Other Voices, v.1, n.1 (March 1997)
Copyright © 1997 by Joshua Schuster, all rights reserved
At the end of his life, poised to fulfill a sentencing of death by poison, Socrates finds himself most sincerely and serenely in a meditation on the relationship of truth and death. "[T]he one aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice for dying and death." (Plato 64) Socrates, who never takes his tenure in the world too seriously, finds the art of dying, of undoing the soul from the body, as the process of elevation to the consummation of truth. "It seems likely that we shall, only then, when we are dead, attain that which we desire and of which we claim to be lovers, namely, wisdom, as our argument shows, not while we live; for if it is impossible to attain any pure knowledge with the body, then one of two things is true: either we can never attain knowledge or that we can do so after death." (66e) Only the dead have access to pure knowledge. Thus the Platonic forms are the realm of the dead. Knowledge is entombed in the forms, only to be accessed by the soul, stripped of the world by death. Life itself is only a brief respite from death, for "it truly appears that the living never come from any other source than from the dead." (70d) Only the dead can bring the living into life. "What comes from being alive? Being dead. And what comes from being dead? One must agree that it is being alive." (71d) Socrates banks his confidence with death in the trust of the immortality of the soul, a commutable essence which is "deathless and indestructible." For Socrates, the "unified vision" of philosophy comes at the closing of the eyes in reaching death. The task of this essay will be to ask: why is philosophy so important that one would have to die to realize it?
The death debate occupies a unique vantage point from the birth of philosophy throughout ancient Greek thinking where the various approaches to dying mark distinctly different schools of thought. For example, Epicurus sides with Socrates, remarking that the good life is best at dying, such that "the art of living well and the art of dying well are one." (Epicurus 55) On the other hand, perhaps in an attempt to kill death (and dethrone Socrates), Aristotle refutes the primacy of death with the prime of life. "Then should we count no human being happy during his lifetime, but follow Solon's advice and wait to see the end? And if we should hold that, can he really be happy during the time after he has died? Surely that is completely absurd, especially when we say happiness is an activity." (Aristotle 361) For Aristotle, the soul feeds off the body, and the soul disintegrates along with the body's decay. It appears then, from the beginnings of philosophy, thought and interpretation of death cannot be severed from the understanding of life, and death plays the fundamental role in any epistemology reaching at the limits of truth.
So too, I think, death remains the imperative horizon today, the background limit against which we project a certain understanding of our own society. But, as any historian will immediately point out, both the role and reception of death has changed, perhaps even aged, and maybe the end is getting older. This does not mean we are getting better at death, nor is death getting tired of us; on the contrary. If anything, we are losing our ability to see death, to speak of an end, to resolve our own resolutions (and in that sense, perhaps death is gaining on us). Philippe Ariés, the eminent "historian of death," describes how societies in the Middle ages sought to "tame" their deaths by preparing for them; since people were usually forewarned of their coming deaths, one could await one's end, follow the proper protocol in order to be ready for God's judgment. Society also kept its preparatory role. The dying person's bedchamber was a public place to be entered by family and children (compare this to today's hygiene of keeping death as invisible as possible to the public, and most certainly away from children), and the dead co-existed much more plainly with the living, so that cemeteries were a commonplace in the plaza square of the church. Death was, in many respects, a collective arrangement.
In contrast, Ariés describes today's death as "wild". The calm with which death was once approached has given way to contemporary society's shock and shame towards death which finds itself both unnamable and forbidden to be comprehended. The secularization of death (Ariés, however, prefers not to argue that modern death is being de-Christianized) has produced contradictory practices; the death business has boomed, particularly in America where mortuaries vie for advertising space, while dialogue on death has been suppressed, and public mourning is seen as unacceptable, an inability to properly cope. Not only does secular culture have a very difficult time of speaking about death, but in addition the language by which we speak of death is now inseparable from medical discourse, such that the statistics of "vital signs," health insurance plans, and cataloging and codifying death as constituted by a vast array of diseases are the only vocabularies with which death is condoned to speak. Ariés correctly points out that the space of death has moved from the dramatic place of the home and community to the undramatic, antiseptic, and sanitized hospital.
