Reading the Postcard

John Phillips

On “Envois,” the first section of Jacques Derrida’s The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987)



La Carte Postale de Socrate à Freud au-delà was first published in 1980.  It contains three key articles on Psychoanalysis as well as an extraordinary epistolary “preface” (to be discussed here).  The reading of Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (“To Speculate—On Freud” in four densely argued sections) and the reading of Jacques Lacan (“The Facteur de la Vérité or the “postman of truth”) are both classics and essential reading for an understanding of Derrida’s relation to psychoanalysis and its institutions and, thus, to institutions generally (so, yes, they’re just essential, then).  “Envois” is more interesting in some ways.  In what follows I propose a reading and offer a fuller interpretation based, this time, on the motif of the angel, which figures perhaps a little obscurely throughout Derrida’s text.  This is an expanded version of the paper I presented at the conference on “Reading the Postcard” that was held during a wonderful two days at Oxford earlier in April.  It incorporates aspects of the commentary on how to approach a reading of this endlessly productive text.



the telescopic soul or the episcopic gaze

John Phillips

“A ministering angel shall my sister be, where thou liest howling.” (Hamlet iv i)

I propose a reading of The Postcard that takes as a starting point the references to secrecy and to proper names.  The reading would attend especially to the motifs of the first and second person pronouns, the telescopic soul and the visible and invisible.  The aim is to begin unraveling a chain of difficult terms including sacrifice, translation, responsibility and the secret.  The aporia of responsibility, it seems, straddles two kinds of in-visible, the visible in-visible (which can be made visible) and the absolutely invisible (sonorous, musical, tactile, odiferous).  In The Gift of Death Derrida explores the realm out of which the secret would emanate.  The secret emanates as if from this realm of the absolutely other—a God of certain religions—who looks at me in secret because I don’t see him looking at me.  The God always speaks through an other: the messiah, the postman, the signified’s signified [the logos] or the signifier’s signifier [the phallus], the messenger of truth, the evangelist, the other’s other, the vicarious or parochial intermediary, the go between or in my example today, the angel.  On the basis of this “gaze,” which I don’t see, my responsibility is born.  In Gift of Death Derrida in his commentary on the Abraham’s sacrificial scene suggests that the gaze “singles me out” and institutes or reveals the “ca me regarde,” the “its my lookout,” my responsibility, even if I cannot see anything, and certainly not where this “its my lookout” comes from, “there where I cannot preempt by my own initiative whatever is commanding me to make decisions, decisions that will nevertheless be mine and which I alone will have to answer for” (The Gift of Death 90-91).  Here one is reminded of Kafka’s man from the country waiting a lifetime at the door of the law


I’ll start with a brief quotation from the letter, addressed to Dionysus and attributed to Plato, that Derrida discusses at length in “Envois”:

The greatest safeguard [phulakē] is to avoid writing and to learn by heart; for it is not possible that what is written down should not get divulged.  For this reason I myself have never yet written anything on these subjects, and no treatise by Plato exists or will exist, but those which now bear his name belong to a Socrates become fair and young.  Fare thee well, and give me credence; and now, to begin with, read this letter over repeatedly and then burn it up.   (Plato to Dionysus: 2314b-c)

