From his earliest essays to his final lectures, Jacques Derrida endeavored to come to terms with the legacy of
German Idealist philosophy. First and foremost, this involved a sustained engagement with the work of G.W.F.
Hegel, a thinker who makes extraordinary claims for the self-grounding, self-explicating authority of his
project. Seemingly resistant to the usual interpretive strategies, Hegel is notorious for presenting his readers
with unique challenges, or threats. There is a widespread sense, as William James put it more than a century
ago, that the Hegelian "system resembles a mousetrap, in which if you once pass the door you may be lost forever.
Safety lies in not entering" (275). As the history of Hegel scholarship attests, grappling with a philosopher by
steadfastly refusing to do so is a chaotic endeavor at best. Of course, Derrida has inspired somewhat similar
reactions. Like Hegel, he is frequently accused of redefining the standards of argumentation to such a degree
that he cannot help but have the last word, pre-empting commentary or criticism before it is ever formulated.
Does this mean that the only recourse one has in the face of the Hegelian monolith is to seek to outdo it by
undertaking an even more radical transformation of conceptuality, or is it simply the case that Derrida was
profoundly influenced by his Idealist predecessor?
Derrida wrote a great deal about his relationship with Hegel. What I want to argue in this essay, however, is that some
of Derrida's most important contributions on Hegel are in texts that never cite him by name. In particular, Derrida's
account of linguistic performance--an analysis developed across a host of essays on different literary and philosophical
figures--offers insights into the more radical dimensions of Hegel's understanding of language and subjectivity. The
result is a call to view language not as an infinite resource of signification or performance, formation or destruction, but as
a dynamic whose transgressive potential paradoxically depends precisely on its essentially finite character. It is only from
this perspective, Derrida suggests, that a full evaluation of Hegel's theory of praxis is possible.
Although he is sometimes described as "transcending" Hegel, if not rendering him obsolete, Derrida himself avoids such
gestures. On the contrary, Hegel is to be championed, for his work shows "that the positive infinite must be thought through
. . . in order that the indefiniteness of différance appear as such" (Speech 101-2). At
the same time, Derrida stresses the need to at least attempt to mark one's departure, even if it is only infinitesimally
slight, from the
Hegelian project: "Différance (at a point of almost absolute proximity to Hegel . . . ) must sign the point at
which one breaks with the system of the Aufhebung and with speculative dialectics" (Positions 44). To
attempt to "break" with a system founded on the capacity to mobilize the conceptual authority of breaks is already to enter
into an extremely complex "mousetrap" in which a discourse's ability to assert a reflexive relationship to its own
presuppositions and procedures is at once a demonstration of self-affirmation and of abnegation. In the simplest terms, it is
very much an open question whether a "break" with Hegel can be effected at all.
The influence of Derrida's work on contemporary Hegel scholarship provides a good starting point from which to consider
the challenges of interpreting a philosophy that claims always already to have interpreted itself.
commentators have sought to reveal "cracks" or "flaws" in the Hegelian system, locating passages with which to
argue that he is not a thinker of mastery because he understands subjectivity as a constant process of abandoning oneself and
that he is not a thinker of totality and of pure self-presence because he treats discord and privation as constitutive of any
position. To some degree, these demonstrations must be welcomed given the all-too-common impression that Hegel is a purveyor
of reconciliation who strives to "mediate" between extremes, employs negativity to "erase" negativity, and offers us unlimited
optimism in the form of a system that can only make progress in its quest for the truth of absolute knowledge. Unfortunately, such efforts to locate instabilities internal to the Hegelian system
may lack a broader interpretive significance. As Derrida never tires of reminding us, merely reversing the terms of an
oppositional hierarchy does not necessarily even alter the dynamic at work, much less explain why it takes the form it does or
what its pretensions to a totalizing authority may be. To highlight a passage in which it is revealed that identity is
difference rather than the other way around may help counter some clichés about Hegel's "monolithic"
idealism, but in a corpus in which the relationship between part and whole is subject to unparalleled scrutiny, the stakes
in when and how one intervenes in the analysis cannot be higher.
It is also not obvious that the goals of Hegel's project can be assessed by isolating a single moment in the argument
and elevating it to the status of a truism to be celebrated or debunked--"everything is mediated"/"the slave is
master"--a point Derrida attributes to Georges Bataille (see "From a Restricted to a General Economy" 253). At every stage in
his reading of Hegel, then, Derrida asks to what extent the system under examination already accounts for and explains itself
far more completely than any "external" argument can hope to do. One of the best-known Hegelians of the twentieth century,
Theodor W. Adorno, describes the challenge in the following way:
Like other closed systems of thought, Hegel's philosophy avails itself of the dubious advantage of not having to allow any
criticism whatsoever. All criticism of the details, according to Hegel, remains partial and misses the whole, which in any
case takes this criticism into account. Conversely, criticizing the whole as a whole is abstract, "unmediated," and ignores
the fundamental motif of Hegelian philosophy: that it cannot be distilled into any "maxim" or general principle and proves its
worth only as a totality, in the concrete interconnections of all its moments. (Three Studies 2)
The bind in which Adorno situates the would-be explicator of Hegel must be taken seriously. To suggest, as Derrida
repeatedly does, that Hegel's text is "not of a piece" and that it can be read "against" itself can invite one to make a great
deal out of individual tensions, "hiccups" that ostensibly trouble the smooth modulations of the dialectic. The problem is
that from the perspective of the whole, the dialectic is driven by nothing but interruption and resistance. When Derrida calls
for us to reexamine Hegel's work, "that is, the movement by means of which his text exceeds its meaning, permits itself to be
turned away from, to return to, and to repeat itself outside its self-identity," one cannot help but feel that Derrida is
basically just summarizing the account that Hegel's philosophy offers of its own operations (Positions 78-9).
On the other hand, an attack on the viability of dialectical analysis as such is bound to reduce the content of Hegel's thought
to a set of slogans--"being is nothing," "the rational is the real"--thereby negating the object of study in the course of
analyzing it (and ironically repeating the very dialectical gesture from which one is seeking to break). These efforts to
critique Hegel only end up confirming his authority, which is one reason that Hegelian scholarship has a tendency to
assume an almost comical form in which one commentator after another accuses his peers of unwittingly quoting Hegelian doctrine
at the very moment they claim to take leave of it.
