It is a rare opportunity for a philosopher to have occasion to comment, not upon the written content of a work, but on the form which the author has given to its content. Derrida’s famous text Glas, on Hegel and Genet, occasions one such engagement. Without developing a commentary on the book’s contents (to my knowledge, there are no extant and full attempts at this ambitious project), we may remark upon the stylistic applications of Derridean deconstruction in ways scarcely recognised by its few brave commentators.
But what can it possibly mean to develop a philosophical commentary which refuses to comment upon the philosophical heart of a work, its inner truth which is revealed through its text alone? Nobody is foolish enough to think they have mastered the Phenomenology of the Spirit by looking at its cover, for example. The occasional cause of philosophy, considered in this way, can never be the sheer surface flatness of a work; philosophy is alight only once it has discovered the hidden spark of a text, disguised amidst its sentential density – its arguments, concepts, inconsistencies and “hidden omissions”.
Few works of philosophy throughout history have been themselves an argument. Certainly, there have been a great many arguments in most reputable works of philosophy – but what is to be said about a book whose mere presence itself constitutes an attack, which is always an argument of sorts? What Derrida firstly exposes us to in Glas is an idea of immanence, or of the sheer surface of the book which must be opened to access its contents, but whose contents are already plainly on its cover. Therefore, Derrida enjoins us to consider a unification of form and content. It is no surprise to those familiar with Derrida’s work that he should place such importance upon the form-of-content defining the content itself. Even more than this, a Derridean will announce that even potential forms of a work are included in the web of significations which are birthed with the idea’s inception (iterability). However, the recognition of the determinative potency of form when influencing content is scarcely a new insight. To speak of the determinative potency of form is still to hold apart the signifying capabilities of form and content, leaving unthought the difference which bestows meaning upon either term. What Derrida presents us with here is not a determinative influence of form upon content, nor even of content upon form, but the total collision of the two whereby the form itself becomes a signification of content.
It is in this way that we may speak of the philosophical work of Glas without intervening upon the more standard philosophical work that is held in its glazed pages.
Which are the aesthetic elements of Glas, then, that structure its meaning without touching its internal contents (in a way, prying apart the ancient unity of meaning and content)? This would require an enumeration of the book’s structural oddities – of which there are innumerably many. Derrida’s dissection of sentences mid-way through with semi-related quotations lasting pages in duration before the preceding sentence is completed; his selection of Hegel and Genet, odd bedfellows indeed, as either combatants in the meaning of the text, or companions in our travel through Derrida’s philosophizing – the techniques in his employ to deconstruct our preconceptions of the work of a book (and where in the book the book’s work is located) are too many to address in an essay such as this. What I choose to focus on instead are three surface components which are responsible for all the depths of the work to be explored.
i) The book’s dimensions. When one handles Glas, they are not picking up a philosophy book (at least, as is revealed by a surface inspection). Its dimensions – nearly a square, printed exclusively in hard-cover with a spine that creaks when worn with movement – are akin to those of an art anthology. Typically, a work of philosophy is to be found in standard dimension sizes: something approximating A5 paper size. Deviation from this norm happens almost exclusively when additional printing space is required for pictorial content. In Glas, there are no pictures.
The size of the book is a challenge. One challenge its size poses is to expose the unspoken dogma underlying yet overdetermining printing size; to what effect though? To answer this is to recognise what functions a standard philosophy book’s size achieves. The standardisation of book size is meant to aid with storage, since if one book is substantially longer than another it will jut out of a bookshelf. Therefore, the denial of standard sizing is a statement of purpose: this is not a work which Derrida expects to be consigned to a bookshelf where space is regulated by the other books held in the collection, and by the dimensions of the bookshelf itself (shall we ever forget the connection between Heidegger’s theory of the en-framing [gestellen] of meaning, and the relation of Gestell to bookshelves?) Glas accordingly refuses the standard en-framing given to works of philosophy and does not allow itself to be left to gather dust on a bookshelf. It must be held apart from the rest of philosophy in a literal and a spatial sense.
