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  • Derrida’s Economy of Violence in Hobbes’ Social Contract
  • Rick Parrish (bio)

I. Violence and the State of Nature

Hobbes and Derrida are both concerned with the inevitable difficulties of creation. Hobbes’ story of the creation of a commonwealth and Derrida’s investigation of the beginnings of discourse share the premise that persons are creators, rather than discoverers, of meaning and value in the world, and that therefore justice consists of respecting the independent status of others as meaning creators. For Hobbes, this natural human creativity leads to the brutalities of the state of nature and the necessity of a commonwealth grounded in enforced discursive unity. But even though the natural condition and the social compact are violent, both Hobbes and Derrida understand that pure violence, like pure justice, is a logical impossibility. Although this recognition is not immediately apparent in Hobbes, Derrida discusses this ‘economy of violence’ at length. An examination of Hobbes’ state of nature and the formation of the commonwealth in the light of this Derridean play of violence and justice reveals some surprising implications for Hobbes’ system, which in turn provides an excellent story of the practicalities of Derrida’s economy of violence in action.

In a moment of uncharacteristic brevity, Derrida writes that “all value is first constituted by a theoretical subject.”1 Because he is careful to match his form to his content, a thorough treatment of this claim would require a full-length study in itself, so here I shall be content to discuss the highlights of two faces of his multifaceted argument. First, I shall discuss Derrida’s definition of violence, which requires that Personhood be fundamentally about creating meaning. Second, and intimately related to the first, is his Ordeal of the Undecidable, which every claim must undergo before it can be uttered.

Within Derrida’s writings one can trace a very useful archeology of violence that yields the basic concept inherent to all manifestations of violence. This kernel that constitutes the core structure of violence is primarily a metaphysical, rather than physical, action. Violence can only be perpetrated by a person. According to Derrida “there is no natural or physical violence,”2 for acts of nature do not give rise to a judgment. Although we may speak figuratively of the natural violence of a storm or natural disaster, such entities are not blamed, are not brought “before some instrument of justice”3 and held accountable for the injuries they have caused. Inscribed within the concept of violence is the possibility of a judgment by the entity who commits the act, and because the actor has chosen to do violence it can be critiqued for having done so. As only persons are capable of judgment, only persons can choose to do violence.

But this argument already approaches the more common, derivative conceptions of violence. Before any common ethical violence, there already exists within an “irreducible zone of factuality, an original, transcendental violence, previous to every ethical choice, even supposed by ethical nonviolence.”4 This arche-violence, as Derrida calls it, “is tied to phenomenality itself, and to the possibility of language.”5

Arche-violence, the most primordial violence, “appears with articulation,”6 which itself is opened by the discourse that originally constitutes the relationship among persons. This discursive arche-violence, “the violence of difference, of classification, and of the system of appellations”7 is inescapable because articulation requires a positioning by those within discourse. “A speech produced without the least violence,” without the least articulation, “would determine nothing,” not even self-identity. It “would say nothing”8 because such speech would not take a position or make a determination, and would hence be outside of discourse. It would not be speech at all.

A “transcendental origin of an irreducible violence” is constituted in “the necessity of speaking of the other as other, or to the other as other, on the basis of its appearing-for-me-as-what-it-is: the other,”9 the additional. Because “the absolute form of experience”10 is egoity — a perspectival finitude that, to use a banal philosophical analogy, is best thought in terms of the limited perspective afforded by the sight organs embedded within the human...

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