Giving Way
Thoughts on Unappreciated Dispositions
Steven Connor




APOLOGY REPRESENTS A voluntary withdrawal or giving away of status. The question of how absolute this withdrawal must be is always alive in apology. Can one apologize unreservedly? Probably not, though the expression opens the show for us in a telling way. You cannot apologize unreservedly, any more than you can surrender unconditionally, because both ideas are self-refuting and in the same way. Unconditional surrender is a particular way of surrendering, that is, a condition of surrender, the condition of imposing no conditions. You can be defeated in many different ways, but you can surrender only discursively, that is, on condition that you acknowledge your defeat and agree to fall in with approved ways of comporting yourself as a defeated party. From this point on, there are conditions all the way, and nothing but conditions. You can surrender unconditionally only if it is specified and articulated in some formal and explicit way as a condition of your surrender, as a promise or guarantee you make in surrendering, usually in some kind of written treaty or public performance, or both. Apology without let or hindrance can similarly be assured only through an articulation that must constitute a reservation, even in its promise to impose none; otherwise you would just apologize fully or, as we say when we suspect that fully doesn’t sound full enough so try to fill the word out a bit, “fulsomely,” without making any such specification about just how full it is. To say “I apologize unreservedly” is really like heading a notice that you would like to be taken to be polite with the words “Polite Notice.” But to give notice not just that you mean to be polite but that you think you have already succeeded is actually rather impolitely presumptuous. When one reads a reference letter that builds to the crescendo “I support her application for this post enthusiastically and without any kind of reservation,” it is almost impossible not to start wondering what kind of reservations are in fact being disavowed.

So it might be better if you could leave it to somebody else to make the judgment about whether or not you were keeping anything in reserve with your apology. Yet you can apologize unreservedly, it turns out (or your audience can only be sure you have), only if you yourself offer the assurance that you are doing so. But to specify that your apology is without reservation, therefore without any kind of tacit qualification or fingers-crossed exception, and without any kind of calculation of its consequences, is itself to specify a condition for your apology, albeit the negative condition of having no conditions. Not only that, and probably most important, such an affirmation will always offer a rescuing or preservation of your dignity de profundis in an articulation of your right to make an estimate of that condition of making no conditions and whether or not you have met it. To apologize unreservedly is therefore, in however minimal a way, to stand appraisingly outside the act of apology, so reserving some measure of immunity to its evacuating or devastating effects and keeping open the possibility of exaltation in humility we have met with a number of times in this book.

Apology is caught up in the economy of human dealings, in which we do not merely act but assess and exchange behaviors, to preserve and secure various kinds of worth. This is why it seems intelligible to say, not just that I feel I should apologize to you but that “I owe you an apology,” and why we may find ourselves saying, surely without the least idea what in most cases it could possibly mean, that we do or do not “accept” an apology. It is a strange kind of debt to enter into, where one’s creditor may have the choice of declining one’s repayment, forcing one to remain in debt, not just because the interest accrued means the price has gone up (why have you taken so long to apologize?) or because, though one does not have the money to pay, there is no recognized currency in which to pay it. (In a world in which getting into debt has become more of a duty than staying clear of it, and as anyone trying to pay off a mortgage early will discover, such arrangements are becoming as common in financial as in moral affairs.)

Sovereign Apology

On the other side, there is nowadays the incessant demand from all quarters for apology. This is sometimes represented as an epidemic of apology itself, as though it were spontaneously self-occasioning. Apology occurs more and more in response, not to an expectation but to a demand. We must know explicitly that and when people are demanding apology, because it cannot merely be inferred from one’s actions; like declaring war or taking offense, demanding is constituted and not merely evidenced by the performative speech act, known as “demanding,” which nearly always amounts to uttering the words “I demand an apology” or some variant of the words that can be taken as identical to it. A swarm of problems buzzes around this act. There is first of all the question of demanding itself, a word that is the subject of one of the OED’s crisp little masterpieces of historical definition. Latin demandare means to entrust, commit, give in charge, or commend. Typically, one would use this word for the act of giving someone or something into the care of another. The transition to the act of intensified request probably occurred, says the OED, “through the notion of entrusting or committing to any one a duty to be performed, of charging a servant, or officer, with the performance of something, whence of requiring its performance of him, or authoritatively requesting him to do it.” The movement is equivalent to that between commend and recommend, on the one hand, and command, on the other. Some time between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, the simple act of asking turned into a sort of “asking in a way that commands obedience or compliance,” as the OED puts it, a request made with legal right or mandate. So you demand something you think you ought already to have, or have no need to request, meaning that your demand actually constitutes a claim to prior ownership.

