[...] etre mort, avant de vouloir dire tout autre chose, signifie, pour
moi, etre livre, dans ce qui reste de moi, comme dans tous mes restes,
etre expose ou livre sans aucune defense possible, une fois totalement
desarme, a l'autre, aux autres.
--Jacques Derrida, "La bete et le souverain,"
In a remarkable passage I have cited in part as my epigraph, Derrida gives, in the fifth seminar of his last seminars, "La bete et le souverain (deuxieme annee)," one more definition of l'autre, the other. The concept of the other plays a crucial role in Derrida's later writings on ethics, responsibility, politics, friendship, decision, religion, sacrifice, death, and other topics. An example is the long meditation on the phrase, tout autre est tout autre, in Donner la mort (114-57), translated as "every other is wholly other" in The Gift of Death (82-115). In the last seminars, Derrida defines the others as those who will survive my death, "apres le pas d'eloignement du trepas, apres ce passage, quand je serai passe, quand j'aurai passe, quand je serai parti, decede, eloigne, disparu, absolument sans defense, desarme, entre leurs mains, c'est-a-dire, comme on dit, pour ainsi dire, mort" ("La bete" n.p.). To be dead, Derrida goes on to say, in a characteristically hyperbolic or emphatic way, is to have one's remains, not just one's body, but everything one leaves behind, totally at the mercy of others, to be exposed, in what remains of him, in all his remains, to be delivered over to the others, without any possible defense, to be at once totally disarmed.
What will happen, or should happen, to Derrida's remains, now that he is, so to speak, dead, and therefore at the mercy of us others? Who should have the responsibility to decide about that? What is the destiny of Derrida's legacy? Will Derrida's work continue to be read, or will it be rapidly forgotten? Will what Derrida wrote and said, that is, his "remains," be understood and appropriated correctly, or will they be misunderstood and misappropriated? What does that mean, "appropriated correctly"? How would one, with the best will in the world, "apply Derrida" accurately? How should his work be used productively, now that he is dead? How would we (or I) wish it to be used?
"Understanding Derrida" implies a constative or cognitive operation. I either understand correctly what Derrida wrote or I do not. "Appropriating Derrida," however, is a double performative event. It assumes, first, that Derrida's work is not simply the object of cognitive understanding or misunderstanding, but that it works performatively to make something happen in the reader when it is read. Reading Derrida is a way of letting something be done to me with words by responding responsibly to the demand Derrida's works make on me to read them. Second speech act: reading Derrida obliges me to do something with words in my turn, to intervene productively, performatively, in my own situation or context, on the basis of my response to the demand to be read that Derrida's works have made on me.
My context or "life situation" may be, almost certainly is, radically different from Derrida's own context when he wrote whatever it is that I am now reading by him. Derrida is a "world writer," that is, his works are read all over the world, perhaps most often, as is the case with Freud, in English. Derrida is a world writer in English. This means that people of all sorts read Derrida in translation, as part of the extremely problematic global hegemony of English. Derrida's readers are in radically diverse cultural and personal situations. What in the world do all these readers in China, in India, in Brazil, in Norway, in Africa, in Russia, in Canada, not to speak of the United States, make of Derrida? What should they make of him? How should they all use his work? Surely in different ways in each case. But should they even read him at all? That does not go without saying, certainly not for all people. …