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Voyage to Syracuse: Europe, or the infinite task
by Prof. Francesco Tampoia
2009-09-03 07:46:53
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“What remains irreducible to any deconstruction, what remains as undeconstructible as the possibility itself of deconstruction, is, perhaps, a certain experience of the emancipatory promise; it is perhaps even the formality of a structural messianism, a messianism without religion, even a messianic without messianism, an idea of justice--which we distinguish from law or right and even from human rights--and an idea of democracy --which we distinguish from its current concept and from its determined predicates today”. Derrida, Specters of Marx

“For democracy remains to come; this is its essence in so far as it remains: not only will it remain indefinitely perfectible, hence always insufficient and future, but, belonging to the time of the promise, it will always remain, in each of its future times, to come: even when there is democracy, it never exist, it is never present, it remains the theme of a non-presentable concept”. Derrida, Politics of Friendship To all Europeans.


According to some scholars, Derrida opposes to a "liberal democracy" which boldly purports to have "reached itself as the ideal of human history" a "democracy to come", which means the infinite openness to the newcomer and the infinite expectation of a better event, which evades any expectation. In Politics of Friendship the aporias of friendship transposed to democracy give that if democracy is a promise of universal inclusiveness of each singular one counting equally, and if its fraternal or national limitation naturalizes the ineluctable decision of inclusion and exclusion, it (democracy) remains an unfulfillable promise. In this paper, a sort of ‘philosophical, imaginary voyage to Europe’, inspired by the so-called Syracuse-paradigm, by means of a personal close reading of The Other Heading: Reflections on Today's Europe- a kind of untimely meditations a la Nietzsche- I want to argue that, according to Derrida, an ethics of identity compared to an ethics of difference and responsibility fares persuasively with political issues.  

Key words: the metaphor of navigation and Heading, Eurocentrism and Other Heading, the European heritage and the infinite task, democracy to come.


 The second aforementioned thought in exergue is the wistful conclusion, as a leitmotiv, of Politics of Friendship1, the only book with the word "politics" in the title, in which Derrida begins by commenting a quotation from Montaigne” O mes amis, il n'y a nul ami" ("O my friends, there is no friend")”and then veers off into a rambling discussion of its possible sources and meanings, which lead him on the way to deconstruct concepts such as friendship, hospitality, justice, responsibility and democracy.

 Aristotle conceived politics as the business of friends and regarded the Greek polis as an arena of like-minded men related in citizenship by the bonds of friendship. Usually in their social and political behaviours, the Greek citizens first agreed about their interests, second adopted the same policy, and then put their common resolve into effect. In Aristotle’s footsteps, Derrida reminds us that the goods internal to friendship bring with them their own challenges, and turn inherent the Western civilization and philosophy, on one hand in “hierarchical” way, on the other as “binary” conception, involving a pair of terms in which one member is assumed as primary, the other as secondary or derivative. In the article The Politics of Jacques Derrida, published near ten years ago- I follow at the starting point of this essay- Mark Lilla writes that according to Derrida the entire Western tradition of thinking politics has been distorted by our philosophical peccatum originarium, i.e. the concept of identity against which is located the Derrida’s attack to logocentrism. Derrida believes that the only way to extend the democratic values, he himself holds, is to decompose and/or destroy the language in which the West has always conceived of them, he believes that this mistake, drawn up with language and not in reality, has kept our democracies imperfect. Only by erasing the vocabulary of Western political thought, we can hope for a re-politicization or a new concept of politics. The metaphysical tradition teaches us that man is identical to himself, a coherent personality free from internal difference, and has encouraged us to seek our identities through membership in undifferentiated, homogenizing groups such as families, friendships, community, culture, nation, and borders, dependent on language, and eo ipso  conventions. Then, the problem with such conventions is not only that they cover up differences within the presumably identical entities, it is especially that they establish hierarchies between brothers and sisters, citizens and foreigners, friends and enemies.


On January 20, 2001, during the ceremony held at Syracuse (Sicily) on the occasion of receiving the honorary citizenship of the city and the ‘Syracuse award’, Derrida, against the judgement he was privatizing too much his philosophical thinking (Rorty, Habermas), warranted his never abandoned political engagement, and spoke of the ‘Syracuse paradigm’ as his political temptation. Quite different from “the Lure of Syracuse” discussed in the quoted article by Lilla, the ‘Syracuse paradigm’ is the experience of the philosopher who believes to be qualified to enlighten the statesman by means of his advices or on the circumstance to substitute him. Derrida, who surely cannot be included in a disputable list of philo-tyrannical philosophers, remembered that Plato went to Syracuse just to instruct the tyrant Dionysius so that he became a good ruler of the city.  For this temptation Plato, he who was of noble origins, proved the very poor experience of slavery, for this temptation, in modern and contemporary ages, many philosophers paid a dear prize, even the life.  On the role of intellectuals in politics, let me refer directly to Plato “So in my praise of the right philosophy I was compelled to declare that by it one is enabled to discern all forms of justice both political and individual. Wherefore the classes of mankind (I said) will have no cessation from evils until either the class of those who are right and true philosophers attains political supremacy, or else the class of those who hold power in the States becomes, by some dispensation of Heaven, really philosophic” Epistle VII, 326, see also Rep. 473; Rep 501E.

