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Crossings: An Interview with Peggy Kamuf

Dr. Peggy Kamuf, Dawne McCance

Mosaic: an interdisciplinary critical journal, Volume 50, Number 1, March

2017, pp. 227-243 (Article)

Published by Mosaic, an interdisciplinary critical journal

For additional information about this article


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The following interview took place in Winnipeg on 2 October 2008. Mosaic is pleased and honoured to publish
this interview, which originally appeared in Mosaic 42.4 (December 2009).

Crossings: An Interview
with Peggy Kamuf

DM The occasion for this interview is significant: you are in Winnipeg on the sec-
ond day of October 2008 to give a Distinguished Visiting Lecturer address at
the University of Manitoba. You hold the Marion Frances Chevalier Chair of
French and Comparative Literature at the University of Southern California,
and I am assuming that you will have something to say about literature, per-
haps also comparative literature, in your Distinguished Lecture tonight. In any
case, as I drove down here this morning, I was thinking about Derrida saying
that we cannot treat “literature” as a proper name. What do you take this to

PK Well, first of all, thank you very much. I am really delighted to be here. It is
beautiful in Winnipeg, a lovely day. I took a walk this morning down by the
river and, on my first visit here, I am looking forward to seeing more.

Mosaic 50/1 0027-1276-07/227018$02.00©Mosaic

228 Mosaic 50/1 (March 2017)

To come to your question: first of all, as Derrida has frequently pointed out,
“literature” is a very recent designation for what is now a limited kind of writ-
ing, a certain kind of writing. It is basically in early-nineteenth-century Europe
that the term, in the use that we still give it, is put in place and instituted, which
means that “literature” refers to a very specific historical and cultural institu-
tion and so, of course, we should be careful when we use the term not to treat
it as if it were a proper name. For one thing, the term belongs only to a certain
number of languages, which are Latinate languages: literature is a Latinate
word. It belongs to particular cultures, histories, and institutions that we’ve
become accustomed to, but a certain practice of reading texts according to a lit-
erary dispensation does not belong to that proper history, name, institution.
That would be my first gambit with the question.

DM In that you have asked for photocopies of the text, I know that you plan to
make reference in your lecture tonight to Kafka’s story “Before the Law.” In a
way, I think you cite that story at the opening of your book The Division of
Literature: Or the University in Deconstruction where, having just cited Derrida,
you write that we now find ourselves before the two uprights of a palace gate,
the two uprights of what would be a university foundation, the foundation that
must be interrogated and made new. Do you think literature has a specific role
to play in this interrogation of university foundations?

PK I had forgotten about that image in “The University Founders,” which is the
first chapter of The Division of Literature. I don’t believe I was thinking of
Kafka’s parable at the time, but that little matters. You are right, it does echo
Kafka’s story, being before the gate, before the portal, the door, and of course
behind that door there is another door, and then another door. But as to your
question: yes! Literature has a central role to play in interrogating the univer-
sity, which is what I was essentially doing in that book. Literature—as what I
call “division,” which plays on two senses of that word, both as a kind of gath-
ering, a division set aside within a larger organization, but also what divides, a
place of division—literature, I argue, has always had a very uneasy relation to
the fundamental mission of the modern scientific university: the search for
knowledge, as we write in our promotional brochures and as we put it repeat-
edly in our slogans, the preservation and search for new knowledge. Literature
is not unrelated to new knowledge, but its modes of discovery and invention
are unlike, or work differently from, what apparently goes on in the sciences,
Peggy Kamuf 229

through scientific method. Literature cannot be a method. I think every writer,

every poet, everyone who experiences the urge, need, or desire to write, knows
that: there is no method.
So, what the uneasy incorporation of the study of literature in universities
shows up is this other dispensation, this other relation to newness, to invention,
to innovation, to the unknown, to an uncertainty that is not simply an extension
of the known, not simply the known deploying itself according to its known and
tested methods to conquer the unknown, to appropriate and use it. This is our
great difficulty. As academics in this uneasy place, in the university, this is, more
and more, our great difficulty. For the university is converting itself very evi-
dently into a place of pre-professional preparation and all of its traditional disci-
plines are under pressure to justify themselves as pre-professional pursuits. What
does the study of literature prepare you to do as a career? There is no certainty
here. Literary study gives us no ground from which to say, “This is what you
will learn, this is what you will discover, this is what you will know by the end
of your studies, and this is what you will be certified to do.” This is not just
reluctance or reticence to conform to an expectation; it is a real impossibility
and it now puts us in a very vulnerable position. Yet, I would argue that this has
always been the case, more or less—that is, that literary studies, or the place set
aside for reading and writing about, engaging with, the artefacts that are liter-
ary texts—that this place of literature has always been vulnerable, but that it
has always found ways to compromise with the scientific paradigm, now the
pre-professional paradigm, to justify its place in the university. Yet, we also
know that literature does not depend on the university. It is not like the study
of accounting, let’s say, which teaches specific techniques, rules, and practices,
which purveys a pre-professional training, something in which one has to be
schooled. No, we know that literature, as an experience, a fact, and a possibil-
ity in our world does not depend on a school, on schooling, and thus on the
university. And maybe we know as well that it is not going to be there much

