Autoimmunity and Deconstruction

Autoimmunity and Deconstruction
Differences that make a difference.

This unit focuses on the theory and practice of deconstruction as attributed to the diasporic French-Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida, and as modified by a number of scholars who follow his thinking. Derrida’s early work is about language and moves toward the deconstruction of other concepts. His deconstructive practice reads philosophy as literature, which is also why in this unit we foreground literature and fiction as an entry point into deconstruction. Derrida asks questions like these, although they are far from the only questions that he asks.

Secondary Reading

Recordings for this Entry

Part 1: What is Deconstruction?

What happens if we take the textuality of philosophy seriously, or if we were to read philosophy as if it were literature? What would happen if we began from a literary perspective to understand philosophy, rather than applying philosophy concepts as if they were “eternal truths,” to literature, fiction, or everyday life?

  • How is meaning made in the margins, rather than in the ‘body’ of a text? How might we relocate the ‘margin’ as center? What is the ontology or Being of something that is marginal, or of the margin ‘itself’? What is its time and place? What is the ‘being-there’ of a margin?
  • How do we imagine, understand, and articulate what is impossible about signification?
  • How are the aims of deconstruction hopeful?

I’d like to begin by offering a basic overview of deconstruction by drawing attention to some of its basic ‘moves’ and several brief examples which return us to the themes of repetition and secrecy. In the following recording, I’ll offer three key concepts from Derridean deconstruction: differance, the trace, and autoimmunity. The purpose of the recordings in this unit is ultimately to draw attention to the reading strategy of repetition, filtered through a deconstructive lens. Ultimately, by the end of these recordings we should have a sense of how to read for secrets without getting too drawn into their “depth,” or the way that they seem to always have a hidden meaning that eludes our comprehension. Instead, this “depth” or “hiddenness” is an effect. Previous recordings have drawn attention to how the “depth” of the secret is an effect of the play of references (Foucault) or of anamorphosis (Lacan). Here, in this recording, we will talk about this depth as an effect of a play of differences; and deconstruction as a way to parse these differences as a secret that is always in the process of unfolding.

Procedures of Deconstruction

Derrida is a useful theorist for rhetorical studies because his work has helped us to understand what rhetoric is or what it can be. If, for instance, we take the sentence “play defines the range of language’s movement in a given domain,” and foreground the mathematical connotations of “range” and “domain,” then these definitions will ultimately define how we understand language and rhetoric, for instances, as formal “functions” that translate linguistic variables into outputs organized, for instance, as narrative. Reality is always a single unbroken text or textile, which is both a written work and a woven cloth. This text has no “outside” because anything that could be thought of as “outside” of it is also text. The boundaries and divisions within it are a part of the differences or cross-hatchings that make up this text.

Derrida is often mischaracterized as thinking reductively about humans and matter in the narrow terms of a literary “text” which has led to the criticism that he does not sufficiently attend to the body. However, as we will see, the body certainly does enter his theorizing in important ways. Within rhetorical studies, Derrida’s work has been influential for rethinking the conventional oppositions between rhetor-centered and situation/context-centered agency – in which it has often been assumed that rhetoric is either the effect of the speaker’s invention or the effect of a confluence of situational factors (the exigence, audience, and constraints). (Biesecker, “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation”) It has also been an important way to re-frame the conventional opposition between “object-centered” rhetoricians, who are concerned with keeping the focus on “speech” and “method-centered” rhetoricians, who are concerned with the procedural, philosophical, or formal gestures of rhetorical criticism (Gaonkar, “Object and Method”). With both of these examples, the clash between speaker/situation and object/method represents a common gesture of deconstructive criticism: identify a binary which already exists in the world, and then illustrate how the terms of that binary are mutually or economically dependent upon one another.

There are a few theoretical ‘moves’ that are characteristic of a deconstructive (or “deconstructionist”) criticism. These include

  1. the assertion of a difference within a word, sign, or text that challenges its conventional boundaries. These differences often trouble the taken-for-granted distinctions between a text’s “inside” and “outside,” or between the “temporal” and the “spatial” aspects of language.
  2. A process which consists of (a) the elaboration of an existing, taken-for-granted binary opposition in which one term is organized hierarchically over the other, as the dominant term; (b) the inversion of this binary such that the traditionally subordinate or marginal term may be re-cast or re-understood as the dominant one, and finally, (c) the displacement of dominance or hierarchy through an act of naming, in which a new term captures the binary as an economy in which each term may be understood to determine or exercise agency over the other.
  3. Finally, and most relevant for us, the deconstructive reading strategy is one that consistently makes reference to “the secret” as the irreducible or undeconstructible unit of analysis. The secret is, to put it succinctly, the ultimate, inaccessible foundation of this meaning-making process. One phrase that comes up in relationship to this idea is “impossible but necessary.” The secret describes both the impossibility of arriving at a final meaning after having gone through a relentless deconstruction, as well as the necessity of going through this process, which Derrida considers to be an expression of hope and futurity.

