Possible and Impossible, Self and Other, and the Reversibility of Merleau-Ponty and Derrida

By Reynolds, Jack | Philosophy Today, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Possible and Impossible, Self and Other, and the Reversibility of Merleau-Ponty and Derrida


Reynolds, Jack, Philosophy Today


Derrida has recently been preoccupied with what has come to be termed "possible-impossible" aporias. In particular, he has described the paradoxes that afflict notions like giving, hospitality, forgiveness, and mourning. he argues that the condition of their possibility is also, and at once, the condition of their impossibility. In this essay, I will attempt to reveal the shared logic upon which these aporias rely, and also to raise some questions about their persuasive efficacy.

I shall argue that of the two polarities evoked by each of Derrida's possible-impossible aporias (e.g., giving as possible, and giving as impossible), the "impossible" term of the opposition invariably posits a separation between two "radical singularities," or in somewhat more controversial terms, between a self and an other who is wholly other (tout autre). While I will suggest that Derrida emphasises this "impossible" aspect of giving, hospitality, forgiveness, and mourning, Merleau-Ponty's abiding emphasis upon the intertwining of self and other provides the resources to challenge this emphasis, and even to reverse it. While Merleau-Ponty rarely directly addresses the kind of aporias that concern Derrida, his chiasmic account of embodiment, and his emphasis upon the body-subject's propensity to seek an equilibrium within its environment, better accounts for the "possible" side of the aporias that Derrida describes. In the process, Merleau-Ponty's later philosophy also allows for a more politically efficacious idea of responsibility towards the other than the position to which I will argue that Derrida is tacitly committed. Despite the fact that two of Derrida's recent texts-Memoirs of the Blind, and Le Toucher: Jean-Luc Nancy-have sympathetically engaged with the work of Merleau-Ponty there remain some important differences between these theorists that are worth examining. Firstly, however, a sustained exegesis of Derrida's possible-impossible aporias is required.

The Gift

The aporia that surrounds the notion of the gift revolves around the paradoxical thought that a genuine gift cannot actually be understood to be a gift. In his text Given Time, Derrida suggests that the notion of the gift contains an implicit demand that the genuine gift must somehow reside outside of the oppositional demands of giving and taking, and beyond any mere self-interest or calculative reasoning (GT 30). According to him, however, a gift is also something that cannot appear as such (GD 29), as it is destroyed by anything that proposes equivalence or recompense, as well as by anything that even proposes to know of, or acknowledge it. This may sound counter-intuitive, but even a simple "thank-you" for instance, which both acknowledges the presence of a gift and also proposes some form of equivalence with that gift, can be seen to annul the gift (cf. MDM 149). By politely responding with a "thank-you," there is often, and perhaps even always, a tacit presumption that because of this acknowledgement one is no longer indebted to the other who has given, and that nothing more can be expected of an individual who has so responded. Significantly, the gift is hence drawn into the cycle of giving and taking, where a good deed must be accompanied by a suitably just response. As the gift is associated with a command to respond, it becomes an imposition for the receiver, and it even becomes an opportunity to take for the "giver," who might give precisely in order to receive the acknowledgement from the other that they have in fact given. There are undoubtedly many other examples of how the "gift" can be deployed, and not necessarily deliberately, to gain advantage. Of course, it might be objected that even if it is psychologically difficult to give without also receiving (and in a manner that is tantamount to taking) this does not in-itself constitute a refutation of the logic of genuine giving. According to Derrida, however, his discussion does not amount merely to an empirical or psychological claim about the difficulty of transcending an immature and egocentric conception of giving.

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