Posthegemony, Deconstruction, Infrapolitics

Bram Acosta, Thresholds of Illiteracy

Over at the Infrapolitical Deconstruction Collective, an important project with which I have been (so far) rather peripherally involved, Alberto Moreiras comments on Bram Acosta’s Thresholds of Illiteracy. Specifically, he comments on that book’s introduction, which sets up a dichotomy between John Beverley’s Latin Americanism After 9/11 and my own Posthegemony. Acosta suggests that these two books “are already being used to establish the terms and grounds of cultural debate in Latin America for the next several years” (19). And yet it soon emerges that, in Acosta’s eyes, this would be a serious mistake. For despite their differences and even apparent disagreements, they are both, he argues, complicit in the same founding gestures. First, Beverley and I “identif[y] and conflat[e] deconstruction and subaltern studies” (20-21). Having done so, we then proceed on “the same disciplinary premise: the rejection or presumed exhaustion of deconstruction as a critical practice” (22). To which Moreiras adds that the two of us both “play to a choir of bedmates.” So there’s apparently quite a crowd under the sheets, and a noisy one too, illicitly consorting together.

Now, I’ve already written at some length about Beverley’s book, and don’t plan to do so again. Suffice it to say, however, that I would point to differences between his project and my own that Acosta doesn’t even mention, not least a very different approach to politics. As I put it, and against Beverley’s trenchant defense of Latin America’s so-called left turns, in my view “politics is about indeterminacy, possibility, and potential. It is about what is not written or predetermined. Politics is about strategy, surprise, critique, and a fundamental dissatisfaction with the present state of things.” It might also be worth saying that I make this point in the light of an affirmation of subalternity, which I define both here and in Posthegemony in terms of “the possibility of betrayal, even self-betrayal” (cf. Posthegemony 266). In my book, indeed, I concur with and quote Moreiras on precisely this point: in arguing that “the subaltern is beyond representation, an insurgent betrayal of constituted power” (Posthegemony 234), I cite his characterization of “subaltern negation” as posthegemonic in that it is a “refusal to submit to hegemonic interpellation, an exodus from hegemony” (Moreiras, The Exhaustion of Difference, 126). I’m not sure if this makes Alberto a bedmate or part of the choir, but it does complicate things a little. As, for that matter, does the fact that the “deconstruction” that Beverley rejects is firmly intended to include me and my work. Indeed, according to Beverley I am “a product of deconstruction”. Even, then, if we were both rejecting deconstruction, it’s fairly obvious that it’d be rather different things we’d be turning our backs on, rather different partners we’d be kicking out of the bed.

Yet for what it’s worth, I may reject many things, but not deconstruction. When Moreiras refers to the notion that “Beasley-Murray and Beverley may not be now quite where they were a few years ago,” he may be thinking of my more recent “Rogue’s Take” in which I declare, perhaps to Beverley’s delight, that “I am now and always have been a deconstructionist.” But the most cursory reading would evidence that in Posthegemony, too, it is simply not true that (as Acosta argues) “the source of the problem” is deconstruction (21). Else why would I have spent so much time arguing about hegemony theory and civil society? Moreover, it should be equally obvious that, far from a rejection of deconstruction, let alone subalternism, my claim and my aim–in which of course I may or may not be successful–is to build on some of their key insights. In fact, in the introduction to my book on which Acosta’s reading mostly relies, what I am trying to establish is rather a genealogy of the concept of “posthegemony” that is absolutely indebted to both of them, and to the work of Moreiras (and Gareth Williams) in particular. Of course, I do indeed state that I am “not content” with deconstruction, but one doesn’t write books out of a sense of contentment.