It seems possible that English demand might have weakened into the simple condition of asking that demander has today in French—at least one sixteenth-century usage records that somebody “gently demaunded” to be released from a debt, where it does not seem that any entitlement can have been assumed (Hall 1548, f.ccxxxvi). In fact, though, the passage from legal to vernacular use seems to have increased the intensity of the demand in the act of demanding, precisely because the entitlement came to be established not by the fact that it is assumed by an authority that is recognized as able to make demands but by the act of making the demand itself, which had correspondingly to become more demanding. My demand demands first of all the recognition of my right to make my demand—and in the process, if I am lucky, constitutes it.

All this implies that demanding an apology always allows the question, precisely by seeking to rule it out or countermand it in advance, of whether the demand is in fact justified. Can anyone who resorts to demanding an apology ever fully deserve one? Could the demand for an apology ever be mischievous or injurious enough itself to require apology? Demanding an apology may not necessarily turn you into a mercilessly avenging angel, but it cannot help giving you an agreeable inkling of what it would feel like to be one.

Nowadays, the demand for apology is caught up no longer with external relations of force (the power of the king, landlord, local authority) that are represented or referred to in language but relations of force that are enacted internally within language performance itself: so not relations but actions, shows of force that force it into being. Governments or official agencies who inherit in a bureaucratic form the more mystical sovereignty of kings, bishops, and barons still demand the payment of rates or fulfillment of duties by reason of their authority: they are people authorized in advance by other people, including their demandees, to make demands such as this on occasion. But in demanding an apology, I entitle myself, or give myself the right, to be entitled to, or have the right to, an apology.

Where does the right come from in the case of ordinary citizens or groups of such citizens? It appears that in such cases the demand for an apology on the grounds that one has been wronged derives its authority from the wrong itself, so that the wrong that I claim has been done to me, and therefore claim in a certain sense as my own, gives me the right to demand an apology for it. In the case of demands for apology to a group, it may literally be the case that the group derives its identity from the wrong done to it, since your membership of the group may be determined wholly and solely by whether you are held to have suffered the wrong in question, a wrong that gives you your right to apology. Certain groups are constituted and sustained in being by their shared conviction of victimage, a word that appeared in English only in the mid-1950s but has already shifted its meaning from the action of scapegoating, or choosing another as an expiatory victim, to affirming one’s own condition as a victim of wrong. The prestige attaching to being a victim may be anticipated in the fact that the word victim is from Latin victima, a beast prepared for sacrifice, possibly deriving from vigere, to be lively or thrive, or to be in honor, esteem, or repute.

In demanding an apology, I ask for something for which there should be no need to ask, since in a sense my demand insists that by rights I would already have it. To demand something, as opposed to requesting it, is to ask for something that must be regarded as already mine, because it is mine by right, in the recompense that has been both, as we say, “due to me” and therefore laid up for me ever since, and immediately by, the downpayment of the originating offense. This circle of self-reference ought to make demands for apology socially and logically much flimsier than they in fact are. However, there appears to be an enhanced sociological force in the drama of the demand and compliance with it—where sociological means containing and pertaining to the logic of sociality itself—that gives it a kind of power beyond rational inspection, a power that previously resided simply in the external fact of power (the power to beat you up or lock you away). The performing of wrongs confers on the wronged the right to demand from the wronger special duties of symbolic restitution.

