Bruno Bosteels | Who Is Derrida’s Nietzsche?

By Bruno Bosteels


Rather than playing coy, I should probably start out by admitting that I have never been a real fan of Derrida’s, even though I have had an uninterrupted habit of reading his work that goes back to my time as an undergraduate in Belgium and, like Heidegger for Derrida himself, Derrida for me constitutes something like a watchman. “For me, he is something like a watchman, a thinking that always keeps watch over me–an overseer who is always watching over me, a thinking that, I feel, has me under surveillance,” Derrida says in an interview on the topic of Heidegger in France. And he continues: “For me, it is an inexhaustible relationship, which is made of, again, movements of positive admiration, of recognition, of debt and then, sometimes quite severely, of critical impatience, and always very ironic.” Just add an even more generous dose of ironic impatience and nothing describes better than this comment my attitude toward Derrida and deconstruction.

Then again, I never personally met Derrida. My encounters with him–there have been two or three–have always been as a simple member in the audience, but in one way or another these encounters were also mediated by Gayatri Spivak. I remember running into her sometime in 1993 or 1994 at the end of Derrida’s talk at NYU that would become part of the tableau of the ten plagues of our time in Specters of Marx; and I saw Derrida again five or six years later here at Columbia, right after the 9/11 attacks, when Spivak introduced him before a packed audience in SIPA that quickly transformed what was supposed to be a book presentation of The Work of Mourning into a collective therapy session. But then, professor Spivak never allowed me to sit in on her Derrida seminar that I wanted to audit as a graduate student. For someone who was not really an academic so much as an activist, she told me, she simply could not accept auditors in her class. I mention this without the slightest note of regret or resentment, but only as a way of giving you a context for the sense of trepidation with which I address you in the company of someone who is now a great friend but also a towering authority on the subject of Derrida.

Allow me then to take cover and situate my comments today under the heading of three epigraphs. The first is from Derrida’s Éperons: Les styles de Nietzsche, for which I have significantly altered the translation into English:

If the simulacrum is ever going to occur, one must write in the gap between several styles. If there is style, what the woman (of) Nietzsche insinuates is that there must be more than one.

The second is from the Italian feminist Carla Lonzi who in 1970 wrote a truly spectacular manifesto for the collective Rivolta femminile under the title Sputiamo su Hegel (Let’s Spit on Hegel):

We must insist on our being in full possession of ourselves since every time a gap opens there is always somebody ready to occupy the space and appropriate us to himself.

Finally, the third epigraph is from Catherine Malabou, who is not only an ex-student and longtime collaborator of Derrida’s but also the author of formidable books of her own, most notably on Hegel and Heidegger. In her book Changing Difference: The Feminine and the Question of Difference, Malabou wonders out loud both to herself and to her readers:

Has anyone ever invented anything whatsoever in deconstruction after Derrida? Has anyone done anything other than mummify, worship, turn to stone the figure of the master? Has anyone ever escaped the involuntary pastiche which Proust described as being “condemned to live forever attached to the tongue of a bell”?

As a curtain call, both veiling and revealing, these three epigraphs should already give you an idea of what lurks behind the question that I would want to raise with you today: Who is Derrida’s Nietzsche?


Now, the question “Who?” as we know from Deleuze’s Nietzsche et la philosophie (first published in 1962) may be of recent invention. It may even be Nietzsche’s greatest invention, that is to say, for philosophy to ask the question not “What is?” but “Who is?” For example, as Heidegger also asks toward the end of his decades-long Nietzsche interpretation (which goes back to his lecture courses from the 1930s that were not published in book form until 1961): “Who is Nietzsche’s Zarathustra?”

With Nietzsche, the question becomes not “What is man?” as in Kant’s fourth question (Was ist der Mensch?), which is the quintessential question of anthropology that would underlie the questions that respectively define the project of the three Critiques, namely, “What can I know?” (Critique of Pure Reason) “What must I do?” (Critique of Practical Reason) and “What am I allowed to hope for?” (Critique of Judgment). But: “Who is man?” (Wer ist der Mensch?). Which is a question to which Nietzsche’s signature answer, as Derrida reminds us in Otobiographies: L’enseignement de Nietzsche et la politique du nom propre (1976), is essentially equivocal: I am so and so. Ich bin der und der. My name is legion.

Who practices philosophy? Who loves or is in love with wisdom, with knowledge, with truth? To answer this question requires a typology (Who, what type of man?) as well as a genealogy (How does one become who one is?).

Derrida’s intervention and perhaps his greatest invention, at least with regard to Nietzsche, but one that is not without problems of its own, is to have introduced the question of “woman” into this framework for asking the question that becomes the philosopher’s question with Nietzsche: “Who?”