[T]hose more involved in modernity ... come to die in the hospital because it has become inconvenient to die at home.Death is just the exhaustion and failure of medical operations. Mourning in public is seen as bad taste; too much grieving arouses not empathy but repugnance. Funerals are marked mostly by formalities, the agenda is performed with rigidity (the dead make stiffs of everyone else); of primary importance is to show no feelings: one must act professional. However, forced mourning is the repression of mourning. We hide both the event and the meaning of death in institutions and silence, both of which support each other. In a recent issue of Newsweek, the issue of death graced the cover in tribute of the recently deceased Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. The only people who were permitted to discuss their deaths in the magazine were clergy or those who had AIDS or cancer. If we are to find a secular way of speaking about death, we must also approach death from a new in-road, from politics, to aesthetics, even by way of environmentalism and ethics.
Is my death possible?
But, since we have yet to ask, what is death? We have avoided asking for the simple reason that we do not know who to ask. Who could tell us, guide us to ask the right questions, lead us into familiarity which we presume corresponds with knowledge? Is there a question which can question the non-empirical, what is outside epistemology, what has no thought, what is at the limits of limits? It seems to me a philosophical commonplace now, as many claim, that "death can only be represented."  On one level, this assertion may be true, but in order to speak competently about the passage of dying, I must already have an understanding and recognition of death, a pre-theoretical understanding of death. This is already to suggest that death lurks not in representationality, but in between the spaces of what is representable.
When Heidegger reaches a crucial point in Sein und Zeit in which he seeks to link Dasein's possibility to the world as a whole, he begins the very questionable articulation of the authenticity of Dasein, a notable attempt to shift away from the Aristotelian "essence [ousia] is actuality [energeia]." The "ending" of Dasein, dying as constituting Dasein's totality, must be considered as both before and beyond representation. "In 'ending,' and in Dasein's Being-a-whole, for which such ending is constitutive, there is, by its very essence, no representing." (239) In the context of Heidegger's argument, death cannot be represented because, existentially, there is no dying "as," no dying for an Other that would take the Other's death away. Dying, or Being-towards-death, is purely individualistic or "non-relational"; dying individualizes Dasein, and as such dying is Dasein's ownmost possibility, so that "death is in every case mine, in so far as it 'is' at all." (239) Heidegger quotes the "is" to point out that death can only be understood as a possibility, a not-yet which precedes the ontic "is". Thus any existential analysis of death must precede a metaphysical or biological event of the "is" of death (another strike at Aristotle). "In dying, it is shown that mineness and existence are ontologically constitutive for death. Dying is not an event; it is a phenomenon to be understood existentially." (239) Events must "take place," but death is the non-place, the no-where which is non-being. Strictly speaking, dying reveals itself not as "is" but as is not. Thus the totality of Being is fundamentally linked to its own negativity, its own non-Being. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben will later attempt to decipher the meaning of this originary negativity. 
Mineness is my ownmost potentiality-for-Being, but this potentiality cannot cheat death, cannot "outstrip" its impending ending. "Thus death reveals itself as that possibility which is one's ownmost, which is nonrelational, and which is not to be outstripped." (239) Heidegger broaches the issue of mineness earlier precisely to designate what is at "issue." Mineness is what is at "issue" for me, which is my own Dasein, my own being-there. "That Being which is an issue for this entity in its very Being, is in each case mine." (212) Mineness is my Dasein, my hereness, as well as my orientation towards death. Mine is what is proper to me, my property; mineness is my immanence. However, mineness is not necessarily authenticity. Rather, mineness is the precondition of any Dasein to allow for the possibility of either authenticity or inauthenticity. A selection of activities Heidegger associates with inauthenticity--being busy, excited, interested, or ready for enjoyment--are telling examples (note hedonism is not directly linked with mineness nor with authenticity). One can never shake, escape, or "outstrip" one's mineness, though Heidegger asserts that "the They" [das Mann] do a fine job of avoiding addressing their fundamental mineness. Heidegger is not acting "selfish" here, nor is he positing mineness as the essence of a subject, but I think one can conclude that mineness is a form of self-ishness. Mineness is simply my state, or mood, of being here or there; thus by extension, mineness is the state of the unity of the mind and body, a self. This is to suggest the form and content of Being cannot be separated, that there is no Being without the mineness of my own Dasein, and that for any "me" to exist, one must already have a pre-theoretical understanding of mineness, and of death.