Frankly, however, none of this seems especially interesting to me. I like Acosta’s book, and I think it is important and significant–perhaps even vital–in a number of ways. I hope to give a fuller account of it here at some stage. But I don’t think that this initial framing of its argument is either helpful or illuminating. Indeed, it does the book a disservice. Setting up my book and Beverley’s as conjoined twins that have somehow both (as he says specifically of Posthegemony) “misse[d] the point” (22) is essentially a rhetorical gesture that seems to clear the field for his own intervention. But it’s an artificial and unnecessary settling of accounts that relies on what is ultimately the straw man that together our two books have truly “establish[ed] the terms and grounds of cultural debate in Latin America for the next several years” (19). I may perhaps in my wildest dreams wish that this were so, but I’m rather aware of the many other positions and approaches that this backhanded compliment willfully obscures… not least, after all, the work of people such as Moreiras or others whose take on deconstruction is (arguably) less “rogue” and more unambiguous. Significantly, Acosta’s book, having set up and demolished its straw man in its introduction, then proceeds on the whole to ignore both Beverley and my work in what follows, probably much to its own benefit. Our books end up no more than what Moreiras calls “specter[s authors] must fight in order to establish their own legitimacy.”

But the more interesting question, I think, is this one, which would encourage a less spectral and more productive discussion: not so much that of the relationships between posthegemony, illiteracy, and deconstruction, than that of their mutual (possible) contributions to the notion of infrapolitics. “Infrapolitics” is a term that neither Acosta nor I employ, but I would argue that Posthegemony is indeed fundamentally concerned with the concept. It is so in the sense that infrapolitics is a matter of the non-political without which the political itself would be unimaginable or impossible. This is something that has long been a constant in my own work: the curious could consult a very early essay on “Ethics as Post-Political Politics”; or you could take Gareth Williams’s I think fair capsule summary of Posthegemony as a “critical discussion of the relation between the concept of the multitude and the underpinnings of the political.” The specific question then of Acosta’s book would be to what extent “illiteracy” is also an attempt to think infrapolitics, and then what this would say about the relationship between (il)literacy and politics in Latin America and perhaps elsewhere. The broader question would concern the varieties of infrapolitics and the extent to which posthegemony can inform (as well as be informed by) our notion of the infrapolitical. Presumably infrapolitics is not solely the domain of deconstruction (or at least non-rogue deconstruction, if there is such a thing). What arrangement of beds or bedmates, choirs or singers, does infrapolitics then suggest or allow?


Oscar Cabezas, Postsoberanía

Oscar Cabezas’s Postsoberanía: Literatura, política y trabajo is a provocative and important contribution to our understanding of contemporary capitalism. Not that Cabezas’s view is a rosy one: though he ends with a rousing homage to Communism as the “irreducible horizon of emancipatory thought and social justice” (281), the rather more lasting impression this book leaves us with is of the extent to which the logic of the market has so thoroughly permeated and colonized everyday life. As he puts it in his final chapter, which is essentially a phenomenology of the contemporary labor process by means of readings of Charlie Chaplin, Albert Camus, and Sergio Chejfec, what he calls “post-sovereignty” is far from sovereignty’s demise but rather the “total, totalitarian, and totalizing sovereignty” of money as general equivalent (277). Not only our everyday experience but language itself is subject to the colonizing principles of money and calculation such that “language communicates nothing beyond instruction functional to the relation between capital and labor” (265-66).

This is, then, a somewhat apocalyptic book that, despite its historical range (from 1492 to the present), argues that capital has already abolished history in a “bad infinity” of perpetual production and absolute depersonalization in which the “eternal worker” is absolutely alienated by being pressed into service as organs without body (261-62). Despite the centrality of alienation to Cabezas’s argument, there can be no relief in humanism, which is merely the “aestheticization of poverty, of differences, which are transformed into mercantile cult” (270). Little prospect here for cultural studies! Moreover, the talk of “organs without body” shows, perhaps more interestingly, that however much he draws from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Cabezas up-ends many of their categories and gives us a kind of perverse version of posthegemony in which nothing escapes. This is, in other words, a Deleuzoguattarianism without any line of flight, or a dystopian recasting of Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s Empire in which Empire is all, the multitude nothing. “We know,” he says,” that there is no community outside of capitalist society”; and yet the (would-be) communitarian subject within capitalism is absolutely dependent upon an eternal spiritualized debt, an “effect of neo-imperial domination” (272). Any such community “under the neo-imperial dominion of post-sovereign capitalism is community of debtors” (272; emphasis in original). Cabezas thus also gives us a thesis on the primacy of debt à la David Graeber in which, however, “occupy” is unavailable as a slogan for resistance.

