Fairy Tales for Politics: The Other, Once More

By Caldwell, Anne | Philosophy Today, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Fairy Tales for Politics: The Other, Once More


Caldwell, Anne, Philosophy Today


Derrida has characterized his thought as an attempt to think a relationship to otherness such that the other is neither incorporated nor expelled, yet the relationship between thinking alterity and responding to present others remains ambiguous.' His earlier writings are predominantly concerned with the relation to a generalized and neutral alterity, while in the more recent Specters of Marx he turns explicitly to the question of the relation to the living other. He continues for the most part, however, to think that other according to the understanding of irreducible alterity he developed in his critique of the metaphysics of presence in "Differance." When transferred to a political context, such an insistence on the radical alterity of the other becomes dangerous by foreclosing the possibility of a lived encounter with the other, limiting deconstruction's capacity for political intervention.

In the name ofthe relation to the other, Derrida has stated, much as Marx " called for the transformation to come of his own theses" (SP 13), that the "efficacity of the thematic of differance may very well, indeed must, one day be superseded." (MP 7).2This thought of differance or radical alterity has indeed shifted pieces of the metaphysical tradition that has obscured the role of the other in philosophy and politics. Differance, as a general play of forces from which every system forms itself, cannot be avoided and is an inescapable relation. Since differance is irreducible to every manner in which it might be determined within a system, it can never be fully appropriated. Just as clearly, this does not hold for a lived relation to the present other. Unlike differance, the other as a singularity is not an irreducible reserve.

In the context of what Simon Critchley calls the ethical reception of deconstruction, an evaluation of deconstruction's ability to respond to the living other is necessary. Even those optimistic about the deconstructive approach toward ethics have expressed skepticism about its political efficacy.' Similarly, many feminists have accepted the broad paradigm of deconstructive ethics while questioning its use of feminine metaphors, and its habit of taking on the voice of women rather than listening to the voice of women.4 But for the most part the character of the ethics it points to have remained intact. Its political efficacy and indifference to the feminine are examined as if these were only epiphenomena or tangential flaws, with no effect on the structure of deconstruction as ethics.

These weaknesses are nonetheless signs of deeper problems in the characterization of closure and the ethical response that interpretation implies. Even where Derrida refers to an other of unspecified gender, its inaccessibility makes a lived engagement with any other difficult to conceive. Irigaray's thinking, while influenced by Heidegger and Derrida, offers a different reading of the history of philosophy by taking into account the perspective of the excluded other. As she argues, the figuration ofthe other as an unrepresentable alterity registered in a trace has been the mode of appearance for the feminine within metaphysics. This subjects women to a double violence: they are rendered as objects serving the desire ofthe subject, and they are deprived of any location or desire of their own. Irigaray thus complicates Derrida's depiction of alterity as a disruptive force by emphasizing the exclusion experienced by the living other. In insisting on a materiality which metaphysics marginalized, and of which Derrida remains suspicious, she offers a thinking of otherness as tangible and accessible.

The Other, Whose Other, What Price? Derrida's Narrative

What then is the sense of this alterity that pervades both infinite and finite alterity in Derrida? The radicalness of deconstruction lies not in other-talk, nor in any discovery that postmetaphysical thinking is distinguished by the fracture of differance. …

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