Idiom, Transmission, and Dance in Geschlecht III

Michael Portal
Texas a&m university

Volume 14, 2019

In reading Geschlecht III, one cannot help but imagine Jacques Derrida speaking before a weary audience, an audience exhausted by the many hours already spent (and still left to be spent) discussing Martin Heidegger’s reading of Georg Trakl’s poetry.[1] As Derrida remarks, “I can imagine the impatience of some, not only with the sustained slowness of this reading, but also with the duration of this stay with Heidegger. Heidegger again! And this return of Heidegger, and this return to Heidegger? Isn’t it enough already? Is it still relevant?” (161).[2] Such reading and rereading are still necessary, argues Derrida, because “the Heidegger who returns and the Heidegger to whom we return” is “no longer the same” as before; today, Heidegger’s “corpus has a different configuration, we can see new landscapes [paysages]” (161). This article concerns the nature of Derrida’s confidence in, and insistence on, finding something “new” in reading and rereading something old. I argue, like Derrida, that we must not stop reading Heidegger.

I contend that Derrida is not, in noticing Heidegger’s “new configurations,” making some facile point about the ongoing project of publishing Heidegger’s work. The composition of Heidegger’s corpus has changed (and continues to change) as more of his work is published, translated, and circulated. Instead, I consider Derrida’s comment in light of his interest in the imperfect nature of transmission and the loss that always accompanies translation. This interest is central to Derrida’s four-part study of Heidegger’s use of the German word “Geschlecht,” which Derrida decides to leave untranslated because “no word, no word for word will suffice to translate this word that gathers in its idiomatic value stock, race, family, species, genus/gender, generation, [and] sex” (“Geschlecht II” 183). However, despite the supreme idiomaticity of the term, it seems that we (non-German speakers for whom the idiom is almost impossibly strange) can still coherently discuss Geschlecht. How is this possible? For Derrida, “Geschlecht” concerns the very possibility of our (imperfect) discussion of Geschlecht, even if we cannot fully appreciate how. Simply, Geschlecht raises the question of generational transmission, from generation to generation, of the passing down of some inheritance (some idiom) to a recipient who is necessarily estranged from its full meaning or significance. After more fully developing this problematic, I present Christie McDonald’s 1981 interview with Derrida as a potential strategy to deal with this alienation, of learning to do “otherwise” with what one has inherited (Derrida and McDonald 69).

This paper has two sections. First, I will further establish the relationship between Geschlecht and the question raised by the generational transmission of meaning. This discussion culminates in Derrida’s study of the “eclipse,” the moving in and out of the darkness that defines our relationship to thought. Second, I draw upon what Derrida considers the “cadence” of the Heideggerian project. This discussion brings into relief Derrida’s characterization of Heidegger as providing a deeply conservative account of historical appropriation, an account of history that is oriented towards the conservation of the semantically inherited patterns of tradition. With Derrida, I propose we rethink the basis for such conservativism and learn to do “otherwise” with tradition.

Geschlecht, Generational Transmission, and the Eclipse

“Geschlecht” raises the question of generational transmission because, as Derrida notes, “the thought of Geschlecht and that of translation are essentially the same” (Derrida, “Geschlecht: Sexual Difference, Ontological Difference” 75). This is because of how the translation of a text ushers in new generations of (and futures for) a particular text by recasting it and making it available to new readers and readings. It is in this sense that Heidegger’s project “already performs a translation, within German, of Germans of different ages, of different generations (Old High German, Modern German, philosophic code, everyday code, etc.). Heidegger already performs a kind of translator’s back-and-forth [va-et-vient], between German and its brethren [germane-germain]” (Geschlecht III 85). One might expect, then, that Heidegger’s translation in a ‘closed system’ (from German to German) might do well in capturing German idioms like Geschlecht. But, as Derrida notes, it is impossible to perfectly translate idioms because there is always some part of the term to be translated that is lost or unexpressed in its translation. After all, idioms mysteriously gather together “copresent” and irreducible meanings that are never individually “satisfying” on their own, making it practically impossible that one new term could successfully and totally encapsulate the polysemy of the old (“Geschlecht II” 163).

