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New Texts Out Now: Elisabeth Weber, Living Together: Jacques Derrida's Communities of Violence and Peace
Elisabeth Weber, editor, Living Together: Jacques Derrida’s Communities of Violence and Peace. New York: Fordham University Press, 2012.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this collection?
Elisabeth Weber (EW): The volume was conceived after the conference I organized with my colleague Thomas Carlson in October 2003 at the University of California at Santa Barbara, on “Irreconcilable Differences? Jacques Derrida and the Question of Religion.” The conference turned out to be Jacques Derrida’s last public appearance in the United States. The collection of essays is grouped around Derrida’s keynote address, “Avowing—The Impossible: ‘Returns,’ Repentance and Reconciliation,” which was first presented in French in 1998. Its English translation, by Gil Anidjar, appears here for the first time.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
EW: Derrida’s essay deals intensely with the question of “vivre ensemble”/ “living together” and is dedicated to a very significant degree to the question of living together in Israel/Palestine. Derrida’s main argument is that the substantive “ensemble” (whole, totality) makes any adverbial “ensemble” (together) impossible, and that the adverbial “ensemble” is always the first contestation of the substantive “ensemble.” I invited scholars from a variety of fields to take Derrida’s text as a point of departure for their own essays. The collection includes essays by scholars in religious studies, Middle East studies, philosophy, literature, and law who work at universities and as lawyers/activists in Canada, the United States, Israel, and Egypt. The essays offer analyses inspired by Jacques Derrida’s oeuvre, in particular the keynote, and focus on concepts/experiences such as the stranger, forgiveness, hospitality, religion, and torture. Some of the essays also delve into contemporary conflicts in specific geographic areas (including India, Israel/Palestine, South Africa, Turkey, and the US).
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?
EW: My work focuses on the philosophical reflection on and literary representation of human rights violations. In particular, I have worked on French and German writers, philosophers, and psychoanalysts who wrote in the aftermath of the annihilation of the European Jews by Nazi Germany.
Most recently, I have edited, together with Julie Carlson, a collection entitled Speaking about Torture, also published recently by Fordham University Press. That volume takes up the issue of torture from the array of approaches offered by the arts and humanities and challenges the appalingly widespread acceptance of state-sanctioned torture among Americans, including academics and the media entertainment complex.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
EW: The book is, I believe, of great significance to the fields of critical theory in general and deconstruction in particular, as well as religious studies, Middle East studies, and also, to a certain degree, critical legal studies. To my knowledge, there are currently no comparable collections on the market. I believe that this is the first collection on Derrida’s thinking that includes what could be called “case studies on the ground”: concretely, how to translate Derrida’s thinking on “living together” in areas of intense political/ethnic conflict. Examples for this are provided by the Palestinian Israeli civil rights lawyer Raef Zreik; by Richard Falk, the UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur for the Occupied Palestinian Territories and professor of international law;, by Joseph Massads’s text on the invention of “semitism” and “anti-semitism”: by Priya Kumar’s analysis of the “production of the Muslim as a stranger” in both V. D. Savarkar’s Hindu nationalist text Hindutva (1923) and an emblematic secular nationalist text, Jawaharlal Nehru’s magnum opus The Discovery of India (1946); and by Marc Nichanian’s analysis of the South African “Truth and Reconciliation” commissions. Other essays in the book also address concrete situations of the difficulty of “living together.” To name one additional example: Is “living-together” still possible when torture is a state-approved method of warfare?
J: What other projects are you working on now?
EW: I am working on an essay dealing with poems written on and in the Guantánamo Bay Prison Camp, especially the collection Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, which was published in 2007 by Marc Falkoff, one of the pro bono lawyers representing detainees in the prison camp.
Excerpt from Living Together: Jacques Derrida’s Communities of Violence and Peace
From Elisabeth Weber, “Introduction: Pleading Irreconcilable Differences”
For Jacques Derrida, the notions and experiences of “community,” “living,” “together,” never ceased to harbor radical, in fact infinite interrogations. The often anguished question of how to “live together” moved Derrida throughout his life and career, animating a host of concepts, most evidently perhaps in the writings on hospitality, “auto-immunity,” in all the essays on law, right(s), and justice. Derrida reflected as well, in instances too many to recount, on the folds, difficulties, and aporias of the concept and the experience of responsibility. The “deconstructive unfolding of the tension between justice and law,” Christoph Menke succinctly comments, occurs “in the name of an experience that no political stance can capture, but that nevertheless affects any politics as its border, and therefore as its interruption.”
During his opening address of the 1989 colloquium “Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice” at Cardozo Law School, Derrida famously asserted: “Deconstruction is justice.” This provocative assertion, sharply giving the lie to decades-old criticism of deconstruction as an aestheticizing, apolitical, or ahistorical exercise, recapitulated the stakes of an infinite task and responsibility that, in spite of and because of its infinity, cannot be relegated to tomorrow. “Justice, however unpresentable it remains, does not wait. It is that which must not wait.” It is in the spirit of such urgency, of a responsibility that cannot be postponed, that Jacques Derrida was an active and outspoken critic and commentator on issues such as South Africa’s apartheid, the Israel/Palestine conflict, the bloody civil war in his native Algeria, human rights abuses, French immigration laws, the death penalty, and on what Richard Falk has termed “the great terror war.”
