Arche-evil Derrida’s philosophy explained through the concept of evil

Chapter 6
Arche-evil Derrida’s philosophy explained through the concept of evil

Jari Kauppinen


The aim of this text is to gather together the systematic interpretations of Jacques Derrida’s philosophy in relation to evil, which are not usually considered to be key terms in ‘understanding Derrida’.2

Derrida’s notion ‘arche-evil’ already opens this path: it can be understood as an atopology,3 as a limit of the system or as something outside it that at the same time makes this system possible. Hence it is something that makes possible the system of good and evil, something that is actually beyond this system or the primordial unity of good and evil. The concept of evil that Derrida uses refers also to the Kantian radical evil, and to the notion of la pire violence, the worst violence, as he calls it in his argumentation about the violence of the discourse and about original violence. The concept of evil also relates to the sacred and to God, to the relation to the other, to what comes from the other and to the notion of to-come.4 Then again, Derrida is not a negative theologian, like Emmanuel Levinas or Jean-Luc Marion, because he does not want to determine the other or the other of the other who is coming; there is no Deus absconditus or Wittgensteinian ineffability as a transcendental signifier. Moreover, what makes Derrida’s discussion about evil different from the theological perspectives is the recognition of psychoanalysis. Freud speaks about evil in terms of radical evil, which Derrida makes clear: ‘We do not like to be reminded, Freud notes, of the undeniable existence of an evil which seems to contradict the sovereign goodness of God.’5

The concept of violence: Derrida and Levinas

I shall show first how Derrida uses the concept of evil (and violence) in his early work, first in ‘Violence and Metaphysics’ and then in Of Grammatology. Derrida starts to ask questions of evil, ontology and violence in relation to the philosophy of Levinas. We confront the notion of worst violence in Derrida’s argumentation against Levinas’s notion of original peace in Totality and Infinity.

Let me say immediately that Derrida should not be read in the context of structural linguistics but in the context of phenomenology and the philosophy of Being. This concerns the structure of the original violence, or the first violence of Being, that is discussed in Derrida’s critique of Levinas in ‘Violence and Metaphysics’. In early Derrida7 the focus is on the violence of language. Even if Derrida based his criticism of Lévi-Strauss and his reading of Rousseau’s The Essay on the Origin of Languages on the argument of transcendental violence, he himself, as he analyses the origin of violence, makes a Rousseauistic move. The structure of Derrida’s argument goes from transcendental violence to ontological violence. First there is the opening of the ethical relationship to the other and the determination of violence in the case of Levinasian pre-theoretical ethics of ethics. For Levinas the religious is the ethical and we need it because of evil; and of course philosophy for Levinas derives from religion. Thus the problem of evil is placed in a Levinasian context, and Derrida explains how the relation to the other is the transcendental origin of irreducible violence, namely pre-ethical violence.8 This is the famous passage against Levinas that leads to the earlier quoted passage on the worst violence; it also introduces the notion of an economy: ‘For this transcendental origin, as the irreducible violence of the relation to the other, is at the same time nonviolence, since it opens the relation to the other. It is an economy. And it is this economy, by this opening, that will permit access to the other to be determined, in ethical freedom, as moral violence or nonviolence.’9

This is what the non-ethical opening of the ethics means which means also the necessary violence. In this arche-evil, or primary war in the case of Levinas, is needed so that that ethics can be founded as first philosophy. Derrida argues that the possibility of peace can be founded only on the basis of secondary war, because this represses the worst violence – the radical evil – of primitive violence. As already mentioned, Derrida speaks about arche-evil as absolute violence and the worst violence as pre-violence. Here violence also means history.10

Further, without the thought of Being, which opens the face, there would be only pure violence and non-violence. Therefore, the thought of Being, in its unveiling, is never foreign to a certain violence. That this thought always appears in difference, and that the same – thought (and) (of) Being – is never the identical, means first that Being is history, that Being dissimulates itself in its occurrence, and originally does violence to itself in order to be stated and in order to appear. A Being without violence would be a Being which would occur outside the existent: nothing; nonhistory; non-occurrence; nonphenomenality.11