For Derrida, the way in which the Hegelian system anticipates the criticisms to which it is subject must be
considered in terms of Hegel's account of the history of spirit as the story of an essentially self-interpreting entity. Hegel
The history of spirit is its own act (Tat); for spirit is only what it does, and its act is to make itself--in this
case as spirit--the object of its own consciousness, and to comprehend itself in its interpretation of itself to itself. This
comprehension is its being and principle, and the completion of an act of comprehension is at the same time its alienation and
The subject of Hegelian thought only is insofar as it is engaged in the process of interpreting itself, even as
this act of self-comprehension, the product of its own being as self-interpretation, is equally an act of
self-alienation, the relentless exposure of itself to yet another interpretive revision. To enter into an evaluation of this
dynamic is necessarily to become part of a process in which meaning and the act of making something meaningful are supposed to
coincide in the praxis of a self that aims to grasp itself as an entity with an unlimited interpretive grasp. The discourse of
spirit is the discourse in which signification becomes both possible and actual in and through self-referential
This dimension of Hegel's thought--which may in one sense be its only dimension--is an attempt to explore the full implications
of J.G. Fichte's foundational claim that the self "is at once the agent and the product of action; the active, and what the
activity brings about; action (Handlung) and act (Tat) are one and the same, and hence I am is the expression
of a deed (Ausdruck einer Tathandlung), and the only one possible" (97). For Hegel, the "expression" of a deed ("and
the only deed possible") is the expression of the very condition of performance such that the acts of the self can facilitate
its own self-interpretive presentation of itself to itself as itself. The expression of a deed is the act of coming to know
oneself as the one who renders one's own meaningfulness meaningful. Historical praxis is this, and nothing else.
Because "the completion of an act of comprehension is at the same time [spirit's] alienation and transition," the self is never
finished making itself into the subject and object of the acts by which it establishes itself as the standard of all agency.
Paradoxically, the much-disparaged drive to totality in Hegel's system stems from its frankness about its own incompleteness,
its tireless self-exposure to everything that has not yet become conscious of the fact that its own significance will stem from
this auto-interpretive onto-logic. Hegel's text holds out the promise of a system to end all systems because it is permanently
open to the readings to which it has yet to submit itself, and which will in turn be submitted to it. This is a philosophy
that pre-reads and pre-writes all its future encounters as events that will only become meaningful in their own right insofar
as they come to know themselves as subjects--in both senses of the word--of the spirit's self-interpretive dynamic.
As the attempt to control the difference (or lack thereof) between reference and signification where its process of
auto-confirmation is concerned, Hegel's work anticipates what Derrida calls "the figures of its beyond, all the forms and
resources of its exterior" ("Restricted" 252). Hegel offers the promise of systematicity as such, the promise of a
systematizing force that can pre-posit all the standards on the basis of which it will call itself meaningful and be called
meaningful by its other. Importantly, this system does not just prefigure the evaluations it will inspire; it pre-judges them,
as well. To prove that you have really begun to read Hegel, you have to be able to demonstrate that he has been expecting
you. In other words, you confirm your ability to say something about Hegel by becoming part of a process in which the
very possibility of making sense of your own activities depends on the extent to which you can show that you are always-already
written and read by your object text, by the text you--perhaps fancifully--imagine that you selected,
rather than the other way around.
Even to aim at willfully misunderstanding Hegel in order to elude the self-interpretive dynamic with which he confronts us
does not help. In Glas, Derrida reflects on the paradox that since any finite misreading is already
anticipated by the
Hegelian text, one can never miss by enough to confound the system's ability to take one's commentary into account. Hegel's
interpretation of his own work is "too conscientious," says Derrida; it leaves no place for an acolyte or a detractor to make
his or her mark ("Restricted" 260). One can choose either to salute Hegel or to reject him, but one should not be deluded into
thinking that one's decision is of any consequence for (or surprise to) his system: "Dialectics is always that which has
finished us, because it is always that which takes into account our rejection of it. As it does our affirmation"
("Theater" 246). Among other things, this means that one does not have the luxury of electing first to take up the task of
understanding Hegel's philosophy and only later, having garnered some command of the material, deciding whether or not to
embrace it. Even to engage minimally with this thought is already to become part of its own auto-evaluating structure.
The challenge, then, is to adopt a stance that neither misses the whole nor the concrete interconnection of the moments and yet
that allows one to do more than play the role of Hegel's puppet. Derrida's most important reflections on these
difficulties may lie in his analysis of linguistic performance. Thanks to his polemic with John
Searle, Derrida's work on iterability in J.L. Austin is eminently familiar to his allies and detractors alike. Indeed, many projects concerned with the significance of Hegelian thought for contemporary debates about
ethnic and gender identities take Derrida's discussions of repetition as their starting point. It is equally critical, however, to recognize that Derrida does not simply think about speech acts with
reference to the conventions or codes that ostensibly give an utterance such as "I do" its authority at the altar. Derrida is
equally concerned to ask about the ways in which a language of acts--like the discourse of Hegel's spirit--claims to institute
its own conditions of possibility. How, inquires Derrida in his reading of Franz Kafka's "Before the Law," are "the conditions
of a performative . . . established," that is, how are they originally possible, prior to the formulation of any empirical
rules or regulations (216)? The topic is vast, encompassing a host of questions about the linguistic dimensions of contracts
and compacts that have occupied philosophers and political theorists since the eighteenth century. In much of his later work
on law and justice, Derrida grapples with the issue of performance in precisely these terms.
Where the relationship between performance and self-interpretation in Hegel is concerned, Derrida's discussions of Paul de
Man's work on performativity--part of the two critics' extensive debate about Rousseau--are crucial. Is it the case, inquires Derrida, that all utterances are preceded by a pre-formative, a promise--to use
the figure on which de Man dwells--to be language, a promise on the part of language to perform meaningfully, a promise that is
itself neither simply constative nor performative? Although Hegel is rarely present by
name, he is clearly the guiding figure for much of what Derrida has to say about proto-performative acts of language in a
series of texts that, like his Kafka piece, focus primarily on literary works. In his analysis of the end of
Ulysses, for example, Derrida takes up the Fichtean notion of self-positing and argues:
Before the Ich in Ich bin affirms or negates, it poses itself or pre-poses itself: not as ego, as
the conscious or unconscious self, as masculine or feminine subject, spirit or flesh, but as a pre-performative force which,
for example, in the form of the "I" marks that "I" as addressing itself to the other, however undetermined he or she is:
"Yes-I" or "Yes-I-say-to-the-other," even if I says no and even if I addresses itself without speaking. (298)
Before positing itself as a content, before even presupposing the announcement--"I am"-- that will become its self-inaugural
declaration, the language of the self must pre-pose a mark--"yes"--that refers to nothing outside of language, a "quasi-act,"
as Derrida also describes it, that shows nothing, states nothing, and ultimately says nothing, yet which constitutes language's
own minimal assertion that language will happen. "Yes" is language's avowal that a statement can be a performance rather than
a mere instance of a code, that an utterance can be active or productive rather than just passive and mimetic, that a verbal
event can be an end as well as a means. In the beginning there is what Derrida terms the "transcendental adverbiality" of
"yes," the condition of possibility for any speech act, the pre-formative on which the ecstatic quality of language--its power
to posit the very possibility of positing--depends (297).
