Feb 192017

Michael Naas, The End of the World and Other Teachable Moments: Derrida’s Final Seminar. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015; 232 pages. ISBN: 9780823263295

Reviewed by Ege Selin Islekel, Loyola Marymount

The End of The World and Other Teachable Moments: Derrida’s Final Seminar is a beautifully written analysis of Derrida’s final two-volume seminar, The Beast and The Sovereign. As a student and friend who attended Derrida’s lectures, Michael Naas reads them as an autobiographical journey through Derrida’s thought, life, and death. Naas concentrates almost entirely on the second year of lectures, marking a dramatic shift from the first year’s concerns over the question of the animal to the second year’s quite different focus on questions of life, death, remaining, mourning, dying a living death, and ultimately, Naas argues, Derrida’s own death. Hence, Naas reads the second year as an “attempt to chronicle a thinking of last things” and yet one that is unique, in that this journey takes “the necessary detour of other lives and other texts.” (7) In order to trace this “necessary detour,” Naas puts the final seminars in relation to the entirety of Derrida’s corpus showing how they exemplify what he takes to be the fundamental question of Derrida’s work, namely, the relationship between the concepts of an indivisible sovereignty and an autonomous subjectivity supposedly endowed with a capacity to make decisions about itself, both in life and after death. Through focusing on animality, the relationship between the wheel and the circle, cremation and inhumation, life and living death, autobiography, prayer, and the archive, Naas argues that both the concept of autonomous subjectivity and undivided sovereignty are phantasmic configurations that, although constructed around a certain imaginary notion of the subject, comes to haunt the real, material lives of individuals.

As the only chapter that takes up the first year of lectures, Chapter One focuses on the distinction between the human and the animal. Naas argues that Derrida’s deconstruction of the binary separating what is proper to the human from what is proper to animals takes on a fundamentally unique character. More specifically, Derrida contests this binary not by questioning whether animals have some set of attributes traditionally denied them (reason, free action, language, death, etc), but by questioning whether and on what grounds one can claim that humans possess these attributes. It will be the failure to ground the “human” possession of these attributes that exposes the phantasmic character of this very act of attribution itself, Derrida showing that all logics of attribution rests always on a certain as if, a phantasm of stability and authority (what he will come to call “the world”), a certain “sovereignty” or “ipseity,” that proves always unstable.

Throughout the rest of The End of The World and Other Teachable Moments, Naas uses the figure of the “phantasm” to analyze the relationship between ipseity and sovereignty, living and dying, self and other. For example, early on, Naas confronts Heidegger’s argument that the human has a specific relationship to the world that the animal lacks, showing that the very notion of a shared world is itself a phantasm, constructed through the same unstable logic of attribution that grounds the phantasm of the human as an autonomous subject with sovereignty over their life and death (in the form of making a decision between inhumation and cremation). For Derrida, the phantasmatic character of this construction rests on the fact that the subject is never going to be actually there to make the decision about their corpse, the sovereignty of a subject over their own fate always conditioned on the presence of another, an other who will outlive the subject and will, therefore, ultimately make the decision on what happens to their corpse.

Through Naas’s emphasis on such moments, it becomes clear that phantasms are put to work as stabilizing possibilities: they have the performative function of an as if, one that works to eventually create the world and subjectivity. Yet, that there is another, that there will always be the other, is the condition not only for what happens to one’s corpse, but also one’s corpus: there is no self and there is no account of the self without a journey to the other, a detour through the world and others that returns one to oneself but only on condition that one return as a radically altered self (altered precisely though this detour). The performative function of the phantasms—of the human, of the self, of the sovereign self—then, will have always already been conditioned on another kind of performative, on an “originary performative” of an appeal to turn and to listen, “a prayer” made to the other, as Naas calls it, to an other “into whose hands will pass my corpse and my corpus.” (123)

One’s corpus is marked not only by this originary appeal of a prayer, but also by one’s own corpse. Just as a self same sovereign subject who has control over what happens to their body is a phantasm, so is an author who has autonomy over the fate of their writing. For Naas, this is what Derrida means by the notion of writing as a trace structure, writing always becomes archive in the very act of writing, given to the hands of another, becoming from the very first instant a prayer of a living death, of a life that is marked by its own death. In the very last chapter, Naas investigates Derrida’s fascination with Heidegger’s 1929–1930 seminars and returns to the term Walten. Walten, originary violence, is connected to Derrida’s notion of différance and is revealed as that which underlies the questions and phantasms of the self, the sovereign, the world, the other, death, and mourning. As the final question of the seminars, Naas argues Walten is the countersignature of Derrida, signed in the name of another—of Heidegger and of Benjamin. This countersignature is at once countersignature of respect to the others of his writing, whose corpses were handed over to his own hands, and that of a prayer to the others of the seminars and of his own corpus into whose hands his corpse will be delivered.

