Aporias. By Jacques Derrida. Trans. Thomas Dutoit. Stanford University Press, 1993.
1. Like most of Derrida's recent works this text (from Le Passage des frontières, Editions Galilée, 1994) consciously exploits its status as an oral performance, engaging the audience from the start: 'in advance, I thank you for your patience in what you are going to endure' (ix). Derrida enacts the aporias of time, finitude and ending, through references to the temporal duration of his speech: 'in the time that we have here' (47); 'The end is approaching. Precipitation and prematuration make the law, even when the thing lasts too long' (72) - a parody of the precipitation and prematuration of Sein und Zeit, which is the target of Derrida's admiring criticism. Artfully keeping his hearers in suspense, he promises from early on to deconstruct Heidegger's efforts to define or delimit the phenomenon of death: 'But we are not there yet; this will come only near the end' (28). As the speech - delivered in Cerisy-la-Salle in mid-July 1992 - lasted six hours, his disciples may have been grateful for such encouragements.
He tells us how he composed the speech - first picking a title out of the air, the word 'aporias', which has surfaced more and more insistently in his recent meditations. He refers to various other texts in which he has tried to endure an aporetic situation, that is, one in which thought can find no passage through, in which it cannot even pose a straightforward problem, so that it is menaced with paralysis (12-17). The notion of death is perhaps the one that most forces the mind into aporetic straits - witness Hamlet's soliloquy. Here it inspires one of Derrida's most intense exercises in reflection. 'Death' or 'my death' is supreme among concepts that elude definition and whose frontiers cannot be satisfactorily drawn, the kind of concepts or non-concepts on which deconstruction thrives:
“if there is one word that remains absolutely unassignable or unassigning with respect to its concept and to its thingness [sa chose - its referent], it is the word 'death'. Less than for any other noun, save 'God' - and for good reason, since their association here is probably not fortuitous - is it possible to attribute to the noun 'death', and above all to the expression 'my death', a concept or a reality that would constitute the object of an indisputably determining experience.” (22)
A theologian might object that there can be a religious clarification of the sense of death, as of the sense of 'God', and that a reflection that finds in them only an occasion for aporia has merely a transitional or preliminary status. The challenge to the theologian is to show, in a way that does full justice to Derridian scruples, how religion dissolves the aporia or at least allows a way of dealing with it that robs it of its paralysing sting.
Heidegger explores an ontological pre-understanding of death which precedes all the ontic discourses on death in biology, metaphysics or theology:
“To put it quickly - in passing, and in an anticipatory way - the logic of this Heideggerian gesture interests me here. It does so in its exemplarity. However, I only want to assert the force of its necessity and go with it as far as possible, apparently against anthropological confusions and presumptions, so as to try to bring to light several aporias that are internal to the Heideggerian discourse.” (27)
He shows the necessity of Heidegger's analysis in a critique of anthropologists and historians who write about death without prior philosophical clarifications (24-7, 46-50). But empirical anthropology makes a comeback as he goes on to criticize Heidegger's concern with methodology, definition, order, and hierarchy, as a traditional philosophical strategy unsuited to the phenomena Sein und Zeit sought to bring into view.
Death troubles all tidy borders and undermines the basic decisions of phenomenology:
“According to Heidegger these [ontological] regions are legitimately separated by pure, rigorous, and indivisible borders. An order is thus structured by uncrossable edges. Such edges can be crossed, and they are in fact crossed all the time, but they should not be… If the property of this death proper to Dasein was compromised in its rigorous limits, then the entire apparatus of these edges would become problematic, and along with it the very project of an analysis of Dasein, as well as everything that, with its professed methodology, the analysis legitimately conditions.” (29-30)
The existential analytic of death is based on many questionable presuppositions: 'the distinction between perishing [verenden] and dying has been established, as far as Heidegger is concerned, as he will never call it into question again, not even in order to complicate it' (31). As a sensitive reader of Kafka, Celan, Beckett and Blanchot, it is just such complication which Derrida argues for. Heidegger's clean differentiation of human from animal death, or of authentic from inauthentic being-toward-death, serves to conjure away the troubling, irremediable obscurity of mortality. For Derrida, the greatness of Sein und Zeit resides in the way it exceeds its own explicit intention, through undergoing the aporias of death in the very process of trying to repress them.
