“The First Tasting of a Narcosis”:

Translating and Interpreting Jacques Derrida’s Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort!

Ben Van Overmeire

Written in the spirit of classic Comparative Literature, this paper juxtaposes two visions of Derrida’s short essay Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort!, namely a translation and a critical article. The focus of the investigation is the manipulations that both texts impose on the “original” French text. It is hoped that thereby an insight will be gained into the workings of interpretations on a canonized philosopher that can be seen to attack the very logic of canonization. What is of concern here is how texts (more than authors), propagate a certain view of an oeuvre that, on first sight, resists any stable vision of itself. The role of the paper then becomes to destabilize the two texts that it examines, to put them in motion using the “original” they are grafted upon. But more than this is required: to prevent the paper from becoming stable itself, an autodeconstruction will follow the main analysis, which renders the structure of the paper clearer.

Unconventionally – but hopefully somewhat loyal to the spirit of Derrida’s writing – the comparative analysis starts by looking at some easily-ignored features of Cosmopolites and its translation. Said features are of a “purely” (although one should read this term as provisional, without any ambition of making it an absolute) textual nature, and one hypothesizes that they offer the most profound insight into the nature of the text and its translation. What is intended here is what Derrida himself mentions in the essay under scrutiny. He writes: “[i]l nous faut donc sans cesse veiller à ces distinctions parfois subtiles entre les statuts [ . . . ]”[1] (Derrida, Cosmopolites 31). In the context of this quotation, the “distinctions” need to be made in order to continually recognize the problematic border between the economic and political. But, bricoleurs as we inevitably are, we might also adopt it as a method for reading the material aspects of Derrida’s text.

To my reader, the mention of the word “hypothesis” in the paragraph above perhaps summons a much more famous passage from a much more famous essay. The reference here is to the brilliant – and, it can already be said, much better translated – “Plato’s Pharmacy”, in which Derrida, contrary to most traditional interpreters of the Phaedrus, assumes that “[t]he hypothesis of a rigorous, sure and subtle form is naturally more fertile” (67). This is necessary to go beyond a mere rejection of Plato’s text due to its many problems and inconsistencies. Such an interpretation

discovers new chords, new concordances; it surprises them in minutely fashioned counterpoint, within a more secret organization of themes, of names, of words. It unties a whole sumplokē patiently interlacing the arguments. What is magisterial about the demonstration affirms itself and effaces itself at once, with suppleness, irony, and discretion.

In other words, rather than just to consider “On Cosmopolitanism” a messy translation (if there is indeed such a thing), our end is to discover a system (though not a structuralist one) within the vicissitudes of this translation, one that will reveal a logic at work on the deepest levels of Cosmopolites. Our quest will begin by looking at the material aspects of the text, namely its italics, spacing, and other characteristics unique to writing, because it is presumed that there, in what is conventionally taken as superfluous or inferior, the system will display itself most forcefully.

From the beginning of text and translation, there is interference. The question Derrida will base his whole argument on is altered in a most significant sense. The original has: “La figure du cosmopolitanisme, d’où nous arrive-t-elle? Et que lui arrive-t-il ?” (Cosmopolites 11). The translation however, puts an additional question to us, one that is not present anywhere in Derrida’s text: “Where have we received the image of cosmopolitanism from ? And what is happening to it?” (“Cosmopolitanism” 3; translator’s italics). There is a presence here, one that has just become conscious at the dawn of textuality, and asks itself and the reader by way of its italics: “and what is happening?” (semantically there is no change, if one could rigorously separate the semantic and formal features of language). The problem is most pertinent, but cannot be answered yet. The presence however, this hypothetical entity or “scriptor” in the Barthesian sense (which we can only address as “it”, seeing as how it is only present in language), continues manifesting itself throughout the text. On page 41, Derrida himself uses italics which are replaced by quotation marks in the translation. Thus, “quiconque cultive l’éthique de l’hospitalité. Cultiver l’éthique de l’hospitalité, ce langage n’est-il pas, de surcroît, tautologique?" (41-42) becomes “those who cultivate an ‘ethic of hospitality’. ‘To cultivate an ethic of hospitality’ – is such an expression not tautologous?” (16). Italics are altered to become quotation marks, giving Derrida’s phrase an ironic twist. It seems that the presence does not feel ethics and hospitality imply each other, and necessarily so: any “ethical” translation (in the conventional
sense, the “faithful” translation) would render Derrida’s italics, whereas the “hospitability” of his text, allowing the unexpected “other” to enter into it (with conditions, bien sûr), is manifestly in contradiction with such an ethics.