The Greek term translated here as safeguard, phulakē, opens out into a network of interesting difficulties.  Beyond the grammatical context here the phulakē would on the one hand designate a personage, charged usually with watching out for or safeguarding a community or population.  Singularly it would be a watchman, a sentinel or even a guardian angel.  But it also designates the post itself and the place where this guarding is done.  In the Post Card Derrida links the post of phulakē to a moment in Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where Freud establishes, against a tradition that understands life in terms of strivings for self-preservation, self-assertion, mastery and dominance, the paradoxical thesis according to which life must be understood as the sum total of detours that an organism takes towards its proper destination in death.  “These detours on the path to death,” he writes, “may well be what gives us our present picture of the phenomena of life” (79).  What had always been interpreted as drives of self-preservation etc. turn out on the contrary, according to Freud, to be “partial” drives, “charged with the task of safeguarding the organism’s own particular path to death.”  A slightly puzzling sentence follows: “The fact that remains is that the organism wants only to die in its own particular way; and so these guardians of life [Lebenswachter], too, were originally satellites of death [Trabanten des Todes]” (79).  The formula gives rise to what in The Post Card becomes the aporetic formulation life-death, according to which in order to live one must die a little and in order to die one must live a little.  This complicity between watching over life while orbiting it with death would thus be composed of satellites of love and satellites of war in correspondence, turning and returning and thus engaged in a deferred relay, one passing itself off as the other and vice versa across an otherwise unbridgeable divide.  In consolation the drives have immediately divided themselves into two groups, thus amounting to what Freud calls “a kind of fluctuating rhythm” that characterises the inner life of an organism.  He recalls this rhythm in a kind of elegant narrative motif: “one group of drives goes storming ahead in order to attain the ultimate goal of life at the earliest possible moment, another goes rushing back at a certain point along the way in order to do part of it all over again and thus prolong the journey” (81).  This scene thus resonates with the scene evoked by Plato’s letter, according to which the greatest safeguard against having one’s words turned against one, would be to put them into the name of another.  Plato goes storming ahead in order to attain the ultimate goal in life, while Socrates goes rushing back in order to do part of it all over again, and thus prolong the journey.   


In a certain way, The Post Card encourages us to read these two resonating scenes together, to read the phulakē with the satellites of love and war, to read the police alongside the military, the guardian angel as the fallen angel and the angel of death:                  

Phulakē: la garde but also le garde, the sentinel (want to relate this word to what is said in Beyond … about the Lebenswachter, the guardians of life who are also the satellites of death).  Phulakē also says the place of guarding, the prison, for example, and then surveillance, defense, protection, etc.  The law and the police are not far off. (PC 82).  

The motif of guardianship extends beyond the immediate evocation of legal or militarized institutions to the kinds of activities associated with the protection of traditions, to the guardians of tradition: professors, academics, librarians, doctors and doctoral students, all of whom are “terribly curious about correspondences … curious about texts addressed, destined, dedicated by a determinable signer to a particular receiver” (62).  The two scenes correspond with or to each other on the basis of the condition of possibility for the functioning of postal systems.  The correspondence rests on what “Envois” refers to as a postal tradition.  Outside this tradition there would be exactly “no relation” between Plato and Freud.  Nonetheless we are encouraged to read in the two scenes and their correspondence the compulsive repetition of what readers of Derrida recognise today without much difficulty as an instituting exclusion, the exclusion of the condition of possibility of this kind of correspondence.  Outside the postal system Plato and Freud, like Socrates and Plato, would be without relation, maintained at an infinite distance. 


We increasingly have to imagine the whole epoch of the letter, from Plato to Freud and beyond, opening up to a new era heralding faster angels, but still on the model of the post.  For this acceleration of angels, far from inaugurating a new era, often seems to repeat the central scenes of the old one ever more quickly, with more desperation, more intensity.  This somehow makes the ancient single sex relationship between Plato and Socrates all the more timely and up to date, as if we are all at once storming ahead to reach our destination while at the same time rushing back in order to do it all over again.  This is what the “envoy” dated 30 August implies (combining at once the doctrine of the drive with the system of suction tunnels called the pneumatique):

I had convinced you, with all kinds of details, on the same road, “galleries” succeeding one another at a great pace (like this summer, in the other direction, at night, I was driving like a madman, you were waiting for me and I was at the end of my strength, I no longer knew when I was in the tunnel or out of it, I called you from every café) that we were living Tristan and Yseult, that is Tancredi and Clorinda in an epoch when telecommunicative technology made all of that untimely, absolutely impossible, anachronistic, outmoded, out of synch, forbidden, grotesque, “old hat.”  Apparently.  For the opposite is also true: we would have been, yes, impossible without a certain progress of telemachination, acceleration in the speed of angels (all angels, all the messengers we have provided by slipping a coin into the automatic: we could never have gotten away with the manual, supposing that, okay), not a day without a fort:da plugged into computers of the nth generation, great grandsons of computers, descendents of the pioneers (44)