At first glance, this might seem like a simplistic exercise in unearthing layer upon layer of conditions of
possibility--"A positing is made possible by a pre-positing, which is in turn made possible by a pre-pre-positing, etc."--as if
each stage in the expansion of our meta-(meta-)language necessarily constituted a corresponding advance in
understanding. Derrida insists, however, that to ask about the conditions of possibility of linguistic performance is
necessarily to call the possibility of a meta-language into question because any discourse about language "will itself assume
the event of a yes [a pre-performative force] which it will fail to comprehend" (299). Prior to saying anything in
particular, all language must assume that it has always already said "yes" to language and "yes" to its own status as the
producer of possibilities; but no language is capable of making this proto-active "yes" into a content that it could then
recognize as the product of the activity of itself or of an other. Language necessarily
assumes that it has said "yes" to its own ability to affirm itself, but no language can actually state this assumption as an
affirmative claim. In other words, any proposition--be it part of a discourse about language or not--presupposes a
pre-positional force that never takes the form of a subject or object of representation. No instance of language can present
its own promissory "yes" as the formative act or pre-act that it "pre-supposedly" is. Far from confirming language's
self-identity, "yes" reveals language to be anything but present-to-self, suggesting, among other things, that it is by no
means clear whether or not the Hegelian subject can ever make good on its commitment to fashion a self-meaningful discourse in
which constation and performance coincide.
The reflexivity of linguistic concepts and the self-representation of language are among the most challenging problems in
contemporary theory. For the purposes of our discussion, the question is whether the issues Derrida raises about pre- or
proto-performance constitute a genuine stumbling block for the self-interpretive praxis of the Hegelian subject, fundamentally
challenging either its ability to be a discourse about the self or its ability to be a self-interpretive discourse. In other
words, is the problem that the self cannot comprehend itself--that its acts of self-reflection can never catch up with
its acts of self-positing--or is the problem that the self cannot comprehend itself and is fated to discover that its
models of semantic coherence apply to anything but its own determinations? To evaluate the full significance of Derrida's
argument, we have to look more closely at Hegel's own account of the relationship between language and subjectivity. To this
end, it will be helpful to turn to the theory of poetry he offers in his Lectures on Aesthetics.
Hegel declares that poetry is supreme among the arts, combining music's apprehension of the inner life of the mind with the
determinate phenomenal character of sculpture and painting. In contrast to many of his
contemporaries who make similar claims, however, Hegel never wavers in insisting that poetry is the crisis of art as much as it
is its triumph. Poetry's uniqueness stems from the fact that the subject and the object of poetry, the medium and the message,
are one and the same. Unlike painting or sculpture, poetry can deal with any and every topic in any and every fashion because
in the final analysis what poetry really expresses is the mind's apprehension of itself to itself in itself. The medium of poetry is the imagination, and "its proper material is also the imagination, that
universal foundation of all the particular art-forms and the individual arts" (Aesthetics 967). Cut off from any
material restraints, any restrictions on form and content, poetry
appear[s] as that particular art in which art itself begins . . . to dissolve . . . . [P]oetry destroys the fusion of spiritual
inwardness with external existence to an extent that begins to be incompatible with the original conception of art, with the
result that poetry runs the risk of losing itself in a transition from the region of sense into that of the spirit. (968)
No longer comprehensible in terms of a connection between a material medium and an intelligible meaning, poetry is the highest
achievement of art as the confirmation of spirit's pure self-apprehension, but this triumph is equally art's demise. The
ultimate articulation of the sensible with the intelligible, of the world of appearances with the world of ideas, poetry's
success leads it astray--in its autonomy, it threatens to abandon its mediating role and evacuate itself of any
representational duties whatsoever.
The pinnacle of art and its collapse, poetry forces Hegel to rethink his account of self-determination as linguistic praxis.
Predictably, this occurs in his discussion of lyric, traditionally the verse of the self and the first member of his tripartite
genre scheme, which is rounded out by epic and drama. Having stressed that it makes no difference whether we read or hear
poetry since its medium--language--is essentially non-phenomenal, Hegel nonetheless insists that because lyric is the highpoint
of artistic subjectivity, the expression of interiority as such, it must be grasped as an act of a self in a way that
epic and drama cannot be. The important thing to realize is that a lyric act of self, unlike the deeds of the
spirit described in the Philosophy of History or the Philosophy of Right, must remain stillborn.
Lyric praxis, writes Hegel, cannot "be so far continued as to display the subject's heart and passion in practical activity and
action, i.e., in the subject's return to himself in his actual deed" (Aesthetics 1112). For the model of
self-interpretive subjectivity, the self is nothing other than its own acts of self-interpretation, yet lyric, the poetry of
the self, must be language that acts in such a way that the action can never be grasped as the coordination of a self and an
act. Lyric acts without becoming someone's action. To think about this even as a claim for the agency of language replacing
the agency of a willful entity would be misleading. The lyric poet, the poet of poets, the poet whose discourse will
articulate the very subjectivity of poetry as the discourse of spirit itself, acts by losing his power to articulate a language
that would tell its own story, the story of language's coming into meaningfulness by its own hand, the story of language being
able to make sense of its own promissory "yes." Lyric is the last language in which an act and the explanation of that act
will coincide in the self-signification of an auto-interpretive process.
In setting the imagination free, poetry reveals that the imagination talks only to itself. Poetry, says Hegel, "must
emphasize . . . the spiritual idea (geistige Vorstellung), the imagination which speaks to the inner imagination
(die Phantasie, die zur inneren Phantasie spricht)" (Aesthetics 969). The point is not that the lyrical
imagination speaks nonsense (or remains silent). With the simultaneous triumph and dissolution of art in poetry, we encounter
a language that, in contradistinction to the prose of spirit, does not present itself as a discourse that understands itself in
and as its own acts of self-understanding. This is a language that never offers a grammar or syntax that could serve as a
model for relations between agents and their deeds or between subjects and objects. With lyric, says Hegel, the imagination
"is essentially distinguished from thinking by reason of the fact that . . . it allows particular ideas to subsist alongside
one another without being related, whereas thinking demands and produces dependence of things on one another, reciprocal
relations, logical judgments, syllogisms, etc." (1035). The inactive praxis of lyric confronts us with a paratactic discourse
in which hierarchy and synthesis have no place. In the final instance, it is a war against both art and thinking: "Lyric . .
