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Negotiating the Non-negotiable: Rawls, Derrida, and the Intertwining of Political Calculation and 'Ultra-politics'

From: Theory & Event
Volume 9, Issue 3, 2006
10.1353/tae.2006.0036

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:


Jack Reynolds

Arguably John Rawls and Jacques Derrida are equally influential in their respective areas of philosophy and yet the media reception of their recent deaths, at least in the anglo-American context, has been drastically different – a formal acknowledgement of the pervasiveness and ongoing significance of Rawls, juxtaposed against a lamentation of the polysyllabic obscurity and ethico-political irresponsibility of Derrida. An analysis of the political and institutional context of this is not something I can do here, but I will examine the relationship that obtains between the work of these two philosophers, not least because of the conviction that Derrida (and post-structuralism more generally) offers certain invaluable things to political thought that analytic political philosophy would do well to take account of, particularly as concerns the relation between time and politics. In Derrida's case, his emphasis on the radical difference of the future, the 'to come', serves as a guardrail against political absolutisms of all sorts. On his view, when the future is thought of as known or susceptible of teleological prediction, this tends to lead to what might be rhetorically called outbreaks of either Fascism or Communism (albeit initially non-organised, non-systematised, and without direct state complicity) in which that future state of affairs can justify the violent means needed to get there. Derrida's many and varied arguments about the way in which the future disrupts the present, and has its impact upon the present, without itself being capable of coming to any kind of definitive presence, precludes this move. His quasi-transcendental emphasis on the importance of time and futurity to any understanding of the political is also useful when employed as a critical tool to examine analytic political philosophy: it highlights that this tradition is often either atemporal in its calculations, or relies upon references to intuition (and 'commonsense') in more or less obvious ways, both tendencies which deserve be subjected to critical scrutiny for their tacit alignment with a conservatism that wants to preserve the status quo. But the argument that I will propose in this paper is not simply that figures like Derrida are able to show us the presuppositions and problems with analytic political philosophy and with Rawls' work in particular. On the contrary, although philosophers like Derrida and Deleuze acknowledge the necessity of political calculation, it is also the case that it is vastly under-thematised in their work. Utilitarianism and liberalism offer two sustained and important attempts at providing such a calculation and it seems to me that a rapprochement of these traditions is required, fleshing out the kinds of political calculations that might better respect the significant moral insight at work in post-structuralism. In order to point to the need for such a political philosophy, this paper will highlights some problems with Rawls and Derrida's two competing ways of treating the political, juxtaposing Rawls' insistence upon the calculable and narrower understanding of the political against (or, more aptly, in apposition with) the Derridean focus upon the incalculable. Let me try and tease this difference out in a preliminary way. While Derrida was unjustly vilified for the lack of obvious political significance to his thought early on (at least compared to his contemporaries like Foucault and Deleuze), he has more explicitly turned toward such terrain in his recent considerations of Marxism, refugees, hospitality, etc. It is also the case that he has always endorsed the more general post-structuralist conviction that philosophical interventions, even artistic and stylistic innovations, are always also political interventions – a style of politics that might, as Gregg Lambert suggests, be called une grande politique. At the same time, it remains the case that many of the questions that Derrida raises are not through and through 'political' in the narrower (and Rawlsian) sense of the term, and this is so according to Derrida's own admission. Instead, he tries to inject a certain thought of unconditionality and incalculability, we might say an 'impossible' morality, back in to politics. In his own words, deconstruction can be said to be 'ultra-political', or 'hyper-political' (R 39), not in the negative sense that Slavoj Zizek bemoans about an avoidance of the...