This presence reaches full consciousness only a bit later, when it affirms itself perhaps in the strongest manner visible in the whole text. Derrida, continuing his equation of ethics and hospitality, talks about the inclusion of the other in the following way: “Mais pour cette raison même, et parce que l’être-soi chez soi (l’ipséité même) suppose un accueil ou une inclusion de l’autre qu’on cherche à s’approprier, contrôler, maîtriser, selon différentes modalités de la violence [ . . . ] ” (42-43). The translation : "But for this very reason, and because being at home with oneself (l’être-soi chez soi l’ipséité meme – the other within oneself) supposes a reception or inclusion of the other which one seeks to appropriate, control, and master according to different modalities of violence [ . . . ]” (17; translator’s italics). “Being at home with oneself” here no longer “supposes” the “inclusion of the other”, the other is already there, manifesting itself gradually. The first phrase in the brackets of the translation is Derrida’s French from outside the brackets, italicized. The next is Derrida’s French within the brackets, italicized. But the last phrase is original: going beyond italics, the words “the other within oneself” are nowhere to be found in Cosmopolites.

That there is another within oneself, and that this other has a clear – albeit evasive and stealthy – agency, is further exemplified when Derrida invites it to a conversation. As he ends his essay, his speech to the International Parliament of Writers, he typically and suddenly makes his text into a short dialogue:

Sur le seuil de ces villes, de ces nouvelles villes qui seraient encore autre chose que des “villes nouvelles”, une certaine idée du cosmopolitisme, une autre, n’est peut-être pas encore arrivé.

– Si – elle est arrivée…

– … alors, on ne l’a peut-être pas encore

(58; Derrida’s italics)

The large quotation will be justified by the sheer mechanics the translation displays:

Being on the threshold of these cities, of these new cities that would be something other than ‘new cities’, a certain idea of cosmopolitanism, an other, has not yet arrived, perhaps.

– If it has (indeed) arrived . . .

– . . . then, one has perhaps not yet recognized it.

(23; translator’s italics)

Now, for the first time, Derrida himself italicizes the autre, who replies by stressing “perhaps”, and then says “indeed”. Surely at this point, my reader may demur, there is no interference: “indeed” is simply a clarification of the double meaning of “Si” in this context (a word that can also mean “yes” in French, especially in contestation of something that was said before)[2]. But “(indeed)” is a questionable rendering for two reasons: it does not have the argumentative, contesting function that “si” has in its second possible interpretation, and it is displaced. If the object was to render the text faithfully by displaying the ambiguity of Derrida’s term, (indeed) ought to have been placed next to the other meaning of “si”, namely “if”. One can also question the hierarchy here: why is the “indeed” meaning of “si” put in brackets, and not the “if” meaning? It may be because the text requires it, because some textual other, finally addressed directly, wants to give some form of reply, at the same time affirming its textual presence.

If we assume from the above that “it” indeed exists, our question then becomes an epistemological one: what is “it”, exactly? Maybe the introduction to On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness can give us some clue. The editors of the series in which the book is published seem very keen there to politicize Derrida, to affirm the contemporary and actual relevance of the two texts yoked together in the book, and to demonstrate the distance they display from a narcissistic Derrida (only existing in superficial readings of him). Both these texts are “proof”, they claim “that deconstruction is not some obscure textual operation intimated in a mandarin prose style, but is a concrete intervention in contexts that is governed by an undeconstructable concern for justice” (Critchley and Kearney viii; my italics). This goes together very well with the purpose of the series, called “Thinkers in Action”, a series that the Evening Standard claims “brings philosophers to our aid” (comment found on the back of the very first paper page of the book, before introduction and texts).[3]

So does the “other” in Derrida’s text come to our aid? And if so, how? To find this out, we need to turn again to text and translation, to continue following a sumplok ē we have only begun to discover. In the beginning of Cosmopolites, Derrida continues his investigation of the nature of cosmopolitanism by framing two additional questions, each one introduced by the distanced, nearly passive “On se demande”[4] (11). It is not Derrida per se who holds an inquiry here, the question is most general: it is as if the hallways of the convention centre are buzzing with it, at least that is the thrust of the rhetoric. The translation, however, cannot maintain this academic disinterestedness, and adds urgency to the first “On se demande”, which becomes “One must ask” (3; my italics). But this urgency is all too quickly withdrawn, and as often happens with withdrawals, it swerves too much into the other direction. The second time, on the same page, the already reserved “On se demande” almost becomes shy: “Moreover, one is seeking to inquire”, we read. The phrasing implies that the question has not been posed yet, as if we were still in the realm of indecisiveness probing our options, like some adolescent who “seeks to inquire” whether the girl of his choice will join him for the prom.

