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Performative Mourning: Remembering Derrida Through (Re)reading
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Performative Mourning:
Remembering Derrida Through (Re)reading

This essay argues that because he recognized that the death of a friend brought about the end of reciprocity inherent within friendship, Derrida turns to (re)reading his dead friends’ texts to publicly perform the work of mourning in The Work of Mourning and The Gift of Death. The essay analyzes Derrida’s performative (re)readings of Barthes’s, de Man’s, and Louis Marin’s texts about death and mourning to trace how much their collective thoughts on these themes shaped Derrida’s own thinking about the debt of mourning that friends owe one another.

On 9 October 2004, Jacques Derrida became “irreplaceable” through his death, a gift (don) which was never his either to give or take, as he argues in The Gift of Death, but which nonetheless ensures the self’s passage into individuality because of its very irreproducibility. No one but Jacques Derrida could have died Jacques Derrida’s death, and even he could only go through this experience once. So definitive is the break Derrida sees between life and death, and so unique does he consider the instant of one’s death, that when he reads The Instant of My Death, Blanchot’s third-person narrative of his near-execution at the hands of a Nazi Russian firing squad in 1944, in Demeure, Derrida concludes that “when one is dead, it does not happen twice, there are not two deaths even if two die. Consequently, only someone who is dead is immortal—in other words, the immortals are dead” (67). While this conception of death affirms the negative gifts death gives the individual who dies—immortality (the inability to die) and irreplaceability (the impossibility of having an Other fulfill the duties and/or functions of the Self)—Derrida’s view of death is also strangely positive: a person’s death becomes the most defining aspect of his or her life since that, in its way, can be thought of as a long process of dying the death he or she is going to die eventually. For Derrida, the timing of a person’s unique death is extremely important because it cannot be repeated. He considers Blanchot’s “life” after the unexperienced experience of his assassination in 1944 as a mere “moratorium of an encounter of the death outside of him with the death that is already dying in him,” and continues to affirm that the French writer’s death happened at that very instant, despite his un-dying (Demeure 95). The most concrete instance of mortality Derrida reads in Blanchot’s brief text is the disappearance of a manuscript that was inside his house at the time of the execution that did not take place. Calling it a “mortal text,” Derrida contends that its loss is equivalent to “a death without survivance” (100). In the essay that follows, I look at a different way through which Derrida experienced an encounter of the deaths outside of him with the death that was already dying in him: by mourning his friends, colleagues, and mentors through a public performance of (re)reading their texts after the occasion of their deaths. Because the texts the deceased left behind have not been lost, like Blanchot’s fateful manuscript, Derrida gives them, if not his friends, an element of survivance through the concerted act of (re)reading.

Derrida’s meditation on the individuating effect of the experience of death in his reading of Czech philosopher Jan Patočka’s Heretical Essays on the Philosophy of History can be interpreted both as an enactment of mourning for Patočka, who died in 1977, and as a recognition of the impossibility of writing about the other’s experience of death: “Death is very much that which nobody else can undergo or confront in my place. My irreplaceability is therefore conferred, delivered, ‘given,’ one can say, by death” (Gift 41). As Derrida points out, the paradox inherent in regarding death itself as a gift, yet not a present (29), lies in its uniqueness and irreproducibility for a given individual—death does not function as currency in a social economy of exchange as...