Geoffrey Bennington
Emory University

Volume 13, 2019

“Un texte a toujours plusieurs âges, la lecture doit en prendre son parti”

Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie, p. 150

What follows is a very modest contribution to an ongoing attempt to understand Derrida’s understanding of historicity in relation to Heidegger. It’s somewhat focused on the recently-published 1964-5 seminar Heidegger: The Question of Being and History, but I’ll be trying to provide something I’d rather not call “context” for that discussion across a broader range of texts. (The reasons for not calling it “context” are in fact part of our problem here.) For similar reasons, I will not be limiting myself only to, say, “early” Derrida, if only because knowing what “early Derrida” means must presuppose something as to the concepts of “age” or “epoch” that I am hoping to bring into question here.

To try to keep this manageable, I’m going to take as my guide the word or concept of “epoch,” or rather the French époque, and try to exploit the fact that this word has quite often—and often it seems justifiably—been translated in to English by the word “age”. Whence my portmanteau title, which is supposed to resonate across both French and English: pronounce it how you like. (I don’t know if something similar might be possible in Spanish, maybe “epoquedades,” which might have further resources of its own.) I should also add that some of these remarks were first prepared for an informal presentation at a meeting in England earlier this year, where the explicit pretext was to celebrate or commemorate or mark in some way the 50th anniversary of the 1967 publication of three of Derrida’s major works, and most notably De la grammatologie, under a general characterization of the fifty years in question as “The Age of Grammatology”. At that meeting I also expressed my grave doubts about commemoration in general and indeed anniversaries of all sorts, even though my reservations about celebrating the 50th anniversary of De la grammatologie were relatively muted compared to my feelings about the attempt a year earlier to manufacture a commemorative event out of the 40th anniversary of the English translation of that work.[1] I also referred to some more or less familiar paradoxes generated by thinking about “ages,” which seem to scramble and sometimes invert the relations between the old and the young, such that the older among us date back to the earliest and therefore youngest times, and carry that youthfulness with us, whereas the youngest arrive late, when the world is already old, and are weighed down by that great age. As Bob Dylan says in a 1964 song preciously entitled “My Back Pages,” “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”. I find these paradoxes genuinely puzzling and hope one day (when I’m younger) to pursue them further.

Let’s start in the Grammatologie with an important passage from the Avertissement that precedes even the famous Exergue:

Il s’agit d’une lecture de ce que nous pourrions peut-être appeler l’époque de Rousseau…. Bien que le mot époque ne s’épuise pas en ces déterminations, nous avions à traiter d’une figure structurale autant que d’une totalité historique. Nous nous sommes donc efforcé d’associer les deux formes d’attention qui semblaient requises, répétant ainsi la question du texte, de son statut historique, de son temps et de son espace propres. Cette époque passée est en effet constituée de part en part comme un texte, en un sens de ces mots que nous aurons à déterminer. Qu’elle conserve, en tant que telle, des valeurs de lisibilité et une efficacité de modèle, qu’elle dérange ainsi le temps de la ligne ou la ligne du temps, c’est ce que nous avons voulu suggérer en interrogeant au passage, pour y prendre appel, le rousseauisme déclaré d’un ethnologue moderne. [2]

(DG, 8)

The (genuine) issue of choosing to translate French époque as either “epoch” or “age” (so that “The Age of Rousseau” sounds more idiomatic in English than “The Epoch of Rousseau,” even though in French Derrida hardly ever uses the—pervasively Foucaldian—concept of “âge” in this sense: opting, as does Spivak, for a hendiadys (“the word ‘age’ or ‘epoch’” for “le mot époque” is something translators usually do better to avoid)—that issue does open onto something that gives a clue as to Derrida’s way of thinking about these issues. Just as Derrida is explicitly trying to use his notion of “époque” as a “structural figure” that is found as much in Lévi-Strauss as in Rousseau to disrupt “le temps de la ligne ou la ligne du temps,” and thereby—we imagine—the other sense of “époque” as historical totality—so later in his career, when he does thematize on occasion “âge” more directly, the point will always be to pluralize, multiply or (as I would prefer to say) scatter the ages. So for example, I could invoke a passage from the second volume of the Death Penalty seminar[3] where Derrida is explicitly addressing the question “qu’est-ce qu’un âge?,” which takes off from the question of “mental age” in death penalty cases, but moves through the following points: 1) we already all have a multiplicity of mental and social ages; 2) there is a graver and untranslatable difference between all those ages and the age of the unconscious (if indeed it has an age), such that “nous avons synchroniquement plus d’un âge [we have synchronically more than one age];” 3) and this irreducible multiplicity communicates, beyond the onto-genetic dimension of “our” ages, with “the irreducible multiplicity, in each of us, of the ages of humanity, of anthropological culture, indeed of the ages of (human or animal) life in general,” such that “There is in us simultaneously, in our consciousness and our unconscious, something of the old man and of the child but also of the man of the twenty-first century, of the fifth century BCE, of Cro-Magnon man and the Neanderthal, of the great ape, the tiger, and the squirrel.” (This long development might itself find an early pre-figure in remarks made in the Grammatology about childhood (“how is a child in general possible?”), which themselves perhaps emerge from comments in the 64-5 seminar about it not being self-evident why philosophy tends to prefer adult discourse to that of a child.[4])

