Deconstruction, Normativity, and Democracy to Come

By Andresen, Joshua | Philosophy Today, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Deconstruction, Normativity, and Democracy to Come


Andresen, Joshua, Philosophy Today


No politics, no ethics, and no law can be, as it were, deduced from this thought. To be sure, nothing can be done with it. . . . But should we then conclude that this thought leaves no trace on what is to be done - for example in the politics, the ethics, or the law to come?1

The question of the normative dimension of Derrida's writings has become an increasingly crucial and contentious issue in the reception of deconstruction. While there is a well established line of scholarship that locates fundamental ethical and political principles in deconstruction,2 there is equally prominent scholarship which argues that deconstruction does not and cannot produce ethical and political prescriptions.3 The problem is that both views suffer immediate interpretive deficits. The former is challenged by deconstruction 's logics of contamination and undecidability which undermine the purity and ultimate justification of any ethical or political imperative, while the latter is beset by the fact that Derrida's writings are full of decisions to which he calls our attention as bearing ethical and political implications.4 Thus it seems wrong to ascribe fundamental ethical or political principles to deconstruction, and equally wrong to claim that deconstruction is not ethical and political. While I take this situation to be a greater challenge to those who seek to present deconstruction as itself driven by particular ethical or political principles, those who seek to separate deconstruction from ethical and political decisions need a more robust account of what "exceeds" deconstruction in Derrida's work.5 By focusing on Derrida's conception of "democracy to come," this essay attempts to give a more detailed account of both the constitutive ethico-political dimension that is inextricable from deconstruction and the specific decisions that are mobilized to normative ends in Derrida's work on democracy. I argue that there is indeed an inextricable normative dimension to deconstruction and that deconstruction (or any writing) cannot divest itself of normative claims; however, it cannot be said that these claims either derive from or are grounded by deconstructive analysis. While no norms can be derived from deconstructive analysis, that same analysis can be and is used to promote certain norms in Derrida's work.6 By clearly identifying these performative and normative "excesses," we gain a more complete understanding of deconstruction 's relation to the ethical and political, as well as a fundamental insight into the more properly performative and strategic dimensions of Derrida's engagement with democracy.

Saying Anything at All

It is not surprising that Derrida himself calls into question the traditional opposition of the descriptive and the normative. His deconstruction of this opposition is perhaps most clear and far reaching in his analyses of the inextricable "constative" and "performative" dimensions of language.7 He argues that the more descriptive aspects of language (the constative) are inextricably bound to normative appeals and claims (the performative) that always "exceed" apparently disinterested reporting or description.

Since every constative utterance itself relies, at least implicitly, on a performative structure ("I tell you that I speak to you, I address myself to you to tell you that this is true, that things are like this, I promise you or renew my promise to you to make a sentence and to sign what I say when I say that I tell you, or try to tell you, the truth," and so forth), the dimension of justesse or truth of the theoretico-constative utterances (in all domains, particularly in the domain of the theory of law) always thus presupposes the dimension of justice of the performative utterances, that is to say their essential precipitation, which never proceed without a certain dissymmetry and some quality of violence.8

Derrida's remarks in the first half of this passage bring him into proximity with some aspects of discourse ethics, insofar as Derrida agrees that all speech commit the speaker to certain norms, e. …

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