|Politics of Friendship
Has Derrida taken a political turn?
After his frustrating re-reading of Marx many will no doubt rush out to
buy "The Politics of Friendship" in the hope of finding clarification on
Derrida's politics--if such a thing could ever be said to exist. Deconstruction
supposedly laid bare the problematics behind the grand political projects.
It announced a period of skeptical reflection, a gap between action and
justification which rendered political activity impossible. It contributed
to the groundlessness of contemporary political beliefs. It placed "'truth'
in quotation marks". (p. 44)
If deconstruction gave reasons to
suspend judgement, to distrust the choices available, it also created an
atmosphere of apathy and frustration. Ironically, Derrida has now turned
to re-assess politics to see if it is now safe to go back to some of the
secure notions of responsibility, commitment, and political allegiance
that have so been missing.
Of course we should know better.
While theorists like Baudrillard and Lyotard at least offered the promise
of a controversy, Derrida will not be reduced to a soundbite theorist.
He will not carry the can for Post-modernism, will not write a book that
sums up the journey so far and shows us where to go next; which is exactly
what post-modern theory needs right now, if it is not to be relegated to
history as a temporal blip. Instead Derrida has done what he always does:
produced yet another exquisite and rarefied book, polished and hermetically
Derrida is no doubt aware of the
pressure on him to act as seer and leader for those left floundering in
the wake of Post-modernism. He is unlikely to succumb to such a temptation,
and warns again and again in "The Politics of Friendship" against such
'hasty' readings of his work. Throughout the book he chastens the reader
to have patience. As always his work is a multiplication of questions.
Of course we should by now expect to be frustrated by Derrida, to not reach
a conclusion, to undergo his endless deferrals of meaning. Derrida's digressions
are not errors in logic, but a necessary strategy which tries to prove
his own theory that meaning is differential--interpretation infinite.
As with all of Derrida's work "The
Politics of Friendship" starts with a quotation, and proceeds to lay it
open to a multitude of interpretations. In this instance the quotation
is one attributed to Aristotle by Montaigne.
"O' my friends, there is no friend."
The book is an enquiry into the
meanings of the words "friend" and "enemy". The aim is to focus on: "the
political problem of friendship." To do this Derrida traces the chain of
this quotation from Aristolte to Kant, Blanchot, Montaigne, Nietzsche and
through to the Catholic political theorist Carl Schmitt.
Derrida's method is to set in motion
the contradictions and imbalances behind each attempt to define "the friend"
and "the enemy". Through this he unearths a convincing array of aporias:
gaps, divergences of meaning--contradictions which have nonetheless been
acted upon throughout history.
"The Politics of Friendship" chastens
the zeal of those who have sought conceptual clarity and acted in its name.
It is possible to read from this book that the entire concept of "fraternity",
as enshrined in the French revolution, was based upon a confused notion
of "brotherhood" which sought universality and the eradication of the enemy,
but which nonetheless depended upon the enemy for its existence.
Throughout the book Derrida follows
the shifting positions of "the enemy": The enemy as the other, as the brother,
as the alibi for the self and finally as the self itself. A reading could
be as follows: if fraternity always posits an enemy, if the existence of
the enemy is what constitutes not just the identity of the friend, but
also of the self, then is it possible to reject the opposition friend/enemy,
on which "the self" is based? And finally to reject "the self" and the
western philosophical tradition that rests upon it? This is the question
which Derrida leaves us with. The possibility of a different way of conceiving
of the self--a self without a centre, without parameters--the decentered
We will recognise this critique
of "the self" from the 1970s. From Foucault and his announcement of the
death of the subject. As such, "The Politics of Friendship" is another
contribution attesting to the end of humanism, and which ushers in something
else: Post-humanist theory?
It is surprising really that the
coming of the decentered self has been announced for so long, and yet we
still know so little about how we can cope with being "decentered selves".