 However, when and why did Derrida begin to write and speak about politics? As far as we are concerned in this paper, we can take as reference-point the falling of Berlin wall in 1989, the unification of Europe, or also the bicentennial of French Revolution. These were the years in which Derrida took part to conferences and symposia in developing valuable and profound contributions to the issue of politics; these were the years in which Derrida tried to deconstruct the political implications of moral, social or ethical issues, the themes of law and justice, democracy, friendship, hospitality, forgiveness, the death penalty, so much to allow the historians to think about a political turn. These were, at last, the years of contrast with Habermas's Europe, Kantian ethics of identity, Habermas's position towards the modernism and the new project of the Enlightenment. As well known, many, including Habermas, accused Derrida of having repudiated the legacy of Enlightenment. Against the charge he was over privatizing his philosophical thinking (Habermas), Derrida repeatedly countered that he never abandoned political engagement and claimed to feel up a true heir of the Enlightenment, although taken in its full historical dimension and replete with its internal contradictions. Others thought- and think still now- that deconstruction, characterized as a textual and academic project of denaturalization, is inherently political for Derrida, not because it leads to direct political action through prescription, instead because it leads to the possibility of action, which can try to think itself as responsible action and eo ipso political action.2  

From Aristotle to French Revolution, the good republic requires equality and fraternity, idealized as a natural blood tie making separate individuals somehow one, the nation, the politics, the culture, literature and language. In the same aforementioned book, Derrida argues that to be capable of friendship we must be able to honour in the friend the enemy he can become; this is precisely what the motto of democratic republicanism (Liberty, Equality and Fraternity) suggests. Being able to honour in the friend, or in the fellow-citizen, the enemy he can become in a sign of freedom, a freedom that, Nietzsche tells us, tyrants and slaves cannot know, since they are neither ‘equal’ nor ‘free’ enough for either friendship or enmity. In other words, Derrida maintains that we cannot guarantee the durability of friendship; and at the same time friendship cannot be coerced. Friendship cannot have a particular purpose in the sense of being an instrument of subjective desire, and the friends must engage purposefully but without purpose, as what happens-much like the artist does in producing a work of art. In friendship as in politics, we must recognize and respect our separation from the other that helps us to understand our diversity from our friend and to honour in our friend the enemy she or he could become.

But, let us speak directly of Europe and ask ourselves, what is the role of geographical and temporal metaphors in the ‘battle of words and ideas’ to describe Europe and its presumable identity.

The deconstruction of European identity

Within modernity, Nietzsche is the thinker who most consciously used the name Europe. He did not spare his own fellow-nationals of critical words for the hybrid foundation of Bismarck’s Reich. In agreement with Hölderlin, he was searching for a German Delos as the central point of the spirit. Disappointed by Bismarck, he returned to origins and paid attention to the youthful Europe just born from the Greeks, impelled from the need “to feel at home, which everywhere is the Greek world”. Within the framework of his philosophy and his nihilism, which is a European nihilism, Nietzsche put the question that is not what is Europe, rather, what does Europe mean? Not only for himself, a 19th century culturally nomad, German and therefore also French, Italian, Greek, but for all of us Europeans. Still now, we European are called to give some answers to the query: What does Europe mean for us? For all of us who need to examine with Nietzsche within and without our traditions and historical conflicts lived with passion, who need to ask what is at stake after a century of exterior or incomplete nihilism.3 In the past Europe has been presented as the ideal example of everything that is pure, authentic, spiritual either a particular instantiation or a teleological model for everybody else or a specific place, and the ‘universal heading’ for all nations and peoples in the world. According to Derrida, one of the recurrent metaphors used by intellectuals to evoke the movement of transference underlying the idea of Europe as exemplarity, is that of ‘navigation’ or ‘heading’ united to the mythical-figure of Ulysses. The Homer’s determinant role in ancient Greek, Latin and European culture, to which many intellectuals have been inspired and the topos of Odysseus-­Ulysses, the Man of Many Ways, are well known. The Odyssey has become ‘an ancestral text’ for historians, philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, occult magicians, novelists, science-fiction writers, biographers, auto-biographers, movie directors and composers of opera... To allude to the ‘Odyssey’ is to invoke an authority of talismanic psychological power.

