Naomi Waltham-Smith — À (Review of Irving Goh’s L’Existence Prépositionelle)

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    Review of Irving Goh, L’Existence prépositionnelle. (Galilée 2019)

    By Naomi Waltham-Smith

    Irving Goh’s rich and intriguing book on recent French poststructuralist thought ends with a proposal for a new kind of writing that would belatedly fulfil the grammatological project, in other words elaborate a “positive science” of writing that generalizes the concept of writing beyond the narrow sense of a graphic gesture.[1] Following Jacques Derrida, Goh imagines a writing “under the weight of monstrosity,” but one that would also be constrained in the sense of a character limit on Twitter or the Oulipian project of George Perec’s 1969 novel, Disparition, which is a lipogram written entirely without the letter e (110). But instead of making a letter disappear, Goh is interested in putting in question everywhere the preposition à: a letter with its diacritical mark. This letter à, which is really a letter supplemented by its diacritical mark, is a letter before any alphabetical letter, or more precisely, simply the difference between the letter with diacritic and the mere letter, the difference between à and a.

    At first blush, this seems like an esoteric concern, one that might appear to justify deconstruction’s mistaken reputation for being inscribed within the very linguistic turn that it challenges. But Goh’s ambition rather exceeds the textual or rather it is an ambition for a textual detail, a mere preposition, to drive a radical rewriting of philosophy and ontological, ethical, and political concepts. For example, être-là (Heidegger’s Dasein) becomes être-l’à to suggest an altogether different kind of being-toward that Goh calls “prepositional being.” Goh also proposes a further quasi-homophonic twist on Derrida’s différance, rewriting it as différànce to underscore that, even before the explicit use of the prepositional phrases à-venir, deconstruction, in its attention to temporal and spatial self-differentiation, was always already a prepositional thought (15). To make an ethico-political revolution turn on a diacritical mark is an audacious move and one that does not entirely pay off, but the way in which it stumbles reveals the significant political stakes of the debates among Derrida and his followers and points to the urgent theoretical work to which Goh’s book is but a preposition.  After the complex philosophical maneuvers on display throughout  the book, the epilogue’s suggestion that we might begin to build a “prepositional community” by tweeting “à” in multiple languages as a form of hashtag activism not unlike the #MeToo movement might come as something of a surprise to the reader, less because of the change in register than because it reveals the political limits of a subtraction from representation, however philosophically nuanced or consistent, for the painstaking and crucial work of building solidarity and alliances across different experiences of oppression and exploitation. The proximity of communicative capitalism to its purported unworking shows the political perils of the post-deconstructive thinking to which Goh is attracted.

    Goh invites us to understand the term preposition in a double sense: both as a linguistic part of which à (to) is, for reasons that are more or less justified, the privileged exemplar, and also as the pre-positional or that which comes before taking position. As he notes, there is also the possibility for hearing the sense of près-position, suggesting a certain proximity (42n1).[2] For Goh, however, it is the implication of movement or momentum that gives à its appeal. Prepositional being is thus always on the way to being, never fixed or static. As such, it resists the reduction and substantialization of identity.[3] It is never permanent, given, or substantial. Rather, it is always in the process of becoming in relation to others. Prepositional being is always, to borrow the expression of the book’s most influential voice, a birth to presence (naître à la présence).

    In Goh’s hands, this prepositional existence is in the first instance an ontology and that is the focus of his book’s first substantial chapter. This ontology then becomes the basis for an ethics and a politics which are explored in the second and third chapters. The à above all expresses a constitutive relation or openness to the other, the fact that identity is always disrupted in advance by being exposed or disclosed to the other, an other that includes the internal difference that being “is.” It is for this reason that Goh boldly claims the preposition as the basis for an ethics and a politics that would end the hatred, discrimination, and violence in our world by affirming the freedom of the existence of each and every other. This bold claim, which appears to flirt with a post-racial stance, is perhaps the most controversial element of this provocative text and it requires closer scrutiny. Also provocative, though, is Goh’s claim that the preposition is not merely an ontological, ethical, or political category or object of philosophical thought but is what animates thinking itself. Thinking, by this reckoning, unlike thought “on paper” is instead dynamic and always in formation, a train of thought, as we say in English (la pensée en train de se penser—thought in the process of thinking [itself]). Thought itself, then, as Goh’s foreword describes, has the character of a preposition, remaining “open to all possibilities, trajectories, directions, and to all revisions and, indeed, changing its mind” (12). It is in that spirit that one perhaps ought to read this book: as a movement or force toward a prepositional philosophy but one whose goal is undetermined and which remains open to alternative paths and modifications in the act of reading corps à corps (literally body/ies-to-body/ies, but often connotes bodily struggle, especially hand-to-hand combat, and for deconstruction the originary interlocking of bodies with other bodies).