Who, then, is Derrida’s Nietzsche?


In Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles Derrida begins by re-marking upon the extent to which to ask the question of style since always may have been the work of men. To introduce one’s pointed stylus into the matter or matrix of being, to leave behind the mark of one’s own type, imprint, or character for posterity, albeit posthumously and with two thousand years of delay so as not to be misunderstood, is this not what all great men dream of accomplishing? The male heterosexual fantasy of progeny, at once pro-genus and pro-genius? What would happen, then, if the question of style were to become the question of woman? That is the question that Derrida asks of the woman (of) Nietzsche.

Who is Derrida’s Nietzsche? In the plural styles of Nietzsche, this is the question that I would briefly like to address with you today: Suppose that Derrida’s Nietzsche is (a) woman, what then?

Before we jump on the bandwagon of countless feminist critiques of Derrida’s reading, we should remember the astonishing novelty that this reading introduced in the landscape of Nietzsche studies up to that point in France. I mean that it is certainly astonishing for us, US critics, students, and teachers today, we who have been trained in multiculturalism and the critique of identity politics. But it was even more astonishing and unheard-of at the time, though for completely different reasons, when Derrida first presented “La question du style” at the 1972 conference in Cerisy-la-Salle in Normandy, in the same Cultural Center where less than a decade later the first international conference on Derrida’s work would take place, Les Fins de l’homme or The Ends of Man, a conference which included Gayatri Spivak among other US critics with a fired-up presentation titled “Il faut s’y prendre en s’en prenant à elles,” literally “One must tackle the issue by taking it up with them” but actually a quotation from Derrida’s “Où commence et comment finit un corps enseignant?” first published in Politiques de la philosophie (1976) and reprinted in Du Droit à la philosophie (1990), in which the plural feminine pronoun elles or “them” originally refers to lois, “laws,” but in Spivak’s creative reuse can be understood as referring generically to “women,” with all the potentially misogynist connotations and displacements the term prendre also has in the Nietzsche fragments discussed in Spurs.

Why do I say that Derrida’s intervention in Spurs was so astoundingly new for its time? What was, after all, the situation on the philosophical front in France, particularly with regard to Nietzsche? What was the scene of the French Nietzsche like before the 1972 conference in Cerisy-la-Salle called Nietzsche aujourd’hui or Nietzsche Today (many contributions to which have been translated into English as part of the volume The New Nietzsche), where Derrida was joined not only by the likes of Deleuze or Lyotard but also by his students Jean-Michel Rey, Bernard Pautrat, and Sarah Kofman–all authors of individual monographs on Nietzsche’s philosophy and rhetorics–as well as by Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, two young thinkers who were never Derrida’s students in any formal capacity but all the more so his philosophical accomplices and later the organizers of the conference Les Fins de l’homme?

Until 1972, it is no exaggeration to say, Nietzsche in France was exclusively a man’s affair. In 1961, Heidegger had published his two-volume Nietzsche, but this text would not be translated into French (by Pierre Klossowski) until a full decade later, in 1971, and even in Éperons Derrida still complains that the reading of Heidegger’s Nietzsche continues to be sabotaged in France.

In 1962, Deleuze publishes his Nietzsche and Philosophy, but to my knowledge Derrida never refers to this reading in his own interpretations of Nietzsche. In fact, other than the eulogy for Deleuze included in The Work of Mourning, I cannot recall a single instance where Derrida would quote Deleuze in any significant fashion. So much for friendship and the acknowledgment of complicity.

But then, in 1964, a major conference on Nietzsche takes place in Royaumont, the proceedings of which will be published in 1967, the same miracle year in which Derrida publishes three of his major books, Speech and Phenomena, Of Grammatology, and Writing and Difference, in which Nietzsche is repeatedly called upon–over and beyond Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche as the last metaphysician–as a source for the differentiation of two interpretations of interpretation, one based on the self-presence of the origin and the other upon the play of difference, between which Derrida nonetheless insists–and this is often forgotten when texts like “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” are anthologized over and over again in undergraduate textbooks–we should not think that the point is simply to choose.

Thus, by the mid to late 1960s, the major theme of the French Nietzsche seems to be in place: Nietzsche is read as a philosopher of difference. More so than Dionysus against Christ, or Ariadne against Socrates, the watchword or mot d’ordre of French philosophy becomes: difference against the dialectic, Nietzsche against Hegel.

Disgust with Hegel: Ekel with Hegel. Have I been understood?