 But, there is something else. Europe-as-a-heading is for Derrida not only the metaphoric figure par excellence, it is also the figure of the movement beyond the simple metaphor, the movement towards ‘another heading’. Derrida sets out from a Europe that has always defined itself as the capital of culture, the headland of thought, in whose name and for whose benefit exploration of other lands, other peoples, and other ways of thinking has been carried out. In addition, Derrida sets out “from a Europe where the metaphor of navigation has always presented itself as a mere metaphor, where language and tropes have been ventured in the expectation that they would return with an even greater value attached.” 4 (OH, Intr. p. xlv-vi)

Now, Derrida warns, the question of Europe must be asked in a new and heretical way. It must be asked by recalling that ‘the other heading' is not a mere metaphor subject to capitalization; rather, it is the very condition of our metaphors, our language, and our thought. It implies an elementary, even if impossible, transference between singularity and universality, antinomic even in Derrida’s opinion, between the particularity of a place and the universality of the idea of a place.

The pamphlet The Other Heading, I widely follow in these remarks- perhaps untimely meditations a la Nietzsche- is not so much an analysis of particular discourses about Europe, nor the proposal to broach the intricate and current problems that the unification and the establishment of a transnational European state pose in practice. It is a text in which Derrida denounces the new liberal consensus, he sees as having ruled the West since 1989, lashing out hysterically at the "New International" of global capitalism and media conglomerates that have established world hegemony by means of an "unprecedented form of war”. Derrida is less critical of Marxism- see Spectres  of Marx, a book that clearly continues the discussion of the two genders/genres of la/le capital in Other Heading- he believes that communism became totalitarian when it tried to realize the eschatological program laid out by Marx himself. In Derrida’ view, Marx's problem was that he did not carry out fully his own critique of ideology and remained within the ontological tradition. That is what explains the Gulag, the genocides, and the terror carried out in his name by the Soviet Union.

 Now, what particularly interests is that Derrida throws doubt on every political principle of the Western philosophical tradition (propriety, intentionality, will, liberty, conscience, self-consciousness, the subject, the self, the person, and community). He asks himself, are judgments about political matters still possible? Can one still distinguish right from wrong, justice from injustice? Are these terms so infected with ontologism that they must be abandoned? Can it really be that deconstruction condemns us to silence on political matters, or can it find a linguistic escape from the trap of language?

  In The Other Heading, Derrida starts with an autobiographical note, “To begin, I will confide in you a feeling- Already on the subject of headings [caps] and of the shores on which I intend to remain. It is the somewhat weary feeling of an old European, more precisely, of someone who, not quite European by birth, since I come from the southern coast of the Mediterranean, considers himself, and more and more so with age, somewhat over-acculturated, over-colonized European hybrid. ” (OH, 6-7) A  personal feeling, indeed, the auto-portrait of someone who, as early as grade school in French Algeria, must have tried to capitalize the old age of Europe, while keeping at the same time a little of the indifferent and impassive youth of the other shore.

We Europeans are younger than ever, Derrida writes, since a certain Europe does not yet exist. We are like these young people who get up, at dawn, already old, tired and exhausted. He himself suggests a kind of re-embark putting forward two fundamental principles: first, the axiom of finitude, “This axiom of finitude is a swarm or storm of questions. From what state of exhaustion must the young old-Europeans who we are set out again, re-embark [re-partir]? Must they re-begin? Or must they depart from Europe; separate themselves from an old Europe? Or else depart again, set out toward a Europe that does not yet exist? Or else re-embark in order to return to a Europe of origins that would then need to be restored, rediscovered, or reconstituted, during a great celebration of "reunion" [retrouvailles]?” (OH, 8); second, a discursive axiom, “I will venture a second axiom. I believe it to be preliminary to the very possibility of giving a meaning to such assertions (for example, that of a "reunion") and such questions... this is my second axiom, a very dry necessity whose consequences could affect our entire problematic: what is proper to a culture is not to be identical to itself. Not to not have an identity, but not to be able to identify itself, to be able to say "me" or "we"; to be able to take the form of a subject only in the non-identity to itself or, if you prefer, only in the difference with itself [avec soi]. There is no culture or cultural identity without this difference with itself. A strange and slightly violent syntax: ‘with itself’ [chez soi] (with, avec, is chez ‘, apud hoc). (OH, 9-10).

