In his essay White Mythology, collected in English in Margins of Philosophy Derrida has a section at the opening which he terms an "exergue". An "exergue" is the term used for the place on a coin beneath the design that is on the reverse side and usually lists the date and location where its making took place. In White Mythology it is used to make an extended point about the metaphoricity of words, not least given that words are often spoken of as forms of "coin" which can be exchanged, at least in traditions of rhetoric. An "exergue" is also an epigraph.
If I apply the term "exergue" to the opening section of On Touching there are a number of separate reasons for doing so. It is, firstly, the original part of the work being a re-translation of the piece that was first translated in the journal Paragraph in 1993. So here we find the "location" of the origin of the thought that is being advanced in the book. Similarly, since 1993 is seven years prior to the original French publication of On Touching we are also reminded of the date of the questions that arise here. The suggestion we have of a kind of traded "word" is one whose reserves we might uncover on a later date. Finally, in relation to an epigraph the title of this section of the work provides one in terms of an alleged quotation concerning the touching of eyes, one that is stated within the "exergue" later. The subtitle of the "exergue" refers to "signing a question", one derived, apparently, from Aristotle. In this posting I will go up to, but stop just prior to arriving at, the "question" from Aristotle as interrogation of this "question" will deserve a couple of subsequent postings, both in terms of a look at Aristotle's text and at the uses Derrida puts it to.
A last point worth making about this "exergue" is that, within it, we find a form of "dialogue" between at least two (unidentified) voices though the "dialogue" only opens after nearly two pages have been written and closes after the name of Aristotle first appears. The brevity of the "dialogue" included in the "exergue" belies, however, the stakes of what is stated within it.
The first voice which emerges in the "exergue" and does so before we are aware there will be a second voice starts by discussing the "day" and even invokes the notion of the beginning of a story with the expression "once upon a time". The story is of the voice in question being approached "one day" by a "question", a feminine question (la question). The "question" itself, however, is not stated initially as, first of all, the nature of the arrival of the question is laid out.
The arrival of this "question" is not one that arises, says the voice, by means of a kind of "visit". Rather this "question" is one that "took hold" of our voice, it "touched" this voice so, although there wasn't a "visit", there was a form of "visitation". Already this reference to a kind of "visitation" is a kind of citation since, as readers of Nancy will recall, one of the essays in his work The Ground of the Image is concerned precisely with the way the scene that is termed that of a "visitation" is dealt with in different paintings and, principally, in a work by Pontormo. From the analysis of these paintings Nancy alleges far-reaching consequences for the understanding of Christian painting. So if the "question" with which our first voice is approached arrives as if by means of a "visitation" then its arrival echoes that of the way that Mary, the Mother of God, is said to have connected with Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Given Nancy's project of the "deconstruction of Christianity", a topic broached later in On Touching, the reference to this notion is surely one we are expected to pick up on.
The "visitation" that the question represents is indicated by our first voice to be one that tests "hospitality" since there had been no prior invitation that was given out before this question turned up. Rather than pursue this point about hospitality, however, the voice instead indicates that naming the question in the feminine is to give it a kind of "nickname" and that giving this "nickname" to the question might well create a problem with describing the story that it appears we have ventured upon. Why would this be the case? Principally because the story's form is one that begins with "one day" whereas the question itself would appear to be one about the "day" itself. As our first voice puts this: "By right, 'she' thus came to light before the light of a day."
This "coming to light" before the light of a day is one we might well question in terms of its possibility. It implies something concerning the possibility of a form of light that is not available by means of the kind of questioning that is assured about the source of light. Amongst other metaphorical resonances it may remind us of the way that lunar light, for example, was, prior to solar light, taken to be the form of light that was primary by certain kinds of ancient worship. Not only was this so but the lunar light was feminine in its characterisation by contrast to the later solar light (later incarnated by the Greeks in the god Apollo, one of the central figures of Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy).
This reference, whether one we are assumed to take on board or not fits the suggestion of a light prior to the day, one that came, as the voice puts it, "the evening before". It would be, as the voice states, an earlier riser than the day and perhaps be that which "watches over" the phenomenon (a first reference to phenomenology). This question, if it has to do with the day and questioning the view that the day is the first and original source of light, is something "pre-phenomenological" or, and this is also marked here, "trans-phenomenal".
Having worked this far into the "story" it is of interest to note that the next thing questioned by this first voice is the assurance with which it apparently began that the question was one that came to or from the voice itself. It would seem that the question did not originate in the voice but rather came to it from "the other", an other marked here as feminine.
At this point let's state the question given that our first voice now allows the question to be stated. The question is, as follows: "Quand nos jeux se touchent, fait-il jour ou fait-il nuit?" This is translated into English by Christine Irizarry as: "When our eyes touch, is it day or is it night?"
