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  • Renvoi (A Note on the Enigma of Derrida's Differance)
  • Mauro Senatore (bio)

Les renvois renvoient aux renvois.

—Jacques Derrida1


From the outset of when his magnum opus, Dde la grammatologie, appeared in 1967, Jacques Derrida links the absence of the transcendental signified to what he calls the process of the signifying renvoi.2 Almost 40 years later, in his last book, entitled Voyous. Deux essais sur la raison (2003), he explains the lack of the very idea of democracy by having recourse to the democratic renvoi. I advance the hypothesis that the process of renvoi accounts for a structural law that Derrida had formalized in 1967—if not earlier, as we will see—and whose resources he continued interrogating up to his [End Page 93] latest work. To put this hypothesis to the test, I will trace the irreducible traits that the two evoked and chronologically distant renvois share. On my reading, renvoi describes the necessary relation that, within a system of signification, the generalized structure of renvoi (a trace, as we will see) entertains with an X (sense, difference, the other, democracy, and so forth) that presents itself in the presence of something other, that is, the renvoi itself. This process is double and indefinite so long as, by definition, the renvoi to X is also a renvoi to another renvoi. According to Derrida, this double and indefinite renvoi touches upon the most enigmatic knot of his philosophical writing, namely, the irreducible synthesis of the economical and the noneconomical, of the same and the other, in différance. Finally, what seems to motivate the renvoi, its force, is X itself, more precisely, a demand for presence that is associated to X and thus drives double and indefinite renvoi.


In "Force et signification" (originally published in 1963 and then included in L'écriture et la différence, 1967), for the first time Derrida takes up the term renvoi to formalize the necessary relation that I described previously. In a key moment of the first part of this text, in which he highlights the metaphysical presuppositions of structuralism, Derrida dissociates writing from the classical, namely, Leibnizian, paradigm of divine creation. Furthermore, he welds this dissociation with the legacy of the concept of writing that Husserl elaborates in his late work Origin of Geometry (1936).3 At this point, Derrida recalls the earlier interpretation of the Origin that he had developed in the introduction to his French translation of Husserl's text (1962).

It [to write] is also to be incapable of making meaning [sens] absolutely precede writing: it is thus to lower meaning [faire descendre ainsi le sens] while simultaneously elevating inscription. . . . To write is to know that what has not yet been produced within literality has no other dwelling place, does not await us as prescription in some topos ouranios, or some divine understanding. Meaning [sens] must await being said or written to inhabit itself, and to become, by differing from itself, what it is: meaning [sens]. This is what Husserl [End Page 94] teaches us to think in The Origin of Geometry. . . . It [writing] does not know where it is going, no knowledge can keep it from the essential precipitation toward the meaning [sens] that it constitutes and that is, primarily, its future [son avenir].

(Derrida 1978, 11)

In §§ 6–7 of his introduction, Derrida explains how geometric ideality ["just like that of all sciences," (1989, 76)] passes from an originally intrapersonal emergence [namely, "the subjective egological evidence of sense," (1989, 63)] to its ideal objectivity through the mediation of language. In § 6, he points out that here Husserl, who "seems redescending [emphasis mine] toward language" and, therefore, more generally, toward culture and history, "does exactly the opposite" (Derrida 1989, 77). "The return to language," Derrida continues, "brings to its final completion the purpose of the reduction itself" (1989, 77), by liberating ideality from the psychological life of a factual individual community ["the inventor's head," (1989, 78)], in which it has emerged first, and by letting it be what it is (namely, other than itself). Therefore, language is "constitutive" with respect to sense, which, otherwise, would remain "ineffable and solitary" (Derrida 1989...


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