Even if it might seem that I am slightly artificially exploiting a translation issue to bring époque and âge together, Derrida does himself on occasion play on these possibilities: for example at the end of Apories,[5] but also in a more sustained way in the GREPH-related text “L’âge de Hegel”:

When Hegel says that he still remembers the idea clara and syllogistics we note a mixture of coyness (refinement and play, the put-on puerility of the great mathematician who feigns being astonished that he still remembers his multiplication tables) a certain affected tenderness for the remnants of the child in himself… It is a question, precisely, of age, of the order and teleology of acquisition, of progress. And this progress from age to age is not only that of the schoolboy in the Prussian Gymnasium. We discover its stages and its sequence in the history of philosophy. The age of formalism and quantitative technique—the age of Leibniz, for example—is that of “incapable childhood,” (unvermögende Kindheit), as the Greater Logic puts it. But the modernist theme of productive spontaneity remains just as abstract, and hence childish (for the child is more abstract than the adult, like a concept still undetermined) just as empty or incapable as are formalism and mechanical memory insofar as they have not been worked through, sublated. The entire “system” of speculative dialectics organizes this childhood anamnesis to suit the ministerial project—its conformism, respectful and sometimes inane; its irony; its coyness; its imperturbable thoroughness.[6] 

(DP, 132-3)

This traditional, here Hegelian, attempt to map the age of the individual onto the ages of humanity or the epochs of philosophy, is of course exactly what Derrida is putting into question in general, and most typically looking for help in so doing from Heidegger.

One suspicion we might reasonably have is that Derrida’s apparent preference for the term “époque” is due to the possibilities it provides for playing with the phenomenological notion of épokhè. And it is true that Derrida seems often to find this play quite irresistible. My quick suggestion, however (pending further analysis), is that this play is usually indulged in opportunistically rather than conceptually (if you’ll allow me that simplificatory pair of terms) except when it gives rise to some of Derrida’s most serious and difficult questions about Heidegger, to which I shall now turn. Already in the 1964-5 Heidegger seminar, for example:

This—the self-evidence of self-evidence—is what is to be solicited as a determination or as a historical epoch, that is to be subjected qua epoch to an epoch, epokhè that is to be subjected as epoch of ratio to the epoch of Thinking (thinking goes beyond Ratio for Heidegger), to subject that epoch to this epoch in order to bring out, bring out neither as a present self-evidence nor as another form of evidence, for there are not two forms of evidence—bring out in the sense of giving to think . . . what? Historicity itself.

(Heidegger, 213/141-2)

And again, a little later:

The history spoken of by philosophy, in the final analysis and even when it speaks best about it, is the limited history of one epoch of being. An epoch in which being is determined in absolutely general fashion as a being, in more determinate fashion by one epoch in the epoch as presence, and in still more determinate fashion as presence in representation. Epoch of being, which means both period and suspension, epokhé, through which being, in its epoch, withdraws and hides, brackets itself in a historial movement, under its determination, ontic determination in general, and, following that, other more determinate determinations.

(Heidegger, 217/144-5)

So: we’ve seen that Derrida plays with the equivocation of “age” and “epoch,” with the possibilities of suspending “epoch” via “épokhè,” with the ambiguity between epoch as “structural” and/or “historical” totality.” This last ambiguity can be more or less foregrounded, as when Derrida writes in the Grammatology:

Pour percevoir convenablement le geste que nous esquissons ici, il faudra entendre d’une façon nouvelle les expressions « époque », « clôture d’une époque », « généalogie historique » ; et d’abord les soustraire à tout relativisme.

(DG, 26)

(This reference to “clôture” also suggests we might pursue some of these questions in the light of the distinction Derrida often appeals to in this early work between clôture and fin, as here, still in the Grammatology:

L’unité de tout ce qui se laisse viser aujourd’hui à travers les concepts les plus divers de la science et de l’écriture est au principe, plus ou moins secrètement mais toujours, déterminée par une époque historico-métaphysique dont nous ne faisons qu’entrevoir la clôture. Nous ne disons pas la fin. 

(DG, 14)

Or again, a little later in the same text, already engaging with Heidegger:

Le logocentrisme serait donc solidaire de la détermination de l’être de l’étant comme présence. Dans la mesure où un tel logocentrisme n’est pas tout à fait absent de la pensée heideggerienne, il la retient peut-être encore dans cette époque de l’onto-théologie, dans cette philosophie de la présence, c’est-à-dire dans la philosophie. Cela signifierait peut-être qu’on ne sort pas de l’époque dont on peut dessiner la clôture. Les mouvements de l’appartenance ou de la non-appartenance à l’époque sont trop subtils, les illusions à cet égard sont trop faciles pour qu’on puisse trancher ici. [7]

(DG, 23-4)

… and perhaps most dramatically at the end of La voix et le phénomène, in a difficult passage that immediately follows that enigmatic slogan “la différance infinite est finie”:

