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The Work of Mourning [Paperback]

Jacques Derrida
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Book Description

14 Oct 2003
One must go before the other. This inevitability bestows upon the mourner a further inevitability - to say something and to participate in the codes and rites of mourning. The distinguished French philosopher Jacques Derrida has been forced to wrestle with the complexities of mourning, as colleagues and friends passed away before him. This volume gathers together letters of condolence, memorial essays, eulogies and funeral orations, written after the deaths of figures well known in France and the US: Roland Barthes, Paul de man, Louis Marin, Emmanuel Levinas, Joseph Riddel and Michel Serviere to name but a few. Many essays are available in English for the first time. Each chapter has an introduction and a biographical sketch of its subject. Derrida bears witness to the singularity of friendship and to the uniqueness of each relationship. He is aware of the questions of tact, taste and ethical responsibility involved in speaking of the dead, and the risk of using the occasion of death for one's own reason. This collection of memorial addresses captures Derrida's relation to prominent French thinkers and his thoughts on some important themes - mourning, the "gift of death", time, memory and friendship.

Product details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press (14 Oct 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226142817
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226142814
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 1.5 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 320,155 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Jacques Derrida is the director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris, and professor of humanities at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of many books including "The Gift of Death" and "Archive Fever," both published by the University of Chicago Press. Pascale-Anne Brault is an associate professor of French at DePaul University. Michael Naas is a professor of philosophy at DePaul University. Together they have translated several works by Derrida, including "Memoirs of the Blind," published by the University of Chicago Press, and "Adieu."

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Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
It was interesting to read Derrida's eulogy/poersonal view on several eminent modern thinkers whom he had known well- for instance Paul Mann, Lyotard, Foucault. The translation was adequate. Not a classic but a useful addition
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Why The Economist Got It All Wrong 1 Aug 2011
By Etienne ROLLAND-PIEGUE - Published on
I usually hold The Economist magazine in high esteem. But on the occasion of Jacques Derrida's death in 2004, they did something disgraceful that I will never forget, nor forgive. Breaking all conventions, they wrote an obituary that was treacherous, wicked and mean. They collected all the usual clichés against Derrida and deconstruction, and turned them into a vicious attack against the deceased. They reproduced the charge, most infamously held in 1992 during the Cambridge controversy over the award of a honorary title, that "Mr Derrida's work was absurd, vapid and pernicious". They accused him of self-aggrandizement, of obscurantism, and of sophistry. In a deliberate case of forgery, they attributed to him nonsensical puns ("logical phallusies") that never appeared under his signature. They referred to the case, first raised by the New York Times, that Paul de Man had written anti-Semitic articles for a pro-Nazi Belgian newspaper in 1940, and labeled Derrida's defense of his friend, and of Martin Heidegger's philosophy, as "disastrous". "Deconstruction means never having to say you're sorry," was how they summed up the debate. The closing line that "God help" those theologians who had developed an interest in the late Derrida's writings about religion, was as close to a damnation call as one could get.

Why all this hatred? one may ask. In the case of The Economist's anonymous obituarist, the answer seems simple: he or she never had read even a single page of the author's works that were commented upon. In my opinion, a good way to start would have been by opening this volume. Although The Work of Mourning does not provide the best introduction to Derrida's work, it carries on a reflexion on the literary genres inspired by the sentiment of mourning: obituaries, eulogies, funeral orations, memorial essays, or just messages of condolence. It does so by not only speaking of or about mourning, but by enacting the very gesture of saying a last farewell to the deceased. Illustrating a time-honored genre and tradition, this volume published in 2001 binds together texts written by Derrida after the death of friends and colleagues to recall their lives and work and bear witness to a relationship with them. At the very least, it could have been used by The Economist's indelicate editor as a manual of good manners and social etiquette that people use in circumstances when they often feel at a loss to express their heartfelt condolences.

The first rule of proper manners our editor would have learned is that, as Derrida remarks in a text written in memory of Michel Foucault, "one does not carry on a stormy discussion after the other has departed." For it may be recalled that the discussion that Derrida conducted with Foucault over a course of more than twenty years was nothing less than stormy. The starting point was given by the publication in 1961 of Foucault's first great book, translated in English in an abridged version as Madness and Civilization. The object of controversy was Foucault's reading of Descartes' Méditations métaphysiques, and in particular of the passage where Descartes envisages the possibility that the thinking subject could be in the middle of a dream, subject to an illusion, or in a state of madness. Descartes' dismissal of the last eventuality as unthinkable was read by Foucault as a highly significant gesture, marking the exclusion of madness out of the realm of classical reason, as the absolute other that had to be locked away and confined into a madhouse.