Cabezas may argue that all this is precisely the point. For the main argument that links the four essays that comprise this book is a protest against political theology in all its forms. The opening line of its introduction notes that it is inspired in part by Jacques Derrida (who, however, scarcely gets a mention thereafter) and in part by Carl Schmitt’s famous observation that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” (13). Cabezas then presents himself as absolutely anti-Schmittian: drawing above all on the work of Argentine theorist Leon Rozitchner, he sets out to extirpate political theory of every residue of the sacred, wherever it is to be found. As such, we should not then be seeking anything resembling redemption. And it is precisely the desire for redemption that therefore damns cultural studies and even such unlikely bedfellows of cultural studies as Deleuze and Guattari or Hardt and Negri. Hence perhaps Cabezas’s absolutism, his condemnation of just about every aspect of the contemporary worker’s (and consumer’s) experience: our alienation is absolute; “within the space of post-sovereignty, capitalism administers and controls from heterogeneity or, to put it more precisely, from language made up of residues, of transnational mixtures, of mercantile innovations, of fragments of erased memories and incomplete legacies that even so do not escape the production of surplus value” (238). This indeed is the novelty of post-sovereignty, the means by which sovereignty becomes absolute: difference and hybridity proved an obstacle to modern, more conventional forms of sovereignty; but they are no bulwark against the post-sovereign. Quite the contrary, post-sovereignty thrives on difference. And again, there is no escape: post-Fordist language (and presumably also literature) is now “completely subordinate to the [. . .] post-sovereign accumulation of capital” (239; my emphasis).

It may be too easy (if still warranted) to point out that Cabezas’s apocalypticism and absolutism remain wedded to a quasi-religious eschatology that posits Communism as a City of God utterly distinct from the City of fallen, post-sovereign Man. Indeed, Cabezas’s recourse (via Rozitchner) to a mater-ialism that plays on the notion of feminine embodiment (mater/matter) as what is repressed by the Judeo-Christian tradition draws on a long religious lineage that is not entirely foreign either to Judaism or to Christianity. Perhaps more significantly, I find Rozitchner’s version of cultural psychoanalysis unconvincing, picking up as it does on the least interesting aspects of the late Freud, and Cabezas’s exposition (which seldom if ever takes any distance from Rozitchner) does little to make it any the more compelling.

By almost any measure the best chapter of the book is the final one, in which Cabezas finally finds his own voice. Even here, however, he maintains the habit of incorporating long quotations more or less undigested from the texts that he is discussing: as such we have not so much discussions of the texts as recapitulations and extrapolations from what is too often treated as holy writ. The first part of the book would have benefitted from more and more sustained readings, both in quantity and in closer attention: the opening chapter on the 1492 Edict of Expulsion of the Spanish Jews is particularly skimpy on the historical archive, and doesn’t even cite the text in question; the second chapter’s approach to (anti-)Peronism is similarly unsatisfying. But as I say, the final chapter’s engagement with Chaplin’s Modern Times, Camus’s “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and Chejfec’s Boca del lobo is provocative and important. Still, however, the ghost of Derrida perhaps haunts the book even here, as these texts are not so much deconstructed as presented as evidence for thesis of the modern (non)subject absolute alienation. In the end, Cabezas’s methodology is strangely reminiscent of cultural studies, albeit that rather than seeking traces of resistance to celebrate, he is instead combing these works for proof of the awful situation we find ourselves in. But I am not sure that the (post-)sovereignty of capital is so total: look simply to the state’s interventions following the financial crisis of 2008 and since, for example. For me, the crux of posthegemony (and this is a posthegemonic book) is neither celebration nor condemnation per se, but ambivalence. These are dangerous times, and Cabezas does signal service in pointing to some of the tendencies inherent in capital’s real subsumption of the social, but these tendencies are not the whole story. Absolutely not.

Update: This post has now been translated into Spanish at Lobo Suelto.