It would only be responsible to note that Derrida would likely resist – and strongly – the proceduralization of deconstruction, or its reduction to a cookie-cutter ‘method’. There are many, many concepts in deconstruction. This recording tries to offer an entry point by drawing attention to a common stylistic gesture across Derrida’s work. This gesture is also how we get at the secret. Through textual play, repetition, and difference, Derrida assembles an understanding of the secret as that which is always in the process of unfolding. Let’s move through some examples drawn directly from Derrida’s own writing, before turning elsewhere. Let’s start with the inside/outside distinction before moving to other examples.


Inside/outside distinctions is often obvious to us. There is an inside and an outside to bodies, buildings, communities, and nations. In many ways, the identity of these things relies upon fixing a boundary or distinction between these ‘insides’ and ‘outsides,’ and our language about them reinforces these distinctions such that they become natural, normal, and taken for granted.

“I know that when I’m holding a glass of water in my hand, the water is inside the glass and my hand is outside the glass. Countless other examples could be chosen to make the same point -- that there is a distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and everyone knows what it is. This is true for practical purposes, in the sense that it ‘works,’ but it is not true always and everywhere.”
(Lucy, A Derrida Dictionary pp.52-53)

By the same token, the difference between inside and outside is essential to metaphysics, to the idea of a philosophy that hovers ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ thought as it is experienced in everyday life or internally, within ourselves, as consciousness. Derrida aims to make us aware of the provisional, constructed, and textual characteristics of these distinctions. Our ability to perceive an “inner” consciousness relies upon something “external” to it; something like “philosophy” or “psychoanalysis,” which offers a general characterization of our inner life and the material world that lies outside of it. But this distinction, like the distinction between the signifier and the signified, is an arbitrary one. It is fixed based on convention, and the hierarchy between different terms is always in flux. Instead of sticking to our notions of “inside” and “outside,” or even addressing how we are overly invested in one or another of these terms, we need a way to talk about the general way that insides and outsides are put into relation with one another.

Queer feminist cultural theorist and scholar Sarah Ahmed, for instance, writes about emotion in these terms. Often, emotions are understood to flow from our insides to our outsides. “I may express my feelings: I may laugh, cry, or shake my head. Once what is inside has gotten out, when I have expressed my feelings in this way, then my feelings also become yours, and you may respond to them. … The logic here is that I have feelings, which then move outwards towards objects and others, and which might even return to me. [This is the] ‘inside out’ model of emotions.”

But then, Ahmed argues, there is a model of emotions grounded in its sociality, such as “the rise of emotion in crowds,” where “‘great movements’ of feeling ‘do not originate in any one of the particular individual consciousnesses.” “Here, the individual is no longer the origin of feeling; feeling itself comes from without.” Suddenly “the ‘inside out’ model had become an ‘outside in’ model. … Rather than emotions being understood as coming from within and moving outwards, emotions are assumed to come from without and move inward.

But Ahmed’s point isn't to rest on either the inside out or the outside in. Instead, emotion is the term that creates the distinction between inside-out and outside-in. As Ahmed writes, “emotions create the very effect of the surface is an boundaries that allow us to distinguish an inside and an outside in the 1st place. So emotions are not simply something ‘I’ or ‘we’ have. Rather, it is through emotions, or how we respond to objects and others, that surface is or boundaries are made: the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ are shaped by, and even take the shape of, contact with others.” (p. 10) Ultimately Ahmed offers a complete rewriting of how we conventionally understand our psychological insights, our social outsides, and emotion. Emotion is usually a character in the story who is moved by forces beyond its control. That leads us to think that our ‘inner’ psychological life or ‘outer’ social life cause how we feel. Ahmed instead argues that emotions are what create the perceived distinction between our ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ lives; that inside and outside are the effect of the emotions that create them.


Literary scholar Jonathan Culler writes that “[Derrida’s] treatment of Rousseau in Of Grammatology is part of an investigation of the place of writing in western discussions of language, a disclosure of the process which is preserved an idealized model of speech by attributing certain problematical features of language to writing and then setting writing aside as secondary and derivative.”

The core binary is between speech and writing in which writing is consistently secondary to speech. From Rousseau’s perspective, speech is ‘above’ writing, speech is philosophically ‘first,’ because writing is derivative, “the grammatical sophistication and conceptual complexity of writing are seen to have led us further and further into the realm of abstract thought and away from authentic social living.” Speech also comes ‘first’ chronologically, for instance, in the transition from oral to written culture. All writing must therefore be speech before it is writing. Rousseau encourages us to think of the words that passed through his head as he wrote with a quill pen – or ours, as we are typing away at a word processor – as speech first and writing second, thereby making writing a secondary expression of speech, its subordinate form, the secondary expression of a primary concept.

