Four years ago, in Chronicle 535, later incorporated as “A Derridean Parenthesis” in the 2019 edition of The Origin of Language, I translated and discussed the last paragraphs of Derrida’s “La différance,” the text of a lecture published early in his career in the collective work Théorie d’ensemble (Seuil, 1968): 41-66. My point was to show that his non-dialectical “affirmation” of Heidegger’s nostalgia for the “one word” of Being should be interpreted in anthropological terms: that the metaphysical vocabulary that he played with, turned against itself, yet remained wedded to, and finally made the object of this second-degree “affirmation,” was most simply understood as the product of an impossible desire to discover in the atemporal complex of metaphysical abstractions the trace of the first human act—a worldly, practical act: the emission of a sign.

Having recently reread Derrida’s text, I was struck by the ghostly presence of a key element that I had mentioned only in passing, and that clarifies GA’s ability to liberate itself from the constraints of metaphysics in conjunction with the real world of anthropology: the sacred. Anthropology in itself is not “humanistic”; the adjective must be added, the proof being that professional anthropologists of the current generation are wont to look with suspicion on any suggestion that the sacred is more than a useful fiction for maintaining what Durkheim called “solidarity.” But if we would not reduce the human to its biology, from which the path to the metaphysical sign-world must be divorced from its worldly origins and traced solely by and in the mind of the philosopher, we must insist from the beginning on the transcendental force of the sacred as external to the individual mind, yet not embodied in any worldly object.

The originary hypothesis offers a worldly context in which the sacred is experienced as an interdictive will that imposes différance as deferral of the biologically reflexive gesture of appropriation. The awareness of this spatio-temporal differentiation between the subject and a deferred and consequently significant reality is shared/represented via the (individual and collective) aborted gesture, which thereupon becomes a sign.

It would be a potentially fruitful albeit maddening task to seek to read the entirety of Derrida’s text in this spirit. For the moment, I will limit myself to attempting to demonstrate the compatibility of (1) the concreteness of the anthropological, as in the conversion of the aborted gesture of appropriation into a sign in the context of inter-human communication; and (2) the claim that despite its value for communication, the sign was originarily addressed to the sacred force/being/will itself, as an indication of obedience to its interdiction, and to one’s fellow humans only through this mediation—which may therefore be considered implicit in all use of language.

Here is the relevant section of Derrida’s essay from Chronicle 535:

Il n’y aura pas de nom unique, fût-il le nom de l’être. Et il faut le penser sans nostalgie, c’est-à-dire hors du mythe de la langue purement maternelle ou purement paternelle, de la patrie perdue de la pensée. Il faut au contraire l’ affirmer, au sens où Nietzsche met l’affirmation en jeu, dans un certain rire et dans un certain pas de la danse.

Depuis ce rire et cette danse, depuis cette affirmation étrangère à toute dialectique, vient en question cette autre face de la nostalgie que j’appellerai l’espérance heideggerienne. Je ne méconnais pas ce que ce mot peut avoir ici de choquant. Je le risque toutefois, sans en exclure aucune implication, et le mets en rapport avec ce que La parole d’Anaximandre me paraît retenir de la métaphysique : la quête du mot propre et du nom unique. Parlant du “premier mot de l’être“(das frühe Wort des Seins: το χρεών), Heidegger écrit: “Le rapport au présent, déployant son ordre dans l’essence même de la présence, est unique (ist eine einzige). Il reste par excellence incomparable à tout autre rapport. Il appartient à l’unicité de l’être lui-même (Sie gehort zur Einzigkeit des Seins selbst). La langue devrait donc, pour nommer ce qui se déploie dans l’être (das Wesende des Seins), trouver un seul mot, le mot unique (ein einziges, das einzige Wort). C’est là que nous mesurons combien risqué est tout mot de la pensée [tout mot pensant : denkende Wort] qui s’adresse à l’être (das dem Sein zugesprochen wird). Pourtant ce qui est risqué ici n’est pas quelque chose d’impossible; car l’être parle partout et toujours au travers de toute langue.” Telle est la question : l’alliance de la parole et de l’être dans le mot unique, dans le nom enfin propre. Telle est la question qui s’inscrit dans l’affirmation jouée de la différance. Elle porte (sur) chacun des membres de cette phrase : ” L’être / parle / partout et toujours / à travers / toute / langue /. “



There will be no unique name, be it the name of being. And we must think this without nostalgia, that is, outside the myth of a language purely maternal or purely paternal, of the lost homeland of thought. We must on the contrary affirm it, in the sense that Nietzsche puts affirmation into play, in a certain laugh and a certain dance step.

