The Privilege of Sharing:

Dead Ends and the Life of Language


Chacun de nous est le mystagogue et  l'Aufklarer d'un autre.

(Each of us is the mystagogue and the enlightener of another.)

Derrida, "D'un ton apocalyptique adopte naguere en philosophie"


Darum darf es weder uberraschen noch verwun-dern, wenn die meisten der Horer sich an dem Vortrag stosen. Ob jedoch einige durch den Vortrag jetzt oder spater in ein weiteres Nach-denken gelangen, lasft sich nicht ausmachen.

(Therefore, we must be neither surprised nor amazed if the majority of the audience objects to the lecture. Whether a few will, now or later, be prompted by the lecture to think further on such matters, cannot be foreseen.)

Heidegger, "Zeit and Sein"


Die Sprach ist wie ein Acker, auf dem das Verschiedenste aufgehen kann.

(Language is like a piece of arable land: the most varied things can come up out of it.)

Gadamer, "Der Weg in die Kehre"



            Derrida says that in our best attempts at thinking and speaking clearly, we inevitably assume the position of a mystagogue: we speak in such a way as to take up a privileged position with regard to a certain universe of discourse – discourse governed by the absence of some fundamental sense-giving experience possessed or intimated by the speaker alone. What a contrast such a provocative statement makes with Gadamer’s advocacy of hermeneutical good faith – with the critical spirit that, while never claiming to be free of all prejudices and hidden agendas, nevertheless strives for ever-increasing honesty about them through dialogue. Gadamer’s goal is shared understanding, conversation that builds up a common language” (DD[1] 106), whereas in Derrida’s “apocalyptic” paradigm language rather appears as land whose ownership is in constant dispute, and where furthermore there are no essential contents of understanding to be shared.

            Gadamer views this apparently skeptical attitude as the result of a one-sided attention to a topic that is also a constant theme of his own studies, namely “the strangeness that arises between one human being and another, always creating new confusion” (DD 106). “But,” he continues, “precisely in this fact lies the possibility of overcoming confusion.” He takes Derrida’s emphasis on the absence of shareable essences as a sign that Derrida is still attacking classical concepts of meaning—concepts which belong within the sphere of dialectics (“as if all speaking consisted merely of propositional judgments”) (DD 112), whereas that sphere has already been transcended in his hermeneutics. There concealment and alienation are understood as part of the being of historical language, and what we share in language is not seen merely as propositional knowledge, but first of all as a form of communal coexistence operating on all levels of experience. In this more comprehensive perspective, the provocation that arises from identifying the will to communication with a will to mystification would be absorbed and disarmed. Then one would have to ask, as a matter of responsibility, the question put to Derrida by Francis Guibal, as to whether


il est possible d’estimer que la pensee de l’ecriture est plus forte dans sa denonciation de nos reves mythiques (plenitude, presence, proximite, vie sans mort , etc.) que dans la creation du nouveau qui nous appelle[2]


            I find something right about Gadamer's criticism when I consider some of the more polemical parts of Derrida's writings, as for example the critique of Heidegger that equates his view of the "subject matter" [Sache] of thought with "thought itself defined as the content of theses".[3] This surely is an oversimplification; the privileged position adopted in Heidegger's discourse is not that of the proposition. But Derrida has shown in his own way just how far beyond the level of theses and propositions we must look in order to appreciate what taking up a position in philosophy really means. And his investigations bear directly on the matter of philosophical responsibility, and the possibility of  being "called" in philosophy. I take the question of privilege Derrida raises to be more than a reminder of the interest-bound character of thinking, and more than a reaction to Idealistic notions of meaning. Granted that we can get along without expressing what we strive to share in terms of conceptual or essential unity, there is still a need for a richer characterization of the most productive alienations and limitations on sharing, on intelligible coexistence, than is possible within the paradigm of dialogue as unidirectional questioning and answering.

            I will try to show how certain features of Derrida's "apocalyptic” paradigm allow for an understanding of alienation and privileged meaning as contributing to the configuration of a larger semiotic field; and I will do this both on the plane of philosophical discourse (part 1) and that of everyday narrative consciousness or existential self-interpretation (part 2). Should this effort be successful, it would follow that figures like Gadamer and Derrida need not be taken as debaters whose case needs to be resolved or amongst whom we must choose sides; for we might come to see them as each playing a role, that is, taking a particular privileged position, within a drama that involves us on more than one level, and as more than just potential contestants. Although their roles are antagonistic, we need not suppose that one is right and the other wrong, or that one has attained a morally superior position. Insofar as we are dealing with a contest, we might still keep in mind Lyotard's maxim: "At the moment of victory one has been imprudent. It is imprudent to win."[4] Therefore, it is appropriate to begin a discussion of privilege with this very debate, or drama, which exemplifies the problem (of sharing) it discusses.




