The Politics of Deconstruction: Jacques Derrida and the Other of Philosophy

The Politics of Deconstruction: Jacques Derrida and the Other of Philosophy


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The Politics of Deconstruction: Jacques Derrida and the Other of Philosophy by Martin McQuillan

Jacques Derrida has had a huge influence on contemporary political theory and political philosophy. Derrida's thinking has inspired Slavoj Zizek, Richard Rorty, Ernesto Laclau, Judith Butler and many more contemporary theorists. This book brings together a first class line up of Derrida scholars to develop a deconstructive approach to politics. Deconstruction examines the internal logic of any given text or discourse. It helps us analyse the contradictions inherent in all schools of thought, and as such it has proved revolutionary in political analysis, particularly ideology critique. This book is ideal for all students of political theory, and anyone looking for an accessible guide to Derrida's thinking and how it can be used as a radical tool for political analysis.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745326740
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 10/10/2007
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Martin McQuillan is Pro-Dean of Research in the Faculty of Performance, Visual Arts and Communication at the University of Leeds. He is the author, along with Eleanor Byrne, of Deconstructing Disney (Pluto, 1999), Paul de Man (2000) and editor of Deconstruction: A Reader (2000), The Narrative Reader (2000), and Theorising Muriel Spark: Gender, Race, Deconstruction (2002) and co-editor of Post-Theory: New Directions in Criticism (1999).

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Geoffrey Bennington

'... no doubt more serious for what is called democracy, if at least we still understand by that the name of a regime, which, as is well known, will always have been problematical' (Derrida, Politiques de l'amitié, p. 12).


'Demo' here refers in the first instance to democracy, as a sort of possible nickname (like some people used to refer to postmodernism as 'pomo', post-colonial studies as 'poco', and even deconstruction as 'decon', I think) and I will indeed be talking essentially about democracy. But I use 'demo' here too in the sense of demonstration. This second sense hangs between the strong philosophical or logical sense in which a point might be demonstrated, that is, proven; the slightly weaker sense in which someone might provide a demonstration, an exemplary execution of some more or less difficult technique or trick that a reader or spectator might then want to try for themselves; the music-industry sense of a trial or sample recording designed to show off one's talent or potential, and the computer sense of a limited version of a program, designed to give a sense of its capacities and capabilities without providing what is called 'full functionality'. This is only a demo, lacking full functionality and, I fear, still full of bugs. The point of the demo (about 'demo', then) is to approach Derrida's slogan, in Politiques de l'amitié: 'no deconstruction without democracy, no democracy without deconstruction', but also the claim that what he calls the limit between the conditional and the unconditional inscribes

an auto-deconstructive force in the very motif of democracy, the possibility and the duty for democracy to de-limit itself. Democracy is the autos of deconstructive auto-delimitation. A delimitation not only in the name of a regulative Idea and an indefinite perfectibility, but each time in the urgency of a here and now.

And this demo about demo can then connect with a third sense of demonstration, as Derrida lays it out in Le monolinguisme de l'autre, playing a little uncertainly across French and English:

I have perhaps just performed a 'demonstration', though perhaps not, but I don't know which language to hear this word in. Without an accent, demonstration is not a logical argumentation imposing a conclusion, but primarily a political event, a street demonstration (I said a little earlier how I take to the street every morning, not on the road but in the street), a march, an act, an appeal, a demand.

And that earlier moment here referred to comes in an almost lyrical passage where Derrida describes how his writing throws down a challenge of invention to translators, and ends with this:

Compatriots of all nations, translator-poets, revolt against patriotism! Every time I write a word, you hear me, a word I love and that I love to write, for the time of that word, the instant of a single syllable, the song of this new international rises up in me. I never resist it, I take to the street when it calls, even if, apparently, from dawn, I have been working silently at my desk.

This, then, will try to be a demonstration version of what would be an argumentative demonstration about the concept of democracy: and thereby a demonstration, with luck, in a more directly political sense, a response, however muted or modest, to the call of that 'new international'.


Metaphysics cannot decide whether it or politics has philosophical priority. This is a well-known tension at least since Aristotle, and probably indeed since Plato's attempted resolution of the relation between philosophy and government by the combination of the two in the ideal constitution of The Republic. I do not think that this tension can ever be resolved, if only because the traditional concepts of metaphysics and politics are defined in part by just that tension.

This uncertainty needs to be read in both directions, as it were. On the one hand, we might say that 'politics' just is a metaphysical concept, defined by metaphysics just by being defined against metaphysics, and that therefore any attempted political reduction of metaphysics (along the lines of the other positive reductions attempted by the so-called human sciences, or by what is now most generally called 'cultural studies') is doomed to failure, however tempting it remains. The general logic of transcendental contraband always means that the very concept put up by such reductions to operate the reduction remains unthought and inexplicable in the terms of the reduction – just as the last thing the historicist reduction of metaphysics can understand is history, and the last thing the linguisticist reduction can understand is language, so the last thing the political reduction can understand is politics.

