Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

A tribute to Derrida

16/10 2004:
by Hatto Fischer

It does not take a philosopher long to conclude that the language he speaks and writes in, reflects only partially his thoughts.

Some have concluded that this is because the inherent constraint of any language is due to the way language has been structured to be used by society to communicate about only certain things. By not covering everything, these structures are restrictive in a double sense: they exclude and they wish to be conveyed by an image as if speaking for the whole. This made Adorno say in refutation of Hegel that the 'whole is not the truth'.

What then is an open structure, if not a way to reflect certainty within uncertainty? If that is the case, then how can we understand not merely the difference between Foucault and Derrida but also why Kolokowski speaks about 'the certainty of the senses' ('sinnliche Gewissheit')?
A definition of language has been given by Aristotles who developed the 'lessons of the categories' as being both grammar and structured thought in anticipation of things to come. So the time horizon of a language is decisive to discover the lawfulness by which is to be understood how things are ordered. Ordering things by means of categories made Foucault write about 'les mots et les choses' or 'The Order of Things'.

The other case about seeking certainty in the senses means that any abstraction to reflect upon the very structures that deny the senses cannot be an easy undertaking. Since Hegel denied the senses as source of truth, that has been a philosophical controversy. With it goes the philosophical denial that poetry can be source of truth.

Therefore, if Derrida returns to Celan at the end of his acceptance speech of the Adorno prize which he received 22 September 2001 (one should note the date and ask whether or not the 11th of September left any imprint upon that speech), then not to bring into philosophy a position which claims to resolve that dispute, but to emphasise that what is marginal has also to be considered: "la langue de l'autre, la langue de l'hote, la langue de l'etranger, voire de l'immigrant, de l'émigré ou de l'exile." (Derrida, Fichus, Collection La Philosophie En Effet, Paris, 2002, p.9)
Consideration by itself is not acceptance but inclusion. It does not deny the power of the structures but wants something else. This something else is what made Derrida refer to Paul Celan especially after the latter did survive Fascism, but not the scorn of the after war period.

As last refrain in his acceptance speech of the Adorno prize Derrida quotes from a poem by Celan stating that 'niemand zeugt fuer den Zeugen' - 'nobody testifies for the witness'. (ib. p. 57) This can be linked to something Derrida refers to explicitly in that speech - when he quotes Adorno's saying "foreign words are the Jews of the German language". However, Derrida does not refer explicitly to Adorno's wish to bestow the truth found out during the reign of Fascism not to any individual nor to the masses of people, but to the 'imaginary witness'.

The latter can be a yearning for impartiality as element of truth in an objective sense, but it can also mean no witness can begin to testify if the imagination is not involved, there to help seeing what took place and what would be an element of surprise to all those who cling on to usual versions about key events. For the involvement of the imagination when describing the situation is really about understanding human reality insofar that is not a given like a certain structure, but the outcome of decisions and man's own actions for which he can be made accountable for. It is a matter of proof as to where the responsibility lies, that links philosophical to judicial inquiry invoked by calling upon those witnesses. The difference lies in the degree of involvement of the imagination.

Naturally Celan has some other dilemmas in mind when writing about 'words being his only witness', that is when the human being is abandoned, left completely alone, while forces of these times threaten to crush down on him as they did upon Jewish and other people being taken to the concentration camp.

The call upon a witness to testify what one has done in such a situation is really a matter of how man can stand up to him- or herself. If ever self-defense is needed not only when one's own life is threatened, but when the conflicts press upon the conscience, then in terms of not only what one has done, but has failed to act upon especially in such situations that leave others helpless, abandoned and without any human solidarity.

The ethical concern about what is happening due to the way things are structured, but which should not leave out human responsibility, that is the key difference by which Derrida commenced his philosophical reflections after Foucault's works. Derrida comes into the philosophical realms needed for understanding language by identifying what is needed, namely to be complemented by the other, the one excluded, the one from exile or in immigration.