Importantly, Derrida’s point isn’t that “speech was writing all along,” which would simply flip this distinction and situate ‘writing’ as the primary term in the hierarchy. Rather, what is crucial to understand is that hierarchical economy of speech and writing is a static rendering of a dynamic process. The way to displace this binary is to name the economy; to name the ever-inverting dynamic rather than to rest upon or prioritize just one of the terms within it. So, what is the name that Derrida gives to this economy? Arche-writing, or the play of differences that marks the movement organizing speech above writing and writing above speech as a circular, mutually reinforcing, and unfinished opposition. This term is useful not because he wants to settle the matter between speech and writing once and for all, but because he needs a name for the many ideas that refuse to allow the concept to settle. That is why arche-writing places speech and writing under erasure, and why arche-writing is “un-deconstructible.”

Arche-writing also names the movement as supplementarity, which is an important concept that recurs in Derrida’s work. Supplementarity refers to the fact that the subordinate element is always seeming to make up for something in the primary element of an opposition, much like “writing” is an appendage to “speech”: it adds something extra to the fundamental thing that is already there but in a reductive, lesser way. The supplement is a paradox because it is merely the lesser version of a thing; like Rousseau’s argument that writing is the “lesser version” of speech. But it also adds something extra, and crucial to the original. In fact without the invisible “supplement,” the primary term wouldn’t have the significance it does. As Jonathan Culler states:

“Derrida notes that terms Rousseau uses to describe writing, the noun supplément and the verb suppléer, appear in discussions of other phenomena such as education and in following up these references in fictional, autobiographical, and expository texts. He describes what he calls the 'logic of supplementarity,’ a general operation which we can now see at work as a source of energy in a wide variety of texts. … Derrida is working, rather, to describe a general process through which texts undo the philosophical system to which they adhere by revealing its rhetorical nature.”
(Culler, The Pursuit of Signs p.15)

Another example that Derrida talks about elsewhere of a supplement is the frame of a painting. On the one hand, it is purely “extra,” superfluous, and incidental to the painting. The Mona Lisa would be the Mona Lisa regardless of the frame. But the frame also adds depth and perspective, it cuts the painting off from a larger wall that could otherwise be interpreted as an extension of the painting. The frame adds the supplement because it is both the “lesser work of art” relative to the painting and the thing that makes the painting into an observable and independent object.

Part 2: Deconstructing the Speech Act

Derrida and scholars who have taken up his work, like Judith Butler, have also deconstructed some of the traditional binaries of speech act theory, including the binary of “constative” and “performative” as well as the “illocution” and the “perlocution.” I’ll briefly explain speech act theory and then describe the contribution of deconstruction.

J.L. Austin’s Schema of Locutionary Utterances.

The theory of speech acts is typically attributed to J.L. Austin, a British ordinary language philosopher. His schema of the locution (shown below) offered important and widely cited distinctions between the constatives and performatives, and within the category of performatives, illocutionary force and perlocutionary effects. Austin’s work is featured in the work of John Searle (another linguist/pragmatist), Jacques Derrida (the originator of ‘deconstruction’) and Judith Butler (theorist of gender whose work is deeply informed by deconstruction). When we talk about speech acts today, it's typically in reference to their use in the way Derrida and Butler have theorized them.

Example: “That’s an interesting casserole/hot dish”

Finally, there is the “infelicitous speech act,” in which the speech act is not adequate to the context in which it is delivered. Such speech acts do not have performative force because the person who addresses them does so in a way that is not suited to the context or conventions of communication that exist within that space. Let’s briefly consider an example of an infelicitous speech act, taken from the television show, The Office.

Deconstructing the Constative and the Performative

Derrida’s critique of Austin starts by affirming the distinction between constative and performative locutions but argues for a more thorough complication of this distinction. Constatives, denotations, or references are not the ‘literal’ meaning of words. Performative, connotative or context-driven communication does not ‘begin’ as a metaphor about something objective or from the natural world. Even the performative speech act is “too constative” because it is too rigidly defined, too fixed and rigid in its belief that a context can be defined empirically or objectively. The situations that Austin describes suggest that a context for communication can be defined, such as “getting married,” “naming a boat,” or “delivering a hot dish to a neighbor.” But Derrida casts doubt on this idea and says that “a context is never absolutely determinable.” Even the idea of a “rigorous or scientific concept of context…conceals very determinate philosophical presuppositions.” Austin is hiding his work and his assumptions when he talks about how we create the world around us with performatives. By doing so, he ends up supporting the idea that language denotes something objective and real even more than he perhaps should.

