Derrida — Survival in Between Traces and Ashes

Simone A. Medina Polo
11 min readMar 1, 2022
Jacques Derrida

[Note: This is the script of an old YouTube video I made in 2018:]


In 1870, with the capture of Napoleon III by the Prussians as well as a change in direction and interests away from military conquest, the transition from the Second Empire to the Third Empire of France saw a change in attitude to its colonial practices. I want us to pay close attention on Algeria for a moment, for it had been under been under French influence and domination which reflected on the legal and sovereign status of the Muslim and Jewish locals. 1870 is an important year for Algeria, for one of France’s ministers Adolphe Crémieux sough to do away with the military regime present at the time in order to make way to the full assimilation of Algeria with France — thereby making way to a more subtle form of colonial power over local administration. With the implementation of the Crémieux decrees, which granted full French citizenship to Algerian Jewish folk, but not so much Muslims.

In their book The Philosophy of Derrida, Liam Kavanagh and Mark Dooley are correct to begin their introduction by addressing this situation as it came to affect philosopher Jacques Derrida. In 1940, France gave way to the government of Marshall Philippe Pétain under the influence of Nazi Germany following France’s defeat — this came to be known as the Vichy government, which overturned the claim to citizenships by Algerian Jews and which introduced segregation laws:

On the first day of school in 1942, the twelve-year-old Jacques Derrida was expelled from the Lycée de Ben Aknoun, near El-Biar in Algeria… all Jews were prohibited from working in the liberal professions, and Jewish children were expelled from elementary and secondary schools to meet segregationist quotas. The decision by the Vichy administration at once denied the Jewish community their right to citizenship and identity, while cynically unleashing the officially sanctioned anti-Semitism that followed (The Philosophy of Derrida, 1).

Towards the end of his life in his last interview, Derrida revisited the event while contextualizing his family’s place in Algerian society at the time:

A series of contingencies have made of me a French Jew from Algeria born in the generation before the ‘war of independence’…. I was part of an extraordinary transformation of French Judaism in Algeria: my great grandparents were still very close to the Arabs in language and customs. At the end of the nineteenth century, in the years following the Crémieux decree of 1870, the next generation became more bourgeois… Then came my parents’ generation: few intellectuals, mostly shopkeepers… Then came my generation (a majority of intellectuals: liberal professions, teaching, medicine, law, etc.)… It was with me — I’m hardly exaggerating — that ‘mixed’ marriages began (Learning to Live Finally, 35–36).

Deconstruction — or the Doing and Undoing of Identity

Today we are going to be learning about philosopher Jacques Derrida and deconstruction, a discipline his associated with as a central figure. Kavanagh and Dooley make an important emphasis over the nature of Derrida’s project — namely, that memory and mourning are the torsion of an impossible tension that Derrida seeks to articulate, the work of mourning “is the desire both to keep [tradition] and to let go… [in order] to do justice to our [disjointed] identities” (The Philosophy of Derrida, 17). The doing and undoing movement of identity is key to understanding deconstruction and what it seeks to articulate as survival (Positions, 10).

But it may be helpful to return to language — because you know Derrida loves to fuck around with language, and his appropriation of it is often regarded basically unreadable to anyone, so maybe language will be important in this project too. In Monolingualism of the Other, for example, Derrida presents us with a declaration that reflects this logic of doing and undoing: “I have one language; it is not mine” (Monolingualism of the Other, 1). What makes this so? For Derrida, language is a mediating point for the interplay of identity and difference — we determine and contrast things and experiences through language. And in his personal case, the French language acts a Hegelian coincidence of opposites — by this, I mean that the French language the tension of the condition of the (im)possibility of identity: that Derrida’s identity is only possible in French, yet this mediation by language implicitly declares to Derrida that to be French is not to be Algerian. One can see, especially considering Derrida’s place in history, how identity is not such a self-evident and total thing given how it can be taken away at any contingent turn.

Let us consider, how can you write an autobiography under these terms? Derrida, for example, explicitly refused to write such a thing because the autobiographies write under the pretense that they have fully integrated identity — but since identity is not quite self-evident, the totality of identity is constantly deferred, displaced, done and undone (full of gaps and idiosyncrasies as a split internal at its core).

Autobiography and Time Out of Joint

See, Derrida is a pretty deep dude — you could probably say he is too deep for autobiographies. Autobiography depends on the recollection of memory and a given conception of time-experience. Memory and time-experience in Derrida are non-linear, elusive as gaps and contradictions permeate them. Let us conceive the present time — we often consider the present and presence as the center of temporality and space. Derrida is concerned with how the present and presence are given to experience, because he notes that these terms are supplemented by the past and absence. The identity and stability of the present and presence are set at a tension which is always already a part of the identity of them.