And so a third scene (or an impossible first one) imposes itself, or rather displaces itself, into the other two (the Platonic phulakē and the Freudian drive for life-death), the scene of the excluded or disguised postal relay that keeps the other two scenes up and running.  “By hiding this condition from itself,” an envoy dated 5th September informs us, “by living it as a quasi-natural given, this epoch guards itself, it circulates within itself, it automobilizes itself and looks at itself, up close to itself, in the image that it sends back to itself—by the post precisely” (62).   



Perhaps the easiest of Derrida’s works to read would be “Envois.”  But perhaps it is (they are?) the most difficult, for the same reason.  Leaving aside the question of narrative, the build up or gathering of clues and the repetition of motifs (I’ll come back to this question), for a moment, we can say that, on one side: each entry, each of the cartes, can be read, easily, in relation to the others and in relation to an already extant oeuvre as well as an oeuvre still to come, in terms of repetition, as parts of an otherwise non-existent whole and manifesting the aporetic figure of synecdoche, which insists throughout.  Derrida’s singular argument—and its discrete parts—relived or re-edited into books, is each time restated in the most elliptic, most economical ways, but unmistakably: a) the repetitions and their differences, the dissemination, of a generalized iterability and its prefaces, pretexts, outworks and posts, its envoys and tornadas, its returns and retakes; b) the address to the absolute alterity of the future addressee, impossible, yes, but necessary; c) the signature and countersignature, the relation to death; d) the temporality of an absolute past and the ineluctable future to come, each the same as repetition of the same, already no longer and not yet; e) the logos as the truth that speaks to itself; f) the example and the aporia of exemplarity, according to which the example exceeds the law of which it is the example.  And grounding it all is this sustained archeography* of the postcard itself and its surprising example, on which the image and the letter make all kinds of love, or at least aspire to it. 


(*In Blanchot’s definition: “Archeography is the invented word we suggest to designate the analysis and interpretation of words based not only on their etymological roots but also on the original graphic form of the letters of the alphabet, as it was first encountered in proto-Sinaitic script, whose discovery we described, and the origins and development of that first alphabet. The proto-Sinaitic alphabet pioneered the combination of image and letter, of pictogram and alphabetic sign. It can be read from the shape of the image or from the sound it has come to represent, which incorporates the spatial and pictorial dimension of the sign. […]  Archeography does not reject etymology, it complements it through a dialogue and a dialectic that plays a game between ‘the eye and the ear,’ in which the eye listens and the ear can see clearly what it is all about.”)


It seems then that no commentary would be worth the effort, for could a more simple, more straightforward, more economical commentary be made beyond the seemingly endless restatements that the envois themselves produce?  At best such an attempt would look and sound like yet another postcard.  These are then the easiest but most difficult to read (certainly on both counts least bearable) of Derrida’s texts: what could be more superfluous than yet another patient re-contextualization of the fragment in relation to its (proper, well-formed?) argument from, say, Speech and Phenomena (the internal dialogue and the relation to death) or Of Grammatology (the logic of the hinge, the temporality of an absolute past and a future that will never be present) and from Dissemination, the outwork that is not a preface but which pre-faces the book that will not have been a book; the model of the book as the model of what the book itself models, the thing itself, its outside, its hors-livre, the hors-texte?  So, still on one side, then, the issues of prefacing and the text outside of the work, resonates with the “Envois” in terms of their own perverse prefacing and post-facing, their turning and turning again. 