Demanding apologies also interferes seriously with the credibility of any apology that may be elicited. Quoting Marion Owen’s observation that “apologizing is one of a class of acts that are expected to be performed without prompting” (1983, 139), M. Catherine Gruber argues in her study of courtroom “allocutions,” or apologies delivered by the convicted to the court, that the very circumstances of being invited to make an apology just before they are sentenced actually rules out the possibility of meeting this important condition, meaning that “at the same time that a judge invites a defendant to allocute, the judge deprives the defendant of the opportunity to make an unprompted apology” (2014, 22). In fact, these special conditions are partly replicated whenever an apology is demanded, for the demand countermands any possibility of the spontaneity required for a sincere apology. The demand for apology thereby runs the risk of prohibiting its own fulfillment.

To demand an apology feels like squeezing one’s antagonist into a corner or effecting a deserved humiliation . But it is always in fact also to offer to one’s antagonist a precious ontological opportunity, which is scarcely to be had in any other way. For apologizing offers to one in the wrong the same immunity as being killed for revenge. In both cases, the victim of a wrong can take sadistic pleasure from the thought of the continuing agony of remorse of the one effecting the wrong, while the victim contrives to remain in ignorance that the perpetrator has actually been left off the hook. It is only through supreme self-deceit, or by the mediation of certain kinds of religious doctrine, that you can imagine somebody you have killed in revenge still skewered somehow, somewhere, by the pangs of remorse. And despite appearances, wringing out an apology from someone also puts the apologizer beyond your reach, liquidating rather than legitimating your demand, for forgiveness is acquittal. One of the many reasons that it might be thought we should be willing to apologize is that it is a skillful means of deflecting the aggression that always animates the demand for apology—and many have felt that deflection of aggression is the best, most skillful, and most important thing that humans know how to do. “But surely I have a right to be aggressive, considering what has been done to me or to someone in whose name I speak.” No. Some people may have a duty of aggression, to protect others from other kinds of aggression, but nobody has the right to aggression, especially since the purpose of aggression is often to give itself its own otherwise unearned rightness rather than the inverse.

By subjecting somebody to your demand for apology, you grant that person an enlarged and sovereign subjecthood, a subjecthood that only your desire to make the person wholly and abjectly subject to your will can give. For sovereign subjecthood comes not from being able to subdue others to your will but being able and willing to subdue yourself, unnecessarily. Rather than merely laying down the law, the victim of a wrong who demands an apology gives to the one from whom apology is to be exacted an opportunity to demonstrate the power and willingness of self-donation of the law. This is all the more so because in many cases, though perhaps not invariably, the apology will be expected to take the form of a call for forgiveness and reconciliation. So what the one who demands an apology demands is that the apologizer issue an appeal, something like a demand without expectation or against all odds, to the apologee.

The effect is to reverse the direction and object of petition. As Nicholas Tavuchis puts it, “By assuming such a vulnerable stance, and only by so doing, we now unobtrusively shift the burdens of belief and acceptance to the injured party” (1991, 18). The thought of the moral advantage that one offers to the one apologizing can be almost intolerable. When all goes well, however, it can effect a very powerful decathecting or draining away of aggression and hurt from the whole sorry situation. To see somebody surrendering authority in this absolute yet oddly authoritative way can suddenly make the moral high ground seem very low-lying indeed and can even induce in the apologee a desire to join in the jubilee of surrendered authority. The penalty of not doing so is to be stuck in a posture of refusal that cannot avoid seeming stubborn, self-gratifying, and suddenly petty compared with the grandeur to which the apologizer has access. It is very hard, for example, to answer a formal speech act involving the words “I apologize” with an equivalently formal “I forgive you” without actually sounding priggish or preening.

