16 February 2006


From John D. Caputo's marvelous essay on Jacques Derrida:
But what his critics missed (and here not reading him makes a difference!), and what never made it into the headlines, is that the destabilizing agency in his work is not a reckless relativism or an acidic skepticism but rather an affirmation, a love of what in later years he would call the "undeconstructible." The undeconstructible is the subject matter of pure and unconditional affirmation--"viens, oui, oui" (come, yes, yes)--something unimaginable and inconceivable by the current standards of imagining and conceiving. The undeconstructible is the stuff of a desire beyond desire, of a desire to affirm that goes beyond a desire to possess, the desire of something for which we can live without reserve. His critics had never heard of this because it was not reported in Time, but they did not hesitate to denounce what they had not read, like the famous signatories of the letter to Cambridge University, who disgracefully declared Derrida's unworthy of an honorary degree because he undermined the standards of responsible scholarship--the most elemental tenet of which would surely have been first to read what you criticize in public (a close second being, if you do read it, try to understand it).

It was not surprising that in the last fifteen years Derrida would start talking about religion, telling us about his "religion (without religion)," about his "prayers and tears," and about the Messiah. He would even write a kind of Jewish Confessions called "Circumfession," a haunting and enigmatic journal he kept while his beloved mother lay dying in Nice, a diary cum dialogue with St. Augustine, his equally weepy "compatriot." Modern day Algeria is the ancient homeland (Numidia) of Augustine and Derrida even lived on a street called the Rue Saint Augustin. In this text, the son of these tears (Augustine/Jacques) cir-cum-fessed (to God/ "you") about his mother (Monica/Georgette), who lay dying on the northern shores of the Mediterranean (Ostia/Nice), to which both families had emigrated. This side of Derrida even makes some admirers nervous, for they would prefer their Derrida straight up, not on what seems to them religious rocks.

His critics failed to see that deconstructing this, that and everything in the name of the undeconstructible is a lot like what religious people, especially Jews, would call the "critique of idols." Deconstruction, it turns out, is not nihilism; it just has high standards! Deconstruction is satisfied with nothing because it is waiting for the Messiah, which Derrida translated into the philosophical figure of the "to come" (à venir), the very figure of the future (l’avenir), of hope and expectation. Deconstruction's meditation on the contingency of our beliefs and practices--on democracy, for example--is made in the name of a promise that is astir in them, for example, of a democracy "to come" for which every existing democracy is a but a faint predecessor state.

But if this religious turn made his secularizing admirers nervous, it made religious people still more nervous. For after all, by the standards of the local rabbi or pastor, Derrida "rightly passes for an atheist," which gives secular deconstructors much comfort (but giving comfort is not what deconstruction was sent into the world to do). When asked why he does not say "I am" an atheist (je suis, c'est moi), he said it was because he did not know if he were, that there are many voices within him that give one another no rest, and he lacks the absolute authority of an authorial "I" to still this inner conflict. So the best he can do is to rightly pass for this or that and he is very sorry that he cannot do better. That, it seems to me, is an exquisite formula not only for what might be called Derrida's atheism, but also for faith. Rightly passing for this or that, a Christian, say, really is the best we can do. It reminds me of the formula put forward by Kierkegaard's "Johannes Climacus" (more Socratic figures!) who deferred saying that he "is" a Christian but is doing the best he can to "become" one.

Derrida visits upon all of us, Christian and Jew, religious and secular, left and right, the unsettling news of the radical instability of the categories to which we have such ready recourse and he raises the idea of still deeper idea of ourselves which (religiously?) confesses its lack of categories. He exposes us to the "secret" that there is no "Secret," no Big Capitalized Secret to which we have been wired up—by scientific reason, by poetic or religious revelation, or by political persuasion. We make use of such materials as have been available to us, forged in the fires of time and circumstance. We do not in some deep way know who we are or what the world is. That is not nihilism but a quasi-religious confession, the beginning of wisdom, the onset of faith and compassion. Derrida exposes the doubt that does not merely insinuate itself into faith but that in fact constitutes faith, for faith is faith precisely in the face of doubt and uncertainty, the passion of non-knowing. Violence on the other hand arises from having a low tolerance for uncertainty so that Derrida shows us why religious violence is bad faith. On Derrida's terms, we do not know the name of what we desire with a desire beyond desire. That means leading a just life comes down to coping with such non-knowing, negotiating among the several competing names that fluctuate undecidably before us, each pretending to name what we are praying for. For we pray and weep for something that is coming, something I know not what, something nameless that in always slipping away also draws us in its train.
(Via The Reading Experience)

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