1. Heidegger and the Conversation of the Dead


. . .And then the foolishness of the body will be cleared away and we shall be pure and hold converse with other pure souls. . .

—Plato, Phaedo


1.1 Gadamer's Critique: "The impassable"


            One thing defining the context of this contest seems to be a certain filial regard for Heidegger; he appears both as an authority and as someone to be bested through new insights. Although Gadamer defends Heidegger and his Nietzsche-interpretation (not unsuccessfully) against Derrida's attacks, it seems to me that it is Derrida who is actually closer to Heidegger's philosophical practice, precisely with regard to an instinct for the unique and the privileged in thinking. In explaining this I will begin a sketch of some of the positive limita­tions on the sharing of meaning in philosophy.

            Gadamer's distance from Heidegger is signalled in the essay "Destruktion and Deconstruction" by the repeated assertion that Heidegger, who spoke so dramatically of the path of thinking, strayed into "the impassable" (Unwegsam, DD 104). Gadamer wants to contrast his own path out of dialectic with Heidegger's "adventurous journey into error" that got trapped in "labyrinthian paths" (DD 104). Heidegger's effort to overcome dialectics may have ended in dead ends, but Gadamer asserts that he did pose the question of the meaning of Being in a way that aims at no essence, but only "points in a certain direction for inquiry" (DD 111). My argument will focus on the relationship between this pointing and the labyrinths or dead ends as such, in order to bring out an essential limitation on the language game played by Gadamer vis-a-vis that (or those) played by Heidegger.

            Heidegger's own talk of the dead ends or woodpaths [Holzwege] is alive with dynamic interpretations of this image, and suggests that in philosophy straying from the main public road is hardly a defect. I cannot help associating the image of the many dead ends, the more or less connected woodpaths, with Wittgen­stein's famous image of language as a city built up along different lines and styles in different epochs, and philosophy as a criss-cross journey in which the same points might be re-traversed from different directions.[5] A certain kind of dead end can form the shell or skin of a living thought-process. But Heidegger's "impassability" has at least this obvious sense: his writing is unreadable except to a privileged few. It is a game with its own rules, and it seems that part of the game is figuring out what the rules actually are. Of course, one might say the same thing about many philosophers; but a clear measure of Heidegger's limited (or as I will say presently, multivocal) communi­cative intentions, is given in his own descriptions of what he is doing as some­thing to be engaged in by a very few.

            An extreme expression of this tendency is his statement that Aristotle was, at least with regard to the phenomenon of time, "the last great philosopher who had eyes to see".[6] Taken together with assertions that he is not out to contribute any theories or information, only to share in a certain conversational activity, such statements make Heidegger's relationship to his readers and students (those with whom he wishes to share something) extremely problematic – after all, if past experience is a guide, he would have to wait a few milennia for an equal partner in conversation, that is, someone of the stature of Aristotle and himself! Many a reader has, I am sure, experienced a kind of embarrassing reaction to Heidegger's apocalyptic appeal, to the temptation to picture himself a privileged partner in this millennial conversation, Socrates' conversation of the dead. No such embarrassment attaches to Gadamer’s writing, which is devoted to the public life of language.

            Now the conversation of the dead – the projected context of a meaning that would be privileged to ignore the dialogical constraints imposed by one’s contemporaries is a timeless one: it lacks the tension, ambiguity and desire of the actual situations from which it is abstracted. But is a philosopher’s regard for the timeless (assuming we can speak this way of some aspect of Heidegger’scommunicative intentions) to be taken at face value? Or shouldn’t such a regardbe taken together with the manifold of its accompanying historical concerns so as to see the distinctive temporality it helps constitute? Gadamer says of Heidegger’s conversation with the pre-Socratics,


Although in the end all this was valid enough for the kind of indicative linguistic gesture [fur den Wink der Worte] that would point off into timelessness, it was not really valid for speaking – that is to say, for the kind of self-interpretation that one finds in the early Greek texts. (DD 105)

To conclude that in the end the author of Being and Time was looking only at the timeless is a grave indictment. Here it seems to me that Gadamer's indictment suffers from the same dialectical (cf. DD 108-11) one-sidedness he attributes (perhaps partly correctly, as I said) to Derrida.

            Clearly Gadamer does not read Heidegger as if he were just presenting theses. On the contrary, his discussion extends to the most sensuous aspects ofHeidegger's language.[7] Nevertheless he reads him univocally, from the point ofview which aims at "a common thought" [gemeinsam Gedachte], whereasHeidegger's text is woven of a multitude of voices and roles with differentfunctions.[8] Heidegger may have pursued a "single thought," as he sometimessaid, but the single-mindedness of this pursuit is expressed through the masteryof a great variety of means, which we will consider presently. Thus, not only apropositional reading but even a dialogical reading in the most subtle sense seems to me to be too restrictive an approach to let us take account of thisvariety, which we wou.d have to do in order to assess the place and significanceof the paths that end with a wink at the timeless. I would start instead from a narrative paradigm, not only because it offers hope of understanding the kind ofcomplex play with time that can make use of a timeless gaze,[9] but also because it is helpful for dealing with the cosmic story of the “History of Being”, well as the self-presenting hermeneutic of Dasein whose autobiography is always at issue.

