- When Negativity Runs the Risk of MeaningHegelian Heritages in Bataille and Derrida
More open, the mind discerns … the truth that silence alone does not betray.—Georges Bataille, The Accursed Share
If there were a definition of différance, it would be precisely the limit, the interruption, the destruction of the Hegelian relève wherever it operates.—Jacques Derrida, Positions1
As the subtitle of my text indicates, I would like to speak of heritages. Of the Hegelian heritage or heritages in the thought of Bataille and Derrida, and of the heritage, in Derrida, of Bataille’s gesture toward Hegel. [End Page 179]
I believe that this relation (filiation) is indeed a matter of heritage. A heritage, in the most common sense of the word, is what one receives through someone’s death. It is what one receives, and thus is a gift, but one that comes about through or in death. So it is a rather particular gift, since it is perhaps the only kind of gift that is not included in a real economy of the restitution of debt. No doubt, a heritage cannot be given back (restituer): the one who gives does so through his death, and the one who receives cannot really give thanks for having received the gift.
I would nonetheless like to try—paradoxically, if you will—to return (restituer) this heritage. And to do so precisely by trying to reconsider the dynamic of meaning before death, around which Bataille and Derrida enter into a debate with Hegel, keeping him as a fundamental interlocutor in their differing “employment” of the negative. Bataille and Derrida inherit a concern for the Hegelian thought of death, they inherit it in trying to welcome this heritage, but they somehow do so without receiving it entirely: they maintain the essentials of its structure, but without reproducing its meaning. More radically, they try to think the fracture between signifying structure and meaning, or they attempt to evaluate the testament’s expenditure, the suspension of the gift of death, the broken relation of meaning in meaningless death.
Now, here, in the interplay of this heritage between Hegel, Bataille, and Derrida, it is precisely a question of this death as suspended gift or suspension of the gift, of the effect or its value. It is a question of a death that is worth nothing. Or better still: it is a question of the death that gives nothing in return (ne se restitue pas), and that, for that very reason, cannot be reproduced (ne peut pas se restituer), made positive, or subjugated to a signifying dimension, cannot become dialectical, or rendered useful. But it is also a question of an empty testament or a suspended heritage, which is silently withheld to the point of being paradoxical. A heritage that has only been dissimulated, which appears to have been rightly received and that, secretly, betrays the Hegelian succession or, to put it another way, squanders its patrimony.
The element that is perhaps most central to Derrida’s and Bataille’s shared heritage is the fascination surrounding the impossible, the fascination for a [End Page 180] figure that has no place in the economy of a closed system. Bataille, much like Derrida, is deeply fascinated by the need to suspend the economy, to escape the mechanism for the production of meaning in the Hegelian system. But what is more specifically common to Bataille and Derrida is their absolute clarity that this figure of excess in relation to the system would never actually succeed in breaking the system’s enclosure (l’encerclement) but that it in some way confirms it. Bataille and Derrida thus share the demand for a vertiginous and paradoxical moment, one that is constitutively incomplete, wedged against something unclassifiable but that, for all that, never makes it certain, nor even palpably probable, that it will interrupt the progression of the rational. And thus their suspension of the Hegelian system is not one. It is this demand that is indeed common to them: faced with the Hegelian system, one must call for its suspension without its negation, or negate it without...