. becomes the outpouring of a soul, fighting and struggling with itself, which in its ferment does violence to both art and
thought because it oversteps one sphere without being, or being able to be, at home in the other" (1128). The language
of radical non-self-understanding, lyric poetry cannot self-clarify or self-interpret in the course of articulating itself as
the product of its own articulations. Where lyric subjectivity is concerned, the self's expression of itself to itself is as
destructive as it is creative. Lyric presents the subject as that which does violence to itself, but not, as the commonplaces
about subject philosophy would have it, by treating itself as an object. Lyric fails to demonstrate that its own
self-interpretation begins and ends with the acts by which it makes its own significance self-evidently meaningful to itself.
On the most basic level, this means that the self-interest of self--the notion of the self as even minimally self-related or
self-concerned--has lost its inevitability.
If lyric, the pinnacle of subjective expressivity, turns out to be a discourse in which both self-interpretation and
self-interpretation are in jeopardy, this does not simply mean--again, as the clichés about Hegel and Derrida
would have it--that identity is irremediably compromised by the force of difference. Interpretation and attempts to coordinate
reference and signification continue unabated in poetry, but it is no longer evident that such efforts are primarily waged in
the service of a self that performs them. The question for our study of the relationship between Hegel and Derrida is whether
the negativity at work in this dynamic requires us to alter our customary picture of dialectical negation. Is lyric praxis an
example of what Derrida describes in Bataille's reading of Hegel as a negativity that is no longer part of the semantic work of
the concept "because it literally can no longer labor and let itself be interrogated as the 'work of the negative'"
("Restricted" 260)? According to Hegel's Aesthetics, lyric poetry occurs as an event that does not reflexively
tell the story of its own emergence as a semantic agent, and in this respect, it challenges the understanding of
poetry as "productive" if that term necessarily implies the appearance of a product that can be known as the effect of its
producer. At the same time, is it clear that lyric's repeated acts of non-self-understanding could not be recuperated via the
inversion whereby subjectivity, brought to its radical extreme, would coincide with its other and thus confirm its implicit
sovereignty after all? Hegel's theory of art provides the resources for a more radical vision of self-expressive
activity than is normally attributed to him, but ultimately, Derrida is interested in pushing the account of lyric even
further. In "Shibboleth: for Paul Celan," one of relatively few of his texts that is primarily devoted to verse, Derrida
about the way in which Celan's work effects a break with the very idea of agency as self-expression. The voice that speaks in
his oeuvre is in retreat from the paradigm of self-determination as self-representation; and
subjectivity, such as it appears,
makes no claim to being either the cause or the effect of the referential powers of language. For the philosophical project,
argues Derrida, the encounter with Celan is the "experience of language, an experience always as poetic, or literary,
as it is philosophical" ("Shibboleth" 48). For Derrida, this experience is the experience of linguistic finitude. This does
not mean that it is an encounter with a discourse that fails to refer to or perform anything and everything. Rather, it is an
engagement with a language that--unlike the self-interpretive dynamic of Hegel's historical spirit--no longer presents itself
as the deciding instance in virtue of which all past, present, and future utterances become meaningful through the evaluation
to which this language subjects them. This is the experience of a language in which all
reading and writing are no longer
always-already pre-written and pre-read by its own self-confirming conditions of signification, a language in which the
resources of the "yes" Derrida reads in Joyce are not necessarily inexhaustible.
It is around the question of finitude that the challenges posed by Hegel's lyric intersect with Derrida's work on the notion of
the event (Ereignis) in Martin Heidegger. A true event, argues Derrida, is entirely unforeseeable; it is a pure
surprise, something impossible to accommodate through existing norms or schemas, something that literally comes upon us out of
nowhere and overwhelms our ability to process it. In this sense, a confrontation with an event is an encounter with the
experience of a limit of experience, an encounter with the very impossibility of fully understanding or appropriating that
with which we are faced. Importantly, this experience of limits as limits of
experience does not itself become a definite border, something that one can "tackle head on" and thereby overcome. For
Derrida, the experience of a limit is simultaneously the experience of the limit of limits, an experience of the way in which
something that is truly limited, something that is not simply a temporary delimitation that can facilitate its own
supersession, fails to manifest itself as decidedly determined or determining. It is in these terms that Derrida invites us to
think about the event of Hegelian lyric as an irreducibly finite act. Such a lyric "happens" by exposing the limits of
auto-interpretation, by questioning whether the self-interpretive project is inherently self-compromising, and this occurs,
moreover, in such a way that the limits never become a fixed border to be transgressed, as if the act of self-interpretation
could interpret itself as self-limiting and, having confirmed that the limitation was wholly its own, surpass it. Such a lyric
points beyond itself, calling out for description and comprehension, but it never verifies that this call is the promise of its
own meaningfulness. Language's self-avowing "yes" can never completely say "yes" to "yes."
From this standpoint, Derrida is demanding nothing less than a reconceptualization of the classical opposition between the
finite and the infinite. Finitude, claims Hegel, is a matter of boundaries that are themselves endpoints, boundaries that in
marking completion, termination, or death reveal themselves to be true restrictions rather than thresholds, conclusions rather
than bridges to something new. One should thus understand finitude as that which is ceasing to be: as a positively
extant phenomenon, finitude is only insofar as it is becoming something that always-already no longer is. Finite
things, writes Hegel, "are not merely limited . . . but on the contrary non-being constitutes their nature and being"
(Science 129). To say that something is finite means that non-being, the negative determination organizing the
opposition between being and nothing, constitutes its existence without rendering it purely indifferent to what is or is not.
In a slightly more dramatic formulation, where finite things are concerned, "the hour of their birth is the hour of their
death" (Science 129).
Approached in this fashion, finitude is the condition of always-already being through, yet ironically, even this may not
be finite enough. If something is to be truly finite, its limits must be absolutely limiting and limited, but the
moment limitation is invoked as a category with which to explain finitude, the resulting boundary between what is and is not
finite potentially opposes itself to finitude--it is the other of finitude, the frontier at which finitude confronts
something beyond itself--at which point the finite is no longer merely terminal. In other words, the negativity characteristic
of finitude is permanently at risk of serving as the grounds for a self-relation that will implicate the finite in a dynamic of
self and other. The consequence is that the exposition of finitude can become an exercise in determining a series of
transitions--alterations, as Hegel calls them--between different finite entities, each of which is shown to be a "something" in
its own right that is limited by yet another change via expiration, and so forth: "We lay down a limit; then we pass it; next
we have a limit once more, and so on for ever" (Encyclopedia 138). Either an infinite regression emerges--each
finitude produces yet another finitude, ad infinitum--or else what has been described is a straightforward double
negation--"the limit is limited in such a way that it is not just limited"--that becomes the ground of an unlimited field of
finite phenomena. Both alternatives leave us with what Hegel famously calls a "bad" or "wrong" infinity, an interminably
repeated negation of the finite that never actually completes the task of negating it.
