lecture notes on chapter 4 of Derrida’s ‘The Gift of Death’

Chapter 4 Notes: “Tout autre est Tout autre


  1. Shibboleth- a test word; password; or “a secret formula that can only be uttered in a certain way in a certain language” (88).
  2. Dictum- a formal statement; judge’s opinion that is not a legal precedent.
  3. Tautology- needless repetition of an idea in a different word or phrase.
  4. Homonyms- two words with the same pronunciation, but with different meanings.
  5. Heteronym- a word with the same spelling of another, but with different meaning and pronunciation, for instance “tear”.
  6. Dissymmetry- symmetry in the opposite direction, like a person’s hands or a lack of symmetry.
  7. Heterology- consisting of different elements, parts of different organisms in the same organism.
  8. Alterity- the quality or condition of being other, or different; otherness.
  9. Aporia- difficulty caused by an indeterminacy of meaning.

Responsibility is dependent upon 2 contradictory movements: to respond as oneself, and to answer for what one does, says, gives. To be good through goodness, one forgets the origin of what one gives.

“Every other (one) is every (bit) one.” Tout autre est tout autre.

°         This is a source of trembling.

°         To simplistic that it can be generally looked over.

°         “One uses it to play with the rules, to cut someone or something short, to aggressively circumscribe a domain of discourse” (80). So, it is political!

°         “It becomes the secret of all secrets.” This isn’t just a double-secret like in chapter 3; this is the secret to all secrets—the reason for every tremble we will ever feel.

The sentence is almost too simple; but we need to see how complicated it really is. The tautology here has a duality that we cannot ignore, and one that complicates our interpretation of it every time we try to grasp it singularly. The emphasis of this is on the tout. We can see them each as homonyms, which emphasizes the syntactical order of equality that he details in the exceptions between parentheses. This defines us as universally one. However, Derrida also remarks on how the repetition of the tautology dilutes the impact of the homonymal distinction of tout. This awareness, once applied, results in seeing them as heteronyms.

Tout is both an indefinite pronominal adjective (some, someone, some other one) AND an adverb (totally, absolutely, radically, infinitely other). To see them as such, we need to look at autre. “If the first tout is an indefinite pronominal adjective, then the first autre becomes a noun and the second, in all probability, an adjective or attribute” (83). This changes the tautology a “radical heterology.” What does this mean? Well, the copula (est or is) implies the quality: “the alterity of the other is the alterity of the other.” This is certainly true. And it lends itself to the simplistic reading. But it also second guesses itself. Derrida states, “The hetero-tautological position introduces the law of speculation, and of speculation on every secret” (83). This means that to see the sentence as working in both ways (homonyminal and heteronyminal), the duality exposes secrecy.

Derrida thus encourages that we look at the tout, or other, as the wholly infinite other, God: “The other attributes or recognizes in this infinite alterity of the wholly other, every other, in other words each, each one, for example each man and woman” (83). This relates to the notion of “difference and analogy,” opposition and sameness. The very state of being contrasted with a different sameness (and a same difference), we can begin to think of what we really are. Derrida points out the blatantly disputable (yet indisputable?) connection between the two terms by their very heterogeneity. In their difference, the one depends upon the other for the difference to appear or exist. Therefore, like Sassure, the compatibility is alike in their mutual polarity.

This, then, brings us to reorienting ourselves with the concept of absolute duty and responsibility. Derrida uses the conceptually differing arguments of Kierkegaard and Levinas to point out that we can look at the other as God and as every other human. There are significant complications in ethics to do this. The problem is that in looking at the duality of the sentence, and the possible interpretations of the other, we are stuck in aporia. But this aporia is exactly where Derrida thinks we should be. This is the space of ellipsis, or the invisible. Derrida shows us that the ellipsis is anywhere where concrete meaning is ungraspable—the intelligible abyss. The problem, then, is to reject what we cannot know and dismiss anyone who searches for a meaning she/he will never find as one in error.