And yet, in Royaumont, where Deleuze is allowed to offer the concluding remarks and where attendants are able to listen to a veritable Who’s who list of contemporary continental philosophy, there is no room for sexual difference. The speakers and the discussants–with the exception of one “Mlle Ramnoux” who asks a question after Michel Foucault’s presentation on “Nietzsche, Freud, Marx”–are all men. Young or old, established authorities or up-and-coming provocateurs, but all of them men–heterosexual or not. Just imagine: twenty, thirty, forty men meeting among men over the course of five days, between July 4 and 8, 1964. But not one–or only one–woman.

We thus begin to understand something of the explosive effect that Derrida’s reading of Nietzsche must have provoked on the philosophical scene in France. Sure, with Jane Gallop we could say that this reading now is dated:

Spurs today? Derrida’s timely intervention called into question a certain essentializing of woman in seventies feminism. No longer in that era, we can see that, however much it questioned seventies “woman,” Spurs was not beyond what it questioned but in engagement with it, sharing the assumption that, in thinking about women, what we since have called gender was the only pertinent category and that the only difference that was sexual was the distinction male/female.

At the time when Derrida first presented what would later become Spurs as “The Question of Style,” though, we should not forget that here was someone who, perhaps like Nietzsche, was not a man but dynamite. Perhaps even dynamite because he was not a man but a woman: the woman (of) Nietzsche.


Derrida’s reading and that of his students is also new for a different reason, which has to do with the register or genre in which he chooses to situate the debate with Nietzsche.

In Nietzsche’s plural style, we can and must distinguish between a great many genres, domains, or styles: philological, critical, genealogical, ontological, autobiographical, and so on. “Nietzsche aura pratiqué tous les styles,” Derrida writes, better translated literally as “Nietzsche will have practiced all the styles.” Of all these styles, Derrida certainly touches upon many–but to the exclusion, I would say, of two: the genealogical and the ontological or doctrinal.

Derrida does not systematically address the body of work that makes up the so-called middle period of Nietzsche’s writing, in texts such as Human, All Too Human or On the Genealogy of Morals; nor does he attempt to draw a systematic doctrine (a Lehre or enseignement) from Nietzsche’s notions of the overman or the eternal return of the same. These last two topics and the genres or styles of genealogy and ontology to which they respectively lend themselves, however, constitute the main focus of two other interpreters whose work can be said to have been foundational in the reception of the French Nietzsche, namely, Foucault and Heidegger.

Derrida’s Nietzsche, or the Derridean interpretation of Nietzsche, which can also be found in the work of his students to whom he acknowledges his debt in the opening pages of Spurs, is concerned above all with questions of language, style, philology, rhetoric, metaphor, interpretation–and woman. But the question of woman as the question of Nietzsche’s many styles does not appear in the work of Derrida’s students until after the 1972 conference in Cerisy.

While part of a broader investigation into the language and rhetoric of philosophy, the question of the style or styles of the woman (of) Nietzsche is exclusively Derrida’s invention; woman will have been his subject, the pointed object of his intervention, the trademark jotted down already by his stylo for all posterity to read. It is the yes or Ja to that which is already, dé-jà, inscribed in the politics of his proper name, D. Ja(cques). As two other feminist critics point out in response to this project: “Derrida still wants to do it, but he wants to do it in style.”


What should we make of the style of this inscription? Aside from the fact that his discourse continues to displace the bodies of women, how should we evaluate Derrida’s marking of his own proper name and autobiography on the body, the corps and the corpus but also the corpse behind the huge corporation or société anonyme that is French Nietzscheanism? (Here, aside from quoting Otobiographies, I am also thinking of the work of my good friend Geoff Waite, who has mercilessly dealt with this franchise in his book Nietzsche’s Corps/e.)

Nobody, I think, has offered a more forceful rebuke of the way Nietzsche in France became the trademarked pedigree of the philosophy of difference than Catherine Malabou. Even Gayatri’s two readings of Spurs, first in “Displacement and the Discourse of Woman” (1983) and then in “Feminism and Deconstruction, Again: Negotiations” (1993), could fruitfully be contrasted with this rebuke.

According to Malabou, there is something profoundly amiss about the way post-Nietzschean and post-Heideggerian philosophies try to mobilize the principle of difference, only to end up in the paradoxical immobility of an apparatus that in its antidialectical rage cannot stop rigidifying the difference as difference.

Malabou’s criticisms in this regard are fundamentally of two kinds:

1) Both Derrida and Deleuze, from a purely technical or philological point of view, would rely on the coup de force of a violent misreading, which turns Nietzsche and Heidegger into thinkers of difference as a selective principle, whether for evaluating who or what can pass the test of the eternal return or for separating the metaphysical from the postmetaphysical in the leap into the other beginning beyond nihilism.