Derrida first offers his way of theorizing communication, using the “absent receiver,” or the idea that writing is truly a way to communicate with a receiver who the speaker does not or cannot know. As he writes:

In order for my “written communication” to retain its function as writing, i.e., its readability, it must remain readable despite the absolute disappearance of any receiver, determined in general.  My communication must be repeatable—iterable—in the absolute absence of the receiver or of any empirically determinable collectivity of receivers.
(Signature Event Context p.7)

This repetition is iterability, which ties “repetition to alterity” and lives beyond the absence of pre-determined recipients. The recipient of my written communication is secret to me in the sense that it cannot be known, I can’t know who might pick up what I might say. Iterability is the possibility of a repetition with a difference, and this is what guarantees that I can’t know my audience. In writing, there must be both the possibility for structural repetition while the written mark must act as the inscription of the death of its sender and its intended recipient, a difference that allows writing to be understood as the radical absence of a proper or pre-defined context of reception.

Then, Derrida addresses the performative, which he argues is constrained too much by rules, or “structural principles.” Austin always pre-figures his context in advance, and defines it almost scientifically, (i.e. like the constative or reference). Admittedly, Austin leaves some room open for “accidents” or “infelicitous speech acts,” speech acts that do not work as they are intended or are ‘meant’ to, and which he says are “inevitable.”  Derrida takes this a step further and argues that it is the possibility of infelicity that constitutes the performative speech act in the first place.  He is troubled by Austin’s forced opposition between success and failure because this prevents him from seeing speech acts as an “endless alternation of essence and accident.” The key example is accidental citation of another act, which he considers to be “abnormal and parasitic.” Today, looking at social media, we would call citation common sense. Derrida agrees. He re-imagines the parasitic speech act as the imperfections and citations that constitute the possibility of the performative in the first place, which create shared and social meanings by iterating, or repeating with a difference.

I return then to a point that strikes me as fundamental and that now concerns the status of events in general, or events of speech or by speech, of the strange logic they entail and that often passes unseen.  Could a performative utterance succeed if its formulation did not repeat a “coded” or iterable utterance, or in other words, if the formula I pronounce in order to open a meeting, launch a ship, or marriage were not identifiable as conforming with an iterable model if it were not then identifiable in some way as a “citation”?  (p.18)

In other words, the iterability of the utterance and its status as a citation must be in place for it to legitimately perform its “intended” action as a performative. In that way, Derrida takes issue with the exclusion of other “infelicities,” including fiction, non-serious, and parasitic speech and returns these “marginal” ideas to the “center” of what speech acts are and can be.

To return to our earlier description of the procedure of deconstruction, JL Austin sets up a system in which the constative, which had dominated language philosophy, is suddenly subordinated to the performative. Derrida enters the conversation there and argues that, in spite of himself, Austin continues to imagine the performative through the lens of the constative. Derrida then takes what is at the margin of Austin’s theory, the infelicitous utterance, and situates this as the term that displaces the widely-regarded hierarchical dichotomies theorized by Austin’s work. Parasitism, the citation that repeats with a difference, is the term that displaces; like arche-writing, it describes speech acts as an ongoing and unfolding process rather than objects that can be defined once and for all by a rigorously defined context.

Deconstructing Illocution and Perlocution

In Excitable Speech, Judith Butler extends Derrida’s argument on the performative. This book connects the performative to important political questions related to injurious speech (which includes hate speech) and describes such performatives as “violating interpellation[s],” or a mode of calling someone forth as a subject in a way that does violence. Violence or injury is, for instance, what is “done in the saying.”  Butler describes the power of the performative utterance by asking “who will be the ‘one’ with … [the] power [to name and thereby call someone or something into existence]?” By drawing attention to the performative, Butler’s language also invokes Derrida:

Does the "one" who speaks the term cite the term, thereby establishing him or herself as the author while at the same time establishing the derivative status of that authorship? Is a community and history of such speakers not magically invoked at the moment in which that utterance is spoken? And if and when that utterance brings injury, is it the utterance or the utterer who is the cause of the injury, or does that utterance perform its injury through a transitivity that cannot be reduced to a causal or intentional process originating in a singular subject?
(Judith Butler, Excitable Speech, p. 49)

Butler also addresses the distinction between illocutionary force and perlocutionary utterance, and describes the difference in terms of “immediate” and “distant” effects. Injurious speech deconstructs this difference by removing the speech act from a single speaker and locating it in a larger field of repeating, iterating citations that give it force. Butler also describes rhetorical tropes, or the ways that language is patterned and arranged, in terms of performative force. As the way that language and performance are organized, rhetoric is what is done ‘in the saying’.  Whether we are talking about a drag show (described in terms of irony in Gender Trouble) or a legal document (metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche in Excitable Speech) rhetoric is what animates the arguments and speech acts that are at play. As Butler writes,