    Goh’s book is devoted to a cluster of recent French thinkers, including Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Lévinas, Luce Irigaray, Alain Badiou, and Jacques Rancière, although the text is chiefly addressed to Jean-Luc Nancy, who was one of Goh’s doctoral advisors and remains a close intellectual collaborator. What brings together this group of thinkers should, according to the theory advanced in the book, be nothing other than an inclination toward prepositional thinking. And yet insofar as the focus here is exclusively on French thinkers, and to the extent that Goh entertains the possibility of a second volume devoted to German thought, a certain philosophical nationalism—of the kind that Derrida analyzed in the seminars of 1980s and the Geschlecht essays—threatens to reassert itself and thus to undo everything that is supposedly gained by this pre-positional thought. The question—and this is posed to Nancy as well as to Goh—is: how can one avoid the presupposition remerging at the heart of the pre-position? How to avoid the preposition turning into a foundation, albeit a negative one of the withdrawal traced by that hyphen?

    The hypothesis that the thought of the preposition is also prepositional is presumably meant to warn off this problem by replicating the logic of the re-marking that Derrida attributes to the trace as retrait (redrawing and retreat). And Goh, after Nancy, insists that à can never be understood as penetration or gaining access but must always respect the limits and the “mystery” of each being. The approach—in the toucher à (touching, infringing upon), for example—is always marked by withdrawal, distance, and separation in the sense of, for example, s’arracher à (tearing oneself away from). He notes, however, that while Nancy’s initial prepositional fascination was with the “in” of être-en-commun (being-in-common) and was then displaced onto the being-with in a deconstruction of the Heideggerian Mitsein (being-with), the à is “closer to the heart of Nancy’s thought.”[4] This exorbitant privilege of the à, its proximity to immediacy, thus comes up against the same dangers that Derrida finds so troubling in Nancy’s attachment to the motifs of community and fraternity. Whilst Goh makes trenchant comparisons with Lévinas, Irigaray, and Badiou, he somewhat retreats from the corps à corps between Derrida and Nancy. There is a specific scene, for instance, where they are face à face at the beginning of Derrida’s Le toucher—Jean-Luc Nancy where that dash between the noun and the proper name will transform by the end of the lengthy book into the very preposition at stake—“et à toi [and to you]” Goh touches briefly upon this important text but swerves away from tackling directly those moments where Derrida articulates his distance from Nancy.

    Even if Nancy thinks the purported immediacy of touch more exactly—which is to say more deconstructively— than the phenomenologists, Derrida suspects Nancy of holding out at a higher level. Insofar as touch, Derrida argues, is not merely one category among others for Nancy, it assumes a quasi-transcendental ontologization. Something similar occurs with the category of resonance, which provides an explicit model for Goh’s prepositional ontology as an archi-sonorité (arche-sonority) or an étreà l’écoute” (“to be listening to,” “to be attentive to,” or even “ears pricked” as an aural equivalent to “to be on the lookout”) as the title of Nancy’s book has it. Chosen for the way in which sound is propagated (its formless dissipation, its transitional status, and the way in which echoes do not return identical sounds), there is nonetheless nothing than can be said of aurality, Nancy argues, that must also not be said of the other senses, and yet sonority enjoys a certain privilege, much like touch or à, insofar as it is “nothing but” this reverberation.[5] Écriture (writing) thus assumes the character of a non- or pre-signifying language, a silence vibration before any meaning or even any sound.