DM I am interested in a number of things that come out of what you have just said.
In the history of the modern research university, as you know, literature has had
to compromise with philosophy. As late as Heidegger, literature, poetry, is still
having to “give way,” to yield to the concept and to philosophy. The sort of over-
seer role that philosophy has assumed in the research university—the university
as a philosophical, as much as a scientific, institution—seems to be compro-
230 Mosaic 50/1 (March 2017)

mised today by a literature that is as much “philosophical” as it is “literary.” I

think that your writing is a case in point. In part because, in North America at
least, only through literature was much of continental philosophy, including
the work of Derrida, given university entry, it is not as easy today as it might
once have been to distinguish between literature and philosophy. It is not easy
today to distinguish what we might call “literature” from theory or philosophy.
Do you see this change as, in itself, a deconstructive initiative? Has it changed
the role between, the traditional relation between, literature and philosophy?
Do you think that writing is no longer divided at that point, that we do not
have these delineated territories any more?

PK I think, yes, this is the case, although there are many ways that the university
does not tolerate this change. Despite all of our talk about interdisciplinarity,
there is some intolerance, even a lot of intolerance, of transgressions of the divi-
sion between literature and philosophy. Although I don’t believe we want to get
into the ways in which philosophy has coagulated into (according to some) dif-
ferent kinds of totally incompatible modes of thinking, still it is fair to observe
that deconstructive thought is not welcomed, and this is putting it mildly, by all
forms of philosophical instruction in the university. But in answer to your ques-
tion, yes. Indeed, the chapter you referred to in The Division of Literature takes
off from Derrida’s text on the conflict of the faculties, Kant’s essay The Conflict
of the Faculties, where Kant gives a curious description of the relation between
the faculty of philosophy, which he puts below the faculties of theology and law,
if I remember correctly, and yet he says that it is the faculty of philosophy that
basically oversees, as you put it, the whole university. I think that odd descrip-
tion, in which philosophy is both a “lower” faculty and yet above the “higher”
faculties, is in many ways still operative. But we also have to remember that
Kant’s idea of “the faculties”—the “university,” if you will—corresponds essen-
tially to the still classical rather than the modern university. What Kant calls the
“faculty of philosophy” would have to encompass what today we know as “the
humanities,” thus literary studies. Of course, this has a very long history; Kant
does not invent the quarrel between the philosopher and the poet. The way in
which that quarrel was determined or decided very early on, and has never been
re-adjudicated, has given us our whole idea of the university. You have the dis-
ciplines of fact, the sciences, and then you have these other pursuits, and it is
almost too much even to call these other pursuits—the arts—disciplines. When
it is a matter of teaching a technique as in studio art or music, that is one thing,
Peggy Kamuf 231

but what do literary studies do, how do they fit? The only truth they can teach
or tell is about fictions, and what is the value of that? As I said, that quarrel was
adjudicated very early on, with Plato, and then the judgment has been left more
or less in place. Heidegger certainly does attempt, and more than attempt, to
understand poetry and philosophy, or rather, as he puts it, Dichten und Denken,
as parallel tracks that are crossing, interfering with each other. On the Origin of
the Work of Art situates poetry as the supreme art, the essence of art. But I think
that others, such as Derrida and Blanchot (certainly not without Heidegger’s
push), have gone further. First of all in their own writing, in the experience of
writing itself. And, of course, that is where Derrida’s early work begins, with a
generalization of the writing experience and thus with a displacement of the
idea of writing as representation of living speech, which is itself representation
of the idea, the whole Platonic schema of this double remove from the realm of
the purely intelligible, unchanging idea. With Derrida, there is not simply a
reversal of this schema, but its displacement in writing or as writing, meaning
not just what I can trace on paper or on a pixelated screen but the spacing out
of differences, the interference of values and differences that are crossing with
each other, stabilizing but also destabilizing meanings. This movement is not
just historical, it is also the possibility of what is called history. So we’re not talk-
ing about only the space or the spacing of written texts, in the ordinary sense.