But on the other side, each envoy is dated, reminding us once again of an imperative that insists on the irreplaceable address of each example.  Like each of the great readings, the great texts, that precede and also post-date the Postcard, “Envois” carries out in its own peculiar way the deconstruction of western metaphysics: “Envois” does not deconstruct western metaphysics but rather helps its own deconstruction along, nudges it forward insistently in letters.  Compare it, for instance, with “Outworks, Prefacing” from Dissemination, that book’s disingenuous preface: “Envois” perhaps has a family resemblance (though each of these texts puts both the concept of family and the concept of resemblance into deeply troubled water).  In that text Derrida draws attention to a fundamental division of metaphysics and onto-theology, the division between truth, which emerges as a divine creation, and its finite reflection in the ideal model of the book:

The Model of the Book, the Model Book, doesn’t it amount to the absolute adequation of presence and representation, to the truth (homiosis or adaequatio) of the thing and of the thought about the thing, in the sense in which truth first emerges in a divine creation before being reflected by finite knowledge? Nature, God’s Book, appeared to the medieval mind to be a written form consonant with divine thought and speech, true to God’s attentive understanding [entendement, literally “hearing”] as Logos, the truth that speaks and that hears itself speak, the locus of archetypes, the relay point of the topos noetos or the topos ouranios.

This Logos, which speaks and immediately hears itself speak is exactly what is opened up, no longer a relay point but a delayed relay between Plato and Socrates, on the Paris Postcard.  The outwork, as preface or outside text, in relation to the text itself, the main body, would thus operate in accordance with the difference between Plato and Socrates, whose writing would be true to the words of a text as yet unwritten, in a relay between one and the other. 


Perversely the key references, those references without which “Envois” would remain impenetrable, take us to essays published behind (but written before) them, post-envois, one might say: the reading of Freud’s fort-da episode and perhaps the key moment or event par excellence, Lacan’s decision to interpret Poe’s purloined letter with the motto: “A letter always arrives at its destination.”  Lacan supports this by an insistence on the indivisibility of the letter (the signifier), thus figuring it as or at least in the topos noetos itself, the presence of a thought that can converse with itself in the present, thus reproducing a classical logocentrism in the name of the phallus and giving the world the notorious figure of phallogocentrism.


“Envois” dramatizes, demonstrates, performs, argues, explores, analyses and puts into critique (without ever once being reducible to any one of these classical procedures) the counter-motto: It is absolutely necessary that a letter always might not arrive at its destination.  Furthermore, a letter is—always was already—divided and in pieces, some of which might make it but some of which always (and always also all of which) might not (by virtue, inescapably, of the difference a  letter must always have from itself in its repetition).  This doesn’t of course imply that letters or at least some parts of letters never do arrive: this arrival in some versions of the scene in the Postcard evoke a terror, a horror, a holocaust, mass murder.  But the arrival and its possible non-arrival approximate without being either metaphorical or literal the condition described again as life-death in the readings of Freud’s Beyond that follow.  This life death as its very a priori condition survives, lives on, in the essential delay without which nothing ever arrives anywhere anyway.  So this scene that is played out again and again, a quasi or neo, maybe paleo-Freudian repetition compulsion that marks the historicity of western metaphysics and onto-theology, can stand in where no scientific or metaphysical, no religious and no empirical formulation would be adequate; because each time the formulation would once again fall into the aporias of the postal relay that “Envois” compulsively repeats.


The following considerations play some part in the reading that follows:


An addresser addresses an addressee by letter, sending himself off into the calculated chances of a postal system with the aim of connecting sometime and perhaps awaiting a response sometime later.  The fictional preface simulates while referencing the epistolary form--i.e., of the novel but also intellectual letters (e.g., Plato’s, St Paul’s epistles, Hegel’s, Freud’s to Fleiss, supposedly the first institution of the psychoanalytic transference).  “Envois” simulates the idiom but mixes the fictional into the biographical in a kind of autography.  This is what allows one to write oneself off, to get caught up in the testamentary character of writing, which implies in principle and in fact the death of the signer.  The conceit of the epistolary novel: the writer long gone, the letters discovered bound and partially burned or otherwise corrupted, vital clues re-constituted in the narrative irony of the fiction. Whose voice addresses whom?


