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MLN 116.5 (2001) 1115-1118

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Book Review

On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness

Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. Trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes. Preface by Simon Critchley and Richard Kearney. London and New York: Routledge, 2001. 60 pp.

Twice in the second essay of On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, his recently published volume, Jacques Derrida admits that forgiveness leaves him torn ("partagé"). "I remain 'torn,'" he writes, with reference to post-colonial violence in Algeria, "But without power, desire, or need to decide" (51). The essay proceeds by recovering the concept of forgiveness and exposing the ruse of political appropriations that sidestep, rather than uphold, justice in the name of reconciliation. Yet the double project of recovery and exposure leaves Derrida unable to decide between pure forgiveness in its impossibility and the practical, political demand for peace that forgiveness, however illegitimately, satisfies. This division, this incapacity, which resembles the position from which unconditional forgiveness must emerge, if it is to emerge, not only responds to the relation between ethics and politics, but it describes their rapport sans rapport. Here--as in the essay "On Cosmopolitanism,"--ethics and politics remain "irreducible . . . indissociable."

The "partage"--taken in its widest and most contradictory sense, as division and sharing--of politics and ethics, the conditional and the unconditional, may be what ultimately links the two essays "On Cosmopolitanism" and "On Forgiveness" that make up this short volume. Indeed, both essays imagine forms of non- or quasi-sovereignty, figured by--and eventuating in--an acknowledgement of being and remaining torn, an acknowledgement that may found a conception of the political as it confounds the terms of decision. While undertaking to separate forgiveness and justice, the hospitable city and the sovereign state, these essays repeatedly show both that any manifestation of forgiveness or hospitality transforms essentially unconditional possibilities into conditional ones, and that the unconditional or purely conceptual cannot be approached apart from its historical manifestation. This doubling means that pure hospitality and forgiveness remain impossible, and it is the thought of the possibility of the impossible (or the quasi-transcendental) that we witness here. As soon as hospitality becomes a law, as soon as forgiveness is administered, hospitality is no longer hospitality, forgiveness no longer forgiveness. Yet in the absence of the law, hospitality "would be in danger of remaining a pious and irresponsible desire, without form and without potency, and of even being perverted at any moment" (23). In the case of forgiveness, this potential perversion concerns sovereignty, which is defined by the capacity to grant pardon, a capacity, however, that Derrida--reading Kant (and to a certain extent Arendt) with Hegel--demonstrates is indeed a privation. For Kant, the only justifiable pardon (that is, the only justifiable state of exception) responds to a crime that deprives a sovereign of sovereignty, a crime that destroys the power to pardon. This leads Derrida to articulate the formula that is the essay's crux: "forgiveness forgives only the [End Page 1115] unforgivable" (32). Yet when Derrida traces the impossibility of forgiveness or hospitality--when he indicates the impossible appearance of the ethical--he does not solve or resolve a problem for ethics or politics, and this is an accomplishment.

By thinking together a non-phenomenological ethics and the inescapable demands of politics, by recovering the division and the sharing of ethics and politics, these essays open a zone of responsibility (without knowledge or certainty) that coincides with (emerges from, eventuates in) the phrase "I remain torn." From this position of non-knowledge, the essays joined in this volume imagine new divisions and new--still unrecognizable--configurations: responses to, responses of an I, divided. It is this move that may further help us to distinguish Derridian responsibility from Levinasian ethics as first philosophy.

"On Cosmopolitanism," the volume's opening essay, undertakes to redefine asylum and introduces the city--above and beyond the nation--as the site where a new mode of asylum might occur, if it could occur. The "City of Refuge" may not make manifest a pure concept of hospitality or of cosmopolitanism. Rather it returns questions of knowledge and strategy: "It...


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