Thus we need Being with history, with politics, and with ethics: violence is in the final analysis finity as the ethical is opened as a relation to infinity. Or as it is known, from Levinas, that being is evil. Finally, Derrida states that it is in articulation that violence begins, ‘Violence appears with articulation.12

Although evil is always in the background of Levinas’s philosophy he makes only rare comments on it. For example, Levinas says that evil is something unintegratable, evil is excess: ‘The ontological difference is preceded by the difference between good and evil,’ which makes ethics primordial.13 His comments on evil can also be found from his writings on the Jewish tradition. As an example of evil I take ‘Damages due to Fire’, a Halakhic commentary which deals with the responsibility to violence or terror of fire:

It affirms responsibility for damages caused by a disaster, due, to be sure, to human freedom, but which, as fire, immediately escapes the powers of the guilty party. Fire, an elementary force to which other elementary forces will add themselves, multiplying damages beyond any rational conjecture!14

When we read this in relation to the problem of fire, cinders and remains in Derrida it can be seen that in Derrida’s reading impossibility and nothing are more radical than the Levinasian theodicy of a heavenly firewall against the enemy. This leads to Derrida’s later theory of hauntology. It is enough to point out the argument of Of Spirit, in which the spirit leads to the ashes and to the hauntology, where the spirit is also the ghost which always doubles itself when it returns, as is explained in Specters of Marx. It implies the general structure of becoming and the peculiar temporality of the future without present and the shift from the messiah to messianicity. This is also implied in the coming of the worst because the old evil always doubles itself and in the becoming of evil is always the possibility of impossibility, absolute evil, where the dead should bury the dead – as is already implied in history.

Rousseau and the violence of the letter

But to return to our argument. In Of Grammatology Derrida harshly criticizes Claude Lévi-Strauss’s ‘modern Rousseauism’, for which violence means writing.15 The question is what links writing (in the normal sense) with violence. Derrida considers that the complex structure of violence, as arche-violence, arche-writing or arche-ethics, is analogical to the structure of metaphysics and as complex as the system of writing. First there is primary violence, the naming and being named. Out of this comes the violence of law, that is reparatory and protective violence that institutes morality. The third, and the most complex, violence is related to these two inferior kinds of violence. This is empirical violence, violence of reflection, a classificatory and identificatory violence.16 It is ‘what is commonly called evil, war, indiscretion, rape’.17 This is the structure of violence. Thus we get to the origin, or to nature, because in Derrida’s interpretation of Rousseau we have the structure of the supplement, and evil comes through the supplementarity. There is always something more, something that is lacking from the origin and now it is culture which appears as evil through the chain of supplements and substitutions. There is something proper, without a name, and this impropriety appears in the form of culture or of language. This is the Derridian argument about voice and speech in relation to Rousseau’s notion of the original cry. In a section called ‘Writing, political evil and linguistic evil’ there is discussion of the determination of absence as the origin in relation to presence and supplement. Derrida comments: ‘Among all its representations (exteriority of nature and its others, of good and evil, innocence and perversity, of consciousness and nonconsciousness, of life and death, etc.) one in particular requires our special notice.’18

Derrida’s philosophical examination of linguistic and political evil shows the way in which Derrida deals with the first passion in Rousseau, be it pity (as in the Second Discourse) or fear (as in The Essay). It is passion that starts both culture and society, or language and culture, because it is possible to ‘reread all the texts describing culture as the corruption of nature: in the sciences, the arts, spectacle, masques, literature, writing’.19 These things mean history – and of course this movement is classical, because speech makes the difference between animality and humanity. It is not merely that war means animality, it is the imagination as a supplement that is a passion above animality. Nature is another name for impossibility or a limit, in relation to addition and imagination. But where Rousseau is different from Hobbesian fear and aggressivity – and not only in the sense of fear and pity – is that according to Derrida Rousseau reduces or neutralizes, Epokhè.

