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Jacques Derrida and the ‘Europe of hope’

This affirmation of Europe is not a simple one; it is preceded by the choice to inherit the discourses of Europe with its tensions, contradictions and aporia.

Europe has never been indifferent to its own meanings and significance. The modern discourses of European self-identification and self-understanding identified the origins and birth of Europe, pillars on which Europe stands (usually Greece, Rome and Christianity) and assigned to Europe a “spiritual” mission and a “vanguard” role for human civilisation. These motives can be found in works of very different European authors, among them Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Hegel, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Paul Valery, Jan Patočka and others.

Jacques Derrida Jacques Derrida. University of Florida/Wikipedia. Fair use.An inheritor of this tradition and one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century was Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Derrida, whose philosophy aimed at a deconstruction of the western metaphysical tradition also sought to deconstruct the idea of Europe itself. Derrida’s method of deconstruction always involved a close reading of texts, and the application of the idea of deconstruction to the idea of Europe was no different. The texts on Europe that Derrida read were for the most part what we would call “Eurocentric”, for example, Kant’s affirmation in The Idea of Universal History that “our continent will legislate some day for the others” or Husserl’s exclusion, in “The Vienna Lecture”, of “the Eskimos or Indians presented as curiosities at fairs, or the Gypsies, who constantly wander about Europe” from the “spiritual shape of Europe”. Derrida’s deconstructed Europe could, I argue, be seen as a promise to overcome Eurocentrism from inside the idea of Europe. 

Europe ‘deconstructed’

What then does ‘deconstructed Europe’ look like? Deconstructed Europe is foremost an inheritance. But an “inheritance is never given, it is always a task”, as Derrida argues in Spectres of Marx: its presumed unity “can only consist in the injunction to reaffirm by choosing”.

The idea of inheritance or legacy in general is divided and contradictory. It is not simply backward-looking fervour in recalling the past - and the legacy of Europe is no exception. One inherits these troubled Eurocentric texts on Europe and must filter, select, criticize and sort among several of the possibilities which inhabit the same inheritance.

This is precisely what Derrida does in in The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’ Europe (1992) where he reads Paul Valery’s ‘archetypical’ discourse on Europe. Valery wrote about Europe in the interwar period, describing it as “an incomparable intellectual factory”, “the privileged place”, “the most intense emission of power linked with the most intense absorption of power”. The way Derrida reads Valery’s definition of Europe as a “small cap”, a “western appendix to Asia” but where all “spiritual wonders” have been created, can be seen as representative of Derrida’s other reading of discourses on Europe. Derrida affirms that the discourses of self-presentation cannot avoid the figure of the head, of the cap, of the captain, the capital, the advanced point, because these are gatherings oriented towards an origin and telos, and that this is precisely what fills Valery’s discourse.

The question of heading and capital is as old as the history of Europe, but what is completely new is the experience of the ‘other heading’. The other heading, explains Derrida, means that it is necessary to change destinations, directions, goals, to change the captains or the age and sex of the captain: “Beyond our heading, it is necessary to recall ourselves not only to the other heading, and especially to the heading of the other, but also perhaps to the other of the heading” (The Other Heading, 15). The discourses of European self-identification have impulses of presenting themselves as an exemplary advanced point and, to maintain this exemplarity, Europe should advance now towards the heading of the other.

These new instances of the heading point to an identity that is no longer self-centred, monolithic, but an identity that includes difference in itself. And it is this idea of “the other heading” that marks Derrida’s contribution to the identity of Europe. Similarly, within Europe, a capital as centre, metropolis or the cutting edge of progress does not exist and no one would accept it, says Derrida. But the question of the capital does not disappear. European cultural identity cannot be dispersed into a multiplicity of self-enclosed idioms but, on the other hand, it cannot and must not accept a capital, a centralising authority. What is required is neither monopoly nor dispersion and Derrida recommends the invention of discourses and politico-institutional practices that will make possible the alliance of these two imperatives “the capital and the a-capital”.

Therefore, inheriting Europe, one inherits two imperatives, two contradictory laws, instantiated here by the heading and the heading of the other, the capital and the a-capital. The heirs to the idea of Europe must always respond to a sort of double injunction. The Other Heading ends with a list of ten duties (commandments) that arise from this tension in the heritage of Europe. The first duty is considered fundamental for all others (in the list):

The duty to respond to the call of European memory, to re-call what has been promised under the name of Europe, to re-identify Europe - this duty is without common measure with all that is generally understood under the name duty, though it could be said that all other duties presupposes it in silence… This duty also dictates opening Europe up, from the heading that is divided because it is a shoreline; opening it onto that which is not, never was, and never will be Europe. (The Other Heading, 76).

All of Derrida’s commandments are instances of the same tension between Europe and its other, and are topics which Derrida analysed at length in his other later writings on deconstruction: memory, inheritance, promise, hospitality, critique, faith, reason and Enlightenment, democracy, responsibility. For example, the concept of responsibility contains a double constraint: to satisfy both the demand of transparency and secrecy and exactly in this form responsibility is reiterated here as Europe’s double duty.