DM I am going to ask you about your work as a translator, which is without parallel.
As a translator, I think, you are reading and writing with effects—I may even be
quoting you here, I don’t know—you are reading and writing with effects that
both limit and multiply chance and indetermination and the very singularity of
texts. Is that something I can say? Might I use the word singularity in talking
about translation? Is translation a work that touches the singularity of a text?

PK It has to.

DM It has to?

PK I think it has to.

DM Your sense of singularity is really important, I think, and I am trying to find a

way to get at that.

PK Where to begin? First of all, everything I have understood about translation as

a task and as an experience has come from both reading and translating. It has
232 Mosaic 50/1 (March 2017)

come from reading Derrida first of all, more recently Cixous, and then trans-
lating what I am reading because a translator is a reader, first and foremost, and
his or her thought, his or her writing, is everywhere engaging with what we
commonly or not so commonly call translation. I think one could safely say
that every text of Derrida’s touches on translation, pushes against the expecta-
tions that what he is doing is translatable, in the ordinary sense. For example,
a text you know well, “Plato’s Pharmacy,” is all about translation. It is all about
getting at the metaphysical notion of writing through the standard idea of
translation, the standard idea that is put in place, has to be put in place, in
exactly the same way, with the same moves, every time. You may recall that
early on in that long essay Derrida declares, and it is very significant: “With this
problem of translation we will be dealing with nothing less than the passage
into philosophy” (71-72).
But to come to your question about singularity: the singular is what has the
force to pull the universal, however slightly, into its orbit, if I can put it that
way. Of course we must all agree with Wittgenstein when he asserts that there
is no such thing as a private language, that such a thing would be a contradic-
tion in terms, that an absolutely singular, one-time-only, meaning event could
not mean anything, as language. There is language only if there is the possibil-
ity of meaning for another, a meaning that is repeatable. This is what Derrida
calls iterability: in order to signify, the mark or sign must be iterable by an
other, which is always also oneself, oneself as an other. This is why singularity
can be understood as the possibility of a kind of swerve, or marking, that
imposes a swerve on the universal, if I can say that, but that is also thereby and
at the same time forced into a common space of iterability. Which is to say that
the singular, the absolutely singular, in order to mark itself as singular, has to be
given up or has to be taken over, has to let itself be marked by the universal, to
use that short hand.
To bring this back to translation, what the translator does, first of all and
above all, is destroy the singular idiom of the source text. The translator stomps
all over the other’s idiom, necessarily—that is what is demanded and expected
of a translation. But of course it cannot do that, or it should not do that, with-
out leaving traces in its idiom of the singular marks it is conveying. When I am
translating a text of Derrida’s, I am often very aware that he was thinking about
the translator as he wrote, and indeed he frequently says that. He says things
like “how are they going to translate this,” “how is one going to translate” some
expression or word or usage whose idiomatic potential he is exploiting. At such
Peggy Kamuf 233

moments, I imagine he is chuckling a little to himself, but also no doubt feel-

ing pity and compassion. There is an awareness of showing up the limits of
translatability and, as a consequence, the translator is going to experience
falling over the edge or the precipice, not just between languages, but within
what are thought of as the bounds of any one language. That there is always
more than one language in play is something else one is made aware of, read-
ing or translating Derrida, who always thinks with a number of different lan-
guages around, English being one of the most frequent, but also German and
Latin and Greek are often there alongside French.

DM That is fascinating. Singularity, then, must relate to signature. I think it is in the

“Spatial Arts” interview where Derrida says that the countersignature comes
before the signature: can you just say a little bit about that?

