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BODIES AND CONCEPTS: WHAT'S AT STAKE IN DECONSTRUCTION

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I argue that while it is crucial to consider how Derrida is discussing concepts and not bodies, especially when he insists on purity, bodies are always what is at stake in his discourse. One lesson we learn is that it is critical not to confuse
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  Kelly Oliver C ONCEPTS   AND  B ODIES : W HAT   IS   AT   STAKE   IN   DECONSTRUCTION “I always dream of a pen that would be a syringe, a suction point rather than that very hard weapon with which one must inscribe, incise, choose, calculate . . . once the right vein has been found, no more toil, no responsibility, no risk of bad taste nor of violence, the blood delivers itself all alone, the inside gives itself up . . . I have been seeking myself in a sentence.”—Jacques Derrida, “Circumfessions” From its beginnings, Derrida’s deconstructive methodol-ogy—if we can call it that—is aimed at concepts. Throughout his work he shows how various concepts dear to the history of philos-ophy contain what he comes to call an autoimmune logic; which is to say, they turn, or can be turned, against themselves. There is a shift, however, in how he approaches these concepts. Early in his work, he turns concepts (such as Nature, Reason, and Truth) against themselves to show how what philosophers took to be pure concepts are always already contaminated within their own work. Later, he invokes pure concepts (Hospitality, Forgiveness, and Gift) to show how both our philosophical and everyday notions of these ideals are always already contaminated. Both of these approaches, however, take aim at the logic or conceptual apparatus of these concepts in order to show their internal contradictions, which, in more Derride- 91  an terminology, shows their impossibility as well as their necessity.In this essay, I argue that while it is crucial to consider how Derrida is discussing concepts and not bodies, especially when he insists on  purity  , bodies are always what is at stake in his discourse. One lesson we learn is that it is critical not to confuse concepts with  bodies because the consequences can be deadly. In other words, con-cepts have everything to do with bodies, and, while they have their own materialities and histories, they do not bleed in the way that living bodies do. While we can say that concepts are alive  , even that they bleed  , there is a hairsbreadth of dierence between metaphor and matter that makes all the dierence. Here, I begin with a dis -cussion of the importance of the concept within Derrida’s writings, giving examples from his work rather than treating his entire cor-pus. Next, I look to pivotal moments when Derrida invokes bodies to show how bodies are what is at stake in deconstruction. Finally, I briey consider the metaphor of bandages from his Death Penalty, Volume I   as an example of the continual need to delimit and decon-struct the opposition between bodies and concepts. C ONCEPTS : P URE   AND  I MPURE   In Of Grammatology  , Derrida shows how Jean-Jacques Rous-seau’s concept of Nature (and in the history of philosophy more gen- erally) is ‘always already’ contaminated by evil (gured variously as divisibility, absence, alienation, mediation, culture, writing, and so forth). He demonstrates that philosophy cannot maintain the purity of the concept  of Nature in its attempts to dene it because every ar -ticulation is ‘always already’ mediated by language and therefore a contamination of the pure immediacy of the natural world. Almost forty years later, in The Animal That Therefore I Am  , Derrida argues that, within the history of philosophy, the concept the animal  stands in for both absolute or pure innocence and absolute or pure evil and thus, like Nature, operates according to an autoimmune logic. In the earlier work, Derrida probes the limit set up between man and his others, including the animal and the divine, in order to challenge the “mythic purity” of concepts of Good or Evil, Man or Animal: “Man calls himself   man only by drawing limits excluding his other from the play of supplementary: the  purity  of nature, of animality, prim-itivism, childhood, madness, divinity. The approach to these limits is at once feared as a threat of death, and desired as access to a life without dieránce” (Derrida, Of Grammatology  244, second emphasis theory@buffalo 1892  mine; compare 235, 290). These are just a few examples of how, at its core, Derrida’s deconstructive project challenges the investment in the purity of concepts that drives the history of philosophy. And yet, key writings in between these two periods, which we might call Derrida’s early work and his late work, are various texts that invoke the notion of purity, even purity ‘worthy of its name,’ in order to challenge both our philosophical and our every-day concepts of hospitality and forgiveness. The concept of  purity —or we could say the purity of concepts—that he employs in his later work seems intended to counteract the history of philosophy’s ad-herence to a notion of pure Nature as distinct from impure or corrupt culture. In both cases, however, what is at stake is the body, that is to say, the eects of concepts on bodies. Pure or unconditional hospitality, that is to say, the impos-sibility of a law or habit of hospitality entering into an economy of exchange, is central to Derrida’s discussions of the gift and continues through his discussions of forgiveness, and beyond. The ‘pure gift’ cannot be dictated by law or part of an economy of exchange. For, if you give a gift in exchange for something else, is it really a gift or more like a payment? So too with hospitality. To be pure and abso-lute hospitality, it cannot be given as payment for a debt or done merely out of duty to the law. It cannot become a matter of either habit or moral duty. The purity of the gift is associated with the in- nite responsibility of giving, which is beyond morality insofar as morality is a matter of calculation and rules. Calculation, rules, and laws turn what should be an ethical response to the singularity