Turning to the autobiographical, Derrida writes that the suggestion of the title The Other Heading for his reflections occurred while- on board a plane- he was thinking of the language of air or sea navigation. Either on the sea or in the air a vessel has a ‘heading’, the direction toward a destination that sometimes can change. Then, there is a problem of direction, and, “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, that is to say, to a relation of identity with the other that no longer obeys the form, the sign, or the logic of the heading, nor even of the anti- heading—of beheading, of decapitation. (OH, 15)

As this citation makes clear, the heading of the other is the first condition of non-egocentric identity. The second condition is the openness to an otherness. It deals with a kind of irruption, outbreak of otherness occurred into ancient Greece, Derrida confesses, I have sought and discovered by reading ‘Greek’ words that could not close upon themselves, and which consequently had already been marked as the irruption of the other.”If this other in all its forms irrupts into the Greek from the beginning..., the Greek, as the source of Europe, is precisely the figure of non-closure upon itself, allowing it to welcome alterity into the logos.” 5 Europe, up to origin, was open not only to conceive of that which comes from outsides being merely in opposition to it, but also of taking it into itself as an element of its own essence. 

European memories, De-closing the Horizon

Today, the old Europe seems to have exhausted all possibilities of discourse and counter-discourse about its own identification. From Hegel to Valéry, from Husserl to Heidegger, beyond all the differences that distinguish these great examples from each other- Derrida adds-I tried to mark them elsewhere in the book Of Spirit-, evidently this traditional discourse is already a discourse of the modern Western world. It dates. It dates from the moment when Europe sees itself on the horizon, that is, from its end (the horizon, in Greek, is the limit), from the imminence of its end. This traditional discourse dated in the sense that it speaks of Europe from the perspective of its end. As far as the issue of Europe is concerned into the context of the history of ideas- as interpreted by the mentioned intellectuals- it smacks of rhetoric, is faulty of essentialism and traditionalism, it is a traditional issue of modernity.

 More precisely, for Derrida it is necessary to attempt a discontinuist approach, to make a leap leaving behind the ideas of Europe of the first half of 20th, and forget the issue of crisis, of the end of Europe so in vogue at the time, influenced by Hegelian philosophy of the absolute spirit of Europe. In any case, it is certain that Europe does not have a fixed or traditional identity, that Europe is bearer of difference, and the concept of head or origin, so dear to Derrida, means less a geographical standpoint and more a spiritual standpoint.

 For Derrida, to be means to inherit, and we Europeans, in that Europeans, are called to fulfil a paradoxical responsibility, a responsibility for and to the specific tradition of responsibility that have been bequeathed to us, the one to which even Nietzsche was appealing to, a contradictory responsibility: a) “to make ourselves the guardians of an idea of Europe, of a difference of Europe, but of a Europe that consists precisely in not closing itself off in its own identity and in advancing itself in an exemplary way toward what it is not, toward the other heading or the heading of the other, indeed—and this is perhaps something else altogether—toward the other of the heading, which would be the beyond of this modern tradition, another border structure, another shore”, b) to be faithfully responsible for this memory, and thus to respond rigorously to this double injunction: will this have to consist in repeating or in breaking with, in continuing or in opposing? Or indeed in attempting to invent another gesture, an epic gesture in truth, that presupposes memory precisely in order to assign identity from alterity, from the other heading and the other of the heading, from a completely other shore?”(OH, 28-9)

  What we Europeans find difficult to think and to do for a Europe torn away from self-identification as repetition of itself, is precisely the unicity of the today, the event, the singular advent of Europe, here and now. I believe, Derrida affirms, “that this is taking place now...I believe, rather, that this event takes place as that which comes, as that which seeks or promises itself today, in Europe, the today of a Europe whose borders are not given—no more than its name. Europe being here only a paleonymic appellation. I believe that if there is any event today, it is taking place here”. (OH, 30-1)

The Capital

The word "capital" capitalizes in effect in the body of the idiom, and in the same body, two genres of questions, precisely a question with two genders. It comes down, first to the feminine, in the feminine, i.e. the question of la capital, second to the masculine, the question of le capital, i.e. European identity. Today, we are far from being able to avoid the first, and Derrida asks, are there grounds for this? Is there from now on a place for a capital of European culture? Can one project a centre, at least a symbolic centre, at the heart of this Europe considered it for so long to be the capital of humanity or of the planet and that would renounce this role, today? The New European culture, we are speaking of, does not need a physical capital, a geographical city. Nevertheless, the ineluctable question of the capital does not disappear for all that is happening, nor do away with all reference to the capitals. On the contrary, the reference must be translated and displaced within  a problematic that is profoundly transformed by techno-scientific and techno-economic givens. “These givens also affect, among other things, the production, transmission, structure, and effect of the very discourses in which one tries to formalize this problematic, just as they affect the figure of those who produce or publicly hold these discourses—namely, ourselves, or those who in the past were so easily called "intellectuals." (OH, 36-38)

 At the first tension, a/o first contradiction, a double injunction follows. On the one hand, European cultural identity cannot be dispersed, cannot and must not be dispersed into a myriad of provinces, into a multiplicity of self-enclosed idioms or petty little nationalisms, each one jealous and untranslatable. It cannot and must not renounce places of great circulation or heavy profile, the great avenues or thoroughfares of translation and communication. On the other hand, it cannot and must not accept the capital of a centralizing authority that, by means of trans-European cultural and technological means, would control and standardize, subjecting artistic discourses and practices to a grid of intelligibility, to philosophical or aesthetic norms, to channels of immediate and efficient communication, to the pursuit of ratings and commercial profitability.

