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Derrida: The Gift of the Future

--Drucilla Cornell


Like many others I have been shocked, if not horrified, by some of the brutal reactions to Derrida’s death from headlines such as “Why I do not mourn Derrida” to long, winding attacks on why Derrida and deconstruction simply does not matter. What was, and remains, so frightening about the name of Derrida that triggered a specific kind of brutality directed at him even in death? Perhaps, it is precisely because Derrida dared to insist on a future, to insist, indeed, that there can always be a future despite efforts to shut it down in the name of a world historical closure as the advent of a certain market capitalism that can not be challenged.


To remind us that Derrida is the thinker of the future par excellence will undoubtedly come as no surprise. From his writing on unconditional hospitality to the “arrivant” to the event, Derrida writes often of the future “to come” which is the other already with us—inscribed in our heart, as he is in mine, as a debt that can never be repaid but must always evoke our thanks. And yet, this future “to come,” in that it is always what is “to come,” is never reducible to what is “yet to come” (as if the yet could be given any form in advance of the event itself). To quote Derrida:

It is perhaps necessary to free the value of the future from the value of ‘horizon’ that traditionally has been attached to it—horizon being, as the Greek word indicates, a limit from which I pre-comprehend the future. I wait for it. I predetermine it. And thus, I annul it (Taste for the Secret 20).

And yet, this is not all Derrida tells us of his wager on the future.


If there is a future, or as he would have liked to put it if there is such a thing, there must be some opening that calls to us in the form of an appeal. This appeal of the other demands that we respond now; indeed, the mark we leave on the world we share will be inseparable from those infinite appeals made to us and how we responded when we were called. As Derrida tells us:

A simple phrase takes its meaning from a given context, and already makes its appeal to another one in which it will be understood; but, of course, to be understood it has to transform the context in which it is inscribed. As a result, this appeal, this promise of the future, will necessarily open up the production of a new context, wherever it may happen. The future is not present, but there is an opening onto it; and because there is a future, a context is always open. What we call opening of the context is another name for what is still to come (Taste for the Secret 19-20).


Here, Derrida is speaking of his own work as it went against the current and how it was thought by him to be an ethical response to this future and to the revision of context that this other future demanded. Again, to quote Derrida:

It is a matter of looking for something that is not yet well received, but that waits to be received. And one may posses a kind of flair for that which, going against the current, is already in touch with the possible reception. So—if I may refer to my own case—in all likelihood, each time I have attempted to make a gesture that was, as you said, bizarre or untimely, it was because I had the impression that it was demanded, more or less silently, by other areas of the field, by other forces, that were still in the minority, that were there. So there is a sort of calculation in the incalculable here, and the untimeliness is a sort of timeliness in the making (Taste for the Secret 16).

When Ann Snitow and I decided in the fall of 2002 to form a peace group, I spoke to Derrida at length about how the kind of group we wanted to form was one that would be faithful to the timeliness still in the making, a timeliness that seems so pressing because of the “event” of 9/11. I put event in quotation marks to remind us of Derrida’s very careful analysis of why and how 9/11 could be considered a major event. Tragically, Derrida points out that the death of thousands, tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousand of people is not enough not make an event. Nor was 9/11 “unforeseeable” as in his sense of the word event. Strangely enough it was foreseen even in Hollywood movies like The Siege where Annette Benning portrays a bad Muslim who is coming to get us. Of course, I am echoing Mahmood Mamdani’s title here Good Muslim, Bad Muslim and the fantasies about the Muslim religion that have so easily circulated in the US media and even worse in the US academy.


What made 9/11 an event for Derrida was something scary indeed. The triggering of what he calls an autoimmunitary response, by which he means a quasi-suicidal process in which a person, a society, and a culture works to destroy its own protection. For Derrida, there were three dangerous autoimmunitary responses—what he called the cold war in the head, the horizon of the worst, and the vicious cycle of repression unleashed by the thought that the even worse is yet to come. This fear of “the even worse is yet to come” from an elusive “them” is what Derrida foresaw as a true threat to the future. Even if the future remains “yet to come” we can be shut away from it. By not exercising our responsibility, we can politically and ethically foreclose what is philosophically impossible to disavow.

In my effort with Ann to name this group faithfully according to a different timeliness we hoped to be a part of making, Derrida insisted that we must somehow incorporate the word “future” into the name of the group. Inspired by the words of the wonderful poet Alicia Ostriker and echoing the words of a certain feminist movement we also knew that the group must be named with the words “take back.” The inspiration of the two merged and the group was named “Take Back the Future.” In all seriousness we saw in that name an urgent call to action. It was a call to action that must work to help revise the context in which we who live in New York City post 9/11 are surviving.