1.2 Philosophical Autonomy and the Narrative Paradigm


…but the philosopher, even when by himself, can contemplate truth, and the better the wiser he is; he can perhaps do so better if he has fellow workers, but still he is the most self-sufficient.

—Aristotle, Nichomachaen Ethics


            Consider Gadamer's domestication of Heidegger's wild story in the essay "Heidegger and the History of Philosophy":

Heidegger's attempt to think through the history of philosophy exhibits the violence of a thinker who is driven by his own questions and who seeks to recognize himself in everything. Thus his "destruction" of metaphysics becomes a kind of wrestling-match with the power of this tradition of thought.[10]

Heidegger's apparent self-absorption, his involvement, as we might say, with his own immortality (or again with the character of his ultimate dead end), occurs within a semiotic space, or involves the playing of a certain language game, into which Gadamer is not inclined to venture or participate, because in granting himself a uniquely privileged position in his story, Heidegger introduces the most extreme limitations into language with regard to its conceptual development through public discussion. But this is just the aspect that becomes so interesting from the "apocalyptic" perspective.

            Although Heidegger was indeed concerned with dialogue and the phenomenon of answering which, as Gadamer insists, "makes a word into a word' (DD 106), he was not ultimately concerned with it in a general way.[11] He rather aims at a certain peculiarly transformed "answering" which, although rooted in traditional philosophical and religious practices, would gain its full sense only in relation to a historical form of existence quite different from the ones we actually know. Thus his text reserves a privileged place for this implicit intimation, first approached in terms of the "call of conscience" and being-guilty, later through poetic receptivity, through a sense of actively relaxed waiting, and a variety of other "dead ends." In the context of cultural criticism, it may be hard to accord such language a place on a par with language that has the definiteness and generality of hermeneutics or ethics. But I think this is because the privileged aspect of the text is not seen as an inner articulation of its narrative configuration; instead it is either discarded, in order to focus on the more analytical modes of the text, or it is embraced as the "meaning" of the text. It seems to me rather that this type of suggestive language-play is an important component of the great philosophical texts. Derrida recognizes the need to study this component in all its intratextual effects: he thematizes this kind of imagination as the fundamental appeal of all apocalyptic speakers, and refers to it as "Viens," the originless imperative "Come!”[12]

            In order to designate such language involved i yet remaining preliminary to the circumstances of its fulfillment, I shall use the old word protreptic. In Aristotle's Metaphysics, for example, autonomy is symbolized by the self-thinking of God; but it is grounded in the protreptic forceexercised by the Greek philosophers on their contemporaries, through channels long since developed by storytellers and orators. In the modern era, the sense of autonomy is bound up with epistemology; protreptic language gets supplanted by transcendental description. Heidegger was one of those who tried to revive the sense of autonomy without resorting to that kind of crutch or faćade. We know from Heidegger's discussion of Ereignis – the event which "only occurs in the singular"[13] that Heidegger's protreptic projection of ideal answering is indeed involved with the "timeless" and with the ineffable; but the voice of this answering is itself installed in Heidegger's larger, temporal narrative. And he does this not just in order to develop the "speculative, dual unity playing between the said and the unsaid" (DD 111), important as that dynamic may be. For the unification or gathering effected by das Ereignis is not just speculative but narrative, in the broad sense of a context that can make an event appropriate; the role played by the privileged aspect of the text is not simply a dialogical one: it rather enacts the peculiar autonomy of philosophical meaning.

            The result, as has often been remarked, is almost embarrassingly indefinite. To the extent that the peculiar autonomous answering invoked by the Heideggerian text is cut loose from the behavior of particular persons at different identifiable moments, it seems to tend in the direction of Derrida's apocalyptic "addresses without message and without destination, without sender or decidable addressee" (ATRAP 94), divorced, as I think Gadamer might say, from the responsibility of existential self-interpretation. Such being cut loose might be understood in a traditional manner as the "absolution" of particular subjectivity by the universal – an aspect that Gadamer too wants to preserve in his own way as the "uber-sich-hinaus-sein" which is "Gesprach-sein”, according to the logic of question and answer. But prior to either the Idealistic transcendence of subjectivity or the hermeneutical incorporation of individuality in the spirit of conversation is the apocalyptic dimension of the absolutely authoritative voice that establishes a narrative field on the ground of a radical alterity, a cognitive-emotional dissonance that first brings into the view the limitations that would be overcome in the drama of autonomy, and marks in advance the privilege to be enjoyed.