The addressee would seem to be a non-specified other (we have never met, only written): the absolute other or the futural addressee whose alterity—whose otherness—remains absolute.  But not only that, there are particulars too, unnamed but dotted instead with clues, titles, destinations.  And the numberless dead, killed off by their implied exclusion in the dreadful holocaust of the post.  The addresser, but of course, is the signatory JD, Jacques, Derrida etc (and all the names, the anagrams, the hypograms, the engrams, syngrams and other kinds of cipher that deliberately or by chance irrupt in the text).  Though sometimes Plato too addresses Socrates, addresses Freud, addresses Derrida; Socrates replies; Freud addresses the grandson, the step son, the daughter, Lacan; Kant addresses Hegel; Heidegger addresses Freud, addresses Derrida.  The exchange of addresses would also in this way seem both specific and yet numberless, as if the voice gives to itself the indeterminacy of the one addressed, giving itself up by sending itself off.


The postcard: the specific one found in Oxford, drawn by Matthew Paris, in which Plato behind a seated Socrates dictates to him while pointing somewhere off beyond the stage.  The scene is a kind of cipher, standing in as the privileged example here for the primal (and thus secondary) scene of metaphysics itself and its singular deconstruction.  The postcard seems to operate as a simple generator of extraordinarily complex aporias.  The postcard depicts the aporia of metaphysics no less.  But that’s not all.  The postcard itself, its recto-verso, figure-text, and visible-intelligible doubling, already in its performative function as post card carries out the same scene, the scene it depicts and reproduces in iterations in principle ad infinitum.  The picture side depicts the postal system and the postcard operates according to the rules it depicts.  Some of the “letters” can be read as the verso (or recto) of these cards, reproducing themselves ad infinitum but establishing the peculiar singularity protecting each time a particular date though also sometimes failing to do this.   


As Freud had taught in The Interpretation of Dreams, one overdetermined scene can be conflated with another or with many others in order usually to disguise an unbearable scene however now displaced onto and safely submerged in these condensed others.  Plato addressing Socrates can also be read as Freud addressing his grandson.  All address not only their particular determined or vaguely gestured to addressee but also always to the other who would ultimately, as in a romantic fiction, finish this yearning off, finish this not-quite-it off.  The letter dated 4 September 1977, for instance, folds a dinner discussion about orgasm and love, the thought of the imaginary lover, into Plato’s gesturing, with his finger, beyond the scene that he otherwise commands (page 60-61).  “Envois” indeed to all appearances functions in ways that can be compared with the work of dreams, the dreamwork: the oneiric and eroticized language and figurative ingenuity of dreams follows certain patterns and the “Envois” does not fail to evoke both their enigmatic elegance and systematic obsession. 


But these fragments are fragments, obscure references, displaced echoes of other texts, mainly by Jacques Derrida.  They thus would seem to have produced an oneiric erotic reconstitution of the oeuvre.  The postcard is a privileged pretext for an oeuvre that reconstitutes itself more or less entirely as pretext.  There are repetitions from the works (echoes of each one of the major readings occur throughout), there are evocations of the time of the writing as well as the time of possible reception; there are references to remembered childhood experience (“by the age of ten I had already understood nothing”).  But now this pronominal I, which recurs and already can be attached to so many nominals and kinds of nominals (names, nouns, signatures, addresses), leads to a further dissemination of the pronominal itself:


I, you, he, she, it, we, you, they: each plays significant and sometimes confusing games amongst the envois; sometimes the I becomes a we (is this we then the I-you, then which one, and who is the they?  Paying attention to the mode of these pronouns would be essential if we really wanted to maintain the grip of our wheels on the racecourse.  The pronominal function, of course, founds poststructuralism in the division of the statement and its modes of enunciation.  There’s no doubt that some complicated maneuvers occur here in this division.  Not least it opens out into those narrative distinctions of structuralism and narratology: histoire/discours etc. and all the codes of the realist text etc.