PK Translation can certainly be a kind of countersignature, I mean, translation in

the ordinary sense of interlingual translation. But I think you could also put it
the other way around and say that countersigning is a kind of translation, or
even that reading must countersign. Reading actively—and reading must
always be active, even when it seems to be the most obedient and struggling
simply to follow—always involves some resistance, some activity of resistance,
and I think that is what Derrida also means by countersignature. There is a
countering action in the countersignature, not just an endorsing one. This is
not to say that every reading countersigns—the countersignature notion is a
selective one. It is an act whereby the other’s signature is recognized, whether
explicitly or not, an act in which there is some reception of the singularity or
identity of the countersigned text, artefact, or act. (For we could also be talking
about countersigning pieces of music, a painting, a performance of some sort,
a film, a poem, but also a philosophical or scientific work.) There is some
recognition, some reception of the work’s signature, and by signature I mean
some sort of secret relation in the text that sets it apart. In other words, “signa-
ture” should not be understood simply or solely as the most public manifesta-
tion along the lines of: this is a Wordsworth poem, it is signed by Wordsworth,
and we know all about William Wordsworth and his biography, his habits, and
so forth. It is the countersigning that signs with or as that signature, and yes, the
countersignature in a certain sense comes first because there will not have been
a signature until there is countersignature, in this sense of recognizing or receiv-
ing what I just called a secret relation of elements or marks in a work that make
234 Mosaic 50/1 (March 2017)

it a work. For a signature is always the signature of a work and vice versa; we call
a work that which bears a signature. There is plenty of writing, all kinds of texts,
that are not works, or they are not works until they are countersigned, which is
something I try to get across to students: I tell them, “You are the one making the
work a work, with your reading, with your writing, with your countersigning. Do
not go only by what you know has already been said about it, you don’t have to.”

DM Is this close to deconstruction as a response to the singularity of the text?

PK Certainly, yes.

DM You have talked about œuvre and the distinction between œuvre and work. Can
you say something about this?

PK This is a translation problem I faced in Without Alibi, in the introduction I

wrote to those five essays of Derrida’s. One of the things that struck me while
working on the essays was the extent to which Derrida bears down on this
notion of œuvre. In the essay “The University Without Condition,” he is talking
about the work of the university both in the sense of travail—labour, job—and
of œuvre. Thus, a central dynamic or tension in that text is between labour, tra-
vail, job, and so forth, and œuvre. In my introduction, I tried to work this out,
as a way of understanding it for myself. Of course, the problem is that in
English we translate both travail and œuvre by “work.” Even though the term
œuvre has been pretty much imported into English, it remains awkward and it
is marked off as aesthetic. It usually designates the aesthetic realm, so one tends
immediately to add œuvre d’art, the work of art. Certainly Derrida does intend
in part by œuvre the œuvre d’art, but it is very interesting that he nevertheless
drops the d’art while retaining œuvre without predicating it further. This ges-
ture leaves the notion of œuvre open, whereas what are referred to as œuvres
d’art seem to come to us from the past. They are catalogued, collected, even
venerated works of art. The œuvre Derrida distinguishes has to come from a
future, which is to say the unknown, and it may not be known as an œuvre until
long after it is made, done, written, or performed. (This is also what I mean
when I tell my students, “It is up to you!”) The certified œuvre d’art seems
solidified, contained, it says to us “Here is Art,” so you are supposed to know it,
be reassured, know how to look at it, how to receive it, how to read it. The
uncertainty of the œuvre, on the other hand, never simply ends.
Peggy Kamuf 235

DM I am trying to think of oeuvre in relation to text, and I think I remember a foot-

note reference in Without Alibi, a reference to Derrida’s statement that Paul de
Man’s sense of text is not psychoanalytic enough. So, I am wondering, is œuvre
psychoanalytic enough? What is the psychoanalytic dimension to œuvre?

PK That’s an interesting question, and I am not sure how to approach it. Does psy-
choanalysis give us other modes of receiving or recognizing œuvres? Yes, cer-
tainly, because for one thing, the notion of the signature is altogether revised
once one must admit the signifying—signing—force of unconscious desire. So
who or what is it that signs a work? But we could also come back to something
you said earlier about how you recognize the deconstructive thrust in a certain
destabilization of differences among what are called philosophy, literature, or
theory. I would add psychoanalysis into that mix. Many have shown, after Lacan,
after Freud, the importance of thinking among all of those distinctions, and have
drawn heavily, deeply, on psychoanalytic concepts to say new things about liter-
ature, reading, writing, as well as about psychoanalysis; they have dug out of the
pages of Freud’s work a lot of material for poetic thinking. A good example here
would be the work of Nicholas Royle on telepathy as a principle of literary nar-
ration or on the uncanny as an essentially literary experience. His book The
Uncanny doesn’t just take off from Freud’s essay of that name, but takes off and
comes back, reads it more probingly than anyone else has done, and then takes
off again in surprising directions, but perhaps not so surprising once one has
unpacked, with Freud’s help, which is not always deliberate, thus his inadvertent
indications in that essay and elsewhere about the “uncanny.” What are the char-
acteristics of the uncanny? One of the things Nick does, which is also very funny,
is to list in the initial paragraph of that book all of the different things that Freud
designates as “uncanny” in the course of his thirty-five-or-so-page essay. The list
includes death, the double, being buried alive, intellectual uncertainty, confusion
between the mechanical and the living, and on, and on, and on. In other words,
the category of uncanny experiences proliferates very uncannily!
So yes, psychoanalysis is an enormous source for thinking about literature
(and thus about everything else), with its reasoning from a relation to the
unconscious, unconsciousness, or the non-conscious, and therefore to a fun-
damental otherness, which is clearly its importance for so many thinkers like
Derrida, who draws immensely on psychoanalysis. He does not draw on its
conceptual scheme so much as on its principles of reading and interpretation.
After all, texts are dreams; dreams are texts.
236 Mosaic 50/1 (March 2017)