Who is this decentered self, this
deconstructed subject, this person with no fixed identity, with no fixed
principles, without a basis for ethics or politics? The person who lives
deconstruction. The major question which has haunted Derrida (and Foucault's
work) is just how a society comprising such Post-humanist subjects might
operate. How we live with our decentered selves is one question that post-modern
thought has always left hanging.
The simple reduction is to see deconstruction
as a historical moment and to see the decentered self, as an event in advanced
capitalism. Deconstruction is then seen as being symptomatic, or descriptive
of the breakdown of western values. The decentered self, from this perspective
is a social, political disaster, a retreat from the enlightenment project.
The shifting values of the post-humanist subject, are said to map directly
onto the fragmented self which is the consumer. Inevitably, deconstruction
is forced to face what might be the political implications of the theory
of the decentered subject.
"The Politics of Friendship", is
a long awaited but tentative attempt at doing just that. But what would
such a project be--a sociology of the deconstructed subject--a political
study of post-modern man? Of course for Derrida such a project would be
impossible. He cannot use a grounded methodology to critique deconstruction.
However, the question of the political, of how individuals act in society
haunts this book, and tries to assert itself, albeit in hidden forms.
In one passage, notably one of the
most awkward in the book, Derrida implies the question of the social repercussions
of the dissolution of self.
"If we were not wary in determining
them too quickly, about precipitating these things towards an excessively
established reality, we might propose a gross example, among an infinity
of others, simply to set a heading, since what a naive scansion dates from
the "fall of the Berlin wall" or from the "end of communism", the "parliamentary-democracies--of-the-capitalist--Western-world"
would find themselves without a principal enemy. The effects of this destructuration
would be countless: "the subject" in question would be looking for new
reconstitive enmities; it would multiply "little wars" between nation-states:
it would seek to pose itself, to find repose, through opposing still identifiable
adversaries--China, Islam? Enemies without which, as Schmitt would have
said--and this is our subject--it would lose its political being; it would
purely and simply depoliticise itself." (p.76)
This is an important point, but
it is couched in terms which are elusive. This is classic Derrida. The
idea he puts forward is "naive"--"a gross example", "it exists among an
infinity of others", "these are questions we must mutter to ourselves."
He cites "we" "ourselves" and as "Schmitt would have said." Hiding what
he wants to say behind a series of disclaimers, each one distances the
statement from any authorial intent. This is however, the one passage from
which the entire book gains its urgency and direction. Derrida echoes the
point throughout the book, with reference to Schmitt:
"A world in which the possibility
of war is utterly eliminated would be a world without the distinction of
friend and enemy."
"For Schmitt losing the enemy is
losing the political self." p.83
"A crime against the political--the
death of the enemy." p.88
These points from Schmitt, reinforce
what we already know to be Derrida's own theories about "the subject".
What they do though is situate the deconstructed subject at a point in
history. Deconstruction has long laboured in breaking down the binary oppositions
which it presupposes that western culture is based upon. A reading of Schmitt
would suggest that society itself is moving towards the breakdown of the
opposition between friend and enemy, political right and left. But at what
What happens when society itself
moves towards the dissolution of opposites? This can only be a pressing
question for Derrida, as his entire theory is based upon the negative critique
of the role of opposites in western thinking.
Derrida however cannot admit to
the issue of the "social relevance" of his theory. By his own method cannot
be seen to be making a statement or looking for evidence to support a statement.
Therefore what we are left with in this text is this endless apologising,
this infinity of disclaimers, this slow sensitivity in approaching the
possibility of actually saying something, this way of hiding his intent
behind the voice of others. Derrida's work has always had such suggested
or inferred meanings, which he can usually pass on as "the reader's interpretation".
However, never before has such an important suggestion played so pivotal
a role in one of his books.
There is a vampiric quality in Derrida's
writing. It saps the life out of that which it quotes, while at the same
time exalting the original for its valour, its arrogance, its naive certainty.