In the Science of Logic and the first volume of the Encyclopedia, Hegel devotes a great deal of
confirming the possibility of articulating an infinitude that can be distinguished from this "bad" infinity. At the same time, he more than hints that finitude offers a resistance to thought that is not the
customary resistance of negation:
The thought of the finitude of things brings this sadness (Trauer) with it because it is qualitative negation pushed
to its extreme, and in the singleness of such determination, there is no longer left to things an affirmative being
distinct from their destiny to perish. Because of this qualitative singleness of the negation, which has gone back to
the abstract opposition of nothing and ceasing-to-be as opposed to being, finitude is the most stubborn category of the
understanding; negation in general, constitution and limit, reconcile themselves with their other, with determinate being; and
even nothing, taken abstractly as such, is given up as an abstraction; but finitude is the negation as fixed in
itself, and it therefore stands in abrupt contrast to the affirmative. The finite, it is true, lets itself be brought
into flux, it is itself this, to be determined or destined to its end, but only to its end--or rather, it is the
refusal to let itself be brought affirmatively to its affirmative, to the infinite, and to let itself be united with it.
Finitude's refusal to yield to the negation of its negative stance, its refusal to be brought "affirmatively to its
affirmative," is equally its refusal to yield to the positivity of its negative stance, hence, finitude literally has no
posture that could be called its own. Foreign to both determinate being and abstraction, finitude is not really a
determination at all, and yet, it is not indeterminate, either. "The most stubborn category of the understanding," finitude
"stands in abrupt contrast to the affirmative" because it presents us with a negation taken "to its extreme," but for once,
this radicalization of negativity does not subject finitude to a reversal whereby it would become an affirmative positing in
its own right. Finitude is a negation that refuses to be in-itself or for-itself. It is a negation with neither a positive
nor a negative valence.
The first question to ask is whether the interruptive, even paralyzing function of finitude has always already been
re-written and re-read as part of a larger reflective process that sits in judgment on any effort to "radicalize" the
argument by tarrying with this disruption. If the concept of finitude is to be ascribed a broader significance, it will have
to be shown that it in some way forces Hegel to alter his account of signification itself. To move in this direction, it could
be argued that the thought of finitude brings with it a sadness or mourning (Trauer) not simply because mortal
entities die, but because once finitude is invoked, the usual procedures of thought--determination, negation, determination as
negation--are themselves at risk of being revealed as essentially limited, too. Hegel stresses that the experience of the
concept of finitude is an encounter with something that is not precisely of the order of being or nothing, and he appears to
acknowledge that what is lost in the transition from the finite to the infinite is not just finitude, but the possibility of
another kind of thinking, a possibility he declines to explore. Thought, we might say,
never gets over its brush with the finite, however dexterous the ensuing presentation of the infinite proves to be,
ardently it is maintained that the infinite carries the finite within it. Mourning (Trauer) becomes melancholia, and
finitude is transcended only at the price of thought--in contradiction to the most basic tenet of Idealism--showing itself to
be finite rather than infinite. This is the concern Hegel expresses in the Encyclopedia when he
against doing exactly what he does in the greater Logic, namely, juxtapose the finite and the infinite in a stark
opposition, thereby implicitly granting that the infinite is limited rather than unlimited, bounded rather than boundless.
At this juncture, it might be clarifying to distinguish the finite from the concept of finitude by arguing that the
latter always bears a mark of the generality of thought that contravenes the singularity that is its ostensible substance. In
slightly different terms, if the articulation of finitude as a concept in a discourse invariably betrays what we mean by the
finite, then can we speak about the emergence of finitude as an event whereby the universality organizing any act of reference
or signification is compromised in being exposed to a limit? Hegel seems to go in this direction when he argues that
finitude is the expression of the nothing as something limited and hence as not merely nothing. Hardly just another way of
facilitating the reversal of the finite into the infinite, the expression of finitude betrays a contradiction in expressivity
itself. Finitude interrupts the smooth modulation from the act of representation to the content of what is represented, as if
once you represent finitude, you no longer know precisely what representation is or does. In this respect, the language that
purports to express finitude challenges its own ability to continue to be language; it confronts itself not as a self-grounding
force that posits its own conditions of possibility, but as something restricted, fragmentary, or even mortal. At least for
the moment, "yes" is only a half-hearted "more or less 'yes.'"
If the expression of finitude renders expression finite, it is still unclear whether this fundamentally alters the
Hegelian model of self-signification. The language of Hegelian lyric praxis may constitute a genuine alternative to
spirit as auto-interpretation, but we need to say more about finitude's peculiar "refusal," as Hegel puts it, to play along
with affirmation and negation alike. One way that Derrida tries to describe this "other" negation can be found in his
discussion of totalization in Claude Lévi-Strauss:
Totalization can be judged impossible in the classical style: one then refers to the empirical endeavor of a subject or of a
finite discourse in a vain and breathless quest of an infinite richness which it can never master. There is too much, more
than one can say. But nontotalization can also be determined in another way: no longer from the standpoint of
a concept of
finitude as relegation to the empirical, but from the standpoint of the concept of play. If totalization no
longer has any meaning, it is not because the infiniteness of a field cannot be covered by a finite glance or a finite
but because the nature of the field--that is, language and a finite language--excludes totalization. This field is
in effect that of play, that is to say, a field of infinite substitutions only because it is finite, that is to say, because instead of being an inexhaustible
field, as in the classical hypothesis, instead of being too large, there is something missing from it: a center which arrests
and grounds the play of substitutions. One could say . . . that this movement of play, permitted by the lack or
absence of a center or origin, is the movement of supplementarity. One cannot determine the center and exhaust
totalization because the sign which replaces the center, which supplements it, taking the center's place
in its absence--this sign is added, occurs as a surplus, as a supplement. ("Structure" 289; translation modified)
This passage is part of a larger argument made in Of Grammatology and Speech and
Phenomena about signification in
Rousseau, Edmund Husserl, and Saussure. With each of these authors, Derrida shows that the attempt to describe the
logic of the sign reveals that the referent it "announces" or "substitutes for" is always already implicated in a
broader semiosis. With respect to its presence-to-self, an object of reference is thus invoked only via a process
that exposes it as fundamentally empty or lacking. The
result is that expression can no longer be understood as
the articulation of something that exists independently of expression. Every signifier marks the difference
between a signifier and a signified, but no signifier can signify that what it signifies is actually a signified
rather than just another signifier.