    From Derrida’s perspective, Nancy’s tactful approach, which holds itself back from touching just as pre-positional existence or politics restrains itself from occupying a position, risks becoming a negative substantialization. Whereas Nancy will insist on the formulation “there is no ‘the’… [il n’y a pas ‘le’…]”—for example, there is no ‘the’ sense of touch—Derrida counterposes to this negative modality a conditional “if there is any such thing [s’il y en a].”[6] For Derrida, the difference between these two deconstructions is that Nancy’s risks losing precisely the contingency that he gains with the logic of the preposition by turning that contingency into a negative ground. Put differently, Nancy’s à is destined to never arrive whereas Derrida will stick to the undecidability of perhaps it will or will not arrive. The subtle difference here lies between structural impossibility and structural contingency, which has consequences for Goh’s politics and explains why the presuppositional lists toward the unpositioned (im-positioné). Like the inconditional, the unpositional—and any politics in the name of that unpositionality or unconditionality—only ever takes place in conditioned and conditional circumstances that render it both positional and positioned. From this standpoint, it is not simply race, for instance, that is an imposition but even more so the neoliberal deflection from structural constraints that multiples the injustice by the fiction that today we are on the way to stripping back the accumulation of oppression over many centuries to arrive at a post-racial future that mirrors a pre-racial ontology.

    In short, the danger is that the prepositional continues to presuppose a teleological horizon. Goh is certainly aware of the issue of turning politics into the long wait of infinite deferral and is careful to construe Derrida’s à-venir not as an event in some future horizon but as “an absolute surprise which would arrive at any time” (99). Goh’s arguments would, however, be even stronger if he had taken the time to patiently stage this corps à corps instead of eliding the difference between the kind of nomadic contingency he wants to capture with the notion of presupposition and the Derridean à-venir in which such contingency and drift is necessary.

    Another way to adjudicate this dispute between Nancy and Derrida is to say that Nancy inclines toward resolving the undecidability of the finite and the infinite in the direction of the infinite, always seeing the finite trace as a trace of the infinite, as Geoff Bennington has argued[7]—which, I might add, is why pre-positional existence ends up in dangerous proximity to the presupposition of the nation or other exclusionary logic as the basis for community. Even though Goh elsewhere insists that what is at stake in prepositional existence is a finite infinity, the difficulty remains insofar as the intricacies of the debate over Derrida’s little phrase “infinite différance is finite” and Nancy’s apparent misunderstandings of it on various occasions are left unchallenged here. In his book, Goh decribes the preposition as an infinite opening or an opening to infinity:

    The preposition à is at once the space and time of opening. It always opens itself to all alterity, to anything, to anyone, to any place, to any moment. Or, simply put, it opens infinitely. (18)

    He is at the same time careful to distinguish his être-l’à from the Heideggerian being-toward-death (Sein-zum-Tode) and offers a compelling reading of Derrida’s “À force de deuil” to tear a notion of survival beyond death—what Derrida calls survie or la vie la mort—away from Heidegger. The distinction, Goh appears to argue, rests on substituting an infinite opening for the fixed horizon of death that would limit that opening. What would have been fruitful to pry open the difference between Nancy and Derrida is an analysis of Derrida’s discussion of being-toward-death in his extended essay on the work of Hélène Cixous where she is, initially at least, positioned on the side of life. This position becomes increasingly uncertain as Derrida’s reading unfolds and it comes to turn precisely on a preposition. Derrida characterizes Cixous as “being for life,” but is quick to add that this should not be understood as symmetrically opposed to Heidegger’s Sein zum Tode for multiple reasons. In the first instance this is because the notion of life-death that Derrida advances dissolves the opposition between life and death. The experience evoked in Cixous’s writings is a “living of death but yes, still living death, living it for oneself, for the other, and for life.”[8] More pertinently for present purposes, it is also because the “for” in this “for life” is not translatable by any “to.”

    Finally, even if the “or life” that is being analyzed here did not merely designate the other side symmetrically opposed to being-toward-death (Sein zum Tode), and if life and death here were nor antonyms, the semantic turbulence of this verbal animal, “for,” would certainly nor let itself be translated, exhausted, or comprehended by a zu or zum, which anyway is itself difficult to translate into another language.[9]

    Derrida speaks here of “surrendering to a preposition,” but the for or pro differs from the à in one decisive way. Like the pre of pre-position, the pro comes before—is the “prolegomenon” of—everything, including all finality and destination. The for, though, also has an additional sense of substitution. It is less a question of the ex- or dis-posing (or even of de-posing) that Goh borrows from Nancy than of re-placing “this for that, this one in the place of the other.”[10] Différance, on this reading, is not simply fluid and dynamic but above all prosthetic.

