Explaining Derrida with Diagrams 2: Messianicity without messianism

Derrida's key thoughts explained for non-philosophers, with the help of diagrams

In a previous post I introduced the very idea of Diagramming Derrida before explaining his notion of différance diagrammatically. In this post I set out to tackle the idea of “messianicity without messianism” and, more generally, Derrida’s characteristic motif of “x without x”, for example “religion without religion” or “God without God”.

Messianism as Derrida understands it can be either religious or secular. His main religious reference is Jewish messianism, the hope for the future appearing of God’s anointed who will bring justice and peace on earth and who will restore the fortunes of God’s people. The present is lived in expectation of the future time when messianic prophecy will be fulfilled.
Derrida, Jewish MessianismThe primary secular messianism, as far as Derrida is concerned, is to be found in Marx’s philosophy of history, according to which the inevitable proletarian revolution will bring about, after a period of the dictatorship of the proletariat, a classless society of justice and peace. As in the case of Jewish messianism, the present is lived in confident expectation of the inevitable future overturning of fortunes.

Derrida, Marxian or Marxist Messianism

Both these messianisms have a determinate content: we know what will happen to bring justice and peace (the coming of Yahweh’s Messiah or the overthrow of the capitalist system by a proletarian revolution). But in terms of his own thinking what Derrida offers is not this or that determinate messianism but what he sometimes calls “messianicity without messianism,” or “structural messianism” or again a messianism “which I regard as a universal structure of experience, and which cannot be reduced to religious messianism of any stripe” (‘Marx and Sons’, 248). He seeks to maintain the expectation of a future overturning of the status quo (= “messianicity”) without ascribing that change to any determinate agent (= “without messianism”).

Derrida, Messianicity without Messianism

Derrida retains the structure of the promise of something to come, an “endless promise” (‘This Strange Institution Called Literature’, 38) in that it can never be co-opted or reduced to any particular determinate content. What will come is not any named Messiah but “the most irreducibly heterogeneous otherness” (‘Marx and Sons’, 249) which means that whatever it is it that comes, it will certainly not be what, or who, we are expecting. As for the transformation that this advent will bring about, Derrida describes it as the “democracy to come,” by which he does not mean the linear prolongation into the future of contemporary systems of parliamentary and representative democracy, but a disruptive, non-linear “event” which is unforeseeable and unexpected:

The event must also announce itself as im-possible; it must thus announce itself without calling in advance, without forewarning, announcing itself without announcing itself, without any horizon of expectation, any telos, formation, form, or teleological preformation. Whence its always monstrous, unpresentable character, demonstrable as un-monstrable. (Rogues, 144)

This figure of the monstrous parallels Derrida’s insistence on the justice that exceeds all calculable law. If we could predict what is to come then it would no longer be radically other to what already exists but an event within the current horizon of expectation, and it is this calculable predictability of the future that Derrida wants to avoid at all costs: “A future that would not be monstrous would not be a future; it would already be a predictable, calculable, and programmable tomorrow” (Positions, 387). What Derrida is seeking to do here is retain certain formal, structural features of theological messianism while evacuating it of its determinant content. This does not mean, though, that the democracy to come is radically unknown and that, to put it crudely, it could be anything. Derrida does specify that the democracy to come will bring about the impossible concurrent realisation of absolute freedom (and singularity) and absolute equality (and equivalence). Freedom and equality are both necessary for democracy, but also contradictory because equality demands that people be thought of as equivalent, and freedom that they be thought of as singular.

The evocation of freedom and equality means that, though the advent of the democracy to come will be monstrous, it is not radically indeterminate. If another Hitler-like figure were to come, for example, with a National Socialist ideology of Aryan supremacy, Derrida would have no hesitation at all in affirming that the figure is not that for which he was waiting. The “to come” will surprise our expectations, but it will not surprise the deconstructive expectation of surprise.

So what, then, are we to make of this absolute freedom and equality? Have we caught Derrida smuggling some determinacy back into his supposedly indeterminate ethics and politics? Is the universal democracy-to-come in fact a badly disguised reworking of the freedom and equality of French republicanism? Some have certainly thought so, arguing that if the monstrous to-come is truly other and unpredictable then it must be possible for it to be evil and despotic just as much as benevolent and benign, and “what I welcome as a vital chance may turn out to be a lethal threat.”[1] Derrida does have a response to such criticism, however. Take the example of Hitler again: his ideology relies upon a series of determinations, divisions and categories: Jew and Gentile: Aryan and non-Aryan, and so on, and therefore it sets itself up directly against the indeterminacy which Derrida is seeking to place at the heart of his ethics and politics. The absolute freedom and absolute equality of which Derrida speaks, by contrast, introduce no rigid distinctions between different groups of people (or, as some of his later work explores, no fixed and rigid distinctions between humans and “non-human” animals either) and so it could be argued that it enacts, on the level of political content, the ontological openness which Derrida prizes. All are to be equal without distinction; all are to be free without exception. Of all possible political systems, it could be argued, the democracy to come is the least determinate and prescriptive.


[1] Martin Hägglund, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008) 31.

