out of place


Jacques Derrida, age 20; Rosa Luxemburg, age 12.

In A Few Howls Again? Ulrike Meinhof’s relatively brief 5-year trajectory as a militant and prisoner lent itself to condensation in a short video loop. My current project on Luxemburg has the more difficult task of condensing her 25 years on the frontlines of left political resistance in many arenas – in fraught party politics, Marxist pedagogy, political journalism and scholarly writings, direct engagement with revolts, personal and political relationships and friendships, as well as years of incarceration as a political prisoner. [See my earlier post.]

Partway through the research on Luxemburg, a detour led me to the brilliant 2001 interview with Jacques Derrida in the book Philosophy in a Time of Terror, a book that should be read by anyone who takes  for granted the catch phrase 9/11. Reading this interview produced for me the strange sensation that if Luxemburg’s particular intelligence and prescience were transposed to 2001, she might have sounded something like the Derrida of that interview. The ghost of Derrida resonates today –especially in a moment of particularly egregious rogue state actions by the U.S., by Europe — with Luxemburg’s ghost in unexpected ways. Distanced by 60 years (Derrida was born 11 years after Luxemburg’s death), they nevertheless shared the spirit of positions on the need for theorizing justice beyond notions of national boundaries and national citizenship. In a schematic sense, for Luxemburg that meant an internationalism of the economically, socially, and racially oppressed; for Derrida, it meant articulating the urgent need for international justice in the face of growing nationalism and a simultaneous boundary-less movement of the algorithm. For me, it raises the question of overlapping two historical figures, temporally out of place, in one project.

Interestingly, they shared some formative traumas: Derrida’s childhood as a French Jew in Algeria; Luxemburg’s as a strongly identified Pole in a Warsaw under repressive Russification. Both were “out of place.”  Both were also forbidden to attend public schools at some points in their lives (for being Jewish, being a woman, being a Pole, etc.). For Luxemburg the Russian censorship sent her to underground meetings meant to sustain Polish culture, where the label of her religion (a Judaism she rejected from a young age and until her death) was subordinated to a diverse context that shaped the cosmopolitan outlook of rest of her life.

“Given all the colonial censorships, especially in the suburban milieu in which I lived, and given all the social barriers… the only option [to learn Arabic] was at school,” Derrida writes in Le Monolingualisme de l’autre, originally a lecture on mother and other tongues delivered in the United States. “The study of Arabic was restricted to school, but in an alien language, a strange kind of alien language as the language of the other, but then of course, and this is the strange and troubling part, the other as the nearest neighbour…For I lived on the edge of an Arab neighbourhood on one of those hidden frontiers that are at once invisible and almost impassable.”[From the review, “Algerian Derrida,” by David Tresilian of the 2012 Derrida: A Biography.]

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