If a word in this sense might be said to "do" a thing, then it appears that the word not only signifies a thing but that this signification will also be an enactment of the thing. It seems here that the meaning of a performative act is to be found in this apparent coincidence of signifying and enacting. And yet it seems that this "act-like" quality of the performative is itself an achievement of a different order … trope is … animated at the moment when we claim that language "acts;' that language posits itself in a series of distinct acts, and that its primary function might be understood as this kind of periodic acting.
(Excitable Speech pp. 44-45)

Returning to the basic ‘moves’ of deconstruction we discussed earlier, Butler considers the hierarchies of illocution and perlocution, of immediate and distant effect, and recognizes in them a difference in the timing of the consequences of the speech act. Injurious speech undoes the distinction between these because the way that one becomes a ‘subject’ relative to injurious speech is simultaneously immediate and distant; it has consequences which are experienced immanently, as part of the saying of the words, each time they are said, and because of the larger structure of citation that this repetition creates, which reinforces the subject-positions in language, making them long-term, recognizable, and concrete.

Deconstructing Secrecy and Transparency

There are a lot of ways that we can think about secrecy in the terms that Derrida sets forth. We could, for instance, seek to deconstruct the difference between the arcanum and the secretum, the inaccessible, imperial secret and the secret that is between the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of the public’s awareness. A different approach, which I’ll describe in some detail, might be to address the conventional opposition between secrecy and transparency, and the priority that transparency so often has over secrecy. Sometimes, transparency is described a moral good, whereas secrecy is something bad, to be eliminated or done away with. A more transparent society would be better, this logic holds, because power is hoarded by removing information from public access, by hoarding secrets. A more just, more democratic society would be willing to air what happens, for instance, in the ‘back rooms’ of politics, or behind the closed doors of ICE detention camps. Transparency sheds light on the truth the same way that oxygen allows us to breathe: if everything were out in the open, then accountability and full democratic oversight would finally be possible.

Of course, this sets up an opposition in secrecy is the subordinate term, unequivocally evil or at minimum, an obstacle to the openness and transparency just described. But secrets are not just ways of hoarding power, they are also how communities protect their membership and build bonds of solidarity. Remember Joshua Gunn’s description of the Freemasons, and how when they revealed their secrets in an effort to boost their membership, they sacrificed the inexhaustible core that had kept masons coming to meetings for over 200 years. Communities need secrets and hierarchies to forge a common bond; to reveal everything would mean that there is literally nothing to hold in common, to hold apart because it belongs only to us. Mikhail Bakhtin also reminds us that transparency is a weapon of the police. The police don’t just interpellate people on the street, they ask them to confess, reveal their secrets, to make themselves transparent. It matters entirely who has the agency to make us transparent, and whether we as agents of transparency have the agency to ask, as subordinates, that our superiors make themselves transparent to us.

Deconstructing secrecy and transparency would not mean elevating secrecy above transparency. This would not solve the problem of exorbitant government secrecy (it would make it worse) and it would not resolve the ultimate problem of the hierarchical relationship that allows secrecy and transparency to be leveraged as anti-democratic weapons. Deconstruction asks us to do is to see these as existing in an economy with one another, as part and parcel of the same process. On the one hand, relentless disclosures and transparency produce the very idea that something is there to hide, even when there is not. One-after-the-other secrets create urgency around the need to bring hidden information into the light. And by repeating what we both know to be secret but which we alone share in common, we solidify the relational bond. Secrets are performed into existence when absent things repeat. To get past the problems of secrecy we confront today, what is ultimately needed is not just more transparency, but also a better awareness of the processes that bring secrets into our awareness, make them into sites of urgency, and initiate the endless, inexhaustible process of making knowledge representable. Where we would put “transparency” or “secrecy” in a determining or primary role, we might instead put rhetorical repetition.

“The secret” also appears in Derrida’s writing as open-ended and ultimately unknowable, like the message addressed to an absent receiver. It isn’t a letter that reaches its destination, like in Lacan’s account of The Purloined Letter. For Derrida, the secret never reaches its destination, it is always in transit, iterating, repeating with a difference. The following passage is from the book Deconstruction in a Nutshell. It describes the “secret” not as the ultimate meaning of the text, but instead as a meaning that both never arrives and is always arriving:

No one ever gets privileged access to the secret that sits smiling behind all language and interpretation waiting for us but to knock; we are all in the same textual boat together. It is not that texts and languages have no “referents” or “objectivity” but that the referent and objectivity are not what they pass themselves off to be, a pure transcendental signified. Derrida is not trying to destroy texts or the ability to read texts or to turn everything … into fiction, or to deny the distinction between reality and fiction; he is trying, rather, to disrupt “the tranquil assurance that leaps over the text toward its presumed content, in the direction of the pure signified.” [“Il n’y a pas de hors-text” means:] there is no reference without difference, that is, without recourse to the differential systems – be they literary or mathematical – we have at our disposal.
(Niall Lucy, Deconstruction in a Nutshell 80)


