Heidegger’s interpretation of death in Being and Time not as nullity but as the “absolute impossibility” that possibilizes one’s being involves a rethinking of the very category of possibility, one that unmoors it from the category of actuality, by conceiving of death as an ontologically structuring not-yet (see my post on Heidegger on death). There remains, however, the question as to how the impossibility of death comes to constitute the very possibility of a being-possible which Heidegger gives the name “Da-sein.” Or, to state the paradox more succinctly: why and how can that which is impossible (death) possibilize being (Da-sein)?
In Aporias (1993), Derrida puts pressure on Heidegger’s famous formulation of death as “the possibility of the absolute impossibility of Da-sein [die Möglichkeit der schlechthinnige Daseinsunmöglichkeit]” by focusing on moments in Being and Time which seek to define the proper borders of Da-sein, that is, the ontological demarcations that differentiate Da-sein from other modes of being such as Zuhandensein and Vorhandensein (citations of Heidegger’s text are from the Staumbaugh translation of Being and Time, 232; German references are from the Gesamtausgabe vol. 2, 333 ). As Derrida suggests, without these “borders” that separate and secure Da-sein’s essence as a pure possibility, Heidegger’s whole discourse on death would lose something of its fundamentality. As we shall see, Derrida’s deconstruction of Heidegger’s existential analysis amounts to a rethinking of death not as pure possibility (as Heidegger would have it) but as the aporia of the impossible. Aporia means not getting through, being without passage. There will be, in other words, a change of conceptual priority from possibility (Heidegger) to impossibility (Derrida) in the philosophical meditation of death. What is more, such a shift in analytical emphasis implies a different kind of ethical relation: in contradistinction to Heidegger who emphasizes the “call of conscience” that discloses Da-sein’s essential and ethical character of being-in-the-world as care (Sorgen), the aporia of the impossible, for Derrida, is directed towards a reckoning of the death of the completely Other, which compels a rethinking of social ethics based on a disposition towards those outside of oneself, which Derrida gives the name “arrivant.” In what follows, I would like to spell out in some detail Derrida’s critique of Heidegger’s existential analysis of death by identifying and tracing three tropes of the impossible which run counter to those we find in Heidegger: namely, that of the problem, border, and waiting. These for Derrida become so many figures of the aporetic structure and “experience” of death.
Derrida suggests that Heidegger’s thematic exposition of possibility with respect to death—death as Da-sein’s most proper possibility—relies upon a conception of death as a problem. The word “problem,” as Derrida notes, comes from the Greek problema. In the ancient Greek usage, problema signified both projection and protection: it is that which one throws in front of oneself either as a project, like a task or assignment to complete, or as a source of protection, like a shield or barrier. One can read these two senses of problem as projection and protection in Heidegger’s locution regarding death as “a possibility of being that Da-sein always has to take upon itself [die je das Dasein selbst zu übernehmen hat],” such that “Da-sein stands before itself in its ownmost potentiality-of-being [steht sich das Dasein selbst in seinem eigensten Seinkönnen bevor]” (BT, 232; SZ, 333 [250-251]). Death is conceived here as that which is, on the one hand, projected as a border-limit, and on the other, that which possibilizes Da-sein’s self-constitution in its protection of its “possibility of being free for its ownmost potentiality of being [für das eigenste Seinkönnen]” (BT, 135; SZ, 191 ). Being-toward-death is for Heidegger that from which one constructs one’s life as a project, that is, thrown projection: Da-sein approaches and encounters death as a border that serves as a constituting, possibilizing limit. Heidegger poses death as a border or threshold in order to base his understanding of Da-sein’s recursive self-constitution in terms of a thrown, or better yet, projected possibility.
But the image of the border is not limited to this analytical representation of death. The border insinuates itself in what characterizes a certain Heideggerian move in Being and Time, namely, the positioning of the existential analysis of death within the logic of a presupposition. Indeed, Heidegger’s project in Being and Time is nothing less than to present the existential analysis of death as something that is fundamentally prior to and thus more primordial and originary than all other discourses of death, including but not limited to a theology and metaphysics of death and the ontical research regarding death as found in biology, psychology, and anthropology. Heidegger can be said to partition the existential analysis of death from the ontic sciences in order to protect it from ontic contamination, on the one hand, and project it as a fundamental presupposition, on the other. Heidegger does so in order to establish the existential analysis of death as the underlying basis and presupposition for all present and future discourses on death. As Derrida remarks, Heidegger’s “ontology of Da-sein” presents itself as “legitimately and logically prior to an ontology of life” (A, 29).