DM Now that is important! You know, as to my earlier question, I think right where
Derrida says that we cannot treat literature as a proper name, he also says that
we cannot treat psychoanalysis as proper name. Perhaps that is in the “Mes
Chances” essay.

PK That sounds likely, yes.

DM I wonder what you think about Derrida’s “Provocation: Forewords” (I think

“Forewords” is plural there) to Without Alibi, where he says something like
“Peggy Kamuf reads me better, down to the unconscious, than I will ever have
read myself.” I think this is something I am learning from your writing, that in
reading Derrida, you are indeed reading him “down to the unconscious,”
although not by referencing “the unconscious” in any explicit way. What do
you say to this?

PK The first thing I would say is that Derrida really demands and wants to be read
in ways that he could not himself predict or anticipate. He says somewhere in
Glas that what is really interesting about what is going on there is that somewhere
he does not know what he is doing. What he wants people to read is what he can-
not read on his own. I believe this is true of everyone: everyone desires a coun-
tersignature. So when Derrida says “reads me down right to the unconscious,” I
think he would say that about all who have read his work in a manner that coun-
tersigns, all those who have taken on that responsibility of reading, which is not
pure license. One is not given license to say anything whatsoever, and there is no
permission to disregard your best adequation of someone’s intent in a text. That
has been a very large and idiotic misunderstanding about Derrida’s thought,
namely that it dispenses with intent or intention. What this grotesque caricature
wants to avoid coming to terms with is the idea that language and writing work,
say things, and cause things to come to the readable surface that the figure of the
conscious intention of the writer can never fully encompass. I believe Derrida the
writer is far more aware than just about anyone of what his own writing is up to,
but there are always other possibilities being awakened. This is what Freud and
psychoanalysis authorize us to engage with as readers, writers, and students of
texts. Along with a clinical practice, a mode of therapy, and a mode of analysis of
cultural phenomena, psychoanalysis is perhaps most fruitful today as a theoriza-
tion of reading. That is why, as we were saying last night, Freud is read most often
today in university literature departments.
Peggy Kamuf 237

DM What about resistance, what is it? What is resistance? This is the question you
ask in your introduction to Without Alibi, a wonderful introduction.

PK Well, Derrida is an extraordinary reader and to be read by him is pretty har-

rowing, not that he is ever less than generous. What transpired was that I had
sent him my introduction because he was going to write a foreword to the book.
Not long afterward I received “Provocations: Forewords,” and when I read it I
just felt kind of skewered [both laugh]! He had really gone straight to a weak-
ness, a vulnerability in my introduction. I have seen it so often, where he goes
for just one word in another’s text, guided by an uncanny sense of where to find
the lynchpin, which may not be apparent, which may not be at all foregrounded
or thematized. But in the introduction, I talk about resistance in a fairly insis-
tent way, and he basically responded by saying, “You know, maybe it is a little
dangerous to advise people to resist.” Provoking resistance is indeed what I
seemed to be doing, which provoked a response to the effect: “That is all well
and good but maybe it is not all that great as a strategy to say, in effect, ‘Here is
something good, resist it, give me your resistance, respond with your resistance’.”

DM Well, I think your discussion of “reading me down to my unconscious” clari-

fies, for me at least, resistance, and that is because you read more in the text
than the “conscious.” I am not going to put it well, but you are reading. What
we have also talked about is things that are not under the control of the writer,
as I said earlier.

