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Jacques Derrida

The Deconstruction of
Actuality
An Interview with Jacques Derrida

This interview was conducted in Paris in August 1993, to
mark the publication ofDerrida’ s Spectres de Marx (Paris,
Galilee, 1993), and was published in the monthly review
Passages in September. This English translation appears in
Radical Philosophy with permission.

Passages: From Bogota to Santiago, from Prague to
Sofia, not to mention Berlin or Paris, your work gives
people an impression of being in touch with the moment,
with actuality. Do you share that feeling? Are you a
philosopher of the present? Or at least one of those who
think their time?

Derrida: Who knows? How could anyone be sure? And
anyway, being ‘in touch with actuality’ and ‘thinking one’s
time’ are not the same thing. Both of them imply doing
something, over and above establishing facts or offering
descriptions: taking part, participating, taking sides. That is
when you ‘make contact’, and perhaps change things, if
only slightly. But one ‘intervenes’, as they say, in a time
which is not present to one, or given in advance. There are
no pre-established norms which can guarantee that one is
‘making contact with actuality’, or ‘thinking one’s time’ as
you put it. And you often get one without the other. But I
don’t think I am capable of improvising an answer to this
kind of question. We must stick to the time of our
conversation – and of course time is limited. Now more than
ever, thinking one’s time – especiall y if there is a danger, or
a hope, of speaking about it in public – means recognising
and exploiting the fact that the time of this speaking is
produced artificially. It is an artifact. In its actualisation, the
time of such a public act is calculated and constrained,
‘formatted’ and ‘initialised’ by (to put it briefly) the
organisations of the media – and these alone would deserve
an almost infinite analysis. These days, anyone who wants
to think their time, especially if they want to talk about it too,
is bound to pay heed to a public space, and therefore to a
political present which is constantly changing in form and
content as a result of the tele-technology of what is confusedly
called news, information or communication.

But your question referred not only to the present, but to
actuality. Very schematically, let me quickly mention just
two of the most actual features of the moment. They are too
28

abstract to capture the most characteristic features of my
own experience of ‘actuality’, or any other philosophical
experience of it, but they do point to something of what
constitutes actuality in general. I will try to designate them
by two portmanteau terms: artifactuality andactuvirtuality.

The first means that actuality is indeed made: it is important
to know what it is made of, but it is even more necessary to
recognise that it is made. It is not given, but actively
produced; it is sorted, invested and performati vel y interpreted
by a range of hierarchising and selective procedures factitious or artificial procedures which are always
subservient to various powers and interests of which their
‘subjects’ and agents (producers and consumers of actuality,
always interpreters, and in some cases ‘philosophers’ too),
are never sufficiently aware. The ‘reality’ of ‘actuality’ however individual, irreducible, stubborn, painful or tragic
it may be – only reaches us through fictional devices. The
only way to analyse it is through a work of resistance, of
vigilant counter-interpretation, etc. Hegel was right to tell
the philosophers of his time to read the newspapers. Today,
the same duty requires us to find out how news is made, and
by whom: the daily papers, the weeklies, and the TV news
as well. We need to insist on looking at them from the other
end: that of the press agencies as well as that of the teleprompter. And we should never forget what this entails:

whenever ajournalist or a politician appears to be speaking
to us directly, in our homes, and looking us straight in the
eye, he or she is actually reading, from a screen, at the
dictation of a ‘prompter’, and reading a text which was
produced elsewhere, on a different occasion, possibly by
other people, or by a whole network of nameless writers and
editors.

Passages: Presumably there is a duty to develop a
systematic critique of what you call artifactuality. You
say we ‘ought’ …

Derrida: Yes, a critical culture, a kind of education. But I
would not speak about this duty of ours as citizens and
philosophers – I would never say ‘ought’ – without adding
two or three crucial qualifications.

The first of these is about the question of nationality. (To
respond briefly to one of the connotations of your first
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

question, it sounded as if, coming back from abroad, you
had fished it out of your diary for some reason: ‘here’s what
they say about you abroad: so what do you make of that?’

I would have liked to comment on this; but let it pass.)
Amongst the filters which ‘inform’ the moment – and
despite the accelerating pace and increasing ambiguity of
internationalisation – nations, regions and provinces, or
indeed the ‘West’, still have a dominance which
overdetermines every other hierarchy (sport in the first
place, then the ‘politician’ – though not the political – and
finally the ‘cultural’, in decreasing order of supposed
popularity, spectacularity, and comprehensibility). This
leads to the discounting of a whole mass of events: all those,
in fact, which are taken to be irrelevant to the (supposedly
public) national interest, or the national language, or the
national code or style. On the news, ‘actuality’ is
automatically ethnocentric. Even when it has to do with
‘human rights’ ,it will exclude foreigners, sometimes within
the same country, though not on the basis of nationalist
passions, or doctrines, or policies. Some journalists make
honourable attempts to escape from this pressure, but by
definition they can never do enough, and in the end it does
not depend on the professional journalists anyway. It is
especially important to remember this now, when old
nationalisms are taking new forms, and making use of the
most ‘advanced’ media techniques (the official radio and
TV of former Yugoslavia are only one example, though a
particularly striking one). And it is worth noticing that some
of them have felt it necessary to cast doubt on the critique
of ethnocentrism, or (to simplify greatly) on the
deconstruction of Eurocentrism. This is still considered
acceptable, even now: it is as if they were completely blind
to the deadly threats currently being issued, in the name of
ethnicities, right at the centre of Europe, within a Europe
whose only reality today – whose only ‘actuality’ – is
economic and national, and whose only law, in alliances as
in conflicts, is still that of the market.

But the tragedy, as always, lies in a contradiction, a
double demand: the apparent internationalisation of sources
of news and information is often based on the appropriation
and monopolisation of channels of information, publication
and distribution. Just think of what happened in the Gulf
War. It may have represented an exemplary moment of
heightened awareness, or even rebellion, but this should not
be allowed to conceal the normality and constancy of this
kind of violence in conflicts everywhere, not just the Middle
East. Sometimes, then, this apparently international process
of homogenisation may provoke ‘national’ resistance. That
is the first complication.

A second qualification: this international artifactualitythe monopolisation of the ‘actuality effect’, and the
centralisation of the artifactual power to ‘create events’ may be accompanied by advances in ‘live’ communication,
taking place in so-called ‘real’ time, in the present. The
theatrical genre of the ‘interview’ is a propitiation, at least
a fictive one, of this idolatry of ‘immediate’ presence and
‘live’ communication. The newspapers will always prefer
to publish an interview, accompanied by photographs of the
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

author, rather than an article which will face up to its
responsibilities in reading, criticism and education. But
how can we carry on criticising the mystifications of ‘live’

communication (videocameras, etc.) if we want to continue
making use of it? In the first place, by continuing to point
out, and argue, that ‘live’ communication and ‘real time’

are never pure: they do not furnish us with intuitions or
transparencies, or with perceptions unmarked by technical
interpretation or intervention. And any such argument
inevitably makes reference to philosophy.

And finally – as I just mentioned – the necessary
deconstruction of artifactuality should never be allowed to
turn into an alibi or an excuse. It must not create an inflation
of the image, or be used to neutralise every danger by means
of what might be called the trap of the trap, the delusion of
delusion: a denial of events, by which everything – even
violence and suffering, war and death – is said to be
constructed and fictive, and constituted by and for the
media, so that nothing really ever happens, only images,
simulacra, and delusions. The deconstruction of artifactuality
should be carried as far as possible, but we must also take
every precaution against this kind of critical neo-idealism.

We must bear in mind not only that any coherent
deconstruction is about singularity, about events, and about
what is ultimately irreducible in them, but also that ‘news’

or ‘information’ is a contradictory and heterogeneous
process. Information can transform and strengthen
knowledge, truth and the cause of future democracy, with
all the problems associated with them, and it must do so,just
as it often has done in the past. However artificial and
manipulative it may be, we have to hope that artifactuality
will bend itself or lend itself to the coming of what is on its
way, to the outcome which carries it along and towards
which it is moving. And to which it is going to have to bear
witness, whether it wants to or not.

Passages: A moment ago you mentioned another term,
referring not to technology and artificiality, but to
virtuality.