            This recalls Derrida’s point that even when the authoritative voice masquerades as the voice of Reason, it can never be made into a communal property, but retains something of the prophetic stance and the intentional

asymmetry of its basic situations (ATRAP 66ff). Its utterance is a shock, a blow, a transforming gesture rooted in the radical incommensurability of differing standpoints. This alterity is essential to protreptic discourse. It may always be possible to accommodate the altenty of the authorative voice within a subtle understanding of how conversation takes us out beyond ourselves, feeding on the creative spark struck in an Auseinandersetatng with a partner in dialogue. This type of description is true to our experience of dialogue from the point of view of a unifying emergent meaning. But it seems to me that this accommodation must always compromise the narrative closure through which the effect of autonomy is produced, to the extent that it does not allow for irreducibly unequal as well as potentially equal linguistic positions; it does not see a semiotic field constituted by the former as well as the latter.

            What is meant by "closure" here? Although the closure that establishes the absolute authority of a voice is easiest to represent as a projected temporal limit (as in the most literal understanding of apocalyptic discourse, which precludes an open-ended interpretive life), it would be better expressed as an internal limit, a rupture or fold, relating a protreptic meaning (which aims at a temporal opening) to one that is descriptive and final. Unequal linguistic positions are configured by this fold. The fold precludes a simultaneous view of its inner and outer surfaces, that is, the view presented by a synoptic theoretical account. It requires that one should act, should take up a definite position within the narrative field, in order from that situation and mood to authorize one of its dramatic movements.[14]

            Now consider this "folded" relationship between new and old, radical alterity and existential self-interpretation, in Heidegger's texts. There we find the apparatus for a hermeneutical identification of new and old (as in the slogan "Origin comes to meet us out of the future"), which can be spelled out in Gadamerian terms; but what happens when we try to apply this to the problematic case of Heidegger's own teaching? We find, again, that his text works on many levels. . . . Unquestionably he has given us much that is new to read in the old texts of Aristotle, Kant, and others. And these new readings are in the service   of  a   new-old   or   neoclassical   attitude   towards   the   practice   of philosophy – a  restoration of the protreptic dimension so threatened by the institutionalization of philosophy and the adoption of the paradigm of scientific research. But it is just this dimension the "existential" dimension (with its religious, and specifically Kierkegaardian heritage) – that opens up the radicalnovelty, the disparity of intentions and the heterogeneity of linguistic functions, that convolute the philosophic text and demand we walk its dead end streets. This dimension is attained through insight into the “facticity” of life and the "mineness" of human meaning and experience (e.g. the insight into the paradox of the philosopher, who seems to try to do for everyone precisely that which each can only do for himself); these in turn point to the general question of privilege, which goes beyond that of subjectivity.

            The role of the private voice, thought thinking itself, the vision transcending language due to its uniqueness and particularity, is one among the other roles in

the multilevelled language game of philosophy. Gadamer refers to it succinctly in

the formula of Romanticism: 'Individuum est ineffabile".[15] From this "ineffability" the most significant consequences have been held to flow. And language play

that incorporates this role must, as I said, be a temporal structure in which the "timeless" moment has its privileged place. So the reader of Heidegger must in the course of a single reading play the roles of philologist, existential hero, conceptual analyst, cultural critic, poet and mystic, in order to
fulfill the different moments of the text. He or she is supposed to identify with
both the narrational and narrated aspects of the story of The History of Being; to
actualize the virtual text through reading and rereading — to fill in presuppositions and contextuality for all those parts of the text that are referentially under-
determined. Consequently, the reader must negotiate a position for himself
somewhere between or including the embarrassing position of millennial
thinker, who would have his own place in the story (being a mouthpiece for
Being), and that of a mere reader seeking to be well-informed about philosophy
(a position rendered nearly senseless by Heidegger's text). Everything depends
on the reader's willingness to listen, from a stance defined with respect to the
text, for the silent voice of "presencing," that is, for the intelligibility of his
present situation within the widest and most authoritative narrative field: the
story of his life and world. Thus the outcome of Heidegger's story is dependent
on a kind of private meditation or bearings-taking on the reader's part, marked
out nonetheless in a public manner as privileged understanding.

            Such a text certainly depends on much interpretive good will or faith. In fact
someone might say that language such as I have been describing has too much in
common with faith and too little in common with philosophy. But I see this
moment of faith as only one pole of a narrative field within which we are
involved, that is, we do want to do justice to the protreptic seriousness that lies
behind the embarrassment of philosophy, and at the same time we have to put
this seriousness in a playful perspective, to relate it to the current movements of
society and culture, and so forth. The text is a place where I practice all these
different actions, including the most decisive.

