A Commentary on Gareth Williams´ “LifeDeath Lagging Behind.”

Gareth Williams presented his paper at the Biopolitics or Deconstruction Workshop held at the University of Michigan in February 2020 and organized by Sergio Villalobos.  The workshop dwelt at length on the issues brought forth by Jacques Derrida´s seminar on “la vie la mort” (1975-76).   Francesco Vitale´s important contribution to the discussion of the seminar, in his Biodeconstruction, was extensively referenced, as well as Dawne McCance’s The Reproduction of Life-Death.  Also at least initially referenced by some were the two issues on biodeconstruction recently published in Postmodern Culture.  The even more recent issue of New Centennial Review was not referenced, but only because there was no material time for workshop participants to have read it [correction: Sergio Villalobos tells me he did reference the NCR issue as well].   Some questions that were debated without a proper resolution that should remain pending had to do with whether a deconstructive (Derridean) notion of general writing, or arche-writing, when brought to bear on biology and epigenetics, can rectify a seemingly endemic tendency in post-Heideggerian philosophy to consider scientific practice in general caught up in the metaphysical apparatus whose highest expression was Hegelian philosophy.  Are Derrida´s efforts in the seminar to be understood as an attempt to reframe science, starting with the science of life, non-metaphysically?  If there is to be biodeconstruction—this was insistently brought up in Sergio Villalobos’ paper in conversation with Catherine Malabou’s critique from one of the Postmodern Culture issues–, if biology, and after it all science, could be attuned to “general writing” in the Derridean sense, in other words, if deconstruction could drastically alter the very procedure, both syntactical and semantic, of science, what kind of practice would that open up?  Would we still have philosophy and science, or science and philosophy, as separate practices, or would some other configuration of thought open up? 

My notes are not extensive enough to account for how the different papers positioned themselves in relationship to this, but I should at least mention Maddalena Cerrato’s warning about the necessary non-concealment of the tragic condition of existence, or Adam Rosenthal’s insistence on survival as a non-synonymous synonym for lifedeath as well as Vitale’s investigation on the notion of freedom, which he frames it in the context of a “beyond” of biodeconstruction, as having a bearing on the aforementioned issue. 

Williams’s paper, however, brought things to a point of particular urgency.  He started by asking what a non- or anti-dialectical notion of lifedeath would open onto.  It interrupts teachability, Derrida showed, it breaks the teaching apparatus and leads teaching to its own oedipal (phallic) abyss.  It opens to a beyond that would no longer be the beyond of dialectical sublation that seems to sustain the scientific and philosophical apparatus so far.  It is, or would be, a step into a certain radical negativity, which is the negativity that dialectics—oppositional thought in general—erases and writes itself over. 

Lifedeath, by unconceling the enigma of a non-oppositional thinking of death within life and of life within death, creates the need for a “transfer of anxiety” which must be posited, in terms of the life sciences, on the deconstruction of the conventional relation between the pleasure principle and the death drive, on the one hand, and the conventional relation between the death drive and the reality principle—“conventional,” that is, for a certain understanding of psychoanalysis. 

Now, does this do away with the very notion of the death drive?  No, in William’s reading.  It simply draws it back into a non-oppositional, hence non-dialectical and non-sublatable relation with everything surrounding it.  This is what Derrida calls lifedeath.

A controversial question then arose, prompted by a number of internal workshop discussions, but certainly by Williams’ paper, and based on a certain passage in Derrida’s seminar regarding the notion that, after Hegel, every major figure of thought must be received under the rubric of the right-left division.  In the same way there is a right Hegelianism and a left Hegelianism, a right Nietzscheanism and a left Nietzscheanism, even a right and a left Marxism, there must be a right and a left Derrideanism as well.   If that is the case, what orients left Derrideanism?

It can provisionally be said—this is a huge issue that merits further thought—that a left deconstruction would traverse all fantasies of teachability and reproducibility and would depart from a radical and unconditional affirmation of existence in all its strange singularity.  This could be the secret or enigmatic point of the several sessions Derrida devotes in his seminar to a deconstruction of Heidegger’s reading of Nietzsche, which remained unfinished.  If so, it ought to be said that it would be a deconstruction fundamentally concerned with a thinking of the death drive, beyond all sacrificial dimensions of it.  

The Nietzsche sessions are interrupted by Derrida and the seminar continues with an extensive reflection on Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  Williams notes how, in his analysis of the fort-da chapter, Derrida opts for a number of biographical references to Freud and his own mourning, as if writing were ultimately designed to “bring about the transfer of anxiety.”   But is it the case, or is that too easy an exit?  If there is “a place of the master’s defeat, the defeat of the mastery of the pleasure principle,” is general writing the technique that can undertake the defeat of the defeat, the recovery of the abysmal loss?  Is general writing a valid “protective shield,” a “system of defense”, an “entire economy of energy”?  Does it safeguard appropriately life from death and death from life? 

Williams detects here a certain failure, or a certain silence:  “What, then, of the image not of the psychic organization of mastery but of the enduring traces of memory remnants that speak directly to the utter helplessness, and therefore to the horrendous, asphyxiating unpleasure, to the overwhelming sense of danger, that assaults the mystery of the production of meaning, not from without, but from within (desire)?” (Williams 11). 

Lacan refers to the trauma of the vanishing of recourse to the pleasure principle-reality principle deferral as “the subject’s essential downfall into his final misery.”  In his Anxiety seminar he refers to the production of an image “in the register of meaning, understanding, and knowledge” (Williams 13) that would address the final destitution of the subject.  He finds it in “the impossible sight of your own eyes lying on the ground: the absolutely uncanny image, vision, and knowledge of the destitution of every cogito ergo sum, of every Hegelian sublation and instrumentalism, and of every playful exercise of mastery” (Williams 13).  The analytic act deals with it, antiphilosophically.  Deconstruction is its infraphilosophical counterpart. 

A deconstruction understood as a thinking of the death drive, as a non-sacrificial practice of the death drive, as a direct confrontation with traumatic anxiety beyond the pleasure principle—if we could only get to it, and if we could do it better than Nietzsche could—would it not be the possibility for a non-conservative, non-reactive, non-metaphysical practice of thought beyond the useless, but all too productive, opposition of science and philosophy? 

One thought on “A Commentary on Gareth Williams´ “LifeDeath Lagging Behind.”

  1. Sobre la cuestión de si la biología puede estar ‘attuned’ a la escritura en el sentido derridiano, hace tiempo leí un ensayito que me resultó muy sugerente: “Ecology as Text, Text as Ecology”, de Timothy Morton. Ahí Morton dice que el texto no es una metáfora de la biología sino que los textos de la ciencia contemporánea, empezando con Darwin, revelan que la biología misma, en un sentido material, es textualidad. Una pregunta que me surge es cuál es la relación con el texto científico de la biodeconstrucción en su vertiente infrafilosófica.


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