What Rousseau thus reveals is the neutral origin of all ethico-political conceptuality, its field of objectivity, and its axiological system. All the oppositions that follow in the wake of the classical philosophy of history, culture and society must therefore be neutralized. Before this neutralization, or this reduction, political philosophy proceeds within the naiveté of acquired and accidental evidence.20

Indeed, in the Second Discourse and The Essay Rousseau says nearly the same: that in his theory of sovereignty Hobbes concludes too hastily that the first men were enemies. It is like Rousseau says, one cannot conclude wickedness from a lack of goodness.21 Nevertheless, the argument here is that nature signifies radical nonpresence. Derrida’s argument as a whole, if one looks again at the last pages of Of Grammatology is that exteriority – death, violence, evil and supplement – makes violent movement a force, a Heideggerian dynamis, a structure of reversal.22

Another point is to see how pity, in relation to the suffering of suffering, leads to auto-affection as a suffering. Auto-affection, the other name for living in general, also means suffering, just as an animal bears the double value of innocence and radical evil. But in the case of Rousseaustic reversal and the system of corruption as evil, one can also see how writing, or speech, or language has the double value of good and evil. Derrida’s most notorious text is of course ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, where is the function of mimesis in relation to good and bad imitation and writing presenting speech and speech thought. I shall merely quote Derrida’s litany of Platonic oppositions that govern Western metaphysics:

One cannot, in fact, speak – and we don’t really know what the word could mean here anyway – of a borrowing, that is, of an addition contingent and external to the text. Plato had to make his tale conform to structural laws. The most general of these, those that govern and articulate the oppositions speech/writing, life/death, father/son, master/servant, first/second, legitimate son/orphan/bastard, soul/body, inside/outside, good/evil, seriousness/play, day/night, sun/moon, etc., also govern, and according to the same configurations Egyptian, Babylonian and Assyrian mythology.23

This means that violence begins with articulation, and the articulation of Greek philosophy, or logos, in relation to Asiatic mythos. These oppositions are what classical Derridian deconstruction constitutes and then displaces, Derrida continuing the argument between the relation of evil, speech and language. Some twenty years later, in ‘The Eyes of the Language’, Derrida sees a multiple structure of evil. Here he deals with Gershom Scholem’s ‘ghostly letter’ to Franz Rosenzweig about the language of Palestine and the problem of the profane language of the not-yet-born nation. According to Derrida, Scholem makes a confession to Rosenzweig:

It is a confession before Rosenzweig the anti-Zionist, because Scholem is a Zionist – that is what he wants to be, that what he remains and confirms being. Yet, he cannot recognize in Zionism an evil, an inner evil, an evil that is anything but accidental [un mal qui n’a rien d’accidental]. More precisely, one cannot but recognize that the accidental that befalls Zionism or that lies in wait for it threatens it essentially, in its closest proximity: in its language [au plus proche de lui-même dans sa langue], and as soon as a Zionist opens his mouth. This evil has the triple form of threat or danger, first, then of failure, and finally as the root of the danger and the failure, the form of profanation, of corruption and sin … This linguistic evil does not let itself be localized or circumscribed.24

This is the traditional argument about Babel and Hebrew concerning the question of the language as opposed to the secularization and materialization of language. The evil of the secularization of Zionism is a distinct possibility: ‘The linguistic evil is total: it has no limit because first of all it is political.’25 In Scholem’s letter it is the Zionist who does not understand the essence of language according to Derrida’s interpretation; it is the accidental against the essential. For Scholem Palestine is like a volcano in which language boils.

The problem of linguistic evil is well known in Derrida since Of Grammatology and ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’. The debate goes back further to the first Discourse of Rousseau, where he claims that le grand mal was the invention of the sciences, and this is the fault of the Egyptian god Theuth, who brought letters to the human world.

