Reading Given Time
How should we read Jacques Derrida’s Given Time, a text that seems to defy standard approaches? Central to its understanding is to be aware of the need for a close reading of a text in which its subjects, the gift and time and their “impossibility,” are embedded in its structure. These subjects are given, made visible, by the introduction and development of themes through which they can be understood. These themes: the circle, the economic, the possible etc. are both written about and demonstrated within the text’s structure.
As I said Derrida characterises both the gift and time as the impossible, how can we understand this? Let us follow Derrida’s argument, starting on page 6, after the epigraph, where he begins with an immediate reference to the impossible when he says: “Let us begin with the impossible.” What is referred to here is the work’s title, “Given Time,” in which the gift and time are brought together, and the difficulty to come of joining them, asking: “What can time have to do with the gift? We mean: what would there be to see in that?”
He follows on from this by saying there would be nothing to see, time is invisible; “it withdraws itself from visibility,” but goes on to say “nothing appears that does not require and take time. Nothing sees the light of day, no phenomenon, that is not on the measure of day, in other words, of the revolution that is the rhythm of a sun’s course.” Time is invisible and yet everything is subject to time, experienced in the “measure of day” governed by the circular movement of the Sun and the Earth.
The reference to “revolution” allows Derrida to introduce the first theme, that of the circle:
“Whose figure precipitates both time and the gift towards the possibility of their impossibility”
Thus the circle encompasses both the gift and time and their possible relationship to the impossible. The influence of the circle is not only written about it can also be felt in the text’s structure. For example, in paragraph four Derrida repeats, almost word for word, the opening sentence of paragraph two:
“To join together, in a title, at once time and the gift may seem to be a laborious artifice, as if, for the sake of economy, one sought to treat two subjects at once.” Circularity is within the structure of the text, which is expanded by the introduction of the concept of economy.
There then follows an extended definition of the word economy. Within this discussion the concepts of distribution and exchange are alluded to and linked to the circle, which Derrida says is at the centre of any problematic of oikonomia [economy] and by extension central to both the gift and time.
Derrida returns to the gift, casting doubt on its very existence, something he does throughout the chapter. He goes on to say if it does exist it would be related to economy. Yet the gift seems to have the capacity to disrupt the circle of economic exchange, by suspending economic calculation, one which “no longer gives rise to exchange.” Here a key point is made:“If there is gift, the given of the gift must not come back to the giving.” Therefore the gift: “must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure.” (7)
So the gift is related to the economic and yet cannot take part in the circularity of economic exchange, how can this be expressed? Derrida says the gift is aneconomic (not economic) – this doesn’t mean it has no relation to the economic but instead has a “relation of foreignness to the circle.” (ibid) A relationship which seems to be the impossible, a reference which brings us back to the beginning, but with an expanded understanding. Derrida says that the impossible:
“gives itself to be thought as the impossible. It is proposed that we begin by this. And we will do so. We will begin later. By the impossible.”
Here Derrida references time by projecting the idea of the impossible into the future discussion, before then expanding on the circle and its relationship to the gift and time.
There then follows a two-page discourse on the circle and on its relationship to the gift and time. Circularity can be viewed as a weakness, in logic a definition that relies on its terms for solution is a vicious circle and can never be resolved. Yet in the writings of Martin Heidegger the hermeneutic circle is celebrated as something we should inhabit and not flee from. Furthermore circularity is central to language (Heidegger the geflecht) and to time.
Derrida again draws upon Heidegger to characterise the traditional philosophical conception of time as a sequence of “nows” that has a connection to the circular:
“Aristotle follows tradition in connecting khronos [time] with sphaira [sphere/circle], Hegel stresses the ‘circular course’ of time” (8)
This leads Derrida to say that wherever the concept of “time as circle is predominant, the gift is impossible.”
“A gift is only possible only at the instant an effraction [breaking open] in the circle will have taken place.” (9)
Therefore the gift is outside of time, it’s breaking open of time’s circular structure “concerns time but does not belong to it.” This leads Derrida to say: “the “present” of the gift is no longer thinkable as a now, that is, as a present bound up in the temporal synthesis.”This allows Derrida to briefly expand on the concepts of the present, “in all the senses of this term:” the gift; what is before us; the time now. (9-10)
Read the second part of my detailed notes on chapter one of Given Time here