Derrida’s deconstructive reading of Heidegger’s existential analysis proceeds by exploring the ways in which an understanding of the aporia of death, indeed, a thinking of death as aporia “risk interrupting the very possibility of its functioning and leading it to ruin” (A, 28, my emphasis). Death, Derrida writes, “would be the name, one of the names, of this threat.” Death threatens to disrupt what Derrida describes as the superordinate status of the Heideggerian existential analysis it confers onto itself against all other discourses of death. By reflecting upon the implications of the aporia of death, Derrida thus seeks to displace the presuppositional position which Heidegger projects and protects in the name of the absolute ontological priority of the fundamental analysis of Da-sein. In doing so, Derrida is also undermining the various problematic closures or borders that Heidegger sets up in his attempt to distinguish the “properly dying” (eigentlich sterben) from perishing (Verenden), demising (Ableben), and dying (Sterben). For Derrida, there is only perishing, demising, and what he calls the death of the other. Thus, rather than viewing death as a problem, one that depicts death as a border, Derrida proposes to think of death as aporia, whose apposite image would therefore not be of a border “not to be bypassed,” but rather as a nonpassable border, that is, death as a nonpassage. The aporia of death as a nonpassable border derives from the Greek notion of an aporia, which indicate “limits of truth” whose borders “must not be exceeded” (A, 1). To think of death as aporia, then, would mean to dwell “in the very place where it would no longer be possible to constitute a problem, a project, or a projection” (A, 12, original italics).
Derrida broaches this thinking of the aporia of death and death as aporia by identifying two problematical operations in Heidegger’s existential analysis of death, especially as it concerns the discourse of possibility: firstly, Heidegger’s assertion of death as Da-sein’s most proper possibility; and secondly, Heidegger’s assertion that the most proper possibility of Da-sein is also the possibility of an impossible.
The assertion that death is the most proper possibility of Da-sein depicts death as that which makes possible the very being-possible of Da-sein. For if Da-sein is another name for being-possible, the most proper possibility of this being-possible is death. It is in this sense that death is possibility par excellence in Heidegger. As we recall, death as possibility is thematized in Being and Time as thrown projection, that is, as a comportment or relating to death in terms of a running ahead (vorlaufen). Da-sein is always already ahead of itself in being-toward-death. What is to be noted here is that Heidegger employs a quasi-spatial metaphor to describe the nature of this running ahead toward death-as-possibility: death as that before which Da-sein stands before itself in its ownmost potentiality-for-being. Derrida translates the German “steht sich…bevor” to the French “s’at-tend lui-meme” in order to transpose the spatial metaphor of “standing before” into a temporal metaphor of waiting, s’attendre. Consequently, Derrida reinterprets the ontological possibility of death not as a relation that discloses a being-toward-death as running ahead, but rather as a relation to death that discloses the aporia of death as absolute waiting. My suggestion here is that Derrida’s critique of Heidegger seeks to establish a new thinking of the possible, one that does not derive from the Heideggerian formulation of the proper and the values of an authenticating pure possibility, but rather from the most improper possibility, that is, toward the impossible as the aporetic condition of the possible. The Derridean gesture here, then, would be the introduction of an originary inscription of ruination and contamination.