*** This section is drawn from Prof. Hallsby's forthcoming monograph titled This Page Intentionally Left Blank: Rhetorical Forms of the Secret***

UA Flight 175 hits WTC south tower 9-11

Autoimmunity describes a ‘symbolic suicide’ enacted by and upon an individual body or a collective body politic.[1]Jacques Derrida defines autoimmunity as a process whereby “a living being, in quasi-suicidal fashion, 'itself' works to destroy its own protection, to immunize itself against its own 'immunity'.”[2] Reflecting the terrorist attacks upon the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, Derrida explains that the terrorists, their weaponized aircrafts, and even their training might be understood to have originated from ‘within’ the United States, despite their popular framing as antagonists beholden to a worldview absolutely exterior to the American way of life.[3] Wrapped in an autoimmune logic, America’s own measures to extinguish armed global conflict had returned with a vengeance violently, belatedly, and in an inverted form:

Is, then, what was touched, wounded, or traumatized by this double crash only some particular thing or other, a "what" or a "who," buildings, strategic urban structures, symbols of political, military, or capitalist power, or a considerable number of people of many different origins living on the body of a national territory that had remained untouched for so long? No, it was not only all that but perhaps especially, through all that, the conceptual, semantic, and one could even say hermeneutic apparatus that might have allowed one to see coming, to comprehend, interpret, describe, speak of, and name "September 11."[4]

In the preceding paragraph, autoimmunity assumes the form of a double death-drive, a path of self-annihilation that “works to destroy the trace of the work of destruction.”[5]As a “work of destruction,” 9/11 might name the singular terroristic act of wanton violence that destroyed the World Trade Center. However, as “the trace of the work of destruction,” 9/11 is more than a singular event; it describes how the jingoistic responses to 9/11 erased the attack’s prior instances and ensured its future repetitions. Together, these clauses account for how the Americans’ melodramatic xenophobia purposefully forgot many of 9/11’s anticipatory ‘events,’ including the World Trade Center bombings in 1993, the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995,[6]and the decades-long Cold War military strategy[7] that laid the groundwork for the 2001 attack. Moreover, by consigning the frameworks that could have grappled with this history to ignorance and opacity, autoimmunity forecasts how the prevailing discourse about 9/11 all but ensures that similar events will arise again as a secret: “we repeat this, we must repeat it, and it is all the more necessary to repeat it insofar as we do not really know what is being named in this way.”[8]

9/11 Memorial South Pool

As a trope, autoimmunity takes shape as chiasmus, a rhetorical form that is routinely invoked throughout Derrida’s oeuvre[9] and by his intellectual descendants.[10] Etymologically, chiasmus references a “crossing” or “diagonal arrangement” that resembles the Greek letter Chi (χ).[11] It most conventionally refers to an AB-BA structure that mirrors and inverts the initial order of a series in successive clauses: “When you stare into an abyss, the abyss also stares into you.”[12]According to Robert Hariman, “chiasmus presents a visible ordering of terms that signify a set of binary relations bounded by the limits of representation.”[13] Its function is to figure an order that is both within and beyond the subjects that it names; a bounded and provisional totality in which relational terms are captured as a contradiction. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick explains, the reversal engendered by chiasmus “generally presumes a context of parallel structure” that juxtaposes beginnings with endings or an inside with an outside:

It is often associated with the psychoanalytic notion of Nachtraglichkeit [alternately “afterwardsness,” “retroaction” or “belatedness”] or deferred action (what Silvan Tomkins calls posticipation), in which experiences, impressions, and memory-traces may be revised at a later date to fit in with fresh experiences or with the attainment of a new stage of development. In the Introduction to Between Men, I discuss a congruence between ideology (drawing on Marx and Juliet Mitchell) and sexuality, based on a shared chiasmic narrative structure, in which “the subject of the beginning of the narrative is different from the subject at the end, and … the two subjects cross each other in a rhetorical figure that conceals their discontinuity.”[14]

By producing unity out of contradiction, chiasmus formalizes the limit of representation as a repetition with a difference. As noted above, chiasmus is like analepsis because it juxtaposes past and present, placing the two in tension or conflict. However, as stated above, it is also more than a belated return of the past in the present. The surplus value of chiasmusis that it places appearance and reality in tension: Analogous to both the camera obscura and the closeting of gender, it invokes an object, representation, or person who is once self-identical and internally split.

Chiasmus courtesy of XKCD

Chiasmus is, finally, uniquely suited to describe the secret and its autoimmune patterning. On the one hand, this trope’s implicative structure generates the secret as the unstated product or yield of its rhetorical inversions. In the example of Nietzsche’s abyss, this secret is the ineffable agency who, in serving back the observer’s gaze, is both unfathomably absent and irrefutably present. On the other, chiasmus lends a rhetorical form to autoimmunity as a reversal of fortune. As the “immunization against one’s own immunity” or “destruction of the trace of destruction,” autoimmunity describes the chiasm whereby exposure and concealment undermine their own aims, reproducing the very state they seek to dispel. As chiasmus, the secret returns to its keepers and leakers in inverted form: the anonymous whistleblower becomes a subject to be exposed; the clandestine agent intensifies the very violence they aimed to attenuate.

