The Ungraspable in Question, or to Catch Oneself Dying
Translated by Simona Rowen
Jacques Derrida’s thought requires that we open ourselves to it through what is ungraspable in us, through that which in us, hesitates precisely to say «us », through that which, in us, and beyond any unconscious economy, is the secret of us in us, the unexpectedness of any subject, incalculable and unforeseeable.
In a word, the event. One of the only «definitions », that Derrida agrees to give of deconstruction is: « “Deconstruction, is at bottom what occurs.» This opening to the event, to the occurrence of the wholly other, is exactly that which, in deconstruction, is ungraspable, in other terms un-deconstructable. Since it is impossible to calculate or to foresee the effects of deconstruction, any encounter with it is a case, beginning therefore with the event of the «us» in us, which strikes subjectivity by surprise.
The event can be the fortunate surprise, luck. Yet it can also be the worst, catastrophe, destruction, or ruin. This is why it is impossible to think the event otherwise than by examining the relationship to death, knowing that there is never « the death», but more than one death in death.
More than one death. This strange assertion is without a doubt one of the most radical and most important of Derrida’s thought. It is present from the first texts. Indeed one reads in « La Mythologie Blanche»: «As soon as there is more than one death, the problem of death complicates itself infinitely.» There is always more than one death, and this motif of plural death persists more and more in the oeuvre, to the point of imposing itself today, if one takes into consideration the most recent works, as the most delicate point, that is to say at once the most manifest and the most complex, of deconstruction. Its limit-assertion, once could say.
Indeed, to draw out a plurality of deaths in death, to see in it a mobile multiplicity, which do not gather together, which do not synthesize, but remain infinitely and aporetically open, is truly to deal the fatal blow to subjectivity, thus to metaphysics, but also to a certain «Destruktion» of metaphysics, that is to say to Heideggerian thought. Dasein, being-towards-death, though it is not a subject, nevertheless remains, according to Derrida, a site which obscures the plurality of death, a moment of collection, of unification, and thus of resoluteness. To assert «more than one death» is truly to situate, outside of metaphysics and the deconstruction of metaphysics, the place of the ungraspable. How might we designate more precisely the non-subjectivizable, the incomprehensible, the un-anticipatable, the very eventementality of the event?
I will turn, in order to make right on the phrase «more than one death», to Derrida’s text entitled «Demeure, Athènes», which bears the subtitle: «We owe ourselves to death [Nous nous devons à la mort].» This text accompanies a series of photographs of Athens taken by Jean-François Bonhomme. It offers a reflection, the word is of importance, on photography, death, and event. It specifically makes appear, as a developer [révélateur] would the deaths within death, it offers an arresting view
on this plurality. It would require much time to do justice to such pluralization. I will make do with drawing out four main motifs at work in this thanatography. Four deaths within death, each of them finding itself differentiated in its turn, and this always on the basis of a declension of the verb «prendre», «to take», which accompanies the different significations of the initial phrase: «We owe ourselves to death». Let us watch Derrida foretell and read the deaths of Athens.
These four motifs are, firstly, death understood as stratification of the archive, or as paradoxical condition of survival. Secondly, as delaying device, as a final notice or ordinance of having to live, Thirdly, death as anticipation of deadline. Fourthly, death and the question of the dissociation of «us».
First motif. Derrida insists on the fact that Athens is a city «which died more than once, in several times ». A city that comprehends its different deaths, which inscribes its own mourning within it. In light of the photographs that he considers, Derrida shows how Athens owes itself triply to death:
As a matter of debt or of necessity, as a matter of economy, as a matter of the «marketplace», the landscape of these streets, these cafés, these markets, these musical instruments, will have to die. It is the law. They are threatened by death or promised to death: three deaths, three instances, three temporalities of death from the point of view of the photographer: the first before the shot, the second through the shot, the last much later still, for another day, but it is imminent, after the appearance of the print.
These deaths and these plural times, which refer to the stratums of the city’s memory, to the stratification of the archive called Athens, appear at the same time as conditions of the survival of Athens. «Athens is a city which died more than once, in several times […] a city busy keeping a close watch over its disruptions, but […] a living city.» Athens’ sepulchral monumentality, which destines and designs it to interiorize and save the lost, is therefore at the same time an injunction to transformation, to reconstruction, to the opening of an incalculable, an ungraspable deferral, life which continues.
However, as soon as it is discovered, as soon as it is glimpsed, this deferral, which owes its paradoxical possibility to several integrated deaths, to several interiorizations, to several accomplished griefs, fades, it does not gather together, it unfastens [se déprend]. Indeed, the very concept of grief on which it rests, grief as incorporation and interiorization of the lost, this grief which is death in life but also the survival of life, quavers, hesitates, lets the other in it speak.