There is no death without mineness either. Only a being with mineness can die (much later Heidegger will later remark that animals do not die, they only perish). We cannot "give" someone our death since mineness is not something "I" can exist without; mineness is a given and not giveable. Heidegger does not insist as much on the prevalent usage of the term "mineness" as I do, but I find that Heidegger primarily approaches the thought of death through the position of mineness. This will effect a certain approach to limits in Heidegger's thinking. What is most mine, my ownmost possibility, is "the possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all." (242) What is most possible is my impossibility. Mineness is intimately linked both with what is most familiar and totally unfamiliar to me, my possibility and my impossibility, my unlimited limits. Thus there is no possibility without the impossibility of mineness. Any foundation of life must take the individual's fundamental orientation towards death as part of its practice. Every foundation of knowledge of oneself must take into account the fundamental orientation of that knowledge towards its own demise.
I want to compare this mineness with a certain possibility of the "we" in the writing of Foucault. "We" is read as "we humans," "the humanity of us," "our human being." Foucault absorbs much of the analytical strategy of Heidegger but presses some soft spots in Heidegger's elaborations in order to approach an array of implicit extremes. By Foucault's time, the Heideggerian rhetoric of "authenticity" had been abandoned by most as potentially fascistic, including Heidegger himself (although, of course, "everyone's" reasons are quite different, including Heidegger's). Heidegger also refrains from using the term "mineness" after his "turn" in an attempt to move away from the categories of human being and theorize about Being in general. But as I pointed out earlier, the concept of mineness, which precedes and founds the possibility of authenticity or inauthenticity, still remains as the proper appearance of humanity. Foucault begins here, with what Heidegger considers the proper property of humanity, but Foucault reconceptualizes the rift between mine-ness and they-ness. In Madness and Civilization Foucault argues that the social splitting of categories of "them" and "me" precondition a code, seen as a moral need, to identify and expel the Other. In his next major work, The Order of Things, Foucault unites the theme of "them" and "me" into the manifestation of the "we" which finds itself revealed by a certain historical conditioning.
In order for a notion of "us" to appear, the background of knowledge constituting fields must relay to the foreground a foundation for the ability of a particular historical practice to be disclosed. Foucault suggests it is only the conceptual field of modernity, beginning roughly at the end of the 18th century, which enables "humanity" to appear.
All knowledge is rooted in a life, a society, and a language that have a history; and it is in that very history that knowledge finds the element enabling it to communicate with other forms of life, other types of society, other significations: that is why historicism always implies a certain philosophy, or at least a certain methodology, of living comprehension (in the element of the Lebenswelt), of interhuman communication (against a background of social structures), and of hermeneutics (as the re-apprehension through the manifest meaning of the discourse of another meaning at once secondary and primary, that is, more hidden but also more fundamental). (Foucault, 1970:372-3)History is "enabled" by a certain set-up of a philosophy. Such a background arrangement allows for a particular realm knowledge to appear, to be speakable, to be comprehensible, to be knowable. "Living comprehension" presupposes the world as lived (Lebenswelt), as populated by agents who have the capacity of understanding. Comprehension is fostered by the intersubjective communicative ability of humans whose dialogue is only permitted within the bounds of social structures (language is an example of a social structure).  Only through the interpretation of manifest meanings (practices) can hermeneutics reveal the underlying and more foundational system of meaning (methods). Thus the background paradigm of the Lebenswelt, social structures, and fundamental interpretive methods allow for knowledge to be disclosed within a certain realm of living comprehension, interhuman communication, and meaning. We can only access the background from our foregrounded condition, and it would be a mistake to assume our knowledge of the world is not preconditioned by a certain arrangement of the ability to know.