In translation, then, certain meanings become visible or more pronounced at the expense of others, sometimes totally eclipsing these other meanings. In Geschlecht III, Derrida takes seriously this pattern of serial and periodic eclipses.[3] Just like things in nature, texts move in and out of the light; texts will have their share of brilliant moments in full visibility as well as sustained moments in the dark, moments of latency, of being dormant, of having some of their meaning lost, obscured, or misunderstood. Derrida insists that we accept the inevitability of the eclipse’s shadow. Accordingly, for Derrida, we must also realize that “the strength, the necessity, but also the art of a thought is not measured by the duration and permanence of its radiant presence, nor is not measured by the fixity of a flash, but by the number of its eclipses” (Geschlecht III 160). Here, Derrida is interested in the staying power of a thought (a text, an idiom, etc.), of its potential for generating new thoughts (future generations) when it is read in a new light. After all, as the thought emerges from the darkness of the eclipse, Derrida remarks, it “is no longer the same, it turns on itself and surprises again” (160). In this way, a thought is made all the richer by its ability to survive eclipses, by overflowing with meaning that may (or may not) one day be revealed in a new light, by its possible and future generations.

This explains why Derrida insists upon such a sustained and slow reading of Heidegger, and why the emphasis he places on this type of reading is so important for understanding Geschlecht III. Derrida is confident that the current disinterest in (or, distaste for) Heidegger is only momentary and that Heidegger will inevitably emerge from this eclipse with “new configurations,” ready to “surprise again.” For Derrida, there are still lessons to be learned from Heidegger’s work, dormant meanings and obscure thoughts to be uncovered and brought into the light. Several decades after Derrida’s commentary on the subject, as David Farrell Krell notes, “Heidegger’s eclipse now seems to be permanent, and it seems so well-deserved; yet it has always seemed to be permanent and always more deserving with each new round of scandal” (5). This does not challenge Derrida’s assessment but, instead, confirms Derrida’s generosity in trying to read and follow Heidegger’s and Trakl’s idiomatic work in the dark (e.g., in German, when studying Heidegger has fallen out of fashion, when Heidegger is at his most obscure, etc.). It is important to note that, despite their disagreements, Derrida would never condemn Heidegger to an “eclipse of no return, of the absolute Stranger who does not come back” (Geschlecht III 162). Derrida refuses to stop reading Heidegger.

In part, Derrida would not reject Heidegger’s idioms because they are not entirely or absolutely strange. Even in the darkness of the eclipse, of dealing with German idioms for which there is no translation, one can still learn from Heidegger. For Derrida, Heidegger’s idiom is “untranslatable, but nevertheless translatable enough” that we are still called to read and study the text (Geschlecht III 162). In this way, as Derrida recognizes in “Onto-Theology of National-Humanism (Prolegomena to a Hypothesis),” the ever-present idiom is the (welcome) challenge of philosophy, both the “scandal” and the “chance” of philosophy as such (4-5). I will quickly address these two frames.

First, the idiom is scandalous because it seemingly restricts philosophy to regional and local questions. It is, after all, unclear if the issues addressed in the German idiom are issues relevant (or even thinkable) to non-Germans. Must we now distinguish between truths in a general sense and those of a German variety? This threat raises serious “concern” because the idiom itself is not itself “an object of study, meaning by that a theme or a problem that one has before one and in which one is not really and gravely situated, circumvented, precomprehended, in what is precisely a historical and philosophical situation with respect to which no overarching view is possible”(“Onto-Theology of National-Humanism” 5). Simply, one cannot study these philosophical idioms without employing or already being enmeshed in the very material one hopes to study: we are held hostage by the language.