It is this sense of “the future” that I wish to emphasize in Derrida as something that can be taken away and something that we are responsible for. As he reminds us, this call dictates a criticism of a “religion of capital that institutes its dogmatism under new guises, which we must also learn to identify—for this is the future itself, and their will be none otherwise” (Other Heading 77). For in this criticism is the stake of the future itself and there will be no future without this. There is a deep, profound, and scary sense in which the future and our responsibility for the future can not be in any other hands but our own.

It is up to us to take on the task of bringing into existence a timeliness still in the making, and if we do not take up such a task there is no alibi excusing our not doing so. Nor is there an alibi in often made accusations that the task set forth by Derrida is too big, too infinite, and therefore suggesting that there is nothing for us to do. The opposite is the case. Of course, I am writing of a specific, or certain, Derrida (to use one of his favorite words). To more deeply understand what is meant in the evocation of the word future, we must remember that that Derrida had a complicated relationship to the imagination, perhaps one that is more complicated then he himself at times would allow. Yes, there is the Derrida that frequently echoes the Sartrean theme that the image is death, that our imagination intends nothingness. It is this view that suggests the imagination is both the cause of our “nausea” and the basis of our freedom. But in his essay on Nelson Mandela we see Derrida admiring Mandela for admiring the law and, indeed, for exemplifying it. Perhaps, this work is one of the most powerful examples of Derrida in his attempt to call forth from the future the possibility of justice today.


Here, Derrida is appealing to something close to the Kant of the Critique of Judgment. In that work Kant describes how the schematizing power of the imagination can function to provide criteria of exemplary validity for moral judgment. Morality could not work effectively without the imagination’s ability to narrate particular stories which exemplify an otherwise abstract rule. In a sense, then, the moral law shows itself as an actual or particular person’s response to it. Without this imaginative ability to evoke exemplary figures and narratives, and indeed by so doing to identify with their actions, it would be difficult to sustain the appeal to moral sentiment as Mandela does in his famous trial to which Derrida refers. Mandela figures this admiration for the law not only by embodying this respect for the law in his life, but by portraying himself as one who respects the law by placing himself under it.

When we admire Mandela as an exemplar of the law we are also pulled toward the respect it demands of us. Derrida himself witnesses to his own identification with Mandela’s admiration for the law by admiring that very admiration, and by so doing, it is close to a Kantian exemplary imagination which works by this act of witnessing through intuition rather then mere abstraction. Derrida tells us:

So he presents himself in this way. He presents himself in his people, before the law. Before a law he rejects, beyond any doubt, but which he rejects in the name of a superior law, the very one he declares to admire and before which he agrees to appear. In such a presentation of the self, he justifies himself in resuming his history, which he reflects in a single center, a single and a double center, his history and that of his people. Appearance: they appear together, he becomes himself again appearing before the law that he summons as much as he is summoned by it. But he does not present himself in view of a justification which would follow his appearance. The presentation of the self is not in the service of the law, it is not a means. The unfolding of this history is a justification, it is possible and has meaning only before the law. He is only what he is, he, Nelson Mandela, he and his people, he has presence only in this movement of justice (For Nelson Mandela 27).

This call to identify with Mandela’s identification of the moral law and the command of justice as what constitutes who he is not only calls us to identify with him, allowing his inscription of the law in his acts of admiration to reproduce a configuration of the moral doctrine within the context of the unjust system of apartheid, but it also tries to render visible the law to which the whites have blinded themselves. Again to quote Derrida:

It tries to open up the eyes of the whites; it does not reproduce the visible, it produces it here. This reflection makes visible a law that in truth does more then reflect, because this law, in its phenomenon, was invisible—had become or continued to be invisible. Transporting the invisible into the visible, this reflection does not proceed from the visible, rather it passes through understanding. More exactly, it reveals to understanding what goes past understanding and only relates to reason. It was a first reason, reason itself (For Nelson Mandela 23).

Here we are reminded of Merleau Ponty in which we see forms of being, including symbolic being, only as they appear from a perspective, leaving along side what is visible a trace of what is invisible.