Another function which the sizing of books achieves is ease of access. A book which is too wide or too tall is difficult to transport, to hold open, and to annotate. Clearly, then, Derrida is prescribing to his readers certain places of engagement which are suitable for reading the book. Difficulties of transportation consign readers of Glas to academic or private environments, such as a household or a library. The book, then, demands a personal struggle and engagement with it, removed interminably from casual and public settings – there is a potent ideological message which Derrida has prepared for us here as well. Perhaps it is a critique of intellectualism: that the book (here, the sign-of-The-Book) is not designed for the public (and their reading spaces). Perhaps it is a preparation of the appropriate environment in which to engage with philosophical works, the touch of the author demanding he be read in places of private and concentrated study. Lastly, the size of the book which, remember, places it intuitively in the domain of art anthologies rather than philosophical works, predisposes us to a separation of it from the standard world of philosophical works. We must engage with it differently also in how we hold the book and transport it. Glas demands to be held, but to be held apart from the spatio-ideological scene of academicised as well as publicised philosophy.
But inside Glas we can still find the interior world of philosophy: thoughtful discussions of Hegel which unavoidably lead to association with the standard works of philosophy. But is this not the example of deconstruction par excellence? On the inside of the most outside is the inside again! The relationality underlying exteriority and interiority commits us to an interiority to the exterior that is a part of the interior in manifold ways: the exterior of the interior is relative to the interior as its exteriority. And the interiority of the exterior becomes the interiority of the interior: the meanings of the exterior and the interior in this way are perpetually deferred to their difference with the opposite signification.
b) The book’s layout. There have been a great many theories and attempts at description of the book’s layout. Usually, when the layout of a book is referred to, one means to reference something like the table of contents; here, satirizing this tendency, Derrida has forced us to speak of the book’s layout in terms of what every page looks like (after all, in Glas there is no table of contents…) In reading a book, we have been conditioned to expect a great many things of its authors, which in turn have come to dictate our reading habits. We expect that, on a page featuring two or more columns, the second column follows on from the first, and so on. We further expect the author not to trouble us with marginalia – this is why footnotes are also so often overlooked in casual readings of philosophical works. Our assumption as readers is that the author has condemned some comment to the (lower) margin of the page because its importance is supererogatory.
Glas successfully disposes of both of the aforementioned expectations (which are really [superegoic] demands to compromise the autonomy of the author and of the reader). The two-column format of Glas is an embodiment of non-dialectical synthesis: between the one column and the other is not a perpetuation reducible to the sameness of continuity. The first column of each page is committed to Derrida’s discussion of Hegel, and the second, of Genet. However, this layout also prompts the development of new habits in the reader: the first and second columns, though not being obviously continuous actively contextualise each other. Therefore, between the two is what Laruelle calls an “identity-without-blend”. Although held together on the page, the difference of contents between the two does not lend them to dialectical one-ness. To grasp the contents of Glas in the totality of co-determinative significations which Derrida intended requires a non-linear approach to reading which constantly informs the reader’s comprehension of Hegel through Genet, and Genet through Hegel.
But between Hegel and Genet is a third voice – in any comparative text, there is a third voice. The voice of the author, usually consigned to the literal margins of the page, is given a privileged place in Glas. In the book, there are still footnotes and marginalia in which authorial comments are provided. However, the marginalia are here removed from the margins and given a privileged place on each page while remaining marginalia. Does it make sense to speak of non-marginalised marginalia? It is possible that Derrida, who was always attentive to injustice and the Other, is enacting a variety of praxis, attendant to the question: how to displace the Other from the deprivative significatory role to which their identification as an Other consigns them while retaining their other-ness? The Other is often identified with the Weak, the Feminine, the Marginalised, and so on. Derrida is proposing through non-standard expressivity (sheer form, without content) a way of giving justice to the Other: granting them centrality (the marginalia often disrupt the main commentaries in the book, or are in the centre of the page) without denying them their marginality or heterodoxy (despite their structural distribution, the marginalia remain marginalia). It is no coincidence that, as certain commentators have noted as well, the layout of Glas resembles that of the Talmud, foregrounding Derrida’s own experience of cultural alterity.