The inscription of the infinite within an inherently incomplete field coupled with the suggestion that the inexhaustibility of
the field stems precisely from its constitutively deficient state fundamentally alters the way in which we must understand
language as limited or unlimited. Instead of speaking of a discourse's inability to refer to or perform anything and
everything--even when that anything and everything is the discourse itself--the very possibility of language as a signifying
force is now said to rest on its inherently unfinished status: "The overabundance of the signifier," writes Derrida,
"its supplementary character, is thus the result of a finitude, that is to say, the result of a lack which must be
supplemented" ("Structure" 290). The point is not just that any act of language misfires or fails to constitute
itself in the form it promises. Understood as a system of signification, language acts by disrupting the grounds for identifying the infinite with totality or
completion. Conversely, it is no longer possible to speak of the finite as terminal or as the antithesis of open-ended. By
radicalizing the idea of limitation and its role in effecting semantic determinations in general, Derrida reveals that the
classical opposition between the finite and the infinite is incompatible with his understanding of linguistic
This argument has enormous consequences for the study of Idealism and Romanticism since both are
routinely characterized as celebrating the unlimited authority of language as a force of creation or destruction. Following
Derrida's analysis of Lévi-Strauss, the power we accord language can no longer be evaluated in terms of
ability to supersede boundaries, even its own, and must instead depend on the manner in which language proves to be
irremediably self-compromising--a misprision that cannot be inscribed within the polarities of complete and incomplete or
of fragment and whole. Still, if we are to link the dynamic of supplementarity to the logic of
interrogated as the pre-positional mark enabling the I am to establish itself as the archetypal utterance of
subjective self-actualization, we need a more precise picture of the negativity at work in this theory of linguistic finitude.
Derrida has written extensively on the subject of negation, perhaps most famously in response to the charge that deconstruction
is merely a version of negative theology (see "How to Avoid Speaking"). One of his central concerns is whether any negation is
invariably treated as somehow derivative of an affirmation, i.e., as the "counter-position" to a pre-existing assertion. What
would it mean to understand negativity as a power in its own right, a power that may be constitutive of all determinations,
positive or negative? Derrida pursues this question by
examining the French negating
particle pas (which is, of course, also the word for "step"), and we may be able to work in parallel with his argument
by considering the term not. If not is to be read as the mark of the compromising expression of a finite
discourse that cannot be governed by the auto-practical subject of self-interpretation, not must first and foremost be
disassociated from any representation of lack or incompletion, which can always be recuperated as the presentation of something
positively given as a signified or referent. Like the compromised figure of Hegelian finitude that interests Derrida,
not hovers uneasily between the poles of being and non-being, but perhaps even more importantly, it puts strain on the
categories on which we customarily rely when we talk about the elements of a sentence. Like all adverbs, not modifies
verbs, yet it is the "limit" case of an adverb--ad-verbal to the point of annulling the very nature of what verbs, if not all
words, do. Unique to language, not changes what we understand by linguistic acts. Insofar as it is dependent on the
proposition of which it is a part, it cannot be said to confirm the power of language to perform or posit (like Derrida's
"yes"); and it cannot be understood as the self-elision of language by language (as the "transcendental adverbiality" of "no"),
either. If anything, not seems to be the point at which language speaks to itself about what it is not doing and
cannot ever do: "I do not promise" / "I do not take thee as my lawful wedded wife."
In On Interpretation, one of the founding texts of dialectical logic in the West, Aristotle famously declares the
basic linguistic utterance to be a proposition (logos apophantikos) that is either true or false. The paradigmatic
form of speech is thus established as "a statement that possesses a meaning, affirming or denying the presence of some other
thing in a subject in time past or present or future," or more simply, it is a "statement of one thing concerning another
thing" (17). This doctrine has been enormously influential for a host of attempts to describe the relationship between
language and the things about which language speaks. It is less often noted, however, that Aristotle's commitment to an
apophantic model of predicative expression is paralleled by his insistence that any proposition is permanently exposed to the
authority of not (ou). "He is a man," to use his example, conforms to the paradigmatic form of language only
insofar as it is equally plausible to say, "He is not a man." We may readily assent that from a logical perspective any
affirmation is structurally exposed to the possibility of its denial and vice versa, but it is precisely the condition of
possibility of such a "logical perspective" that is at stake. The very opportunity for an utterance to become a proposition,
to say something about something, rests on the utterance's openness to not, its openness to the possibility that
language may equally well pronounce, truly or falsely, that the contrary is the case. Not marks language's minimal
autonomy from that about which it speaks; it reveals that a proposition is never entirely reducible to what it refers to or
signifies. In this sense, not is a proto-logical condition, fundamental to and yet never explained by the accounts of
syllogistic reasoning that follow in On Interpretation.
If basic utterance is conceivable only on the condition of its exposure to not, then even when
not is not
uttered, the fact that it could potentially pop up at any moment ensures that its impact is felt. In this way, not
underscores its own independence from any act of negation (or, in its absence, affirmation) in which it participates.
Not, the para-word of words, literalizes the potential of any statement to be ironic, that
is, the ability of all
language to say one thing and nonetheless mean the opposite. Any instance of language may or may not say "not," whether or not
it says so, and yet no given statement can assert its control over this possibility, since one can always add or subtract one
more not and reverse the proposal: not is (not) the condition of possibility of (not) saying "not."
Understood as a referential statement about what is or is not, the function of not amounts to nothing more than a
definition of contingency. Expressed as a condition of possibility of discourse, however, the authority of not marks
the absolute disjunction between what words say and how they are (or are not) meaningful.
Not is the moment language
says something about itself, and what it says is that language can not exhaustively refer to its own capacity to
signify (or not) as something it does (or does not) meaningfully perform. It is along these lines that Derridean
supplementarity can be recast as a theory of linguistic finitude.
Uncertainty about not and the operations it does or does not facilitate is legible throughout the history of
Western philosophy. When it is explicitly identified as an issue in its own right, not is usually subordinated to the
discussion of negation and of nothing, but each time this happens, there is a hint that not is
less derivative than we
are being asked to believe. The problem could be explored in G.E. Leibniz's consideration of why there is something rather
than nothing; in Fichte's description of the primordial co-positing of I and not-I; and in Heidegger's
declaration that "the
nothing is more original than negation and the 'not,'" a claim immediately followed by the qualification that only in the
revelation that they are beings and not nothing do beings become aware of their own radical finitude (99). For each
of these thinkers--and many similar examples could be given--the word not is never simply an expression of alterity or
a reference to contingency, limitation, or mortality. Not always also names a failure peculiar to itself, the failure
of the word not to become a force of self-reflexive self-determination in its own right. Not cannot
guarantee the performance of the negations it announces, which is also to say that not is not a performative failure
that lays the grounds for a future success. In this regard, not does not facilitate the self-transcendence of the
finite. It does not impel language to establish itself as inherently self-transgressing.
