Forms in the Abyss: A Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida

Reviewed by Elizabeth

Steve Martinot, Forms in the Abyss: A Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006).

Considering that both Sartre and Derrida are known as icons of twentieth-century philosophy, one would reasonably expect to find a voluminous body of literature addressing their relation. However, this is not the case -– such works are surprisingly rare. In this sense alone, Steve Martinot’s rigorous engagement of Sartrean and Derridean philosophies is a groundbreaking work. But as one already familiar with Martinot might expect, this book has much to offer beyond a study in the history of ideas. It is also a fascinating work of contemporary critical theory relevant to political issues, exploring the possibility of dialogue within situations of domination and subjugation.

Over the years, there has been more silence than engagement between Sartrean existentialists and Derridean post-structuralists. Except for a few polemical remarks in which Derrida and other post-structuralists have distanced themselves from Sartre (in what Martinot notes as a tone of bitterness), there has been little communication. Martinot refers to this strange silence as a “mutual refusal.” Sartre, for his part, refuses to engage what he sees as a misguided critique of language in Derrida’s post-structuralism. For Sartre, Derrida had abandoned what is “essential to philosophy and philosophical politics: an account of the subject, an approach to history” (2). Derrida, on the other hand, refuses to speak of consciousness –- a notion central to Sartre’s existential phenomenology. This is because he understands all accounts of the subject to be misguided, as “one constructs the subject by investigating it” (2).

According to Martinot, the most important issue separating Sartre and Derrida is that of writing. Whereas Sartre wants a language that is direct and message-bearing, Derrida claims that writing is always ambiguous, with multiple meanings. In this “irreducible divergence” between the two Martinot sees reflected a broader question of incommensurability -– a problem that has challenged philosophers for millennia. How can we understand the relation between two disparate (incommensurable) thinkers or ideas, when there is no common ground for comparison? As we will see, the solution to this problem has political implications, and the goal of Martinot’s project is to find space for communication between two sides that are radically separated.

Despite the polemics and refusals separating Sartre and Derrida, Martinot convincingly argues that we should also understand them as “kindred souls… seated at a common historical table” (20f). At this table we also find Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Foucault, and others, all involved in the broader intellectual movement of “striving against metaphysical apriorism” (21).

Martinot identifies a striking number of common themes in the work of Sartre and Derrida, although they have traditionally been portrayed as incompatible opponents. He finds similar critiques of the rationalist view of the subject, and “a notion of history that is itself a critique of an ideological dimension inherent in all historical discourse” (20). He explores the importance of Heidegger as an influence on both. He also finds a similarity between Sartre’s exposition of subject-object relations in Being and Nothingness and Derrida’s project in Of Grammatology, drawing comparisons between Sartre’s nominalism and Derrida’s critique of language, between Sartre’s notion of néantisation (nihilation) and Derrida’s différance.

In the very few studies of Sartre and Derrida that have come before, a common mistake has been to reduce the thought of one to accommodate it within the language of the other. For Martinot, to translate the innovative and irreducible thought of either in order to fit the other’s framework is to do violence to the texts. The challenging task he sets for himself, then, is to address Sartre and Derrida in relation to one another without transforming them, preserving the “disparity of language” between them. He will do this “without attempting to existentialize Derrida or to transmute Sartre into a post-structuralist discourse. It will demand absolute respect for the incommensurability” (24). He writes,

If their discourses are fundamentally incommensurable, while seeming to reveal certain commonalities of parenthood, project, and strategy, then any conjunction that would hope to traverse the abyss between them must reveal itself at a certain distance from their disparity of language itself.… A sense of a common language would then have to be derived from elsewhere than in their respective philosophical terms. To encompass both, a mode of discursive construction will have to be found that will transcend this critical difference of discursive level. (23f)

Martinot, then, must maintain an ambiguity in his study of Sartre and Derrida, preserving the differences while bringing the similarities into engagement. He refrains from reducing either element, and yet successfully brings them into dialogue, to create something productive and new in this encounter. It is interesting to note that Martinot’s approach is strikingly similar to Sartre’s own hermeneutical method found in later works such as the Critique of Dialectical Reason.