What is just beginning to appear knowable is the end of a certain way of knowing. History is now confronting an end which is not its fully realized completion or totalizing closure but its undoing and dissolution. Foucault calls this conceptualizing of limits the "analytic of finitude," an analytical category which allows understanding to be revealed but remains as a finite conception from which understanding cannot escape. Foucault locates the initial conception of the analytic of finitude in Kant's epistemological questioning (and, although less direct, his ethical concern to treat man as an end). If for Kant, the question is, What are the limits of knowledge? What is it possible to know?, Foucault then asks, How is knowledge constituted by its own limits, limitations, and death? Just like Nietzsche's elaboration of perspectivism, and Heidegger's placement of death (finitude) within humanity such that the limits of knowledge link with the disclosure of the ability to know, Foucault remarks, "To be finite, then, would simply be to be trapped in the laws of a perspective...." (372) There is no universal or infinite intellection; our tools of understanding have limits, and when those limits are pressed the tools fall apart uselessly. And yet it is only with these same tools that we can construct our systems of knowledge. When we seek the fundamental foundations of knowledge we do not find stable absolutes, the essence of truth or Being, but, rather, the rubble of our own means of inquiry, the breaks and ruptures which are the instabilities that constitute the source of our ability to know. In the essay "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History," Foucault links his method to Nietzsche's strategy of genealogy: "The search for descent is not the erecting of foundations: on the contrary, it disturbs what was previously considered immobile; it fragments what was thought unified; it shows the heterogeneity of what was imagined consistent with itself." (147)
While Foucault is still initially gesturing at this genealogical method in The Order of Things, the "analytic of finitude" reveals that the human sciences are based on an underlying disjointed and discontinously folded method of constitution. As knowledge reaches towards its origins, its "accidentally" disrupts its foundations and shows that our limits of knowledge are caught up in their own dissolution. "[B]y rediscovering finitude in its interrogation of the origin, modern thought closes the great quadrilateral it began to outline when the Western episteme broke up at the end of the eighteenth century: the connection of the positivities with finitude, the reduplication of the empirical and the transcendental, the perpetual relation of the cogito with the unthought, the retreat and return of the origin, define for us man's mode of being." (335) By uncovering knowledge's own finitudes, one discovers that historical inquiry has constituted a subject called "humanity" on the limits of its own limits, that is, the finitudes themselves make humanity possible. The modern cogito addresses itself not in what it thinks, but what it does not think, what thought is unthought, and articulates itself in the elsewhere of thinking. Humanity finds the limits of its knowledge and the constitution of its being not in what is thought, but what is unthought. The unthought can be both the not-yet and the always-already thought, the not-yet knowable (and never to be known) which is the foundation and priority of all activity of knowledge. As understanding approaches its finitude, "modern thought is advancing towards that region where man's Other must become the Same as himself." (328)
Foucault praises linguistics and psychoanalysis as examples of thought at its limits which discovers at the center of knowledge not humanity, but a sort of anti-humanity, a dead end if you will. Both linguistics and psychoanalysis find humanity suspended in a web of language, a language which mediates humanity and allows humanity to constitute an image of itself. But language is not such a stable support network; rather language's promise of solidity is something like quicksand, an infinitely regressing system which cannot comprehend its own foundation since it has no center or originary meaning to rest on. "From within language experienced and transversed as language, in the play of its possibilities extended to their farthest point, what emerges is that man has 'come to an end', and that, by reaching the summit of all possible speech, he arrives not at the very heart of himself but at the brink of that which limits him; in that region where death prowls, where thought is extinguished, where the promise of the origin interminably recedes." (383) If humanity reveals itself only in and by language, humanity must accept a certain condemnation of silence to never be able to speak of its own origins and ends. Humanity is thrust into the foreground only to be distanced from its foundations, its background, a horizon which cannot speak and which, when approached, undoes thinking (as meaning is undone at the roots of language, the self at the roots of psychoanalysis), leaving only a horizon of the dead.
