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131 Samuel Weber The Indefinite Article or the Love of a Phrase What leads one to love a phrase and where can such a love lead? Can it lead to friendship? Can it keep faith? —Jacques Derrida, “The Reason of the Strongest” The love in question, we should recall, addresses not just language as such, or words in isolation, but phrases like “une fois pour toutes,” which I have been translating, all too approximately, as “once and for all.” The question is all the more pertinent, because Derrida’s writing is a constant love affair with phrases. Phrases that come and go, but that leave their mark, always singular and yet always related to one another. A family of phrases. One such, in what would seem to be an entirely different register, is “la démocratie à venir”— “democracy to come.” It is a phrase, as Derrida admits in the midst of his last major essay, “La raison du plus fort” (“The Reason of the Strongest”), that has made him pay dearly for the affection he has shown it: A second preliminary question tortures me. It resembles a kind of remorse at having used and abused the expression “democracy to come.” And above all, in the process, in using and abusing, to have repeated, while feigning to innovate, a (mere) truism. As though I had merely wanted to say: “You know, the perfect democracy, full and vital, does not exist; not only has it never existed, not only does it not exist at present, but, indefinitely deferred, it will always remain to come, it will never be present in the present, will never present itself, will never come, will remain always to come, like the impossible itself.” If I had only said or wanted to say that, wouldn’t I have reproduced, indeed plagiarized the classical discourses of political philosophy? (French, 107 / English, 73) i-viii_1-256_Davi.indd 131 4/10/09 3:14:40 PM 132 samuel weber If the fascinating power of phrases is everywhere in evidence throughout Derrida’s writing, nowhere does it play a more decisive role than in this essay, which responds to the phrase that “tortures” Derrida to the point of remorse: “la démocratie à venir.” Indeed, the entire text can be read as an effort not just to unpack the phrase and free its author of a certain remorse, but also to suggest some of the political implications of phrases with respect to what is called “democracy.” In what follows, I want to look at one particular phrase that occupies Derrida in the final concluding section of his text, which indeed takes its point of departure from it. It is an all too familiar phrase, with momentous implications, although not ones that are easily placed in relation to questions of democracy. For its author is Martin Heidegger, who, in the famous or infamous Der Spiegel interview from which the phrase is taken, acknowledges—and Derrida by no means clearly demurs—that he is “not convinced that democracy” is the political form best capable of responding to or confronting the challenges “of modern technology” (157–58 / 111–12). The phrase that Derrida will cite and recite, turn and return, is Heidegger ’s famous pronouncement usually translated in English as “Only a God can save us.” In German: “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten.” The French translation differs slightly but significantly from this English version; it reads: “Seulement un dieu peut encore nous sauver.” The English version, the most compact of the three, simply effaces the German word “noch,” which in French is translated as “encore.” But this translation, although it reproduces French equivalents of all the words in Heidegger’s phrase, ignores what Walter Benjamin, in his essay “Task of the Translator,” argues should be the defining principle of all translation: what he calls “literalness of syntax” (Wörtlichkeit der Syntax). Benjamin acknowledges, however, that the application of such a principle can easily produce monstrous results . And in this respect, English would be no exception. For Heidegger’s formulation is ambiguous through its placement of the word “noch.” He could have easily avoided the ambiguity, could have declared “Nur ein Gott kann uns retten.” But he insisted, and surely not fortuitously, on inserting the word “noch,” and that changes everything. For it opens the possibility of two very different, although not necessarily contradictory, readings, and hence situates itself in the hiatus between these two possibilities. Everything depends on the placing of the accent, which...


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