Benoît Peeters, Derrida: A Biography

“Does a philosopher have a life? Can you write a philosopher’s biography?” So opens Benoît Peeters’s book on Jacques Derrida, a figure about whom a biographer has particular reason to be circumspect, not least because of all the ways in which Derrida’s work problematizes our notions of the relationship between writing and experience, or between language and being. Peeters answers his own questions in the affirmative by proceeding to give us almost six hundred pages on Derrida’s journey from Algerian childhood as the son of a travelling salesman to his death in Paris as perhaps the most famous (and the most controversial) thinker of the past fifty years. He also, however, finds solace in his task from some of Derrida’s own comments on the importance of “put[ting] philosophers’ biographies back in the picture” (qtd. 1). Indeed, this is probably as close to an “authorized” biography of Derrida as we are likely to get: Peeters thanks Derrida’s widow, Marguerite, for “placing her confidence” in him, and has talked to many members of the philosopher’s family as well as to schoolfriends, colleagues, collaborators, and others who knew him well. So while this is far from being a “Derridean” biography, for Peeters argues that “mimicry, in this respect as in many others, does not seem the best way of serving him today” (6), and while it is not exactly devoid of criticism, it is undoubtedly a work that aims to “serve” Derrida. So then the question becomes: how well does this biography serve him?

Derrida: A Biography does little to explain very well why its subject was important. It is particularly uneven when it comes to explicating the key points of his thought, or their contribution to the philosophical tradition. Peeters avers that he “will not be seeking to provide an introduction to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida” (3). But absent that, and given that (frankly) the life of a philosopher is not all that interesting in itself, what we are left with are what can otherwise seem to be rather petty struggles for advancement within the academic institution and/or rather excessive, even fawning, expressions of loyalty and partisanship. We are left, in short, with friendships and enmities whose basis or whose stakes are almost impossible to determine or judge. Derrida comes to seem important simply because others thought that he was–although it also becomes clear that there is nobody who has a higher regard for his work than Derrida himself. In one of his few critical moments, Peeters notes the consensus, even among the man’s friends, about his narcissism, adding the peculiar comment that “Derrida practiced it to excess, thereby questioning the boundaries of narcissism and turning it into a philosophical gesture” (421). But what were the terms of this gesture? On what grounds, if any, was it made? On this Peeters is, almost stubbornly, silent.

Meanwhile, about the life itself: I have said that it was not all that interesting, but it was not completely uneventful, either. This is a tale of quite dramatic social mobility in the context of one of the more violent episodes of twentieth-century decolonization. It is also the story of a quite unconventional family life, including an illegitimate son whom Derrida officially recognized but essentially never met, and who was adopted by a man who went on to be Prime Minister of France. Yet, perhaps because of the semi-authorized nature of this biography, Peeters shows no great desire to probe: he indulges in neither gossip nor speculation, instead allowing Derrida’s own, often exceedingly elliptical, words to stand almost on their own. For instance, on paternity: “The father is someone who recognizes his child; the mother recognizes her child. And not only in a legal sense. The obscurity of the question lies entirely in this ‘experience’ that is so hastily called ‘recognition’” (qtd. 357). In similar fashion, Peeters repeatedly calls attention to Derrida’s profound sense of anxiety, and though this was presumably in part the other face of the too-obvious narcissism, he never really describes or stops to ponder these anxieties at any length. The biography thus falls between several stools: it is far from being a rigorous account of its subject’s intellectual development and theoretical work; but it also stops short of either titillation on the one hand or anything resembling an analysis of the psyche on the other.