But urgency will drive beings to more drastic, courageous attempts sooner or later. It will modify cause-effect relations to signify political unwillingness. When Derrida expounds on the history of state recognition of refugees in France, he notes the following: “C’est plus tard, en 1954, lorsque la France souscrit à la convention de Genève de 1951, qu’elle doit élargir cette définition du réfugié politique” (28). In the translation this becomes "Even though it subscribed to the Geneva Convention in 1951, it is only in 1954 that France was forced to broaden its definition of a political refugee [. . . ]” (10). What was first a logical consequence (France subscribes to the Geneva convention, thus it changes its laws) becomes an example of gross neglect: the original French has no verbal equivalent for the “even though” or the “it is only” of the translation. Any moral judgment is implicit in the tardiness: the Geneva convention was signed in 1951, and France only signs in 1954. But that is all the original alludes to, instead of explicitly stating a contradiction as the translation does.

This tendency of the “it” to radicalize Cosmopolites is further demonstrated by its dealings with the word “toujours”. On page 30, Derrida’s original phrasing is ambiguous : he claims that there is “toujours un écart considérable entre la générosité des grands principes de droit d’asile hérités des Lumières ou de la Révolution française et, d’un autre côté, la réalité historique ou la mise en œuvre effective de ces principes". This time, the translation seems very sound : “There is still a considerable gap separating the great and generous principles of the right to asylum inherited from the Enlightenment thinkers and from the French Revolution and, on the other hand, the historical reality or the effective implementation (mise en oeuvre) of these principles” (11). “Toujours” can indeed, and especially in this context, mean “still”. In that sense, this abstract principle becomes highly charged with an ideology of progress: true change is possible, the “gap” between the Enlightenment thinkers and reality can be closed. However, the translation ignores (without even reproducing the French word, something that is mysteriously granted to “mise en oeuvre”, which seems unambiguous enough not to warrant it) the general, abstract implications of “toujours”: namely that there will always be a gap between principles and reality, that the gap is an enduring feature of reality (because else it would become a utopia or dystopia).

The same privileging of the practical above the abstract recurs later on in the text. While describing the ideological nature of Kant’s “natural” law, Derrida makes a semi-generalization: “Comme presque toujours dans le cas du droit naturel, on peut y reconnaître les traits d’un héritage théologique sécularisé" (52). The translation however, does not render the whole phrase, instead replacing it by the dry introductory “In the case of natural law” (20). Hence, the “it” that speaks to us in the translation limits ideological aberrations to just one type of rhetoric: it is only in “natural” law that “features of a secularized theological heritage” (Ibid.) appear, nowhere else.

The “it” will again not remain content with just altering the text, with appropriating its own voice grafted on that of Derrida. By some kind of necessity it needs to state exactly what it is doing. Dwelling for a moment on Kant’s “fameux” Definitive Article in View of Perpetual Peace, Derrida notes that “Ce n’est pas ici le lieu d’analyser cet Article remarquable et l’immense histoire qu’il porte et enlève en lui sans la nommer" (48). Translate. The dependent phrase with which the quotation ends contains a logic that one might consider vintage Derrida, and may remind us of Derrida’s description of the “trace” in De la grammatologie:

The trace must be thought before the entity. But the movement of the trace is necessarily occulted, it produces itself as self-occultation. When the other announces itself as such, it presents itsef [sic] in the dissimulation of itself.
(Of Grammatology 47)[5]

The trace is present and non-present, it works but hides its labour meticulously and thus remains immune to recuperation. The logic is thus double, something that the “it” in “On Cosmopolitanism” cannot bear: “This is not the place to analyse this remarkable article”, the translation goes, “or its immense historical context, which has been excised from this text without trace” (19). In Derrida, the logic of the trace is there, in “the immense history it carries and removes without naming it” (my translation), whereas in Dooley’s translation, this history is “excised without trace” (my italics), no more. At this point my argument, my construction, seems to become very problematic: if I assume that this hypothetical textual presence manifests itself, then why would it erase the very logic it obeys (that of the trace)? But of course the question is also the answer; because the double logic is undermined, the ambiguity destroyed and the thing at stake (the trace) named, the manifestation is more present than ever, and its operation becomes clear: it excises without trace, but this impossible excision makes its existence all the more obvious. It is through the almost ridiculously clear and blunt omission in the English text, that we can see something at work.

