A Response to Richard Rorty and Ernesto Laclau
A metaphysician in the dark, twanging An instrument, twanging a wiry string that gives Sounds passing through sudden rightnesses, wholly Containing the mind, below which it cannot descend, Beyond which it has no will to rise.
--Wallace Stevens, Of Modern Poetry(1)
IN A TEXT PUBLISHED in 1996, "Response to Simon Critchley," Richard Rorty took issue with my interpretation of his work and in particular with what I said about his understanding of Derrida's work. It is clear that the stakes of this debate are not simply philological, but touch on much larger issues of ethics, politics, and the possibility of philosophy itself.(2) Before turning to the specifics of our disagreement, permit me to restate the basic claim I was seeking to advance. With regard to the interpretation of Derrida's work, I sought to show how, on the basis of Rorty's own definitional criteria, Derrida is a public thinker whose work has serious and, I believe, profound ethical commitments and political consequences. On my reading, the undeconstructable condition of possibility for deconstruction is justice, which I seek to interpret in Levinasian terms as a relation to the other, a response to suffering or an attempt to limit cruelty and humiliation; a relation that might be described with the adjective "ethical." On my view, then, Rorty's picture of Derrida as a private ironist falls somewhat short of the truth.
This line of interpretation can be supported, I believe, with reference to Derrida's remarks in Deconstruction and Pragmatism: (i) Derrida's refusal of the public/private distinction, where literature would cut across this distinction by being both le droit a tout dire and intimately bound up with the secret; that is, as being both irreducibly public and that which refuses publicity, what we might think of as the depoliticizing condition for politicization. For Derrida, there is a historical and systematic connection between literature and democracy. Literature is the public articulation of a sphere of private and intimate experience, on the basis of which "the realm of the political can be and remain open."(3) (ii) Derrida's comments on the messianic as an a priori structure that, as he puts it, "belongs to all language," as that promisory, performative, or illocutionary dimension to our speech acts, which, as he describes it in an interview, is "the universal dimension of experience."(4) Derrida writes,
There is no language without the performative dimension of the promise, the minute I open my mouth I am in the promise. Even if I say that `I don't believe in truth' or whatever, the minute I open my mouth there is a `believe me' in play. And this `I promise you that I am speaking the truth' is a messianic apriori, a promise which, even if it is not kept, even if one knows that it cannot be kept, takes place and qua promise is messianic.(5)
It is difficult to see how such a claim could be contained within the limits of Rorty's neopragmatist nominalism. Indeed, Derrida's linking of the messianic a priori as a structure of experience to what he calls "the discourse of emancipation," both gets him off the hook of any claim to utopianism and suggests the possibility of an unexpected rapprochement with Habermas's understanding of the structure of communicative action. The whole Derridian discussion of the promise as that illocutionary dimension of speech acts whose denial would lead one into a performative contradiction has obvious Habermasian echoes. And despite Habermas's moral cognitivism and his insistence upon the symmetrical nature of intersubjectivity, it is clear at the very least that there is work to be done here and that possibly Habermas and Derrida share more with each other than they both share with Rorty, especially when it comes to political matters. (iii) Most important, my line of interpretation can be supported by Derrida's remarks on the need for infinite responsibility. I quote at length,
I believe that we cannot give up on the concept of infinite responsibility, as Rorty seemed to do in his remarks, when he spoke of Levinas as a blind spot in my work. I would say, for Levinas and for myself, that if you give up the infinitude of responsibility, there is no responsibility. It is because we act and we live in infinitude that the responsibility with regard to the other is irreducible. If responsibility was not infinite, if every time that I have to take an ethical or political decision with regard to the other this was not infinite, then I would not be able to engage myself in an infinite debt with regard to each singularity. I owe myself infinitely to each and every singularity. If responsibility was not infinite, you could not have moral and political problems. There are only moral and political problems, and everything that follows from this, from the moment when responsibility is not limitable.(6)
To summarize rapidly, to my mind the above passage describes the ethical (or quasi- or proto-ethical, if you like) moment in deconstruction. It is an experience of infinite responsibility, which can be qualified as undeconstructable, unconditional, a priori, and universal. However, infinite responsibility only arises within the context of a singular experience, that is, within the empirical event of a concrete speech act, the performative dimension of the promise. However, and here we begin to see the limits to any rapprochement with Habermas, what takes place in the concrete linguistic event of the promise is a relation to an other, what Derrida calls a singularity, which is an experience of infinite indebtedness. Thus, the messianic a priori describes the structure of intersubjectivity in terms of an asymmetrical obligation that I could never meet, to which I would never be equal. It has been argued by Axel Honneth, and I am inclined to agree with him, that the symmetrical structure of intersubjectivity within Habermasian discourse ethics requires an additional moment of asymmetry, something that, for him, can be achieved through Winnicottian object-relations psychoanalysis or a naturalistic reconstruction of Levinasian ethics.(7)
For Derrida, it is on the basis of this infinite responsibility that one is propelled into moral and political problems, into the realm of the decision. It is important to point out here that this notion of the undeconstructable--justice, the messianic a priori, or whatever--does not function like the Moral Law in Kant, namely, as the basis for a decision procedure in ethics, a categorical imperative mechanism in the light of which one might propose and test specific …