Derrida: If we had enough time I would want to stress
another aspect of ‘actuality’ – of what is happening now,
and what is happening to actuality. I would emphasise not
only these artificial syntheses (synthetic images, synthetic
voices, all the prosthetic supplements which can be
substituted for real actuality) but also, and especially, a
concept of virtuality (virtual images, virtual spaces, and
therefore virtual outcomes or events). Clearly it is no longer
possible to contrast virtuality with actual reality, along the
lines of the serene old philosophical distinction between
power and act, dynamis and energeia, the potentiality of
matter and the determining form of a telos, and hence of
progress, etc. Virtuality now reaches right into the structure
of the eventual event and imprints itself there; it affects both
the time and the space of images, discourses, and ‘news’ or
‘information’ – in fact everything which connects us to
actuality, to the unappeasable reality of its supposed present.

In order to ‘think their time’, philosophers today need to
29

attend to the implications and effects of this virtual time both to the new technical uses to which it can be put, and to
how they echo and recall some far more ancient possibilities.

PLAYING FOR TIME
Passages: Might we ask you to come back to something
rather more concrete?

Derrida: You think I have been wandering from the point?

Avoiding your question? I admit I am not answering it
directly. And people may think: he’s just wasting time, ours
as well as his. Or he’s playing for time, putting off his
answer. And that would not be entirely false. The one thing
that is unacceptable these days – on TV, on the radio, or in
the papers – is intellectuals taking their time, or wasting
other people’s time. Perhaps that’s what needs to be changed
about actuality: its rhythm. Time is what media professionals
must not waste – theirs or ours. And often they can count on
success. They know the price of time, if not its value. Before
denouncing the silence of the intellectuals yet again, don’t
we need to investigate this new situation in the media?

Don’t we need to consider the effects of this difference of
rhythm? Some intellectuals are reduced to silence by it those who need a bit more time, and are not prepared to
adapt the complexity of their analyses to the conditions
under which they would be permitted to speak. It can shut
them up, or drown their voices in the noise of others – at least
in places which are dominated by certain rhythms and forms
of speech. This different time, the time of the media, gives
rise to a different distribution – different spaces, rhythms,
intervals, forms of speech-making and public intervention.

But what is invisible, incomprehensible or inaudible on the
most public of screens can still be actively effective, either
immediately or eventually. It is wasted only for those who
confuse actuality with what can be seen, or done, on display
in the mediatic superstore. In any case, this transformation
of public space calls for work: and I believe that the
necessary work is already being done, and is more or less
accepted, in the obvious places one would expect. The
silence of those who read the papers, or watch or hear the
news, and analyse it too, is nothing like as silent as it sounds
at the place where news is produced – which is deaf to
everything that does not speak in conformity to its own law.

So it becomes necessary to reverse the approach: there is a
kind of mediatic noise about pseudo-actuality which falls
like silence, which imposes silence on everything that
speaks and acts. But it can be heard elsewhere, provided one
knows how to train one’s ears on it. This is the law of time.

It is terrifying for the present, but it still leaves room for
hope, that is to say for reckoning with the untimely. Here it
would be necessary to consider the effective limits of the
right of reply (which are the limits of democracy too). Quite
apart from any question of deliberate censorship, they point
to the appropriation of public time and space, and their
technical distribution by those with power in the media.

If I still indulge myself in a pause – or a pose, a manner
or mannnerism just like any other, since these really are
30

manners of thinking one’s time – it is because I really am
trying to respond in every possible manner: responding to
your questions, while taking responsibility for an interview.

In order to take on such responsibilities it is necessary at
least to know who and what the interview is for, especially
when it is with someone who also writes books, teaches, or
publishes in other ways, in a different rhythm, in different
situations, and weighing words in different ways. An
interview is supposed to be like a snapshot, a film-still, the
capturing of an image: Just look how he flailed around like
a frightened animal, on that day, in that place, with those
interviewers. I’ll give you an example: they talk to this guy
about actuality, about what happens in the world every day
of the week, and ask him to summarise his opinions very
briefly: and off he goes, back into his lair like a hunted
animal: laying false trails, drawing you into a maze of
qualifications, of fits and starts. He rings the changes on ‘but
no, it’s more complicated than that’ , (thus earning mockery
and dissatisfaction from the fools who think that things are
always simpler than one supposes); or ‘it is true that
complication can be a strategy of avoidance, but so is
simplification, and in fact it is a far more reliable one.’ So
you get your virtual photograph: confronted with a question
like the one you just asked, that is my most likely response.

It is not exactly impulsive, but it is not entirely deliberate
either. It consists not in refusing to answer a person or a
question, but on the contrary trying to attend to their indirect
presuppositions or invisible twists and turns.

For instance, you made a distinction between
‘philosophers of the present’ and ‘philosophers who think
their time.’ According to you, I belong with the .latter rather
than the former. But this could mean several different
things. Some philosophers may concern themselves with
the present, with what presents itself at the present moment,
without bothering themselves with bottomless questions as
to the value of presence and what it may signify, presuppose,
or conceal. Are they philosophers of the present? Yes – and
no. Others may do exactly the opposite: they could immerse
themselves in meditations about presence or the presentation
of the present, without paying the slightest attention to what
is at present going on around them or in the world. Are they
philosophers of the present? No – and yes. But I am sure that
no philosopher-worthy-of-the-name would accept the way
this choice is framed. Like anyone else who tries to be a
philosopher, I do not want to give up either on the present
or on thinking the presence of the present. Neither do I want
to give up on the experience of what both conceals and
exposes them – through what I was just calling artifactuality,
for example. How are we to broach this theme of presence
and the present? What are the presuppositions of an inquiry
into this subject? What commitments do these questions
involve? And this stake, this commitment – -is this not the
law which ought to govern everything, directly or indirectly?

I try to adhere to it myself, but by definition it is always
inaccessible, it lies beyond everything.

You may say that this is just another evasion, another
manner that I have put on in order not to speak about what
you yourself call actuality or the present. The first question,
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

the one I should have returned to you, like an echo, is
therefore: what does it mean to speak about the present? Of
course I could easily try to show that in reality I have only
ever been concerned with problems of actuality, of
institutional politics, or simply of politics. We could pile up
examples – references, names, dates, locations – (don’t ask
me to do it though). But I don’t want to go along with that
mediagogical form. Nor do I want to use this platform for
the sake of self-justification. I don’t feel I have any right to
do so, and whatever I may do to avoid running away from
political responsibilities, it will never be enough, and I will
always reproach myself for this.

But at the same time I try not to forget that it is often the
untimely intrusions of so-called actuality which are most
‘preoccupied’ with the present. Being preoccupied with the
present – as a philosopher for example – perhaps means
avoiding the constant confusion of presence with actuality.

An anachronistic manner of encountering actuality need not
necessarily miss out on what
is most present today.

Difficulties – risks and,
opportunities, and perhaps
inca1culabilities – may take
the form of an untimeliness
which arrives exactly on
time: precisely this one and
no other, and which comes
just-in-time. Just, because it
is anachronistic and illadjusted (like justice itself,
which always lacks measure,
and has nothing to do with
justness in the sense of nice
exactitude, or with adaptive
norms, and which is different
in kind from the legal systems
over which it is supposed to
preside). It will be more
present than the presence of
actuality, more in tune with
the individual enormity which marks the irruption of the
other into the course of history. These irruptions always
take an untimely form, prophetic or messianic, but they
have no need for clamour or spectacle. They can stay almost
concealed. For the reasons mentioned a moment ago, it is
not the daily papers which tell us most about the pIu-present
of the day (not that we get it every day in the weeklies and
monthlies either).

So any answer which is responsible to the needs of
actuality has to involve itself in qualifications of this kind.

It requires the dissension, dissonance, and discord of this
untimeliness,just the right disadjustment of the anachronism.

It is necessary to defer, to take one’s distance, to tarry; but
also to rush in precipitately. And we need to get it right in
order to get as close as possible to what is happening
throughout actuality. Every time and all at once, and it’s a
different time each time, the first as well as the last. At least,
actions which unite hyper-actuality with anachronism give
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

me pleasure (rare as they are, even impossible, and anyway
non-programmable). But my preference for the allying or
alloying of these two styles is of course not just a matter of
taste. It is the law of answering, of answerability, the law of
the other.

DIFFERENCE AND THE EVENT

Passages: What relation would you see between this
anachronism or untimeliness, and what you call
differance?