This “work” can now be characterised as one of concretisation: the careful mediation between universal and practical in Derrida’s texts is strongly tilted towards the latter in the translated text, one final demonstration of which will suffice to have made our point. For practical presences have little patience when dealing with that what cannot be done. Thus, when Derrida looks at different announcements of the “villes-refuges” in Bible translations, and notes that Grosjean-Léturmy’s translation “pourrait announcer littéralement l’espace de ce que nous interprétons comme “ville-refuge” si celle-ci devait rester à jamais”, the translation just omits all the words following “ville-refuge” (cfr. Cosmopolites 50 with “Cosmopolitanism” 20). Yet the phrase “si celle-ci devait rester à jamais” is essential to what Derrida is saying here : it foregrounds a certain impossibility of the "villes-refuges”, that may be (si) bound to remain in the never. Explain/Translate. Admittedly this rendering of the French phrase is clumsy, but it does not make that much sense in French either; nevertheless it is not incomprehensible. Hence, there is no truly valid reason why a loyal translation should not render it, except for an ideological one.

Thus far, on the ontological level, we have posited a textual presence, operating in the translation of Derrida’s text. On the epistemological level, we have seen this presence orient the text it is grafted upon toward the political, practical realms, the realms of the “thinker in action”. It is now time to turn toward an interpretation of this text, and see whether we can find the same logic at work there. This will be done after a slight detour, for there is a presence in this paper itself which begs for attention, and should be revealed before continuing our inquiries.

That presence is Paul de Man. His deconstructive reading of Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator” provides a model for this whole paper. In that text (or rather, transcribed speech; already translation comes into play) titled “‘Conclusions’: Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Task of the Translator’”, de Man meticulously compares two translations of the German text, one to French and another to English. What he finds, time and time again, is that at essential moments in the text, the translations fail. For example, when Benjamin radically asserts that the translator is essentially different from the poet, the French translation has, “n’est pas sans ressemblance avec l’art”[6] (Maurice de Gandillac qtd. in de Man 81; de Man’s italics). In a superficial reading, de Man’s comparative study of these translations might not seem germane to his main concern, which is probing the argument of Benjamin’s notoriously difficult text. But when we consider that, in de Man’s reading of Benjamin, a translation de-canonizes and mobilizes a text (“Translator” 82), the reason for the literal inclusion of translations in his study becomes more obvious. The translations serve as a means of gaining access to the text, and even though they always fail (the German Aufgabe meaning both “task” and “giving up”; “Translator” 80), they manage to display new aspects of it. By killing it, they give it new life.

De Man’s argument as outlined above pretends in no way to be comprehensive. It is more a signpost for what is going on in this paper itself, as it misinterprets de Man in an attempt to gain new insights (cf. de Man’s study Blindness and Insight)[7]. It also serves as a starting point for the analysis of Puspa Damai’s criticism of Derrida’s notion of the “city”. For de Man begins his article with an observation on Benjamin’s reception, the relevance of which will become clear in a moment: “The first impression you receive of Benjamin’s text is that of a messianic, prophetic pronouncement, which would be very remote from the cold critical spirit which, from Hegel to Gadamer, is held up as the spirit of modernity” (“Translator” 76).

Like Benjamin’s critics, Damai is also disturbed by messianism, but this time that of Jacques Derrida. In his conclusion he responds to Derrida’s open acknowledgement of his European cultural heritage, providing an answer to a rhetorical question in a way that no doubt would please de Man (cf. infra):

The address to the other, therefore, must involve inventing new norms, new idioms and new languages. Derrida at once seems to infinitize the possibilities of that address to occur, but at the same time by assuming the diction of a certain Europe – “why would I deny it?” he asks in The Other Heading. “In the name of what?” (82) – of a certain messianic-city, or the sovereign city built in the image of a pure village, he forecloses those possibilities by imposing conditions on the arrival of the other in its own name.
(Damai 92)

What disturbs Damai can be summarized into two main points. As may already be clear from the quotation above, he finds what he perceives as the grounding of the “city” in tradition highly problematic. Because in his analysis, that city is firmly European, and does not take into account many other views of cities and cosmopolitanism. He thus reads Derrida as saying that only Europeans can truly be cosmopolitan (87-88). Furthermore, there is the “other”, which he claims is totally recuperated in Derrida in a totalizing, hierarchical structure. Supposedly “not theorized” (71) and totally different, Damai nevertheless sees the other become specific in the figure of the (Christian/Jewish/European) “messiah”. This specificity, he claims, destroys the distance and respect for the “absolute singularity of the other” Derrida claims to maintain, thus “ingenuously” absorbing her in a “wheel of ipseity” (86). The strongest textual expression of this wheel is “On Cosmopolitanism”, where only the European tradition is discussed in relation to the cosmopolitan. To Damai, Derrida excludes the possibility of any other cosmopolitanism existing; in some new form of cultural colonialism, the French philosopher submits the global to the European, which “either has to correspond to this European tradition and become a para-European tradition, or it is not cosmopolitan at all” (87).