If anything, this is then a political biography, in the rather limited sense (drawn from Carl Schmitt) of the political as founded on the distinction between friend and enemy. This is true as much of the academic politics (the blocked career advancements; the quarrels and reconciliations with colleagues and competitors) as of the increasingly evident commitments to political causes such as human rights or anti-racism. Perhaps particularly for Parisian intellectuals, these two forms of the political go almost hand in glove: Derrida is repeatedly moving between publishers or journals, for instance, based on his assessment of their political line, or theirs of his. Moreover, the same themes (as Peeters puts it, “justice, witness, hospitality, forgiveness, lying” [486]) loom large in both arenas. And though he often portrayed himself (sometimes justifiably) as a victim, especially of the official French university system, it becomes clear that Derrida himself was fully invested in the complex maneuvers that are often described in alarmingly martial manner. Here, for instance, is Jean-Luc Nancy’s take on Derrida in the USA: “He always saw battles to be fought, fortresses to be taken and alliances to be made or consolidated. [. . .] It was important for him to maintain links with certain potential allies, even if they weren’t intellectually all of the first order. He knew he needed a lot of people to pass on the torch for deconstruction” (459-60). Nancy is a friend–one of Derrida’s oldest and most loyal–but his is a surprisingly cynical account of deconstruction’s transatlantic success. True, Nancy may equally be aiming a swipe at America and Americans, but for one Frenchman to call another “a kind of Prussian general” (qtd. 459) is hardly a compliment at the best of times.

Above all, the impression we get from this biography is of Derrida’s remarkable energy. In the first place, the man was a writing machine, producing endless books, essays, and talks. And the talks themselves were increasingly of almost frightening length: two hours, three hours, or more; of a paper in July 1997, he himself reports “I inflicted a twelve-hour lecture on them!” (qtd. 484). At the same time, he was perpetually teaching (the concept of a sabbatical seems to have been foreign to him), not just in his home institution but also at up to three others each year. He jetted in and out of conferences and speaking engagements around the globe. And apparently he was still available to students and others for casual conversation, as well as having time to keep up a prolix personal correspondence and running up what must have been a formidable international phone bill. No wonder Peeters should make the otherwise odd observation that “he had the heart rate of a sports cyclist or marathon runner, less than fifty beats per minute” (420). Again, however, I wonder how much this truly “serves” Derrida. After all, one of the criticisms of deconstruction is the way in which, among Derrida’s followers if not for the man himself, it too soon became the almost robotic application of a voracious new set of techniques for reading. Or to put this another way: if Peeters’s aim is to humanize Jacques Derrida, I’m not sure he’s done such a good job.

But perhaps, on the contrary, the problem here is that Peeters hasn’t gone far enough in giving us a truly inhuman or posthuman Derrida. He provides glimpses of the machine, without really showing us its workings. For it may be that a philosopher doesn’t have a life so much as he or she puts together (and becomes part of) a machinic apparatus. What we’re really waiting for, then, is less a biography than a machinography of an always excessive system, which encompassed but went beyond the proper names of (to take Peeters’s section titles) “Jackie,” “Derrida,” and “Jacques Derrida,” to recast and reformulate many of the fundamental propositions of academic writing and conduct, beyond the pseudo-hegemonic (and frankly banal) campaigns of alliance and filiation to which this book too often reduces its subject.

Demanding Deconstruction

A position paper that is my contribution to the conference “The Marrano Spirit: Derrida and Hispanism” at the University of Southern California…

Jacques Derrida, Rogues (cover)

“Demanding Deconstruction: A Rogue’s Take or Offering”

What does deconstruction offer? Does it–should it–offer anything at all? Is this very question impertinent, unduly utilitarian? Or to put this another way: what can or should we ask or even demand of deconstruction? And how does this relate to whatever deconstruction might, in turn, ask of us? What can or should deconstruction demand of us? What do we have to offer, if indeed we should think of ourselves as offering anything at all? What can we take from it? What does it take from us? What do we have to offer to this conference, to deconstruction, to Hispanism, or to any other party, interested or otherwise: for instance the people, the subaltern, or the state? What, in turn, do we have the right to demand of Hispanism or of the people, the subaltern, and so on, and what do they have the right to demand of us? How much are we, or should we, be accountable to them? And how might deconstruction contribute to our offering, help us to respond to whatever demands are made of us, or help us think differently about the very notion of demand?

Read more… (.pdf file)


Borges, Otras inquisiciones

If Borges continually returned to his first book of poetry, endlessly tinkering with it and republishing it in slightly different form so that it would truly prefigure “everything that he would do afterwards” (Obras completas 33), his approach to his first book of prose was quite different. He refused to allow Inquisiciones (“Inquisitions,” 1925) to be reprinted, and indeed the story goes that he bought up old copies so that nobody else could get their hands on them. This book, and the two following collections of essays that Borges treated with equal disdain, circulated in grubby photocopies, passed between fans like underground Samizdat. It was only after the author’s death that his widow permitted their official republication.