In 2015, I attended a public talk that completes this autoimmune chiasmus.[15] The talk was delivered by self-described Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) whistleblower John Kiriakou, who became famous between 2010 and 2014 due to the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on CIA Torture. Kiriakou was the only CIA official convicted of a crime and served approximately two years in prison for disclosing a covert operative’s name to a reporter.[16] In the talk and his book, The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror, Kiriakou discussed the proper role and function of the CIA officer:

A case officer’s success abroad depends upon his or her talent for recruiting agents. Officers must improvise, but they do so at their peril if they ignore the fundamental lessons taught at the so-called Farm. Chief among them is an asset-recruitment cycle of four steps: spot, assess, develop, and recruit. The best officers are always looking for someone who has access to information of interest and use to the U.S. government. Once the officer spots such a person, whether it’s at a cocktail party or a conference or a local gym, an assessment begins. What vulnerabilities does this person have? Does the person seem well disposed toward the United States?[17]

During his public talk, however, Kiriakou lamented the fact that these assets were unreliable sources of good intelligence. Many of the detainees that the CIA captured during raids were poor, desperate, and had no useful knowledge of the organizations that had recruited them. In his book, Kiriakou described these people as unwitting drawn into a “a devil’s mix of Muslim victimization, radical Islam, [and] false promises;” they were “effectively brainwashed … like robotic figures in some video game.”[18] The intelligence struggle was that religious leaders were too good at recruitingbecause the destitute peoples that became their assets were no more than disposable and uninformed pawns. “The mistake made early on was sending just about everyone to Gitmo. American troops and their allies were capturing shepherds and mechanics and opium famers.”[19] Although Kiriakou takes a moralistic stand against Americans’ torture practices, he remains solidly within a frame of American exceptionalism because the depravity of terrorists’ recruitment strategies justify military violence in some form:

We can wage war against this irregular army of lunatics, and we can certainly kill a lot of them. But we also know, as some top U.S. military officers have acknowledged, that the larger challenge is to win hearts and minds – to win an epic conflict fought on moral and political battlefields. I’ve come around to the view that, while we must do everything we can to prevent terrorists from attacking us, we also need to wage war on these other battlefields, where the force of our ideas matters as much as, if not more, than our force of arms.[20]

The juxtaposition of American asset management and terrorist lunacy present an autoimmune chiasmus in which the signifier of the “asset” returns in an inverted form. If asset-creation is heroic and terrorist recruitment strategies are lunacy, this is only because these opposed-but-related ideas must be held apart to sustain the imperialist imaginary. As David Campbell states in Writing Security, “The constant articulation of danger” – whether “through foreign policy,” overt militarism, or covert operations – “is thus not a threat to ta state’s identity or existence: it is its condition of possibility.”[21]Unable or unwilling to see the repetition among the logics of state-sponsored insurrection, Kiriakou is resigned to the fact that Americans “need to wage war”: terroristic events will re-emerge, the old battles are fated to recur. To call this refusal autoimmune means that Kiriakou is immunized against the perceptual scheme that would interpret America’s extralegal interventions abroad as a related form of terror, which even by his account, makes a future without secret war impossible to imagine.

[1]Jacques Derrida, “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides: A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida” in Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[2]Derrida, “Autoimmunity,” 93.

[3]Derrida, “Autoimmunity,” 95.

[4] Derrida, “Autoimmunity,” 94.

[5]Azeen Khan, “Aneconomy, Indirection, Undecidability: Derrida’s ‘Principled’ Critique of the Death Drive,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 51:1 (2020): 140.

[6]Derrida, “Autoimmunity,” 91.

[7]Derrida, “Autoimmunity,” 94-96.

[8]Derrida, “Autoimmunity,” 87.

[9]See also: Jacques Derrida, Aporias, Trans. Thomas Dutoit (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993); Jacques Derrida, Resistances of Psychoanalysis, Trans. Peggy Kamuf, Pascale-Anne Brault, and Michael Naas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998); Jacques Derrida and Maurizio Ferraris, A Taste for the Secret, Trans. Giacomo Donis, Ed. Giacomo Donis and David Webb (New York: Polity Press, 2001).

[10] Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979).

[11] "chiasmus, n." OED Online. March 2022. Oxford University Press. (accessed March 26, 2022); "chiasma, n." OED Online. March 2022. Oxford University Press. (accessed March 26, 2022).

[12]Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil l, part IV, section 146 (1886). Cited in Hariman, “What is a Chiasmus? Or, Why the Abyss Stares Back,” in Chiasmus and Culture (New York: Berghahn Books, 2014), 45.