Derrida: This takes us back, I think, to a more philosophical
level of response, and to what I was saying earlier about the
theme of the present or of presence. This is also the theme
of differance, which is often accused of encouraging
procrastination, neutralisation, and resignation, and therefore
of evading the pressing needs of the present, especially
ethical and political ones. But
I have never seen any conflict
between differance and the
pressing urgency of present
need. I am even tempted to
say: quite the opposite. But
that would also be a
simplification. Differance
points to a relationship (a
‘ferance’)-arelation to what
is other, to what differs in the
sense of alterity, to the
singularity of the other – but
‘at the same time’ it also
relates to what is to come, to
that which will occur in ways
which are inappropriable,
unforeseen, and therefore
urgent, beyond anticipation:

to precipitation in fact. The
thought of differance is also,
therefore, a thought of
pressing need, of something which, because it is different,
I can neither avoid nor appropriate. The event, and the
singularity of the event – this is what differance is all about.

(This is why I said that it means something quite different
from the neutralisation of events on the grounds that they
are artifactualised by the media.) Even if it also and inevitably
involves an opposite movement ‘at the same time’ (this
‘same time’ about which sameness disagrees all the time, a
time which is ‘out of joint’, as Hamlet says: disturbed,
distracted, dislocated, and disproportionate) – an attempt to
reappropriate, divert, loosen, and deaden the cruelty of the
event, or simply to deaden the death towards which it is
bound. So differance is a thought which wishes to yield to
the imminence of what is coming or about to come: to the
event, and therefore to experience itself, in so far as it too has
an inevitable tendency, ‘at the same time’ and in the light of
‘the same time’ , to appropriate whatever is going to happen:

the economy of the other and the aneconomy of the other,
31

saving and dispensing, both at once. There would be no
differance without urgency, emergency, imminence,
precipitation, the ineluctable, the unforeseen arrival of the
other, the other to whom both reference and deference are
made.

Passages: In that connection, what does it mean, for you,
to speak of ‘the event’?

Derrida: It is a name for the aspect of what happens that we
will never manage either to eliminate or to deny (or simply
never manage to deny). It is another name for experience,
which is always experience of the other. The event is what
does not allow itself to be subsumed under any other
concept, not even that of being. A ‘there is’ or a ‘let there be
something rather than nothing’ arises from the experience
of an event, rather than from a thinking of being. The
happening of the event is what cannot and should not be
prevented: it is another name for the future itself. Not that
it is good – good in itself – that everything or anything
should happen; nor that we should give up trying to prevent
certain things from coming to pass (in that case there would
be no choice, no responsibility, no ethics or politics). But
you do not try to oppose events unless you think they shut
off the future, or carry a threat of death: events which would
end the possibility of events, which would end any affirmative
opening toward the arrival of the other. This is why thinking
about the event always opens up a kind of messianic space,
however abstract, formal, deserted and desolate it may be,
and however little it may have to do with ‘religion’ .It is also
why messianism is inseparable from justice, which again I
distinguish from law (as I already attempted to do in Force
of Law and Spectres de Marx, I where it is perhaps the basic
claim). If the event is what arrives or comes to pass or
supervenes, it is not sufficient to say that this coming ‘is’

not, that it cannot be reduced to any of the categories of
existence. Nor do the noun (la venue) and the nominalised
verb (le venir), exhaust the ‘coming’ that they come from.

I have often tried to analyse this sort of performative
summons, this appeal which refuses to bow to the being of
anything that is. Such appeals are addressed to the other, and
they do not simply express desires, or orders, requests, or
demands, though they may make them possible subsequently.

The event must be considered in terms of the’ come hither’ ,
not conversely. ‘Come’ is said to another, to others who are
not yet defined as persons, as subjects, as equals (at least in
the sense of any measurable equality). Without this ‘come
hither’ there could be no experience of what is to come, of
the event, of what will happen and therefore of what, since
it comes from the other, lies beyond anticipation. There is
not even any horizon of expectation in this messianics
without messianism. If there were a horizon of expectation,
of anticipation, or programming, there would be neither
event, nor history (a possibility which, paradoxically and
for the same reasons, can never be rationally ruled out it is
almost impossible to think the absence of a horizon of
expectation). There would be no event, no history, unless a
‘come hither’ opened out and addressed itself to someone,
32

to someone else whom I cannot and must not define in
advance – not as subject, self, consciousness, nor even as
animal, God, person, man or woman, living or dead. (It must
be possible to summon a spectre, to appeal to it for example,
and I don’t think this is an arbitrary example: there may be
something of the revenant, of the return, at the origin or the
conclusion of every ‘come hither’.) The one to whom ‘come
hither’ is addressed cannot be defined in advance. This
absolute hospitality is offered to the outsider, the stranger,
the new arrival. Absolute arrivals must not be required to
begin by stating their identity; I must not insist that they say
who they are, and whether they are going to integrate
themselves or not; nor should I lay down any conditions for
offering them hospitality, for whether or not I shall be able
to ‘assimilate’ them into the family, the nation, or the state.

With an absolute new arrival, I ought not to propose
contracts or impose conditions. I ought not; and in any case,
by definition, I cannot. That is why, although this may seem
to be no more than the morals of hospitality, it actually goes
far beyond morality, and even further beyond law and
politics. The kind of absolute arrivals I am trying to describe
are similar to births, the arrival of babies, but they are not
really equivalent. The family anticipates and forenames its
new arrivals, it prepares the way so that they are caught up
in a symbolic space which muffles the novelty of the arrival.

But despite all the anticipations and prenominations, the
element of chance cannot be eliminated: the child that
arrives is always unforeseen. It speaks of itself from the
origin of a different world, or from a different origin of this
one.

I have been struggling with this impossi111e concept of
messianic arrival for a long time now. I have tried to define
the basic principles in my forthcoming book on death
(Apories), 2 as well as in the short book on Marx that I have
just finished. But it is difficult to give a justification, even
a provisional, pedagogical one, for the term ‘messianic’.

Messianic experience is a priori, but it is a priori exposed,
in its own expectation, to what will be determined only a
posteriori, by the event. A desert within a desert, one
signalling to the other, the desert of a messianics without
messianism and therefore without religious doctrine or
dogma. This dry and desolate expectation, this expectation
without horizon, has one thing in common with the great
messianisms of the Book: the reference to an arrival who
may turn up – and may not – but of whom, by definition, I
can know nothing in advance. Except one thing: that justice,
in the most enigmatic sense of the word, is somehow at
stake. And therefore revolution too, through the connection
between the event, justice, and this absolute fracture in the
foreseeable concatenation of historical time. Eschatology
breaks teleology apart: the two have to be kept distincthere,
difficult though this always is. It is possible to give up on
revolutionary imagery, to abandon all revolutionary rhetoric;
it is possible to give up revolutionary politics of certain
kinds, perhaps of all kinds; but it is impossible to give up on
revolution without abandoning both justice and the event.

An event cannot be reduced to the fact of something
happening. It may rain this evening or it may not, but that is
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

not an absolute event. I know what rain is; so it is not an
absolutely different singularity. In such cases what happens
is not an arrival.

An arrival must be absolutely different: the other that I
expect to be unexpected, that I do not await. The expectation
of an arrival is a non-expectation; it lacks what philosophy
calls a horizon of expectation, through which knowledge
anticipates the future and deadens it in advance. If I am sure
that something will happen, then it ~ill not be an event. It
will be someone I have arranged to meet – Christ perhaps,
or a friend – but if I know they are going to arrive, and am
sure that they will, then to that extent it will not be an arrival.

But of course the arrival of someone I am waiting for may
also, in some other way, astonish me every time; it can be
an amazing surprise, new every time, and so it can happen
for me over and over again. And the arrival, like Elias, may
never arrive at all. It is within the ever-open hollowness of
this possibility, the possibility of non-arrival, of absolute
disconvenience, that I relate to the event: it is what may
always fail to come to pass.

Passages: So there can be no event without surprise?

Derrida: Exactly.

NATIONALISM
Passages: To take a recent example, have you been
surprised by the fact that there has suddenly turned out
to be a mingling between the extreme right and certain
strands of left-wing thought?

Derrida: A brutal return to ‘actuality’! But you are quite
right, and in the light of what I have been saying, the
question ought not to be dodged. The ‘mingling’ you speak
of is complicated, though perhaps less improbable than it
might seem. We need to proceed with great care here, and
this is difficult when improvising. There are so many facts
and problems that have to be taken into account: which
extreme right, which ‘left-wing thought’, etc., what kind of
‘mingling’, who, where, when, within what limits, etc.?

And before turning to individual, untypical actions, which
are as usual the most interesting and innovative, we ought
to remind oursel ves of certain chains of general intelligibility,
programmes or logics which contain no surprises. This is
not the first time that far-right positions have been able to
ally themselves, on certain issues, with those on the far left.