En ce sens, à l’intérieur de la métaphysique de la présence, de la philosophie comme savoir de la présence de l’objet, comme être-auprès-de-soi du savoir dans la conscience, nous croyons tout simplement au savoir absolu comme clôture sinon comme fin de l’histoire. Nous y croyons littéralement. Et qu’une telle clôture a eu lieu. L’histoire de l’être comme présence, comme présence à soi dans le savoir absolu, comme conscience (de) soi dans l’infinité de la parousie, cette histoire est close. L’histoire de la présence est close, car « histoire » n’a jamais voulu dire que cela : présentation (Gegenwärtigung) de l’être, production et recueillement de l’étant dans la présence, comme savoir et maitrise. [8]

(VP, 115/87-8)

These elements do more than merely complicate how we might try to think about history, but seem to unsettle more radically the very age of age or the being-epoch or the epoch.)

What I really wanted to discuss here, however, is the way that when Derrida thematizes these issue in a more focused way, he very often does so via reference to Heidegger, and especially the 1938 essay Die Zeit des Weltbildes, the very title of which immediately in translation engages with what we’ve been saying up until now. That title, which you might imagine would be prudently and quite idiomatically translated into English as simply “The Time of the World-Picture,” but in fact is canonically “The Age of the World-Picture”, and, back in French, not “Le temps de l’image du monde,” but “L’époque des conceptions du monde”. And although Derrida is clearly quite impressed (as usual) with Heidegger’s analysis, he also (as usual) harbors a nagging residual doubt about it.

Heidegger wants to show here that the very concept of world-picture belongs to a picture of the world, to an epoch. Not to a world-picture among others but to the world-picture. What does this mean? There are not world-pictures in history; there is one epoch that had a world-picture and it is the very one that forged the concept of world-picture and wanted every epoch to have its own. Before the epoch of metaphysics inaugurated by the Cartesian moment, there was no world-picture. The Greeks, the Romans, Medieval Europe did not have a world-picture. That means that for them the world was not a totality of beings organized according to the representation and the production of the subject-man. The fact that modern times look for the possible world-pictures of other epochs signifies first and foremost that the world is determined by modern times in such a way that one can have a world-picture. Before modern times — here before the Cartesian point of reference — the Greek world and the Medieval world were, to the contrary, thought in such a way that the very idea of a world-picture was necessarily and essentially impossible and untenable. What Heidegger says here is perfectly consistent with the theme of the radical historicity of the world. The world, as it worlds itself on the basis of the transcendence of Da-sein, is historical through and through. It thus has a different meaning at every epoch. But that it lend itself at a given moment to a concept of world-picture is proper to one epoch, our epoch, in which the world is thought in such a way that it lends itself to this concept.

(Heidegger, 197-8/129-30)

We should be attentive to the consistency of a Derridean gesture with respect to this important text of Heidegger’s. Although Derrida does reference it quite regularly, his longest engagement with it comes in (what I suspect is) a lesser-known text in Psyché, entitled Envoi:

Bien entendu, ce règne de la représentation, Heidegger ne l’interprète pas comme un accident, encore moins comme un malheur devant lequel il faudrait se replier frileusement. La fin de Die Zeit des Weltbildes est très nette à cet égard, au moment où Heidegger évoque un monde moderne qui commence à se soustraire à l’espace de la représentation et du calculable. […] je préciserai ceci, qui préparera de loin une question en retour sur le chemin ou la démarche de Heidegger. Pour n’être pas l’accident d’un faux pas, ce règne de la représentation doit avoir été destiné, pré-destiné, geschickte, c’est-à-dire littéralement envoyé, dispensé, assigné par un destin comme rassemblement d’une histoire (Geschick, Geschichte). L’avènement de la représentation doit avoir été préparé, prescrit, annoncé de loin, émis, je dirai télésigné dans un monde, le monde grec, où pourtant la représentation, la Vorstellung ou la Vorgestelltheit des Seienden ne régnait pas. […] Or si pour les Grecs, selon Heidegger, le monde n’est pas essentiellement Bild, image disponible, forme spectaculaire offerte au regard ou à la perception d’un sujet […]il a bien fallu néanmoins que le monde comme Bild, puis comme représentation, s’annonçât chez les Grecs, et ce ne fut rien de moins que le platonisme. La détermination de l’être de l’étant comme eidos n’est pas encore sa détermination comme Bild, mais l’eidos (aspect, vue, figure visible) serait la condition lointaine, la présupposition, la médiation secrète pour qu’un jour le monde devienne représentation. Tout se passe comme si le monde du platonisme (…) avait préparé, dispensé, destiné, envoyé, mis en voie et en chemin le monde de la représentation : jusqu’à nous en passant par le relais des positions ou des postes de type cartésien, hegelien, schopenhauerien, nietzschéen, même, etc., c’est-à-dire le tout de l’histoire de la métaphysique dans son unité présumée comme unité indivisible d’un envoi. [9]

(Psyché, 123-4)

