Timothy Secret, The Politics and Pedagogy of Mourning: On Responsibility in Eulogy. London: Bloomsbury, 2015; 296 pages. ISBN: 978-1472575142.

Reviewed by Adam Haaga, Memorial University.

What do we owe the dead? And how are we to measure up to the impossible demands for ethical responsibility in the absence of the other? Such are the principal concerns framing Secret’s exceptional study on eulogy and the work of mourning. Taking his lead from Derrida’s conviction in Specters of Marx that no justice worthy of the name could fail to address those who are no longer, Secret crafts his argument around what Derrida also names the 20th century’s “three determinate angles” or discourses on death—those being Heidegger, Levinas, and Freud, with attention paid to one’s own dying, the other’s dying, and the other’s being-dead, respectively. Without detracting the significance of any one of these discourses, Secret argues in each case that Heidegger, Levinas, and Freud are incapable, on their own, of sufficiently address the entire spectrum of political responsibility opened up in the call to eulogize.

In the first chapter, Secret addresses Heidegger’s fundamental ontology and the analytic of Dasein—that being that has the capacity to question Being. It is in our comportment towards Being that a disclosure of truth, as Heidegger argues, is essentially linked to our finitude—i.e., our mortal temporality. Secret will dub this “the most radical claim in Being and Time” (7) since it confronts the tradition’s dominant view (from the neo-Platonists, to Descartes, to Kant) that places finitude as the source of our error and not the source of truth.

Even so, Secret argues that Heidegger’s ontology is insufficient for engaging the phenomenon of mourning, even as death marks a decisive factor in Heidegger’s project in at least three ways. First is the break between the two divisions of Being and Time, the move from the commonsense temporality of present-at-hand entities to the “not-yet” of Being-toward-death, or Dasein’s anticipation of its end. Secret detects in Heidegger’s claim (that “death is Dasein’s ownmost possibility”—an individualizing possibility as non-relational) a certain circular structure. (Heidegger, 307; hereafter cited BT) For, on the one hand, Dasein exists as individuated by always already having been thrown into existence and “delivered over to its death.” (BT, 303) On the other hand, Dasein is primarily “in an active state of fleeing from its death into the ‘they’ and does not exist as individuated.” (16) A question in Heidegger’s fundamental ontology remains concerning if Dasein could have concern for another’s dying, given that another’s dying away is precisely what cannot be taken from them (BT, 284). The second point of contention concerns the well-known risk of ontic contamination that plagues Heidegger’s ontological investigation, which is not to insinuate that a complete delimitation of the sciences subordinated to an existential analytic is possible or even to be preferred. We can neither obtain clarification of death as such by first engaging in regional ontologies, scientific investigations of singular occurrences of death, nor could a universal existential analysis of death properly ground future discourses on death’s particular manifestations; no harmony can be realized between these two methods. Instead we are forced to contend with an aporetic structure. As Secret explains, we “enter a chaotic spiral in which a series of deepening mutual distortions leads us ever further from the truth.” (20) And lastly, Secret detects in Heidegger a weakness insofar as he recognizes something in the corpse as an object of concern: “The end of the entity qua Dasein is the beginning of the same entity qua something present-at-hand.” (BT, 281) For example, the corpse is now an entity for potential science, in the sense that it is present-at-hand for a medical student of anatomy. But Heidegger blurs his own rigid categories: of the three types of Being encountered in the world by the questioning entity (ready-to-hand, present-at-hand, and Dasein), the corpse resists such categorization. As Heidegger writes, “the deceased has abandoned our ‘world’ and left it behind. But in terms of that world those who remain can still be with him.” (BT, 282) We can see how, for Secret, this constitutes a major inconsistency in Heidegger’s ontology, for, belonging to no category, the entity that was Dasein and is no longer yet retains a “false” structure of Being-in-the-world, insofar as we experience Being-with them and not merely their corpse. In Secret’s words, “they are both no-longer-Dasein and yet still-a-Dasein-for-us.” (24) This predicament introduces us to the intricate patterns of mourning that will sustain Secret’s faithful discourse on death throughout the book. As he puts it, “it is precisely the uncanny possibility of still standing before the dead themselves, as experienced in eulogy, that Heidegger almost offers” (24), but does not.

Chapter Two briefly presents Derrida’s work in the broader context of certain “hinge words”—points of pivot around which discourses on deconstruction may “articulate” themselves. A hinge always connects without unifying, and holds separate while stitching together. And in Positions, Derrida will name the following hinge words: gram, reserve, incision, trace, supplement, and pharmekon; however, “by definition the list has no taxonomical closure, and even less does it constitute a lexicon.” (Derrida 1982, 40) Although Derrida’s eulogies do not explicitly make use of the various hinge words that Secret renders perspicuous, they nonetheless “remain absolutely essential for understanding the way in which those texts function.” (27) Proving an invaluable propaedeutic for the uninitiated and an affable resource for those unconvinced by deconstructionist methods, this chapter lays the groundwork for engaging the related yet divergent discourses of Heidegger, Levinas, and Freud, discourses that Secret will set against one another. However, those who already hold favorable attitudes, persuaded more or less by the gains to be had by deconstruction, can appreciate the clarity Secret brings to Derrida’s work.