Though based on quite different motivations and analyses,
opposition to Europe can encourage nationalistic strategies
on both left and right. Doubts about the policies of the
dominant states in Europe -legitimate doubts, very likely,
about their economism, or simply their economic or monetary
policies – may lead parts of the left straight into positions
which are in objective alliance with the nationalism and
anti-Europeanism of the far right. Le Pen is currently
parading his opposition to ‘free trade’ and ‘economic
liberalism’. This opportunistic rhetoric may turn him into
an ‘objective ally’, as they used to say, of those on the left
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

who also criticise the capitalistic and monetarist orthodoxies
in which Europe is getting itself bogged down, though with
quite different motives. Vigilance and clarity in action and
in thought are required if these amalgams are to be dissol ved
or analytically resolved. The risk is ever-present, more
serious than ever, and sometimes ‘objectively’ unavoidable:

in an election, for example. Even if you sharpen the divisions
and distinctions, which you should always be trying to do,
through inquiries, records, and electoral analyses, with all
that they entail, and in all the sites of publication,
demonstration, and action associated with a given electoral
conjuncture (but given by whom, exactly, and how?), the
anti-European votes of left and right will still be added
together in the end. And the pro-European votes too, of
course.

But as you know there have been left revisionisms (to be
specific, as one should always try to be: the negationist
revisionisms over the Shoah) which have slipped into antisemitism (if indeed they weren’t inspired by it in the first
place). Some of these grew, more or less confusedly, from
a basic anti-Israelism or, more narrowly, from opposition to
the politics of possession, of the fait accompli, as practised
by the State of Israel over a long period, in fact throughout
the whole history of Israel. But these confusions can surely
be subjected to bold and honest analyses. It must be possible
to criticise specific policies of particular governments of the
State ofIsrael without fundamental hostility to the existence
of this State (I would even say: quite the opposite!), and
without either anti-semitism or anti-Zionism. I would also
suggest that even for Jews who are committed to the Zionist
cause, a willingness to wonder and worry about the historical
foundation of the State, its conditions and what it has
brought into existence, need not imply any betrayal of
Juadaism. The logic of opposition to the State of Israel or its
politics of possession does not entail anti-semitism, or even
anti-Zionism; nor does it have anything to do with
revisionism, in the sense I defined earlier. There are some
very great examples (such as Buber, in the past). But, to
stick with general principles, surely you would agree that
our duty today is to denounce confusion. And to protect
ourselves from it in each of two ways. On the one hand,
there are the nationalist confusions of those who veer from
left to right and confound every possible European project
with the actual current policies of the European Community,
and the anti-Jewish confusions of those who cannot see any
dividing line between criticising the Israeli State and antiIsraelism, anti-Zionism, anti-semitism, and revisionism,
etc. There are at least five possibilities here, and they must
be kept absolutely distinct. These metonymic slides are all
the more serious – politically, intellectually and
philosophically – because they pose threats on both sides, so
to speak: both to those who yield to them in practice, and to
those who, on the other hand, denounce them whilst adopting
their logic in perfect symmetry: as if you could not do one
without the other – for example, oppose the actual policies
of Europe without being opposed to Europe in principle; or
worry about the State of Israel, its past and present policies,
the conditions of its foundation and of what it has been
33

possible to build upon them for the past half century,
without thereby becoming anti-semitic, anti-Zionist, or
indeed revisionist-negationist, etc.

This symmetry between enemies forges a link between
obscurantist confusion and terrorism. And it takes tenacity
and courage to resist such occult (or occultising, occultist)
strategies of amalgamation. In order to stand up to this
double intimidation, the only responsible response is never
to give up the task of distinguishing and analysing. And I
would also say: never to give up on the Enlightenment,
which also means, on public demonstrations of such
discriminations (and this is less easy than you might think).

This resistance is all the more urgently necessary since we
are in a phase where renewed critical work on the history of
this century is getting into dangerous waters. It is going to
be necessary to re-read and re-interpret, to open up archives
and shift perspectives, etc. How can we make progess if
every political critique, every historical re-interpretation, is
going to be automatically associated with negationistrevisionism, if every question about the past, or more
generally about the constitution of truth in history, is going
to be accused of paving the way for revisionism? (In
Spectres de Marx I quote a particularly shocking example of
this idiocy, from a leading American newspaper.) What a
victory for dogmatisms it will be, if prosecutors are constantly
getting to their feet to make accusations of complicity with
the enemy against anyone who tries to raise new questions,
to disturb stereotypes and good consciences, and to
complicate or re-work, for a changed situation, the discourse
of the left, or the analysis of racism or anti-semitism. Of
course, in order to keep the risk of such accusations to a
minimum, it is necessary to take extra care in our discussions,
analyses, and public interventions. And of course absolute
assurance can never be promised, let alone delivered. Several
recent examples could be given to illustrate this.

But to come back to your question: Were you surprised,
you asked me, by this mingling? I have offered only a very
general and abstract answer: certain models or schemes of
intelligibility may make the mingling less surprising than it
would at first appear; but they also show why the issues
ought to be kept separate. As regards the most interesting
particular cases, we would need more time and a different
situation in order to analyse them. This is where you meet
with surprises and syncopations. In between the most general
kinds of logic (with the greatest predictability) and the most
unpredictable singularities, comes the intermediate schema
of rhythm. Ever since the fifties for instance, people have
known what was wrong with the totalitarianisms of the East,
and how it was bound to lead to their eventual collapse: for
my generation, it was our daily bread. (Together with that
old theme, recently patched up in the style of ‘Fukuyama’,
of the supposed ‘end of history’, ‘end of man’, etc.) What
could not be anticipated was the rhythm, the speed, the date:

for example that of the fall of the Berlin wall. In 1986-7, no
one in the entire world could have had even the vaguest idea
of it. Not that the rhythm is inexplicable. It can be analysed
in retrospect, taking account of new causalities which
earlier experts ignored (in the first place, the geo-political
34

effects of telecommunication in general: the whole sequence
in which a signal like the fall of the Berlin wall gets
inscribed would have been impossible and incomprehensible
without a given density of telecommunication networks,
etc.).

IMMIGRATION
Passages: To develop your point in a different direction:

immigration is no higher now than it was half a century
ago. But now it takes people by surprise: it seems to have
surprised the social body and the political class. The
discourses of both right and left, in turning against
illegal immigration, seem to have careered into
xenophobia in a quite unanticipated way.

Derrida: In this respect, at least in the discourse of the two
republican majorities, the differences are mainly a matter of
emphasis. The overt political lines are more or less the
same. The common axiom, or the consensus as they say, is
always: stop illegal immigration, and put an end to excessive,
unproductive or de stabilising levels of immigration. The
manipulation of this consensus is more vigorous now and
the atmosphere has changed; and this is an important
difference. But the principles remain the same: that the
national community has to be protected from any excessive
effect on the national body, that is to say on the consciousness
it supposedly ought to have of the integrity of its own body
(an axiom which, by the way, implies that all kinds of
biological or cultural transplants ought to be banned, which
would of course lead us a long way – unless itJed nowhere,
or to death itself). When Frans;ois Mitterand spoke about the
threshold of tolerance (and some of us protested publicly
against those words, whereupon he at least had the courage,
honour or agility to withdraw them), his careless lapse
spoke the truth of a discourse which is common to the
republican parties of the left and the right, indeed the far
right: we must not allow any new arrivals, in the sense I was
just speaking of; we must control their arrival, and we must
filter the flow of immigration.

I realise, I promise you, that what I am saying about new
arrivals is politically impracticable, at least as long as
politics is based, as it always is, on the idea of the identity
of a body known as the State-nation. There is no Statenation in the world today which would simply say: ‘We
throw open our dd8’rs to everyone, we put no limit on
immigration’ . As far as I know – and I would be interested
if you could think of a counter-example – every State-nation
is based on the control of its frontiers, on opposition to
illegal immigration, and strict limits to legal immigration
and right of asylum. The concept of the frontier, no less than
the frontier itself, constitutes the concept of a State-nation.

On this basis the concept can be treated in various ways,
but these different policies, however important they may be,
are subordinate to the general principle of politics, that the
political is national. This is then used to justify the filtering
of population flows and stamping out of illegal immigration,
even though it may also be recognised that this is actually
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

unachievable, and indeed (a supplementary hypocrisy) that
in certain economic circumstances it is quite undesirable.

