English of Heidegger’s text from the English translation of Derrida’s Geschlecht III for the sake of the understanding of Derrida’s references to it. In the English translation of Unterwegs zur Sprache the passage reads: “We use the word ‘discuss’ here to mean, first, to point out the proper place or site of something, to situate it, and second, to heed that place or site. The placing and the heeding are both preliminaries of discussion. And yet it will require all our daring to take no more than these preliminary steps in what follows. Our discussion, as befits a thinking way, ends in a question. That question ask for the location of the site.” (159)return to text

    6. “How to make one’s way toward the locality (Ortschaft) of the place, toward the being-place of the place?” This question is inseparable from that of a topology of being, such as will be prescribed, two years after the text on Trakl, in Zur Seinsfrage (1955), where Heidegger proposes an Erörterung of the line, questions the “place” of Nothingness and nihilism, and indicates the necessity, before any topography of nihilism, of a topology of being, of an attempt at “a situation of that site” (die Erörterung desjenigen Ortes), or place, that “gathers being and nothing into their essence, determines the essence of nihilism and thus lets us recognize those paths on which the ways towards a possible overcoming of nihilism emerge.” (Geschlecht III 41).return to text

    7. “The constitution of Dasein and its modes of being are possible only on the basis of temporality, regardless of whether this being occurs in time or not. But then the specific spatiality of Dasein must be grounded in temporality” (Being and Time 349).return to text

    8. “Our language gives the name Geschlecht to the human essence (Menschenwesen) that has received the stamp of a strike (aus einem Schlag geprägte) and that, in this strike has been struck with specification (und in diesen Schlag verschlagene). The word signifies human species (Menschengeschlecht) in the sense of humanity (Menschheit), as well as species (Geschlechter) in the sense of trunks, stocks, and families, all of that struck once again by the gendered duality of the sexes (dies alles wiederum geprägt in das Zwiefache der Geschlechter).” (Geschlecht III 79)return to text

    9. On this point see my “Infrapolitics and Shibumi. Infrapolitical Practice between and beyond Metaphysical Closure and End of History” 86-92.return to text

    10. See Geschlecht III 33.return to text

    11. “The most worthy seemed as though it would always be thus marked by a kind of inner unworthiness, the most dignified by a kind of inner indignity or falling short” (Bennington 271).return to text

    Works Cited

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    • Cerrato, Maddalena. “Infrapolitics and Shibumi. Infrapolitical Practice between and beyond Metaphysical Closure and End of History” in Transmodernity 5 (1), 2015, 81-104.
    • Derrida, Jacques. Geschlecht III: Sex, Race, Nation, Humanity. Chicago: University of Chicago P, 2020.
    • —-. “Geschlecht I: Sexual Difference, Ontological Difference,” trans. Ruben Berezdivin and Elizabeth Rottenberg, in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Vol. 2, Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg, eds. Stanford: Stanford U P, 2008.
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