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  • Writing:Empirical, Transcendental, Ultratranscendental
  • Henry Staten (bio)


Radical Atheism is the most accurate, insightful, and complete account anyone has produced so far of Derrida's thought. Hägglund refutes a whole panoply of influential misreadings of Derrida, and he does so with a flair and clarity rarely attained by writers on deconstruction. Yet one central thread of exegesis in Radical Atheism is less lucidly articulated than it needs to be: the explanation of spacing and arche-writing. Because this set of concepts is not made fully clear, at moments the crucial distinction between arche-writing or the "trace" on the one hand and empirical writing on the other becomes somewhat blurred. Despite the fact that across the great sweep of this fine book, Hägglund displays a sure grasp of the architecture of deconstruction, these moments of obscurity are of considerable significance. From the beginning, commentators on Derrida, particularly hostile ones, have persistently failed to grasp this distinction, taking the "writing" of which Derrida makes so much to be not arche-writing but empirical writing—a [End Page 69] mistake that makes nonsense of the entire project of deconstruction. Although the question of writing no longer excites debate as it once did, the fundamental confusion about its place in Derrida's thought is still around and is still sometimes influentially propagated, as in Sean Burke's widely read The Death and Return of the Author. Originally published in 1993, this book has gone through multiple reprints and editions, the most recent published this year; yet Burke's detailed, sophisticated reading of Derrida (possibly the best I've seen by a hostile critic) is vitiated by the usual confusion between arche-writing and empirical writing.

The interpreter of deconstruction should thus forestall this potential misunderstanding by making the distinction between arche-writing and empirical writing as clear and explicit as possible; and Hägglund has not quite done this. Empirical inscription, or "writing" as it was commonly called by Derrida in his first books, is one actualization of arche-writing, and this actualization plays a crucial role in Derrida's thought; but the role it plays is precisely to open the way to the thought of the transcendental, quasitranscendental, or ultratranscendental possibility of which it is the actualization. Hägglund knows this, and says it repeatedly; yet there are a few crucial passages in which he momentarily seems to forget it, and I want to focus on the significance of these passages.

Hägglund initially broaches the question of empirical inscription by means of the following citation from Kant's First Critique:

In order to make even inner alterations thinkable, we must be able to grasp time, as the form of inner sense, figuratively through a line, and grasp the inner alteration through the drawing of this line (motion), and thus grasp the successive existence of ourselves in different states through outer intuition; the real ground of which is that all alteration presupposes something that persists in intuition, even in order merelyh to be perceived as alteration, but there is no persistent intuition to be found in inner sense.

(2008, B292, [cited by Hägglund 2008, 26])

The citation from Kant makes it clear that what Hägglund in this discussion calls "spatial inscription" is the actual physical drawing of a line. Kant [End Page 70] says here that time as the form of inner sense provides nothing that can be grasped in a persistent intuition; thus, in order to grasp our own existence in the succession of temporal states, we must grasp time "through outer intuition," "figuratively," by drawing a line. The act of drawing a line is extended in time, but, as an act of spatial inscription, it embodies a persisting record of the succession of moments of its drawing. On Hägglund's interpretation, Kant here recognizes that time as pure flow has no "being" and finds that "spatial inscription" is necessary to effect the necessary "synthesis" of time; nevertheless—despite this recourse to empirical inscription—time and space remain for Kant "transcendental forms of human intuition, which would be given in the same way regardless of their empirical conditions" (2008, 27). I don't, by the...