[13]Robert Hariman “What is a Chiasmus?,” 46.

[14]Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Rhetorical Devices,”

[15]Alix Vo, “Whistleblower on CIA torture to speak at NCSU,” Technician October 28, 2015.

[16]Justin Jouvenal, “Former CIA Oofficer John Kiriakou is sentenced to 30 months in prison for leaks,” Washington Post January 25, 2013,

[17]John Kiriakou and Michael Ruby, The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror (New York: Bantam Books, 2010), 45-46.

[18]Kiriakou, The Reluctant Spy 144.

[19]Kiriakou, The Reluctant Spy 142.

[20]Kiriakou, The Reluctant Spy 144.

[21]David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 13.

Common (Mis)Understandings of Deconstruction

This entry ends with a few reflections on what deconstruction is and is not. These are either typical assumptions or regularly described commonplaces, which may help you to ground your understanding of this reading strategy.

  1. First, deconstruction is not a procedure and is definitely not a top-down procedure that we can apply to a text. It’s more like a pattern that arises by setting distinct texts alongside one another and then reading for the repetition that emerges among their differences. Relatedly, deconstruction isn’t just about language or texts as traditionally conceived. The whole point is to expand the conventional understanding of “text.” Anytime that we identify a self-contained ‘discourse’ – whether it is one or many documents, images, or data sets, they are all parts of the same ‘text’. They are distinct entities because of a textual play of differences. The identity of a single, isolate-able ‘text’ depends upon that text making a ‘cut’ which appears to separate it from the larger ‘weave’.
  2. Deconstruction poses that there is nothing outside of the text. This means that the language we speak, read, and write does not just precede the subject or determine who/what they are in a cause/effect way. To paraphrase Derrida from Monolinguism of the Other, ‘I speak one language, and it is not my own,’ we are always speaking a language and organizing symbols that are vaster than our intentional use of them. Language exists both before and after the subject’s conscious life. Deconstruction consists in undoing the assumption that it is either the before or the after that exercises the primary influence over our conscious life, who we are or who we become. It is both the before and the after, and deconstruction consists in undoing the deadlocked opposition between them.
  3. Deconstruction is sometimes described as having no theory of ‘the’ subject, or perhaps that it is the narrative of the decentered subject.There are in fact two variants on this: that of the de-centered (de-centering) subject and that of the subject who is always centered. The centering of a subject must be understood as an effect, and deconstruction must be taken as a means of addressing the effect structures that hierarchically center different kinds of personhood and subjectivity.
  4. Sometimes, deconstruction is accused of denying that reference, objectivity, or the empirical meanings attached to objects and symbols exist. This is not and never has been true. The text is always read in a network of differences, and any instance of meaning is read through those differences. It would be one thing to say that all meaning is a constructed illusion and a fabrication based on the language choices and representations we choose to surround ourselves with. That, however, is NOT deconstruction. Deconstruction would instead say that scientific representations are similarly founded on differences and a network of meanings that are related to one another – but this system and field of differences is rigorously defined, like the base pairs of DNA. It is the fact that some origin point seems unproblematic or can be taken for granted that deconstruction threatens, like the ‘fact’ that rhetoric originates in Ancient Greece with Plato. What deconstruction does not deny is the fact that there are references, that language often allows us to act as if the things we talk about have an objective and unquestioned status. In fact, we need that to be the case in order to exchange. Deconstruction is a strong theory of citationality, which makes a text feel ‘ungrounded’ even as it is grounded within a network of references.
  5. Another accusation against deconstruction is that its only aim is to produce an infinite regress using binary oppositions and philosophical concepts. But this is not true because it’s not possible to arrest the polysemic whole of meaning-making, which is an open, ongoing, and often undecidable process. Making a necessary decision in the face of an impossible choice is often the endpoint of deconstructive criticism. The critic has to decide where to make the cut or name the complexity of the hierarchal dynamics they are describing.
  6. As Gayatri Spivak explains, Derrida “does not hold on to a single conceptual master-word for very long."Arche-writing," "trace," "supplementarity," such important words in the Grammatology, do not remain consistently important conceptual master-words in subsequent texts. Derrida's vocabulary is forever on the move. He does not relinquish a term altogether. He simply reduces it to the lower case of a common noun, where each context establishes its provisional definition yet once again.”
  7. Deconstruction is not a method of interpretation. It is a strategy of reading that involves neither the exposure of error, nor the imposition of a master code. It is a strategy of reading that produces, rather than jealously protects. The refusal to use a master code or structure as a way to describe deconstruction is part of the reason Derrida would likely disagree with the strongly procedural description provided in this lecture, as useful as it may be.

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Required Secondary Reading for UMN-TC

Jacques Derrida, "Autoimmunity"

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