From this laugh and this dance, from this affirmation alien to any dialectic, comes into question that other face of nostalgia that I shall call Heideggerian hopefulness (espérance). I am not unaware of how shocking this word may appear in this context. I risk it nevertheless, without excluding any of its implications, and put it in relation to what “The Anaximander Fragment” [Das Spruch des Anaximander] seems to me to retain of metaphysics: the quest for the “proper” noun/word (le mot propre) and the unique name. Speaking of the “first word of being” (das frühe Wort des Seins: το χρεών [necessity]), Heidegger writes: “The relation to the present, deploying its order in the very essence of presence, is unique (ist eine einzige). It remains exemplarily incomparable with any other relation. It belongs to uniqueness itself (Sie gehort zu Einzigkeit des Seins selbst). Language should therefore, to name what presents itself in being (das Wesende des Seins), find a single word, the unique word (ein einziges, das einzige Wort). Here is where we measure how risky is every word of thought [every thinking word: denkende Wort] that is addressed to being (das dem Sein zugesprochen wird). However, what is risked here is not something impossible; for being speaks everywhere and always through every language/tongue.” This is the question : the alliance of speech and being in the unique word, in the at last proper name. This is the question that is inscribed in the played/performed affirmation (affirmation jouée) of la différance. It bears (on) each element of this sentence: “Being / speaks / everywhere and always / through / every / language /.”

« La différance », in Théorie d’ensemble, Seuil, 1968, p. 66.

Returning to this text today, I would emphasize Heidegger/Derrida’s attempt to enmesh the sacred in the différance of metaphysics, on the presumption that Nietzsche, who was certainly no theist, had nonetheless, through the medium of the dance, the most ritualistic of arts, been able to introduce into metaphysics an element of worship.

Once the philosopher is certain that “there will be no unique name . . . of being,” he must (1) think it “without nostalgia,” that is, for a “language purely maternal or paternal”; (2) affirm this absence, with a Nietzschean “play, . . . laugh and dance.” But the quasi-ritual world of the dance allows the reintroduction of the “other face” of nostalgia, Heideggerian espérance, which is that the “relation to the present,” being unique and incomparable to (more fundamental than?) any other relation, must be represented by a unique, primordial(?) word. The “risk” taken by such a word is great (since it must bear the weight of all Being).

And now, extreme difficulty and incomprehensibility turns into its opposite: what is risked is by no means impossible, for Being—the mediation of all language by the sacred of which we have just spoken—”speaks everywhere and always through every language,” and thus, in every word. Every word is unique, in its presence; there is consequently no word that does not constitute the “unique word” that is the “proper name” of Being.

Derrida calls it le nom enfin propre, playing on the term nom propre=proper name as if it referred to a quality of appropriateness finally achieved by the philosopher after having renounced the banal sense of “properness” that would simply be inherent in the sign’s material being. What is “proper” is the sign-world itself as the realm of the sacred dance, giving form to the otherwise purely differential Saussurian web of differences.

Whence the affirmation jouée de la différance : the different words are part of what we might call the “dance music” of la différance, of which all of language is a part.

This is all very poetic, and convincing in its way, but the reader is obliged to spend more time translating these ideas into a intelligible worldly process than in applying them to any concrete aspect of reality—a clear sign that the spirit of Ockham’s razor, the minimizing of “imaginary entities,” has not been observed.

This écriture embodies what we might call the “literary” quality of the philosopher’s “nostalgia” for the name of being, which he has “affirmatively” renounced, yet can recuperate by “playing,” “laughing,” “dancing” through language/culture as a whole, in every moment and fragment of which, “being speaks.” That is, one doesn’t find the name, but one experiences release in the esthetic pleasure of the oscillation, the rhythm, the va-et-vient between differential elements, none of which in themselves define “Being,” but all of which together compose a harmonious cosmos of Being which, for the duration of the dance, we are permitted to inhabit. Metaphysics is thereby assimilated to the sacred dance of life.

I would not mock either the intellectual effort or the anxiety that reveals itself in this text. Derrida isn’t just trying to mystify us. He understands that in order to escape from the endless tracings of différance, he must return to the everyday reality of being: that propositions not only generally refer to worldly objects but, above all, serve worldly functions for the humans who use them, even if a privileged class of metaphysicians are able to speculate on the uncertain foundation of this worldly concreteness. His detour through the world of art—and of playful humor—restores the sense of beauty as “unity in diversity” to the otherwise centerless world of signs.