Most of those who reflect on apology assume with Nicholas Tavuchis that it is “essentially a speech act that seeks forgiveness, that is, recertification of bona fide membership and unquestioned inclusion within a moral order” (1991, 27). I do not think that this need necessarily be so. It is in fact perfectly possible for an apologizer to feel, and say, that there is no prospect of the offense being forgivable, and no desire for forgiveness, without the declaration ceasing in the least to be an apology. This is another aspect of the sovereignty in abjectness that apology can grant to itself, the counterpart at the supply end of things, perhaps, to the customary expectation that an apology should not require an invitation or request but should arise of itself. Just as it is possible for an apology not to be accepted, it is conceivable under certain circumstances for somebody giving an apology to decline to accept the forgiveness it can elicit, in what might seem a kind of self-prostrating pomp.

The necessary reflexivity of apology means that it is a phenomenon of shame rather than guilt. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” we say, not “you should regard yourself as guilty.” Somebody else can pronounce you guilty; in fact, this is probably the only way in which you can be, as we say, “found” guilty, but nobody can pronounce you ashamed. Rather, people are forced to say that “you should be ashamed,” in the slightly unwilling acknowledgment of the fact that only you can acknowledge your shame. The self-pronouncement of shame is perhaps what we mean by apology, and sometimes what we articulate in it: “I am ashamed of myself.” Apology is the apotheosis of shame, a state lifted, sometimes relievingly, into an action of acknowledgment. Perhaps this is why there is something uncomfortable and even a little disgusting in watching a public apology; apology is the public exposure of what is, or should be, a rather muggy private drama.

This is an enlargement rather than a diminishment in that it gives the apologizer the opportunity for ontic expansion into the space of self-relation, allowing the apologizer to enter the for-itself after previously being coffined in the space of the in-itself. Taking on diminishment gives you the augmentation of self-relation. And this is in turn why apology can offer protection for the very immolation of self that it seems to threaten, for there is a saving distance in the act of apology from the act itself. The Latin formula mea culpa is in the ablative case, and so means not my fault but by my fault. I can acknowledge my fault because, by dint of the fact of my apology, I am no longer fault or faultiness itself, and by acknowledging that something is by my fault, I ensure that I am no longer fully at fault. Apology, the turning away of the word (of accusation), or the word that turns away, is always ablative in this sense.

The earliest meaning in English of apology is a defense, whether of oneself or another. In the course of time, its meaning has apparently inverted to mean the abandonment of defense or self-belief, in self-abasement. Earlier than that, however, Latin apologus, after Greek ἀπόλογος, both of them preserved in English apologue, also meant a fable, usually of an Aesopian kind involving an animal. Apology is therefore to be thought of as apotropaic, a turning away or aside of some imputation, in which it is not clear whether it is the word of accusation that is turned aside or the word of vindication that turns it aside. Marina Warner wonders how it is that this emphatically assertive act turns historically into its opposite:

How did the concept—and the practice—shift from this righteous reasoning in self-defence to the abject, self-abasing petition of apologizing, as we understand it today? From the Promethean stand of heroic defiance, to the adoption of the Ionic suppliant? (2003, 469)

Nicholas Tavuchis sharpens the distinction between defense or justification and an apology, writing that “now an apology begins where these former rhetorical and essentially self-serving forms leave off. . . . To apologize is to declare voluntarily that one has no excuse, defense, justification, or explanation for an action” (1991, 17). Yosef Z. Liebersohn, Yair Neuman, and Zvi Bekerman observe that the Greek apologia was not a term for a social but a legal action, specifically the response or “counter-speech” delivered by a defendant in a trial, and suggest that the fact that such a response speech, in cases where it was clear that the offense had been committed, would often have taken the form of a request for forgiveness or mercy may have anticipated the later shift in the meaning of the word (2004, 923). But there may nevertheless be a continuity between the two apparently contrasting modes, of positive defense and negative petition; for apology remains a defense, in a modulated form that finds vindication in culpability, or rather the capacity to assert and embrace it, and so to be the abasement that one enacts upon oneself. The feelings that may niggle at the righteous apology demander who feels somehow ethically outplayed, seen off by being paid off, and in a coin that is not available for spending, except through inglorious crowing that puts the demander further in the wrong, because the demand has been extinguished by being met: all these hint that this kind of defense is much more decisive than the more aggressive kind that leaves the way clear for answering attack. The only way to allow a demand for an apology, in the sense of allowing it to exist, allowing, from alouer, being close both to applauding and to giving a lease or allocation, is to refuse to meet it, and thereby to outdo and annihilate.

