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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Derrida on the Event, Iterability and Textual Faces—Pre-, Post- and Peri-

“For Derrida … supplementarity is at the always divided ‘origin’ of presence.”
The Derrida Dictionary by Simon Morgan Wortham (2010, p. 204)

While I was researching Jacques Derrida’s approach to the event and to iterability, I found this quote in The Derrida Dictionary.

In Derrida’s account, iterability combines the Latin iter (‘again’) with the Sanskrit itara (‘other’) (Wortham, 2010, p. 78).

The event as iterability in Derrida’s view is always supplementary: there is an add-on, an extra. Each “irreplaceable event is at once a unique, ‘once-and-for-all’ occurrence and yet manifests or inscribes itself on condition of a possible re-marking.” (Wortham, 2010, p. 78)

Even the single is always repeatable, or rather it is iterable, since every repetition (iter –‘again’) inevitably alters (itara – ‘other’). Thus, the notion of repetition as mere echo or replication is brought into question as a second instance is necessarily an alteration, an other. One thinks of Jorge Luis Borges and the impossibility of identity, in the sense of sameness and of repetition … the writer was not the same as himself (cf. “Borges and I”) and Borges the writer explored this radically in one of his most memorable short stories, “Funes the Memorious,” about an unlucky creature whose memory was so accurate, so impossibly perceptive that nothing was the same as anything, not even itself, as he noted the minutest changes in every instance. So Derrida changes our vocabulary and imagination of identity: not repetition but iteration.

This has critical implications for the notions of representation, performance, memory, identity and history. It also opens interesting vistas about the nature of “cases” …

I will argue in another essay that what creates canonical cases in psychiatry and psychoanalysis is simply their iterability. That is, they become living (I believe texts are forms-of-life) embodiments of the paradox of being authoritative, canonical and yet constantly mutative, open to radical rereadings, constructions, interpretations, deconstructions and delimitations. Freud’s cases are so interesting because they have just enough fixedness to create an image in our minds and more than enough porosity and openness to invite us to reread, even to relive—and then, resist and reframe them.

This addition that comes from our reading, this “supplementarity,” as Derrida describes and deconstructs it, “is at the always divided ‘origin’ of presence.”


In Dissemination (1981), Jacques Derrida treats Hegel’s attitude to philosophical prefaces in terms of this logic of the supplement:

Prefaces, along with forewords, introductions, preludes, preliminaries,
preambles, prologues, and prolegomena, have always been written, it
seems, in view of their own self-effacement. Upon reaching the end of 
the pre- (which presents and precedes, or rather forestalls, the 
presentative production, and, in order to put before the reader's eyes 
what is not yet visible, is obliged to speak, predict, and predicate), the route which has been covered must cancel itself out. But this subtraction leaves a mark of erasure, a remainder which is added to the subsequent text and which cannot be completely summed up within it. Such an operation thus appears contradictory, and the same is true of the interest one takes in it.

On the one hand—this is logic itself—this residue of writing remains
anterior and exterior to the development of the content it announces.
Preceding what ought to be able to present itself on its own, the preface falls like an empty husk, a piece of formal refuse, a moment of dryness or loquacity, sometimes both at once. From a point of view which can only, ultimately, be that of the science of logic, Hegel thus disqualifies the preface. Philosophical exposition has as its essence the capacity and even the duty to do without a preface. (italics added) (p. 9)

But why is all this explained precisely in prefaces? What is the status of
this third term which cannot simply, as a text, be either inside philosophy or outside it, neither in the markings, nor in the marchings, nor in the margins, of the book? (p. 15)

If a preface doubles back on itself to erase, to efface itself, presaging the event, announcing the philosophical event, what is trauma? What is this catechresis that doubles back on itself to lick its own wounds, reopening them? Trauma is the postface, always looking back, covering its tracks. But while the preface announces, wishing to efface itself like John the Baptist, almost apologetically wishing to diminish its presence, the postface denounces, defaces … it goes back to the text, undermining it to create its own authority, like Saul, become Paul, of Tarsus. Paul undermines the unexamined notion of authority, the “I was there” of the explorer, the anthropologist and the witness to assert a greater authority: “I wrote it down.” Paul who was not there, who was not a follower or witness of the Jewish reformer Yehoshua, assumes and asserts with the authority of the written word. Paul is post-evental, he is the postface to the life of Yehoshua (called Jesus), a traumatic remainder, covering its tracks, making new ones. In Badiou’s terms, Paul becomes faithful to the event which he lives vicariously, but to which he brings great clarity and this, combined with his fidelity (not in the sense of the true, unaltered copy but as Derridean iteration, that is instantiation with alteration), is what imposes his authority.

Unlike the preface that stays outside the text—neither an annotation “in the margins,” nor a footnote “in the markings”—the postface walks back all over the text, leaving tracks with its muddy boots, all over the periface or perimeter of the field of the text.

Paul as postface, trauma as commentary, erases memory. It is not the “flashbulb” memory of some strong incident which illuminates everything around it, but rather a blinding flash which engenders a kind of faith, but not memory. It burns that one image into our minds, making us forget what was around us at the time, if anything, and the lives we lived before, and rewrites the text all around the periface, the perimeter of what used to be our lives. A total rupture that Badiou properly calls an Event (when it opens possibilities) and that our age—the age of trauma—calls trauma (when it closes down possibilities).

For Christians, Paul names the Event (perhaps even more than Yehoshua) which radically alters their lives. For non-believers, in some of their encounters with Christianity, certainly at the margins of Christendom, Paul is not an Event but a trauma. For Jews, this trauma already has a name, an ancient one, given new meaning after the destruction of European Jews—the akedah, the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham. For the foreseeable future, the sons will not easily trust their fathers again, a condition, this contemporary condition of the age of trauma, that I call “Isaac Machine.”

But more on that later.

Vincenzo Di Nicola
Montreal – 13 March 2012

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