In one of his first essays of note, Derrida offered his own commentary leading to a radically different conclusion. Descartes' text is more ambivalent and contradictory that a Cartesian reading would first assume, and the thought that life may be just a dream is a hyperbolic gesture that drives reason to the point of madness. Derrida's response, which "deconstructs" the text by suggesting that what it performs exceeds what it states, can also be read as a defense of the classical tradition against the attack of historicism. This is the position that Foucault took, seeing in his contradictor a guardian of the temple whose main concern was to keep the philosophical faith intact. Nobody had the last word in this debate, and in his essay written on the thirtieth anniversary of Foucault's book, Derrida tactfully avoided the subject and chose to speak about Freud, not Descartes.

This Descartes controversy is worth recalling because, contrary to the charge waged by casual readers, Derrida's deconstruction was not an attack against the Western canon yielded by a disheveled anarchist bent on the suppression of classical education, common decency, and footnotes. It was a close reading of texts in the rigorous and disciplined manner that students of the Ecole Normale Supérieure are taught to perform. Derrida was very consistent in affirming the value of the legacy we call Western thought, philosophy, or literature, and even many of the traditions and institutions that have carried them down to us, such as the humanities or the university. To become a master, the disciple first has to incorporate the rules and learn the cannon before being able to create his own brand of philosophy. Putting one's own claim to originality under the sign of Descartes is a sure way to bow down to a learned tradition as one breaks free from the fetters of acquired scholarship. The radicalism of Derrida's deconstruction, and of Foucault's archeology of knowledge for that matter, has to be replaced into its French academic context. And the accusation that Derrida's numerous epigones on US campuses carried deconstruction to its absurd excess should also be substantiated: it could be argued, on the contrary, that Derrida introduced in American comparative literature departments habits of intellectual rigor and of theoretical creativity that could only stem from the French philosophical tradition.

The editor's introduction to this book illustrates this point: it is a carefully crafted essay that really adds value to the volume by identifying its main themes and putting them into context. It acknowledges that Derrida's eulogies and acts of mourning contain many contradictions: admitting how difficult to speak at such a moment of grief while at the same time choosing words over silence; participating in the codes and rites of mourning while putting into question the very conventions of the genre; striking a balance between quotations and testimony at a point when one may no longer let the deceased speak nor address him directly. Essays of mourning are texts fraught with danger. "Political calculation, personal retaliation, narcissism, attempts at achieving a good conscience": these are just some of the risks, identified in the introduction, that Derrida meticulously tried to avoid, and that The Economist's obituary illustrated in the most tactless manner.

"He who has many friends, has no friend," wrote Aristotle. The Ancients believed that one can only have a limited number of friends. Similarly, they held that the number of ideas were finite, and that is why they were worth repeating in maxims or quotations. Derrida's texts of mourning are written around a single idea: friendship and mourning are closely related, because to have a friend is to know, with inescapable certitude, that "one of the two of you will inevitably see the other die." It was Derrida's misfortune, as well as his blessing that only a long and fruitful life could procure, to see many of his friends pass away. These friends were limited in number but, as the editors justly point out in their introduction "To reckon with the dead", one can not really reckon, recount or account for their death. One cannot settle scores with the dead, and this is why the debt and obligations owed to them will remain forever pending.

The shadow of death transforms a relationship, putting things into their proper perspective, and calling for hospitality and forgiveness. Writing in homage to Jean-Marie Benoist, a right-wing intellectual, Derrida notes that "what might appear to be ideologico-political divisions" were in fact "little more than petty infightings," "things that did not concern us." Similarly, he conjures those too prompt to judge and categorize Althusser ("the unique adventure that bears the name Louis Althusser") to "take the time to listen to our time (for we had no other.)" In the context of his eulogies, the author of Specters of Marx was able to refer to Althusser's Pour Marx and to Benoist's Marx est mort, with equal consideration. To hold Derrida responsible for the sins of others, as The Economist does with reference to Paul de Man's and Martin Heidegger's Nazi past, proceeds more from an intention to do harm than from a will to do justice.