And later, having insisted that this presumed unity of “sending” in Heidegger is not of a Hegelian-representational type, Derrida enters into what it is tempting to think of as the Heidegger-specific modality of some of his most difficult writing, often marked by a rhetoric of almost endless concession leading to a final question that is really an assertion. Let me begin to point to some of the elements of this rhetoric in the passages I’ll quote:

Cette présomption unifiante, rassemblante, dérivationniste n’est-elle pas à l’œuvre jusque dans les déplacements les plus forts et les plus nécessaires de Heidegger? N’en trouverait-on pas un indice dans le fait que l’époque de la représentation ou de la Vorstellung y apparaît comme une époque dans le destin ou dans l’envoi rassemblé (Geschick) de l’être? Et que le Gestell continue de s’y rapporter? Bien que l’époque ne soit pas un mode, une modification, au sens strict, d’un étant ou d’un sens substantiel, bien qu’elle ne soit pas davantage un moment ou une détermination au sens hégélien, elle est bien annoncée par un envoi de l’être qui d’abord se décèle comme présence, plus rigoureusement comme Anwesenheit. Pour que l’époque de la représentation ait son sens et son unité d’époque, il faut qu’elle appartienne au rassemblement d’un envoi plus originaire et plus puissant. Et s’il n’y avait pas le rassemblement de cet envoi, le Geschick de l’être, si ce Geschick ne s’était pas annoncé d’abord comme Anwesenheit de l’être, aucune interprétation de l’époque de la représentation ne viendrait ordonner celle-ci dans l’unité d’une histoire de la métaphysique. [10]


And then even more concessions, as often in Derrida’s readings of Heidegger, but concessions with a kind of immovable objection lurking behind them (that can come up more or less rapidly depending on the context, usually in the form of a question or suspicion, often enough deferred for some subsequent elaboration). Let me just mark some of the logical articulations here, following on directly from the previous quotation:

Sans doute—et ici il faut redoubler de prudence et de lenteur, beaucoup plus que je ne puis le faire ici—le rassemblement de l’envoi et de la destinalité, le Geschick n’a-t-il pas la forme d’un telos, encore moins d’une certitude (cartésienne ou lacanienne) de l’arrivée à destination de l’envoi. Mais du moins y a-t-il (gibt es) un envoi. Du moins un envoi se donne-t-il, qui se rassemble avec lui-même; et ce rassemblement est la condition, l’être-ensemble de ce qui se donne à penser pour qu’une figure époquale—ici celle de la représentation—se détache en son contour et s’ordonne en son rythme dans l’unité d’une destination ou plutôt d’une destinalité de l’être. Sans doute l’être-ensemble du Geschick, et on peut le dire aussi du Gestell, n’est-il ni celui d’une totalité, ni celui d’un système, ni celui d’une identité comparable à aucune autre. Sans doute doit-on prendre les mêmes précautions au sujet du rassemblement de toute figure époquale. Néanmoins la question demeure: si, en un sens qui n’est ni chronologique, ni logique, ni intra-historique, toute l’interprétation historiale ou destinale ordonne l’époque de la représentation (autrement dit la modernité, et dans le même texte Heidegger traduit : l’ère du subjectum, de l’objectivisme et du subjectivisme, de l’anthropologie, de l’humanisme esthético-moral, etc.) à un envoi originaire de l’être comme Anwesenheit qui lui-même se traduit en présence puis en représentation selon des traductions qui sont autant de mutations dans le même, dans l’être-ensemble du même envoi, alors l’être-ensemble de l’envoi originaire s’arrive en quelque sorte à lui-même, au plus près de lui-même, dans l’Anwesenheit. Même s’il y a de la dissension (Zwiespalt) dans ce que Heidegger appelle la grande époque grecque et l’expérience de l’Anwesenheit, cette dissension se rassemble dans le legein. Elle se sauve, se garde et assure ainsi une sorte d’indivisibilité du destinal. C’est en faisant fonds sur cette indivisibilité rassemblée de l’envoi que la lecture heideggerienne peut détacher des époques, et la plus puissante, la plus longue, la plus dangereuse aussi de toutes, l’époque de la représentation dans les temps modernes. [11]


Whence, according to what I think is a consistent move in the rhetoric of this very specific Heideggerian-Derridean Auseinandersetzung, in which the concessions generously made are usually sooner or later withdrawn:

Mais on pourra difficilement éviter de se demander si le rapport de l’époque de la représentation à la grande époque grecque n’est pas encore interprété par Heidegger sur un mode représentatif, comme si le couple Anwesenheit/repraesentatio dictait encore la loi de sa propre interprétation, celle-ci ne faisant que se redoubler et reconnaître dans le texte historiai qu’elle prétend déchiffrer. [12]


Leading to the following, again I think typical of the rhetoric in question:

Ma question est alors la suivante, et je la formule trop vite : partout où l’envoi de l’être se divise, défie le legein, déjoue sa destination, est-ce que le schéma de lecture heideggerien n’est pas principiellement contestable, historialement déconstruit ? Déconstruit dans l’historialité qu’il implique encore ? S’il y a eu de la représentation, c’est peut-être que, justement (et Heidegger le reconnaîtrait), l’envoi de l’être était originairement menacé en son être-ensemble, en son Geschick, par de la divisibilité ou de la dissension (ce que j’appellerais de la dissémination). Ne peut-on donc en conclure que s’il y a eu de la représentation, la lecture époquale qu’en propose Heidegger en devient, de ce fait, d’entrée de jeu problématique, du moins comme lecture ordonnante (et elle veut l’être aussi) sinon comme questionnement ouvert de ce qui donne à penser par-delà le problématique, et même par-delà la question de l’être, du destin rassemblé ou de l’envoi de l’être.[13]

Now a slightly simpler version of this rhetorical configuration is in fact already at work in the 1964-5 seminar which is one focus for us here:

This modern conception of the world as “representation” was impossible in the medieval world… It was even less [possible] for the Greeks. I refer you here to what Heidegger says about this on [German] p. 84 [Off the Beaten Track, 68–69]. But I want to hold especially on to the qualification he makes at the end of this analysis: although there could not have been a Greek Weltbild, Plato’s determination of the beingness of beings as seen eidos (aspect) is the distant, historial, summary condition withdrawn in a secret mediation, for the world (Welt) to have been able to become an image (Bild). Which means that in spite of the differences between the Greek, Medieval and Modern epochs, there is a unity, the unity of one great epoch of the world, ruled by philosophy as destiny of Europe and that sees the deployment of the world as objectity, from Plato to Husserl.

(Heidegger, 199-200/131-2)

And this suspicion, already voiced here in 1964-5, is as it happens also at work in the other text we are focusing on, namely the Théorie et pratique seminar.[14] On p. 143, with the symptomatic play on “epoch” and “epochè,” for example, a first move describes what Heidegger is arguing in “The Question Concerning Technology”:

[Heidegger] situe la volonté de maîtrise dans le rapport à la technique, à cette technologie métaphysique comme époque de la vérité, époque où la vérité se retient, se suspend (epochè) dans sa détermination technologique.

(TP, 143)

And Derrida then, in a movement that I think is consistent across his discussions of Heidegger, and that we’ll see in a moment that Derrida at any rate seems to think is consistent, suggests that Heidegger is himself caught up in the problematic he is helping to bring out:

Ma question serait à l’instant la suivante: est-ce que le mode de questionnement, le chemin du Fragen, le Fragen comme construction d’un chemin chez Heidegger, ne continue pas de procéder, dans sa technique même, dans sa procédure et ses procédés, dans la mesure où il n’est pas purement aventureux et empirique, selon une loi qui resterait celle de la techno-métaphysique et de la Richtigkeit, c’est-à-dire de ce système de la volonté de maîtrise qui en est indissociable? En construisant son chemin comme celui d’un « retour» (Heimkehr) vers un sens initial (Weg zum anfanglichen Sinn), malgré toutes les différenciations et les mutations dont nous avons tenu compte la dernière fois, est-ce que Heidegger ne présume pas, ne répète pas la présomption philosophique, ici techno-métaphysique, de l’unité sémantique du champ, du continuum philosophique, continuum dont la présomption est évidemment une condition de maîtrise ? Autrement dit la question sur la Richtigkeit ne se soumet-elle pas à l’injonction même de ce qui est questionné, ne répète-t-elle pas plus ou moins audiblement cela même qu’elle interroge ? Est-ce que ce type de la question heideggérienne, apparemment posée depuis le bord du philosophique et concernant l’histoire de la philosophie dans son ensemble, ne vise pas à s’assurer une maîtrise de type technique sur la techno-métaphysique, si bien qu’il ne ferait qu’en développer et proliférer le projet? Et s’il en était ainsi —je laisse cette question à l’état de principe ou d’hypothèse et sans développement—, le texte heideggérien, l’ensemble de ses procédures de questionnement, son écriture, ses modes rhétoriques, ses stratégies, son inscription dans un champ technologique (au sens large : la scène politico-sociale, l’institution universitaire, la machine éditoriale, aussi bien que l’ensemble des ressources techniques de son langage, disons sa rhétorique) devraient aussi être analysés, en gros et en détail, comme les effets—je dirais de son objet, non pas la description ou l’analyse ou le questionnement de son objet mais l’effet de son objet : c’est là une structure de discours difficile à form[ul]er, mais elle me paraît nécessaire. Le questionnement de Heidegger sur la techno-métaphysique serait encore commandé par elle.[15]

Note that 10 years or so later, in De l’esprit, Derrida is much less cautious about the telos accusation: here’s the fourth of four threads or “open questions” he is entertaining about Heidegger: “Le quatrième fil, enfin, conduit, à travers la pensée de l’épochalité, en elle-même et par sa mise en oeuvre, dans ce que j’appellerai de façon un peu provocante la téléologie cachée ou l’ordre narratif”.[16]