What I have been saying about the absolute arrival
cannot generate a politics in the traditional sense of the
word: a policy which could be implemented by a Statenation. But whilst I realise that what I have been saying
about the event and the arrival is impracticable and unpolitical
from the point of view of this concept of politics, I still want
to claim that any politics which fails to sustain some relation
to the principle of unconditional hospitality has completely
lost its relation to justice. It may retain its rights (which once
again need to be distinguished fromjustice), and its right to
rights, but it will lose both justice and the right to speak of
it with any credibility. This is not the place to go into it, but
it is important to distinguish between immigration policy
and respect for the right of asylum. In principle the right of
asylum (in the form in which it is still recognised in France,
at least for the time being and for political reasons) is,
paradoxically, less political, because it is not based in
principle on the interests of the body of the State-nation
which guarantees it. But, apart from the fact that it is
difficult to distinguish between the concepts of immigration
and asylum, it is almost impossible to delimit the properly
political grounds for exile – those which, under our
constitution, are supposed to justify an application for
asylum. After all, unemployment in a foreign country is a
malfunction of democracy and a kind of political persecution.

In addition, and this is the role of the market again, the rich
countries always share in the responsibility (if only through
foreign debt and everything it symbolises) for the political
and economic situations which push people into exile or
emigration. Here we run against the limits of the political
and the juridical: it is always possible to show that the right
of asylum may be either meaningless or infinite. Thus the
concept always lacks rigour, though this may not bother
anyone except in times of global turmoil. It would have to
be completely reworked before we could understand or in
any way alter the current debate (between constitutionalism
on one side, for example, and, on the other, the neopopulism of those who, like Charles Pasqua [Minister of the
Interior], want to change the Constitution so as to adapt the
article on right of asylum to the supposed wishes of a new
or ancient ‘French people’ which is apparently different
from the one which voted for the constitution in the first
place). But I ought to try to come back to the point of your
question. You were saying that it seems that ‘the social body
and political class’ of today have been taken by surprise. Do
you mean by immigration, or by xenophobia?

Passages: Xenophobia.

Derrida: What the political class has been adapting to both the class which came to power in 1981, and the one
which is now taking over from it – is not so much xenophobia
itself as new ways of exploiting it, or abusing it by abusing
the citizens. They are quarreling over an electorate, roughly
speaking that of the security-conscious (the ‘securitaires’

as they are called, rather like the ‘health-conscious’, the
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

sanitaires, since what is supposed to be at stake is the
security and health of a social body which needs to be
protected, as they say, by a cordon sanitaire). The National
Front electorate, which is dominated by an image of the
quasi-biological hygiene of a proper national body (quasibiological because nationalist fantasy, like the rhetoric of
the politicians, makes frequent use of such organicist
analogies).

Parenthetically, take for example the rhetoric of a recent
intervention by Le Pen (Le Monde, 24 August 1993) remarkable, as always, for his somnambulistic lucidity. Le
Pen now prefers the analogy (both apt and threadbare) of ‘a
living membrane which is permeable to what is benign, but
impermeable to everything else’. If an organism could
regulate this filtration in advance, then I suppose it might
achieve immortality, but first it would have to die in
advance, kill itself or let itself be killed, for fear of being
altered from outside, by the other in fact. Hence the theatre
of death which is common to so many kinds of racism,
biologism, organicism, and eugenicism, and to certain
philosophies oflife as well. And – to continue the parenthesis
-let me once again stress a point which is unlikely to please
anyone. All of those on the left or right who say they favour
immigration controls ‘like everyone else’ and call for a
clamp-down on illegal immigration and tighter immigration
controls, are – in fact and in principle, and whether they like
it or not, and with varying degrees of elegance and gentility
– subscribing to Le Pen’s organicist axiom. They are
accepting the axiom of a national front (the front is a skin,
a discriminating ‘membrane’: it only lets in what is
homogeneous or capable of being homogenised, what is
assimilable, or at most what is heterogeneous but considered
‘benign’: the appropriable immigrant, theproperimmigrant).

We should not close our eyes to this ineluctable complicity:

it is rooted in the political, to the extent that the political is
and remains linked to the State-nation. And since we had
better recognise, like everyone else, that we have no choice
but to protect what we take to be our own body, then let us
be spared all these pure souls who appeal to high principles
and put on a high moral tone and start lecturing us on politics
as soon as we propose to control immigration and asylum (a
proposal which is anyway accepted unanimously by the left
as much as the right). Just as Le Pen will always have the
most terrible problems in justifying or regulating the filtration
of his ‘membrane’, so there is a permeability between these
supposedly opposite concepts and logics which is far more
difficult to regulate than is usually recognised. Today we
have a neo-protectionism of the left and a neo-protectionism
of the right, both in economics and in matters of demographic
flows; a commitment to free trade both on the left and on the
right; we have both right neo-nationalism and left neonationalism. All these ‘neo-‘ logics pass straight through
the protective membrane of their concepts, without any
chance of control, and they create shady alliances both in
discourse and in political and electoral activities. Recognising
this permeability, this combinatory, and these complicities
does not mean adopting an apolitical stance, or believing in
an end of the division between right and left or an ‘end of
35

ideologies’ . On the contrary: it means calling for a courageous
thematisation and formalisation of this terrible combinatory,
as an essential preliminary not only to a different politics,
but to a different theory of politics, and a different
delimitiation of the socius, especially in relation to citizenship
and State-nationhood in general, and more broadly to identity
and subjectivity as well. How am I supposed to discuss all
that in an interview, and in an aside? And yet, as you know,
these questions are at present anything but abstract or
speculative. So, to return to France, the majorities are in the
range of 1 or 2 per cent in presidential elections, 10 to 15 per
cent in others. So the problem, as I was saying, is how to
attract, motivate, and seduce (both trouble and reassure) a
fraction of the potential xenophobes who vote for the
National Front.

This points to some other questions: why is the National
Front able to exploit this fear or aggravate this impatience?

Why is it that, instead of doing what is needed (in education
and socio-economic policy) to defuse these feelings, people
are trying either to take over the positions of the National
Front, or to exploit the split which it is creating within the
so-called repUblican right? Meanwhile the level of
immigration has, as you said, remained very steady:

apparently it has not changed for decades, or it may even
have gone down a bit. Is this surprising or not? Analysis
always tends to dissolve surprise. ‘It was only to be expected’ ,
as we say in retrospect, when we can finally see the elements
that our analysis had overlooked, or we have developed a
different analysis (for example, higher levels of
unemployment, increasing permeability of European
borders, the revival of religions and of claims to identityreligious, linguistic, and cultural- amongst the immigrants
themselves: all this means that the same rate of immigration
gets to seem more threatening for the self-identification of
the host social body).

But an event which remains an event is a happening, an
arrival: it is a surprise, and it resists even retrospective
analysis. With the birth of a child – the obvious image of an
absolute arrival – you can analyse the causalities, the
genealogical, genetic and symbolic conditions, and all the
wedding preparations as well, if you like. But even if such
an analysis could ever be complete, you would never be able
to eliminate the element of chance which constitutes the
place of this taking-place: there will still be someone who
can speak, someone unique, an absolute beginning, a different
origin of the world. Even if it ought to yield to analysis, or
return to ashes, the clinker of the absolute arrival refuses to
break up and dissolve. The history of the immigrations
which have constituted the culture, religions and languages
of France is in the first instance the history of these children
– children of immigrants or others – who were such absolute
arrivals. The task of a philosopher – and therefore of
anyone, a citizen for example – is to take the analysis as far
as possible and try to make the event intelligible, up to the
point where a new arrival takes place. What is absolutely
new is not this rather than that; it is the fact that it only
happens once. It is marked by a date (a place, a moment),
and it is always births or deaths that are marked by a date.

36

Even if it had been possible to predict the fall of the Berlin
wall, it still happened on one particular day, there were a few
more deaths (both before the collapse and during it) – and
this is what makes it an irremovable event. What refuses to
yield to analysis is birth and death: as ever, the origin and the
end of a world.

JUSTICE AND REPETITION
Passages: Can what resists analysis be equated with the
undeconstructable? Is there such a thing as the
undeconstructable, and if so, what is it?

Derrida: If anything is undeconstructable, it is justice. The
law is deconstructable, fortunately: it is infinitely perfectible.

I am tempted to regard justice as the best word, today, for
what refuses to yield to deconstruction, that is to say for
what sets deconstruction in motion, what justifies it. It is an
affirmative experience of the coming of the other as other:

better that this should happen than the opposite (an experience
of the event which cannot be expressed simply as an
ontology: that anything should exist, that there should be
something rather than nothing). The openness of the future
is worth more than this: that is the axiom of deconstruction
– the basis on which it has always set itself in motion, and
which links it, like the future itself, to otherness, to the
priceless dignity of
otherness, that is to say
to justice. It is also
democracy as the
democracy of the future.