Derrida then points out the duality of Abraham’s responsibility. In sacrificing his son, Abraham keeps his secret with God, and adheres to his absolute duty, nevermind the sacrifice. In turn, God absolves him of his duty—a gift. But we are to notice the abhorrence of Abraham’s choice still; it is wrong. We can never see it in any other way because we are not privy to the secret. In this way, Derrida points out that all duty and responsibility are outside ethics, ethics as our society has constructed them.

This gets us back to the notion of substitution. The secret, as both revealed and elusive, in the sentence begets our own universal singularity. Derrida calls this the shibboleth. The syntactical construction: “the use of tout as indefinite pronominal adjective, and as an adverb, and autre as indefinite pronominal adjective and noun” (88) separated by the copula calls the secret from silence. Can we think of any other forms of speech like this? Chants, incantations, and prayers work this way. In their repetitions, these forms of speech lose their sound quality to the effort of sight.

The gaze of this secret—vision, sight, observation—is primary. Yet it is incomplete. Sight at once recognizes the secret, but is unable to penetrate its contents. Derrida ties this to our being able to see other languages, and still not know what they mean despite their being viewable. This changes the concept of invisibility, adding another dimension to a word that seems obviously singular. Derrida says that the invisible can be understood in 2 ways: 1) in the way that I can hide something that can be seen (his example of putting a hand under a table, for instance), and 2) the absolute invisibility, “which has no structure of invisibility”, like the voice, music, smells (89). Note page 90 during lecture—awesome!

Page 91 takes us into another complicated move of Derrida’s: dissymmetry. He brings back Kierkegaard-de Silentio to discuss the Gospel of Matthew, the discourse on the gaze returns. The gaze places us between God much like the syntactical structure of tout autre est tout autre. On one end, we have God; on the other, we have us; in between, we have the gaze working as the copula. It is a dissymmetrical association. We can look at each end as opposites, similars, or something much more different and complex. The gaze renders the one side invisible to us. “God looks at me and I don’t see him and it is on the basis of this gaze that singles me out [ce regard qui me regarde] that my responsibility comes into being” (91). Okay, now what does this mean? Derrida says that our responsibility is not in our actions as a solitary being, but that “whatever is commanding me to make decisions, decisions that will nevertheless be mine and which I alone will have to answer for” (91). In other words, it is our conscience. The dyssmmetry creates the invisibility between us, and our secret. This is that double secret again.

Derrida asks perhaps the most moral, ethical, responsible, pertinent question:

The question of the self: “who am I?” not in the sense of “who am I” but “who is this ‘I’” that can say “who”? What is the “I,” and what becomes of responsibility once the identity of the “I” trembles in secret? (92).

Accordingly, we are to ask this question. But, again, this question is an utmost complication. The entirety of Derrida’s argument comes together at this point (if such a thing is a Derridean possibility). The self, being the one that questions its own secret, is only responsible to itself. The gaze is this attempt at viewing its own secret that will always remain a secret. This is an act of conscience. And it is also the self’s connection to God. The move to view the invisible is a tricky paradox because of the very notion of conscience-invisibility. Derrida says, “This is the moment where the light or sun of the Good, as invisible source of intelligible visibility, but which is not itself an eye, goes beyond philosophy to become, in the Christian faith, a gaze. A personal gaze, that is, a face, a figure, and not a sun” (93). We would definitely need to unpack this.

The gaze is a source of light specialized to the self in its very otherness with itself. Sacrifice and responsibility intertwine into a form of secrecy that participates in this gaze. The self becomes ultimately mired in the paradox of sacrificing its own needs and being responsible for its needs of self.

Derrida returns to the allusion of Abraham and Isaac on page 96. I would point to this page, and discuss the way Derrida works with the story. He connects sacrifice to gift. Because Abraham is willing to give up his most beloved son as absolute duty, a sacrifice, God grants him the gift of death. The communication between them is in secret, and “suspends” until the moment of substitution, where sacrifice and gift exchange. He says, “The response and hence responsibility always risk what they cannot avoid appealing to in reply, namely, recompense and retribution” (96). This, in essence, becomes secret again. In our act of responsibility, we are only given the gift that we do not even think to ask for, and its status is kept secret from us until the instant we recognize it.