So (if I can parody Derrida a little) my question here is this: if we now know that Derrida sooner or later, perhaps after an almost infinitely patient, meticulous and generous reading punctuated by all kinds of concessions, will suggest that in the end Heidegger has, from the beginning, thought of historicity in terms of this “hidden teleology,” and that we should therefore, having oh so carefully taken the measure of the complexity of Heidegger’s thinking (the way most readers, exemplarily Deleuze and Foucault, do not) but then found it to fall short, to tourner court, to have always already been destined by its own destinal gesture to end up with this narrative-teleological determination of historicity—that we should therefore be seeking a quite different way of thinking historicity: what would that look like? In the seminar La vie la mort from 1975-6 (immediately before the seminar on Théorie et pratique), and from which the “Spéculer—sur Freud” section of The Post Card is drawn (as indeed is most of Otobiographies), Derrida, having used the term époque to refer to the current times, says this in an aside: “Quand je dis époque, je désigne un ensemble que je ne sais pas nommer autrement mais en réservant toute autre appellation, et en ne faisant pas de cette notion d’époque une simple dépendance du discours heideggérien sur l’époque et les époques de l’être”.[17] When I say “epoch,” I am designating an ensemble that I do not know how to name otherwise, but holding all other names in reserve, and not making of this notion of epoch a simple dependency of Heidegger’s discourse on the epoch and the epochs of being.]”

So, to further specify my question: can we imagine a negotiation with the irreducible historicity recognized by Derrida that does not make—as is abundantly the case in the Grammatology, for example—this type of provisional use of the concepts of epoch and/or age, of epochage, a negotiation that does not indulge in époquage?


01. I refer to the so-called “fortieth anniversary edition” of Gayatri Spivak’s translation of Of Grammatology (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). I express some reservations about the edition in “Embarrassing Ourselves,” in the LA Review of Books (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/embarrassing-ourselves/). In what follows I will refer to the French texte of De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967) as DG, Spivak’s original translation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976) as G1, and the revised translation as G2.

2. I’ll simply highlight some problematic moments in the translations without detailing possible objections or corrections, of which there would be, alas, many: OG1: “It is a question of a reading of what may perhaps be called the “age” of Rousseau…. Although the word “age” or “epoch” can be given more than these determinations, I should mention that I have concerned myself with a structural figure as much as a historical totality. I have attempted to relate these two seemingly necessary approaches, thus repeating the question of the text, its historical status, its proper time and space. The age already in the past is in fact constituted in every respect as a text, in a sense of these words that I shall have to establish . As such the age conserves the values of legibility and the efficacy of a model and thus disturbs the time (tense) of the line or the line of time. I have tried to suggest this by calling upon and questioning the declared Rousseauism of a modern anthropologist.”OG2: “It is about a reading of what may perhaps be called the “age” of Rousseau…. Although the word “age” or “epoch” is not fully covered by these determinations, we have dealt with a structural figure as much as a historical totality. We have [donc] tried hard to relate these two seemingly necessary approaches, thus repeating the question of the text, its historical status, its proper time and space. That past age or epoch is in fact constituted in every respect as a text, in a sense of these words that we will have to determine. That it should conserve, as a text, the values of legibility and the efficacy of a model, and disturb thus the time of the line or the line of time, is what we have wished to suggest by questioning in passing [pour y prendre appel] the declared Rousseauism of a modern anthropologist.”

3. Jacques Derrida, La peine de mort II (Paris: Galilée, 2015); tr. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Chciago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 31-3/12-13

4. Heidegger: la question de l’être et l’histoire (Paris: Galilée, 2013); tr. Geoffrey Bennington as Heidegger: The Question of Being and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 68/34. As the French edition of this seminar is riddled with errors of transcription and construal, in what follows I will quote the English version only.

5. Jacques Derrida, Apories (Paris: Galilée, 1996). Derrida has been arguing that even if it is true that a broadly historical or “anthropological” discourse about death cannot ground itself without recourse to presuppositions that are thematically addressed by, notably, Heidegger, the fact remains that Heidegger’s “questionnement fondamental lui-même ne peut pas non plus se protéger contre une contamination bio-anthropo-thanato-théologique cachée.” (138), and that this means not only that a history of death (such as the one by Philippe Ariès that Derrida has been reading quite critically) can be read as a small footnote that basically only illustrates its own dependency on Heidegger’s existential analytic, but that conversely, Being and Time might be read “comme un petit document tardif parmi tant et tant d’autres dans la grande archive où s’accumule la mémoire de la mort en Europe chrétienne. Chacun des deux discours sur la mort est beaucoup plus compréhensif que l’autre, plus grand et plus petit que ce qu’il tend à inclure ou exclure, plus et moins originaire, plus et moins ancien, jeune ou vieux. » (140), and continues after a slightly portentous blank space, « Peut-être avons-nous l’âge, un âge entre autres, de cette anachronie. [Another portentous blank, then] Comment peut-on avoir un âge entre autres ? Comment calculer l’âge d’un marrane, par exemple ?”

6. Du droit à la philosophie (Paris: Galilée, 1990), 203-4; tr. Jan Plug, Who’s Afraid of Philosophy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002) and Eyes of the University (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 131-2.