    This prostheticity is closely related to a point that Derrida makes in a number of places and specifically in relation to being-toward-death at the end of his final seminar. In contrast with Dasein’s relation to death, the impossibility of which Derrida speaks is something of which one is capable. He makes a similar point expressly in response to Nancy during a conversation at the Collège International de Philosophie in January 2002 devoted to the topic of “Résponsabilité du sens à venir.” Nancy argues:

    If the address probably can and even must always miss its mark, if it is always destinerrant, as you say, then there can be this whole configuration—question-demand-address and response—only if the address has somewhere awakened the possibility of the response and thus if, behind the response, there is something that I would want to call resonance.[11]

    Nancy goes on to argue that while “I cannot be responsible, in the sense of a programmatic, calculated, and calculating appropriation . . . I am at least responsible for the capacity, for the condition of possibility, of the response that is found within the resonance.” Derrida’s response is that responsibility necessarily exceeds all performative power which instead contains precisely the surprise and risk that Goh wants to hold onto.[12] If I am capable to responding to the other, what is thus problematic is the possibilization of impossibility: it removes the chance that I not respond. The prosthetic character of différance is what dislocates this power from the outset, which also means that force at once resists itself.

    This prepositional difference raises important questions for the politics that Goh draws out as the corollary of an ethical injunction to respect and affirm the openness to difference that defines prepositional existence. Goh offers an interesting analysis of Badiou’s theory of the event as an example of prepositional thinking insofar as the event marks something that is strictly incalculable and unforeseeable form the standpoint of the status quo. And yet Goh argues that Badiou ultimately subordinates this eventality to the communist hypothesis and ultimately to the very philosophy whose grasp he intends to escape. From this, Goh concludes that the only conscionable political stance is one that declines to take any position but which remains pre-positional or even im-positional. While complying with the ethical demand of the other and of difference, this pre-positional politics must remain free to take any form (Marxist, communist democratic, etc.). What is at stake in l’à politique is a “position without position,” a minimal positioning which resists taking any fixed, permanent, or definitive position (105). Goh confesses that he has little knowledge of concrete politics in action, but insists that his refusal to take a position follows from the prepositional logic he has elaborated and its resistance to appropriation.

    Cixous’s for, though, suggests another logic of positioning which is explicitly one of repositioning and of taking the position of the other. For Derrida, the pre of pre-position—or more accurately, the pro of a pro-position—is nothing other than this for as substituting power. There is a subtle difference between these two prepositional forces, between à and pour. Goh seems determined to resist the propositional character of most politics and yet it is hard to imagine how simply tearing away from the politics of Trump and Brexit with the deterritorializing gesture of a minor politics would guarantee progress towards the proposition that Goh nonetheless clearly makes: namely the affirmation and respect for others and their differences that would end all racism and xenophobia.[13] This is where Nancy’s project reveals its political shortcomings because an attachment to the infinity of possibility in the guise of the infinite possibility of the impossible turns out to be more impotent than the Derridean and Cixousian impossibility of the possible whose might lies in a subjunctive or a conditional: would that it might happen! The implication of Goh’s prepositional thinking is that only an unconditional politics would be worthy of the name (digne de ce nom), as Derrida says of démocratie à venir.[14] Derrida, though, recognizes that the unconditional only takes place in conditional and conditioned—and typically undignified—circumstances and, in fact, that politics is only worthy of that name to the extent that it necessarily falls short. Goh’s à is perhaps best understood as naming this constitutive shortcoming, an approach that is necessarily always already in retreat.

    Goh’s project sometimes approximates something like a rehabilitation of indignity. Linking the notion of preposition to his earlier work on the figure of the reject and reinforcing his reading of Rancière’s notion of le part sans-part, Goh elsewhere argues that a “prepositional community” would entail the shift from reject as an abject, excluded, marginalized figure to one who, rejecting hypostasis, renounces any such position. On this logic, repositioning is at once ex-position and dis-position, even if Goh acknowledges that the refusal of all position would be tantamount to abandoning all politics since politics irreducibly involves taking a position. From this perspective the stakes of a mere diacritic could not be higher, but Goh’s attraction to transcendentalization shows how philosophy can so readily retreat into itself instead of recognizing that it unavoidably overflows its boundaries in the direction of practice and the work of changing material conditions. If we were to think instead of prepositional politics as the substitution or replacing of the irreplaceability of the other, this taking the place of would be precisely what opens up and gives place for the other in politics. And yet this would still only be the beginning of a political project.