It is easy to imagine
Jacques Derrida
theobjection. Someone
might say: ‘But surely
it would sometimes be
better if this or that did
not happen. Justice
requires us to prevent
certain events (or
“arrivals”) from coming
to pass. Events are not
good in themselves, and
the future is not
uncondi tionally
galilpp
desirable.’ Of course
that is true. But it will
always be possible to show that what we are opposing, what
we would hypothetically prefer not to happen, is something
which, rightly or wrongly, is thought of as obstructing the
horizon, or simply forming a horizon (the word means limit)
for the absolute coming of what is completely other, for the
future itself. This involves a messianic structure (but not
messianism – in the book on Marx, I make a distinction
between the messianic, as a universal dimension of
experience, and every particular messianism) which unites
the promise of the new arrival with justice and the
inscrutability of the future, and knits them indissolubly
together. I cannot try to reconstruct the argument now, and

Spectres
de Marx

Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

I realise that the word ‘justice’ may seem equivocal. Justice
is not the same as law, and it is broader and more fundamental
than human rights; nor is it to be equated with distributive
justice; nor is it the same as respect for the other as a human
subject, in the traditional sense of that word. It is the
experience of the other as other, the fact that I permit the
other to be other, which presupposes a gift without exchange,
without reappropriation, without jurisdiction. Here I meet
up with several different traditions, whilst also slightly
displacing them, as I have tried to show elsewhere. 3 There
is an inheritance from Levinas, when he defines the relation
to the other simply as justice (‘the relation with the Otherthat is, justice’).4 There is also that paradoxical thought,
Plotinian in its first formulation, but which also surfaces in
Heidegger, and then in Lacan: giving not only what one has,
but what one has not. Such excess overflows the present,
propriety, restitution, and no doubt law, politics and morality
as well, though it ought also to inspire and encourage them.

Passages: But doesn’t philosophy also discuss the idea
that anything, perhaps the worst, can always return?

Derrida: Yes, it precisely ‘discusses’ this return of the
worst, and in more than one way. In the first place, everything
that prepared the way for a philosophy of Enlightenment, or
that has become its heir (not rationalism as such, which is
not necessarily associated with it, but a progressive,
teleological, humanistic and critical rationalism) does indeed
struggle against such a ‘return of the worst’ , which education
and an awareness of the past are supposed to be able to
prevent. Although this Enlightenment struggle can often
take the form either of denial or of conjuration and
incantation, one has to play one’s part in it and reaffirm the
philosophy of emancipation. I personally believe in its
future, and I have never gone along with these proclamations
about the end of the great emancipatory and revolutionary
discourses. Nevertheless the very act of affirming them
pays tribute to the possibility of what they oppose: the return
of the worst, the incorrigible repetition-compulsion in the
death drive and radical evil, history without progression,
history without history, etc. And the Enlightenment thought
of our time cannot be reduced to that of the eighteenth
century.

Then there is another manner, still more radical, in
which philosophy can ‘discuss’ the return of the worst. This
consists in misrecognition (denial, exorcism, incantation,
each form requiring analysis) of what might constitute a
recurrence of evil: a law of spectres, which is resistant both
to ontology (a ghost or a revenant is neither present nor
absent, it neither is nor is not, and it cannot be dialecticised
either) and to any philosophy ofthe subject, of the object, or
of consciousness (of being-present) which, like ontology
and philosophy itself, will also be committed to ‘expelling’

spectres. And hence also to not attending to the lessons of
psychoanalysis either about ghosts, or about the repetition
of the gravest threats to historical progress. (To which I
would quickly add that on the one hand it is only a particular
concept of progress which is under threat, and that there
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

would be no progress at all in the absence of that threat; and
that on the other hand psychoanalytic discourse, starting
with Freud, has always been dominated by something
which entailed a certain misrecognition of the structure and
logic of spectres – a powerful, subtle and unstable
misrecognition, but one which it has in common with
science and philosophy.) Yes indeed: a ghost can return, as
the worst can return, but without such revenance, and
without some acknowledgement of its ineradicable
originality, we would be stripped of memory, inheritance,
and justice, of everything that has value beyond life, and by
which the dignity oflife is measured. I have made suggestions
about this elsewhere, and it is hard for me to schematise
them right now. But I suppose that when you spoke of the
‘return of the worst’ you were thinking, more immediately,
of what took place in Europe before the war?

Passages : Yes.

Derrida: And not only in Europe, let’s not forget. In this
context, each country has its own original history, and its
own economy of memory, its own way of being economical
with it. My immediate feeling is that what took place in
France well before W orId War 11, and during it, and still
more, I think, during the Algerian war, has imposed, and
therefore overdetermined, several layers of forgetting. The
capitalisation of silence is especially dense, resistant and
dangerous here. Through a slow, discontinuous and
contradictory process, this compact of secrecy is being
replaced by a movement towards the liberation of memory
(especially of public memory, so to speak,.and its official
legitimation, which never proceeds in the rhythm either of
historical knowledge or of private memory, if such a thing
can exist in its purity). But if this process of unsealing is
contradictory, both in its consequences and in its motivations,
this is due to the effect of ghosts. The moment at which the
worst threatens to return is also the moment when the worst
is being remembered (out of respect for memory, for truth,
for victims, etc.). One ghost recalls another. Often it is
because of signs of the resurgence or quasi-resurrection of
the one, that an appeal is made to the other. The pressing
need for official commemoration of the round-up of Jews at
the Velodrome d’Hiver [in Paris on 16 July 1942], or for
recognition that the French State bears some responsibility
for the ‘worst’ that happened under the occupation, is
recalled because the signs of a return of nationalism, racism,
xenophobia and anti-semitism are becoming visible, though
in a very different context, sometimes with the same aspect,
sometimes with different features entirely. The two memories
relaunch each other; they provoke and invoke each other;
and of necessity, again and again, they do battle with each
other, always on the brink of every possible contamination.

When the abominable ghosts return, we recall the ghosts of
their victims, not only in order to preserve their memory but
also, inseparably, for the sake of the current struggle:

especially for the promise which commits it to a future
without which it would have absolutely no sense – to a
future, beyond every present life, beyond every living being
37

who can already say ‘me, now.’ The question of ghosts is
also the question of the future as a question of justice. This
double return encourages an irrepressible tendency to
confusion. Analogy is confused with identity: ‘Exactly the
same thing is being repeated, exactly the same thing.’ But
no: a kind of iterability (difference within repetition) means
that what returns is nevertheless a completely different
event. The return of a ghost is always a different return, on
another stage; it takes place under new conditions, which
we must study with as closely as possible, unless we don’t
care at all what we are saying or doing.

Yesterday a German woman, a journalist, telephoned
me. (It was about that’ appeal’ from European intellectuals
for ‘vigilance’, to which I felt I ought to lend my signature,
on and about which there would be so much to say – but
there is no time to do that seriously now.) Noticing that
many German intellectuals were welcoming this action,
and calling it opportune, for obvious reasons, especially in
the current situation in Germany, she was wondering whether
this was a revival of the tradition of ‘1’ accuse!’ Where is
Zola today? she wanted to know. I tried to explain to her
why, despite my enormous respect for Zola, I was not sure
that he was the best or only model for a new ‘1’accuse!’

Everything is so different now – the public space, the
channels of information and authority, the relation between
power and secrecy, the figure of the intellectual, the writer,
the journalist, etc. It is not’ l’ accuse!’ which is out of date,
but the form and space in which it was written. Of course the
Dreyfus affair should not be forgotten, but we must also
realise that it will never be exactly repeated. What happens
may be worse, of course, but it certainly will not be the
Dreyfus affair over again.

In short, in order to think (but what does ‘thinking’ mean
here?) what you were calling the ‘return of the worst’, it is
necessary to go beyond ontology, beyond philosophies of
life or death, beyond a logic of the conscious subject, and
enter into the relations between politics, history and the
revenant.

MARX
Passages: Hadn’t you already spoken about all this in Of
Spirit: Heidegger and the Question? 5

Derrida: From the very first sentence, in fact, that book was
moving towards a disruptive logic of spirit as spectre. The
matter is treated differently, but I hope consistently, in the
book on Marx. This book is no more pro-spiritualist than the
one on Heidegger was anti-spiritualist. But the need for a
strategy of paradox did push me, at least in appearance, to
distrust a certain kind of spirit in Heidegger and to defend
spirit, a certain kind of spirit, a particular spirit or spectre,
in Marx.