But first, if for Derrida being-toward-death is less a standing before than an absolute waiting, what does this waiting mean and what does it entail? Why does Derrida translate “Da-sein stands before itself” to “Da-sein awaits itself?” In characterizing one’s relation to death as absolute waiting, Derrida is interested in thinking less the ways in which death marks the time that remains to be lived (as we have seen, this takes the figure of the not-yet in Heidegger) than to signify the necessarily untimely character of death (which Derrida’s figure of the arrivant evokes). The kind of waiting of death Derrida has in mind is therefore not the kind of anticipation that leads to an anxious mode of waiting or expecting, which Heidegger had already remarked upon as a relating to death that is inauthenticating because it treats death as though it were a phenomenally accessible event. Rather, Derrida’s reinterpretation of “steht sich…bevor” to “s’at-tend lui-meme” is meant to open up an understanding of death as an aporia. We can foreground at least three modes of waiting in Derrida: (1) the awaiting oneself; (2) the waiting for the arrivant; and (3) the waiting for each other. To await for oneself, as indicated in the French reflexive construction, means that there is no object properly speaking to the waiting other than to oneself. Hence, one simply awaits oneself, nothing else. But the reflexive construction also suggests a second possible syntactical structure, wherein one awaits for something—one waits to a something. This “something” is the completely other, whose other name is the arrivant. The absolute alterity of the arrivant entails that one can never anticipate and calculate its arrival and departure. For Derrida, the self and the arrivant relate in such a way that their mutual awaiting is one that is necessarily an impossible simultaneity, involving both anachronism and contretemps. With death, one does not therefore give oneself time, as in the case of Heidegger’s formulation of being-toward-death. Rather, the awaiting of the arrivant at the border of death is for Derrida the very disjointure of time; it is what makes time “out of joint.” Thus, to wait for each other at the nonpassable border of death involves recognizing and reckoning with the untimely character of death: “life always being too short, the one is waiting for the other there, for the one and the other never arrive there together” (A, 65, my emphasis).
The second problematic operation Derrida interrogates is Heidegger’s assertion that the most proper possibility of Da-sein is also the possibility of an impossible. Heidegger maintains that if death is the most proper possibility of Da-sein, then it is the possibility of an impossible. The originality of Derrida’s reading of Heidegger here lies in bringing to light what Derrida regards as a hardly noted paradox that undergirds Heidegger’s project. Derrida suggests that the paradox remains subterranean, as it were, because it is an aporetic supplement that in fact risks threatening the seemingly invulnerable system of Heidegger’s fundamental ontology. Derrida therefore asks the question that Heidegger seemed reluctant to confront: how, exactly, to understand the possibility of an impossibility? Where do we situate this aporia, from the standpoint of possibility or from the standpoint of impossibility? What can the possibility of an impossibility be? What is the nature of its appearance? In what manner of speaking do we make sense of this possibility of the impossible. Can one, in fact, speak of and testify to an experience of the aporia?
Derrida begins by making an important clarification. Death as the possibility of an impossible does not mean that it is the impossibility of a being-able-to. Rather, and here he follows Heidegger closely, death is understood as “the possibility of being able no longer to be there.” The difference between “the impossibility of a being-able-to” and “the possibility of being able no longer to be there” is alighted here by Derrida in order to maintain and secure the power of possibility. Derrida asserts the double sense of possibility (die Möglichkeit) as virtuality and as capacity: death is the possibility of being able no longer to be there. Derrida suggests that the nuance is thin but all the more decisive. What Derrida finds curious is the way in which Heidegger himself glosses over the peculiar logical form which his existential analysis of death takes and draws out: for Heidegger does indeed present death as the most proper possibility that is at the same the possibility of an impossibility. Another peculiar Heideggerian formulation Derrida identifies is the trope of proximity and distance: that which is closest to Da-sein is also paradoxically that which is the farthest: “The nearest nearness of being-toward-death as possibility is as far removed as possible from anything real [einem Wirklichen]” (BT, 242; SZ, 348 ). These assertions in the Heideggerian text indicate for Derrida aporetic moments that the existential analysis of death seeks to resolve or altogether circumvent by establishing death as pure possibility.
What is more, the possibility of an impossibility points to at least two more difficult interpretations. Firstly, the possibility of the impossible; secondly, the possible as the impossible. The first marks the becoming-possible of what is, strictly speaking, impossible in possible experience. Insofar as death is an ineluctable yet impossible feature of being, it is the paradigmatic example of the possibility of the impossible. The second broaches the manner in which possibility unveils and manifests itself as the impossible. Here, the second interpretation points to what is perhaps most difficult to ontologically clarify: how to understand the structure of Da-sein as possibility in relation to death in the register of possibility as impossibility. How do we understand this? How do we make sense of the as, the als, in this syntactical construction? As Derrida notes, “[i]t is not only the paradoxical possibility of a possibility of impossibility: it is possibility as impossible” (A, 70). It is to understand death as the most proper possibility of Da-sein which is at the same time its most improper impossibility.
