23 February 2005

Derrida and the law

Scott McLemee in yesterday's Intellectual Affairs column, "Defending Derrida":

His goal [in "Force of Law"], in effect, is to point to a notion of justice that would be higher than any given code of laws. Likewise, in other late writings, Derrida seeks to define a notion of forgiveness that would be able to grapple with the unforgivable. And, he asks, might it be the case that Levantine traditions of hospitality (of welcoming the Other into one's home) transcend more modern conceptions of ethics?

For someone constantly accused of relativism, Derrida often sounds in these late works like a man haunted by the absolute. There is a sense in which, although he was an atheist, he practiced what a medieval scholar might have recognized as "negative theology" -- an effort to define the nature of God by cutting away all the misleading conceptions imposed by the limits of human understanding.

The implications were political, at least in some very abstract sense. In his keynote talk at the American Academy of Religion in 2002, Derrida proposed a notion of God that, in effect, utterly capsized the familiar world of monotheism by stripping it of all our usual understandings of divine authority. Suppose God were not the all powerful king of the universe (the image that even an atheist is prone to imagine upon hearing the name "God"). Suppose, rather, that God were infinitely weak, utterly vulnerable. What then? What would it mean that human beings are made in His image?

It's an excellent article--I strongly recommend it.

"Law school depressed him," as Goodrich put, "both the environment and the inhabitants." Perhaps it was, at best, a distraction from the philosophical pursuit of pure justice, in all its impossible beauty.

(You're in good company, Mol.)

1 comment:

molrendiel said...

Fabulous post! Good to know someone as brilliant and challenging as Derrida shared my hatred of law school. The law doesn't do much in encouraging the pursuit of truth, and I can only imagine how depressed it made Derrida (although it goes a long way to explaining deconstructionism, which is all law is, in a way).

Interesting comments on his atheism--speaking as a former atheist, I advocate the idea of a negative formation of God. It was in reading the gospel of Matthew--with Christ washing people's feet, hanging out with the hookers, and goofing around with the blundering apostles--that I began to think Jesus might be real...scarily, earth-shatteringly real. It should absolutely f*** with our heads that it's a death--the epitomy of human frailty--at the hinge of history. That should completely mess up our preconceptions of God.