Passages: You spoke about Marx in a course at the Ecole
Normale Superieure in the seventies, but only allusively.

Derrida: They were more than allusions, if I may say so,
38

and it was in more than one course. But apart from such
references, my book is an attempt to explain that situation,
that relative silence, and the difficult but, I believe, intimate
connections between deconstruction and a certain’ spirit’ of
marxism.

Passages: What has led you to speak about Marx now?

Derrida: It is hard to answer that question in a few improvised
words. But the book on Marx began as a lecture delivered
in the United States in April, to open a conference entitled
‘Whither Marxism?’ – which also asked, through a play on
words, whether Marxism was in the process of ‘withering
away’. I sketched out an approach to Marx’s writings, to
everything in them that can be subordinated to the
problematic of the spectre (and so also of exchange value,
fetishism, ideology, and much else besides). But I also tried,
mainly as a political act, to mark, as I think it is now
necessary to do, a point of resistance to a dogmatic consensus
on the death of Marx, the end of the critique of capitalism,
the final triumph of the market, and the eternal link between
democracy and the logic of economic liberalism, etc. I tried
to show where and how this consensus has become dominant
and often obscene in its troubled but grinning euphoria,
triumphal but manic (I make deliberate use of the language
which Freud uses to describe one phase of the work of
mourning: the essay on spectres is also an essay on mourning
and politics). It is urgently necessary to rise up against the
new anti-marxist dogma, don’t you think? I consider it not
only regressive and pre-critical in most of its manifestations,
but also blind to its own contradictions, and deaf to the
creakings of ruination, of the ruinous and ruined structure of
its own ‘rationality’ , a new’ colossus with feet of clay’ . And
I believe that it is all the more urgent to combat this
dogmatism and this politics, as this urgency itself seems to
me to be syncopated, to go against the rhythm. (Another
theme of the essay is syncopation in politics, and
anachronism, untimeliness, etc.) Clearly, this is connected
with what I was saying earlier about the messianic and the
event, about justice and revolution.

The responsibility for rising up comes back to everyone,
but especially to those who, without ever being anti -marxists
or anti-communists, resisted a certain kind of marxist
orthodoxy as long as it remained hegemonic, at least in
certain circles (and this was a long time for most of my
generation). But apart from this position-taking, and also in
order to sustain it, I started up an argument with Marx’ s
writings. The argument is organised by the question of the
spectre (networked with those of repetition, mourning, and
inheritance, the event and the messianic, of everything that
exceeds the ontological oppositions between absence and
presence, visible and invisible, living and dead, and hence
above all of the prosthesis as ‘phantom limb’ , of technology,
of the tele-technological simulacrum, the synthetic image,
virtual space, etc.; and so back to the themes I have already
discussed: artifactuality and virtuactuality). Remember the
opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto: ‘A spectre
is haunting Europe, the spectre of communism.’ Well I
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

investigate, I roam around a little with all the spectres which
literally obsessed Marx. Marx really was persecuted by
them: he chased them everywhere, he drove them away, but
they followed him around as well. It happens in the 18th
Brumaire, in Capital, but above all in the German Ideology
where, as you know, he set out an interminable critique
(interminable because fascinated, captivated, shackled) of
Stirner’s hauntings, a hallucination which is already critical,
and which Marx found extremely difficult to shake off.

So I have tried to decode the logic of the spectre in the
work of Marx. I aimed to do this in relation, so to speak, to
what is taking place in the world today, in a new public
space which has been transformed by what is summarily
called the ‘return of the religious’ as well as by tele, technology. What does the work of mourning mean when it
comes to marxism? What does it attempt to invoke, to
conjure up? The word and concept of conjuration, highly
ambiguous as they are (at least in French, English and
German) play an important role in this essay, no less
important than that of heritage or inheritance. To inherit is
not essentially to receive something, a given which one then
has. It is an active affirmation, a response to an injunction,
but it also presupposes initiative, the endorsement or countersigning of a critical choice. To inherit is to select, to sift, to
harness, to reclaim, to reactivate. I also believe, though I
cannot argue the point here, that every assignment of
inheritance harbours a contradiction and a secret. (This is
the thread which runs through the book, and which ties the
genius of Marx to that of Shakespeare – whom Marx loved
so much and quoted so often, especially from Timon of
Athens and Much Ado about Nothing – and to Hamlet’s
father, who is perhaps the main character in the essay.)
Hypothesis: there is always more than one spirit. To
speak of spirit is immediately to evoke a plurality of spirits,
or spectres, and an inheritor always has to choose one spirit
or another. An inheritor has to make selections or filtrations,
to sift through the ghosts or the injunctions of each spirit.

Where assignations are not multiple and contradictory,
where they are not sufficiently cryptic to challenge
interpretation, where they do not involve the unbounded
dangers of active interpretation, there is no inheritance.

Inheriting implies decisions and responsibilities. Without a
double-bind, there is no responsibility. An inheritance must
always include an undecidable reserve.

If inheriting means reaffirming an injunction, if it is not
a possession but an assignment which needs to be decoded,
then we are nothing but what we inherit. Our being is
inheritance, and the language we speak is inheritance too.

HOlderlin said, more or less, that language has been given
us so that we may witness the fact that we are our inheritance:

not an inheritance that we have or receive, but one that we
are, all the way down. What we are, we have inherited. And
we inherit language, which witnesses the fact that we are
what we inherit. There is a paradoxical circle here, a circle
within which we have to struggle, and then strike out with
choices which not only inherit their own norms, but invent
them too, in the inevitable absence of programmes and fixed
norms. Saying that an inheritance is not a commodity that
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

one acquires and that we are inheritors all the way down is
therefore not traditionalist or antiquarian at all. And we are,
amongst other things, inheritors of Marx and marxism. I try
to explain why this involves an event which nothing and no
one can eradicate, not even – in fact especially not – the
monstrosity of totalitarianism (all the various
totalitarianisms, and there were several of them, which were
in part linked to marxism, and which cannot be seen as mere
perversions or distortions of the inheritance). Even people
who have never read Marx, or so much as heard of him, are
Marx’s heirs, and so are the anti-communists and antimarxists. And then, you cannot inherit from Marx without
also inheriting from Shakespeare, the Bible, and much else
besides.

COMMITMENT

Passages: To take this point a little further: would you
be surprised if there were some kind of return of
communism, though in a different form and with
different applications – communism simply coming back,
though perhaps with a different name? And if what
brought it back was a need within society for the return
of a little hope?

Derrida: But this is what I was calling justice. I do not
believe in a return of communism in the form of the Party
(the party-form is probably disappearing more generally
from political life, though it may be hard for it to die), or in
the return of everything that was so dispiriting about certain
kinds of marxis m and communism. At least I hope it won’t
come back: it is very unlikely to, but still it’s necessary to
be vigilant. But what is bound to return is an insurgence in
the name of justice, which will give rise to critiques which
are marxist in inspiration, in spirit. And there are signs. It’s
like a new International, but without a party, or organisation,
or membership. It is searching and suffering, it believes that
something is wrong, it does not accept the ‘new world order’

which is currently being imposed, and it finds something
sinister in the discourses to which this new order is giving
rise. And this insurgent dissatisfaction will be able to
recover various forces from within the marxist inspiration,
for which we do not even have any names. Although in
some respects it will resemble the elements of a critique, I
try to explain why it is or ought to be more than a critique,
or method, or philosophy, or ontology. It needs to take a
completely different form, and this may mean that Marx has
to be read in a completely different way – though it’s not a
matter of a reading in an academic or philological sense, or
of rehabilitating a marxist canon. There is a certain tendency,
which I take issue with in this essay, which is gently trying
to neutralise Marx in a different way: now that marxism is
dead and its apparatuses disarmed, so they say, we can at last
settle down to read Marx and Capital calmly, theoretically;
he can be given the recognition he deserves as a great
philosopher whose writings belong (in their ‘internal
intelligibility’, as Michel Henry puts it) to the great
ontological tradition. No: I try to explain why we should not
39

be satisfied with such a mollifying re-interpretation.

Passages: You have always claimed that the experience
of deconstruction entailed an ethico-political
responsibility. How does this differ from the old idea of
the ‘committed intellectual’?