 Later, Derrida adds, “the question of the capital remains completely intact, and indeed even more intrusive in that its "politics"… are no longer linked to the polis (city, town, acropolis, neighborhood), to the traditional concept of politeia or res publica. We are perhaps moving into a zone or topology that will be called neither political nor apolitical; but, to make cautious use of an old word for new concepts, "quasi-political." (OH, 40).

 Rejecting both the fragmentation and the complete unification of Europe, i.e. the modern concept of unification of Europe, Derrida calls for a renewal of Enlightenment values and liberal democracy. Yet, these values, he argues, cannot overcome Eurocentric biases and chauvinism by themselves. By deconstructing such concepts as public opinion, freedom of the press, responsibility and identity, Derrida attempts to point the way toward a new language for contemplating Europe's destiny. Neither monopoly, nor dispersion, then. It deals with an aporia we must not hide from ourselves. I will even venture to say that ethics, politics, and responsibility, if there are any; will only ever have begun with the experience and experiment of the aporia. “The condition of possibility of this thing called responsibility is a certain experience and experiment of the possibility of the impossible: the testing of the aporia from which one may invent the only possible invention, the impossible invention. (OH, 41) Now, the aporia takes the logical form of a contradiction. A contradiction that is all the more serious in that it is thanks to the new techno-media power, to the penetrating, rapid, and irresistible circulation of images, ideas, and models, thanks to the extreme capillarity of discourses. It is precisely through contemporary tele-technologies that the geo-political boundaries and territorial markers are subject to possibilities of displacement and permanent dislocation. Whether demands are made to establish or protect national borders and state sovereignty, or whether claims are advanced for citizenship and democratic rights, these demands and claims all find a measure of their historical, legal, and discursive formation inscribed in geo-political markers and topographical or spatial boundaries. In short, what the accelerated development of tele-technologies, of cyberspace, of the new topology of ‘the virtual’ is producing, Derrida argues, is thus a practical deconstruction of the traditional and dominant concepts of the state and citizen (and thus of ‘the political’) as they are linked to the actuality of a territory. In a world that is progressively becoming dominated by the mono-perspectivism of global market economics, when and wherever a television is switched on, when and wherever a phone-call is made, when and wherever an Internet connection is established, the question of critical culture, of democracy, of the political, of de-territorialisation erupts. Here as elsewhere, the injunction seems double and contradictory for whoever is concerned about European cultural identity: if it is necessary to make sure that a centralizing hegemony (the capital) not be reconstituted, it is also necessary, for all that, not to multiply the borders, i.e., the movements and margins. It is necessary not to cultivate for own sake minority differences, untranslatable idiolects, national antagonisms, or the chauvinisms of idiom. Responsibility seems to consist today in renouncing neither of these two contradictory imperatives. “One must therefore try to invent gestures, discourses, politico-institutional practices that inscribe the alliance of these two imperatives, of these two promises or contracts: the capital and the a-capital, the other of the capital, the capital and contra-capital. That is not easy. It is even impossible to conceive of a responsibility that consists in being responsible for two laws, or that consists in responding to two contradictory injunctions.”(OH, 44) It would seem that European cultural identity, like identity or identification in general, if it must be equal to itself and to the other, up to the measure of its own immeasurable difference ‘with itself’, must belong, to the experiment of the impossible. “Nevertheless, one will always be able de jure to ask what an ethics or a politics that measures responsibility only by the rule of the impossible can be: as if doing only what were possible amounted to abandoning the ethical and political realms, or as if, inversely, in order to take an authentic responsibility it were necessary to limit oneself to impossible, impractical, and inapplicable decisions.” (OH, 45-6)

Helping from giving any examples, let us emphasize for the moment a generality: the national affirmation, as an essentially modern phenomenon, is always a philosopheme. National hegemony aims to justify itself in the name of a privilege in responsibility and in the memory of the universal and, thus, of the transnational—indeed of the trans-European—and, finally, of the transcendental or ontological. The logical schema of this argument, the backbone of this national self-affirmation like the Heideggerian Selbstbehauptung, the nuclear statement of the national "ego" or "subject", to put it quite dryly, is "I am (we are) all the more national for being European, all the more European for being trans-European and international; no one is more cosmopolitan and authentically universal than the one, than this 'we,' who is speaking to you."(OH, 48) In the logic of this cosmopolitan discourse, what is proper to a particular nation or idiom; would be to be a heading for Europe. And what is proper to Europe would be, analogically, to advance itself as a heading for the universal essence of humanity. Here I am talking about human rights: freedom of thought, and consequently freedom to publish, or else freedom to teach.