Yet 'l'ecart et la difference' as a way to step out of the shadow of Foucault was itself a return to abstract reflections. The rich contents of Foucault were silenced once more as so often the case in philosophy. It explains an unanswered longing for the 'certainty of the senses'. It became the 'unconscious' driving force of Derrida's philosophy underlined especially by his relationship to Paul Celan.

Foucault had been much more content orientated. He made philosophy into an analysis of institutions like the development of the hospital and of psychiatry to show how categories apply when you depart from the definition as to what is 'healthy'. And this definition did not stand alone for when nations go to war, they select young men according to the criterion of a 'healthy soldier' just as were selected soldiers for the war in Afghanistan and Iraq according to lessons learned out of Viet Nam i.e. selected were those who would not easily break down, morally speaking, under the burden of ethical questioning about the Right to kill, but who would transform the practical and operational slogan of 'it is my job' into a much more refined platform which gives understanding to the mission and legitimacy to a new war.

Self-reasoning is also about defeating the counter arguments, including those coming from the human conscience, and in this sense the new American soldier in Iraq has to be equipped 'mentally' and 'morally' much better than those who went off to Viet Nam. After all, there was the fresh memory of 911 and as one soldier would put it, this war in Iraq and Afghanistan is all about "the time has come for pay-back". Indeed, the war was started due to what someone did to America. This is to say that others, foreigners, including women and children, have to pay for what mortal damages were inflicted upon America. As if not able to stand up to the pain alone, someone else has to suffer in order to be relieved from that pain.

It would now go too far to extend this thought for we were reflecting upon a healthy soldier as outcome of a structural disposition defining also the enemy who should not be so strong so that there is a promise that he can be defeated.

Foucault in his analysis of the hospital shows that this applies not only to the selection of soldiers to be send to the front, but once injured, sick, etc. how they were treated according to which categories. Foucault specifically stresses one system of categories used by hospitals in the nineteenth century when nations started to head towards world wars: the comparative advantage would allow the sickness of the one to be treated as if it were the 'same' as the one lying in the next bed. The method of diagnosis went with the economy of treatment under the rubric 'they are all the same cases'.

In terms of a medical perception of sickness, Foucault would say the only person that disturbs the cognitive process as the doctors move through the hospital wards and go from bed to bed is the human being who wants to know the reasons for the pain. Such a person is considered to be a disturbance in the diagnosis process.

Curiously enough many confuse the ability to categorize with the philosophical method of inquiry. But categorization reduces knowledge to the mechanical function of just knowing on how to categorize things. It is curious because that kind of knowledge is devoid of any human understanding as it excludes both human pain and the imagination, including the images the self has of itself.

In other words, Derrida has been riddled by this contradiction between a structured language and what sets limits in terms of horizon and understanding. He seems puzzled by but equally unaware of the limits such a structural approach imposes upon empathy: human understanding. It would be of interest to explore further the reasons for so many misunderstandings of his philosophy being but one of the few 'pure' attempts at philosophy. As in many other cases, the misunderstanding is due to things being reduced by circumstances and previous developments to the abstraction of contemplation itself.

In that sense any tribute to Derrida will have to include what Mark C. Taylor writes after Derrida's death became known that this philosopher, whom he knew personally, struggled "to find ways to overcome patterns that exclude the differences that make life worth living".

However, if 'differences' become themselves a way to perceive things, it will not make a difference so long as the mechanisms meant to evoke knowledge by use of categories, remains unaffected by human existence. If that is the case, then there is already an explanation as to why this evoked mechanism will not bring about such a language in which we can express our other thoughts. We will merely experience that what we feel and think are small and big differences when attempting to express our thoughts and still feel not to be understood in what matters to us most.

Wittgenstein attempted to resolve this matter by demanding "to be understood not by what others understand and interpret, but by what he meant when saying that". This effort to be understood is the plight of philosophers who are reduced in their horizon as to what they can express by what the others are prepared to understand. The danger of remaining in the abstract is always given. Derrida tried to make a difference in that equation of seeming helplessness and thereby showed philosophical courage to take the inquiry further. No where did he demonstrate that better than in a dialogue in reference to 9/11 and global terrorism.



Chicago: Chicago University Press, http://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/derrida/derrida911.html


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