To appreciate the full implications of this "alternative" dimension of negation and its significance for Derrida's
rethinking of the relationship between finite and infinite discourse, it will be useful to look briefly at one example of how
Derrida's work differs from another well-known call for a transformation of our understanding of language. In his 1916 essay
"On language as such and on the language of man," Benjamin inveighs against what he terms the "bourgeois" strategy of reducing
language to its instrumental function, completely subordinate to the ends to which it is employed by those who use it to
communicate. Benjamin thus invites us to distinguish between the customary, that is, the reductive, sense of communicating
through language and a new notion of communicating in language. Rejecting the assumption that a word is a
means for relating something to an addressee, he argues that language has no content but imparts itself in itself.
The condition of possibility for any instrumental language is this idea of language as the communication of the possibility of
communication, communicability (Mitteilbarkeit) as such, prior to any particular instance of mediation or information
transfer. This is a language of pure means that can never fully be grasped as a collection of means
In recent years, Benjamin's work has been extremely influential in prompting critics to ask what it would mean to think
about language without relying on the instrumentality inevitably ascribed to it in even the minimal gesture of conceptualizing
it as an object of study. At the same time, there is a crucial respect in which Benjamin's essay is still governed by the
classical opposition of the finite and the infinite Derrida seeks to unsettle. Benjamin re-describes the relationship between
the bourgeois and non-bourgeois understandings of language as a fall from the discourse of Adamic naming into its mere
parody, the instrumental human word, which always refers to something beyond language: "The Fall marks the birth of the human
word, in which name no longer lives intact and which has stepped out of name-language, the language of knowledge
. . . . The
[human] word must communicate something (other than itself)" (71). Accordingly, even the proper names in human language, the
very "frontier" between "finite and infinite language," have to be understood as "limited and analytic in nature in comparison
to the absolutely unlimited and creative infinity of the divine word" (69-70). In contrast to these formulations, Derrida's
reading of Hegel suggests that the power of a discourse may lie in its limited rather than its unlimited character.
Derrida and Benjamin differ on this point because the latter's critique of the instrumentalization of language remains
committed to one of the most traditional gestures in Western linguistic theory, the absolute privileging of the noun or name,
the onoma, as the key to semantic dynamics. In its most canonical form, the move is readily legible in Aristotle's
definition of metaphor as the transfer (epiphora) of the name (onomatos) of one thing to something else
(allotriou), a structure of analogy based on the transposition of words that presents changes in meaning as patterns
of substitutions of one unit for another (Poetics 57b 7-9).
Naturally, we should not underestimate the radicality of denomination. At the very least, it can be argued that naming
is a linguistic act that breaks with the tropological model of language to which, thanks to Aristotle, it owes its
preeminence. At the same time, it is not by chance that in "White Mythology" a sustained exposition of the Aristotelian
doctrine of metaphor leads Derrida to a discussion of catachresis in which "the order of the noun is largely surpassed" as we
begin to speak of the "metaphor-catachreses of prepositions" (256). Derrida urges us to think about linguistic finitude in
terms of the syntactic resistance of a not that traverses the Hegelian discourse of self-interpretation without
becoming just one more resource of self-negation. Perhaps, then, we can describe not as the
metaphor-catachresis of ad-verbiality that confounds any effort to explain performativity with a model in which, as in
Benjamin, denomination would be the formative schema of linguistic praxis and the noun the paradigmatic linguistic unit.
From this perspective, we can see why Benjamin's transformation of linguistic theory remains limited by not being
limited enough, that is, it is committed to the traditional understanding of the infinite resources of language and the
creative authority of divine naming. At the same time, we should not miss the polemical import of Benjamin's argument. His
analysis warns that in our efforts to characterize a finite discourse that will counter the absolute semantic rule of the
auto-interpretive Hegelian spirit, we risk returning to the most old-fashioned instrumental conception of signification in
which words passively do what they are used to do. It is therefore essential that the problems we have explored in Derrida not
be mistaken for an announcement of the death of verbal creativity and the demise of coordination between an utterance and
its effects. The language of finitude and the discourse of not suggest that no speech act can entirely make good on
its promise to be meaningful. This is not, however, a claim about the impossibility of performance
per se. Rather, it is an
injunction to conceptualize linguistic events less in terms of agents who act and more with reference to modalities of
expression--adverbial or adjectival--that are impossible to assimilate to a traditional logic of constative affirmations.
Revealing language to be a dynamic whose finite resources are not unfailingly devoted to its own self-determination,
Derrida provides both a new picture of self-interpretive agency in Hegel and a vantage point from which to assess the limits of
any project that would base its critical authority on its own self-reflexivity. In this respect, Derrida's interrogation of
discursive finitude is a far-reaching challenge to the humanist enterprises that valorize introspection as the grounds of
analysis and insight. As the importance of Derrida's work for contemporary social and political thought is debated in the
decades to come, these issues may well prove to be an increasingly central dimension of his legacy.
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1. Derrida says that this break with speculative
thought may only be a break from a "certain" (as the familiar qualification runs) reading of Hegel, a "certain" Hegelianism,
for Hegel's corpus offers considerable resources to the operations that seek to oppose it:
the Hegelian Aufhebung, such as it is interpreted by a certain Hegelian discourse, for it goes without saying that the
double meaning of Aufhebung could be written otherwise. Whence its proximity to all the operations conducted
against Hegel's dialectical speculation" (Positions 40-1). Hegel can be pitted against the inheritors
who celebrate him as their own--Hegel the idealist can be matched against Hegel the realist, Hegel the formalist can war with
Hegel the nominalist, and so on--assuming it is still clear what conflict means in this context.
2. Hegel is frequently accused of being overly abstruse, if not downright
obscurantist, yet the ferocity of these charges appears to be inversely proportional to the accuracy with which his arguments
are popularized. Far more than with Immanuel Kant or Friedrich Schelling--hardly easy reads--it is the caricatures of Hegel's
thought that hold sway, even at an advanced level of scholarship. It seems that we constantly need to be reminded that in
Hegel the disruption that inevitably manifests itself within a concept is not unambiguously an opportunity for an advance in
insight. Each "negation of negation" is as much a confirmation of the incoherence of the prior stages of the argument as it is
a resolution of confusion, which is simply to say that Hegel's philosophy does not inexorably build skyward on increasingly
solid ground. It would be equally accurate to maintain that things get shakier every step of the way, a point that has been
emphasized by much of the criticism that takes its cue from Derrida's work.
3. Over the last fifteen years, this charge has frequently been leveled at Derrida by
Derrida incessantly varies the motif of how full identity-with-itself is impossible; how it is always, constitutively,
deferred, split; how the condition of its possibility is the condition of its impossibility; how there is no identity without
reference to an outside which always-already truncates it, and so on, and so on. Yet what eludes him is the Hegelian inversion
of identity qua impossible into identity itself as a name for a certain radical impossibility. The
impossibility unearthed by Derrida through the hard work of deconstructive reading supposed to subvert identity constitutes the
very definition of identity [in Hegel]. (37)
What is notable is that Žižek--who is fond of quoting his subject matter at
considerable length--almost never offers even a
phrase-length citation of Derrida, and in the extended discussion of Derrida and Hegel from which this passage is taken, there
is not so much as a single reference to any of Derrida's numerous published writings on Hegel.