  From the issue of the head to the issue of the geopolitical frontiers, which seem to Derrida less uncertain than the geographical ones, we rediscover the spiritual frontiers. There is the greatest uncertainty concerning the borders of Europe (in the centre, to the east and to the west, to the north and to the south); its "spiritual" borders (around the idea of philosophy, reason, monotheism, Jewish, Greek, Christian Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Islamic memories, around Jerusalem, a Jerusalem itself divided, torn apart, around Athens, Rome, Moscow, Paris, and it is necessary to add, "etc.," and it is necessary to divide, yet again, each of these names with the most respectful persistence). In The Freedom of Spirit, this text of imminence whose stakes are indeed the destiny of European culture, “Valéry makes a determining appeal to the word capital, precisely in order to define culture—and the Mediterranean. That is how all that wealth incarnates into being, to which our culture owes practically everything, at least in its origins; I may say that the Mediterranean has been a veritable machine for making civilization. In addition, in creating trade, it necessarily created freedom of the spirit. On the shores of the Mediterranean, then, spirit, culture, and trade are round together (II, p. 1086 [History and Politics, p. 196]).”(OH, 63-4, Italics added)

The infinite task

  Europe must recuperate what is best about itself, but also open it up to what is not yet, nor has ever been, what will never be Europe. We are speaking of a task or a cluster of tasks new and complex looking to the future, to which, at the end of his pamphlet, by insistence Derrida refers. We are speaking of a task- in Husserl’s footsteps-, which demands to be self-responsible and to assume the very concept of humanity as a concept transcending all particular humanities.

 The duty to respond to the call of European memory, to recall what promised under the name Europe, to re-identify Europe—this duty is without common measure with all that generally understood by the name duty, though it could be shown that all other duties perhaps presuppose it in silence. This duty also dictates opening Europe, from the heading that is divided because it is also a shoreline: opening it onto that which is not, never was, and never will be Europe.

 The same duty also dictates welcoming foreigners in order not only to integrate them but also to recognize and accept their alterity: two concepts of hospitality that today divide our European and national consciousness.

The same duty dictates cultivating the virtue of such critique, of the critical idea, the critical tradition, but also submitting it, beyond critique and questioning, to a deconstructive genealogy that thinks and exceeds it without yet compromising it.

 The same duty dictates assuming the European, and uniquely European, heritage of an idea of democracy, while also recognizing that this idea, like that of international law, is never simply given, that its status is not even that of a regulative idea in the Kantian sense, but rather something that remains to be thought and to come [a venir]: not something that is certain to happen tomorrow, not the democracy (national or international, state or trans-state) of the future, but a democracy that must have the structure of a promise—and thus the memory of that which carries the future, the to-come, here and now.

 The same duty dictates respecting differences, idioms, minorities, singularities, but also the universality of formal law, the desire for translation, agreement and univocity, the law of the majority, opposition to racism, nationalism, and xenophobia.

The same duty demands tolerating and respecting all that is not placed under the authority of reason. It may have to do with faith, with different forms of faith. It may also have to do with certain thoughts, whether questioning or not, thoughts that, while attempting to think reason and the history of reason, necessarily exceed its order, without becoming, simply because of this, irrational, and much less irrationalist. For these thoughts may in fact also try to remain faithful to the ideal of the Enlightenment, the Aufklarung, the Illuminism, while yet acknowledging its limits, in order to work on the Enlightenment of this time, this time that is ours—today.

 This same duty surely calls for responsibility, for the responsibility to think, speak, and act in compliance with this double contradictory imperative, a contradiction that must not be only an apparent or illusory antinomy (not even a transcendental illusion in a Kantian type of dialectic) but must be effective and, with experience, through experiment, interminable. That, it also calls for respecting whatever refuses a certain responsibility, for example, the responsibility to respond before any and every instituted tribunal. Like the fission reaction it propagates in our discourse, the paradox of the paradox should lead us to take the old name of Europe at once very seriously and cautiously, that is, to take it lightly, only in quotation marks, as the best paleonymic, in a certain situation, for what we recall (to ourselves) or what we promise (ourselves).