But reading the situation in the other direction, as it were (remembering that, although politics might well be a metaphysical concept, there are no metaphysical concepts as such, because the logic of différance and the trace means that there are no concepts as such, in themselves, independent of their differential definition), we might want to say that metaphysics is already a political concept. But saying this will only be possible by extending the range of the concept 'politics' so that it can describe all conceptual dealings and relations whatsoever. I want to say that deconstruction operates just such a radical politicisation of conceptuality in general. But this radical politicisation of all conceptual relations (including of course those affecting the metaphysical concept of 'politics' itself) naturally cannot produce results simply recognisable or exploitable by the metaphysical concept of politics. One way of putting this situation, in the terms of Martin McQuillan's title for this book, is that deconstruction reads politics as part of a more general politics of reading that deconstruction just 'is'.


In Politiques de l'amitié, Derrida points to a fundamental disjunction at the heart of democracy, between a law of equality and a law of difference or singularity. This disjunction, he says, 'forever carries political desire. It also carries the chance and the future of a democracy which it constantly threatens with ruin and which it yet keeps alive ... No virtue without this tragedy of number without number. Perhaps it is even more unthinkable than a tragedy.' Why would this be tragic, or 'even more unthinkable' than tragedy? Hegel, for his part, rather refers democracy to comedy:

This Demos, the general mass, which knows itself as lord and ruler, and is also aware of being the intelligence and insight which demand respect, is constrained and befooled through the particularity of its actual existence, and exhibits the ludicrous contrast between its own opinion of itself and its immediate existence, between its necessity and its contingency, its universality and its commonness. If the principle of its individuality, separated from the universal, makes itself conspicuous in the proper shape of an actual existence and openly usurps and administers the commonwealth to which it is a secret detriment, then there is exposed more immediately the contrast between the universal as a theory and that with which practice is concerned; there is exposed the complete emancipation of the purposes of the immediate individuality from the universal order, and the contempt of such an individuality for that order.

Would this be one way of understanding the shift from an ancient to a modern view of democracy? From the type of 'direct' democracy associated with the classical theories to the representative or parliamentary type associated with post-Enlightenment thought? In the Philosophy of Right, Hegel argues that the classical distinction between monarchy, aristocracy and democracy is only valid for the ancient world, but that it remains an 'external' principle of classification to the extent that it is based merely on questions of number – in the modern world, constitutional monarchy reduces these names to the status of moments, and more generally sublates them, so that the 'democratic' moment (that of the legislature) is 'no longer democracy'.

Within this tension between metaphysics and politics, the concept of democracy occupies a curious status in the philosophical tradition, and it is this that makes it a promising starting point for deconstructive attention, and seems to call from afar to Derrida's long-term interest in the concept. And if, as I believe is the case, the general situation of inheritance that describes a deconstructive take on metaphysical concepts (and indeed on Being in general) is already plausibly describable as a political situation, then we might expect this explicitly political concept to concentrate or capitalise, as Derrida might say, the experience of deconstruction itself (and this seems to be confirmed by the slogan I quoted at the outset). This oddness seems to spring from a sort of inherent duplicity (or perhaps a more radical or multiple instability that cannot be grasped by the two-ness of duplicity) in the concept of democracy itself, as it is metaphysically formulated. On the one hand, democracy functions as the name of a type of constitution or regime, characterised most obviously as the rule of the people, the many (or perhaps of all: defined in opposition to monarchy, the rule of the one, and oligarchy, the rule of the few). But on the other hand (and Derrida says early in Politiques that it has always been problematical to understand democracy as the name of a regime, and that this is well-known), democracy functions in an excessive way with respect to such classifications, as a sort of limit of the political, out of which politics may emerge, or into which it always might dissolve. Given this duplicity or instability, democracy can show up in the tradition with conflicting valorisations attached to it, as the best or the worst, the best of the worst, and indeed as simultaneously the best and the worst. (Another distant conceptual horizon of this essay is this problem of best and worst once teleological schemas are suspended.) Let me at least start (I'll actually be doing little more than this) by illustrating this problematic status briefly from some very 'well-known' texts.


In Plato's Republic, democracy is of course criticised at length. But this critique is complex, if only because of the unusual degree of irony and even sarcasm it involves. Democracy seems to start off well enough:

Possibly, said I ['I' in the Republic being of course Socrates himself], this is the most beautiful of polities; as a garment of many colours [poikilon], embroidered with all kinds of hues, so this, decked and diversified with every type of character, would appear the most beautiful. And perhaps many would judge it to be the most beautiful, like boys and women when they see bright-coloured things.