            So I understand Derrida's apocalyptic paradigm, which I have been applying to Heidegger, as a textual structure deployed through a multiplicity of dramatic moments or roles.[16] The "dead ends” represented in different momentseach mark out possibilities of fulfillment by the creative reader – fulfillment that
effects an internal rupture in the text, but which nevertheless contributes to the 
economy of the narrative whole.[17] The text is “open”,[18] not only because it offers a range of interpretive choices or because of its key terms that function with the indeterminacy of symbols, but also because of an internal heterogeneity obtaining between these different readerly enactments, characterized by different kinds and degrees of privilege. Nevertheless it is also "closed," and closable, just in the sense that corresponds to the authority — one could even say truth — of language that is actualized by a free decision to take up a privileged position within it.

            In the remaining space I would like to argue that the creative achievements of the ideal reader to whom I have just alluded are nothing extraordinary when taken in a context that is not just dialogical, but one of human sharing in its broadest dimensions. From such a perspective, a perspective that allows for the coexistence of incommensurable standpoints and for a sharing based on absence, we can see the hermeneutical good will as operating not just in a "living medium" of language, but in a space in which the "living" and the "dead" aspects of language cooperate. This cooperation permeates every human life.

2. Death in the Life of Language


Pour entrer en rapport avec l'autre, il faut que l'interruption soit possible; il faut que le rapport soit un rapport d'interruption. Et, l'interruption, ici, n 'interrompt pas le rapport a l'autre, elle ouvre le rapport a l'autre.

—Derrida,  Alterites

2.1 An Example of Meaning Which Is Both Shared and Privileged

            Let's return to the general notion of shared meaning, and those natural limitations upon it that might complicate the structure of philosophic texts for the hermeneutical approach. At this point, I want to move away from the example of Heidegger's text, in order to focus on a more common kind of anthropological reality shaped by privilege and incommensurability, and in so doing to recall the ordinary application of the notion of privilege: although "privileged meaning” may have seemed to imply a meaning restricted to one person, it more naturally pertains to that shared by a restricted group. In order to develop certain analogies with the preceding analysis, I will limit my discussion to the case of privileged meaning which is shared by only two persons – ones who have said to each other, "till death do us part."

            Such persons are the privileged tellers, listeners to, and characters in a unique narrative. This narrative is not private, but they are its privileged interpreters. That is to say, there is one interpretive stance toward the story that can only be adopted by the "characters" themselves, in spite of the fact that the narrative is open to (and may well be affected by) other interpretations. For a necessary ingredient or sub-plot of this story is its continual (re)interpretation and the fluctuating state of harmony between the two privileged interpreters.
They say "how it's going," and what they say – or the speech-acts they perform
by so saying – partly constitutes that which is being interpreted (the marital

            The "meaning" of such a narrative is of course inseparable from its being

lived – and "being lived" here is far less precise than saying the narrative is
coextensive with a living-together, a "dwelling"
(full of subtleties such as Heidegger has urged us to investigate in this
phenomenon). Dwelling is a concept that transcends all metaphysical
questions of identity and embodiment because its ground is not in the "substance” of consciousness but in the dramatic,
narrative coherence of the day-to-day events with which consciousness finds itself involved. To share an understanding of some linguistic elements in the creative dwelling process (i.e the verbal self-interpretations) of a marital story is not fundamentally different from sharing the use and experience of other of its private elements, like a bed or a dinner table. Therefore what I am calling narrative here, the understanding of a process of coexistence articulated within that coexistence and organizing it in turn, is a shared framework of meaning, a truly common language; and yet it is one that is shaped all around by exclusiveness and reliance on privilege. Nor is this common language to be viewed as a mere code that could be broken: its privilege is manifest through the necessity of being in the story, not of knowing its structure objectively.

            All of this only serves, so far, to emphasize that in shared meaning the universally intelligible components may not be what is significant – somthing that can come as no surpiise to the finite historical perspective of hermeneutics. But now let me turn to the further mark of the narrative I have chosen to examine, namely, that it is signed by the parting of death. Here I see more than a dialogical meaning; I see an involution of the narrative field analogous to that brought about by Heideggerian dead ends.

            The ritual formula of marriage in which death is inscribed can indicate some thing deeper than fidelity. It can indicate a certain absolute priority of the marital narrative over others with which it is implicated (or other language games that each person plays). The dialogical partners here are not only joined temporarily for an event of common self-interpretation (as happens in any good dialogue), they become permanently indispensable for each other's self Interpretation in a basic way: the story of X becomes part of the story of X and Y and all other stories about X or Y properly belong to the story of X/Y. The sign of death indicates heie, as it often does in philosophy, a certain sell-sufficiency or autonomy – in the language of Being and Time, a Ganzseinkonnen or capacity for being a whole, which is experienced both emotionally and reflectlively.