of the other or the event into a mere reaction or reex determined by convention.Like hospitality, if forgiveness is given only to get something in return, then it is not absolute. If forgiveness is given only upon certain conditions—for example, the perpetrator repent or feel re-morse—then it is not true forgiveness. Once forgiveness is circum-scribed within social conventions or laws, it is no longer pure: “pure and unconditional forgiveness, in order to have its own meaning, must have no ‘meaning’, no nality, even no intelligibility. It is a madness of the impossible” (Derrida, “On Forgiveness” 45). The concepts or ideals of giving, hospitality, and forgive-ness, in their absolute and hyperbolic forms, have an essentially lim- itless and innite quality that Derrida constantly compares to what passes for giving, hospitality, and forgiveness in our everyday lives. He maintains that what we do recognize as gifts have meaning only Kelly Oliver 93  in relation to this ideal of giving that is essentially unrecognizable (Derrida, “To Forgive” 53). So, while ‘pure’ or absolute forms are impossible, we see ‘contaminated’ forms of them every day. What is at stake in Derrida’s invocation of pure forgiveness, however, is not just the logic of concepts or the semantics of language. Rather, he insists on pure forgiveness as a way to interrupt discourses of racial and ethnic purity as manifest in his main examples, the Holocaust and Apartheid. Derrida questions the possibility of forgiveness as it operates in contemporary discussions of these ‘crimes against hu-manity,’ while measuring them against the immeasurable concept of pure forgiveness. His analysis suggests that vigilantly holding ourselves to this higher standard of pure forgiveness may serve as a homeopathic  treatment for genocidal discourses of racial and ethnic purity.Derrida analyzes the purity of concepts and not the purity of bodies or blood. He uses reason against itself in this homeopathic way as an antidote to all of the reasons human beings have given to justify enslaving each other and other living creatures. In this re-gard, deconstruction has always been a homeopathic methodology; that is to say, it has always used the text, the concepts, the history of philosophy against itself in order to make it ethical, which is to say, in order to imagine an ethics that might be, as Derrida says, ‘worthy of its name.’ With the repeated phrase ‘worthy of its name,’ Derrida in-terrupts one discourse of property, purity, and rigor with another; that is to say, he interrupts the everyday practices of forgiveness, including recent political practices like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, by comparing them with the concept of forgiveness as it has been articulated in the history of Western thought. He sees his insistence on conceptual purity in the face of real-world contamina-tion as a primarily ethical move. On the one hand, the purity of the concepts of gift, hospitality, forgiveness, and so forth requires uncon-ditionality—to condition is to contaminate. On the other hand, all instances of gift-giving, hospitality, and forgiveness have meaning only in relation to the pure or unconditional concept. Moreover—and this is crucial for Derrida—only unconditional or innite gift-giving, hospitality, or forgiveness can make sense of the concepts of gift, hospitality, or forgiveness.In Rogues  , Derrida summarizes this paradoxical conse-quence of his attempt to articulate what it means for a concept to be unconditional: “Only an unconditional hospitality can give meaning theory@buffalo 1894  and practical rationality to a concept of hospitality. Unconditional hospitality exceeds juridical, political, or economic calculation. But no thing and no one happens or arrives without it” (149). He contin-ues, discussing forgiveness and the gift: Another example would be the unconditionality of the  gift or of  forgiveness . I have tried to show elsewhere exactly where the unconditionality required by the purity of such concepts leads us. A gift without calculable exchange, a gift worthy of this name, would not even appear as such  to the donor or donee without the risk of reconstituting, through phe-nomenality and thus through its phenomenology, a circle of economic reappropriation that would just as soon annul its event. Similarly, forgiveness can be given to  the other or come  from  the other only beyond calculation, beyond apolo-gies, amnesia, or amnesty, beyond acquittal or prescription, even beyond any asking for forgiveness, and thus beyond any transformative repentance, which is most often the stip-ulated condition for forgiveness, at least in what is most  pre-dominant  in the tradition of the Abrahamic religions. (149)Thus, Derridean hospitality, forgiveness, and gift are more than Kantian regulative ideals precisely because there is an internal contradiction inherent within the very notions themselves ( Of Hos- pitality  149; Philosophy  133-136). Derrida points to this contradiction in this question: “In giving a right, if I can put it like that, to un-conditional hospitality, how can one give  place  to a determined, lim-itable, and delimitable—in a word, to a calculable—right or law?” ( Of Hospitality  147-149). In other words, the principle grounding all conditional hospitality, namely unconditional hospitality, is at odds with its practice. For, what makes hospitality unconditional makes hostility not only possible, but also inevitable, insofar as ultimately there is no calculus with which we determine how to distinguish one from the other. The threat to unconditional hospitality does not come from outside, but rather from inside. Hospitality operates according to the autoimmune logic distinctive of all appeals to the self or sover-eignty. In other words, if, or insofar as, hospitality is granted by one to an other, its unconditionality is already compromised. Indeed, the very terms self   and other are problematic if our goal is unconditional hospitality, but these terms are required by our notion of hospitality insofar as we imagine that someone has the power to extend hospi-Kelly Oliver 95
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