Radical evil in ‘Faith and Knowledge’

In Derrida’s later philosophy there are three main texts where Derrida speaks about the radical evil, in relation to Kant’s Religion within the Boundaries of mere Reason. ‘Chaire vacante’ is about the university and the status of philosophy in relation to other faculties.26 In ‘Psychoanalysis searches for its States of the Soul’ Derrida refers to Freud and the problem of cruelty, Grausamkeit, which could not be extirpated from the human being. From Derrida’s perspective, radical evil is central to Freudian thought.27 Then there is Derrida’s most famous text on religion in ‘Foi et savoir’ (‘Faith and Knowledge’), to which I turn now. As he analyses religion Derrida wonders why we need the concept of evil and what the different forms of evil are, whether salvation is necessarily redemption before or after evil, fault or sin. Moreover, where is evil (le mal) today, and he asks, could there at present be an exemplary and unprecedented figure of evil, even radical evil, which would mark our time as no other?28

Derrida links radical evil to questions concerning the return of religion and he asks if radical evil institutes or destroys the possibility of religion and then he even states that at least radical evil destroys and institutes the religious.29 When there are different interpretations of religion that are distinct from the religious (be it the basis of faith or not) the religious seems to be the same as the religion, as far as it is instituted (and destroyed) by evil. Radical evil is described as the phallic machine that rapes but it functions in the same way as ontotheology. Evil is as necessary as ontotheology – we cannot avoid violence and evil, as faith is tied to the future, the to-come that is machinal. This also reminds us that the Lacano-Freudian structure of the world is necessarily phallic. It means also the coming of the worst or even the menace of radical evil.30 Monotheistic religions involve the violence of the sacrifice in the name of non-violence; and the sacrality and the sacredness of life involves the interruption of the opposites of the machinal and the holding back (Gelassenheit, for example) in relation to the good to come.31 Opposites are in suspension, ‘suspending themselves and, in truth, interrupting themselves’.32 When radical evil takes the form of the mechanical it is domesticated; it shifts from the general economy of evil to the restricted economy of evil.33

The second theme in ‘Faith and Knowledge’ is the historicality of evil that Derrida wishes to update.34 From Kant’s Religion within the Boundaries of mere Reason Derrida takes the perversion of the human heart that is not given at once, is not one, and can express itself only as figures. Derrida underlines Kant’s dictum that evil is inconceivable to reason and as a consequence we have the historical mode of representation of the Scriptures that speak in figures about human frailty. This implies a distinction between religion as a cult and moral religion, as well as the epiphany as history rather than myth. Derrida goes on to emphasize that it is the reflective faith that opens a space of discussion, because it is on the same lines as practical reason in contradistinction to dogmatic faith that ignores the distinction between faith and knowledge. This is the place of conflict for Derrida, because this means in a sense globalatinization, meaning the globalization of Christianity as the religion of morality and as a religion where we must act morally without depending on the favours of God as in a cult.35 At the same time Christianity means the religion of the death of God, because only in Christianity is the sacrifice of a corporeal God central, unlike other Abrahamic religions, namely Judaism and Islam.36 Derrida sees Heidegger’s Being and Time opening up to other philosophical resources. When Heidegger emphasizes, following Nietzschean genealogy, moral concepts like Gewissen or Schuldigsein, these concepts open themselves to pre-moralistic, pre-ethical and pre-religious modes of being.

The third theme in ‘Faith and Knowledge’ is the coming of the worst. It is formulated against the Hegelian temporality of theodicy; the Spirit that could ‘heal the wounds’. The future is not to be anticipated as the history of the future. The theme is more Heideggerian, and it implies the distinction between the time of farewell and the time of ‘to God’. (This Derrida develops in Adieu à Emmanuel Levinas. Of course, this means an a dieu/à dieu distinction between the privation of God, pas de dieu as no God and a step to God, and the vocation of God, or to God.)37 In ‘Faith and Knowledge’ this temporality is put in the form of messianicity. It is what is meant by chora, or arche-originary or messianicity without the messiah. This is something that comes from the other and comes in the form of interruption; it also means the advent of justice, undecidability, revolution, and the interruption of tearing history apart:

The coming of the other can only emerge as a singular event when no anticipation sees it coming, when the other and the death – and radical evil – can come as surprise at any moment. Possibilities that both open and can always interrupt history, or at least the ordinary course of history. But this ordinary course is that of which philosophers, historians and often also the classical theoreticians of the revolution speak.38

This is what is called in Derrida’s words the general structure of experience and in Of Grammatology

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