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  • Non-Event
  • Tze-Yin Teo (bio)


This paper's simple insight is that Derrida's deconstruction is a thought of non-events. I understand a "non-event" to be a complex negative of the event, a motif that has come to define the politics of deconstruction as a vulnerability to the affectations of a quasi-transcendental other. In my argument, a non-event is that which does not and will not happen; does not wound or leave a mark psychic, epistemic, or material; and remains relational to given structures of thought and cannot rigorously be conceptualized. The non-event might be the radical other of the event. (As such, it is distinct from what Derrida has elsewhere called the neutralization of the event, in which the necessary surprise of the event is neutralized because it is foreseeable and thus is not effected by a future that befalls.)

At stake in thinking the non-event is the relationship between deconstruction and justice: if justice is constituted by the haunting of what is not there [End Page 73] and may never be there, then the politics of deconstruction cannot solely be mortgaged to an event that can only be belatedly cognized as such—only after it has happened in all of its impossibility—without being consigned to a politics of futurity. I argue that conceptualizing a non-event allows for deconstructive intervention within a political present and its violent pasts, without in turn conceptualizing the present as metaphysical plenitude. More importantly, I argue that it is only the trace-structure of deconstruction—with its insistence on a constitutive absence and resistance to an ontological turn—that can account for and come to terms with a politics of the present qua structural failure of justice. In this way, the non-event articulates some material stakes of the immaterial.

The paper's first section examines the motif of the event, its partial yet constitutive negativity, and its conceptual importance to Derrida's deconstruction as well as the political and critical stakes of his thought. The argumentative readings in the second and final sections then seek to come to terms with a striking difference between two of Derrida's important claims surrounding justice: on the one hand, that "deconstruction is justice" (2002, 243) as raised in "Force of Law" (first published in French in 1989)1 and treated in my second section; and on the other hand, that deconstruction is a practice of language that "can only indefinitely tend toward justice by acknowledging and practicing the violence within it [language]" (1978, 117)—the latter a central claim in the reading of Levinas's divine Other in "Violence and Metaphysics" (first published in French in 1967), and which I treat in the final section.

By honing in on the subtle ways in which "force," "weakness," and "violence" converge, diverge, and are conceptually mobilized across these texts under the unsteady banner of justice, I reevaluate the 1967 texts and their association with a privileging of force and violence in deconstruction (as Derrida has ambivalently noted in "Force of Law"). In so doing, I also reevaluate the broader politics of deconstruction, seeking to describe a deconstruction whose structural promise has always been addressed to something weak and provisional.

In the final section, I suggest in passing that this politics of deconstruction may be helpfully formulated as anegative materialism: a name borrowed from negative theology but necessarily distinct from it because that negativity is [End Page 74] transformed by its situation within finitude. In this way, the paper preliminarily draws the foundational Derrida closer to current renewals of materialisms old and new, yet marked by a necessary difference whose fidelity will always lie with the forms of political work that fail or cannot make a mark—a weakness weaker still than the weak force he names.

"the strange turn of the event of nothing"

and since a circumbygone period at the end of which I would say I and which would, finally, have the form, my language, another, of what I have turned around, from one periphrasis to the next, knowing that it took place but never, according to the strange turn of the event...


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pp. 73-91
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