Europe has duties in other discourses too, but what is unprecedented in Derrida’s approach is the negative form of the duty: without X there will be no Y, for example, without passing through double constraint/undecidable/contradiction, there will be no responsibility of/for Europe. A positive certainty will make Europe a doctrine, a program, a rule, but, for Derrida, Europe must exceed the order of theoretical determination, knowledge and certainty.

In other words, inheriting Europe means inheriting a double constraint, an undecidable, a contradiction, paradox or aporia – a figure central to Derrida's thinking, which means non-path, impassable, an impasse of some sort. The purpose of deconstruction in general is to identify the aporia (mainly in the texts Derrida reads) and to show how the way out of the aporia is never accomplished without an act of violence, which suppresses an equally demanding part of the aporia. Therefore, aporia is as well the form in which discourses on Europe are inherited.

The conditional laws that form one arm of the aporia are found in a chain of historical practices and norms, that is, European memory. But the second arm of the aporia comes from the future. This temporal disjunction activates the link between past and future, between inheritance and promise. One always inherits a temporal disjunction - “time is out of joint” for Hamlet and he has to set it right. Derrida reads the discourses of Europe, highlights their aporetic tension and temporal disjunction, demonstrating the points of instability and contradictions without achieving reconciliation, but making possible the re-affirmation of Europe. Only in this way is the inheritance of Europe chosen and re-launched. Choosing an inheritance means “choosing to keep it alive”, as Derrida affirms in For What Tomorrow. The inherited idea of Europe is re-identified, re-launched and kept alive. The inheritance is reaffirmed by transforming it as radically as is necessary in order to meet the urgency and imminence of re-affirming Europe.

When one chooses to inherit a discourse on Europe there is an urgency and imminence of setting things to rights, and the discourses on Europe, from Hegel to Valery, from Husserl to Heidegger, in spite of the differences that distinguish them, are all discourses of urgency, of ‘today’ and are inevitably dated.

In The Other Heading Derrida affirms that he inscribes his present text in the tradition of dated texts and in the margins of Valery, who spoke of the urgency of reaffirming Europe in the face of the imminence of WWII.

What imminence comes to the scene today that resembles that of Valery? The ‘today’ of Derrida’s discourse includes the “anxiety before the possibility of other wars with unknown forms” (the Gulf war), a new Europe due to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the end of history as announced by the mass-media and the triumph of capital and the market.

In Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, Derrida reads “The Vienna Lecture” and recalls the warnings Husserl issued in 1935-36, asking if “such a warning is transportable or translatable today” and the answer is “yes” because we must ‘today’, as in other ‘todays’, “in the name of reason, be suspicious of rationalizations” (Rogues, 157). Husserl maintained that rationality becomes an evil when it is one sided and specialized. The objectivist naiveté is not an accident, it is produced by the very progress of science. For Husserl, objectivism and irrationalism are obstacles for the teleology of reason, nevertheless, he suggested that the failure is remediable through responsibility, faith in philosophy and heroism of reason.

According to Derrida, ‘today’, the heroism of reason means to invent maxims of transaction for deciding between two just as rational and universal but contradictory exigencies of reason and unconditioned sovereigns, and he calls Europe to this task:

“Within today’s geopolitical landscape, a new thinking and a previously un-encountered destination of Europe, along with another responsibility for Europe, are being called on to give a new chance to this idiom. Beyond all Eurocentrism” (Rogues, 158).

The geopolitical landscape to which the text refers was the world after 9/11, a context of imminence that generated other urgent re-affirmations of Europe by Derrida, this time as a public intellectual, in speeches and interviews. For example, six weeks after September 11, Derrida philosophized in “a time of terror” when Europe is perceived, predictably, as a hope of a “new figure”: “as an indispensable resource, Europe could make an essential contribution to the future of the international law” (Philosophy in Times of Terror, 116). In May 2004, at the fiftieth anniversary celebrations of Le Monde diplomatique, in one of his last public engagements, Derrida spoke as well about A Europe of Hope:

“We must fight for what the word Europe means today. This includes our Enlightenment heritage, and also an awareness and regretful acceptance of the totalitarian, genocidal and colonialist crimes of the past. Europe’s heritage is irreplaceable and vital for the future of the world”.

A Europe of hope beyond Eurocentrism?

This affirmation of Europe is not a simple one; it is preceded by the choice to inherit the discourses of Europe with its tensions, contradictions and aporia. However, is this affirmation of Europe beyond Eurocentrism? In May 2003, Derrida co-signed with Jurgen Habermas, the article “February 15, or What Binds Europeans Together: A Plea for a Common European Policy, Beginning in the Core of Europe”. This text considers the anti-war protests of  15 February 2003 as a signal for the birth of a European public sphere and affirms that “the avant-garde core of Europe must – as so often – be the locomotive for the non-core Europe”, and emphasizes that at the international level and in the framework of the UN, Europe has to throw its weight on the scale to counterbalance the hegemonic unilateralism of the US. The co-signed text was considered well-intentioned but trapped in Eurocentrism. But do other Derridian affirmations of Europe avoid the trap of Eurocentrism?