7. “Logocentrism would thus support the determination of the being of the entity as presence. To the extent that such a logocentrism is not totally absent from Heidegger’s thought, perhaps it still holds that thought within the epoch of onto-theology, within the philosophy of presence, that is to say within philosophy itself. This would perhaps mean that one does not leave the epoch whose closure one can outline. The movements of belonging or not belonging to the epoch are too subtle, the illusions in that regard are too easy, for us to make a definite judgment” (OG1, 12). “Logocentrism would thus be solidary with the determination of the being of being [étant] as presence. To the extent that such a logocentrism is not totally absent from Heidegger’s thought, perhaps it still holds that thought back within that epoch of onto-theology, within that philosophy of presence, that is to say within philosophy as such [la philosophie]. This would perhaps signify that one does not exit the epoch whose closure one can outline. The movements of belonging or not belonging to the epoch are too subtle, the illusions in that regard are too easy, for us to come to a conclusion here.” (OG2, **)

8. Jacques Derrida, La voix et le phénomène (Paris: PUF, 1967), 115; tr. Leonard Lawlor, Voice and Phenomenon (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2011), 87-8: “In this sense, within the metaphysics of presence, of philosophy as the knowledge of the presence of the object, as knowing’s being-nearby-itself in consciousness, we believe quite simply in absolute knowledge as the closure if not the end of history. We believe in it literally—and that such a closure has taken place. The history of being as presence, as self presence in absolute knowledge, as consciousness (of) self in the infinity of parousia, this history is closed. The history of presence is closed, for “history” has never meant anything but this: presentation (Gegenwartigung) of being <l’etre>, production and gathering of the being <l’etant> in presence, as knowledge and mastery.”

9. P, Psyché: inventions de l’autre (Paris: Galilée, 1987); ed. and tr. in two volumes by Peggy Kamuf and Elizabeth Rottenberg as Psyché: Inventions of the Other, volume I (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007) and Psyché: Inventions of the Other, volume II (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008): “Of course, Heidegger does not interpret this reign of representation as an accident, still less as a misfortune in the face of which we must fall back shivering. The end of “Die Zeit des Weltbildes” is very clear in this respect, at the point where Heidegger evokes a modern world that is beginning to withdraw from the space of representation and of the calculable. […] I will specify a point that will prepare from afar a question in its turn about Heidegger’s path or procedure: If it is not the accident of a faux pas, this reign of representation must have been destined, predestined, geschickte, that is to say, literally sent, dispensed, assigned by a destiny as the gathering of a history (Geschick, Geschichte). The advent of representation must have been prepared, prescribed, announced from far off, emitted, I will say telesigned, in a world, the Greek world, where nevertheless representation, the Vorstellung or the Vorgestelltheit des Seienden had no dominion. […] Now, if for the Greeks, according to Heidegger, the world is not essentially Bild, an available image, a spectacular form offered to the gaze or to the perception of a subject […] it was nevertheless necessary for the world as Bild, and then as representation, to have declared itself already among the Greeks, and this was nothing less than Platonism. The determination of the being of what is as eidos is not yet its determination as Bild, but the eidos (aspect, look, visible figure) would be the distant condition, the presupposition, the secret mediation that would one day permit the world to become representation. Everything happens as if the world of Platonism […] had prepared, dispensed, destined, sent, put on its way and on its path the world of representation—all the way down to us, passing through the relay of the positions or posts of Cartesian, Hegelian, Schopenhauerian, even Nietzschean types, and so on, that is to say, the whole of the history of metaphysics in its unity presumed to be the indivisible unity of a sending. (Vol. II, 108-9)

10. Is not this unifying, gathering, derivationist presumption at work in Heidegger up to and including in his strongest and most necessary displacements? Do we not find an indication of this in the fact that the epoch of representation or Vorstellung appears there as an epoch in the destiny or the gathered sending (Geschick) of Being? And that the Gestell continues to relate to it? Although this epoch is neither a mode nor, in the strict sense, a modification of an entity or of a substantial sense, any more than it is a moment or a determination in the Hegelian sense, it is certainly announced by a sending of Being that first of all uncovers itself as presence, more rigorously as Anwesenheit. In order for the epoch of representation to have its sense and its unity as an epoch, it must belong to the assembled gathering [rassemblement] of a more originary and more powerful envoi. And if there had not been the gathering of this envoi, the Geschick of Being, if this Geschick had not announced itself from the start as the Anwesenheit of Being, no interpretation of the epoch of representation could come to order it in the unity of a history of metaphysics.” (Psyché I, ***)