Derrida’s oeuvre as philosopher is inseparable from these interventions. In 1997, in response to an invitation to “define, briefly, what an intellectual is for you today,” Derrida noted that “never has the task of defining the intellectual rigorously seemed so impossible to me as it does today.” He goes on to name several problematic assumptions on which such a definition depends: It assumes first that the “right to speech and writing, in the name of justice, should be claimed, assigned, reserved, and specialized” in the name of presumed “rhetorical skills”; it assumes, second, “a division between the private and the political event” and a “particular configuration of the places of public speaking”; and third, “a division of labor between the intellectual and the nonintellectual.” Derrida deduces that “now and in the future it would be a betrayal” of a recognized intellectual’s “mission” to “write or speak in public, or be an activist in general,” without questioning these assumptions that present themselves as “a matter of course,” and without “seeking to associate with those who are deprived of this right to speech and writing, or without demanding it for them, whether directly or not. Whence the necessity of writing in different tones—of changing the codes, the rhythms, the theater, and the music.” At the same time, Derrida insists “on the responsibilities, rights and powers that I am still recognized as having under the title of ‘intellectual,’” to be “at the service both of those ‘without a voice’ and of that which is approaching and offered for ‘thinking’—which is always, in a different way, ‘without a voice,’” especially considering that “the ‘intellectual’ (the writer, the artist, the journalist, the philosopher) is the victim, all over the world, of persecutions today that are new and concentrated.” The intellectual’s task is that of an “inventive engagement,” that is, a “transaction that suspends the safe horizons and criteria, the existing norms and rules,” in order to “analyze, to criticize, to deconstruct them…yet without ever leaving the space empty, in other words open to the straightforward return of any power, investment, language, and so on.” Such “invention or proposal of new conceptual, normative, or criteriological figures, according to new singularities” can never “lose sight of the macrodimensional—which is not reducible to what is put out about it in dogmatic ideas of globalization.” The examples Derrida goes on to name are infinite in their scope:
"1. The hundreds of millions of illiterate people; the massive scale of malnutrition, rarely taken into account by the media champions of human rights; the tens of millions of children who die every year because of water; the forty to fifty percent of women who are subject to violence, and often life-threatening violence, all the time—and so on. The list would be endless;
2. The way that capitalist powers are concentrated into transnational and cross-state monopolies in the appropriation of the media, multimedia, and productions of the tele-technologies and even the languages that they use."
I quote this text at length because it shows how for Derrida the presumed microdimensional (such as the unwavering attention to “new singularities”) is always intricately connected to the “macrodimensional”; how community cannot but be at the very heart of the “inventive engagement” of the intellectual, an inventive engagement to which Derrida’s entire oeuvre gives powerful testimony. That Derrida almost never uses the word “community” only adds to the challenge of thinking that engagement, that testimony. Commenting on the attacks perpetrated on 11 September 2001, as well as on state-sponsored violence in its variety of forms, Derrida asserts in the dialogue with Giovanna Borradori that “if intellectuals, writers, scholars, professors, artists, and journalists do not, before all else, stand up together against such violence, their abdication will be at once irresponsible and suicidal.”
In Richard Beardsworth’s succinct formulation, Derrida’s “negotiations with the western tradition,” rather than “betraying a reduction of political possibility—a retreat onto the margins of the political community at the ‘closure’ of metaphysics—amount to an active transformation of the political field.” Derrida’s “inventive” thought contributes to the necessary “reinvention” of political thought and practice, caught—and paralyzed—“in the increasing tension between internationalization and virtualization, on the one hand, and territorial difference and the corporal realities of human life, on the other.” As Pheng Cheah and Suzanne Guerlac note in the introduction to their collection, Derrida and the Time of the Political,
“Deconstruction can itself be considered an event and an activity insofar as it brings about a confrontation between philosophemes and categories of knowledge and decisive mutations in the world, causing an interruption of the former by the latter in order to force a mutation in thought so that it can be adequate to the task of thinking these important shifts, instead of being outstripped and rendered irrelevant or effete by them.”
The present collection might be described as a series of “inventive engagements” with the question of how to live together in a world in which the de-localizing and uprooting forces evoked by the term “globalization” and embodied or transmitted by increasingly complex and ambivalently de-materialized networks (technological, economic, cultural) threaten boundaries of place and time and hence, the integrity and the safety of homes and lands, communities and traditions, languages and cultures, bodies both literal and figurative. Through all of these, globalization renders ever more fragile the possibility (and meaning) of “life” and “together.” The violence that dominates international politics makes it clear that any productive reflection on what might appear as irreconcilable differences needs to go beyond the assertions of ecumenism and mutual understanding. The wounds of irreconcilable differences, in other words, need to be addressed as well as the enduring conditions under which such wounds can and do continue to be inflicted. The success of just and peaceful settlements of today’s conflicts may well depend on the conviction that irreconcilable differences are not a dead end from which only violence can follow. Otherwise, and without the courage to welcome the unreconciled other, our thinking, instruction, and discussion will do little more than repeat the prejudices that already deepen, on all sides, with every explosion.
[Excerpted from Living Together: Jacques Derrida’s Communities of Violence and Peace, edited by Elisabeth Weber, by permission of the editor. Copyright © 2012 by Fordham University Press, Inc. For more information, or to purchase this book, please click here.]
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