It is, then, in this context that Foucault speaks of humanity as a recent invention. Only with the elaboration of specific systems of thought which could inquire not into humanity's ideal or essence, but the functioning of the foreground and the silhouette of humanity against the enabling background. "We shall say, therefore, that a 'human science' exists, not whenever man is in question, but wherever there is analysis--within the dimension proper to the unconscious--of norms, rules, and signifying totalities which unveil to consciousness the conditions of its forms and contents." (364) The subject of humanity was constituted during a certain moment in history which "dissolved" language, that is, an era which knowingly constructed its understanding of humanity "objectively," in between the spaces of representationality which show how humanity is deployed. According to Foucault, the human sciences address humanity in so far as people live, speak, and produce (biology, philology, and economics), and create its model by isolating and questioning the functioning of humanity when the norms and rules break down, and on that basis rebuild knowledge by showing how a functional representation of humanity can come into being and be deployed (and thus, Foucault will later argue, perfect the techniques of normalization and socialized encoding of rules via totalizing methods of power).
As language is now re-coalescing at its limits, combining thought and unthought, the Other of knowledge must give itself over to the Same. Where the limits of thinking reveal its own basis as its foundational limitations, a new way of thinking is constituted which, as Levi-Strauss says, "dissolves humanity." Foucault writes, "Since man was constituted at a time when language was doomed to dispersion, will he not be dispersed when language regains its unity?" (386) The "death of man" seems a relatively peaceful event, not where humanity explodes with enormous violence, but a moment where humanity withdraws into the background such that a new array of knowledge can be foregrounded. Foucault does not yet have the advantage of a fully elaborated theory of language; however, if such a unity of language is not philosophized, humanity will forever find itself in a dying state, undoing itself by its own logic without our awareness. Foucault seems to ask that humanity die gracefully so that we can direct our energy to elaborating what is not yet thought, and approach a new horizon of articulation.
For first and foremost, the "death of man" marks the failure of the ability to meaningfully ask the question "What is the essence of humanity?" The absolute of humanity, the end of the meaning of being is no longer the issue. Foucault will later shift to speaking in terms of the making of a "subject" rather than the more vague notion of the "human sciences," and the death which we are witnessing in our era emphasizes the applicability of Foucault's theory to social re-evaluation. Such a death mandates new questions: How is a certain formation of humanity foregrounded? How are subjects made and how can they be changed? What is the relationship of the formation of the subject and truth? Out of the ashes of the "death of man" Foucault is able to move on and begin to question more how our basic concepts of the constitution of humanity were formed and, by understanding the historically changing ways of articulating a subject, one can slowly adjust one's own thinking to re-arrange the making of ourselves.
There continues an intensified orientation towards possibility and potentiality that the thought of the event (or the non-event as a non-taking place) of death, as our ownmost possibility, enables. Foucault does not seek a somber funeral or lament a sad goodbye but rather strives for a renewed intensification towards the unthought (as if dancing on humanity's grave). Or as an American Leftist, Joe Hill, commented, "Don't mourn, organize!" In the echo of this cry I'd like to discuss the writings of Jacques Derrida, who, discussing the logic of death, briefly articulated a statement on "The Ends of Man" early in his career, and only recently has rewritten a longer attempt to address the issue in the book-length essay Aporias. Both a pervasive unraveling of ends and a thinking at the limits of truth permeates Derrida's philosophy, motivating Derrida as well to consider the link between finitude and knowledge. Derrida tends to assume Heidegger's project while steering it away from any nostalgia for presence of Being, and to some extent, Derrida is not as sentimental concerning death as Heidegger. There is a hint of morbidity in the early Heidegger, and a silencing propheticism in his later writing, both of which Derrida disregards. Instead, Derrida invigorates his writing with the creativity of an aestheticist and a stylist. There is a certain liveliness, at times dynamically countered by a mournful lyricism, with which Derrida broaches death.