As we have seen, in reading discourses on Europe, Derrida does not simply substitute the Eurocentric statements, like those of Valery, with anti-Eurocentric statements. This strategy is too facile, and equally missionary, affirms Derrida, intending to avoid both Eurocentrism and anti-Eurocentrism. In The Other Heading, quoting Valery’s texts, Derrida recognizes that there might be some room for critique and affirms that “I do not wish to criticize here. I would even be ready to subscribe to it, but with one hand only”. Derrida’s translator and post-colonial theorist Gayatri Spivak notices that in this text “it is hard to tell where Valery ends and Derrida begins”.

It is interesting that most of the affirmations of the role of Europe are followed by specifications “I say this without Eurocentrism” or “Beyond Eurocentrism”. These expressions are intended to be performative utterances with a transformative force aiming to discourage the perception of the previous phrases as being Eurocentric. The paradox is that Derrida himself taught us that a performative act is not always successful. Often the quotation marks appear to have the final say in overcoming Eurocentrism. For example, in The Philosophy in a Time of Terror, Derrida hopes that there will be, in “Europe”, “philosophers” able to measure up to the task of inheriting Europe’s double duties. He uses quotations marks explaining that these “philosophers” of European tradition will not necessarily be professional philosophers but jurists, politicians, citizens, etc. The quotations marks for “European” and “in Europe” mean that they can be so without living on the territory of a nation-state in Europe, finding themselves in fact very far away. According to these specifications, Europeans are those who irrespective of their location inherit and carry further the legacy of Europe.

The legacy of Europe

Derrida attributes to Europe concepts based on two contradictory but equally demanding exigencies, which he analysed in other contexts: memory, inheritance, promise, hospitality, critique, faith, reason, democracy, responsibility. Presented as Europe’s double duties these complex concepts transform the idea of Europe into an unprecedented, unfamiliar and complex one.

On the other hand, how legitimate is the identification of these concepts with the idea of Europe? One could say that these concepts - democracy, responsibility, reason, critique etc. - have been thought in Europe, and these are not ‘pure’ or formal concepts, but embedded in a particular history. According to this reasoning, all enumerated concepts have to presuppose the idea of Europe and vice versa: the idea Europe ought to presuppose all these ideas.

Is this coincidence between Europe and the themes of deconstruction beyond Eurocentrism? If the idea of equality, for example, is an idea generated in Europe, then every time a claim to be equal is expressed will this claim reaffirm once more Europe and its values? This might be so but, at the same time, it might be a refusal to provincialize Europe and let the idea and the ideal of equality go and be claimed again in new contexts. However, Derrida affirms that the critique of Europe, and even of philosophy itself, is possible through a rationality which is considered European: “The paradox is indeed that we are liberating ourselves from ethnocentrism, and eventually of Eurocentrism, in the name of philosophy and its traditional filiations. There is a living contradiction here, that of Europe itself, yesterday and today” (For What Tomorrow, 18).

Derrida overburdens Europe with duties and responsibilities, because Europe must be more responsible than the rest of the world, or even responsible for the rest of the world, without repeating the mistakes of Eurocentrism. Overburdened Europe might resemble a kind of self-sacrifice for (the heading of) the other. At the same time, this new deconstructed Europe that performs vigilantly and incessantly its double duties is presented as a new hope for the others, with the inevitable superiority and ideality of a hope. Europe is advanced from the status of the model and telos for others (who had or still have to Europeanize themselves in Husserl’s discourse, for example) to a more ideal status of hope and promise: Europe as a hope for the world with its unique heritage of equality, rights, justice, democracy. Probably, to be able to disentangle Derrida’s affirmation of Europe from its impulsions towards Eurocentrism, one must clarify if it is wrong to be someone else’s hope, and not a hope as an ordinary waiting for something, but a hope for an impossible future to come.

Using Derrida’s postal metaphor one could say that there is a risk that the paradoxical meanings of Europe, once sent out like cards, away from the control of the author, might be lost in the post and in the end only the traditional idea of Europe, with its impulsions towards Eurocentrism, will reach the addressees. Or, the addressees will have to be incessantly vigilant to maintain the contradictory logic of deconstruction in the concept of Europe.

What is certainly clear is that the inheritors of the European legacy will have to ceaselessly perform Europe’s double duties; they – we – must be incessantly vigilant not to allow the opening towards the “other heading” to be transformed into a stereotype and not to allow Europe to impose again its singularity upon the universal. These are demanding tasks, but worthy of the responsible inheritors of a deconstructed Europe.

UWE- Social Science in the City logo Europe: the very idea, an openDemocracy editorial partnership supported by Social Science in the City, a public engagement initiative at the University of the West of England

About the author

Tamara Cărăuş is a researcher in political philosophy at the New Europe College Institute for Advanced Studies from Bucharest, Romania. Currently she is the team leader (principal investigator) within the research project Critical Foundations of Contemporary Cosmopolitanism.

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