And this comes about precisely because of the necessarily performative nature of apology, which cannot be other than what we call “public.” It does not require anything as grandly or glamorously world historical as an inaugural declaration for this self-relation to be established, because it will be in force whenever the force of performance is substituted for the performance of force. As soon as the king has been killed, in an indubitable and irrevocable act of force that puts an end to the crude externality of armed force as the source of kingly authority, the king’s authority will henceforth derive not from anything external but from the willingness of the people to accept it. Of course, that force will be real—and substantially displayed, in busbies, bayonets, beefeaters, and so on—but it will also be a pantomime, because its dependence on being displayed will itself need to be put permanently on display.

One might say that this is really an apology for sovereignty. And this head that capitalizes on its own decapitation turns out to be in play with regard to the question that has recently arisen so insistently in relation to the act of apology, that has indeed come to colonize it entirely: Can states, and their equivalents, apologize, and, if so, when should they?

A demand for an apology resembles the demanded apology in being a declaration. It is as hard definitively to declare something without using the words “I declare that” as it is to demand something without using the self-declaring words “I demand that.” It is similarly impossible to apologize by simply being sorry; one must say “sorry,” meaning that one must perform some kind of declaration of one’s remorse. Such declarations partake in the self-doubling nature of all declaration, but perhaps especially political declarations such as the American Declaration of Independence, which, in Jacques Derrida’s acrobatic analysis, establishes in and through the fact of its own declaration the right of “the people,” on whose behalf the signatories sign, to make it. For the people

do not exist as an entity, the entity does not exist before this declaration, not as such. If it gives birth to itself, as free and independent subject, as possible signer, this can hold only in the act of the signature. The signature invents the signer. (2002, 49)

The constitution of a state requires a statement that allows a state to come into being by presuming in the very making of the statement that it already has (53).

There is a curious kind of delirium that can overtake anyone writing about such matters, given that, once one begins to evoke circles of reflexive self-constitution, they seem to develop their own rhetorical momentum so that it is hard to stop making up new ways in which to demonstrate how institutions have to make themselves up as they go along. The particular blend of sly frivolity and slow-moving solemnity that characterizes Derrida’s writing on such matters is at once rather addictive, once you’ve got the hang of it, and intensely annoying for those with less patience for rhetorical self-indulgence. I make this point, not, I’m afraid, as any mea culpa, or promise to do better in future, but in order to put into play the question of seriousness itself in relation to apology. I wish to propose that the serious question that is usually asked of public and political apology—Is it right? (in all of its imaginable aspects and dimensions, is it legitimate, is it necessary, does it do any good or any harm?)—is inseparable from another question: Is it ridiculous?

I will postpone, possibly, you may be relieved to hear, in perpetuity, the question of whether public apology is serious or ridiculous is itself serious or ridiculous. But we can be sure at least that the public and ceremonial nature of state apologies makes the question of the degree of their solemnity morally salient. Indeed, solemnity, a word of uncertain origin, is itself performative, a solemn ceremony being defined as one performed with due seriousness. A failure of seriousness in matters where solemnity is required (the making of vows, or attestations) is a serious matter, which is why courts reserve the right to punish people who are found to be in contempt of court. J. L. Austin famously observes that felicity in performative statements depends on them being serious and not part of a joke, pantomime, or tragic drama (1962, 121). Strangely, utterances can be properly performative only if they are not mere performances (showing off, simulating, imitating). The point of wondering whether it is ridiculous for nations and corporate bodies to give apologies is to essay and assay the McEnrovian protest: You Cannot be Serious.