Derrida speaks of death as 'the absolute arrivant' - what arrives, one who arrives, with an echo of revenant, ghost - and 'such an arrivant affects the very experience of the threshold, whose possibility he thus brings to light before one even knows whether there has been an invitation, a call, a nomination, or a promise' (33), thus undermining 'all the distinctive signs of a prior identity, beginning with the very border that delineated a legitimate home and assured lineage' (34). It seems that the this-worldly space cleared in Heidegger's analytic of Dasein, its limit marked by death, is just such an assured legitimate homeland, whose borders are put in question when the aporetic nature of death is faced up to more fully. The claim that only humans, with their gift of language, are capable of experiencing 'death as such', is a comforting essentialism, a linguistic illusion, for there is no 'as such' to be found (36-7, 76). Hence the cultural and historical diversity of human structurations of death, which cannot be levelled out.
Heidegger's own discourse on death is culture-bound, and must forgo its claims to determine the essence of death in a universal sense. His effort to found all talk of death in a prior ontological clarification 'belongs to the great ontologico-juridico-transcendental tradition, and I believe it to be undeniable, impossible to dismantle, and invulnerable (at least this is the hypothesis I am following here) - except perhaps in this particular case of death' (45). Death becomes the last refuge of the deconstructor. Derrida speaks of 'life-death', which coincidentally is the equivalent of the Buddhist jāti-maraṇa (birth-death), designating our samsaric existence. 'Life-death' is the keystone in the entire set of aporetic structures he has analysed over the years: presence-absence, speech-writing, gift-contract, meaning-dissemination, truth-undecidability, singularity and iterability of the historical date or the proper name - in each case the second member is the condition of possibility and of impossibility of the first, both its life and its death.
2. When Derrida comes to fulfil his promise to shows aporias in Heidegger's text, he gets off to a disappointing start, falling into a simple misreading. Heidegger writes:
“The question about what is after death can first be posed with methodical security only when death has been grasped in its full ontological essence. Whether such a question is at all a possible theoretical question we need not here decide.” (Sein und Zeit, Niemeyer, 1986, 248)
The question is about life after death; what remains undecided is whether it can be posed as a theoretical question (as opposed to an existential one); the second sentence here is a quasi-Kantian obiter dictum, incidental to the course of the main argument. According to Derrida's reading of this sentence, Heidegger, having asserted that the essence of death is to be clarified from this side (diesseitig), not from the beyond (Jenseits), expresses a hesitation on this basic methodological principle:
“Heidegger allows something undecided to remain suspended as to whether the point of departure is 'on this side' and not on that side of a possible border. For perhaps in the form of avowal, he then declares: 'Whether such a question is a possible theoretical question at all must remain undecided here [bleibe hier unentschieden]'. He does not use the indicative: this remains undecided [bleibt unentschieden]. Instead, by another decision whose performative incision must remain still undisputable and undisputed… he uses the subjunctive… and 'here'. The theoretical question concerning the here, the 'this side' as point of departure must remain here, on this side, undecided, that is to say, decided without any theoretical question, before any theoretical question, without proof.” (53-4)
The question referred to by Heidegger is the question 'what is after death?'; there is nothing in the text that puts in question the basic principle that the prior clarification of the essence of death must proceed 'from this side'. Derrida's remarks on the banal idiom 'bleibe hier unentschieden' are quite misplaced. Heidegger is not making an undisputable edict; he is merely waiving discussion of the quasi-Kantian question about a theoretical formulation of inquiries about life after death.