Derrida took great care in choosing the titles of his interventions. The title of this book, The Work of Mourning, nor the decision to bind his "works of mourning" into a single volume, were not of his own making. It was the editors' choice. Derrida himself seldom uses the expression, "the work of morning" and, when he does, it is often with quotation marks. It is, he notes, "a confused and terrible expression", in which "this so-called 'work' remains here the name of a problem." Mourning is at work in these texts, and, as Derrida would add, mourning is at work as long as there is friendship, for the law of friendship is that one friend must always go before the other. But there is no work in mourning, and these texts of mourning belong more to the gift economy than to the logic of labor. One is always free to refuse a gift or a present, as The Economist does with regard to Derrida's inheritance. But it is a terrible thing to do.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Work of Morning 12 Feb 2012
By Jean Nezmars - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase

The morning after, after the morning, the morning that is in itself (an sich) not morning (in itself that is). The indefinite dyad at the service of the One, the measure of all things great and small, marks (as trace) the before and after of morning itself, viz as thing itself, qua being, as an indeterminacy that begs transgression. I will return "There" shortly. When does our morning begin and end? When does it become a pile or stack, not of mornings of course, but perhaps of grains of sand, the very measure of time, and our time together? How do we measure this morning as loss? As a never-was? How do we retain it in our self (if it cannot render itself)? For the dawn of morning returns to the crepuscule. .... and to Death itself. It is now (even more so) the morning after, a pill so hard to swallow in the work of morning; as it inevitably brings death onto itself... the death of those we loved and lost, and the loss of Love, that filial loss. Morning lies there in that infinitesimal (yet infinite) space between Eros and Thanatos.

If you recall the time we met (but never truly met, never shared a "this place here" or occasion, that is to say a "There" in the Heideggerian, rather than Ginsbergian sense, a limitation (as fundamental characteristics of the There, I believe is the quote). The field, that open-ness, where the Heideggerian peasant (yes we "Jacques") soils himself in the work, in the labor. No, no boundary condition, no perimeter, or plane, but rather an intersection of two independent trajectories, coming to a point, indefinite, immeasurable... if that is the (physis of the) point.

It was Irvine circa late `80s. But what is the date? If I have your permission, and take your leave, to repeat, in your own words, at the time, you said "It is necessary that in the date the unrepeatable (das unweiderholbar) repeat itself, effacing in itself the irreducible singularity that it denotes. It is necessary that, in a certain manner, the unrepeatable divide itself in repeating itself, and in the same stroke encipher or encrypt itself. Like physis, a date loves to encrypt itself. (Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan 2005: 15). It was this very love of the encrypted that drew me to you, and the comfort received in apparent endless/timeless repetition (granted across divergent registers). Discursive strategy practiced by all good rhetors (theologians included), where the repetition, reiteration, recursion, and eventual regression lead to solace and tranquility (ataraxia): precursor to eudemonia. And you were in good spirits.

If I remember correctly the "occasion" was a seminar on Heidegger, or more correctly on the "Heidegger Question," more specifically on the punctuation (punctum) of Spirit (Geist) in the Heideggerian corpus. You admitted a surprise--I believe, it was long ago--at the avoidance or reluctance on the part of Heidegger to engage with that essentially Hegelian idiom. You said, "Saisi par l'idiome allemand, Geist donnerait à penser plutôt, plus tôt, la flame." Sooner (plus tôt) rather (plutôt) than later we all come to ashes (dust to dust), and to the work of morning.

For all these memories, Jacques, thank you: J'en-saigne pour tous ceux qui veulent bien me voir écouler!

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Paying his respect 20 Jan 2007
By Steiner - Published on
This volume is a compendium of obituaries by Jacques Derrida on several key figures of continental philosophy who have since passed in recent years. The book, gathered as a whole, essentially marks the end of an important era in the history of Western philosophy, it was the era of existentialism, phenomenology, structuralism, post-structuralism, Marxist theory, and deconstruction.

Derrida writes elegant and respectful essays about literary theorist Roland Barthes, Paul DeMan, philosopher Michel Foucault, Max Loreau, Jean-Marie Benoist, Marxist theorist Louis Althusser, Edmond Jabes, Joseph Riddel, Michel Serviere, Louis Marin, feminist Sarah Kofman, Gilles Deleuze, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jean-Francois Lyotard.

Although this text is far from a major work of philosophy on behalf of Derrida, I am positive it will be an important resource for future students, and an elegant work of preservation for a by-gone era.
3 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Funereal Rites 1 Nov 2001
By A Customer - Published on
I haven't read this book, but have read most of the obits. The introduction I read in the excerpt here was strong, and if the rest of the material is anything like what I have already encountered (espec. Levinas and Deleuze), it is a remarkable book. Derrida writes beautifully and compassionately when writing of the beloved Other; his infamous turgidity is infrequent in these pieces. Well worthwhile.
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