    There is no doubting the sincerity of Goh’s commitment to a politics free of racialized hatred and discrimination and yet his rigorous theoretical endeavor at the same time reveals the limitations of (post)deconstructive philosophy when it comes, for instance, to articulating the difference between the freedom of the fluid, dynamic, nomadic flânerie that Goh describes and its ideological avatar in the flexible neoliberal subject. Insofar as the prepositional subject is without specific differences, it can only enter politics as an individual and not as a member of a class or oppressed group. The subtractive ontological gesture thus courts the dangers of a post-racial racism whose violence consists in bypassing the structural positionality of capitalist violence. Far from dissolving identity, liberation struggles demand a theory of situated empowerment (something that is also presupposed, for example, in post-autonomist notions of political exodus): that is, specifying exactly whence the preposition draws its force. Only then would it become possible to start reversing the horrific violence to which marginalized groups are subjected by taking up the places of oppressed others in a process of want Stuart Hall would call articulation. Instead of an identity out in front or to hand, Derrida’s deconstruction, if there is such a thing, points toward an originary prosthetic articulationality corps à corps (bodies-to-bodies).

    L’existence prépositionelle is a thought-provoking book, whose astute philosophical readings make a convincing case for a new way of understanding the connections among recent French thinkers. It makes an important contribution in opening up space for reassessing the political potential and limits of deconstructive and post-deconstructive thought. The book is a preposition both to Goh’s own future projects whose outlines are discernible in the text, including a tentative theory of failure, and also to a much-needed broader conversation about deconstruction and racialized politics.

     

    Naomi Waltham-Smith is Associate Professor in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick. She is the author of Music and Belonging Between Revolution and Restoration (Oxford, 2017) and Shattering Biopolitics: Militant Listening and the Sound of Life (Fordham, 2021), and in 2019–20 she was a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude.

     

    [1] Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie (Paris: Minuit, 1967), 109.

    [2] Timothy Murray, “Philosophical Prepositions: Ecotechnics là où Digital Exhibition,” Special Issue on Jean-Luc Nancy, vol. 1, ed. Irving Goh and Timothy Murray, diacritics 42, no. 2 (2015), 10–34.

    [3] In the essay, Identité: fragments, franchises (Paris: Galilée, 2010), Jean-Luc Nancy explains why identity can never be self-identical but is always an act in the making, the identity of what- or whoever invents itself in the process of exposing itself both to others and to the other within.

    [4] Irving Goh, “Prepositional Thoughts,” Special Issue on Jean-Luc Nancy, vol. 1, ed. Irving Goh and Timothy Murray, diacritics 42, no. 2 (2015), 3.

    [5] Jean-Luc Nancy, À l’écoute (Paris: Galilée, 2002), 56n.

    [6] Jacques Derrida, Le toucher (Paris: Galilée, 323–24).

    [7] Geoffrey Bennington, “Handshake,” Derrida Today 1, no. 2 (2008), 182.

    [8] Jacques Derrida, H. C. pour la vie, c’est-a-dire … (Paris: Galilée, 2002), 79.

    [9] Ibid., 78.

    [10] Ibid.

    [11] Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy, “Résponsabilité du sens à venir,” in Sens en tous sens: Autour des travaux de Jean- Luc Nancy, ed. Francis Guibal and Jean-Clet Martin (Paris: Galilée, 2004), 173.

    [12] Ibid., 177–78.

    [13] It is also not accurate to say that the majority, even if they distrust mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties, reject a liberal-progressive politics; electorates are gradually becoming more liberal on average. The support for the far right is often overestimated, even if it is undoubtedly the case that in failing to take clear anti-racist positions, parties in the centre have normalised ant-immigration sentiments, for instance.

    [14] Jacques Derrida, Voyous: deux essais sur la raison (Paris: Galilée, 2003), 27–28.

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