Derrida's critique of Heidegger's hierarchical delimitations has plenty of validity in its own right, independently of his efforts to put Heidegger's text in contradiction with itself. His argument against Heidegger's methodological purism is strongest when it appeals to the phenomena - to the complexity of what we actually say and think about death. The attempt to show that Heidegger's own text undermines his methodological decisions, in line with the basic deconstructionist thesis that thought is always contaminated by its textual inscription, or that the concept is 'cooked' when it is put in writing (Glas), runs aground in this case on the vigilance and solidity of Heidegger's argumentation, to which it fails to do justice.
Rich and suggestive is Derrida's own alternative topology of death, which foregrounds aspects that Heidegger's method relegates to secondariness:
“A mortal can only start from here, from his mortality. His possible belief in immortality, his irresistible interest in the beyond, in gods or spirits, what makes survival structure every instant in a kind of irreducible torsion, the torsion of a retrospective anticipation that introduces the untimely moment [le contretemps] and the posthumous in the most alive of the present living thing [du présent vivant], the rearview mirror of a waiting-for-death [s'attendre-à-la-mort] at every moment, and the future anterior that precedes even the present, which it seems only to modify, all this stems first from his mortality, Heidegger would say. No matter how serious all this remains, it would thus only be secondary. The very secondariness testifies to the primordiality of being-toward-death.” (55)
This primordiality of the this-worldly experience of finitude goes hand in hand with the basic bias of phenomenology, 'the pre-archic originality of the proper, the authentic, and the eigentlich' (56). Against this metaphysics of presence Derrida urges the claims of 'mourning and ghosting [revenance], spectrality or living-on, surviving, as non-derivable categories', which trouble the frontiers of the ego:
“lf Jemeinigkeit, that of Dasein of that of the ego (in the common sense, the psychoanalytic sense, or Levinas's sense) is constituted in its ipseity in terms of an originary mourning, then this self-relation welcomes or supposes the other within its being-itself as different from itself.” (61)
The other is the condition of possibility and of impossibility of the ego, but conversely our relation to the other, without or within, is always a 'bereaved apprehension' (61). 'With death, Dasein awaits itself (s'attend lui-même) in its ownmost potentiality-for-being' (64, translating Sein und Zeit, 250: 'Mit dem Tod steht das Dasein selbst in seinem eigensten Seinkönnen bevor'). The untranslatable word, 's'attendre', reveals nuances unsuspected in Heidegger's analysis. In death 'Dasein is revealed to itself in its essence, and this in the mode of being-ahead-of-itself' (Sein und Zeit, 251). But this self-awaiting at the limit-situation of death is always bound up with expecting something that will happen as the completely other than oneself. Moreover, s'attendre can mean waiting for each other:
“the waiting for each other is related to death, to the borders of death, where we wait for each other knowing a priori, and absolutely undeniably, that, life always being too short, the one is waiting for the other there, for the one and the other never arrive there together… Both the one and the other never arrive at this rendezvous, and the one who waits for the other there, at this border, is not he who arrives there first or she who gets there first.” (65-6)
Such 'anachronism of the waiting for each other in this contretemps of mourning' complicates the temporality of being-toward-death, and also solicits the associated notion of truth - Dasein's certitude of death as its ownmost possibility, which it testifies to as an incomparable truth (68).
The idea that death is 'the possibility of being-able-no-longer-to-be-there' or 'the possibility of the pure and simple impossibility of Dasein' (Sein und Zeit, 250) sets off a chain of explosions in the existential analytic, ruining its basic premises, claims Derrida (68). For Heidegger death is
“an impossibility that one can await or expect, an impossibility the limits of which one can expect or at whose limits one can wait, these limits of the as such being, as we have seen, the limits of truth, but also of the possibility of truth. Truth and nontruth would be inseparable… Truth is the truth of non-truth and vice versa”. (73)
Derrida suggests that this kind of thinking is on the brink of self-dissolution: 'What difference is there between the possibility of appearing as such of the possibility of an impossibility and the impossibility of appearing as such of the same possibility?' (75). The impossibility in question is the impossibility of the 'as such', the impossibility of a securely defined identity for Dasein or for its death, and this impossibility is incapable of appearing 'as such'. The phenomenological focusing of death in anticipatory resolve must yield to a more complex aporetic waiting which can no longer map the limits of truth. Derrida accepts here Heidegger's equation of truth with a phenomenological authenticity, and his reduction of the truth of rational judgement to secondary, derivative status; but if we contest this derivation, Derrida's critique of Heideggerian truth fails to touch truth in the latter sense (as I argue in Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth, ch. 4).