            And yet this sign speaks of parting, thus indirectly of the mysterious disparity between the kind of whole that depends on sharing, on being-together, and the kind of whole that excludes it . . . it speaks therefore of the way these incommensurable realities are folded together. If I am justified in seeing more than a predictive or contractual meaning in the formula "till death do us part," more than a knowledge of the fact that humans die combined with an expectation of fidelity—if the formula is rather to be taken as a sign of a kind of narrative sensibility shaped by (not mere knowledge about but) being mortal — then its interpretation requires something like the apocalyptic paradigm as it was applied to Heidegger. Just as the philosophical narrative allows the reader to take up different positions while yet being bound by the privileged character of one of them, so we can only do justice to the inevitable rupture in the shared marital narrative by seeing the interweaving of both its final and open, dead and living aspects.

            The disruption of death entails an asymmetrical dispersal of roles across the narrative field, which is nevertheless dramatically unified through what I would suggest is the protreptic character of this asymmetry itself. Here death is not merely a metaphor for all bygones, as Gadamer suggests in his critique of Heidegger's protreptic conception of "being-towards-death" ("Der Weg in die Kehre," p. 109); nor is it just the projection of a futural limit (even one which brings out the "thatness" of existence in a special way) ... for in the course of time this parting does occur within the experience of the partner who lives on — who lives, that is, still within the privileged narrative framework, in spite of being aware that it is finished in a most obvious way. In this case the connection between being-towards-death and the death of an other is by no means comprehended merely analogically: neither the thought that "this will happen to me too," nor the symbolic installation of the departed in an order to which I too belong, touches upon the peculiar autonomy of meaning that is generated by this ultimate deferral.[19] Anyone whose life story has been disrupted in this way knows something about conversing with the dead, and the strange privilege it confers.[20] The ambiguity attaching to the living self-interpretation has been, in a certain sense, removed (although interpretation continues to move, like the Aristotelian idealization, in a circular path).

            My claim is that it is appropriate to see this interpretive closure as already marking the living marital narrative that precedes it, in accordance with what I have said regarding involution. This basic mode of human sharing depends on the narrative encompassing of privileged voices within a space unified by a protreptic call — by the sense of autonomy, that is, which is generated by this very privilege; by the heterogeneity and alterity of narrative dead ends. I offer the "completed" marital narrative as an example of involution not on the basis of the ritual formula alone, but because the magical binding-together of heterogeneous sense, which is both theme and substance of this narrative, is at bottom one

with the piivilege attaching to a conversation with the dead (that is, with death’s involution of the narrative field). Here the Derridean understanding reveals its fruitfulness.



2.2 Death and the Coexistence of Incommensurables


C’est un rapport fou, un rapport sans rapport, qui comprend l’autre comme autre dans un certain rapport d’incomprehension. Ce n’est pas l’ignorance, ni l’obscurantisme, ni la demission devant aucun desir d’intelligibilite…




            Derrida has shown in various ways how a complex mutual enfolding of life and death permeates the production of meaning, in that the life of linguistic beings is driven by the generation of works that fix and therefore transcend their fluid and ambiguous basis. Put more simply, "who I am" is determined not by the shifting subjectivity that is "expressed" in my speech and other behavior, but just by the relative stability achieved in such "expressive" works themselves — in their very detachment from living self-presence. With this detachment, of course, comes the openness to interpretation affecting everything public; "fixed" expressions take on lives of their own. Hence, the paradox that the linguistic means for "I'amortissement de la mort",[21] or the denial of absolute loss, inevitably work to subvert their purpose (i.e. they do not completely preserve an original intention or fixed meaning), not in spite of but precisely because of their detachment; and that conversely this semiotic life-force apparent in the "detached" sign was already active in the original process of "expression." Consequently the external limit of mortality or loss is thoroughly internalized: the very gesture of self-expression is a movement of loss and alienation — not in a dialectical sense, but in the manner of an infinitely varied interweaving. The "original intention" is articulated in the particular historical terms of its deformation, limitation, and interruption.

            The apocalyptic paradigm pertains to all expression insofar as it seeks to retain control over its future interpretation, through innumerable contracts, strategies, and ruses, including that of declaring the absolute closure of its narrative field.[22] Saint John's book, which warns its readers against making any alterations, or Plato's, which complains of its separation from his voice, are only extreme examples of this pervasive tendency. If this apocalyptic dimension could be removed entirely it would eliminate all authority in language, every instance of true teaching, and the very phenomenon of truth itself; for the controlling impulse in question is no mere egotism, but rather belongs to the movement of detachment (or difference) that necessarily presents the sign as a re-iteration in the first instance, and thus as always already installed in an order which gives it authority.

