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  • The Necessity of Discrimination:Disjoining Derrida and Levinas
  • Martin Hägglund (bio)

There is a transcendental and pre-ethical violence. . . . This transcendental violence, which does not spring from an ethical resolution or freedom, or from a certain way of encountering or exceeding the other, originally institutes the relation. . . .

—Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference1

During the last fifteen years, a standard way of defending deconstruction has been to endow it with an "ethical motivation." According to this line of argument, Derrida's undermining of metaphysical presuppositions and totalizing systems emanates from an ethical concern to respect "the Other." The most prominent advocates for such a perspective are Robert Bernasconi, Drucilla Cornell, and Simon Critchley, to whom I will return further on, since their readings exemplify the account of deconstruction I take issue with in this essay. What these readings have in common is that they attempt to assimilate Derrida's thinking of alterity to Emmanuel Levinas's ethical metaphysics. Consequently, they understand deconstruction in terms of an "aspiration to a non-violent relationship to the Other," as Cornell puts it in her book The Philosophy of the Limit [62]. Such an approach certainly makes sense from within a Levinasian framework, where the Other answers to the Good and recalls us to an originary ethics. "War presupposes peace, the antecedent and non-allergic presence of the Other," Levinas asserts in his central work Totality and Infinity [199/173–74]. As I will argue, however, the idea of a primary peace is incompatible with deconstructive thinking. In Derrida's work, there is no support for positing the other as primordially Good or for prescribing a nonviolent relationship to him or her or it. On the contrary, Derrida's notion of alterity is inextricable from a notion of constitutive violence. Violence does not supervene upon a peaceful Other but marks the possibility of every relation, as my epigraph makes clear. The epigraph is from Derrida's early essay "Violence and Metaphysics," but we shall see how his thinking is continually informed by the notion of a constitutive violence, all the way up to his work on questions of justice, hospitality, and democracy.

A recurrent topos in contemporary discourse is to locate a "turn" toward the ethical in Derrida's later texts. Such a narrative is misleading not only because it fails to consider that ethical questions have been a major concern for Derrida ever since his first books, but also because it disregards how the "logic" of deconstruction transforms the fundamental axioms that inform the discussion of ethics. The appropriation of Derrida as an "ethical" philosopher rests on the inability to understand his complex logic [End Page 40] of violence and the concomitant failure to assess the critical implications of central deconstructive terms such as "alterity" and "undecidability."

Specters of Marx is a good place to start, since it is often regarded as the book that initiates the "turn" in Derrida's thinking, where he explicitly begins to address questions of justice. The supposed turn has either been welcomed as the confirmation of an ethical injunction in deconstruction or dismissed as a complacent utopianism, with Derrida piously invoking a "justice" that has no bearing on the real political challenges of the contemporary world. There are good reasons, however, not to accept these readings, since they misconstrue the way in which Derrida works with ethico-political concepts. It is true that Specters of Marx to a large extent is a book on justice. But what Derrida calls justice is not an ethical ideal. On the contrary, Derrida questions the very idea of an ideal state of being, which entails a profound reconfiguration of our inherited assumptions about the goals of ethics and politics.

An important clue is the phrase that reverberates throughout the entire book: The time is out of joint. This line from Shakespeare's Hamlet is the leitmotif in Specters of Marx. By exploring its resonance we can begin to assess what is at stake in the book. As Derrida points out, Hamlet's line has often been quoted and translated as a critique of the prevalent state of society. The disjointure of time is then understood in terms of a moral...


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