In the essay "The Ends of Man" Derrida, as with Foucault, begins with a consideration of the "we." Derrida also senses a tinge of a humanistic categorization in any theorizing from the "we" which tends to affirm a unity of knowledge and anthropology. Foucault is never addressed directly in the article, except for a citation as an epigram from the conclusion of The Order of Things, but a subtle critique of Foucault's "ends" does trickle through Derrida's readings. There is, however, no doubt that the two have deep affinities. For example, this sentence which Derrida floors with italic emphasis: "The thinking of the end of man, therefore, is always already prescribed in metaphysics, in the thinking of the truth of man," (Derrida, 1982:121) while highlighted by typical Derridean vocabulary, could just have easily come from Foucault's texts, perhaps in the section on the analytic of finitude. However, the title of Derrida's article already indicates a shift away from Foucault as it implicates a plurality: the ends of man. In Derrida's articulations, there is not one End, the completion of an act, the conclusion of a jury, the closing up of a shop. Such finality, the finished project, the mark of an absolute finitude, is scrupulously denied in Derrida's work, if at first to point out that such fame of an End always implies the causal relationship of a beginning, an origin, a center. To a certain extent, Foucault's book ends with The End. And at the end of The End: another beginning? Alas, that would merely repeat the same beginning-to-end ratio. Nietzsche enters repeatedly, endlessly here; the eternal return mimics the end as much as it absorbs it. For Derrida, The End is an open ended question: the ends are perhaps endless.
When Derrida turns to "Reading Us," however, his focus is on the ends of thinking in Heidegger. In the later writings of Heidegger, there is a tendency to privilege a circularity of discovery in the ontological redemption of "in my end is my beginning." Heidegger questions ends as a point of abandonment, a higher completion to be reached which overcomes a past so as to remove it, to leave behind one end for another. Instead, Heidegger wants to stay within a realm of both beginning and end, passively waiting for a nearer understanding of the nearness of beginnings and endings to appear, a nearness of presences, the Being of beings. Describing Heidegger's lineage of thinking, Derrida develops this theme very acutely:
In the thinking and the language of Being, the end of man has been prescribed since always, and this prescription has never done anything but modulate the equivocality of the end, in the play of the telos and death. In the reading of this play, one may take the following sequence in all its sense: the end of man is the thinking of Being, man is the end of the thinking of Being, the end of man is the end of the thinking of Being. Man, since always, is its proper end, that is, the end of its proper. Being, since always, is its proper end, that is, the end of its proper. (134)Heidegger does not posit a mere linear connection between beginning and end but rather implies the complicity of both in allowing for the thinking of Being to appear. The closer we get to the end, the closer we get to the beginning. The closer we get to closeness, the nearer we near the proper presencing of the end of thinking, which is the thinking of Being. A lingering conception of the "proper," which hints at essence, still remains in Heidegger's philosophy, the roots of which we noticed in his connection of mineness with my ownmost possibility of death. Yet Derrida is suspicious that the ends might meaningfully meet the beginnings in a fuller realization of the presencing of Being. "The end is in the beginning" is perhaps too explicitly tautological, and "risks sinking into the autism of closure" (135) Derrida warns. Derrida is doubtful of any "proper" foundation of humanity, and instead affirms a radically non-foundational notion of play as the de-focusing and deconstructing of stable essences.
However, Derrida will return to Heidegger's interest in the relationship of truth and death in a later work with a slightly different emphasis. Interestingly, Derrida's book Aporias includes, and sets himself off with, a critique of our eminent "historian of death" Philippe Ariés. Pouncing on Aris's lack of philosophical rigor, Derrida rightly points out that Ariés assumes we all know what death is and we can speak of death unproblematically and transparently. To rebound into a more philosophically demanding and nuanced notion of death, Derrida, without surprise, returns to Heidegger, who conceives of an existential analytic of death which necessarily already precedes any metaphysical or biological or historical account of death. But Derrida wants to emphasize a previously glossed over statement in Sein und Zeit. Derrida cites Heidegger's sentence on "[death] as the possibility of the impossibility of any existence at all" (242) as a paradoxical statement of possibility as impossibility. If such possibility is the condition of the ability to receive the disclosing of truth and of impossibility, then truth is bound up in its own paradox.
