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  • “Living and Dying by the Event”
  • Shaoling Ma (bio)

In Aporias, from 1993, Jacques Derrida asks, “What is the event that most arrives? What is the arrivant that makes the event arrive?” (33). This paper wishes to extend the same question to two of Derrida’s 1967 texts, “Structure, Sign and Play” and Speech and Phenomena, in which Derrida dissociates the metaphysical conception of the sign from the prerogative of life and makes of the transformed relation between life and death an event worthy of its name. The passage between the sign, the event and death is then not simply confined within each of the texts under examination; it also makes a heterogeneous passage across the span of Derrida’s works. Although this paper concerns an event of such gravity as life-and-death, it nevertheless does not wish to commemorate the texts as “living events.” Instead, it is Derrida’s thinking of the event in its unique repeatability, which puts to work the chance of an anniversary to-come, whereby the who or what to which an event happens calls for Derrida’s enigmatic description at the end of “Structure, Sign and Play,” as belonging “under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity” (370).

I. Rehearsing the Saying

Perhaps something has occurred in the history of the concept of structure that could be called an “event,” if this loaded word did not entail a meaning which it is precisely the function of structural – or structuralist – thought to reduce or to suspect. Let us speak of an “event,” nevertheless, and let us use quotation marks to serve as a precaution. What would this event be then? Its exterior form would be that of a rupture and a redoubling

(“Structure, Sign and Play” 351, emphasis added).

If, a little more than forty years since “Structure, Sign and Play In the Discourse of the Human Science,”1 we have only begun to heed its caution in speaking of an “event,” could it be because there is no “interiority” to the “event,” whose hidden essence could have been opposed to what Jacques Derrida designates as a “rupture” and a “redoubling” (351)? An “event” whose exterior form can, upon the risky erasure of quotation marks, give way to a more authentic inside would no longer be an event in the way this essay forces us to rethink its conceptualization. Hence from the moment that it can be asked “when” and “how” such “thinking [of] the structurality of structurality occur[s],” Derrida admits that “it would be somewhat naïve to refer to an event, a doctrine, or an author in order to designate this occurrence (SSP 354). The rupture redoubles but once. Between the cautionary “event” in quotation marks and a naivety in simply referring to it without that precaution, there is a necessity for Derrida to affirm that the event, insofar as it is disruptive, is a “repetition in every sense of the word” (SSP 353).

Precisely when the saying of an event lends itself to the alleged purity of every “event” of discourse, or performative statement in J. L. Austin’s well-known analysis, Derrida shows, in the 1972 essay “Signature Event Context,” that the singular “occurring” or the eventhood of a performative statement can in itself only be of a repetitive or citational structure, which dissociates from itself the pure singularity of the event. Far from thereby dismissing the originality of Austin’s analysis, Derrida underscores how it is instead a matter of rethinking the nature of an “‘occurring’ or the eventhood of an event,” of a form of iteration that is in fact the condition of possibility for the singular event2. Hence one must less oppose citation or iteration to the noniteration of an event, than construct a differential typology of forms of iteration, supposing that this is a tenable project that can give rise to an exhaustive program, a question I am holding off on here (“Signature, Event, Context” 326).

Arguably, the challenge in constructing a differential typology of iteration without therefore giving rise to an exhaustive program spells also the challenge in constructing a differential typology of saying the...

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