So Borges seemed to want to expunge these early essays from his literary career. And yet he named his most famous book of essays, published over a quarter of a century later, in 1952, Otras inquisiciones: “Other Inquisitions,” a title that alludes to the existence of the earlier book, however much he had tried to repress its memory. As James Irby notes, the later collection’s

curiously ancillary title is therefore ambiguous and ironic. “Other” can mean “more of the same”: more efforts doomed to eventual error, perhaps, but certainly more quests or inquiries into things, according to the etymology. But “other” is also “different,” perhaps even “opposite.” (“Introduction” to Other Inquisitions)

Why would Borges want to turn his back on these initial forays into prose? They are, perhaps, too florid and baroque for the mature author’s taste. The language employed is formal, complex, and often almost archaic. But I don’t think it’s merely a matter of style–which could in any case be amended, as with the early poems. I suspect it’s more a matter, as Rose Corral argues, of Borges wanting to distance himself from his early “criollismo,” that nationalist strain within his work that sought “to recover and at the same time transform the great Argentine tradition of oral literature, that is, the gauchesque” (“Acerca del ‘Primer Borges'” 158). In the 1930s and 1940s, Borges will transform himself into the great cosmopolitan intellectual, best-known for his “games with erudition, his mix of authentic and apocryphal citations, his astonishing mosaic of allusions, his universalism as an imaginative strategy, his literary fabrications” (158). Such a transformation required the suppression of his initial Inquisitions.

Yet Borges never completely abandons the criollista strain in his work (we will see the continued obsession with violence and primitivism in a story such as “El Sur,” for instance), and equally it is not as though the other, cosmopolitan and erudite, Borges is missing from this early collection. Far from it. So if there are two Borges (“Borges and I”), it’s not so much a matter of a split between “early” and “late,” but more a tension that is present throughout his career. We can trace a constant play between on the one hand what we might call the “materialist” Borges whose avatar is the tight-lipped gaucho and, on the other, the rather more familiar “deconstructionist” Borges whose figure would be the labyrinth of linguistic signifiers in constant flux.

Of course, this divide is immediately complicated (and to some extent undone) by the fact that the gaucho is very much a literary creation, a mythic apparition, and that Borges is always fascinated by the possibility of giving solidly material form to his verbal jeux d’ésprit.

Meanwhile, another (and perhaps not unrelated) characteristically Borgesian tension becomes visible within Inquisiciones: the presence of a strikingly singular tone or “voice,” which articulates a series of arguments that withdraw any claim to that voice.

To put this another way: it’s quite remarkable how fearless Borges is in these literary “inquisitions.” He covers a huge swathe of cultural territory, from the Spanish Golden Age poet Francisco de Quevedo or the relatively obscure seventeenth-century English author Sir John Browne, to paragons of European modernism such as James Joyce, Miguel de Unamuno, or Ramón Gómez de la Serna, as well as Argentine and Uruguayan writers Hilario Ascasubi or Fernán Silva Valdés. In each case, the young Borges is unwavering in the self-confidence of his own critical judgments and achievements: “Quevedo is, above all, intensity” (48); “I am the first Hispanic adventurer to have reached Joyce’s book” (22); “Silva Valdés [. . .] is the first young poet to bring together Hispanic culture as a whole” (69).

And yet if, in these somewhat swashbuckling (some might say pompous…) raids on the literary canon, Borges is happy to talk about “Hispanic culture as a whole” (“la conjunta hispanicidad”), elsewhere, and no less stylishly or unremittingly, he undercuts the notion that we can speak even of “the self as a whole” (“el yo del conjunto,” 93). Borges categorizes, judges, dissects, and dispatches: he puts other writers in their place. But the “I” that makes these judgments is always somehow out of reach. It’s no longer, it seems, even a matter of “Borges and I”: Borges may remain, a literary figure associated with a series of definitive judgements; but the “I” fades away or, better, fails ever to coalesce in the first place.