Finally, Derrida concludes: “I am European, I am no doubt a European intellectual, and I like to recall this, I like to recall this to myself, and why would I deny it? But, I am not, nor do I feel, European in every part, that is, European through and through. By which I mean, by which I wish to say, or must say: I do not want to be and must not be European through and through, European in every part. My cultural identity, that in the name of which I speak, is not only European, it is not identical to itself, and I am not "cultural" through and through, "cultural" in every part.” (OH, 76-82)

Democracy and Europe

 Democracy is born in Greece, and by extension in Europe. In the famous speech by Pericles- I report from Thucydides’ Peloponnesian wars and quote at some length- we can read, “Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbours', but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business, we are neither suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbour if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him, which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment”. The early democracy of Athens names itself an isonomia, that is, literally, “equality before the law”, the nomos. In concrete terms, the equality of the citizens consisted above all in possessing the same freedom to speak publicly concerning the common affairs of the polis in the agora. The concept fundamental to democracy for the early Athenians is equality with respect to public speech. Only through questioning, democracy can move away from what Derrida calls “democracy today” toward “an ideal of democracy”. And, if the true democracy is just ‘democracy to come’, an ideal rather than a reality, it cannot be a fixed- point people have their sights on, rather something in a process of becoming. Still now, democracy is the only constitutional paradigm in which, in principle, one has or takes the right and the responsibility to criticize publicly everything, including the idea of democracy, its concept, its history and its name. Moreover (and more interestingly), after the quoted speech by Pericles, I think Derrida would say, “Greece, or whatever deserves the name Greek, is that which actually makes it possible to envision another Europe, a Europe of Hope”.

 What kind of democracy for Europe?

In Politics of Friendship, Derrida puts the aporias of political friendship transposed to democracy.  Democracy is a promise of universal inclusiveness, of each singular one counting equally; its fraternal or national limitation on members naturalizes the ineluctable decision of inclusion and exclusion. It begets an inevitable self-delimitation. Democracy remains a promise, thus remaining infinitely deferred, always 'to come' and 'spectral', that is, hovering between absence and presence. Often, Derrida speaks of the "disjunctive laws of democracy" that dictate, simultaneously and impossibly, the requirement of "calculable majorities" of "stabilizable, representable subjects, all equal". On the one hand, an absolute respect for irreducible singularity, on the other, a disjunction that issues in a demand for a "democracy to come" that remains unrealizable in any given "present." More precisely, the ethical and political are necessarily beset by aporias that require any responsible decision to pass through an ordeal of undecidability. According to Alex Thomson6, the major and apparent argument seems to be that Derrida's ‘democracy to come’ is situated at a higher level of political analysis, from which one could show that the aporetics of democracy disallows the strong opposition between democracy and totalitarianism. The Derrida's argument is that, similar to what we saw in friendship, choosing to privilege one's 'own' language is both inescapable, a decision taken for the subject by 'the other,' and yet violent for its neglect of other languages and idioms. ‘Democracy to come’ constitutes, in sum, both the source of any further democratic re-formation of European or international institutions and the mark of their necessary failure to embody the 'demos.' The quasi-concept of 'democracy to come' and the strategies of thought informing this concept make clear that Derrida's thought turns around the determination of law and the necessary excess of law within that determination. According to Derrida, the aporia between the two constitutes the object of critical philosophizing. Philosophy must be concerned, in order to be critical, with both the determination of justice and, at the same time, the excess of justice over determination. This double strategy unties deconstruction from politics at the very moment it ties deconstruction to it. In this perspective, the aporia of 'democracy to come' has both immediate, but also necessarily limited purchase upon world actuality and the formation of universal law.   

Again, how the philosophical community may respond in the living present? We already know that there is no pre-determined path leading from philosophy to politics, from thought to action. If the ‘to-come’ that marks the dis-adjusted and disjointed time of the present is always already haunting ‘actual’ political interventions in the real world, we can never rest assured with the good conscience of having made the right decision. This implies we are between the undecidability of decision and the hyperbolic responsibility for the other, a responsibility fraught with risks and dangers, an infinite responsibility. Hamlet’s confrontation with the ghost of his father precipitates the judgment that ‘The time is out of joint’ and it becomes his responsibility, as his father’s heir, to set things right. Just as Hamlet must deal with issues of inheritance, responsibility, and the promise for a future in response to the ghost of his father, Derrida claims that all of us living now—in this dis-adjusted time—must deal with the question of inheritance, responsibility and the promise.  On the condition that the un-conditionality and infinite responsibility does not mean simply we should make better policy, but that in doing so the entire apparatus of western political culture be removed and re-thought in an unpredictable and emerging future. Ethics do not involve the mere application of well-worn maxims, but become reacquainted with the fear and trembling that accompanies any decision. Beyond the oscillation between respect for singularity and the impulse toward the community of friends, for Derrida, or his spectre, remains-let me emphasize- the confessed/non confessed, written/non written search for a path to democracy after democracy, something that can be accomplished only by way of approximation that may give a plus of democracy to the present and future of Europe.