His love of controversial and powerful texts is exemplified here by his
use of Nietzsche, Schmitt and Victor Hugo. But while Derrida draws these
powerful and important quotations together he can only hint at his reasons
for doing so, and cannot thread them together into an argument which might
There must be a frustration at heart
here for Derrida. By his own method, he can never make a bold statement,
neither can he explore a subject analytically, or systematically. He can
only deconstruct each quotation, rendering them unstable, unverifiable,
problematic. Neither can Derrida assess theory against facts, or found
opinions upon empirical observations, as writers like Schmitt do. Derrida
has through his work systematically problematised such attempts by others
to jump from fact to theory, to seek proof of their ideas in reality. He
does however want to imply to us that the text has some importance to the
period in which we live. How can he do this though? Through vague allusion,
and through saying the opposite of what he means.
Throughout the book Derrida makes
repeated attacks on Schmitt's "historicist's" discourse. In typical deconstructive
method, Derrida looks for the one "undecideable" which undermines their
entire discourse. For Derrida, Schmitt's theory hangs upon the existence
of a possible "concrete"--a phrase which bridges the gap between Schmitt's
theory and the facts he claims to observe: a reality which is nonetheless
contingent--an absolute which is temporal.
"What are the political stakes of
this figure? On the other hand, the unending insistence here on what would
be the opposite of spectral--the concrete; the compulsive and obsessional
recurrence of the word concrete as the correlate of 'polemical'--does indeed
provide food for thought. What thought? Perhaps that the concrete finally
remains in its purity, out of reach, inaccessible, indefinately deferred,
haunted by its spectre." (p.117)
So Derrida effectively undoes the
concrete terrain on which Schmitt, the "modern political expert" has built
his discourse. But does Schmitt not in turn haunt Derrida in the form of
the necessity to address Schmitt in the first place? In the form of the
question of the political relevance of theory?
There is undoubtedly something about
Schmitt's prediction of a post-cold war world, fragmented into struggles
for identity that troubles Derrida. What if a world without binary opposition
(friend/ enemy, left/ right) is a world without meaning. Perhaps it is
that Derrida sees in the post-cold war struggles of small nations and ethnic
groups, a metaphor for the "decentered subject" in which the old binary
oppositions no longer apply.
How often has deconstructive theory
been used to undermine the "binary oppositions" of imperialist culture?
Since the '60s there has been a tacit understanding that although deconstruction
did not have an overt politic, it was of use in theoretically destabilising
oppressive hierarchical structures. This has been the implied ethic behind
the use of deconstruction. Deconstruction would take us beyond the rigidified
culture of entrenched opposition--it would be a radical cultural force.
But what if the end of binary oppositions
(black/ white, gay/ straight, left/ right) does not spell a positive future,
in which the old oppositions end, but one in which chaos rules, and in
which the form that instability takes is violence--violence beyond reason.
There are only vague allusions to these concerns within the book, but it
could be that Derrida has started to become anxious about "the social relevance
of deconstruction". Naturally no one has marched into battle carrying a
deconstruction banner, but culturally the infiltration of deconstruction
into our institutions has meant a filtering through into culture of some
of its inherent attitudes. Was Deridda wrong to give up on the enlightenment
project, the left? These questions haunt this text, but Derrida cannot
Is there an unwritten politic behind
this book without conclusion? Through each of his works Derrida has repeatedly
told us that every philosophy is haunted by the spectre of its opposite.
What then is the opposite that haunts deconstruction? What if not linear
discourse--the statement--the need to adopt a subject position. Could it
be that Derrida is haunted by what it is he really wants to say?
"Who could ever answer for a discourse
on friendship without taking a stand?" (p.229)
In the Politics of Friendship we
see a Derrida trapped in his own method, unable to articulate the real
questions that concern him without threatening the credibility of deconstruction
Politics of Friendship
Verso - ISBN 1-85984-033-7