This at least apparent attraction of democracy (the sort of beauty that appeals to boys – or children at least – and women, at least, if not men) is to do with its diversity.

Let's not lose this reference to women, because one of the things I'd like to suggest is that the traditional concept of democracy has an irreducible relation to women, that democratisation is always seen as in some sense a feminisation. This does not sit easily with Derrida's association of democracy with the model of fraternal friendship. But one of the persistent motifs of Plato's critique of democracy is that it gives, or would give, a quite unthinkable degree of freedom to women; note the cumulative effect of the following passage, for example:

Is it not inevitable that in such a state the spirit of liberty should go to all lengths? – Of course. – And this anarchic temper, said I, my friend, must penetrate into private homes and finally enter into the very animals. – Just what do you mean by that? he said. – Why, I said, the father habitually tries to resemble the child and is afraid of his sons, and the son likens himself to the father and feels no awe or fear of his parents, so that he may be forsooth a free man. And the resident alien feels himself equal to the citizen and the citizen to him, and the foreigner likewise. – Yes, these things do happen, he said. – They do, said I, and such other trifles as these. The teacher in such cases fears and fawns upon the pupils, and the pupils pay no heed to the teacher or to their overseers either. And in general the young ape their elders and vie with them in speech and action, while the old, accommodating themselves to the young, are full of pleasantry and graciousness, imitating the young for fear they may be thought disagreeable and authoritative. – By all means, he said. – And the climax of popular liberty, my friend, I said, is attained in such a city when the purchased slaves, male and female, are no less free than the owners who paid for them. And I almost forgot to mention the spirit of freedom and equal rights in the relation of men to women and women to men. – Shall we not, then, said he, in Aeschylean phrase, say 'whatever rises to our lips'? – Certainly, I said, so I will. Without experience of it no one would believe how much freer the very beasts subject to men are in such a city than elsewhere. The dogs literally verify the old adage and 'like their mistresses become'. And likewise the horses and asses are wont to hold on their way with the utmost freedom and dignity, bumping into everyone who meets them and who does not step aside. And so all things everywhere are just bursting with the spirit of liberty.

This association of liberty with a sort of natural-animal-feminine quality is also a standard ingredient of so-called mass psychology.

Democracy is a mix, a collection, a farrago of different things. And this is what gives it its curious status among different sorts of regime: democracy is not just one regime among others, because in a sense it includes all others within itself. In an abyssal logic that is probably what I am trying to understand here, democracy is a mixture of all regimes, including itself. Plato continues:

Yes, said I, and it is the fit place, my good friend, in which to look for a constitution. – Why so? – Because, owing to this license, it includes all kinds, and it seems likely that anyone who wishes to organise a state, as we were just now doing, must find his way to a democratic city and select the model that pleases him, as if in a bazaar of constitutions, and after making his choice, establish his own.

So if democracy is a bazaar, or catalogue or supermarket of different constitutions, a sort of demo version of any constitution the prospective founder of a state might look to in order to decide which model to choose, this is because it both is and is not itself – on this account, democracy is itself to the extent that it is anything but itself, i.e. everything including itself. Democracy is one among the list of possible constitutions, but is set apart from the other members of the list in that it just is the list of which it is also a part. (A part, then, bigger than the whole of which it is a part, as Derrida often says.) This double position generates paradoxical and sarcastic formulations:

And the tolerance of democracy, its superiority to all our meticulous requirements, its disdain for our solemn pronouncements ... how superbly it tramples underfoot all such ideals, caring nothing from what practices and way of life a man turns to politics, but honouring him if only he says that he loves the people! – It is a noble polity, indeed! he said. – These and qualities akin to these democracy would exhibit, and it would, it seems, be a delightful form of government, anarchic and motley [anarkhos kai poikile], assigning a kind of equality indiscriminately to equals and unequals alike!


Excerpted from "The Politics of Deconstruction"
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Copyright © 2007 Martin McQuillan.
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Table of Contents

Introduction. The Day After Tomorrow Or, the Deconstruction of the Future, by Martin McQuillan
1. Demo, by Geoffrey Bennington - Emroy University
2. On the Multiple Senses of Democracy, by Jean-Luc Nancy - University of Strasbourg
3. The Art of the Impossible?, by Derek Attridge - University of York
4. Impossible Speech Acts, by Andrew Parker - Amherst College
5. The Crisis of Critique, by Robert Bernasconi - Memphis University
6. The Popularity of Language: Rousseau and the Mother Tongue, by Anne

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