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  • Facing Pages: On Response, a Response to Steven Helmling
  • Tony Thwaites

Steven Helmling’s “Historicizing Derrida”1 reads Derrida’s writings, and particularly the huge corpus of other writings which have grown up around them, as lacking an essential “historically informed awareness” (1) which he proposes in part to supply.

A starting place, then, a place where two — at least two — sets of texts face each other. A program: “historicizing Derrida” is to be taken in the objective rather than the subjective sense the construction allows. Derrida does not historicize, Derrida is to be historicized. Helmling’s first sentence elaborates on what this “historicizing” might involve:

Accounts of Derrida stress his work’s diversity, and handle it in various ways; but none that I know of narrativizes this diversity, whether to relate it to its historical period, or to consider it as a corpus with a development, a record of internal tensions or contradictions — in short, a history — of its own.


Historicizing is above all to be the narrativizing of the particular development which is proper to a corpus: its own story, resulting from its own internal contradictions. It is a matter of constructing a chronology, from early to late, as marked by the original French publication dates. A staggered schedule of translation may have obscured this particular chronology, but now that most of the Derridean corpus is available in English it is possible to gain an overdue “historically informed awareness of Derrida” (1). Translation, in other words, has no real historicality: all it does is obscure history, the real history, the one to be narrativized. Once we have bracketed off such features as incidental to the real history of “Derrida” — and they would seem to include anything involving “Derrida” after the publication dates and anywhere else but in France — we find that this chronology is marked by a single and massive break, whose shorthand is “May 1968.” The texts written before and after this divide are significantly different: the earlier ones have “a hopeful (even apocalyptic) sense of possibility,” while the later are marked by a “steady-state pathos” closer, it would seem, to the existential despair of Sartre and Beckett (5–6). Later in the essay, this distinction become equivalent to another, between “Derridean ‘writing’ ... as grammatological theme [and] as ‘perverformative’ practice” (24, emphases in original). If Of Grammatology was a “project of liberation,” it was only as an “early excitement” from which the later writings have unfortunately strayed (5–6).

It’s not difficult to raise all sorts of objections to this schema. Even if we were to grant in all its vastness the reduction of historicity to bibliographical sequence, the proposal simply wouldn’t work in its own terms. Derrida’s writing just doesn’t fall into anything like such a simple before-and-after pattern, as indeed Helmling himself points out. In a careful piece of close analysis, for example, he shows very well that the pre-1968 Grammatology has its own elaborate rhetoricity which is quite irreducible to the constative (8–10). It would not be hard to find similar examples in all of the earlier work. On the other hand, neither do constative, argued and expository texts or texts of direct political intervention cease after the magic date. Indeed, one of Helmling’s more elaborate statements of this before-and-after schema (24) comes immediately after a paragraph most of whose examples point out the simultaneity of both constative and perverformative features, and thus the impossibility of maintaining that pre- and post-1968 distinction. I add French publication dates to underline the point:

in Glas [1974] itself, for example, the left-hand column, on Hegel, proceeds expositorily, in sharp (and highly deliberate) contrast with the hyper-“perverformative” right-hand column on Genet. Such “inter”-effects, effects between philosophy and literature, are almost always at play when Derrida uses the double-column format; he gets like effects by putting similarly dissonant texts inside the covers of the same book — in The Truth in Painting [1978], for example, between the material on Kant and Hegel in “Colossus” [i.e., “The Colossal,” part 4 of “Parergon,” 1974] on the one hand, and the diary or...

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