Derrida cites this "possibility as impossibility" as an aporetic moment. Aporia, from the Greek, means an inconclusive argument, a stalling point in thinking which provides no obvious solution, literally a non-passable situation, a place without pores [a-poria]. Derrida does not claim to be able to unblock the problem, if that is even desirable or possible, but enacts a circulation of questions to try to better understand the non-understandability of the aporia. "What is the place of this unique aporia in such an "expecting of death" as "expecting" the only possibility of the impossible? Is the place of this nonpassage impossibility itself or the possibility of impossibility? Or is it that the impossible be possible? Is the aporia the impossible itself?" (Derrida, 1993:73) Derrida clearly sees no gain in dissolving or absorbing the impossible, rather he questions whether or not the place of impossibility can be located at all, and whether such a place of non-placeability is already involved in the constitution of any place. There is no place without the possibility of its displacement. In this approach, Derrida does not give the Other over to the Same but attempts to incorporate the Other as Other, the impossibility as possibility.
Thus, if "death is possibility par excellence" (63), and possibility is always bound up in impossibility, then death is truly the aporetic experience par excellence. One, in fact, never experiences death as death, rather one only "awaits" death at the limits of truth, waiting for the arriving of the ending. The question of whether I can die at all, "Is my death possible?", is now re-posed at the limits of the impossible.
For, if death is indeed the possibility of the impossibility and therefore the possibility of appearing as such of the impossibility of appearing as such either, then man, or man as Dasein, never has a relation to death as such, but only to perishing, to demising, and to the death of the other, who is not the other. The death of the other thus becomes again "first," always first.... The death of the other, this death of the other in "me," is fundamentally the only death that is named in the syntagm "my death." (76)My death is an impossibility: I cannot die alone. I can only know of the other's death such that I die as other, that the other's death in "me" is my ownmost possibility as impossibility; death is the absolute which gives me over to the other. Dying as other is my ownmost possibility of my impossibility, my playing out of the aporetic moment. If the death of the other is always "first," Derrida suggests one can take into consideration an "originary mourning" as a foundation of the constitution of truth; perhaps here we see a glimpse of an ethics of death, of the inextricable co-mingling of self and other (why shouldn't we mingle at this funeral?) at the limits of one's ownmost possibility, what Maurice Blanchot calls an "unavowable community" of the sharing of dying.  While we are a long way away from any workable everyday ethics here, there is nonetheless a real interest in opening up the possibility of locating a common space for what we all share in our separations from which we are further separated, our ownmost possibility of otherness. The shift of emphasis away from Heideggerian proper property to impossible possibility, from withdrawl into listening to awaiting and interactivity highlight a renewed attempt at thinking within and beyond the limits of metaphysical ontology. Awaiting one's own death, and death as such as the dying of the other are the irreducible aporetic situations which follow from possibility as impossibility, from the relationship of truth as untruth. For Derrida, possibility as impossibility is the definition of deconstruction par excellence, and much of Derrida's philosophy can be seen as a permutation on this theme.
We see in Derrida's recent work concerning the issue of death a still precariously involving attempt to articulate the features and fractures of what passes between representation, the pre-theoretical as before the foregrounding of understanding. Today, there continues a vastly growing philosophical and social interest in these limits, such that we are witnessing a sort of dawn of the dead. However, in each of the three philosophers there is not an attempt at humanizing death but of a premonition of death as what undoes humanity. And if we listen, if we re-make, if we attempt the impossible, only then does death reveal itself as a generative act. It is in this generation to come that I think exhibits itself so hopefully in Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida, three thinkers for whom death is what is most intimate. At stake is precisely this question of intimacy, such that thinking towards what is unthought, while revealing what is our ownmost possibility, also brings us closer in belonging to such possibility, a belonging to what we can most know about ourselves among one another. At the limits of a will to knowledge, then, death and the limits of truth must meet in a meeting which can never take place. We, busy unlearning and unthinking the world, cannot leave its completion to the dying.