Suppose you look at your old school and decide to go visit — the building may be the same or it might have changed, but your present experience of it will be contoured by absences. Like friends who are gone, or teachers that are no longer there, or literally physical aspects of the building that have been renovated.

“The other is in oneself” as such “the present is the past”, in that the past lingers as the haunting contour in the presence of the present as such such that the present spills out of itself… in traces, the present is always already marked by the past as unborn dead time (Of Grammatology, 68 -71). Based on this predicament of time out of joint Derrida develops hauntology, where Derrida stressed that the key aspect to deconstruction rests in the notion of traces, excesses to the present that contour the way the present is present by way of what is absent — lost futures are a good example for this, when we see possibilities lost and what-ifs from which nothing can come to fruition. In various instances, Derrida makes reference to ashes and cinders to figure this kind of experience, as they are traces of something no longer there. In consideration of the Holocaust and doing a reading of the poetry by Paul Celan, Derrida tries to articulate this notion of traces.

Paul Celan and Traces

At the core of Derrida’s reading of Celan rests the mark of Paul Celan imprinted upon the German Language (Sovereignties in Question, 97–107). “To leave traces in the history of the French language — that’s what interests me” (Learning to Live Finally, 37). Celan, a Jewish poet born in Romania, living in France, and writing in German, engraved himself in marking a language fetishized by nationalism and a homeland sense of origin to destiny, a language which, by belonging to the Other, imposed an alienating and intolerable silence upon which the poet wrote. Derrida addresses Celan as an event and that through Celan’s signature-event “something [happened] to the German language” (Sovereignties in Question, 99). Going back to the interview, “Language is Never Owned”, Evelyne Grossman interviews Derrida to clarify and elaborate on some of Derrida’s claims in his reading of Celan’s “Shibboleth” and Monolingualism of the Other. There are two central questions that Grossman brings to Derrida’s attention: “the experience of language” in Celan’s work, a certain way of “inhabiting the idiom…” and Derrida’s claim, on the basis of Celan, that “there is a Multiplicity and migration of languages, certainly, and within language itself” (Sovereignties in Question, 99).

In Celan’s poem, why does “Shibboleth”, the Hebrew term, as well for other terms like the Spanish “No pasaran” remain untranslated — and they are translatable — to what end is their respective sovereignty asserted? To bring the question of difference? Of non-belonging? Of estrangement or alienation? Derrida suggests that the importance of the untranslated rests on the singularity of its being there. having meaning, standing there in the intersectional historical, political, and linguistic borders (Sovereignties in Question, 30). Derrida explores Celan’s situation as “hand-to-hand, bodily struggle” in tampering with (a) language which he could never appropriate — this comes by way of the touch [touche] in which Celan both respects the idiomatic spirit of the language and respects the sense in which he displaces the spirit of the language: “…even if, within the German language, he welcomed a different kind of German” (Sovereignties in Question, 99–100). As a German poet who is not a German national, with cultural, historical, religious, and linguistic backgrounds Celan puts forward a tension in the language in which he dwells in himself and in his mark, yet he cannot call the language home — a migrant in language with migrant language.

Survival, Testaments, and Secrets

All the concepts that have helped me in my work, and notably that of the trace or of the spectral, were related to this “surviving” [fortleben] as a structural and rigorously originary dimension. It is not derived from either living or dying. No more than what I called “originary mourning”, that is, a mourning that does not wait for the so-called “actual” death (Learning to Live Finally, 26).

To start interpreting this quote above, we have to keep in mind that after his last interview, Derrida regarded it with a peculiar attitude. He was certain people would read him as barely surviving and already dead — in pleasure and disheartenment, he would refer to it as an obituary (Learning to Live Finally, 16–17). Derrida had two hypotheses he put forward in the interview: he expressed this double feeling that, on the one hand, one has not begun to read him, and that, on the other hand, shortly after his death there will be nothing left. “Nothing except what has been copyrighted and deposited, I swear to you, I believe sincerely and simultaneously in these two hypotheses” (Learning to Live Finally, 33–34). Copyrighted and deposited in an economy of the archive — as always in the back of the head of Derrida, he is concerned with the Gutenberg effect on having a legacy or any trace leftover.

This becomes a central issue in Archive Fever, where we may consider: “the archive takes place at the place of originary and structural breakdown of the said memory” (Archive Fever, 11). As far as Derrida tells us of the archive and the secret, in the context of speaking on Helene Cixous’ archive: “In one sense a secret kept is always a secret lost. This is what happens in general in the places one calls library archives” (Geneses, Genealogies, Genres, & Genius, 20).