So the question, the question which came to the voice from without, is one that touches exactly upon a theme concerning the relationship between day and night and yet which connects this question to one that concerns a connection between at least two, a connection related, in some way, to how eyes are themselves to be said to have relations with each other.
The first voice next tells us that, once the question was one that had arisen, that this voice tried subsequently to "have it out" with the question itself. Such "having it out" involved, suggests the voice, a kind of "limitless patience". Such a patience is connected to a view of "experience" and the way the question is phrased takes a further turn when the touching of the eyes is next related to the touching of lips. Can eyes, in the second rendition of the question, touch in the way lips do? That is, can they "press together"? (Which kinds of lips? After all, after the writing of Irigaray, who cannot be aware of the sense that lips are not just, at least for those who are "feminine", on the mouth?)
This comparison of eyes to lips is not simply dropped either. The comparison is one that is raised due to the suggestion raising something interesting about eyes. Lips have a surface and when they connect it is this surface that is the basis of the connection. When eyes connect is there a "surface" in question? Surely there is a form of "touch" when eyes look at each other? Is there not a contact here?
The questions that arise once the comparison between eyes and lips has been made multiply and I will depart from strict commentary in failing to list all of them. The question that strikes me through the multiplicity that quickly gathers is one concerning "interruption" as the relationship between eyes appears to have something about it, or the questions gathering around it do, that manifests a form of interruption.
After the questions have gathered the first voice concludes its oration by stating that the resolution of the questions in terms of a suggested "benediction" emerging from the contact between the eyes is one that presupposes something. Namely, that the eyes "see each other".
It is after this "presupposition" has been stated that the second "voice" asserts itself for the first time. This second voice raises its own question asking whether what is at issue is "eyes" at all and not rather "gazes" and that the first voice would err in running these two different notions together. Two gazes are not evidently equivalent to two eyes after all and not all eyes see. Even eyes that don't see (the theme, amongst others, of Memoirs of the Blind) have some form of light.
The first "voice" reasserts itself now suggesting that where the two voices are is in the night. This indication that the whole "dialogue" is one taking place at night is one that is subsequently related by this voice to the choice between "looking" in the sense of gazing and seeing as seeing. This difference is amplified into the distinction between what it is to see seeing and what it is making seeing visible. To see seeing, the voice now suggests, is meet a gaze and meeting this is not to meet something that is, in the strict sense, visible.
If you see that which is gazing you then are away from visibility. You don't see the other's eyes so much as their way of merely seeing. This suggestion - which, as will emerge later, mirrors some theses of Merleau-Ponty - is related to other questions the first voice also raises concerning the "finite course of a sun" and the relation, once again, between day and night. The point that emerges this time is that it might be necessary to make the night appear in order to see oneself looking at the other. This idea is one we will again note later as connected to certain motifs in Levinas.
The second voice emerges again to repeat a question the first voice raised concerning the time at which the "dialogue" is apparently taking place. Is it occurring in the daytime or the night?
Voice one displaces the repeated question by first noting that naming the "night" suggests a blind touching and then stating that the question "itself" has objected saying that it might be by means of this that hearing and understanding is first taking place.
Voice two states next that the meeting of gazes is where both gaze and eyes meet and distinguishes visibility as that which touches on objects in the world from seeing as that which is the "origin" of the world. Another resonance here points again to the ambiguity of "lips" however since The Origin of the World is the title of a "controversial" painting by Courbet that concerns, as Nancy puts it in Corpus "staring at the slit of the vulva". If the "origin of the world" is also not just from lips but from "seeing" then the kind of seeing in question would have a form that would be, as this voice puts it, "daring".
Voice one next mentions how there may be at the moment of touching something like space for "an interval" which is now named (as in On the Name) as "chora", a resonance from Plato. Everything can turn itself around says this voice when it is not yet daylight. This turning around is illustrated by this voice now in terms of how one might come to wish that one dies before others so that one does not live to suffer the experience of seeing them die.
After this "turning around" the question is one that is said now by voice one to have been signed after which this voice speaks of "inventing" a story despite the story being one that is "true" and the story concerning the question being one on a wall in Paris, such an inscription inspiring the voice to make it into the epigraph to the questions intended as the basis for an address to Jean-Luc Nancy, who is now stated to be "the greatest thinker about touching of all time". The final question before the apparent disappearance of the second voice concerns this hyperbolic claim asking whether it is "really" the case that such a claim can be made. Only after the hyperbolic claim and its questioning does the dialogue apparently end as, for the rest of the "exergue", the first voice takes over again and does so in order to look at some problems from Aristotle's On the Soul. Those questions, in terms of how Aristotle states them and how they are summarised in the "exergue" will be the subject of the next postings.