In closing, I like to wind down with the last words in continuation of the second aforementioned thought in exergue: “It is possible to open up to the ‘come’ of a certain democracy which is no longer an insult to the friendship we have striven to think beyond the homo fraternal and phallogocentric scheme? When will we be ready for an experience that friendship, which would at last, be just, just beyond the law, and measured up against its measurelessness?

O my democratic friends...” Derrida, Politics of Friendship


1) J. Derrida, Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins (London: Verso, 1997, 281ff).

2) On this theme, see my review in PIR: Lorenzo Fabbri, The Domestication of Derrida: Rorty, Pragmatism and Deconstruction. London:  Continuum 2008. 

3) Riedel, M. “ Heideggers europaische Wendung, Gander, Europa und die Philosopie, p. 43-66, Frankfurt/Main Kloster mann, 1993. On the way, let me refer to my paper : F. Tampoia, Actos VII Congreso “Cultura  Europea” Pamplona 2005 - Paper “Philosophers and Europe: M. Heidegger, G. Gadamer, J. Derrida 

4) J. Derrida, The Other Heading- Reflections on Today’s Europe, Indiana University Press, 1992 Introduction, p. xlv-vi)

5) R. Gasche, Europe, or the infinite task- A study of a philosophical concept- Stanford University Press, California 2009, p. 297

6) Alex Thomson, Deconstruction and Democracy, Continuum, 2005.

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Emanuel Paparella2009-09-03 14:25:08
Plenty of food for thought in the above article; it may take a while to ruminate on it and digest fully but it motivates me, for one, to take another look at Derrida, a late philosopher still in his heyday at Yale University where he frequently came to lecture in the 80s. In fact, any modern philosopher, even if she disagrees with Derrida, needs to come to terms with him if he wishes to understand anything about Europe’s cultural identity and how to even begin finding our way back to the future….(continued below)

Emanuel Paparella2009-09-03 14:26:47
There is a passage in the above article on Derrida’s thought on Europe on which I’d like to comment briefly if I may, and it is this: “The same duty demands tolerating and respecting all that is not placed under the authority of reason. It may have to do with faith, with different forms of faith. It may also have to do with certain thoughts, whether questioning or not, thoughts that, while attempting to think reason and the history of reason, necessarily exceed its order, without becoming, simply because of this, irrational, and much less irrationalist. For these thoughts may in fact also try to remain faithful to the ideal of the Enlightenment, the Aufklarung, the Illuminism, while yet acknowledging its limits, in order to work on the Enlightenment of this time, this time that is ours—today.”

I find the passage intriguing because it powerfully hints at the corrections to, or better, the pointing out of the limitations, of the Enlightenment, the so called age of reason, and rationalism run amuck ending in the rationalizing in the 20th century of what ought never have been rationalized. I am thinking of the likes of Pascal (“the heart has reasons that reason knows not”) and Rousseau (“I feel therefore I am”). I am particularly thinking of Vico, who, more than any other 18th century philosopher, was the one who pointed out in The New Science via his poetic philosophy that the poetical, especially the poetical within history (one of man’s creations) is indeed complementary to reason and to eliminate it from the polis (as Plato misguidedly suggests in The Republic) is in fact to truncate reason itself and end up with Dante’s “uomo lanterna,” the man who does light unto himself and ends up in a dark cave in hell.

Emanuel Paparella2009-09-03 16:37:46
Perhaps it also bears pointing out in this context that Mark Lilla, who is prominently mentioned and quoted at the beginning of the above article, is a well known American Vico scholar and academician who has contributed much on the correct interpretation of Vico's historicism and solving the riddle heritage/modernity in the same; a riddle which indeed remains the perhaps unsolvable riddle of Europe's cultural identity.

Francesco Tampoia2009-09-07 12:15:07
Dear Emanuel,

No doubt, the article shows a cluster of themes, topics and debates about Europe: the metaphor of navigation and Heading, Eurocentrism and euroscepticism, the European heritage and the infinite task, European culture and civilization, the ideas of Europe. But, also, universal themes such as friendship, the Ulyssism, the identity, the demand of the other and the Other, the inclusion/exclusion, the de-closing horizons, the responsibility for the other, the instance of the singular and the impulse towards the community of friends, the aporia of democracy to come, the aporia politics/ethics, and so on. Derrida was much critical towards the Enlightenment, nevertheless he felt a true heir of it, provided that taken in its full historical dimension and replete with its internal contradictions. Derrida always upheld the universal principles of tolerance and liberty, defended the liberty of thought together with the liberty of faith, of different form of faith, the principles nowadays we currently call human and civil principles. I agree with you on the references to Pascal, Rousseau, Vico, Kierkegaard and obviously to Levinas.

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