Other interpretations of the internal structuring of Glas are also extant: Spivak suggests that the spontaneous penetration of the marginalia into the text is a phallic signification, whereas Megill sees the layout as reminiscent of collage-work. We can glean potentially intended meanings underlying the bizarre design of the book from either of these interpretations as well. The disruptive, phallic presence of the authorial comments could be a hermeneutic critique, similar to Deleuze’s thoughts on ‘repetition for-itself’. That the authorial comments derail the spatial continuity of the columns is possibly a remark upon the egoism of the authorial claim to a work, which grants privilege to the author’s interpretation of their own words. This interpretation is given credence when considering Derrida’s conflict with Searle, and the development of ‘iterability’ and ‘dissemination’ as concepts. Underlying either of these concepts is the notion that the author of a work doesn’t possess special, limiting control over the possible meanings of their words. As Boucher phrases it, “[d]issemination is not ‘uncontrolled freeplay’ but a carefully controlled demonstration of the repressed semantic possibilities of any ‘text’ – of any experience – which arises at the “zero point where determinate meaning and non-meaning join in their common origin”.” Therefore, to the extent that Derrida’s treatment of his own authorial comments is meant to be a phallic signification, it appears to be continuous with his critique of authorial privilege.
The comparison between Glas‘s layout and collage-work is also telling in interesting ways. In 1974 (the year of Glas‘s publication in France) collage was still heavily associated with its populariser in the art world: Hannah Höch, a member of the Berlin Dada group. One of the central artistic ambitions of Berlin Dada was to displace authorial intent, as displayed in Jean Arp’s Untitled (Collage with Squares Arranged according to the Laws of Chance) of 1916-17. Höch is no exception to this, and her famous Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada from 1919 exhibits perfectly the randomness that was meant to stylistically underlie collage-work. However, given Höch’s radicalism we know that collage has since its inception had a political function. In opposition to dogmatic and traditional art forms which focussed on explicit representationalism, the Berlin Dada group was an important influence upon the expansion of non-representational art, which sought in more-or-less explicit ways to depose political hegemonies associated with objectivism and scientism.
By understanding the connection between Derrida and Höch we have come to see that, alongside Derrida’s institutional critique of the literary world, the layout of Glas also entails a potentially political message by its association with the Dada. The re-adaptation of the collage-form in Glas is a reiteration of the political motivations underlying the growth of collage-work in art: to interrogate aesthetic orthodoxy and conceive of a creative space in which authorial intent is less important than cosmic forces (chance for the Berlin group, the unconscious for Breton’s and Bataille’s Paris groups).
A question: how to distinguish wild and specious speculation from genuine insight when discussing an author such as Derrida? After all, there is no concrete way of telling whether he intended the array of significations which we have picked out here. It is in this respect that iterability and dissemination become pertinent again. The signs which he has reiterated in the form of the book are ones with facticity and historicity; in other words, signs with preordained histories and uses in which any user of them will have been culturally (ideologically) educated. Consciously intended by Derrida or not, the associations of his decisions with Dada, dialectics and phallogocentrism are existing but (possibly) repressed meanings hiding within Glas.