Whereas the basic argument might seem overly simple (and it does contain a large amount of reiteration), Damai’s enormous reading on his subject commands a great deal of respect. All in all, he surveys some twenty-six works by Derrida, neatly connecting strains and symbols along the way to endow his argument with the necessary force. If one was going to accuse Derrida of Eurocentrism, one better do it very well or not at all.

Yet no argument is without flaws, and here the flaws may be very interesting for our topic. In order to see this flaw more clearly, we need to briefly return to the introduction of On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness. There, Critchley and Kearney continue their already quoted justification of publishing the two texts together with the following sentence: “The two texts are linked together by a common logic” (viii). This logic is then found to be “the historical analysis of concepts, a form of conceptual genealogy” (Ibid.). The argument seems general enough to be considered harmless, yet it seems Damai does the same thing on a much larger scale: his research into Derrida is firmly based on the supposition that words such as “city” maintain their symbolic value over a huge range of texts. This epistemological assumption is exemplified by (rhetorical) questions such as the following, which recur throughout the text: “How can one reconcile Derrida’s remarks in Cinders, for example, that ‘Cinder [is] the house of being’‘ [sic] (41) with Derrida’s insistence on messianism or the threat of ruin comfortably lodged in a culture?” (Damai 86). Damai thus, in his own right, aims to assimilate all of Derrida in a single, harmonious whole, a wheel of ipseity. His “common logic” spans the latter’s whole oeuvre, whereas his subject heavily critiques notions of totality. De la grammatologie opens with a denunciation of the totalizing tendencies of what Derrida calls the “book”: “The idea of the book is the idea of a totality, finite or infinite, of the signifier; this totality of the signifier cannot be a totality, unless a totality constituted by the signified preexists [sic] it, supervises its inscriptions and its signs, and is independent of it in its ideality” (Of Grammatology 18). Opposed to this is the released “text”, which is beyond all comprehension, and which seems to be what Derrida aims for in his writing.

This is supported by the fact that his word-use is highly contextual, which undermines any kind of abstraction, for this latter operation decontextualizes almost per definition. Derrida makes this clear when he expounds on his use of the word “trace”. In a very long explanation which I regret (due to considerations of space) not to be able to quote in full, he writes:

The justification [for using the word “trace”] can therefore never be absolute and definitive. It corresponds to a condition of forces and translates a historical calculation. Thus, over and above those that I have already defined, a certain number of givens belonging to the discourse of our time have progressively imposed this choice upon me. The word trace must refer to [sic] itself to a certain number of contemporary discourses whose force I intend to take into account. Not that I accept them totally. But the word trace establishes the clearest connections with them and thus permits me to dispense with certain developments which have already demonstrated their effectiveness in those fields.
(Of Grammatology 70; Derrida’s italics)

If I, in my turn, am allowed to generalize the non-generalizable (as is no doubt inevitable in interpretation), it would seem that Damai does injustice to Derrida by roughly excising and pasting words that seem to have similar signifieds. Occasionally, this becomes quite blatant: Damai’s eagerness to see Derrida’s “ville” as traditionally European prevents him from a rigorous examination of the text. Hence, when claiming that Derrida’s argument amounts to “reviving the traditional meaning of ‘la ville’ or to ‘restoring a memorable heritage to its former dignity’ (5)”(Damai 87), he does not continue reading the sentence wherefrom the two quotations are taken. In French, the complete sentence is the following: “En réactivant le sens traditionnel d’une expression et en réveillant à sa dignité un héritage mémorable, nous avons tenu simultanément à proposer, sous le vieux mot, un concept inédit de l’hospitalité, du devoir d’hospitalité et du droit à l’hospitalité”[8] (Cosmopolites 15). The word “inédit” can here best be interpreted as that which is “entièrement nouveau, non expérimenté ou éprouvé”[9]. Damai’s analysis denies the doubleness of Derrida’s text, which allows him to strengthen his accusation of “Eurocentrism”, an allegation that seems more and more beside the point.