1 See, for example, the introductory statement of Death and Representation, eds. Sarah Webster Goodwin and Elisabeth Bronfen (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).
2 Giorgio Agamben's major philosophical work, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity, addresses this relationship directly. Agamben begins with a hint from Heidegger, who writes in On the Way to Language, "Mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do so. But animals cannot speak either. The essential relation between death and language flashes up before us, but remains still unthought." (107-8) Accepting the task of thinking what is unthought, Agamben performs an eloquent close reading of the thematics of death in Heidegger and Hegel, while relating death to Voice and negativity. Agamben's analysis is profound and demanding and while I introduce his work here only in a footnote, his understanding partially guides me though my essay.
3 The similarities here between Foucault and Jürgen Habermas should be immediately noticeable. While the two certainly differ in consideration of the ends of the lifeworld, there is certainly an affinity between the two in considerations of background and foreground interpretation. In my opinion, there is evidence here that Foucault anticipated a good deal of Habermas's position and already applies a sophisticated critique of Habermas's account, an elaboration on the reclaimation of the enlightenment which pays little attention to the notion that the foundations of the enlightenment presuppose and intend their own dissolution (Adorno did not fail to argue this as well).
4 In The Unknowable Community Blanchot quotes Jean-Luc Nancy: "If the community is revealed by the death of the other person, it is because death is itself the true community of mortal beings: their impossible communion. The community therefore occupies the following singular space: it takes upon itself the impossibility of its own immanence, the impossibility of a communitarian being as subject." (10-11) Blanchot takes as his resources the work of Georges Bataille, Marguerite Duras, along with the recent writings of Jean-Luc Nancy, in an attempt to articulate what cannot be avowed, a "transmission of the untransmittable." (18) It is Bataille who first addresses this unspeakable communality as "the negative community: the community of those who have no community." (24) Bataille's interest in death is well known, particularly in relation to the transgressive, but Blanchot is interested here in perhaps a latent and tacit ethics of the co-responsibility of death groping around in Bataille. Interestingly, Blanchot and Agamben both orient themselves towards a consideration of negativity at the same time in the 1980's. Agamben's most widely acclaimed work, The Coming Community, picks up where Nancy and Blanchot leaves off.
Agamben, Giorgio, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1991).
Ariés, Philippe, Western Attitudes Toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, tr. Patricia M. Ranum (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975).
Aristotle, "Nichomachean Ethics," in Selections, tr. Terence Irwin and Gail Fine (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995).
Blanchot, Maurice, The Unavowable Community, tr. Pierre Joris (Barrytown: Station Hill Press, 1988).
Derrida, Jacques, "The Ends of Man," in Margins of Philosophy, tr. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).
-----. Aporias (Stanford: Stanford University Press,1993).
-----. "Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok," tr. Barbara Johnson, in Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok, The Wolf Man's Magic Word, tr. Nicholas Rand (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986). Derrida discusses the psychology of mourning, the crypt, and the living dead in this introduction.
Epicurus, Letters, Principle Doctrines, and Vatican Sayings, tr. Russel M. Geer (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1964)
Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things (New York: Random House, 1970).
-----. "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History," Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, tr. Donald Bouchard (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1977).
-----. Interview, "An Ethics Of Pleasure," conducted in English by Stephen Riggins on June 22, 1982 in Toronto. Foucault Live (New York: Semiotext(e), 1996).
Heidegger, Martin, selections of "Being and Time," in Existentialism: Basic Writings, eds. Charles Guignon and Derk Pereboom (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1995).
Newsweek, "Teaching Us How to Die," November 25, 1996.
Plato, "Phaedo," Five Dialogues, tr. G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981).
Error. Page cannot be displayed. Please contact your service provider for more details. (31)