Humans cannot anticipate death in its purity 'as such'; the only death we know is the death of the other, or of ourselves as other. Death is 'the most improper possibility and the most ex-propriating, the most inauthenticating one. From the most originary inside of its possibility, the proper of Dasein becomes from then on contaminated, parasited, and divided by the most improper' (77). Even this aporetic situation can never simply be endured as such: 'The ultimate aporia is the impossibility of the aporia as such. The reservoir of this statement seems to me incalculable' (78).
Sein und Zeit is still haunted by the structures of biblical anthropology (80).These structures, Derrida claims, remain inescapable in our Western thinking of death. But he has problematized them so radically that we seem to be left in some grey limbo of perpetual mourning. Or am I missing something? If one agrees with Derrida that death is insolubly aporetic and is never identified in its essence, then perhaps an answering obliqueness in religious discourses about death may have a certain justification. The historicity, plurality and relativity of these discourses does not prevent them, each in its own way, from making sense of death and pointing beyond it. None is a total clarification of the riddle, but each is a valuable existential witness. The plurality of these constructions does not render their claims to truth delusory. Truth emerges only in context-bound, culture-bound perspectives, and the true statements made within such perspectives are subject to subsequent redescription. Derrida's aporias risk inducing a paralysis of our ability to say anything at all; the challenge is to integrate fully the aporetic structures he has noted into a discourse that goes beyond them, in order to venture positive statements of truth, however fragmentary and analogical.
3. There are a number of inaccuracies in Derrida's text. The translator corrects Derrida's differe to differre (5), but fails to correct si exigua contentio de modo finium (4), for si exigua contentio est de modo finium; Libellus de optima genera oratorum (5), for Libellus de optimo genere oratorum: and de bene moriendi (60) for moriendo.
He also corrects Derrida's 'Vincent' to 'Thomas' (28). Louis-Vincent Thomas, author of Anthropologie de la mort, has come in for some captious criticism for his manner of citing Heidegger on the previous page; now Derrida has forgotten his name!
Heidegger (Sein und Zeit, 248) says that the analysis of Death 'interprets the phenomenon [of death] only in regard to how as a possibility of being of every Dasein it is lodged in the former [in dieses hereinsteht], that is, in Dasein. Derrida mistranslates: 'the possibility of being of every Dasein is engaged, invested, and inscribed in the phenomenon of death' (53).
There is no such German word as unentscheidet (56).
Derrida has Heidegger talk about having 'the heart (Mut) to approach or confront (aufkommen) this anxiety before death' (6l). What Heidegger actually wrote is: 'Das Man lässt den Mut zur Angst vor dem Tode nicht aufkommen' (Sein und Zeit, 254), that is, 'The They does not allow the courage for anxiety before death to arise'. Aufkommen means 'arise', and is an intransitive verb. Derrida's 'approach or confront' is etymological guesswork based on a grammatical oversight.
On Sein und Zeit, 265, according to Derrida, 'Heidegger wonders how the simple impossibility of existence becomes possible, when the moment when this impossibility becomes possible remains both absolutely certain and absolutely indeterminate' (72). The passage referred to has a quite different sense: Heidegger asks how the certainty and the indeterminacy of death are disclosed existentially; his answer is that the certainty of death is registered only in existential anticipation, and its indeterminacy is registered in the way this anticipation opens itself to a constant menace, in the mood (Stimmung) of anxiety.
From: International Journal of Philosophical Studies 4 (1996)