Secret turns to Levinas’s “trace of the other” in Chapter Three. In Levinas “we encounter a spatial trace in the world [the face of the other] that points us towards the possible withdrawal of a temporal trace beyond Being [an immemorial past of the other].” (98) Although Levinas maintained a crucial distance from Kant’s critical project, it is helpful to see the Kantian gesture of denying knowledge in order to make room for faith at work in the ethical constitution of the trace. Kant’s non-knowledge about the postulates of practical reason sustains an ethical relation in a way that having intellectual intuition would proscribe, since then all action would become a mechanical coordination of itself with knowledge, allowing no room for an undecidability required of ethical judgments. Likewise, one can never be delivered incontrovertible evidence of the (traced) existence of the wholly other that is beyond Being; however, this fact is radicalized on the basis that any substantiation of this existence would paradoxically collapse the wholly other on level with the same.

In terms of a critique, Secret briefly reviews Levinas’s three structured worlds: “Egoism”—the ego of enjoyment, though suffering the sameness of Being; “Ethics”—the interruption of that ego by an encounter with the face of an other; and “Politics”—a second interruption by “the third,” or another other “who calls the human from the infinite responsibility of ethics to the justice of politics.” (69) It is with regards to the untenable distinction between the latter two worlds that Secret’s argument will find its force. If, for Levinas, responsibility to the other accrues in the face-to-face relationship, then it is clear why his account cannot comprehend political responsibility toward the dead “since there is by definition no face-to-face with the unresponsive corpse”—just as the third implies an impossible face-to-face relation, since one is already face-to-face with the “first” other. Secret continues, “our [Levinasian] duty to the living responding other will always trump our duty to the dead since the dead cannot be engaged with in language.” (105) And yet eulogy is just this practice of responding to that lack of response. Levinas’s account falls short because it addresses the other’s being-towards-death and not the other’s being-dead. Thus, the Levinasian discourse must be supplemented by a Freudian postulate—psyche as an inscriptive medium for the written trace.

Chapter Four picks up this thread as it plumbs the psychoanalytic depths, offering compelling and insightful readings of Freud’s “A Note Upon the Mystic Writing-Pad” and “Mourning and Melancholia.” At one point, whilst arguing that psychoanalysis could in turn draw inspiration from a Levinasian impulse (specifically, the ethical call to responsibility), fixed as it has been in “pursuing a notion of psychic health that…can only seem narcissistic” (119), Secret, following Derrida, raises doubts about the defensibility of Freud’s description of healthy mourning and unhealthy melancholia. As Freud conceives it, the work of healthy mourning (introjection) consists of a “withdrawal of the libido from this [lost, absent] object and a displacement of it on to a new one” (Freud, 249), with the obvious consequence that the object (as other) is wholly replaceable. Secret asks, “is it not melancholia that through refusing the work of mourning allows the other to maintain their alterity?” (118) The impasse of a political response will thus have been decided in advance by the other: it is strictly a matter of how the other is “inscribed in the psyche prior to their loss” that determines if a response will be healthy or unhealthy, normal or pathological, mourning or melancholia. This distinction, however, will not survive a Derridean treatment, for no response could purely be one or the other.

Secret develops further these psychoanalytic themes in Chapter Five, allowing the discussion on mourning to encompass those instances that do not merely entail the death of an other, but also include any situation whereby the mourned person is simply lost or absent, as when “a betrothed girl” has been “jilted.” Or it need not be a person, but only the “loss of some abstraction…one’s country, liberty, an ideal, and so on.” (Freud, 243–245) Arguably, “the dominant subject matter of psychoanalysis is nothing other than how we cope with a sequence of losses.” (141) One could thus raise a Lacanian critique: how are we to conceive of “loss” if it is questionable whether a thing lost could ever have been “present”? For Lacan, in other words, if human existence is fundamentally structured by lack, what does it mean to say that one has ever “lost” anything? Bearing this in mind, Secret will shift his attention from mourning and melancholia to the more technical terms introjection and incorporation, naturally turning to the work of Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok, and therefore also their predecessor Sandor Ferenczi who first introduced the term “introjection” in 1909. Secret compares this concept with the Hegelian Erinnerung (memory or interiorization) on the basis of its digestive and assimilative tendencies, a process by which the other is eventually “devoured by Geist.” Or in Derrida’s words (cited by Secret): “I interiorize it totally and it is no longer other.” (151) We thus cannot ignore the blatant narcissism of the so-called healthy response of introjection; egoist and self-serving, introjection symbolically channels the other via language onto a new and novel object-love. Withdrawing libidinal investment from the lost other and redirecting cathexic drives onto a new object, introjection demonstrates an absolute substitutability of the other.