The clearest instance of this tension is perhaps found in “La nadería de la personalidad” (“The Nothingness of Personality”). Here, like a refrain, Borges repeatedly claims that “There is no such coherent I” (93, 94, 96, 98, 103) and that “The I does not exist” (102). And yet these adamant declarations can only be made by an “I” that insists on the coherence of the case that it is making. The first three sentences, for instance, all begin with verbs in the first person singular: “I want [. . .]. I think [. . .] I want [. . .]” (92). The self is nothing, but this essay–and indeed the entire collection of essays–only finds coherence precisely in the presumption of an articulate self defined in terms of stylistic brillo and argumentative panache.

And does this second tension map onto the first? Is it not the essence of the Argentine criollo to perform his individuality with brillo and panache, even as he argues that such individuality is necessarily a fiction?


Jacques Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind started life as the catalogue for an exhibition curated at the Louvre, and it was certainly provocative for the philosopher to take blindness as his theme at this institution so devoted to the powers of sight. Indeed, Derrida includes within the text the moment in which he first came up with the idea for the show. It is of course a scene of writing, but also of blindness and (potential) accident as, driving home from his first meeting at the museum:

the theme of the exhibition hits me. All of a sudden, in an instant. I scribble at the wheel a provisional title for my own use, to organize my notes: L’ouvre où ne pas voir. (32-33)

This title translates as “The Open Where Not to See” but also plays on the homophony between “L’ouvre” and “Louvre”: the Louvre as a place where one does not see. The most renowned temple to the visual arts as a place of blindness.

So Derrida wants to draw a (self-)portrait of Western representation in which blindness is a central concern or even enabling possibility. All drawing, indeed, he claims to be the representation of the blind by the blind. Among other things, this means that the draftsman is inevitably either looking at the object of representation (and so cannot see what he is drawing on the page) or is looking at the representation as he makes it come into being (and so cannot see what he is drawing in life). Drawing is therefore necessarily mediated by memory: no portrait is ever a picture of the thing itself, but rather of something that has always already been worked on by the mind and experience.

But this mediation is inevitably problematic, imperfect, and so in some sense ruined or ruining. As Derrida the driver scribbles blindly while he keeps his eyes on the road, or looks down at his pad and so is distracted from his driving, in either case he risks ruin or accident: a meaningless scrawl on the one hand, that fails to record the idea that had suddenly struck him; or the possibility of suddenly striking a pedestrian or another vehicle while trying to make sense of the exhibition to come.

Yet the ruin is not simply accident or potential disaster; it is fundamental to the project of (self-)representation: “In the beginning there is ruin. Ruin is what happens to the image from the moment of the first gaze” (68).

Hence a necessary hesitation. At best, perhaps, at such times the multitasking driver, blind either to the road or to the representation of his or her own thoughts, may start to veer from side to side, or miss his or her turning. And blindness is after all associated with wandering or getting lost, just as wandering can in turn induce blindness both literal (snow blindness, for instance) and figurative.

And so it is also that Derrida’s own text rather wanders through the historical tradition as he makes his way through the Louvre’s immense archive. In what is imagined to be some kind of dialogue (with whom, it is never specified; perhaps some other, rather more skeptical self), Derrida roams between readings of specific works to general theories of drawing to speculations on the imagination of blindness from Homer or the Cyclops to St. Paul on the road to Damascus and on to the nineteenth-century realist self-portrait (but strangely, not very much further).

This is not an argument as such, more a tour d’horizon in which the horizon is very much closer than we may like, and is indeed more often an interior horizon than an exterior one: as Derrida notes, we are repeatedly reminded that physical, external sight must be extinguished for spiritual, internal vision to flourish. Along the way in this intimate journey there is plenty of insight, if much that is also naturally blurred and hard to make out.

Finally, then, Derrida ends not so much with a bang but a whimper, with the suggestion that eyes are less for seeing than for weeping, that “tears and not sight are the essence of the eye” (126), and that it is when our vision is clouded with tears, most ruined or ruinous, that we are closest to “the very truth of the eyes” (127).