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  • Tracing a Traumatic Temporality: Levinas and Derrida on Trauma and Responsibility
  • Cathrine Bjørnholt Michaelsen (bio)

For more than three decades, Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas develop their conceptions of trauma and responsibility in close, critical, and engaged readings of each other’s works.1 In a text first published in 1973, Levinas explicitly considers different aspects and implications of Derrida’s “new style of thought,” as well as his own relation to Derrida, describing their recurring crossing of paths as “a contact at the heart of a chiasmus,” which is further said to constitute “the very modality of the philosophical encounter” (PN 56, 62).

Since the publication of “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’” in 1990, in which Derrida makes the somewhat surprising announcement that justice can be considered the undeconstructible condition of deconstruction (AR 243), as well as the subsequent publication of Specters of Marx in 1993, which is often designated as the work in which Derrida begins to consider ethico-political concerns more explicitly than hitherto, there has been much scholarly discussion about a so-called “ethical turn” of deconstruction.2 Throughout [End Page 43] the 1990s and up until this day a tendency prevails among certain scholars to strive for the establishment and legitimization of a more or less harmonic accordance between Levinas and Derrida with reference to concepts that preoccupy them both (e.g., “justice,” “hospitality,” “the other,” or “responsibility”). However, as Martin Hägglund has convincingly argued, a certain disjoining of Derrida and Levinas is required in order not to conflate what ultimately amount to two very different styles of writing and thinking. Such disjoining is particularly important when it comes to an issue such as responsibility, which is too often and too quickly categorized as an “ethical issue,” as if such a categorization were self-explanatory.3

The aim of this article is not to carry out a comparative study focusing on the similarities and dissimilarities of the writings of Derrida and Levinas. Instead, the article is an attempt to let a “third” voice arise from the ongoing philosophical conversation between Derrida and Levinas, which is neither entirely accordant nor discordant, in order to emphasize a certain traumatic temporality of responsibility that finds a space in both their works while indicating the subtle nuances of disjuncture separating these spaces. In what follows, I therefore wish to explore some of the most significant displacements to which the notions of trauma and responsibility are subjected throughout the writings of Derrida and Levinas, as a result, to some extent at least, of their repeated chiasmic encounters.

By way of introduction, it should be noted that both Derrida and Levinas transport the notion of trauma away from its most frequent psychopathological, psychoanalytic, or neurological areas of interpretation, just as they transport the notion of responsibility away from its usual autonomist or decisionist connotations toward a more extensive space of signification.4 Bearing this introductory note in mind, the question concerning what precisely enables this transport of trauma will direct the approach of the article. In other words, the article will question what it is about the structure of “trauma” or “traumatism” that allows the somewhat “fearsome” generalizations—to employ [End Page 44] Derrida’s own formulation from “Typewriter Ribbon”5 —to take place in the writings of both Derrida and Levinas.

The suggestion in what follows will be that it is the peculiar temporality of trauma that allows for the generalizations, openings, and disseminations of trauma in Derrida and Levinas. More specifically, this traumatic temporality inscribes itself through an interruption of what might, with a reference to Heidegger, be called the vulgar understanding of time.6 Drawing attention to the temporality of trauma as a vehicle of transportation, the article advances in six main sections, each exploring different aspects of the relationship between temporality, trauma, and responsibility displayed in Derrida and Levinas.

Traumatic Temporality

As is well known, at least since Freud, trauma only becomes a trauma belatedly, or after its own fact, since a trauma only manifests itself by withdrawing itself in the traces it leaves behind, that is, by its aftermath and its effects of repetition and deferral. Trauma is somehow...


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