Crucial here is knowing in which sense and direction one reads the expression of the possibility as impossibility. “Is it that the impossible be possible? Is the aporia the impossible itself” (A, 73). Derrida suggests several ways of thinking this aporetic formula. One interpretation would be to view death as the possible impossible in the sense that death cannot, by definition, be realized in our existence but can nevertheless belong within the order of resolute certainty. The impossible here would be read in terms of the impossibility of living or “existing” in one’s death, as well as the basic impossibility of existing once one is dead. Death as the possibility of no-longer-being-there-in-the world means that Da-sein ceases to be what it is, namely a being-there. But Derrida is not satisfied with this interpretation because it easily slides into the first (i.e., “possibility of the impossible”) and does not apprehend the aporetic structure of death as impossible possibility. Derrida thus proposes the following more challenging interpretation: not the possibility of an impossibility, but rather the impossible becoming possible, or better yet, the possible appearing as such, as impossible. Derrida reads the becoming possible of the impossible in the following way:
“as an impossibility that can nevertheless appear or announce itself as such, an impossibility whose appearing as such would be possible….an impossibility that one can await or expect, an impossibility the limits of which one can expect or at whose limits one can wait” (A, 73, my emphases).
The impossible thus turns out to be radical possibilization. The power of possibilization is indicated here by Derrida’s hewing of the modal verb “can” to “impossibility,” such that one can “do” and “wait” the impossible. But it is a notion of im-possibility as a being-able that does not derive its power from the proper or the pure, as we saw in the case of Heidegger. Rather, Derrida proposes a notion of possibilization which contains within its structure the principle of its own ruin. The possible appearing as such, as impossible, thus carries within its becoming-possible an originary contamination. For Derrida, death is precisely the figure for this originary contamination, wherein being-toward-death would be another name for the impossible becoming possible. It is in this sense we can read being-toward-death as absolute waiting, death as the impossible possibility whose limits at which one can wait.
Derrida’s critique of Heidegger’s existential analysis of death with respect to the concept of possibility is at least threefold. Firstly, death as the possibility of the impossible means that properly dying is that which is in fact inaccessible to man. The implication of this for Derrida is that Da-sein “never has a relation to death as such, but only to perishing, to demising, and to the death of the other” (A, 76). Secondly, the “mineness” of death is subordinated to and superseded by an ethical relation toward the death of the completely other. Whereas Heidegger understood death as that which throws Da-sein back onto itself, such that resolute being-toward-death is always already that which is most proper to me (a kind of self-constitution and self-possession), Derrida emphasizes instead what he calls the “death of the other,” which he insists as “fundamentally the only death that is named in the syntagm ‘my death'” (A, 76, my emphasis). Thirdly, Derrida reinterprets the Heideggerian motif of running ahead or of Da-sein’s standing before itself as the awaiting for each other and for the completely other. We wait for each other and for the completely other at the nonpassable, impossible border of death which itself awaits us. But because death is always “the death of the other in ‘me,'” death becomes that which cannot in fact be retrieved as the most proper property of my Da-sein. Hence, Derrida argues that “[f]rom the most originary inside of its possibility the proper of Da-sein becomes from then on contaminated, parasited, and divided by the most improper” (A, 77). As a consequence, this means that the problematic closures Heidegger had set out to establish between properly dying, perishing, and demising—which the existential analysis built in order to partition and separate the proper from the improper, man from animal, the ontological from the ontic—effectively become untenable. These so many borders of Heidegger’s existential analysis become “threatened in their very principle, and, in truth, they remain impracticable as soon as one admits that an ultimate possibility is nothing other than the possibility of an impossibility” (A, 77, my emphasis). The “problem” of death in the Heideggerian project cannot therefore, in the final analysis, protect or immunize itself from what Derrida calls “a hidden bio-anthropo-thanato-theological contamination” (A, 79). Indeed, the principle of contamination and ruination is built into the very constitution and preservation of what is proper to and a part of Da-sein’s being that Being and Time had systematically set out to clarify.