For we might ask what, exactly, the term “cosmopolitanism” entails in Cosmopolites. Both the French version and its translation render this perfectly clear: a short note on Derrida’s address precedes the former, whereas the introduction of the latter book not only refers to the convention of the International Parliament of Writers but also goes into the implications of the word “cosmopolitanism” in France. They claim that “[i]n order to address this emotive and contested issue [immigration laws and policies], Derrida picks out the concept of cosmopolitanism, a concept that a country like France has been keen to adopt in fashioning its self-image of tolerance, openness, and hospitality” (Critchley and Kearney ix). The authors continue by claiming that this is a perennial feature of Derrida, who continually uses a concept from “the Western heritage” to critically analyze a specific situation (Ibid.).

Since the word cosmopolitanism flows forth from this specific context, and is – if we accept Critchley and Kearney’s argument – a means of addressing and deconstructing a specific context, Damai can hardly still raise Derrida’s silence on other non-European traditions as a major objection to this text. Furthermore, there is the nature of the word itself: cosmopolitanism consists of a general word (cosmos) and a very specific word (polis), both of which are in sheer contradiction with each other. How can the local be global at the same time? It might be fruitful to see this word as a mild version of the pharmakon, which has consistently, in its translations and interpretations, gone one way or the other, while in fact, at the root, being both and neither. “Its translation by ‘remedy’ nonetheless erases, in going outside the Greek language, the other pole reserved in the word pharmakon<. It cancels out the resources of ambiguity and makes more difficult, if not impossible, an understanding of the context” (Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy” 97).

It is within this context that the struggles of translators and critics of Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort! take place. The “it” manifesting itself in “On Cosmopolitanism” could only see the political side, Derrida as the “thinker in action” who will “come to our aid”. It had no time for nuances and generalizations, it belongs to the democracy and the striving of the polis. Damai’s case, however, is more complex: he sees the specific polis as controlling the cosmos, and demanding the recognition due to a sovereign (the historical example of Athens comes to mind). He also views the poleis of Derrida’s symbols as inherently exportable to a larger cosmos, as self-contained meanings that “give” themselves in any textual context. But there is never a wavering between the two; the hierarchy is clear and perhaps unavoidable.

One final note on this before we move to another metalevel: in reading Derrida one-sidedly, both texts that are discussed in this paper have ambitions toward Benjamin’s reine Sprache. De Man (91-93) notes on the English translation of “The Task of the Translator” that it mistranslates an essential passage. Benjamin is talking about the relation between translation and original, and seems to claim that they relate like “fragments” to “a vessel” (Harry Zohn qtd. in de Man 91). But, de Man goes on, the English translator, Harry Zohn, forgets to add the adjective “broken” to the fragments, thus changing the whole meaning of the sentence. In de Man’s reading, the “broken fragments” that are text and translation can never constitute a totality. All the translation does is mobilize the original, but this can never be part of some originary quest for ultimate meaning, in this case for a pure language, a reine Sprache. Poetic and sacred language are ultimately and definitively separate: “Reine Sprache, the sacred language, has nothing in common with poetic language; poetic language does not resemble it, poetic language does not depend on it, poetic language has nothing to do with it” (92). Poetic language, which de Man elsewhere claims is “the most advanced and refined mode of deconstruction” (“Semiology” 1525), can never be limited or ended: its signifiers keep going off into all directions at the same time.

Yet such a limitation is exactly what has happened in this paper, and it is perhaps the only way of understanding a text (cf. Culler’s remarks on this, 85). Firstly there was the vindication of the subject. Contrary to the freedom of Derrida’s texts, I have sought to reclaim a Derrida that I hold dear: the master of the beyond of ambiguity, the joyful player with texts. By literally going back to the “original” (French) text, I have attempted to defend him against his translators and critics. Therefore I am inevitably caught up in a theological narrative that seeks to reclaim an always-already lost past for the present.

This tendency is of course far from unique to this text, and another example will illustrate it. In their attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of literary theory of all ages and cultures (one that remains firmly Eurocentric: for example, no Chinese classical theoreticians and critics are mentioned at all), the editors of the Norton Anthology to Literature and Criticism are forced to reproduce Roland Barthes’ highly influential “From Work to Text”. In this article, Barthes makes an elementary distinction between “work” and “text”, claiming that the former is still under strict control of its author: the reader has no business in the work but to attend to a prepared meaning that he can only consume passively. In opposition to this stands the orgasmic “text”, the realm of the signifier where no single meaning can be discerned, the author is oedipally murdered, and the power balance shifts to the reader. In closing his argument, Barthes claims to have produced such a text with “From Work to Text” (1475).

