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Wherever the “we” is a kind of fusional community where responsibility is swamped, I can see danger. Moreover I have, with experience, contracted an allergy to any community of that type. But on the other hand, I would term “we” acceptable when it is made of interruptions, where those who say “we” know that they are singularities with an interrupted connection. Not only does that not prevent us saying “we” and talking to ouselves and hearing ourselves; but the condition for talking to ourselves and hearing ourselves is that this interruption remain. Imagine the closest possible proximity between two beings: love, erotic experience, extreme ecstasy; distance is not abolished, infinite distance remains. The “we” is a species, it’s like when you roll the dice or when you cast your line, when a fisherman casts his line; perhaps there is a “we” on the other side? It’s a promise, it’s a request, it’s a hope. It can also be a fear. When I say “we” I hope that it is not us, that we are not enclosed inside this “we”. To say “we” is a mad gesture in a certain way, mad with hope, with fear, with promise. But it certainly is not a peaceful assurance about what this “we” is. There is no “we”. A “we” has never been discovered in the wild.
☛ Elsewhere Derrida (D’ailleurs Derrida) a film by Safaa Fathy, O.V. French, with English subtitles, 2001, 68 minutes (IMDb). Excerpt: 53:30 @ 56:57. The film also exists in a truncated 52-min version.
I have updated this post with the English translation from the subtitled version of the film (above), and moved the French transcription I made of the same excerpt below.
Partout où le «nous» serait une espèce de communauté fusionnelle où la responsabilité se noie, je vois un danger. D’ailleurs j’ai, en quelque sorte par habitus contracté, une allergie à toute communauté de ce type là. Mais en revanche, j’appellerais un «nous» disons acceptable un «nous» fait d’interruptions, un «nous» où ceux qui disent «nous» savent que ce sont des singularités qui entretiennent entre elles un rapport interrompu. Non seulement cela ne nous empêchera pas de dire «nous» et de nous parler et de nous entendre, mais la condition pour que nous parlions et nous nous entendions c’est que cette interruption des rapports demeure. Imaginez la proximité la plus grande possible entre deux êtres ―l’amour, l’expérience érotique, l’extase extrême― la distance n’est pas abolie, la distance infinie demeure. Le «nous» c’est un peu comme lorsqu’on jette les dés ou lorsque le pêcheur jette sa ligne: … peut-être y a-t-il un «nous» de l’autre côté? On dit «nous»: c’est un promesse, c’est une demande, c’est un espoir. Ça peut être aussi une crainte! Je dis «nous», mais j’espère que ce n’est pas «nous», que je ne suis pas enfermé dans ce «nous». Donc dire «nous» c’est un geste fou, d’une certaine manière, fou d’espoir, de crainte, de promesse… Mais ce n’est certainement pas une tranquille assurance quant à ce qui est: il n’y a pas de «nous»… jamais a-t-on rencontré un «nous» dans la nature.
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The use of the first-person, plural personal pronoun “we”, wherever it is used, is “always already” problematic1. As Derrida explains in the excerpt quoted above, there is no “we” in nature: one cannot find it or touch it like one does with a tree or a stone. It’s a fiction, a promise, a call, an ideal, a hope (in the ambiguous sense of that word: see Elpis as an ambiguous expectation). It may work for a while before fading away, or it may remain in the realm of discourse without being able to actualize itself. It’s not an answer, but a question. In the interview quoted above, Derrida suggests that the condition for a “we” to exist calls for the constant interruption of the relations [des rapports]. He is especially keen on this point: “we” has nothing to do with the harmonious fusion of beings idealized by certain political discourses. In an interview he did with François Ewald in 1991, he explained:
DERRIDA: I do not like the word community much, I am not even sure that I like the thing itself.
EWALDY: You yourself used it.
DERRIDA: If by community we understand, as is often the case, a harmonious whole, a consensus and a fundamental agreement under phenomena of disagreement or of war, I do not really believe in it, and in it I foresee as many threats as promises. (translated as “A Certain ‘Madness’ Must Watch Over Thinking”, Educational Theory, Volume 45, Issue 3, pages 273–291, September 1995, subscription may be required; an English translation was also published in Points… Interviews, 1974-1994, edited by Elisabeth Weber, Stanford University Press, 1995, pp. 339-364; first published in French as «Une “folie” doit veiller sur la pensée», Magazine Littéraire, no. 286, March 1991).
Compare with what he wrote of the community in Foi et savoir, first published in 1996:
There is no opposition, fundamentally, between “social bond” and “social unraveling.” A certain interruptive unraveling is the condition of the “social bond,” the very respiration of all “community.” This is not even the knot of a reciprocal condition, but rather the possibility that every knot can come undone, but be cut or interrupted. This is where the socius or the relation to the other would disclose itself to be the secret of testimonial experience –and hence, of a certain faith. If belief is the ether of the address and relation to the utterly other, it is
in the experience itself of non-relationship or of absolute interruption (indices: “Blanchot,” “Levinas”…) (“Faith and Knowledge” tr. by Samuel Weber, in Acts of Religion, eds. Gil Anidjar,New York: Routledge, 2002, p. 99)
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The quote in French featured at the beginning of this post is a slightly modified transcript I did of the audiovisual recording presented in the film. At the time of writing, one can watch this excerpt on Youtube:
The original French version of this documentary can be bought online at Amazon France at a reasonable price, but it comes without any subtitles (French only). Éditions Montparnasse is also selling the same original French DVD. It is also possible to watch it online on YouTube where it was uploaded in seven parts (see part 1/7). It comes with Castilian subtitles (the video was uploaded by Horacio Potel for his excellent website Derrida en castellano). In 2001 Icarus Film released an English version titled Derrida’s Elsewhere. Unfortunately, the English DVD is more expensive: the 68 minutes version of the documentary goes for $298US. For more information about the film, see a PDF document (in French) produced by ARTE Vidéo.
Below is a behind-the-scene photo taken during the shooting of Safaa Fathy’s documentary. It was published in the journal diacritics (“Images” by Safaa Fathy, Volume 38, Numbers 1-2, Spring-Summer 2008, p. 23; subscription may be required)
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1. I previously discussed the problem of representation associated with the political slogan “We Are The 99%”: see Occupy Wall Street and Black Friday ↩︎︎
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