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Difficult Bond: Derrida and Jewishness

From: Jewish Quarterly Review
Volume 103, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 385-400 | 10.1353/jqr.2013.0024

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

Nothing for me matters as much as my Jewishness, which, however, in so many ways, matters so little in my life.

Jacques Derrida1

“Tonight , I feel that I will have to avow or disavow this ‘je ne sais quoi’ that has almost always devoted me [me voue], entrusted and condemned me, to a ‘keeping quiet [se taire].’”2 This je ne sais quoi concerns the most haunting and difficult of bonds in Derrida’s life and work: his experience of being Jewish. In the address that followed this admission, he did indeed avow it, anxiously but unequivocally, even if it was, characteristically, through disavowal. Finally, the philosopher and father of deconstructive theory, Jacques Derrida, in Paris in December 2000, speaks candidly about his Jewishness. Even if his presentation remains marked by the reservations shown in the past, and in particular by the casting of affiliation in the self-cancelling terms of its annulment, Derrida nevertheless here lets down his guard in a way he had not before. The outcome is remarkable: for the first time he ascribes the aporetic structure of his thinking to a particular propensity for indeterminacy, which he aligns not with Judaism in any of its doctrinal forms but with his own, somewhat idiosyncratic, experience of being Jewish.

Needless to say, this is a most astonishing thing for Derrida to do. He intimates that his life-long obsession with the aporiae of what came to be known as deconstruction might be determined by an irrepressible kinship he could affirm only through withdrawal. But then, if Derridean thought rests on such a propensity and derives much of its momentum from it, deconstruction nevertheless remains in some way powerless before the propensity itself, though in exactly what way is precisely the question. Might it mean that deconstruction cannot deconstruct its own enabling condition? Is it that, after having questioned all foundations, the deconstructive project has at last identified its own foundation or starting point, something “buried” so deep,3 prior even to the proper name or the aboriginally affirmative “yes,” that it cannot be reached by the interrogative gaze of deconstruction? Is this why Derrida here re-identifies “circumcision” as the single most haunting event governing his work since the 1960s, as both theme and strategy?4

It may be worth floating in anticipation, without commitment and perhaps ultimately to discard it, a hypothesis: could the anxieties before the address on Jewishness, visibly displayed before the Parisian audience in 2000, be more than just the symptoms of a hard-won access to and public declaration of a hitherto semimasked autobiographical substratum of personal experience? Could they also be bearers of a heavily freighted philosophical implication? After all, when Derrida speaks publicly here, it is not merely as a “private” subject but as a philosopher. In his reference to the “plus élémentaire et plus ineffacable” (most basic and most indelible) do we detect a hint of something beyond the reach of deconstruction?

Perhaps the cluster of concepts to which Derrida constantly reverts when addressing questions of affiliation—such as aporia, double-bind, undecidability—does not simply provide a framework for a reflection on Jewishness but rather, in yet a further inflection of the deconstructive turn, it is (some version of) “Jewishness”; some version of the “vocable” —which, as he points out, is more “elementary” and (that most un-Derridean of words) “ineffacable” than “any in the world,” closer to his “body” than his body itself. As we will see, this Jewish “version of the vocable” explains a propensity and furnishes a restriction on the applicability of that propensity; if at once origin and limit, it must be what deconstruction cannot deconstruct. How can this be? Is it a case of Derrida placing himself in flagrante delicto of self-contradiction, or the genuine discovery and affirmation of a limit-point?

Do the clarifications on Jewishness made in Paris 2000 mean that we can classify deconstruction as, simply, “Jewish”? This suggestion has been floated often enough: “Is deconstruction not the product of a Jewish mind?” Caputo asks rhetorically. Robbins, a little more cautiously, has argued that it is his “circumventions brought together with the ethical” that decisively marks Derrida...

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