The Ear of the Other

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation by Jacques Derrida.

Derrida The Ear of the Other

The Ear of the Other is a heterogeneous mix of texts treating the themes of ears, texts, translation, reflection, and gender. The foremost of the component documents is a Derrida lecture entitled “Otobiographies: The Teaching of Nietzsche and the Politics of the Proper Name.” All by itself, this 35 pages would have been worth the trouble of the book. It is in some ways a sequel to Derrida’s other treatment of Nietzsche in Spurs, but “the Teaching of Nietzsche” refers not only to what Nietzsche taught, but also to the event of Nietzsche’s work being taught by others. The context of Nietzsche’s reception by “the Nazi ideologues” is expressly confronted here. The chief Nietzsche text serving as a point of orientation is Ecce Homo, and its “otobiographical” elements serve to create their author more than vice versa, at least as I understand Derrida’s exposition of the conundrum.

Derrida had given the lecture at a 1979 conference at the University of Montreal, and the following parts of the book consist of transcripts from two subsequent “roundtable” discussions at the same conference, organized respectively around the themes of autobiography and translation. The various scholars in dialogue with Derrida in these sessions basically offer mini-lectures to which he responds at length. So much is this the case that each has its own title: Claude Lévesque offers “That Incredible Terrible Thing Which Was Not” on the autobiography topic, for example, and Christie McDonald’s piece on translation is called “The Passage into Philosophy.”

The book ends with a substantial correspondence interview of Derrida by McDonald from 1981, entitled “Choreographies.” The interview is especially helpful, in that it helps to supply a bridge between Spurs and “Otobiographies.” It also revisits “the Teaching of Nietzsche” in the form of Derrida’s subversively sexualizing readings of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche.

In both the interview and the roundtables there is a great deal of reference to Derrida’s earlier works, such as The Postcard and Glas. There is also some discussion of Derrida’s relationship to the term “deconstruction,” which had come to serve as a general label for his work, outside of his own intention for it. On the whole, there is a real sense of retrospection in this book, as contrasted with some later Derrida volumes that seem to make fewer demands on the reader for familiarity with Derrida’s oeuvre. This book is not an auspicious point of entry into Derrida’s ideas, but it does contain some powerful and revealing developments of them.