In sum, Derrida’s deconstructive critique concerning Da-sein’s originary contamination is carried out by the thought of the possible as impossible. For Derrida, this thinking of the possible as impossible is also the thinking of ethics, of ethical decision, indeed of justice and responsibility. As he does elsewhere, Derrida ascribes the impossible as the condition of possibility of responsibility and of the ethical decision (but not as their program): “[t]o do the impossible cannot be an ethics and yet it is the condition of ethics. I try to think the possibility of the impossible.” As I shall say more below, the arrivant becomes the figure for this impossibility understood as the condition of possibility of ethics. But, for now, it is worth staying with how Derrida engages the impossible as possibilization. He outlines three ways: (1) the possible as impossible; (2) the impossible as possible; (3) the possibility of the impossible. What is decisive is not to oppose them by treating the impossible as the opposite of the possible—this would commit an Aristotelian mistake. Derrida argues instead that the impossible is what in fact possibilizes the possible: “the im-possibility is thus not simply the opposite of the possible. It seems only to be opposed but it also supports possibility: it passes through it and leaves it in the trace of its taking away.” Everything hinges on this understanding of the impossible as possibilization in Aporias. This is why the antinomy of death is understood not in terms of a problem/problema, for which one somehow finds a solution or resolution. Rather, the antinomy of death is submitted as an aporia, for which one does not (and cannot) solve but that which one endures instead as an impossible possibility:
“The antinomy here better deserves the name of aporia insofar as it is neither an ‘apparent or illusory’ antinomy, nor a dialectizable contradiction in the Hegelian or Marxist sense, nor even a ‘transcendental illusion in a dialectic of the Kantian type’, but instead an interminable experience. Such an experience must remain such if one wants to think, to make come or to let come any event of decision or of responsibility.” (A, 16, my emphasis)
The aporia of death thus discloses less a pure possibility than a notion of possibility whereby the aporetic supplement of impossibility to possibility is necessarily and unconditionally maintained. Put more plainly, without this aporetic supplement of the impossible to the possible, there can be no possibility. An irreducible aporia, contamination, and impurity must therefore be affirmed, endured, and ultimately lived. It is only by paradoxically depriving possibility of its purity—of that which is most proper and authentic to it—that what is possible is given a chance. Derrida’s notion of impossibility is therefore not to be conceived as having a negative relation to possibility, but is in fact that which irrigates and passes through it in the becoming-possible of the possible.
Yet, how is the impossible endured? How is it to be lived as the condition of possibility of ethics, of a certain ethical responsibility? If Heidegger understood being-toward-death as that which makes Da-sein’s being-in-the-world possible as pure being-possible, Derrida, I suggest, signifies a relation toward death as the aporetic condition of an impossible, yet inexorable, waiting. Derrida illustrates this in terms of waiting for the arrivant. The phenomenology of this waiting, however, does not entail a waiting for oneself or for each other at a time and place we determine in advance, nor does it mean we wait for the completely other in the manner we would wait for a guest or a visitor. In principle, we cannot expect the arrivant because it “does not yet have a name or identity” (A, 34): the arrivant is not a self-same identity or sovereign selfhood whose name we can call or whose body we can accept. We are enjoined to think of a mode of waiting without the economy of expectation. To wait for somebody or something whom one cannot know and therefore whom one cannot expect, much less apprehend, means that this waiting for the arrivant requires an unconditional hospitality. It is a hospitality without condition because the coming of the arrivant can never be called upon or be reduced to its invitation; its visitation will always be radically unpredictable, its coming, a surprise. Waiting for the arrivant, hence, is another name for the experience of the impossible—the enduring of an aporia. In this way, the arrivant invites a rethinking of the conditions of finitude, whereby the limits of Da-sein’s being is no longer thought in terms of an “end” that can be posited in Da-sein’s resoluteness. Instead, the aporia of death means that the limits and “ends of man” become themselves indeterminate. In contrast to Heidegger’s notion of the end of Da-sein as being given in resolute being-toward-death, the “ends of man” are for Derrida necessarily indeterminate. It seems to me that one of the implications of Derrida’s argument here is the way in which the arrivant unsettles any mode of thinking that takes the subject as sovereign, unitary, hence, as primarily self-sufficient and self-determining. In its waiting for the arrivant, the self remains constitutionally exposed to a radical openness and vulnerability to the completely other.