Derrida: I don’t feel I have either the right or the inclination
to disparage what you call the ‘old idea’ of the committed
intellectual of the past, particularly in France. I continue to
find Voltaire, Hugo, Zola and Sartre admirable and
exemplary. Such models can inspire us; but often they are
inaccessible and we certainly ought not to try to imitate
them now that the situation is, as I was saying, structurally
altered. With that reservation, it seems to me, very roughly,
that their couragaeous stands presupposed that there were
two identifiable partners in a kind of confrontation: on one
side a given socio-political field, and on the other the
intellectuals with their language, their rhetoric, their literary
output, their philosophy, etc., who came along and
‘intervened’ or committed themselves to a field in order to
take sides or adopt positions. From that point on they had to
refrain from trying to alter either the structure of their public
space (press, media, modes of representation, etc.) or the
nature of their language and the philosophical or theoretical
axioms of their interventions. In other words, they committed
their culture and authority as writers (and the very French
examples I mentioned were popular mainly for their literary
rather than philosophical work); they put them at the service
of a political cause – sometimes a legal issue, but often one
which went beyond legality: a matter of justice. I am not
saying that Hugo or Sartre never questioned or transformed
the forms of involvement available to them. I am only
saying that it was not a constant theme for them, or a major
preoccupation. They did not think it appropriate to begin, as
Benjamin would have suggested, by analysing and
transforming the apparatus, instead of simply entrusting
their messages to it, however revolutionary they might be.

The apparatus in question comprises technical and political
authorities, and procedures of editorial and mediatic
appropriation, and the structure of a public space (and hence
of the audience that one is meant to be addressing); and it
also involves a particular logic, rhetoric, and experience of
language, and the entire sedimentation which that
presupposes. Asking oneself questions, including ones about
the questions that are imposed on us or taught to us as being
the ‘right’ questions to ask, even questioning the questionform of critique, and not only questioning, but thinking
through the commitment, the stake, through which a given
question is engaged: perhaps this is a prior responsibility,
and a precondition of commitment. On its own it is not
enough of course; but it has never impeded or retarded
commitment – quite the reverse.

Passages: We would like, if we may, to ask you a rather
more personal question. There is one thing that is coming
back in some parts of the world, especially in Algeria
with its religious aspect. Politicians and even intellectuals
40

have a way of talking about Algeria, which consists in
saying that it has never really had an identity, unlike
Morocco or Tunisia, and that the death and destruction
which are now taking place there are due to this absence
of identity, this lack. Beyond all the emotional turmoil,
how do you see what’s happening there?

Derrida: You say it’s a personal question, but I wouldn’t
dream of comparing my own distress and anguish with that
of most other Algerians, whether in Algeria or France. I am
not even sure that I could claim that Algeria is still my
country. But I should perhaps say that I never left Algeria in
the first nineteen years of my life, that I have been back
regularly, and that something in me never left at all. It is true
that the unity of Algeria seems to be under threat. What is
happening there is not far from resembling a civil war. The
news media in France are only slowly beginning to realise
what has been going on in Algeria for some years now:

preparations for taking power, assassinations, guerrilla
groups; and in response, repression, torture, and
concentration camps. As in all tragedies, the crimes are not
all on one side, or indeed on two. The FIS [Islamic Salvation
Front] and the state would not have been able to confront
and pursue each other in the classic cycle (terrorism!

repression; the social and popular diffusion of a movement
which has been driven undergrqund by a state with both too
little power and too much; the impossibility of sustaining a
process of democratisation, etc.), and this infernal duet,
which has already claimed so many innocent victims, could
never have taken place, without a simple and anonymous
third factor: that is to say, without the country’S. economic
and demographic situation, its unemployment and the
development strategy it adopted long ago. These conditions
tend to favour a kind of duel; but perhaps it is not so
symmetrical as I have been suggesting. (Some of my
Algerian friends disagree with this symmetrisation: they
regard the state’s violent reaction and the suspension of the
electoral process as its only possible response to a wellprepared long-range plan to take over power, which was
hostile to democracy itself; they have a point, but still it’s
going to be necessary to devise some means of consultation
or exchange which will get people to lay down their arms
and enable the processes that have been broken off to be
resumed.) If we consider this nameless third partner, it is
clear that responsibility goes back much further, and that it
is not purely algero-algerian either. This is connected to
what I was saying earlier about the emblematic foreign debt,
which is a heavy burden on Algeria. I mention it not in order
to level accusations, but in recognition of our responsibility.

Without in any way diminishing what is primarily a matter
for the citizens of Algeria themselves, everyone of us is
involved and responsible, especially – for obvious reasons
– those of us who are French. We cannot be indifferent,
particularly to the fate and the efforts of all those Algerians
who are trying to stand up to fanaticism and all sorts of
intimidation. (Many of the victims of recent assassinations
have been intellectuals, journalists and writers, though we
must not forget all the other unknown victims; it is in this
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

spirit that some of us have come together, on the initiative
of Pierre Bourdieu, to form CISIA, the International
Committee in Support of Algerian Intellectuals, some of
whose founder members, it must be said, have already
received death threats.)
You said that some people regard the identity of Algeria
not merely as problematic or endangered, but as something
that never really existed in an organic, natural or political
fashion. There are several ways of responding to this. One
would be to invoke the fractures and partitions of ArabBerber Algeria, the divisions between languages, ethnic
groups, religious and military authorities, and perhaps to
draw the conclusion that it was basically colonisation
which, in this as in many other cases, created the unity of a
State-nation so that when formal independence was at last
achieved, its struggles took place within structures partly
inherited from colonisation. I cannot get into lengthy
historical analyses here, but I think that this is both true and
false. It is certainly true that Algeria as such did not exist
before colonisation, with its present frontiers and in the
form of a State-nation. But that in itself does not undermine
such unity as has been forged through, within and against
colonisation. All State-nations have this kind of laborious,
contradictory and tortuous history of decolonisation and
recolonisation. They all originated in violence, and since
they constitute themselves by establishing their own law
and legitimacy, they cannot base it on any prior legitimacy,
notwithstanding all their protestations and inculcations to
the contrary. You cannot object to a unity simply because it
is the result of a process of unification. Unification and
legitimacy never establish themselves successfully except
by making people forget that there never was any natural
unity or prior foundation. The unity of the Italian State is
also very recent, and it is going through a good deal of
turbulence at present. But does this mean that it has to be
cast into doubt, on the grounds that it is a recent foundation
and that, like every other state-nation, it is an artifact? Some
people are certainly being tempted to suggest as much, and
from motives which are more than just historiographical.

But there are no natural unities, only more or less stable
processes of unification, some of them solidly established
over a long period of time. All these state stabilities, all these
familiar steady states, are only stabilisations. Israel is another
example of a state which was founded recently and, like
every other state, founded on violence; and this violence is
bound to seek retrospective justification for itself, provided
that national and international stabilisation manage to wrap
it up at least in provisional and conditional oblivion. But
that is not the current situation. These are seismic times for
all State-nations, and correspondingly favourable to this
sort of reflection – which must also be a reflection on what
may (or may not) link the idea of democracy both to
citizenship and to nationality.

The unity of Algeria is of course in danger of being
ruptured, but the forces which are tearing it apart are not, as
is often supposed, those of the West as opposed to those of
the East, or of democracy against Islam, as if these were two
homogeneous units. Various different models of democracy,
Radical Philosophy 68, Autumn 1994

representativeness, and citizenship are invol ved – and above
all, various different interpretations of Islam. So part of our
responsibility is to pay careful attention to this multiplicity;
and to plead unceasingly against the confounding of the
confusion.

Interview conducted by Brigitte Sohm,
Cristina de Peretti, Stephane Douailler,
Patrice Vermeren and Emile Malet.

(English translation by Jonathan Ree)
Notes
1.

2.

Force ofLaw: ‘The Mystical Foundation ofAuthority’ (bilingual
text) in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, Cardozo
Law Review, New Yark, July-August 1990 – English text
reprinted as a book with the same title, edited by Drucilla Cornell
et. al. , Routledge, New York & London, 1992; Spectres de
Marx, Paris, Galilee, 1993.

Paris, Galilee, 1994

3.

See especially Donner le temps 1: La fausse monnaie, Paris,
Galilee, 1992.

4.

Emmanuel Levinas, Totalite et lnfini. Essai sur l’exteriorite,
The Hague, Nijhoff, 1961, p. 62; translated by Alfonso Lingis,
Totality and Infinity, Pittsburgh, Duquesne University Press,
1969, p. 89.

5.

De I ‘esprit, Heidegger et la question, Paris, Galilee, 1987,
translated by Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby, Chicago,
Chicago University Press, 1989.

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