Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Reflections on Jacques Derrida, born on this day in 1930.

Founding editor, Posthumanities Series at University of Minnesota Press

On this occasion of what would have been Jacques Derrida’s 84th birthday, it is worth reflecting once more on the resonance of his work for our own moment—a resonance that depends not only on his own remarkable body of writings, of course, but also on the continually changing contexts in which his work is read and reread. As Derrida himself often reminded us, the relationship between text and context is forever shifting, and it confronts us with the qualitative asymmetries and amplitudes of difference that obtain between the individual reader or writer and the manifold complexity of the text itself—its material, political, ethical, and affective dimensions, the historicity of its being written and (re)read.

Nowhere is this dynamic on display more intricately and suggestively than in the occasion of the republication of Derrida’s text Cinders in the Posthumanities series some twenty-seven years after its original appearance in French—a fact that relies in no small part on the unusual nature of the text itself, which has been characterized as a kind of prose poem, by turns beguiling and inviting: here a wisp of smoke, there a burnt fragment, leading the reader to an end that is also a beginning. That beginning, for Derrida, was his experience of being haunted, as he put it, by the phrase il ya a lá cendre (which translates, already a little beguilingly, as “cinders there are”)—a phrase that Derrida circles back to time and again in this text, tracing its first appearance in the front matter of La DissĂ©mination in 1972, and apparitions of the phrase earlier and later (and in different guises) in “Plato’s Pharmacy” (1968), Glas (1974), and The Postcard (1980), among others. Here, Derrida reveals that the cinder is “the best paradigm for the trace,” and “not, as some have believed, and he as well, perhaps, the trail of the hunt, the fraying, the furrow in the sand, the wake in the sea, the love of the step for its imprint.” The attentive reader will already hear in this declaration an anticipation of Derrida’s conjugation of “trace” and “track” in one his last texts, The Animal That Therefore I Am. And after the publication of Cinders, it wouldn’t be long before another important figural and conceptual topos in Derrida’s work—of flame, fire, ashes, and spectrality—would be explored on a much larger canvas, first in Of Sprit: Heidegger and the Question, and a bit later in Specters of Marx.

The weave of ashes, flame, fire, and ghosts that we find in is bound to have an even more profound resonance for us than its original appearance in 1987, not least of all because of the fact of Derrida’s own untimely death nearly ten years ago. In that light, these words (taken from roughly the mid-point of the text) are haunting indeed, as they bear upon and, as it were, personify Derrida’s complex investigations of archive, voice, the technology of writing and inscription, and the living: “He will of course die someday,” Derrida writes; “and, for however brief a time, the little phrase has some chance of surviving him, more a cinder than ever, there, and less than ever without anyone to say `I.’”

But the largest and most far-reaching change of all—one that makes this most writerly and gestural of Derrida’s texts take on a gravitas heretofore unknown—is the accumulation of an increasingly influential body of writings in the intervening decades under the rubric of what has come to be called “biopolitics.” That body of work by Foucault, Agamben, Haraway, Esposito, Sloterdijk, Butler, and many others—to which Derrida would later make his own contribution, of course, in texts such as “Faith and Knowledge” and Rogues—forms a kind of vast echo chamber for Derrida’s mediations on voice, testimony, flame, holocaust, and spectrality in Cinders, which now emerges (as I attempt to elucidate in in my introduction to the text) as a quite unique contribution to the biopolitical literature, even within Derrida’s own corpus.


Cary Wolfe is Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Professor of English at Rice University. In addition to having written the Introduction to Cinders, his books include Zoontologies and What Is Posthumanism?, both from Minnesota.

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