If we conceive “the first word” in the context of the hypothetical originary event, the centrality of the dead animal** defines a scene on which the revealed force of sacred interdiction defers the participants’ eventual convergence on the stage. Here the uniqueness of the sign is the necessary mark of its semiotic status. However diverse the gestures and sounds the members of the group may have begun with, these actions will only constitute signing when they are recognizable to all as instances of the same sign. Unlike animal signals, even learned ones, the human sign is the product of a mimetic convergence directed toward the sacred center.

In contrast, the uniqueness of the “word” pronounced in Derrida/Heidegger’s text is essential insofar as the scene is (implicitly) conceived as a metaphysical version of God’s creation of man—but in God’s absence it lacks any quality other than “earliness.”

Precisely who pronounces this word? It is significant that no divine or human subject is specified; the word is unique, but it is indifferent whether it be spoken by one or many, by man or God. Yet once we accept the scene as a worldly reality, we can specify that the peripheral spectators emit the sign so to speak as “dictated” to them by the sacred will that “speaks through” the center, interdicting its physical space and what it contains, hence imposing on them the abortion of their acts of appropriation.

It is the uniqueness of the common central reference, and of the gesture/word that designates it, that justifies the otherwise mystical term propre, which is in this context the metaphysical equivalent of the name of God, the vertical transcendence of the divine having been replaced by the abstraction of Being.

It is important to recall that the first sign, in the concrete world of the originary hypothesis, falls into no paradigm; it is The Sign and its referent is (The) Being, the sole significant, sign-designated element of the universe. It is this originarity that is shared, in however small a part, by all subsequent signs and their signifieds, the latter term (signifié) replacing the worldly referent by incorporating the contingent reality of experience into an immaterial matrix of meaning.

For Derrida, outside this privileged moment, the proper exists only to be deconstructed: metaphysics can allow for no “proper,” iconic sign that is privileged above all others to call up “Being.” Yet our originary scenario allows us more than nostalgia for this originary properness; we can, not merely “conceive,” but imagine it, although without the mystical-esthetic aura which the attempt to go beyond metaphysics necessarily fails to avoid.

The “first word” as conceived by the originary hypothesis cannot be spoken of in the reverential tone suitable to das frühe Wort des Seins. It was no doubt more a gesture than a “word,” but above all, its revelatory force, entirely new to these first humans, is best not associated too readily with the historically attested category of reverential experience evoked by the philosophers’ “nostalgia.”

We should think of Heidegger-Derrida’s description not as a metaphysical fantasy, but as a real-world description, recognizable beneath the distortions imposed by metaphysics, of the emergence of the first sign. There is no langue until the first parole is pronounced; at that moment, langue and parole are one. Nor is there any separation between the “being” of the central transcendental intentionality addressed by the word and the meaning of the sign itself.

The key to these admittedly tedious reinterpretations is the simple idea that in la différance, whose temporality deconstructs the simultaneity of the structure of language, differences are at the same time, if we can bear one more neologism, deferrences. This process is more directly and behaviorally understood as the introduction of a hesitation within the normally reflexive appropriative act, a hesitation that is the first act of a specifically human consciousness. That is why I have insisted on the parallel between the scene made possible by la différance and Sartre’s pour-soi inhabited by the néant—a scenic picture of the human psyche that I do not believe has its equivalent in Heidegger.

La différance, the deferral of reflexive, instinctive, natural relations, separates the center of the scene from the periphery as a locus of interdiction and therefore of contemplation. Once this is done, the multiplicity of the semiotic domain becomes so to speak a natural outgrowth of the scene. As on the stage of microscope on which different microbes can be examined and differentiated, the objects and ideas that appear on the scene are on stage, separated by a sacred-imposed néant from their peripheral observers, whence the reproduction of their differences in the structural symmetry of the signs that designate them. And once the first sign exists, its utterance in itself evokes the scene and its central inhabitant, demonstrating the distinction between the signified of the sign and its originary but mortal referent.

Thus Derrida’s intuition of a temporal basis for the simultaneity of semiotic structure is not only justified, but provides a porte de sortie from the metaphysical world, within which temporality cannot be accommodated, into the world of mortal beings, to whom the ideality of the sign, and hence of the sacred will that inhabits it, offers us the “intimation of immortality” that finds its nostalgically joyful expression in the music and dance of the Nietzschean éternel retour.

**It is highly significant that given the ubiquity of feasts centered on edible animals in human cultures, there is no common world in English, nor to my knowledge in other languages, that designates this central element. The French pièce de résistance is a metaphor no doubt inspired by the action of capturing the enemy’s last remaining strong point, hence alluding to the companionship of the victorious army about to enjoy what Homer called an “equal feast” (δαίς ἕϊση).