            On the other hand, the boundless intensification of interpretive control leads to dogmatism, to the death of meaning in still another sense. Thus, talk about the apocalyptic dimension ultimately aims at a negotiation with its own apocalyptic, dogmatic, and dialectical tendencies—aims, that is, at a problematic of interpretive balance between privilege and accommodation. What seemed to be at stake in the question of privilege was the democratic openness of dialogue, the fusing of horizons, etc.; the autocratic refusal to fuse appears first as mystical or perhaps just skeptical and thus nihilistic, from the point of view of an open dialogue … until we recall how the open spaces of some of the most common empirical dialogical realities are organized by local fusions that exclude other possible fusions in specific ways. Then we have to consider the reciprocal relations obtaining between fusion and exclusion, and the mirroring of the latter within the former.

            To continue for a moment in political terms, democracy is not just the mutual orbiting of equal voices or interpretive centers bound by a single interpretive interest; it is rather the dynamic balancing of many unequal voices, not only disagreeing but often talking across one another and aiming at different, occasionally overlapping goals. Their speeches are often incommensurable, and thus the whole of the linguistic field which concerns us is not subject to scientific or purely structural analysis; but it seems to me that studies of what Derrida has identified as belonging to property, signature, etc. (i.e. all that is unique and privileged in the meaning) can provide lessons in what might be called the "dynamics of incommensurability": getting used to viewing language not as a homogeneous dialogical space but rather as a heterogeneous narrative one must broaden our thinking about factical coexistence in a socially productive way. What I have called the "involution of a narrative field" extends to various interweavings of voices in tensed equilibrium — particularly to the problematic balancing of authority and openness in speech. Rather than attempting a dialectical resolution of authority and openness or necessity and freedom, we might look instead for a suitable interweaving of roles, for example, the inclusion of a discourse addressed to the privileged within one addressed to the underprivileged, or, returning again to my example, the inclusion of a discourse addressed to the dead within one which is addressed to the living.

            The example of the marital narrative shows how the urgent, ambiguous works of our symbolic life may be framed by an ultimate disruption which, far from completing their meaning teleologically, confers upon their privileged interpretation an authority based instead of awareness of the incompleteness of the finished narrative. In other words, one finds in this incompleteness – in the contingency that has been sealed by death – a self-sufficiency "not to be outstripped" because the persistency of the incompleted and thus uncomprehende past continually announces the irrevocability of the narrative bond. One sees, from the perspective of the narrative closure, the absolute value of things that were only present within a structure of ambiguity, desire, and expectation. The fact that "life goes on" for the widowed person and one narrative framework becomes a part in others only emphasizes how the understanding is bound to elements that can never be made commensurable with a future interpretation. The fusion of horizons that had always seemed perfectible before, now stands revealed as the mask of a radical finitude.

            And yet isn't it just this sense of finitude, attaching absolute value to experiences in spite of their radical ambiguity and imperfection by casting them within the framework of an all-important story, which we know in the realm of personal relations as love? Love embraces the particularity and imperfections of its object at the same time that it, as it were, steps into the picture (i.e. accepts the force of a narrative bond by relating to it as teller, listener, and character). Then one heeds not only what is said by the other, but also who she is as determined from within the horizon of self-interpretation that grants absolute value to the contingent. Her expressions become not just means in an open process of dialogical self-interpretation but ends of our pure appreciation. At the same time these "ends" have the indeterminacy and "sense of direction" that characterizes the protreptic call.

            These observations on the limitations of sharing can be extended to many
other types of coexistence. The conversation of adults and children provides an
example of unequal linguistic positions wherein a constant revolving and interweaving of seriousness and play must be accomplished. The privileged position
taken by a teacher, who contrary to our wishes is sure to have some students
incapable of ever entering into dialogue on an equal basis, provides more analogies: here too there is the possibility of enfolding the meaning (i.e. the teaching)
which from the ungifted student's point of view is an ideal or "dead" one,
within a broader narrative framework in other words the model suggests that
the teacher should speak in such a way as to anticipate incompetent as well as
competent interpretation, trying to be fruitful on both levels, and indeed to
combine both levels within a higher perspective. Such a suggestion would belong to the sphere of responsibility that Derrida sees as "exceeding the limits of
ethics," because it concerns "respect for the singularity or for the call [appel] of
the other" (A 71). This view of teaching conflicts with our usual view, in which
the meaning of a teaching is identified with the state of mind that it aims at bringing about; instead the suggestion is that we step back to consider a more
complex and heterogeneous narrative sort of meaning, in which states of mind
and moments of insight play only a limited albeit privileged – part. In all suchcases, the embarrassment attaching to the adoption of a privileged position is
not necessarily to be taken as a sign that something is wrong, but as an essential part of the dynamic governing the privilege of sharing.



This paper was written in the months after the death of my partner, Mary Jane Sires.