The white nation had rendered a law that could not reflect on itself because it denied what it claimed to embody: the law, the one nation of South Africa. By rejecting the law that inverts its own universality, Mandela reflects on the meaning of what this universality has promised but not delivered. Again, to quote Derrida:

But, another inflection, if the testament is always made in front of witnesses, a witness in front of witnesses, it is also to open and enjoin, it is also to confide in others the responsibility of their future. To bear witness, to test, to attest, to contest, to present oneself before witnesses. For Mandela, it was not only to show himself, to give himself to be known, him and his people, it was also to reinstitute the law for the future, as if, finally, it had never taken place. As if, having never been respected, it were to remain, this arch-ancient thing that had never been present, as the future even—still now invisible (For Nelson Mandela 37).

In this sense, by presenting and representing himself as one who respects the law as it has been rendered invisible in the legal system of apartheid works to name the unnamable, at least under that system, which is that the demands of blacks are not only the demands of human beings but that their demand, and only their demand, can configure and bring into visibility the promise of universality. In a sense, then, Mandela’s appeal to conscience is not only a memory but a promise to future witnesses who will, like him, exemplify and respect the law in their lives and the continuing struggle against apartheid. Simply put, Derrida is writing that the moral power of Mandela’s testament to his own conscience evoking of future witnesses who can hear his voice and receive his message proceeds through the exemplary or testimonial imagination. Truly, it can not do otherwise, for the law to which he subjects himself must be rendered visible if it is to be witnessed to. The exemplary imagination did not itself originate in Mandela, rather he simply answered its call and in so doing was comported toward a future possibility for a new South Africa. However, Mandela is not alone in this calling which is always reaching out to all of us, a calling that is perhaps one of our greatest inheritances of the future.


Derrida writes so beautifully of our obligation as heeding a “timeliness in the making,” which as he puts it is “virtual, inhibited—it waits, pregnant with possible receivability” (Taste for the Secret 16). Derrida is to my mind so threatening to others because he adamantly and persistently heeded the forces that are silent, “still in the minority but there.” He never did stop heeding those voices, as he was still signing petitions on the day he made his last journey to the hospital.

It is this injunction that “we must act now” that is perhaps so forcefully felt at the moment of his death. For this now, this injunction that we must act immediately, is inseparable from Derrida’s own thinking on death. As Derrida writes:

Only a mortal can speak of the future in this sense, a god could never do so. So I know very well that all of this is a discourse—an experience, rather—that is made possible as a future by a certain imminence of death (Taste for the Secret 23).

The imminence here is that death may arrive at any moment. Heidegger discusses this brilliantly in Being and Time and the fact that death may arrive at any moment gives justice to the character of an immediate injunction. To be faithful to the future, then, is to open ourselves to the address, “what are you doing today?”

Ultimately, it is this call to responsibility, seen as unavoidable and infinite, combined with the “promise of the future that always might be” that made Derrida so terribly threatening to so many who would tell us that there is no future, and those who hold on to it with fidelity are nothing but fools and dreamers. In his “adieu” to Emanuel Levinas, Derrida writes that “adieu” greets the other beyond being in what is signified, and here he quotes Levinas, “beyond being by the word glory.” We may leave Derrida in his glory if we allow ourselves to accept the responsibility he entrusted us with. It is a responsibility toward the future that is always here “to be received,” and paradoxically in the best sense of the word “to come.” My prayer for all of us, for myself, for my daughter, and to him is the gratefulness that lies in the hope he has left open in that entrustment.


Works Cited


Borradori, Giovanna. Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003.


Derrida, Jacques. The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe, Trans. Pauscale-Anne Barult and Michael Naas. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992.


Derrida, Jacques and Mustapha Tlili, eds. For Nelson Mandela, New York: Seaver Books, 1987.


Derrida, Jacques and Maurizio Ferraris, A Taste for the Secret, Trans. Giacomo Donis, Eds. Giacomo Donis and David Webb, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2001.


Contributors Note


Drucilla Cornell is professor of political science, comparative literature, and women and gender studies at Rutgers University. Cornell has authored many books including Defending Ideals (2004), Between Women and Generations (2002), At the Heart of Freedom (1998), The Imaginary Domain (1995), Transformations (1993), and The Philosophy of the Limit (1992). Currently, Cornell is collaboratively directing a research project in South Africa that seeks to deepen the role of African jurisprudence through ideals like “ubuntu” to inform constitutional clauses and legal interpretations in the ongoing building of the new South Africa.



See generally, Borradori, Giovanna. Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003, Part 2.


See generally, Mandami, Mahmood. Good Muslim, Bad Muslim : America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, New York: Pantheon, 2004.


See generally, Borradori, Giovanna. Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003, Part 2.