Athens owes itself to death, we owe ourselves to death… in order to survive, but this survival is never guarantied. Any archive, as is shown in particular in the text «No Apocalypse, not now» included in Psyché, is always and in principle threatened by the possibility of destruction without remainder. We know from De la grammatology, any trace, any archive, is erasable. In «No Apocalypse, not now» Derrida writes that «the absolute catastrophe which would irreversibly destroy the total archive and any symbolic capacity, the very “survival” at the heart of life» would destroy at the same time «any symbolic capacity», that is to say any possibility of interiorizing the lost, any possibility of grief as introjection and idealization. Therefore, any life always lives in the shadow of this threat, the threat of having to accept grief as the very dispossession of the capacity to mourn to accept this terrible thing, at the limit of the unthinkable, truly ungraspable, that grief be a decision of the other.
As we can see, death as paradoxical condition of survival is a plural death. Firstly, in that we must die several times to ourselves in order to survive interiorizing these deaths. Secondly, in that the possibility of these integrated or comprehended sacrifices runs up against the incomprehensible, the wholly other as it resists symbol, and thus sacrifice. More than one death, more than one grief.
Second motif, the delay. This motif is articulated in «Demeure, Athènes» around what «to take» [prendre] a photograph can signify. By way of response, Derrida shows how the phrase «We owe ourselves to death» imposed itself upon him as a photograph, a snapshot.
We owe ourselves to death…[This sentence] caught me, it surprised me, (as if it had photographed me without me noticing)…it overtook me, perhaps like death, a death which should have found me, there where I still hid myself, it entrusted me with I don’t know what, myself perhaps, and perhaps us, it was especially trusting in me, allowing me an advance. It granted me an advance … With regard to this advance, I was not only owing but late. Under final notice of restitution.
Death imposes itself from the origin, in the manner of a snapshot, without history, without precondition, «a negative without origin», taking on the spot any living being, like a time bomb, overtaking life even though it has only begun, opening the countdown or the final notice. This «law of immanence» is too, from the beginning, always pluralized. First, in that there is more than one delay in the delay, where all the temporalities of life do not all mark the same time; we advance there, we withdraw elsewhere. Yet the delay multiplies itself also in another sense. Such as one comes to illustrate it, the delay is that which Heidegger characterizes as the relation that the mortal maintains with his own end; it is a matter of the existential delay or being-towards-death.
Yet, Derrida had hardly invoked «being-and-time in its Greek tradition […], from the epigraph of the Sophist to the opening of Being and Time» when he disaggregates and de-solitarizes in some way the delay of the final notice from this delay in question, that is to say of the delay which opens to Dasein its future. There would be a delay older than this existential delay.
A delay older than any «mine-ness (Jemeinigkeit)» of dying, older than the phrase «my death». It would date from before Dasein. As we saw in examining the first motif, the possibility of an impossible grief is in some manner more originary than that of grief as process of interiorization, as condition of survival. As Derrida shows in Aporias, all begins by grief:
«If Jemeinigkeit, that of Dasein or that of the ego[…] is constituted in its ipseity on the basis of an originary grief, than this self-relation welcomes or supposes the other within its being-itself as different from the self. And reciprocally, the relation to the other (in itself outside myself, outside of myself in myself), is never distinguished from a bereaved apprehension».
Therefore, an irreducible difference of self to self comes to dislodge the possessive in the utterance «my death». There is, before MY death, not the death of the other, but the other of my death, that is to say the impossibility of taking [prendre] death for my own. More than one death. More than one retard.
Third motif: the anticipation of the deadline and the calculation of the instant of death. Evoking cape Sounion in « Demeure, Athènes », Derrida recalls that it is from this cape that Socrates saw his death come. When the boat returning from the pilgrimage to Delos would be in sight off the coast of this cape, the day and hour of his death would be decreed. Crito says to Socrates that, in all likelihood, the boat will arrive at the port that very day. Yet Socrates responds that in a dream he saw a woman who predicted that he would die but the following day.
Socrates, Derrida says, «owes the ability to calculate the instant of his death to a dream.» First pluralization of the times of anticipation: the calculation of the deadline made possible by the dream frustrates, differing by a day, the calculation made by Crito and those that come from Sounion. A phantasmatic anticipation comes to loge itself at the heart of a reasonable anticipation, which predicts the most likely and yet again delays the verdict. Everything occurs as if a certain clock signed the irreducible “mineness” of dying, by calculating the moment according to another temporality than that of the social clocks. Everything occurs as if this slight discrepancy, from one day to the other, from one date to the other, already marked in Platonic philosophy, the difference that Heidegger will draw out in Being and Time between the phenomenon of my death, which properly belongs to Dasein and the «one dies», banality of death for the community of men. Even when the sentence to death is certain and there is nothing left but to wait, never can my death coincide with the death, with this event that everyone expects. The decree of death does not exempt Dasein from having to die its own death, from owing itself to its death, this is what makes the impossible possibility of death. One anticipation is always behind or ahead of the other. The decree of death, in the sense of condemnation, of juridical sentence, can never take, never capture my death. At the very center of its ineluctable character, death remains ungraspable.