There’s the paraphernalia of narrative all over this text.  And its combination of epistolary novel and detective narrative can be read naively with some entertainment value: the protagonist/philosopher JD arrives for a stay in Oxford and discovers, or is led to discover, the mysterious postcard, a drawing of Socrates and Plato by one Matthew Paris.  Speculations on the meaning of the postcard follow.  JD then leaves Oxford but returns later and rediscovers the postcard, this time in the original in the Bodleian Library.  More speculations and discoveries are made.  JD leaves Oxford again. (This is nothing less than the narrative of fort-da, the narrative of the death drive, and, one might speculate with Freud, the narrative of narrative itself).  Nevertheless, beneath the bogus clues, the planted hints, the disguises and guises of what Freud had called the work of revision (adding confusing and misleading narrative continuity to the otherwise disjunctive elements of the dream text in order to intensify their disguise), the narrative functions rather like those endlessly repeated scenes in Looney Tunes: the coyote attempting to capture the roadrunner using each time the latest contraption; repetitions each time of the same scene.  No mere cartoon (although it is this too), “Envois” compulsively repeats the scene of the metaphysical discourse on the human, on being, on the divine, on the technological, on life itself, and death.  The early entry dated 6 June 1977 multiplies the possibility of the animated image, foreshadowing, perhaps, the delirium still to come:

 Turn it very quickly: Plato is pushing himself off on a skateboard (if you can’t easily see the scene, put a filter over Socrates, multiply the filters, mobilize them, spread them out in every direction, isolate the parts of each personage, put in the film), Plato taking tram fares in a poor country, on the dashboard pushing the young people inside as it gets under way.  He is pushing them in the back.  Plato as the tram conductor, his foot on a pedal or a warning buzzer (he’s pretty much a warning himself, don’t you think, with his outstretched finger?). and he drives, he drives avoiding derailment.  At the top of the staircase, on the last step, he rings for the elevator” (17).

The visual plasticity of contexts that Derrida dreams up for the parts of this image resonates with a corresponding plasticity along conceptual lines, that offers up the possibility of a chain of substitutions.  The scene, if we employ yet more of those filters that can be multiplied in our reading of it, will turn up beyond the Postcard itself also as the scene of Hamlet faced with the ghost of his murdered father demanding that he set right the time, which has fallen off its hinges; Marx and Engels publishing The Manifesto of the Communist Party;  the letters of Christiane Hegel from her brother George W. F. (the relation supposedly without desire); of Abraham and his invisible God and Isaac; and of the angel’s address to the virgin: “Hail Mary.” 


In the Beginning …

 … was the post.  This, from the envoy dated 9 June 1977; but in the end, or at the end, “I will ask myself what to turn around [tourner autour] has signified, from my birth or thereabouts.”  The return.  Turns, returns, envoys and tornadas: there is distancing.  And this is why—in a more serious tone from the early September letters (a darkening, an intensifying as the mood passes from summer to autumnal cold)—we are reminded that the post can never—either logically or chronologically—come first.  However, the secondariness of the post—maneuver, relay, delay, anticipation, destination, telecommunication, network—would always have been implicated as soon as there is anything at all.  “As soon as there is …” he says, “there is strophe (there is strophe in every sense, apostrophe and catastrophe, address in turning the address [always toward you my love], and my postcard is strophes” (66).  Originally the word {sigma}{tau}{rho}{omicron}{phi}{ghacu}, ‘turning’, was applied to the movement of the chorus from right to left, and {alenis}{nu}{tau}{iota}{sigma}{tau}{rho}{omicron}{phi}{ghacu}, ‘counter-turn’, to its returning movement from left to right.  The “Envois” turn and return.       


Plato’s phulakē, the guardian angel and angel of death, would inextricably be related to the skopos, in early times a watcher or watchman, someone stationed on the skopia (the high ground) as a lookout. (The following two paragraphs have been abstracted from the forthcoming book by Ryan Bishop and John Phillips, Unhinging the Senses).


Skopia: a lookout-place, a mountain-peak, Homer: of the Trojan acropolis, Euripides: cf. Skopelos. 2. metaphor, the height or highest point of anything, Pindar. II. a watchtower, Latin specula, Herodotus, Plato  III. a lookout, watch, skopien echein, to keep watch” Liddell and Scott.