Second, these idioms are the “chance” for philosophy, “for philosophy itself to speak itself, to be discussed, to get (itself) across” (“Onto-Theology of National-Humanism” 4). The idiom is our best shot at expressing ourselves, of sharing meaning. They are “allocutions, passages to the other” (4). In some sense, it would be too much to think that our language could express everything in each instance. Expecting such perfect language would surely be too demanding. And, as Derrida has argued, it is the hidden parts of the idiom that testify to its richness and its future generations, of containing within itself the ability to survive its inevitable eclipse, of again “surprising” readers in the future. Here, then, Derrida echoes Heidegger’s proclamation in “Language in the Poem,” that the inevitably unexpressed parts of the idiom are what give meaning to that which is spoken: “every great poet creates his poetry out of one single poetic statement” that is never reducible to any one text, such that “none of his individual poems, nor their totality, says it all” (On the Way to Language 160). In this way, Heidegger explains, “the poet’s statement remains unspoken,” ever-present in the “rhythm” that each poem carries, like a “wave, far from leaving the site behind, in its rise causes all the movement of Saying to flow back to its ever more hidden source” (160).

It is the hiddenness of the source, the obscured and unexpressed recesses of the idiom, the profound undercurrent that makes the idiom possible and dangerous, that is at the heart of Derrida’s investigation into Geschlecht. The “new landscapes” that become visible in Derrida’s study are those that are hidden and will become hidden, only to be rediscovered anew, those that can survive their eclipses. How, then, ought we understand survival and this type of surviving?

Cadence, Dance, and Survivorship

Derrida’s study of survivorship, of emerging anew from an eclipse, becomes clear against the backdrop of his characterization of Heidegger’s conservativism. The “rhythm” of Heidegger’s thought, explains Derrida, envisions historical appropriation as a constant turning and returning, a constant mirroring from the past to the present to the future. This “circular relation” is what structures meaning and, for Heidegger, is what conditions all future possibilities: as Derrida argues, “creativity [for Heidegger] is circular, the creation of the new is only a recourse, a resource, a circular return to the source” (“Onto-Theology of National-Humanism” 16). Heidegger’s project orients itself according to some “ever more hidden source” that one cannot escape and for which one (like with the idiom) is always already “gravely situated, circumvented, [and] precomprehended.” Historical and generational inheritance is a circle, an unending returning to the source. Today’s meaning is ruled by the “omnipresent logic” of the circle underpinning Heidegger’s study of Trakl: a logic where “the most original is the bearer of the most future, the most original is the most to come” (Geschlecht III 125). On this account, to understand idioms, to understand meaning at all, one must always refer and return to the testator.

I consider this reading of Heidegger plausible. In “The Thing,” for example, Heidegger realizes the event of appropriation as a process of “mirror-play” or “round dance” or “ringing” that, in its circularity, allows “the thinging of the thing” to take place (Poetry, Language, Thought 178). In clarifying these lines, Joan Stambaugh outlines how the mirror (in the “mirror-play”) is essentially empty, “such that anything can be reflected in it because it itself has no appearance within itself. The mirror is nothing but the possibility of mirroring and reflecting” (162–63). The mirror, like the supposed circularity of meaning that Derrida attributes to Heidegger, is nothing but the condition for the possibility of meaning or appearance itself: the mirror is empty except for what it reflects, for what it brings into being, and, in reflecting the thing, the mirror becomes itself (e.g., a reflecting and mirroring thing). This neutral relationship is total, expansive, and unending since everything mirrors in its own way, always drawing everything else (and itself) further into being. To oversimplify this relationship, consider how two mirrors, when placed face to face, reflect infinitely and forever, with no loss in fidelity. The mirrors form a circuit of endless reflection, of sending and resending an image eternally. Now consider a hall of mirrors like the kind one might find at a carnival, where it takes a keen eye to spot the original from its reflection. According to Derrida, Heidegger is interested in locating and returning to this original, this real origin or hidden source, that has supposedly been sent and transmitted without distortion by the (neutral) mirrors. Using the reflections as a guide, Heidegger believes in the possibility of finding this source undisturbed and unaltered, its meaning identical to the meaning transmitted by otherwise empty mirrors.

In such a situation, of infinite mirroring of the same, where is the “chance” that Derrida aims to seize upon in his reading of Heidegger? Where is there an opportunity for something “new” in a closed circle of meaning and exchange?