This is the lesson of the «discipline of death», of l’epimeleia tou thanatou, the vigil the soul holds for itself. This vigil is never contemporaneous with the final hour or the final night. This is one of the senses that the phrase «We owe ourselves to death» can take: We must take care to respect disjointed, pluralized time, which disturbs the unity and the unicity of the fatal instant.
However «We owe ourselves to death» refers also to another pluralization. Derrida declares, «the exercise, the care or the discipline of death, [...] have nothing to do [despite the “irresistible analogies with it”] I am sure, with the verdict “we owe ourselves to death” — a phrase which could even say the contrary.»
Indeed the ungraspable, irreducibly surprising, character of death prevents anyone from ever predicting the late arrival to death. It is impossible not to expect death, but it concerns an expectation «without horizon of expectation», which suspends any calculation. In the Socratic tradition of the discipline of death, the phrase, «we owe ourselves to death» signifies «we must dedicate ourselves to death, we have duties towards it, it is necessary to devote our meditations, our cares, our attentions, our exercises, our discipline to it [...] We must devote ourselves to the death to which we are destined etcetera.» Yet Derrida adds: «this is not the only sense that my phrase holds. And I protested tacitly against it». This protest has its source in the incalculable, precisely there where it is impossible to devote yourself to the deadline, because one can never see it come. There would be, in the horizon of expectation itself, a blind spot, a resistance to the calculation and to the plot of destiny or of history. And this residue, this remainder, this resistance, remains and resists in us, in each of us, in this secret place which reveals to us that there is more than one us in us. One which calculates and believes he anticipates, the other which delays, which does not see and will never see anything come, an us held back, which does not know how to tell time and does not take [prendre] care of itself. More than one death. More than one anticipation.
This duplication of the “us” leads me to the fourth and final motif. Let us examine this duplication in the doubling of the us visible in the phrase «Nous nous devons à la mort», «We owe ourselves to death»:
What I would like to suggest would be, in short, the following: the first us, the «subject», would come after the second one (the reflecting object, the one taken in view, and which begins to look at us from over there, like a «photographed object»). It would constitute itself as «subject» only after having reflected the «second» us, which is itself constituted as an «object» due or owed. «We» are «due» (moratorium, delay, final notice), we appear to ourselves, we relate to ourselves, we take ourselves in view as what is due, taken by a debt or a duty which precedes us and institutes us, a debt which contracts us before we have even contracted it.
An us lagging behind the other. The subject, in us, would be the retroactive, reflective operation, which would calculate what it owes to the a-subjectivizable.
Who, one will ask, is this «us»? An additional pluralization will appear. Again. Who is this us? «The first us who watches, observes and photographs the other, and who speaks here, it is an innocent living being who forever ignores death: in this us we are infinite... ».
We are infinite. This can be understood as «we are countless». It is impossible to close the count of the us in us, to understand it, to take it, to grasp it, to collect it.
Yet this can be understood also, and this second sense meets in some manner the first, as «we are not finite», we, at least a certain we in we, are not finite, we have nothing to do with finitude. We die but are not concerned with finitude. We are an innocent living being, acquitted of finitude. What does this mean?
It concerns here a critical reference to Heidegger who reserves death, inseparable for him from «to properly die», for Dasein, distinguishing it from «to perish», verenden, reserved for the animal. The animal, the living animal, does not die, it perishes. In this sense, one cannot speak of animal finitude, since the animal does not have a being-towards-death, it does not have time, it does not maintain any relation to its end, it can see nothing come. For Heidegger, « the difference between a mortal, (one who dies in the sense of “to properly die”) and an animal incapable of dying, is a certain access to death as death, to death as such, [which conditions] any distinction between these two ends that are to perish and to die, and at the same time the very possibility of an analytic of Dasein and another mode of being ».
This Heideggerian distinction inscribes, at the same time, immortality in
the living being, the animal cannot die, and imperishability in Dasein, Dasein cannot perish. There is in us, in each of us and in each us—they are infinite—an innocent living being, who does not calculate, who does not see death come, who does not walk freely towards it, who does not anticipate, who does not have an end in this sense. And this us remains forever ungraspable. More than one death. More than mortality in death.
The list of these plurals could lengthen still, we are truly in the countless here. I should make do with insisting again on the fact that to pluralize death and being-towards-death, truly comes down to pushing philosophy to its limit. For what becomes of philosophy from the moment when the mortal, who has always been thought of as the unique addressor and the unique addressee of philosophy, witnesses the very dislocation of his being? This question is timely.