It is precisely this project of building a space for dialogue, somewhere within the “abyss” that lies between incommensurable realms of discourse, that Martinot sees as politically relevant. He claims that incommensurability can actually be found at the heart of political power, since political power establishes itself by inventing a hierarchy of incommensurability in the real world. This incommensurability is found in the “incompatibility” between different classes and groups in the hierarchy -– their worldviews, interests, and in particular, their languages are incommensurable. Martinot explores the example of an imposition, in which something is imposed upon a lower level of the hierarchy from above. He explains that the very possibility of such an imposition is grounded in an assumed “unanswerability.”

The incommensurability is structural, written into the actual political structures of our world within relations of domination and subjugation. As such, it stands in the way of any possible dialogue that could take place between the oppressed and their oppressors in relationships of domination. Martinot’s goal, then, is to explore the possibility of creating “bridge structures” to build a domain for interaction.

Again, like Sartre in his later dialectical works, Martinot argues that analytic thinking is insufficient for this task, and he tries to find a structure for mediation between incommensurables. This pursuit of mediation takes Martinot into theories of language. He is looking for the “formal connections” between incommensurables, “the form of their thinking, its logic, structures of reasoning, style, and poetic or discursive geometry” (25). He proposes a solution in what he refers to as the “glyph,” which is a

complex structure combining several dimensions of meaning, discursive form, and narrative. [… It] combines two levels of narrative: a coming upon the world and a social production of meaning. The glyph envelops these disparate dimensions of the discursive and amalgamates them into a single structure that becomes iconic for meaning, reference, objectivity, definitude. (219)

This glyph, he proposes, can help us to transcend specific systems of thought and to find a common language in which dialogue can take place.

It is worth noting that the style of this text is not for beginners. As a reader, one must be willing to go deep into the complexities of the theories at hand, but the results are well worth it. Martinot’s intention is not to cover the breadth of work of either Sartre or Derrida, but rather to focus upon the formal elements of their thought. This means that it is helpful if the reader already has some basic familiarity with them. Also, the vocabulary employed is of a highly specialized nature common to analyses of French philosophy. I would emphasize that it is not jargon – on the contrary, the word choice is consistently precise and meaningful. But if the reader is not up-to-date on the terms of the conversation, he or she may well need the help of a philosophical dictionary.

Martinot’s text, I believe, can be understood as the latest contribution to the on-going discussion in critical theory of “what to do after postmodernism?” So many thinkers, in so many forums, have asked the question -– what is it about post-structuralism that has made it unable, despite its profound liberatory insights, to contribute work that is meaningful or relevant for real, everyday political struggles? The dissatisfaction with post-structuralism, and with “postmodernism” more generally, in relation to politics has led to a wave of writings in recent years, each asking in its own way, what comes next? Some have called this project “new critical theory,” others “third wave critical theory.” Common questions include, how can we preserve these liberatory insights, while also finding a way to avoid getting lost in the impotent abyss of foundationless thinking? How can we incorporate these insights into ethically and politically meaningful work, in which judgments are still possible? Many of these authors are also returning to insights from earlier thinkers, such as Sartre, Adorno, and Marcuse, in order to find a way to ground post-structuralist claims.

Martinot does not explicitly locate himself within this genre, but the shared projects are clear. In his “attempt to read Sartre in a more up-to-date fashion through Derrida, and the complementary attempt to read Derrida in a more down-to-earth manner through Sartre” (25), he finds a way to bring some of the liberatory insights of post-structuralism to bear on concrete political issues of dialogue and mediation. In bringing his high-theoretical discussions of Sartre and Derrida into relation with concrete topics such as racism, colonialism, and chauvinism, Martinot provides an example of how we might move forward to an ethically meaningful post-postmodern philosophy.

Review by Elizabeth Butterfield Georgia Southern University