[1] DD = “Destruktion and Deconstruction”, in Dialogue and Deconstruction: the Gadamer-Derrida Encounter, ed. Diane Michelfelder & Richard Palmer, SUNY Press 1989. The present essay was also first published in Dialogue and Deconstruction.

[2] Alterites, ed. Jacques Derrida and Pierre-Jean Labarriere (Paris 1986), p 28.

[3] Derrida, “Interpreting Signatures”, in Dialogue and Deconstruction, p.62.

[4] Jean-Francois Lyotard, Just Gaming, trans. Wlad Godzich (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979), p. 40.


[5] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953) §18.


[6] Martin Heidegger, Basic Problems of Phenomenology (Frankfurt 1975; Indiana 1982)

[7] Cf. "Der Weg in die Kehre," which includes a discussion of the tine "Nur was au
Welt gering, wird einmal Ding," with attention to rhyme and other poetic elements.
The passage concludes, however,  "Man kann sich fragen, ob solche Sprachzeugungen ihr Ziel erreichen, und dies Ziel ist naturlich, sich mitzuteilen, kommunikativ zu sein, im Wort Denken zu versammeln, uns in Wort auf ein gemeinsam Gedachtes zu versammeln   (Heidegger’s Wege p.115) The discussion of the material aspects of language in “Text and Interpretation” (Dialogue and Deconstruction pp.42-51) also reveals the concreteness of Gadamer’s notion of dialogue.


[8] Then again, it isn’t that Gadamer doesn’t notice the differences I have in mind, but that he hierarchizes the different aspects for purposes of the kind of intellectual discipline in which he chooses to work.

[9] This phrase is the title of an im portant chapter of Paul Ricoeur's Time and Narrative, vol.2 (U.of Chicago Press, 1984).


[10] Heideggers Wege p.444

[11] Gadamer certainly realizes this – see the discussion below of Heidegger's abandonment of the scientific role. Nevertheless it should be mentioned that the model I am proposing allows for the role of ontologist or language analyst to help constitute the text as well, and I think this role is occasionally present even in late Heidegger.


[12] see Derrida, D'un ton apocalyptique adopte naguere en philosophie, trans. by John Leavey in Semeia 23 (1982), henceforth ATRAP.

[13] Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference p.100,36

[14] On the distribution of force amongst the narrative poles of the teller of, listener to (or "narratee") and character in a narrative discourse, see "The Three Pragmatic Positions" in Just Gaming (op. cit.). Lyotard's negative references to "autonomy” would not conflict with my use of the term here; indeed the point I am trying to make about the involution of the closure in which the effect of autonomy is produced would be concretely illustrated by his hermeneutical maxim quoted above.

[15] “Text and Interpretation” p.21

[16] Derrida himself characterizes the apocalyptic voice as a narrative voice, which he wants to distinguish, following Blanchot, from the voice of an identifiable narrator (ATRAP 25). He also speaks of a "narrative sending" ["envoi"] that involves an "interlacing of voices and sendings in the dictated or addressed writing," and of a differential reduction or gearing down of voices and tones that perhaps divides them beyond a distinct or calculable plurality" (87).

[17] Ricoeur, op. cit., on "concordant dissonance" in Part I, section 1.

[18] Cf. Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979). On the manifold means of fictional narrative for specifying and/or creating an ideal reader, cf. Ross Chambers, Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985). Derrida gives his own version of textual openness in A 29: "Aucun texte n'a la solidite, la coherence, l'assurance, la systematicite requise si la reponse de l'autre ne vient l'interrompre, et l'interrompant, le faire resonner."


[19] Now of course Being and Time is quite insistent that the being-towards-death that is made manifest through the key mood of Angst is “non-relational”,
contrary to
see the "unsurpassable" [unuberholbar] autonomy of the death relation as pertaining to a variety of narrative structures; and just as
Angst can be seen as a negative modification of the fundamental boredom that reveals “what-is-in-totality” (cf.WIM 334), so I see a corresponding modification of
the joy in the presence of the beloved that is said to accomplish the same revelation of totality (ibid.), as well as still other analogous possibilities.

[20] As in all cases of privileged meaning (e.g. the literal understanding of apocalypse), there is the opportunity here for a one-sidedness in which the narrative embedding of meaning is ignored. Schelling, who lost his wife at the age of 34 and went through a period of metaphysical “research” into the “spiritual world”, provides us with a fascinating example of such one-sidedness. See the discussion in Karl Jaspers’ Schelling: Grosse und Verhangnis (Munich: R.Piper 1955).

[21] Jacques Derrida, Glas (Paris 1974) p.187

[22] Again I refer to Ross Chambers' studies (cf. footnote10 above), which show how
much more subtle these strategies may be than to simply give the favored interpretation (which of course would be far less effective than getting the reader to come up
with it on his or her own).