So the skopos, first of all, is one who watches out for and looks after a community as its guardian—a kind of epi-scopus or over-seer.  The Greek episcopos was of course translated as “Bishop” (via the Latin deformation ebiscopus) in the New Testament versions.  The term episcopy was used for a variety of civic duties crucial to the administration of civil communities and even populations.  Later skopos will become the name for the speculator more generally, the one who seeks out and marks the object of some game or quest.  The skopos hides out and marks the game.  In a military idiom he is a spy or scout.  At the same time, the skopos is also the object on which one fixes one’s eye, the mark itself, the target. Plato and Aristotle both use skopos in this sense, as synonymous with telos, the object or aim of an action or passion as well as the process that leads to the goal.


St Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians demonstrates the special character of this targeting logic: “We look [skopounton] not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen [are] temporal; but the things which are not seen [are] eternal” (2 Cor. iv. 18).  The use here, as with other instances in late classical Greek writing, of the term skopounton, “we look at” (again from skopeo, “to look”) shows us that what the text implies (in this classical defense of the hidden glory of Paul’s gospel) involves more than just taking notice of or paying attention to what is seen or, as the analogy implies, assenting to or accepting that these things exist.  Skopeo, rather, implies seeking out or making designs upon, hunting out with an appropriative eye.  The target must be marked out—scoped—for it is not just waiting around to be discovered.  Paul’s metaphysical doctrine, which explicitly distinguishes an empirical and finite visible from a transcendental and eternal invisible, locates the target beyond reach, out of sight.  The metaphysics recaptures itself in its iterations but fails to lock on to what cannot be seen.  To progress from watching to targeting would be a matter of focusing on what in the field of vision cannot be seen, thus bringing it into view nonetheless, which is the primary role of analogy.  And the primary role also of angels.



The angel comes, usually, bearing a secret.  The secret first of all would perhaps be the secret of its own name, which multiplies.    The Latin angelus translates the Greek aggelos, used to render the Hebrew for “one going” or “one sent,” or simply messenger. The word is used in Hebrew to denote indifferently either a divine or human messenger.  The Latin version, however, distinguishes the divine or spirit-messenger from the human, rendering the original in the one case by angelus and in the other by legatus.  The distinction is clarified by St Augustine, who taught that, “every visible thing in this world is put under the charge of an angel” (“de diversis”).  The connections between the messenger, the guardian, the visible—and its each time personal invisible—will be crucial.  But the name angel would be like the particular names that angels have (e.g., the seraph Semyaza can be summoned by pronouncing any one of a potentially endless string of variations on his name: Shamiaza, Shemhazai, Amezyarak, Azael, Azaziel, Uzza, to name a few); the name angel must be regarded as paleonymic, in the sense derived by Derrida from Hegel’s teachings about the superfluity of prefaces.  The messages of angels tend to be prefatory to something else, something yet to be established.


On this reading, the angel, as in “my angel” or “we monstrous angels,” would occupy a peculiar place.  Fitting it into the scene we might suggest that the angel would take the place of Socrates, messenger of Plato’s truth; only that would figure Plato as God.  Otherwise Plato must be the messenger of an absent God dictating to the mortal Socrates (who is, of course, as the famous syllogism teaches, a man and thus mortal like all men).  Perhaps the place of this God—the topos noetos—perhaps this is where Plato points with his index finger.  Plato is the angel, the one who dictates the words of he who does not write: so Socrates takes the places both of the God and of men.  This is a glimpse of how the relay—the endless delay of the par-ousia—operates.  The role of mediation is eternally and paradoxically shuffled amongst the two monstrous angels: Plato dictating to Socrates so that he may write what he will have said.