The hypothesis of the total destruction of the archive, which has continuously accompanied me here, is indeed the very matter at hand. It belongs to an age which is, as Derrida shows in « No Apocalypse, not now », the nuclear age. The possibility of nuclear war, which appears only in the twentieth century, is truly—and it is the first time in history—the actual, not phantasmed possibility of a destruction of the world without remainder, and we can henceforth, only think on the basis of this threat. It is this that is impossible to anticipate, it is this that dooms us to an impossible grief, it is this that exceeds being-towards-death. Yet, as at the same time, this destruction has not occurred, as it has not happened, it has none other but a textual referent. It has no other referent than the discourses that we hold on its subject. We can only speak of it, and therefore its referent is nothing real, existing or present, it is constituted by textuality itself.
This structure of textual referentiality, in order to be made manifest by a specific period in or our history, has at the same time no age, it has been at work from the origin. Death, mortality are themselves precisely without referents other than textual.
Textual, that is to say non-being, non-existent, consisting simply in the production of traces. Our age, the nuclear age, acts therefore only to reveal, to open an arresting view on that which has always waited to be unconcealed, the ungraspability of death itself, and of the mortal. To insist on the textuality of the referent, is truly to open, at the heart of subjectivity, a space that is irreducible to it. The mortal can give meaning to his mortality, without referent, only in producing traces of it, his entire life is thus the trace of this wholly other in him. A wholly other which divides him, forever prevents him from gathering together, engages him in the infinite game of a difference with one’s self that cannot synthesize.
This then is what is essential: the deconstructed subject is the one who is no longer charged with making sense by way of syntheses. The ungraspable, in us, is that which is dispersed, released from the burden of synthesis.
Here the question surely, again and always, is that of the structure of the erasability of the trace. Every trace is susceptible to fading. Any trace is likely to fade, and it is truly this possibility of erasure that upholds all analysis of plural death. It is the trace that renders grief impossible, which lags behind the origin, which does not appear, which severs and splits the us. Indeed, if this more than one death in death, this more than one us in us, does not gather together, remains fundamentally and irreducible ungraspable, how can they inscribe themselves, other than in erasing or crossing themselves out?
Derrida insists quite frequently on the fact that the structure «ni…ni»
«neither… nor»--neither this nor that—the aporetic structure par excellence is the only one adequate to characterize this dispersal of the subject and the pluralization which follows from it. The aporetic structure, neither this nor that, thus takes precedence over the structure of co-implication or synthesis, of the model at the same time this and that. If there is more than one death in death, one cannot say that death is at the same time this, that, etcetera. Its faces are precisely not co-implicative. A subject not implicated, not complicated, by the plurality of deaths within it or by the plurality of subjects in it, is it still a subject? Is it still even mortal? In a sense, one might consider that the trace, as it does not implicate itself in, as it does not scheme with synthesis, as it does not let itself be caught, is never there where one believes it, does not let itself be approached, and that it is in fact indefatigable, enduring, inexhaustibly mobile and transposable. Derrida himself, in Points of Suspension, speaks of the «indefatigable contradiction of the double bind ». One could think that an indefatigable, a tireless trace, always in a sense young, like a compulsion for repetition, which would escape all logic of habit, is precisely not an indelible trace. Yet it is truly necessary to see that the trace, in Derrida, is always susceptible to betraying (itself) [de (se) faire faux bond], this susceptibility being the exact condition of fatigue, of deterioration, which finish by taking to the death all the subjects that are dying in us. One cannot die otherwise than of and by betrayal.
Translated by Simone Rowen
 Derrida, Jacques « The Time is out of joint », in Anselm Haverkamp (ed.) Decon-struction is/in America. A New Sense of the Political, New York, New York University Press, 1995, p. 17.
 Jacques Derrida, « La Mythologie Blanche», in Marges — de la philosophie, Paris, Minuit, coll. « Critique », 1972, p. 323.
 Derrida, Jacques. « Demeure, Athènes (Nous nous devons à la mort) », in Athènes à l’ombre de l’Acropole, photography by Jean-François Bonhomme, Athènes, Olkos, 1996. We will refer from hereon directly to this text by designating it by the initial D, followed by the page number.
 D, 42.
 D, 49.
 D, 42.
 Derrida, Jacques. «No Apocalypse, not now», in Psyché. Inventions de l’autre, Paris, Galilée, coll. «La philosophie en effet », 1987, p. 379.
 D, 43.
 D, 44.
 D, 44.
 Derrida, Jacques, Apories, Paris, Galilée, coll. « Incises », 1996, p.111.
 D, 58.
 D, 50.
 D, 61.
 D, 61-62.
 D, 63.
 D, 70.
 Derrida, Jacques, Points de suspension. Entretiens. Paris, Galilée, coll. « La philosophie en effet », 1992, p .69.