In this way, we may reassert that the figure of the Gutenberg revolution is relevant to Derrida’s concern. Derrida makes a distinction within the notion of the archive between an archivable content of the past and the structure of the archivable content (Archive Fever, 16–18). The latter pertains to the very frame with which we deposit content into the archive — the difference between the printing press or e-mail as structures for a variety of content. Derrida is interested in the dissemination and circulation of information, as well as its disruption.

What shall we make, then, of the theme of survival and learning-to-live [savoir-vivre] in the traces in Derrida’s last interview? What survives, what persists, and what remains as a leftover of the violence of the world testifies and attests to what Derrida calls the trace, the marks left in history, in language, and in our (inter)personal experience that act as a testament of the event — the living on, a continuation of life and surviving death [fortleben, überleben] (Learning to Live Finally, 26) As Derrida puts in Aporias: “survival [structures] every instant in a kind of irreducible torsion, the torsion of a retrospective anticipation that introduces the untimely moment and the posthumous in the most alive of the present living thing, the rearview mirror of a waiting-for-death [s’attendre-a-la mort] at every moment” (Aporias, 55).

It is around the secret that the rest of undecidability unfolds and structures itself around, that one is delivered with abysmal possibilities as one is handed down a message to pass along. As Derrida notes, in quotations, citations, and parenthesis of the spectral trace of our passing and that of others, to take responsibility for the name to which we are called upon to respond (The Politics of Friendship, 4–5; Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, 1–10). This concerns “the death of friends… both memory and testament” (The Politics of Friendship, 27), that we are left as witnesses who are under the pressure to gracefully care and speak of the name, of the event that has inscribed itself upon the surface of the earth — whether that meant a mysterious poet, a long-time faithful friend, or one’s own survival as an individual or as a generational voice we were a witness to (Sovereignties in Question, 97–99; Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, 14; Learning to Live Finally, 24–30).


The trace I leave signifies to me at once my death, either to come or already come upon me, and the hope that this trace survives me. This is not a striving for immortality; it’s something structural. I leave a piece of paper behind, I go away, I die; it is impossible to escape this structure; it is the unchanging form of my life. Each time I let something go, each time some trace leaves me, “proceeds” from me, unable to be reappropriated, I live my death in writing. It’s the ultimate test; one expropriates oneself without knowing exactly who is being entrusted with what is left behind. Who is going to inherit, and how? Will there even be any heirs?

The question is more relevant today than ever before. It preoccupies me constantly. (Learning to Live Finally, 32–33)

Deconstruction, at least for Derrida, is more than just looking at binaries in language and conceptual frameworks and undermining them. By bringing the margins into consideration — whether they are lost futures, silenced voices, mementos, even the subtle unconscious touches that have reframed language — Derrida’s work is more focused on the survival of an originary mourning, the open wound of a life that anticipates its end, but without resolution as it is shrouded by undecidability. In reading Derrida, we must be careful to declare a Definitive Derrida as we may drown him in an archival dissemination of information that reduces him to pure abstract theory.

Last May I attended the 6th annual Derrida Today conference. Insofar as my own work there was concerned, it was curious to be exploring the question of Derrida’s survival while being someone who never met him — I note this as in the conference I came across various acquaintances and colleagues of his that one of the central things that came from the experience was a certain degree of reminiscence and remembrance.

References and Citations

Derrida, Jacques. Adieu: To Emmanuel Levinas. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. U.S.A.: Stanford University Press, 1999. Print.

— — — — Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998. Print.

— — — -Geneses, Genealogies, Genres, & Genius: The secrets of the archive. Trans. Beverley Bie Brahic. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006. Print.

— — — — Learning to Live Finally: The last interview. Trans. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. New Jersey: Melville House Publishing, 2007. Print.

— — — — Monolingualism of the Other: or, The Prosthesis of Origin. Trans. Patrick Mensah. U.S.A.: Stanford University Press, 1998. Print.

— — — — Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. U.S.A.: John Hopkins University, Press, 1997. Print.

— — — — Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. U.S.A.: The Chicago University Press, 1981. Print.

— — — — Sovereignties in Question: The Poetics of Paul Celan, Ed. Thomas Dutoit and Outi Pasanen. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005. Print.

— — — — The Politics of Friendship. Trans. George Collins. New York: Verso, 2005. Print.

Dooley, Mark and Liam Kavanagh. The Philosophy of Derrida. Canada:McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007. Print.



Simone A. Medina Polo

Simone A. Medina Polo is a philosopher and an PhD candidate at the Global Centre for Advanced Studies for Philosophy and Psychoanalysis.