Concluding a remarkable analysis that lays out the reciprocal failures of incorporation, Secret forcibly leads the reader to acknowledge the aporia governing our choice between the two responses introjection and incorporation, or as he calls it, the negative double-bind of Scylla and Charybdis. If a double-bind implies a (metaphysical) neither/nor structure, then the “negative” double-bind here evokes the nature of human decision (on the level of praxis), that one must negotiate the ethical demands of two impossibles and nonetheless choose a path—that we act as if a path between the two (impossibles) were possible. But the crucial point remains: this “choice” would not even be conscious or planned out. As Derrida will say, how we mourn depends on the other’s decision within the self; however, we incur responsibility for how we mourn. For example, on the one hand, introjection denominatively addresses the other but at the cost of appropriation and reduction to the same. On the other hand, incorporation preserves the alterity of the other as a keeping safe (sauf en moi), but beyond engagement in a refusal to address the other, a situation that could never result in a face-to-face. In neither case, Secret argues, do we treat the other as other, and yet a response is called for.

The previous chapters were meant to describe and tease out in detail the aporia of mourning; one could, in fact, view the book up to this point as a necessary propaedeutic finally to be able to read Derrida’s eulogies for his friends. Chapter Six, however, is just that—a reading of Derrida in the act of mourning and not merely him offering philosophical discourses about the paradoxes of mourning, for we witness Derrida struggling to make good on impossible demands regulated by ethical impasses. Derrida, in eulogy, and perhaps failingly, articulates to a degree the impossible and terrible logic behind eulogizing itself, but this does not adequately situate the intended force behind Secret’s final chapter. His tone seeks rather to appreciate the complex grievances involved for a man attempting to measure up to impossible ethical demands—i.e. doing justice to his deceased friends, without making it about himself or “getting in the last word.” Derrida’s eulogies to Roland Barthes, Paul de Man, Louis Marin, and Hans-Georg Gadamer are addressed in this chapter, and Secret lends an attentive and sensitive ear to the complex demands endured by Derrida to speak on his friends’ behalf. Secret concludes:

Eulogy is responsibility par excellence: responsibility stripped down to a core that is already infinitely rich….The eulogy is almost inescapable and indeclinable: to not speak is a way of responding to the demand of eulogy, sometimes perhaps the best way though frequently the worst. (208)

In this way, it would be more than appropriate to complement Secret’s work with a corresponding analysis of Derrida’s The Gift of Death in which Abraham’s silent, non-response before Isaac constitutes his act of absolute responsibility: “all communication between them has to be suspended…[for] that is where the responsibility of absolute duty begins.” (Derrida 1996, 96) Secret himself articulates it well: “With no starting place legitimated in advance or method guaranteed to move in the right direction, one must endure the aporia in silence; except that one does not, as, since the production of a discourse is required, one breaks with that unproductive stalling through a moment of decision.” (21) We in fact can hear two incongruous imperatives—one must endure the aporia in silence, nonetheless, a production of discourse is required. The proper response in taking responsibility would in fact be silence, a non-response. In committing oneself to silence, instead of hiding behind excuses and justifications (apologia), one radically affirms and takes responsibility for one’s lack of response-ability. The ethical decision hinges on a perhaps (politically) irresponsible act of no-response. But how is eulogy to appropriately avoid the indecency of silence without succumbing to the failures inherent in introjection and incorporation, responses that render impossible the alterity of the other?

Secret’s writing anticipates the counterclaims of readers who may not be sympathetic to Derrida’s thinking. The effect is both refreshing (for its effortless lucidity in explicating difficult ideas with a writing style not emulating Derrida’s own), and mildly frustrating (the added emphasis on clarity and rigor at times slows down the tempo of the argument). Without a doubt though, this book is an enjoyable read, methodically crafted, and rife with surprising observations. It is at once both self-aware of its weak points while simultaneously offering in footnotes extensive suggestions for carrying the conversation forward, pointing the reader toward possible sites of criticism and/or development. Two of the many remarkable virtues of this book lie first in its ability to cover a wide spectrum of 20th century thought without sacrificing a meticulous attention to nuance and detail; and secondly, it offers by and large an uplifting analysis on what could be considered human being’s heaviest thought—mortality.


Additional Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques (1982), Positions, (tr.) A. Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).

Derrida, Jacques (1996), The Gift of Death, (tr.) D. Wills (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press).

Freud, Sigmund (1999), “Mourning and Melancholia” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV, (ed.) J. Strachey (London: Hogarth Press).

Heidegger, Martin (1962), Being and Time, (tr.) J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson (New York: Harper & Row).