PK Exactly, yes, but they are things that are on the periphery. I think one has to
beware of the model of manifest and latent, to use the terms with which Freud
describes the dream content and the dream work, the depth model that contrasts
what is on the surface and is manifest or visible with what is buried, hidden, has
to be dug out. With a written text, one has only surface, so that at least in the sense
of geometric space, there is no hidden depth. Although we talk about layers and
about things being hidden, nevertheless, nothing is hidden that is not also show-
ing itself on the surface in some fashion. Which is why, paradoxically, literature
is so secretive, because it has to keep its secrets in the open like so many purloined
letters. But still it is a very differentiated surface that we are dealing with when we
read. One has to look not just for what words and sentences are meaning; one
can’t go after simply meaning, although of course we are always dealing with
meaning. But one has also, for example, to break down words and look for the
repetition of phonemes and sounds, according to a poetic principle. Derrida
238 Mosaic 50/1 (March 2017)

wrote an amazing book called Glas according to the principle of repetition of the
“gl-” syllable, its strangled sound, which spurts and gets stuck in the throat, a
strangling in the throat of what is not yet a word, stuck on its way to being a word
and therefore meaning. There is something that another may make sense of, but
it is not yet sense. It is something stuck in the body, in the glottis. Such pieces,
fragments, or shards of not-yet-language remain available to readers everywhere.
It’s just that we have been taught to pay no attention to them, so as to get quickly
to meaning. That is how you learn to read, you take the phonemes, the letters, the
sounds, and combine them into words, and then you match the words to a pic-
ture, in order to arrive at the word-sense. That is how you are taught to read, that
is how you have to be taught to read, otherwise you cannot read [laughs]!

DM One of the terms I think students (and not only students) have difficulty with
is “event.” How do you talk with your students about “event,” and the relation
between “event” and “machine”?

PK Actually I conducted a graduate seminar last year on the notion of event.

DM Did you really?

PK Yes, the idea of event in Derrida’s work. I mean that was how I limited it [laughs].
I laugh because event is such a pervasive idea throughout all of Derrida’s work,
but we could also have read Lyotard, Badiou, Deleuze, and that’s staying only
within French thought. But you know the problem, you have only one brief
semester, you have to limit things, so I chose to read and work only with texts by
Derrida. It is something I had been thinking about ever since I wrote the intro-
duction to Without Alibi, which I titled “Event of Resistance.” You perhaps have
had the experience in which an idea can be there, even very prominently there,
in your understanding or your knowledge, and yet it does not really come into
focus at all. When I was working on that book, and particularly, once again, “The
University Without Condition” but also “Typewriter Ribbon,” the text on de
Man, for the first time (and I am embarrassed to say this) the importance of
Derrida’s thinking of event came into a certain focus for me. Perhaps it was
because I translated these texts and, working at that really close level, one is
forced to pay attention to things at both the micro and macro levels.
The way it came most clearly into focus was through the distinction Derrida
makes between the performative and the event or, if you will, between a perfor-
mative event—event as performative, performative as event—and event in
Peggy Kamuf 239

another sense, in a sense beyond the performative, beyond or before the perfor-
mative. This has been a consistent critique that, ever since “Signature Event
Context,” Derrida has made of Austin’s notion of the performative and of the
notion of the speech act as accomplished by a first person in the present, using
conventional language, in an authorized situation. These are components of the
felicitousness, as Austin calls it, of the performative, and they make the event of
the felicitous speech act an effect of the cause that is the conscious, intentional
subject. The felicitous performative is thus a possible event, an event that is
already possible, and when it happens, it happens as the fulfillment or realization
of a known possibility. Performative “events” are possible, entirely possible. They
happen every day, all the time. But when what happens is possible, then, in the
sense Derrida insists on, there is no event. To be possible as something other than
the unfolding of already known possibilities, an event must be im-possible. I’ve
just now given an example of the very paradoxical syntax of im-possibility that
Derrida worked out most thoroughly, perhaps, in the title essay in Psyche:
Inventions of the Other. The event is impossible, beyond the horizon of known
possibilities, but also insofar as it cannot fall within the power of any subject to
produce, effect, or authorize it with an “I may,” “I can,” “I do,” “I will.” It helps to
bring French into the picture because the links are made clearer there among
“possibility,” “power,” and the first-person singular je peux, from the verb pouvoir,
to have the power, to be able, which also gives us the common noun le pouvoir,
power. This thinking of event at the limits of the performative has direct links to
Derrida’s work on sovereignty, the power of the sovereign instance, which he was
developing most fully in his last seminars but that is also clearly in evidence in
“The University Without Condition” in Without Alibi.
So we spent a semester thinking about event and yes, it was very interesting.