11. Psyché, 135 ; “No doubt—and here one must be twice as careful and go twice as slowly, which is much more than I can do here—the gathering of the envoi and of destinality, the Geschick does not have the form of a telos, still less of a certainty (whether Cartesian or Lacanian) of the arrival at destination of the envoi. But at least there is (es gibt) an envoi, a sending. At least a sending gives itself, and it gathers itself together with itself; and this gathering is the condition, the being-together of what offers itself to thought so that an epochal figure—here that of representation—can detach itself in its contour and order itself in its rhythm within the unity of a destination or rather of a “destinality” of Being. No doubt the being- together of the Geschick, and one can say the same of the Gestell, is neither that of a totality nor that of a system, nor that of an identity comparable to any other. No doubt we must take the same precautions with respect to the gathering of every epochal figure. Nevertheless, the question remains: if in a sense that is neither chronological nor logical, nor intrahistorical, the whole historial and destinal interpretation orders the epoch of representation (in other words modernity, and in the same text Heidegger translates: the era of the subjectum, of objectivism and subjectivism, of anthropology, of aesthetico-moral humanism, and so on) around an originary envoi of Being as Anwesenheit, which translates itself as presence and then as representation according to translations that are so many mutations within the same, within the being-together of the same envoi, then the being-together of the originary envoi arrives reflexively [s’arrive] at itself in a way, in closest proximity to itself, in AnwesenheitEven if there is dissension [Zwiespalt] in what Heidegger calls the great Greek epoch and the experience of Anwesenheit, this dissension gathers itself in the legein. It rescues and preserves itself and thus assures a sort of indivisibility of the destinal. It is in basing itself on this gathered indivisibility of the envoi that Heidegger’s reading can single out [détacher] epochs, including the most powerful, the longest, and also the most dangerous of all, the epoch of representation in modern times.” (Psyché I, 121)

12. Psyché, 136 ; “It will all the same be difficult to avoid wondering if the relation of the epoch of representation to the great Greek epoch is not still interpreted by Heidegger in a representative mode [so the earlier concession is withdrawn], as if the couple Anwesenheit/repraesentatio still dictated the law of its own interpretation, an interpretation that does no more therefore than redouble and recognize itself in the historial text it claims to decipher.” (Psyché I, 122)

13. Psyché, 136; “My question then is the following, and I formulate it too quickly: Wherever this being-together or with itself of the envoi of Being divides itself, defies the legein, frustrates the destination of the envoi, cannot the whole schema of Heidegger’s reading be contested in principle, historially deconstructed? If there has been representation, it is perhaps, precisely (and Heidegger would acknowledge this), because the envoi of Being was originarily menaced in its being-together, in its Geschick, by divisibility or dissension (what I would call dissemination)? Can we not then conclude that if there has been representation, the epochal reading of it that Heidegger proposes becomes, by virtue of this fact, problematical from the beginning, at least as a normative reading (and it wishes to be this also), if not as an open questioning of what offers itself to thought beyond the problematic, and even beyond the question of Being, of the gathered destiny or of the envoi of Being?” (Psyché I, ***)

14. Jacques Derrida, Théorie et pratique (Paris: Galilée, 2017). As is the case with the Heidegger volume (though for different reasons), there are serious editorial issues with the French edition of this seminar, and is in the former case, the English translation (done by David Wills on the basis of Derrida’s actual typescript, forthcoming from Chicago University Press) will present a more reliable text than the French edition.

15. Théorie et pratique, 145-6; “My question would immediately be this: does not the mode of questioning—the path of the FragenFragen being the construction of a path in Heidegger—continue to proceed, in its very technique, in its procedure and in its processes, and to the extent that it is not purely adventurous and empirical, according to a law that remains that of techno-metaphysics and Richtigkeit, that is to say the system of will to mastery that cannot be dissociated from it? In constructing his path as that of a return (Heimkehr) toward an initial sense (Weg zum anfänglichen Sinn), despite all the differentiations and mutations that we took into account last time, doesn’t Heidegger presumedoesn’t he repeat the philosophical—here, techno-metaphysical—presumption of the semantic unity of the field, of the philosophical continuum, a continuum the presumption concerning which is clearly a condition of mastery? In other words, doesn’t the question concerning Richtigkeit submit to the very injunction of what is questioned, doesn’t it repeat more or less audibly the very thing that it is questioning? Doesn’t this Heideggerian type of question, seemingly posed from the edge of the philosophical, concerning the history of philosophy as a whole, aim at ensuring a mastery of a technical type over techno-metaphysics, such that it does no more than develop and diversify that project. And if that were so—I leave this question as principle or hypothesis, without developing it—the Heideggerian text, its set of questioning procedures, its writing, its rhetorical modes, its strategies, its inscription in a technological field (in the broad sense: the political-social scene, the university institution, the editorial machine, as well as the set of technical resources of its language—let’s say its rhetoric) would also need to be analyzed, broadly and in detail, as effects of what I’ll call its object, not the description or analysis or questioning of its object but the effect of its object: that is a structure of discourse that is difficult to formulate but to me it seems necessary. Heidegger’s questioning on techno-metaphysics would—according to this hypothesis—still be regulated by it.

16. Jacques Derrida, De l’esprit: Heidegger et la question (Paris: Galilée, 1987), 29; tr. By Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 12:“The fourth thread, finally, leads, through the thinking of epochality, in itself and in the way it is put to work, into what I shall call, a little provocatively, the hidden teleology or the narrative order.”

17. Jacques Derrida, La vie la mort (Paris: Editions du Seuil, forthcoming), Session 5; tr. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming): “When I say epoch, I am designating a grouping that I do not know how to name otherwise, that I will continue to consider other names for, and that I am not offering as simply derivative of the Heideggerian discourse on the epoch and epochs of being.”