One possible answer: Derrida’s method of reading and mirroring, in what he actually brings to the study of the text. In Geschlecht III, Derrida is interested in a “new” reading of Heidegger and in avoiding being trapped by (and just endlessly repeating) Heidegger’s obscure idiom. This concern motivates the opening lines of Geschlecht III, where Derrida describes how he will read Heidegger, how this reading will be “slow, irregular in its rhythm, following a path that no linear representation could account for” (35). While it might appear as if Derrida’s reading is deliberately aimless, Derrida leaves (or, rather, makes) room for something new, for one to “suddenly jump” and “zigzag” in their reading (their following or mirroring) of a text (35). Simply, Derrida aims to disrupt the rhythm and tempo (the hidden undercurrent) that Heidegger sets in studying Trakl. He says as much: let us “regulate our steps with [Heidegger’s] and also deregulate them” so that we “disturb his cadence, decelerate when it goes too fast, interrupt a jump, suspend the movement or, on the contrary, jump all at once to some detour” (35-36).

It is important to note, however, that Derrida does not suggest that one simply “do anything with language” (or the text being read) since one must respect that “it preexists us and it survives us” (Derrida and Birnbaum 36). What is most essential to language has little to do with our individual usage of language (our personal expressions) and more to do with the language’s historical structure, grammar, or politics. As Derrida makes clear in Monolingualism of the Other: Or, The Prosthesis of Origin, no matter how hard we try we can never fully master or “own” the language we speak, it will always be in some sense alien to us, structured and conditioned apart from us (23-24). For Derrida, who grew up in French Algeria, this was obviously the case: “French was a language supposed to be maternal, but one whose source, norms, rules, and law were situated elsewhere” (41). As Derrida famously remarked, “I only have one language; it is not mine” (1). We are, in all cases, alienated from our language and our idioms. Put another way, we are always hopelessly estranged from the supposed (and, for Derrida, impossible) origin behind the infinitely reproduced image in Heidegger’s hall of mirrors.

One’s inevitable alienation (for example, from their own idioms) serves to contextualize Derrida’s desire to interrupt Heidegger’s idiom but not eliminate it, why the scandal of the idiom should not be considered in some exclusively negative register. Since the idiom always precedes and prefigures our work, all language works to ensnare and estrange. We are, notes Derrida, always already in some type of “hostage” situation, that we are held hostage by idioms that we have but never really have as our own, that we are never truly free to leave the text or its language behind (Monolingualism of the Other 17). In this way, the question is not to do away with Heidegger’s text but to realize new ways of reading or relating to it, of dealing with our situation vis-à-vis the text. One must seize upon each reading, reflection, refraction, and distortion of the text as an opportunity.

One such method for this appropriation and reappropriation, introduced in Christie McDonald’s 1981 interview with Derrida, might be to rethink how one reads (or follows) a text or an author, to rethink one’s cadence or rhythm (the undercurrent that mobilizes a thought). In the interview, dance immerges as an alternative to the infinite mirroring of Heideggerian transmission. As Derrida notes, dance is antithetical to just submitting to the tradition; to dance is to “resist and step back” from one’s inheritance (Derrida and McDonald 68). When dancing, after all, one is not simply marching along, following in the footsteps of those who came before. To dance is to do things differently, to critically appropriate movement for oneself. Derrida’s method suggests that one suddenly and unexpectedly begin to dance before the mirror as if to break from their reflection, to dance as if we could catch sight of our reflection lagging behind our abrupt movement. In this way, Derrida discusses this appropriation as an opportunity to “dance otherwise,” to commit to one’s “own singularity, the untranslatable factor of his or her life and death” (69). Dancing carries within itself an ethical responsibility, a commitment, a promise to the untranslatable. Properly speaking, dance is that which we cannot transmit but only disseminate.