But his writing is disrupted by the editors, more particularly by a footnote bearing the number “7”. It is a footnote placed in the middle of Barthes’ discussion of music (1474): in the past, he claims, listeners and musicians were on the same level, because both could play and therefore actively participated in the production of art. This declined with the arrival of the “interpreter” for the bourgeois public (that could still play a little) and has its perigee in the contemporary situation where, more often than not, the audience has no idea how to play an instrument. This is thus far Barthes’ argument in this specific instance. The Norton editors however, feel the need to specify that “Barthes was an avid amateur pianist”. In one single stroke, the logic of the text could not have been more misunderstood. It does not matter that Barthes disclaims authorship of his text, that he does not want to subjugate it to an originary, filial relation, because he is an “avid amateur pianist”, a fact that we no doubt need to understand if we want to grasp his oeuvre.

Yet however critical this paper may be of this, it has already been made clear that it is caught up in a similar logic. Furthermore, it is highly totalizing: it claims that, somehow, a translation of Derrida and a critical text are comparable, for example in ways of dealing with the vicissitudes of the word “cosmopolitanism”. Furthermore, it, also, decontextualizes in its eagerness to use Derrida’s words against his critics and translators. The quotations are never wholly placed in the framework they were excised from. Finally, the paper has also been blind, blind for the other errors of translation that “On Cosmopolitanism” contains but which did not seem systematic, blind for its own position, which claims authority over uncontrollable signifiers. But it was this blindness that constituted it, forced it to construct a system of signifiers that, in turn, one hopes, will be misread.

With this – perhaps tedious, but necessary – autodeconstruction, this paper can come
to an end. But not without a new “allegory of reading” (the term is de Man’s, taken from the eponymous book), a Flemish poem about an old man, a poem that is utterly illegible:

Een oud man
Een oud man in de straat
zijn klein verhaal aan de oude vrouw
het is niets het klinkt als een ijl treurspel
zijn stem is wit
zij gelijkt een mes dat zo lang werd aangewet
tot het staal dun werd
Gelijk een voorwerp buiten hem hangt deze stem
boven de lange zwarte jas
De oude magere man in zijn zwarte jas
gelijkt een zwarte plant
Ziet gij dit snokt de angst door uw mond
het eerste smaken van een narkose.[10]
Paul van Ostaijen[11]

In “Semiology and Rhetoric”, de Man distinguishes between the “grammatization of rhetoric” and the “rhetorization of grammar”. Using these two deconstructive mechanisms, he is able to demonstrate that when Proust is talking about metaphors, he is really undermining his own point by a metonymic stringing together of words, a process that is grammatical and thus not tied to any creative subject “comparing” things (1522-1524). Rhetoric thus becomes “grammaticized”. More proper to the poem above is the opposite: de Man also analyses a poem by Yeats that ends in a rhetorical question. The classi reading of that poem (titled “Among School Children”) asserts the unity of it. The final question “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” is rhetorical in the sense that the answer is more than clear. The whole poem seems to affirm the unity of dancer and dance. De Man however (1520-1521), eloquently shows that if we take the question literally, the whole issue of the connection between signifier and signified becomes evoked. The whole poem then has to be reread to demonstrate the fundamental break between signifier and signified. That the poem is able to generate these two meanings, does not render it merely ambiguous: the poem requires these two meanings, who, on every textual level without clear separation, interact with each other.

Returning to van Ostaijen’s poem, we can see the same dynamic at work. The classic reading in Flemish literary criticism assumes the final question to be rhetorical: yes, we can see the old man decay and it summons a taste of death in our mouths. The whole image is pathetic and threatening. But if we take the question literally, we are forced to respond “no”: the old man is invisible in the poem, he only exists in invisible blackness and his “white” voice cannot be read or heard. It is silent.

This voice is also Derrida’s. As an old man, a dead man already in his texts when he was alive (cf. page 96 of Speech and Phenomena [12]), his oeuvre is released to a whole host of contradictory interpretations that are always beyond any control. His voice becomes an object outside him. This “sight” may very well cause fear to “shock through our mouths”. Supposing that we could see him, which we may not be able to. This is the irresolvable puzzle we are involved in, staring at a computer screen waiting for a conclusion that never truly arrives.




Barthes, Roland. “Work to Text”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds.

Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2001. 1470-1475.

Critchley, Simon and Richard Kearney. Introduction. On Cosmopolitanism and

Forgiveness. By Jacques Derrida. Trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes.