DM In my own teaching of Derrida’s work, and I am sure in yours, students are,

sometimes, impatient for statements from him on sexual difference, or they want
him to make direct connections to feminist issues and concerns. I have read your
essay on Derrida’s first Geschlecht essay in Book of Addresses and ask, not only on
the basis of that essay, whether you think that, in Derrida’s work, difference is
always sexual difference, that difference is always sexualized, that there is always
a mark of some kind of sexual difference bound up with difference?

PK “Yes” is the short answer. In that essay you just referred to, Derrida is essentially
arguing with Heidegger, with Heidegger in the positive sense—I mean not sim-
240 Mosaic 50/1 (March 2017)

ply against Heidegger but with Heidegger’s very fundamental thinking about
ontological difference. He does this in part by remarking small details in the
texts he is talking about, in particular in the seminar that Heidegger gave right
after the publication of Being and Time, in 1928, the “Marburg seminar.” In it,
Heidegger says that Dasein is neutral, adding immediately that this neutrality
is “first of all” or “above all” not sexual neutrality. He does not mean by this that
Dasein is sexualized, but rather that its neutrality is of a different order. So
Heidegger means to set aside or subordinate the whole question of sexual dif-
ference. In other words, ontological difference precedes, grounds, or has to be
thought before sexual difference. Sexual difference is secondary, it is an ontic,
Heidegger would say, rather than an ontological difference. What Derrida
points out is that even in order to say that, Heidegger must acknowledge,
although inadvertently and through a negation, that this has to be asserted,
that it is not self-evident. He also points out how Heidegger’s gesture ends up
repeating and reinforcing, despite the radicalness of his critique of meta-
physics, a gesture that has been fundamental throughout the history of Western
philosophy and of Western philosophers, which is the secondarization of sex-
ual difference, which has always meant the presumed secondarity of the femi-
nine. So I think, yes, that essay, above all, is where Derrida, in what seems to be
the most fundamental place that one can take up the question that you just
asked, shows that sexual difference is always originally in play in any difference.

DM I don’t think there is a way to shorthand “testimony,” to deal with it in these

sort of courtroom or trial scenes that I think are implicit, or there, in your
work, that I think are really important not only in “Composition Displace-
ment” but also in Book of Addresses, for instance where you are talking about
the impeachment of Clinton. Is there some way you can suggest to Mosaic
readers the importance that the link between testimony and “telling the truth”
has for you?

PK I would begin by picking up from the phrase you just used: “telling the truth.”
This is idiomatic English: we say “to tell the truth,” we don’t often say “to say
the truth” or “to speak the truth,” although no doubt you would be understood
if you did, but more idiomatically we say “to tell the truth,” just as we also speak
of telling lies, telling tales, or telling stories. The act of telling implies a narra-
tive act, and the narrative may well be fictional story. To be sure, not all narra-
tives are what we call fiction, but neither are all narratives testimony. Most
Peggy Kamuf 241

often, however, testimony takes the form of narrative. A witness is asked or

expected to tell his or her story, whether or not it is in the courtroom, in bed
with one’s lover, in a confession to the police, in an autobiographical work, or
in some other circumstance. So, telling a story and telling the truth do not have
to exclude each other, on the contrary, as acts of testimony, but they also betray
a troubling proximity or overlap with some mode of non-truth: fiction, lie,
invention, and so forth. Thus, to say of a witness that he told a story can just as
well cast suspicion on his testimony.
For reasons that are no doubt very complex and historically determined,
especially since World War II, there is a greater awareness, it seems to me, of the
many roles played by testimony, in addition to its role in the judicial context.
We have thus become more aware, I believe, of the role we assign to testimony
more generally, of what we expect from it and what we rely on it for. One way
to measure this role of testimony is to try to identify the discursive regimes
from which testimony, the act of bearing witness, is or should be in principle
ruled out, banished. There are not many, but perhaps the most salient would
be the discursive rules for the conduct of science. One doesn’t commonly speak
of testimony with regard to scientific experiments, the results of which are not
presented as testimony, but as evidence or data. The experimental results that
the experimenter communicates to his or her fellow scientists is not called tes-
timony. It is a report of the experiment, an analysis of the data, and so forth;
nevertheless, we can see that such reporting is related to the scene of testifying
and receiving testimony because, of course, a witness is someone who testifies
to someone else or to some other instance. It is not a private act, but a public
one, if indeed it is what we call testimony.
There is a value in thinking about testimony not only as that which retrieves
memories and accounts of events that are threatened with oblivion except for
witnesses. In this regard, one thinks first of witnesses to the Shoah or to other
kinds of massive assaults on human life that are not just natural accidents but
genocides: in Rwanda, in Bosnia, or in Cambodia, as well as in Europe in the
’30s and ’40s. It is obviously immensely important that testimony regarding
such events be gathered, verified, archived, and honoured. But I think it is
equally important that we be as clear as possible regarding how testimony actu-
ally works, if I can put it in such a crude way.
Whatever the particulars, the scene of testimony always entails belief. Either
I believe the witness whose testimony I receive, or I don’t. This is rather sim-
plified, but let us say that either I believe the witness’s story and I think he is
242 Mosaic 50/1 (March 2017)