Derrida argues “there is no politics without an organization of the time and space of mourning” (A, 61). But, like death, mourning contains also the aporetic trace and structure of the impossible. Consider for instance the injunction implied in mourning: the promise not to forget in grieving the one who has passed away. This promise is always already contaminated by, and precisely as its condition of possibility, the risk of forgetting and the failure of mourning. It is only in the name of such a contamination, this originary inscription of failure and forgetting, that the promise can be kept and succeed as a promise as such. For Derrida, however, this aporetic promise of mourning is never merely directed toward an individual or group of individuals. Mourning involves the mourning of the arrivant. Because the arrivant is never of the similar or the familiar (we do not know its name; we do not know from whence or when it will arrive…), the arrivant compels a mode of being disposed toward others, an ethical responsibility based on what Derrida elsewhere describes as
“the respect for those others who are no longer or for those others who are not yet there, presently living, whether they are already dead or not yet born. No justice…seems possible or thinkable without the principle of some responsibility, beyond all living present, within that which disjoins the living present, before the ghosts of those who are not yet born or who are already dead, be they victims of wars, political or other kinds of violence, nationalist, racist, colonialist, sexist, or other kinds of exterminations, victims of the oppressions of capitalist imperialism or any of the forms of totalitarianism.”
For Derrida, the possibility of mourning—of ethics and of life more generally—lies in the impossible waiting for and responding to the arrivant—the completely other—among whom include the already dead, those with or without a name, and the not yet born. In spite of its strangeness, even non-presence and non-contemporaneity, Derrida insists that one must wait for the arrivant. Like mourning for someone whose name one may never know, waiting for the arrivant involves a waiting for someone or something whose visitation may never arrive. Yet one waits interminably without expectation, and one mourns unconditionally without measure. It would therefore be a mistake to regard Derrida’s argument about absolute waiting and unconditional mourning as a deferment of decision or action. Insofar as one mourns and waits without condition for the arrivant in order for possibility to have a chance, this ethical relation to the completely other in fact compels an injunction to act. We might say, then, that unconditional mourning, as well as unconditional hospitality, is the mark of (ethical) life and being. Where Heidegger’s defense of possibility pivots around the ontological structure of Da-sein’s not-yet, whose being-toward-death discloses Da-sein’s being as pure being-possible, Derrida affirms possibility on the side of and with respect to the impossible. To live, finally, is thus a being toward death’s aporetic limits—a death which I cannot simply call my own and my own only, but always the “impossible possible” death of the other in me.
Image: Pinaree Sanpitak, “Anything Can Break,” installation, Thailand, 2011. Courtesy of Tyler Rollins Fine Art (NY)
 Derrida makes a similar move with respect to Heidegger’s notion of primordial “temporalization of temporality”: “What if there was no other concept of time than the one that Heidegger calls ‘vulgar’? What if, consequently, opposing another concept to the vulgar concept were itself impracticable, non-viable, impossible? What if it was the same for death, for vulgar concept of death?” (A, 14).
 The ethico-political dimensions of the possible as impossible is more fully elaborated in Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).
 Interview by Jerome-Alexandre Nielsberg for l’Humanité, January 28, 2004, cited in François Raffoul, The Origins of Responsibility (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), p. 287.
 Derrida, “As If It Were Possible” in Paper Machine (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 91, my emphasis.
 Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London and New York: Routledge, 1994) xviii.
 For Derrida, ethics emerges out of the encounter with the entirely other, “the monstrously other,” the “Wholly Other,” the unrecognizable, completely other. To quote from The Beast and the Sovereign, Derrida argues, in a reversal of Lacan’s psychoanalytic axiom concerning law and crime: “The ‘unrecognizable’…is the beginning of ethics, of the Law, and not of the human. So long as there is recognizability and fellow, ethics is dormant…So long as [ethics] remains human, among men, ethics remains dogmatic, narcissistic, and not yet thinking.” See Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, trans. Geoffrey Bennington (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009), p. 108.