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Explaining Derrida with Diagrams 1: Différance

Derrida's key thoughts explained for non-philosophers, with the help of diagrams

I’m writing a little book on Derrida which is intended to be accessible to non-philosophers, and one of the challenges is to explain Derrida’s thought both faithfully and clearly. I have decided to use diagrams as one way of helping readers to grasp what Derrida is saying and, equally importantly, what he isn’t saying. I am aware that there are both advantages and disadvantages to diagramming a thinker like Derrida, the disadvantages lying not least in the way that diagrams force a spatializating paradigm on ideas and privilege their expression in terms of relations between distinct territories on a static, two-dimensional surface. Nevertheless, I am convinced that, on balance, the approach will help more people to understand more of Derrida than would otherwise be the case.

In this series of posts I want to share a number of these diagrams, both in the hope that readers of these posts might find them helpful in grappling with Derrida’s thought, and also in the hope of receiving readerly feedback to help me refine them further.

In this post I will introduce the diagrams I use to explain what Derrida does not mean by différance (and, in the final diagram, what he does mean).

Let’s back up and start with the relation between speech and writing. In the traditional Western understanding (most saliently for Derrida: Plato, Rousseau, Saussure), the meaning of speech is immediate and present, whereas the meaning of writing is distant and imperfect. We can represent this hierarchy by situating speech to the left of writing (i.e. before it, if we read from left to right) and above writing (i.e. privileged over it).

Derrida has sometimes wrongly been understood simply to be reversing the hierarchy between the two terms, putting writing in a place of privilege over speech. Such a reversal would, to be sure, change the content of the hierarchy, but it would do nothing to challenge or disrupt the hierarchical structure itself: there would still be a privileged and underprivileged term which would need deconstructing.

So Derrida does not simply privilege writing over speech. Nor, to take things a stage further, does he merely deny any difference whatsoever between the two terms, as if “speech” and “writing” could be used interchangeably:

What Derrida claims instead is that “différance” (a term I shall explain at the end of this post) is a condition of both of speech and writing (in other words: they couldn’t exist without it), but not in the sense of being something outside, anterior or separate from them, so this next diagram is still a misunderstanding of Derridean différance:

Différance does not precede the elements of the opposition it makes possible; it is their mode of existence, just as in traditional Western metaphysics presence itself does not precede that which is present but is rather the way in which things appear to an all-knowing consciousness: things are completely present to a God-like consciousness, without any shadows or ambiguities. It is important for us to grasp, therefore, that différance is not a thing in itself, as Derrida is at pains to stress:

What we note as différance will thus be the movement of play that “produces” (and not by something that is simply an activity) these differences, these effects of difference. This does not mean that the différance which produces differences is before them in a simple and in itself unmodified and indifferent present. Différance is the nonfull, nonsimple “origin”; it is the structured and differing origin of differences. (Speech and Phenomena, 141)

It is also important to grasp one further nuance. For traditional metaphysics, presence is how everything exists: whatever exists exists in so far as it can be immediately present to my consciousness. In the same way, différance for Derrida is the condition of possibility of my experiencing anything at all. We could think of presence and différance as the contrast not between two things but between two adverbs: according to traditional Western metaphysics, truth and meaning exist “presently,” but according to Derrida they exist “différantly.” Différance is not what there is, but how everything is:

A further point to make about this final diagram is that we do not first of all experience empty différance and then fill it with speech and writing (any more than, on the traditional view, we first experience empty presence and then fill it with things that are present). The condition of différance is retrojected from our experience of things that exist “différantly”.

So then, for Derrida everything that exists exists “différantly.” Jolly good. But what is différance? It is the condition of being according to which “there is no experience of pure presence, but only chains of differential marks” (Limited Inc, 10). Derrida coins the neologism différance to indicate that “presence” is always different from itself and deferred with relation to itself. Nothing is ever fully and exhaustively present, as if we had a God’s-eye view or a God’s-mind understanding of it, in other words as if we could see or understand it perfetly and exhaustively. Everything always has a shadow side, more to discover, an excess over and above what we can grasp of it. Derrida is not claiming, please note, that everything is always absolutely absent from our consciousness, or that we can never know or discern anything in the world in a way that is adequate for many purposes. Nor is he claiming that the objects of our experience have no meaning at all. He is claiming that everything that exists exists différantly.

The French verb différer can mean both “to differ” and “to defer,” and by changing the usual spelling of différence to différance Derrida introduces a distinction that is only discernible in writing (for the two spellings are pronounced identically). This is a challenge to the traditional Western idea that meaning is always completely present in speech but dislocated and distant in writing: in this case the nuance is only discernible in the written form. Elsewhere, Derrida calls différance an “arche-writing” (from the Greek arche, meaning “beginning” or “origin”, French: archi-écriture), the condition of non-self-presence from which both speech and writing are derived. Arche-writing is not the same as writing as opposed to speech, and différance is not the same as difference as opposed to identity; arche-writing is the condition of possibility both of speech and writing (in other words it makes them both possible in the first place), and différance is the condition of possibility both of difference and identity.

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