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  • Messianic-City:Ruins, Refuge and Hospitality in Derrida
  • Puspa Damai (bio)

The Heart of the City

"Listen first to those who, like myself, did not have to watch TV to know that SOME of L.A. was burning," Derrida wrote to a newsletter in response to the riots triggered by the Rodney King events in 1992, adding, "L.A. is not anywhere, but it is a singular organization of the experience of 'anywhere'" ("Faxitexture" 28). At a time when one hardly needs to watch TV to know that many cities around the world are burning, or are targeted and wounded, bombed and invaded—as if the Biblical injunction, "Then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you" had turned against itself, or had suspended itself, thereby converting cities of refuge into sites of intense hostility—it would be pertinent to recall the many illuminating texts Derrida has composed on cities and how deconstruction is inextricably related to burning, cinders, ashes, ruins, haunting, dissemination and destruction, and at the same time to rebuilding, inheriting, maintaining (maintenant), opening, reconstructing and welcoming. At the same time, it is precisely his evocation of the city as a place of refuge modeled after a certain messianicity, if not messianism, that exposes his own texts to a rigorous rethinking and critique. A number of fascinating readings have been done on Derrida's concept of hospitality, yet hardly anything has been written on the theme of the city in Derrida, even [End Page 68] though it is not difficult to see that for Derrida cities represent what his seminar on hospitality calls the very "structures of welcoming [les structures de l'accueil]" (Acts of Religion 361). After looking closely at the direct as well as oblique references to cities which traverse Derrida's work like traces that radically erase themselves while presenting themselves, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that one has not quite approached deconstruction if one has not yet visited Derrida's concept of the city. It should be recalled that Derrida in Dissemination refers to a radical anteriority explicitly in terms of the city when he talks about a tower that "occupies a place before 'me,'" and like a sentence that awaits me, keeps watch over me and "surveys my heart's core—which is precisely a city, a labyrinthine one" (341, italics added).

On the one hand Derrida's city is split—like Jean-Luc Nancy's "heart," which Nancy says does not exist before the break, for "it is the break itself that makes a heart" (99)—into the tower and the labyrinth, whose destiny is decided by the tower. On the other hand, however, the "heart," which is one of the most recurring themes in Derrida, and which he characterizes by using "city" as a trope, ironically evokes unicity, even an essence. The oneness or ipseity of the heart in Derrida becomes obvious when, in The Gift of Death, he prophesies that the future belongs to the heart insofar as the heart is "a place of treasures," the treasures to come, treasures one saves "beyond the economy of the terrestrial visible or sensible," or the priceless treasures of the "celestial capital" (98). In "Che cos'è la poesia?" Derrida returns to this theme to argue that poetry is a dictation from the other that is lost "in anonymity, between city and nature"; and the secret of this dictation from the other that remains im-presentable can only be learned by heart (223). A poem, Derrida continues, is "what teaches the heart, invents the heart" but the invention that causes the heart beat lies "beyond oppositions, beyond outside and inside" (231). Again, in For What Tomorrow, Derrida evokes the "heart" while analyzing the problem of sovereign monopoly over the death penalty, arguing for the unconditional abolition of the death penalty both for reasons of principle (rather than utility or inutility) and for reasons of the heart (89–90), as if the reasons of the heart had been deployed to counter the reasons of the head, or in other words, sovereignty as being "head" of the State.

Contrary to Henri Lefebvre's critique that deconstruction and poststructuralism conceptualize...


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