Thinkers in Action. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Culler, Jonathan. The Literary in Theory. Cultural Memory in the Present. Stanford:

Stanford UP, 2007.

Damai, Puspa. “Messianic-City : Ruins, Refuge and Hospitality in Derrida".

Discourse 27.2 & 27.3 (Spring and Fall 2005). 68-94. Project Muse. 10 December


de Man, Paul. " ‘Conclusions’ : Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Task of the Translator’”. The

Resistance to Theory. Theory and History in Literature, vol. 33. Minneapolis:

University of Minnesota Press. 73-105.

---. “Semiology and Rhetoric”. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds.

Vincent B. Leitch et al. New York: Norton, 2001. 1514-1526.

Derrida, Jacques. Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort! Paris : Galilée,


---. Of Grammatology [corrected edition]. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak.

Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1997 [1976].

---. “On Cosmopolitanism”. Trans. Mark Dooley. On Cosmopolitanism and

Forgiveness. Thinkers in Action. New York: Routledge, 2001. 3-24.

---. Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs. Trans.

David B. Allison. Northwestern University Studies in Phenomenology and

Existential Philosophy. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973.

---. “Plato’s Pharmacy. Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: Chicago UP,

1981. 61-172.



[1] Dooley’s translation: “We shall have to maintain a close eye on these sometimes subtle distinctions between types of status” (12).

[2] For example, imagine the following conversation: A: “Je n’est pas un autre”. B: “Si, je est un autre!”. B attacks A’s position by affirming the opposite, and uses “si” in the process.

[3] The cover of the book certainly reinforces the impression of this “action” in philosophy: it features a photograph with a number of persons moving about in all directions. Their outlines are blurred, perhaps suggesting the sheer velocity with which they zoom to the rescue of those who urgently require the medicine (pharmakon) of philosophical thought.

[4] “One asks oneself” (my translation).

[5] Of course, this quotation opens vista’s to wholly new areas, areas we will not dare to tread upon here, but which still beckon us from some horizon. Gayatri Spivak’s “itself” presents itself as “itsef”, which may very well be “the dissimulation of itself” that Derrida is talking about. Whether considered a printing error or not, the misspelled pronoun cannot but radiate meaning, especially when seen in the context of this paper.

[6]is not without resemblance with art” (my translation).

[7] A summary of this immensely important book is provided by Jonathan Culler’s The Literary in Theory. According to Culler (88-90), who quotes de Man extensively, the main thrust of the argument is that criticism (mainly New Criticism, but also any other current) can only gain insights by being blind to them, the implication being that, if they were not blind, the perception of said insight would disallow them to gain it in the first place. Hence, New Criticism’s postulation of the literary work as whole, harmonious, and complete revealed the workings of language disconnected from the author. These workings can be best characterised by the canonized term “irony”, language turning upon itself and thus disallowing any recuperation into a unity. Yet this insight, to which the New Critics were blind, could only be gained by those who analysed their works. Therefore, an important part of literary criticism becomes metacritical: “To write critically about critics thus becomes a way to reflect on the paradoxical effectiveness of a blinded vision that has to be rectified by means of insights that it unwittingly provides” (de Man qtd. in Culler 89). The implications for the current analysis seem clear enough not to require further elaboration.

[8] Dooley’s translation: “In reviving the traditional meaning of an expression and in restoring a memorable heritage to its former dignity, we have been eager to propose simultaneously, beyond the old word, an original concept of hospitality, of the duty (devoir) of hospitality, and of the right (droit) to hospitality” (5).

[9] Dictionary consulted online at
http://www.lexilogos.com/francais_langue_dictionnaires.htm. Date of consultation December 16, 2008.
English: “entirely new, not attempted or tried” (my translation).
It should also be mentioned that, this time, Dooley’s translation gets it clumsily, but nevertheless exactly, right.

[10] “An old man”. “An old man in the street / his small story to the old woman / it is nothing it resembles an idle tragedy / his voice is white / it resembles a knife that was sharpened for so long / until the steel became thin / Like an object outside him this voice is hanging / above the long black coat / The old man in his black coat / resembles a black plant / Do you see this shocks the fear through your mouth / the first tasting of a narcosis” (my translation).

[11] Online at http://www.brakkehond.be/pvo/pvo73.html. Accessed on December 16, 2008.

[12] Continuing on Husserl’s remark that the appearance of the word “I” puts us in a quandary, “just as if I were written by someone unknown”, Derrida writes: “This alone enables us to account for the fact that we understand the word I not only when its “author” is unknown but when he is quite fictitious. And when he is dead” (96).