A noteworthy moment in Naas’s account concerns Derrida’s characterization of modernity around the practices of burial and mourning. As Naas explicates, Derrida asserts that modernity is characterized by the possibility of a so-called decision on what happens to one’s body after death, the decision between burial and cremation: “To the question ‘what is modernity?’ Derrida thus has the answer: ‘it was the opening of the alternative and the choice left by the state, in European and Greco-Abrahamic cultures, between inhumation and cremation.’” (80) This so-called sovereignty, however, turns out to be a phantasm once again: “Despite all appearances, we will have never had sovereign power over our own body.” (73) The sovereignty of ipseity, in this sense, is always one that is in the hands of another: “It is here that sovereignty is established—or established in the first place—only by an appeal to a phantasm, that is, only in imagination.” (73)

There is also another mode of a relationship between the sovereign and the other that becomes clear in these remarks: after all, the decision between cremation and inhumation is one that is left by the state. Indeed, both in “the West” (which seems to be described as European and Greco-Abrahamic cultures by Derrida) and “outside” the West, the very existence of the decision is conditioned by a certain opening up granted by the state.  The question thus becomes whether or not that opening itself could also be a phantasmic one, describing a modernity that is formed as if such a decision is or could be left to the state and power, a decision can be closed here and there at any point. The mass graves of the Holocaust, the disappeared of Argentina, the occupants of Hart Island in New York (where many were placed because of high funeral costs), the fate of Kurdish activists whose corpses are taken to dumpsters designated for political criminals, all refer to the fragility of such a phantasmic relationship between state sovereignty and the decision of what happens to one’s body after death. As Derrida suggests, that decision was never and will have never been actually a decision of one’s own: the sovereign will have always been the other. Thus, even though Naas himself does not explicitly engage with the role of state sovereignty in the context of funerary rituals, the insights that his text raises lend themselves to a useful reading of such questions. Insofar as the possibility of such decisions itself is one that is conditioned and opened up by the sovereign state, the other will have always been the sovereign as well. If there is a phantasmic presence of modernity itself then, it lies in this point: modernity is a system that relies on the phantasm of a sacred practice of mourning, a sacred relationship between the subject and the other, where in fact the sovereign will have always already been the other, the ultimate one who decides on what happens to one’s fate, one’s life, and one’s death. The originary violence of Walten circles between this relationship between the sovereign and the other, to encompass an opening that will have always been a potential enclosure, as Naas writes, “Habeas Corpus—‘you shall have the body,’ ‘you shall have your body’—would thus be but a reactive formation, a reaction to a more originary non-habeas corpus.” (73)

The role of sex and gender in the construction and deconstruction of such phantasmic sovereign subjectivity is yet another important moment in Naas’s text. The distinction of the human and animal is, as Naas stresses, interwoven with the politics of sex, where the opposition of human and animal is duplicated as male and female. The ipseity of this subject, its autonomy, sovereignty, corpse, and corpus, is thus construed through a certain articulation of gender politics based on the prevalence of masculine subjectivity. At the heart of the phantasm of a self-same sovereign subject is “the phantasm of a male sojourner who wishes to return home to the woman who will have been waiting there for him at the point of departure.” (87) Naas emphasizes two moments in this sexual politics: the first is Derrida’s beginning the first year of the seminar’s by stressing the pronouns of “La bêteand “Le Souverain,” where the beast is referred to by the feminine pronoun and the sovereign by the masculine. The second moment is in the beginning of the second year of the seminar where Derrida starts with the statement: “je suis seul (e).” (88) Naas suggests that these passages mark the interconnectedness of the concepts of human, subject, sovereign, identity, autonomy, male and man, constituting a phantasmic configuration.

Although the deconstruction of the aspects of sex and gender in this phantasmic configuration is not elaborated further by Naas, it nevertheless opens up a productive path of investigation, one already developed, for example, in the work of Penelope Deutscher, but around which there is still much to be done. Indeed, such phantasmic relation suggests two claims: on the one hand, there is the clear argument made by Naas: that sexual difference itself is a phantasmic opposition, an apparition that haunts the world and makes up a world that is construed as if it is a solid binary opposition. On the other hand, there is another argument that stems from this: insofar as the phantasm is never an apparition by itself but always the stabilizing possibility of a configuration, masculine ipseity itself is a phantasmic configuration, consisting of a multiplicity of apparitions that haunt the world. What would thus remains to be done for a deconstruction of sexual difference and the system of gender binaries would be at minimum to repeat the method of Derrida’s outlined by Naas at the very beginning, an examination and questioning of the categories that form this phantasm, as well as its effects.

Overall, The End of the World and Other Teachable Moments, Derrida’s Final Seminar, offers an investigation of Derrida’s final seminars as an autobiographical journey, tracing the questions of identity, sovereignty, death and mourning, animality, sexual difference, the wheel and the circle. This text is a pleasure to read as Naas’ elegant prose masterfully situates the final seminars in the totality of Derrida’s thought. It will be a valuable resource both for scholars and students of Derrida’s thought. While explaining the fundamental elements of Derrida’s corpus with utmost clarity, in Naas’ work, Derrida’s thought, life, and death appear as a consistent and continuous investigation of violence, death, and mourning, now delivered to the hands of the reader.