telling the truth, I believe him when he says he is telling the truth, or I don’t.
Because of course he could be lying, making up a story, or perhaps simply mis-
taken about what actually happened. He could be lying even when he swears to
tell the truth, that is, he could be withholding his full intent in swearing the
oath. It would be like what we used to do as kids, crossing our fingers behind
our backs when we promised something. All testimony rests on belief and this
belief is irreducible. That is to say, we never get to a point beyond belief, or if
we do, then we are no longer dealing with testimony, but with what is called
proof. I’m relying here, as usual, on Derrida’s analysis of testimony, and I would
say that that analysis places a lot of caution around our notion of proof. It sug-
gests that we are never simply outside the realm or regime of belief, perhaps not
even in the conduct of the hardest of hard sciences. But as regards what we call
testimony, this is not a radical or difficult idea. It is even common sense, when
you think about it and when you consider what is happening when someone
swears to tell the truth—explicitly or implicitly—and then proceeds to bear
witness. To recognize that the value of testimony depends upon someone’s
belief is neither hard to understand, nor is it scandalous at all.
What has largely happened, however, is a kind of bracketing in the ways tes-
timony is received, treated, or utilized, which tends to close the gap of belief.
And it is a gap! I think that it is better to go more slowly, to keep the gap open
in some way, or at least to acknowledge it, not so that we are constantly skepti-
cal about everything, questioning everything, but so that we may assume our
beliefs as such and take responsibility for them as beliefs. I can affirm my belief
but I can only affirm it as belief, I cannot affirm it as certainty, knowledge, or
proof. Rather, if I affirm, assume my belief, I do so knowing I may be wrong, I
may be proved wrong, and I may be forced by other testimonies to recant my
belief. It is rare that a belief is irreversible—well, maybe not so rare—because
it certainly happens that one has to revise one’s beliefs. What probably is rare,
though, is that one arrives at a certainty simply out of belief. Such insistence on
the language of belief or believing is perhaps unsettling in the post-
Enlightenment world that we are supposed to inhabit, in which belief has been
largely conflated with religious belief or faith in religious ideology. What may
be unsettling is the idea of a faith or belief regime, as I call it sometimes, all
across the board, religious belief being merely one form.

DM Peggy, thank you.

Peggy Kamuf 243

Derrida, Jacques. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Dissemination. Trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: U of Chicago P,
1981. Print.
_____ . Without Alibi. Ed. and trans. Peggy Kamuf. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002. Print.
Kamuf, Peggy. Book of Addresses. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005. Print.
_____ . “Composition Displacement.” MLN 121.4 (2006): 872-92. Print.
_____ . The Division of Literature: Or the University in Deconstruction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1997.
Royle, Nicholas. The Uncanny. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2003. Print.

DR. PEGGY KAMUF has written extensively on the work of Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, and
Jean-Luc Nancy and translated a number of their texts. Book of Addresses (2005) gathers essays on
fictionality, sexual difference, psychoanalysis, and literary theory around the figure of the address
of speech and writing and To Follow: The Wake of Jacques Derrida (2010) collects ten years of her
writings on Derrida. She has also edited several collections of work by Derrida: A Derrida Reader:
Between the Blinds (1991), Without Alibi (2002), and Psyche: Inventions of the Other (2007). She is
a co-editor of The Seminars of Jacques Derrida series at the University of Chicago Press and is a
member of the editorial board of Oxford Literary Review.