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  • Undecidability and Reversibility
  • Julia Ng (bio)

Reversibility and "Reversibility"

For Jacques Derrida, an unprecedented decision always involves the possibility of a decapitation. For any genuine determinate intervention to take place, there needs to be the possibility of suspending all calculation and determination, of suspending all that authorizes in advance and that in doing so renders any decision a nondecision in principle. Thus, at the outset of "The Double Session," which sets out by comparing Plato's Philebus and Mallarmé's Mimique to interrogate the structural conditions under which the meaning of a text may be determined, Derrida opens with a deauthorizing act. Famously, for Derrida, Mallarmé's text upsets the hierarchical relationship between representation and original that has informed the "Occidental" concept of mimesis; it does this by drawing attention to the "false appearance" under which the "present" presents itself, an empty space purporting to be that in which no original and no hierarchical logic of truth and illusion resides but from which any meaning [End Page 11] whatsoever might therefore emerge (Mallarmé 1945b; Derrida 1981, 175 and 211). Derrida finds the same logic at work in another text, "Le Mystère dans les lettres," in which Mallarmé suspends the authority of the title and refers instead to the "blank space" that suspends it above the body of the text (Mallarmé 1945a, 387; Derrida 1981, 178). Between figure and ground, presence and presentation, suspension and "suspension," there is thus a "semantic reversal," a décollation, an "ungluing" of the binding that holds the pages in one particular order and a "beheading" of the organizational principle that demands that writing proceed in one predetermined sequential fashion, which will have also allowed every existing relation between anything whatsoever to be revealed. As Mallarmé remarks among the pages of his Livre, the concept of which sees the author leave the audience and the pages shuffled before each of his reentries: "the play—I bring it back—and return it to the cubbyholes the other way around only when it has become a book again … which thus gives two sessions … Words, of themselves, are exalted on many a facet known as the rarest or having value for the mind, the center of vibratory suspense; whoever perceives them independent of the ordinary sequence … all of them quick, before becoming extinct or extinguished, to enter into a reciprocity of fires that is distant or presented on the bias as some contingency … [I]s this beginning by the end?"1 (Derrida 1981, 174). It is "for" this "semantic reversal" that also determines the totality of signification that Derrida says that he will "determine the law of indecision"2 (Derrida 1981, 179). In other words, Derrida's identification of a structural indeterminacy of the text, of an "undecidability" that haunts all forms of founding and conserving meaning, derives from a need to describe a certain reversibility that subtends the major elements that make reading possible.

Some years later, the coimplication of undecidability and reversibility attains one of its most enigmatic restatements in Derrida's 1989 address to the Cardozo Law School, "Force of Law" (Derrida 1990). Reacting to Walter Benjamin's 1921 essay "Toward the Critique of Violence," in which Benjamin, according to Derrida, proposes that there is a moment in the foundation of law that, being necessarily interruptive of established law and therefore necessarily violent, "remains suspended in the void or over [End Page 12] the abyss, suspended by a pure performative act that would not have to answer to or before anyone" (Derrida 1990, 991–93), Derrida writes: "[The] unreadability of [this] violence results from the very readability of a violence that belongs to what others would call the symbolic order of law, if you like, and not to a pure physics. We might be tempted to reverse this 'logic' like a glove …, the 'logic' of this readable unreadability" (Derrida 1990, 993–95). The word "unreadability" refers to the "cases in which it is not known for generations if the performative of the violent founding of a state is 'felicitous' or not" (Derrida 1990, 993); for instance, we only know after the fact whether the founding of a state is based on principles that...


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