It is in dancing that, as Derrida suggests, we realize the infinite variety of possible dances and movements, such that we come to affirm “the desire to escape the combinatory itself, to invent incalculable choreographies” (Derrida and McDonald 76). Dance, rather than some concrete thing or activity, is a promise and desire for escape: for the infinite possibility of other dances. In this way, Derrida works to deconstruct Heidegger’s belief in an endless, frictionless “ring dance” that simply goes in circles, a dance where each participant simply mirrors and reflects the movement of the others. For Derrida, this is no dance at all. Instead, Derrida proposes a slow, haphazard, stuttered dance that is unpredictable and liberating. Such a dance is internally insecure, off-kilter, open to new possibilities. This is a dance that is not mirrored by a partner, or any partner, but is tied to one’s “untranslatable” singularity, to be oneself with no reflection. It should be apparent that all of these attempts at describing and translating dance are necessarily insufficient to capture what is surely uncapturable about Derrida’s proposal, a rhythm outside of our current way of arranging patterns. In thinking dance, Derrida is trying to do the impossible, to “calculate with non-calculation” so as to forestall complete annihilation, an infinite sameness in obscurity, the “eclipse of no return” (Geschlecht III 162). To dance is to survive, to find something new in something old, to make novel one’s own reflection, to endure one more eclipse.


In his famous last interview with Jean Birnbaum in 2004, Derrida is asked to return to the exordium of Specters of Marx. Birnbaum asks if Derrida had succeeded in learning to live. “No,” Derrida replies, “I never learned-to-live. In fact not at all! Learning to live should mean learning to die, learning to take into account, so as to accept, absolute mortality (that is, without salvation, resurrection, or redemption—neither for oneself nor for the other)” (Derrida and Birnbaum 24). Derrida then proposes one think of existence in terms of survival. As he explains, survival “is originary: life is living on, life is survival [la vie est survie]. To survive in the usual sense of the term means to continue to live, but also to live after death” (26). Survival is to have new configurations, new possibilities, futures after the eclipse. Over-living, sur-vivre, is to carry-on, to carry future generations (origins) within you like a mother to her child, to continue living after death. “Survival constitutes the very structure of what we call existence,” Derrida continues, “we are structurally survivors, marked by this structure of the trace and of the testament. But, having said that, I would not want to encourage an interpretation that situates surviving on the side of death and the past rather than life and the future” (51). Thus, the dance that Derrida describes plays in an open space that he makes by reading (and rereading) so slowly and deliberately: a space at the limits of appropriation and one’s willingness to receive the past “otherwise,” one’s willingness to commit to live past the past, to think Geschlecht and (its) future generations.


01. This article would not have been possible without the generous help and support of Theodore George, Jake Reeder, and the participants of the “On Heidegger’s National Humanism: A Symposium on Derrida’s Lost Geschlecht III” at Texas A&M University (February 15, 2019).

02. All translations of Geschlecht III are my own. My translations have benefited immensely from reference to the expert work of Katie Chenoweth and Rodrigo Therezo.

03. I have Katie Chenoweth to thank for bringing the significance of this passage to my attention.

Works Cited

  • Derrida, Jacques. “Geschlecht II: Heidegger’s Hand.” Deconstruction and Philosophy: The Texts of Jacques Derrida. Edited by John Sallis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. 161–96.
  • —-. Geschlecht III: Sexe, race, nation, humanité. Edited by Geoffrey Bennington, Katie Chenoweth, and Rodrigo Therezo. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2018.
  • —-. “Geschlecht: Sexual Difference, Ontological Difference.” Research in Phenomenology 13 (1983): 65–83.
  • —-. Monolingualism of the Other: Or, The Prosthesis of Origin. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
  • —-. “Onto-Theology of National-Humanism (Prolegomena to a Hypothesis).” Oxford Literary Review 14.1 (1992): 3–23.
  • Derrida, Jacques, and Jean Birnbaum. Learning to Live Finally: An Interview with Jean Birnbaum. Hoboken: Melville House Pub, 2007.
  • Derrida, Jacques, and Christie V. McDonald. “Interview: Choreographies: Jacques Derrida and Christie V. McDonald.” Diacritics 12.2 (1982): 66–76.
  • Heidegger, Martin. On the Way to Language. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982.
  • —-. Poetry, Language, Thought. Translated by Albert Hofstadter, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 2013.
  • Krell, David Farrell. “History, Natality, Ecstasy: Derrida’s First Seminar on Heidegger, 1964–1965.” Research in Phenomenology 46.1 (2016): 3–34.
  • Stambaugh, Joan. The Finitude of Being. New York: SUNY Press, 1992.