In accusing Derrida of working with a straw-man Hegel ("identity is privileged over difference," "the
reigns supreme over the other"), Žižek is himself working with a straw-man Derrida,
("self-presence is impossible," "all binary
oppositions auto-deconstruct"). In fact, upon closer examination it becomes obvious that
Žižek's account of Derrida's
understanding of Hegel takes as its primary source not a book or essay by Derrida, but a book about Derrida, Rodolphe
Gasché's The Tain of the Mirror. In a curiously ambiguous gesture,
Žižek relies on Gasché as his
reference for condemning Derrida's analyses at the same time as he goes out of his way to accuse Gasché of the
error he attributes to Derrida: "Gasché presents as specifically 'Derridean' a whole series of propositions which sound
as if they were taken from Hegel's Logic" (74). For Žižek, the
would-be critic of Hegel--Gasché,
Derrida--is unable to recognize that his "refinements" of Hegel simply are Hegel's positions. Remembering the interpretive
bind described by Adorno, it is perhaps inevitable that Gasché responds to this
critique by arguing that Žižek has erred
by taking one section of the greater Logic on identity and reflection as Hegel's last word on the topic and
ignoring the broader teleological parameters of his thought. His assertions about the radicalism of Hegelian reflexivity
notwithstanding, Žižek is said to lapse into an extremely primitive oppositional
model. (Gasché adds that "in Žižek's
theory of identity, socio-psychological and psychoanalytic concepts have become mixed up with [identity's] philosophical
concept" [Inventions 278-9 n14].)
4. This section of the Philosophy of Right condenses an argument made at
greater length in the opening section of Hegel's Philosophy of History.
5. For two important discussions of the way in which a truly totalizing system is
never done totalizing, never done anticipating (and co-opting) its future readers, see Hamacher's Pleroma (esp.
1-81) and Part II of Warminski's Readings in Interpretation, "Reading Hegel" (95-182).
6. See in particular "Signature, Even, Context" and Limited Inc.
7. In this context, Judith Butler's work has been enormously influential for attempts
to assess the Derridean understanding of linguistic performance and its importance for the understanding of identity "after"
8. See Mémoires for Paul de Man (esp. Chapter 3, "Acts") and
"Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink (2)."
9. Hamacher has written extensively on the promise and its
importance for Kantian
thought (see Premises) and has explored this dimension of Derrida's project and its
intersections with his own work in "Lingua Amissa."
10. Fynsk explores the presuppositional structure of language in detail in
Language and Relation: ... that there is language. See also Agamben's Potentialities, especially
§13, "Pardes: The Writing of Potentiality."
11. As poiesis, the discourse of productivity as such, poetry should be the
place where the auto-generative act of self-interpretation and the product of that act, the discourse of self-creation,
coincide. Of course, a glance at almost any nineteenth-century thinker reveals that the productive powers of the artistic self
are not easily coordinated with the forms this productivity assumes. While there is widespread consensus in post-Kantian
thought that poetry distinguishes itself by its ability to give full expressive range to the imagination--literally setting it
free, as Kant himself says in the third Critique--this does not simply mean that poetry gives the mind a forum in
which to run wild with ever more novel creations. Rather, poetry liberates the imagination from the requirement that it be
defined by its capacity to synthesize a product. To put this slightly differently, radical creative autonomy would appear to
imply at least a degree of independence from self-creation as the sole standard of autonomy. The discourse of poiesis
is thus ironically the field in which the mind is emancipated from the requirement that it be poietic; it is the
discourse in which producer and product are revealed to co-exist in an indifferent rather than a mutually reinforcing
12. Hegel writes that "den Geist mit allen seinen Konzeptionen der Phantasie und
Kunst . . . für den Geist ausspricht" (225).
13. Derrida explains:
The event is what comes and, in coming, comes to surprise me, to surprise and to
suspend comprehension: the event is first of
all that which I do not first of all comprehend. It consists in that, that I do not comprehend: that
which I do not comprehend and first of all that I do not comprehend, the fact that I do not comprehend: my
incomprehension. That is the limit, at once internal and external, on which I would like to insist here: although the
experience of an event, the mode according to which it affects us, calls for a movement of appropriation (comprehension,
recognition, identification, description, determination, interpretation on the basis of a horizon of anticipation, knowledge,
naming and so on), although this movement of appropriation is irreducible and ineluctable, there is no event worthy of its name
except insofar as this appropriation falters at some border or frontier. A frontier, however, with neither front nor
confrontation, one that incomprehension does not run into head on since it does not take the form of a solid front: it escapes,
remains evasive, open, undecided, indeterminable. (Philosophy in a Time of Terror 90-1)
14. In the greater Logic, Hegel's response to the quandaries we have
been describing is to offer a complex argument about the finite's doubly negative relation to its limit as both the
determination of what it is and is not. This line of discussion culminates in the conclusion that the finite, "in ceasing-to
be, in this negation of itself, actually attains a being-in-itself [and] is united with itself" as the negation of the finite,
or the infinite (Science 136). One need only compare this demonstration with the treatment of the transition from
the finite to the infinite in the Encyclopedia Logic, however, to recognize that the entire topic leaves Hegel
15. For an effort to explore this "other" thinking,
see Nancy's A Finite Thinking and Hegel: The Restlessness of the Negative.
16. Derrida writes: "The supplement adds itself, it is a
surplus, a plenitude enriching another plenitude"; but the supplement "adds only to replace. It
intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it is as if one fills a
void. If it
represents and makes an image, it is by the anterior default of a presence. Compensatory and
vicarious, the supplement is an adjunct, a subaltern instance which takes-(the)-place"
(Of Grammatology 144-45).
17. In Speech and Phenomena, the discussion of
supplementarity leads to the explicit claim that différance explodes the classical opposition of
the finite and the infinite (cf. Speech 101-102).
18. On this question, see in particular Derrida's "Pas."
19. Following Derrida's "Force of Law: The
Foundation of Authority'" (1989), discussions of pure means in Benjamin have proliferated, largely as
part of an ongoing study of the Benjamin essay Derrida analyzes there, "The Critique of Violence." For
an account of the political stakes of these arguments and in particular their connections with
Benjamin's theory of language, see Hamacher's "Afformative, Strike."
Adorno, Theodor W. Hegel: Three Studies.Trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Cambridge: MIT P, 1993.
Agamben, Giorgio. Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford
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