2) The philosophies of difference that issue from this peculiar reading of Nietzsche and Heidegger, this time for strictly conceptual reasons and regardless of whether this is actually a misreading, would also be unable or unwilling to think of changing those very same structures of being, which otherwise they see as marked and dislocated from within by the principle of an internal difference.

So as not to get caught up in the typically masculinist cock fight over who got things right, I will not dwell on the first type of criticism. Suffice it to say that Malabou sees Derrida’s or Deleuze’s Nietzsche as a complete phantom construction. “Isn’t it difference itself that is no more than a specter, and that, as such, is no longer operative, just like the critique of dialectics that it seeks to orient?” she asks rhetorically. “After all, isn’t there also a nihilist side to the thought of difference? Doesn’t it also return as ressentiment, anti-Hegelian reaction, weakness? Doesn’t it become its own phantom? An empty cask that has had its time?” And, if this first charge is not strong enough, the second kind of criticism is even more consequential, for it is here that we see a certain blockage become elevated into a rigid law of being on whose altar the philosophies in question end up sacrificing the possibility of actually transforming those structures that they so adamantly seek to dismantle in the name of difference.

In formulating this critique of the thought of difference, to be sure, Malabou does not follow the familiar path of showing the extent to which her immediate predecessors would have remained imprisoned, as if in spite of themselves, in the closure of idealist metaphysics. Her protocols for reading a philosophical text are themselves refreshingly plastic, rather than being reduced to either a deconstructive or a symptomatic approach in the styles of Derrida or Althusser. For her, especially as a woman philosopher educated in the same elite tradition of the École Normale Supérieure (though still divided at the time between Ulm or Saint Cloud for men and Sèvres or Fontenay for women), there is little to no room to breathe in such a confined understanding of deconstruction: “We have to admit that even the deconstruction of philosophy, which grants such an important place to gender difference and denounces the ‘phallogocentrism’ of tradition, offers no other philosophical future to women than that of playing the replica.” We should not haughtily dismiss statements like these, in the way I have heard some of Malabou’s older male colleagues do, as if they were merely the expression of an incomplete process of mourning or, worse, an Oedipal conflict that better be kept private instead of being worked out in public for everyone to see and hear. Rather, I believe that Malabou’s argument speaks to the core of what she perceives as an exalted blockage within the deconstructive tradition for thinking difference.


Even if they fully by right correspond to an epochal moment of their own, the various philosophies of difference more generally speaking according to Malabou have had their time and, at least in the way they are usually presented in the critical posterity of deconstruction, no longer provide an apt motor scheme to think the present. In her view, the constant plasticity of processes of giving, changing, receiving, and exploding form, in the synaptic network of the brain as much as in the organic tissue of the body, would no longer obey the older codes for the writing or graphing of the play of difference. The epochal configuration that Derrida in 1967 invokes so effectively at the beginning in Of Grammatology in order to justify the enlarged sense of writing, or arche-writing, as a program that somehow was already in the air, also would account for the current decline of deconstruction. What goes up sooner or later also may have to come down. This was anticipated after less than a year by Derrida himself when, in his 1968 talk “La différance,” he predicted that “the efficacity of the thematic of différance may very well, indeed must, one day be superseded, lending itself not to its own replacement, at least to enmeshing itself in a chain that in truth it never will have governed.” For Malabou, this day has come for the supersession of the motor scheme of difference that was so presciently announced by her thesis advisor.

Malabou in the end questions under what conditions and at what price philosophy after Nietzsche and Heidegger is able to affirm difference as difference. In spite of the presumed gap of the ontico-ontological difference, this presupposes first of all that somehow there must be ways to present the difference as difference. In order for metaphysics even to be recognizable as such, we must have access to the play or structure of difference as different from all metaphysical schemes. A second presupposition behind the philosophies of difference, therefore, refers to the necessity of being able to instantiate this primordial difference as somehow given in singular experiences, whether it be in the simulacra of certain forms of art and literature or in the radical upheavals marked by select political happenings of our time.

Despite the obvious appeal of many of the politico-artistic instantiations that thus will have been invoked, the price to pay for this hypostasis of difference is an inability actually to change those structures of meaning that would be breached from within by the principle of an insuperable gap, dislocation, or discrepancy–a principle that is always and everywhere, without exception, affirmed as the quasi-transcendental law of the simultaneous manifestation and dissimulation of being, for which “woman” in Nietzsche would serve as an always improper metaphoric name.