3) The book’s title. Glas in French means ‘knell’, or the sound of a bell (especially, a bell which is rung to announce a funeral i.e. a death knell). To guide consideration of this strange choice of title, I will choose to inspect two elements: the lexical connections with ‘glas’, and the use of the word ‘glas’ in the book. ‘Glas’ itself has a strange array of lexical connections. It is phonetically identical to ‘la glace’, meaning ice in French, and in German ‘glas’ means ‘glass’. On page 5 Derrida confirms these associations, writing: “The thing here would be the looking glass [glace], the ice [glace] in which the song sets, the heat of an appellation that the bands itself erect in the name.” The thematic continuity between all of these significations is finitude and fragility: the death knell declares a life which has thawed like ice or shattered like glass. But for whom or what is Glas a death knell or a declaration of finitude and fragility? On page 16 Derrida presents to us another useful association with ‘glas’ which we learn about only through taking his direct reading instructions completely seriously (and which he makes explicit on page 1: “Two unequal columns […] always, overlapping each other, two functions.”) The voice of the left-hand, Hegelian column should recite the right-hand, Genetian column, and vice versa. Where Derrida quotes “The Man Condemned to Death”, writing “Your death is a dead woman’s where your eyes are of roses // The glittering frost… // That crowned your forehead with thorns of the rosebush // Despite your frozen [glacés] tears… // … will you steal the keys”, he also discusses the idea of the same in Hegel, written in German ‘das Gleich’.
From the selection of connections which we have exposed, under the direction of Derrida, we have created a significatory web conjoining the death knell, ice, glass(es), and the same. There are some peculiarities to address in these connections. For one, Derrida alongside the other continental ethicists of his day (Levinas, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Blanchot) associates death with radical difference or the Other. Levinas writes: “The unknown of death, which is not given straight off as nothingness but is correlative to an experience of the impossibility of nothingness, signifies not that death is a region from which no one has returned and consequently remains unknown as a matter of fact; the unknown of death signifies that the very relationship with death cannot take place in the light, that the subject is in relationship with what does not come from itself.” The thought of death (provoked perhaps by the ringing of a bell, declaring a death which is never my own, as in the tale The Death of Ivan Ilyich) is always a thought of an impossibility or an incommensurable difference. Similarly, ice and glass(es) are semiotically bound to the thought of difference: ice, which is the beginning of sublimation (an operation in both physics and psychoanalysis) is in a constant state of self-differentiation as its potential to become water or water vapour is perpetually either realised or suppressed, since at regular atmospheric temperature H2O rests in an aqueous state. Glass or glasses erect a barrier for sight, either placed before the eyes or before the body to communicate a spatial difference as a division between either side of the wall of glass. The association with the same is the odd one out.
In the web of significations surrounding the title of the book, ‘das Gleich’ finds itself on the other side, opposed to the other significations by means of symbolism. There is something intriguingly deconstructive about this gesture, since the same itself becomes the symbol of difference where its sign is a difference from difference (an indication of identity amidst the metaphors for difference). Alongside this, the difference of the same calls our attention to its centrality in this web, which is expressed through its difference rather than sameness: what does ice, the death knell, or glass, have to say about the same? I suspect that what Derrida has shown us through the naming of his work is the death of the same, which is always expressed through a difference (glass) or a differentiation (ice). Accordingly, the title of the work, Glas, is the announcement of a death, presented through finitude and fragility. This is a death which is shown as an identity through difference: the deference of the significance of the same to signs of difference which are responsible for its (con-textual) salience.
Doubtless, there are many more aesthetic decisions which determine the form of Glas and which contribute to the meaning of its surface (which is at once an exposure of its absolute depths). Too little academic attention has been directed at this work, and it is my hope that in the coming years increased dedication will be devoted to understanding not only the words or content of Derrida, but also to his praxis of form.
 Boucher (2000) “Dialectics after Derrida”, from the Hegel-Marx-Derrida Seminar, Melbourne. Forthcoming URL = <https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/txt/gb2000_3.htm>
 Laruelle (2013) Principles of Non-Philosophy, p.90.
 Handelman (1982) The Slayer of Moses, p.74.
 Spivak (1977) Glas-Piece: A Compte Rendu, in Diacritics (7:3), p.23.
 Megill (1985) Prophets of Extremity, p.283.
 Boucher (2000).
 Derrida (1986) Glas, p.5.
 Ibid, p.1.
 Ibid, p.16.
 Levinas (1987) Time and the Other, pp.69-70.