The source of this, for Derrida, lies in the heart. The discourse thusly moves again (as Derrida is a group of centers or points, rarely one) to a religious conversation. The Gospel of Matthew permits Derrida to relate that we place what is most important to us—what comprises our hearts—in an invisible place. This place is safe from everything. In true Derridean fashion, the discourse returns to the concept of visibility. He says, “As a discourse on the location or placement of the heart this cardiotopology is also an ophthalmology” (98). This sets up the binary construction of the good eye (light) and the bad eye (darkness). He then says, “The eye is a lamp. It doesn’t receive light, it gives it” (99). This is how Derrida flips the concept upon itself. The good is other-worldly; it’s source is from the invisible place. The light of the eye sees from its invisibility.

Derrida says there are 2 characteristics to the logic of this complex idea:

  1. Photology: “light comes from the heart, from inside; from the spirit and not from the world” (100).

Light = photological science

Photological = (produced by light) and (correct reasoning)

Hence another Shibboleth:

Plus de secret, plus de secret: No more secrecy means more secrecy.

As soon as there is no more secret hidden from God, absolute secrecy is formed within the conscience. Thus, “…this incommensurable inside of the soul or the conscience, this inside without any outside carries with it both the end and the origin of the secret” (101).

Economy of sacrifice is this above. “It is a sacrifice that economizes or an economy that sacrifices” (101). I can’t say this better, but I can talk about it. This is Derrida playing off words, another tautology, another Shibboleth.

  1. The concept of the economy of sacrifice thus creates a secondary clause (if you will). This move is a bit abstract and difficult (on purpose). Derrida uses several quotes from the Bible to discuss the “economy of sacrifice” in relation to what we have that is dissymmetrical (hands and eyes) is where true, “absolute loss” will occur. He says, “The logic that requires a suspension of the reciprocity of vengeance and that commands us not to resist evil is naturally the logic, the logos itself, which is life and truth…” (103). This takes dissymmetry all that much further. It isn’t enough just to sacrifice, Derrida emphasizes, but to doubly sacrifice. What is this? This is to sacrifice to one’s enemies with no expectation of repentance.

Through Carl Schmidt’s argument, Derrida then takes on the concept of justice. This entire section (pages 103-107) is a bit vague and complicated. Basically what Derrida is getting at is the exercise of association. We are to associate to our others—all others—from the view that they are our brethren. No matter if they are enemies, or “aliens,” we are to see them as one in our community. To do this is to “love without reserve” (106). The ultimate dissymmetry is to love all others as we love ourselves. “One must be just without being noticed for it. To want to be noticed means wanting recognition and payment in terms of a calculable salary, in terms of thanks or recompense” (107).

Oddly, it is at this moment where we see a break with Christian rhetoric; this break isn’t a severance, but, as usual Derridean fashion, a reorienting of the concept. Instead of looking at God as this ungraspable entity, he thinks we should look at God in a different way: “God is the name of the possibility I have of keeping a secret that is visible from the interior but not from the exterior” (108). He then says, “God is in me, he is the absolute ‘me’ or ‘self,’ he is that structure of invisible interiority that is called, in Kierkegaard’s sense, subjectivity” (109). Naturally, in the Christian sense, this is blasphemous. Derrida takes this further. He brings in Baudelaire’s “The Pagan School” to show how the author intimates that in this act of sacrifice, one actually uses economy to get something back. This challenges the notion of the gift in that there is no sacrifice even in this “loving without reserve.”

Derrida brings this into a complete pagan ideology with Nietzsche. Derrida argues, “One must give without knowing, without knowledge or recognition, without thanks [remerciement]: without anything, or at least without any object” (112). It is almost that to be truly sacrificial, one must be an atheist, but not literally. Derrida ends the book with a sly, toothless grin—an emphasis in questioning. So, what do we do? I think Derrida thinks we are to keep questioning (this is such a typical move for a philosopher, hahaha).



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