Perhaps I can shift the scene to a moment in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, or rather, to several discrete moments that may have to be condensed.  Hegel’s repetition, as philosophy, of the Christian doctrine of the trinity, the incarnation and redemption emerges, following the consistency of Hegel’s logic, especially when read through the strictures of Derrida’s Glas, as mediating the already and the not-yet of philosophy (the already-no-longer of religion).  If Hegel maintains the classical distinction between intuitive or divine knowledge (the infinite) and human discursive knowledge (finite and partial), then this is so that they may be reconciled, brought back together in a kind of harmony.  [This bringing back, or rectification, will be repeated yet again by Heidegger in his reading of the Ancient notion of dikē, a justice that reconciles divisions and the disharmony called adikia, which is what calls for justice].  The Christian Religion not only poses the problem of this division between the transcendental and the empirical but offers also an albeit flawed solution to it.  Or, rather, it announces a solution yet fails to quite bring it off.  In other words, the division remains. 


Angels don’t feature much, certainly not either in the Phenomenology nor in  the Encyclopaedia Logic versions of Hegel’s three part syllogism of religion.  In the very earliest works, indeed, they are despised as belonging to the claptrap of superstition, bearing traces, along with the Devil and his ministers, of the pagan origins of the popular conception of Christian doctrine.  The belief in guardian angels is explicitly linked to the survival of the rite of sacrifice in Christianity.  Later, in the phenomenology, the angel turns up, barely named, at the very beginning of the journey that consciousness must take—yet again, as if for the first time—on its way to becoming self-consciousness.  Ultimately the Geist will be given to itself in revealed religion but even then will only picture itself as coming together with its object at some indefinite future date.  However, at the beginning of the journey, amongst the world’s natural religions, a facsimile or rehearsal of the whole journey occurs when self-consciousness takes as a religious object the God of light. 


At this moment, self-consciousness, according to the classical paleonymic stricture, only knows its concept, its idea.  Its actuality, in contrast, is given to it in the movement of its consciousness, which appears as the daylight in contrast to the night as the idea of itself.  It thus worships the daylight as something outside itself.  In this way the early religious consciousness discovers itself outside itself and in this way misrecognizes itself as the light of angels.  The substance, on the way to becoming subject, floats upwards, failing to sink back down into the depths of self consciousness:

The determinations of this substance are only attributes that do not attain to self subsistence, but remain merely names of the many named One.  This One is clothed with the manifold powers of existence and with the “shapes” of reality as with an adornment that lacks a self; they are merely messengers, having no will of their own, messengers of its might, visions of its glory, voices in its praise (419-420)

So the life of this unmotivated play of surfaces fails to return to self-consciousness, which sent itself off in them, so the consciousness in turn fails to make these manifestations its own; they instead remain alienated attributes, multiple names, ornaments with no self, no work to adorn.  But now this angelic upstart, no longer named, no longer recognized as such throughout the several mediations that follow, nonetheless insists in traces at each stage as a preface or outwork that fails each time to return properly to self.  If the “I” can let go its antithetical existence and become a duality so that it may be identical with itself, then God can be manifested in the midst of those who know themselves in the form of pure knowledge.  But that then implies the death of angels.  Self consciousness goes storming ahead in order to attain the ultimate goal in absolute knowledge, but the angel goes rushing back in order to do part of it all over again, and prolong the journey. 


The correspondence between the two Is, the I = I, returns as the infinite difference between S and P, as Derrida writes, “S is p. (or S hates p; S and p) QED.”  The interplay between subjects and predicates (not to mention the Singular and the Particular, mediated by the Universal) will return yet again as the three part syllogism of revealed religion, but in the meantime we must stay with the angels and, staying alive to die a little, do at least part of it all over again.    



Thomas Aquinas. Selected Writings. Ed. and trans. Ralph McInerny. London: Penguin, 1998.

Geoff Bennington and Jacques Derrida. Jacques Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Jacques Derrida. The Postcard.  Chicago: CUP, 1989.

---.  “Freud and the Scene of Writing.” Writing and Difference. London: Routledge, 1985.

---. Resistances of Psychoanalysis. Stamford: Stamford University Press, 1999.

Freud, Sigmund. On Metapsychology. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.

G. W. F. Hegel.  The Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans A. V. Miller, 1977.

Michel Serres. Angels: A Modern Myth. Trans. Francis Cowper. Paris: Flammarion, 1993.