Deconstruction in a Nutshell

Deconstruction in a Nutshell
Summer 1998

DECONSTRUCTION IN A NUTSHELL contains a series of questions to and answers by Jacques Derrida at the inauguration of Villanova’s doctoral program in philosophy a few years ago. Why it is for the most part Catholic schools that are willing to teach any sort of innovative philosophy in the Anglo world I’m not entirely sure. Anyway, Derrida talks about justice, comparing it with the giving of a gift. Before quoting what he says, I’d like to bear in mind a few maxims from La Rochefoucauld:

“A man’s ingratitude may be less reprehensible than the motives of his benefactor.”

“Over-eagerness to repay a debt is in itself a kind of ingratitude.”

“Almost everybody enjoys repaying small obligations, many are grateful for middling ones, but there is scarcely a soul who is not ungrateful for big ones.”

Here’s Derrida:
“The only thing I would say about the gift – this is an enormous problem – is that the gift is precisely, and this is what it has in common with justice, something which cannot be reappropriated. A gift is something which never appears as such and is never equal to gratitude, to commerce, to compensation, to reward. When a gift is given, first of all, no gratitude can be proportionate to it. A gift is something that you cannot be thankful for. As soon as I say ‘thank you’ for a gift, I start canceling the gift, I start destroying the gift, by proposing an equivalence, that is, a circle which encircles the gift in a movement of reappropriation. So, a gift is something that is beyond the circle of reappropriation, beyond the circle of gratitude. A gift should not even be acknowledged as such. As soon as I know that I give something, if I say ‘I am giving you something,’ I just canceled the gift. I congratulate myself or thank myself for giving something and then the circle has already started to cancel the gift. So, the gift should not be rewarded, should not be reappropriated, and should not even appear as such. As soon as the gift appears as such then the movement of gratitude, of acknowledgment, has started to destroy the gift, if there is such a thing – I am not sure, one is never sure that there is a gift, that the gift is given. If the gift is given, then it should not even appear to the one who receives it, not appear as such. That is paradoxical, but that is the condition for a gift to be given.
“That is the condition the gift shares with justice. A justice that could appear as such, that could be calculated, a calculation of what is just and what is not just, saying what has to be given in order to be just – that is not justice. That is social security, economics. Justice and gift should go beyond calculation. This does not mean that we should not calculate. We have to calculate as rigorously as possible. But there is a point or limit beyond which calculation must fail, and we must recognize that.”

To the extent that Derrida is not just being mystical, he seems to me to be talking about kindness, and would be better off using that word, even if Plato did not. Derrida takes La Rochefoucauld’s ideas to an extreme, which is strange. La Rochefoucauld was convinced that there was no kindness in the world. He spoke of justice as a disguised expression of “self-interest,” just as political theorists referred to it as a contract. Derrida seeks to promote more kindness in the world, well aware of its existence, by accepting La Rochefoucauld’s assertion that it does not exist.

I’m reminded of a little tale of Kafka (taken from the Schoken Books edition):

“Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. To this doorkeeper there comes a man from the country and prays for admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he cannot grant admittance at the moment. The man thinks it over and then asks if he will be allowed in later. ‘It is possible,’ says the doorkeeper, ‘but not at the moment.’ Since the gate stands open, as usual, and the doorkeeper steps to one side, the man stoops to peer through the gateway into the interior. Observing that, the doorkeeper laughs and says: ‘If you are so drawn to it, just try to go in despite my veto. But take note: I am powerful. And I am only the least of the doorkeepers. From hall to hall there is one doorkeeper after another, each more powerful than the last. The third doorkeeper is already so terrible that even I cannot bear to look at him.’ These are difficulties the man from the country has not expected; the Law, he thinks, should surely be accessible at all times and to everyone, but as he now takes a closer look at the doorkeeper in his fur coat, with his big sharp nose and long, thin, black Tartar beard, he decides that it is better to wait until he gets permission to enter. The doorkeeper gives him a stool and lets him sit for days and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted, and wearies the doorkeeper with his importunity. The doorkeeper frequently has little interviews with him, asking him questions about his home and many other things, but the questions are put indifferently, as great lords put them, and always finish with the statement that he cannot be let in yet. The man, who has furnished himself with many things for his journey, sacrifices all he has, however valuable, to bribe the doorkeeper. The doorkeeper accepts everything, but always with the remark: ‘I am only taking it to keep you from thinking you have omitted anything.’ During these many years the man fixes his attention almost continuously on the doorkeeper. He forgets the other doorkeepers, and this first one seems to him the sole obstacle preventing access to the Law. He curses his bad luck, in his early years boldly and loudly; later, as he grows old, he only grumbles to himself. He becomes childish, and since in his yearlong contemplation of the doorkeeper he has come to know even the fleas in his fur collar, he begs the fleas as well to help him and to change the doorkeeper’s mind. At length his eyesight begins to fail, and he does not know whether the world is really darker or whether his eyes are only deceiving him. Yet in his darkness he is now aware of a radiance that streams inextinguishably from the gateway of the Law. Now he has not very long to live. Before he dies, all his experiences in these long years gather themselves in his head to one point, a question he has not yet asked the doorkeeper. He waves him nearer, since he can no longer raise his stiffening body. The doorkeeper has to bend low toward him, for the difference in height between them has altered much to the man’s disadvantage. ‘What do you want to know now?’ asks the doorkeeper. ‘You are insatiable.’ ‘Everyone strives to reach the Law,’ says the man, ‘so how does it happen that for all these many years no one but myself has ever begged for admittance?’ The doorkeeper recognizes that the man has reached his end, and, to let his failing senses catch the words, roars in his ear: ‘No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.’