Miracle and Machine/Islam

Philosophy (and philosophy of religion) no less than other disciplines today remains immune from Islam and the questions of Islam. (Islamic studies mirrors this, for all its contemporary heat and funding, in maintaining its textualist heritage against the vapid enthusiasm for “interdisciplinarity” bursting from the other humanities.) Thus Islam appears in philosophy for the most part either as a cipher for religion-as/and-politics (that is, a cipher for danger) or as a recourse to gain critical distance for one’s argument. We can offer various hypotheses about this limit, but remarkable here is that Derrida follows neither of these courses, trying also to avoid the temptation of taking Islam as “available” to his arguments. Thus Islam is introduced in “Faith and Knowledge” under the question of the name (Islam, or a certain Islam, what passes for Islam today, or what speaks in the name of Islam). Islam is “clearly not just one religion among others in the current debates about the fate or place of religion” (25). Yet when Derrida looked across the conference table at Capri almost two decades ago, he saw (only) European men. “No Muslim is among us, alas, even for this preliminary discussion, just at the moment when it is toward Islam, perhaps, that we ought to begin by turning our attention” (§5). The references to Islam that follow in the rest of the essay through Miracle and Machine - undermining the confidence of translation, figuring the risk of democracy, attacking the right to literature, possessing a global “prerogative” to the question of religion - should be read in the melancholic light of this observation.

No Muslim among us, Derrida comments, and not a single woman! He recognizes that this is not just a question of representation, inter-national or otherwise, or giving voice to an excluded third. Hence the resurfacing of the question of women and the question of Islam that Naas brilliantly reads in the oblique closing reference of “Faith and Knowledge” to Genet at Chatila. Naas traces themes reflecting and responding to this absence of women in the latter chapters of Miracle and Machine (though he doesn’t himself frame them this way). Here I want to pick up four thematic references to Islam, the shadowy Muslims gesturing to us from the threshold (256), which emerge severally in the text. For this is a question also of the kind of conversation their absence from Capri makes possible. Even if perhaps only Christianity properly merits being called a religion (26), nothing is absolutely settled through reference to origin (etymology never provides a law, 61), meaning that the conversation of the fate of religion cannot circulate among (barely Judeo-)Christian men and reinscribe the borders of a certain Europe. This means that the question of whether deconstruction will be of use after the postsecular and the postmodern, as Anthony put it introducing this mini-book event, is also the question of how it will fare after the postcolonial.

It also calls into question what it might mean to speak at that conference table, because my first impulse is to ask why Islam is so “clearly not just one religion among others.” This clarity is not self-apparent, not least because the rest of Derrida’s text seems to work against exactly this sort of appearance. Certainly Islam has its own powers, gestures, words, things, rituals proper and improper to it. But the exceptionality of Islam does not give itself, nor its “‘prerogative’…on the global stage” (56), and even those dynamics that Derrida notes to be heightened in Islam (e.g., its attachment to the letter) are taken as configurations of an originary structural form – not unique to Islam. The difference introduced with Islam under the question of the name is precisely unclear (in Naas as in Derrida) in that it opens onto a more generic difference or heterogeneity. It reflects a more nocturnal light.

1. Where is religion and how can it be studiedMiracle and Machine generates a centrifugal force to Derrida’s essay, urging religion-talk outside religion. “On the one hand, then, an account must be given of everything that might said and done in the name of religion as an alibi for other interests, whether political or economic. On the other hand, we must ask whether the political and economic discourses that seem the furthest removed from religion, those that dare not even speak its name, might not actually harbor within them religious interests and motivations” (56). This question of the name yields a general hypothesis but opens through reference to Islam/ism and its global prerogative. This movement of religion out of religion is most prominent in Naas’s chapter 5, “The Telegenic Voice: The Religion of the Media,” focusing on globalatinization – about which he comments, relieved: “Fortunately we don’t have to conjugate or decline it, just explain it, or, as suggested in the previous chapter, corticate it” (58). And he does this ably, carefully reading “Faith and Knowledge” alongside “Above All, No Journalists!” A primary task left the study of religion by Naas is the conjugation and declension of this globalatinization as it gathers the world to itself. How can this be studied, still thinking in relation to Islam? This strikes a slightly different key than, for instance, the colonial translation of Islam into religion. After Miracle and Machine, I found myself reading “Faith and Knowledge” as an invitation to the anthropology of religion.

There is a growing scholarship in anthropology on Islam and media, but much of it (with strong exceptions) remains bound to a social scientific framing of the relation between religion, media, and the public sphere. One of these exceptions is the work of Charles Hirschkind, whose recent short essay on the “YouTube khutba” Naas helps us to read as a response to “Faith and Knowledge”. The phenomenon of the YouTube sermon, Hirschkind writes, reworks Islamic devotional discourses and practices even as they are transformed by their medium. The virtual space in which the khutba segment is presented takes on a “distinct moral framing” even as it homogenizes and radically abstracts the distinct homiletic traditions of devotional affects it draws on. This is not a subtraction story of secularization, and already we can witness an oscillation to Derrida’s elemental faith, but it is in Hirschkind’s discussion of sermon clips of variable quality that the resonance with “Faith and Knowledge” is consolidated. The videos with the highest number of visits often surprisingly have poor production value, are fuzzy, granular. Hirschkind discusses this with reference to an Islamic “acoustic imagination,” but (and as intimated in his exchange with Matthew Engelke last year) it can be complemented (and so its stakes heightened) through Naas’s discussion of the autoaffective quality of the telegenic voice (141-150)

2. Miracles. Last week I attended a Ramadan gathering where (paraphrased) the shaykh told the story of a man who witnessed a tree hymning worship. Astonished, he proclaimed he saw a miraculous tree. His companion corrected him, affirming that such acclamation was in the nature of all things (in the music of the spheres itself, in Ibn Sina’s cosmology) while the miracle was only that he was given to hear it. Derrida’s description of the miracle (it “must break with all expectations, all horizons of preunderstanding,” 97) approaches and then diverges from Islamic typologies of events that break with the habitual order (kharq al-‘ada), whether miracles of the prophets (mu‘jiza, miracles that challenge and humble) or the saints (karama, miracles that honour and ennoble). By this understanding, too, miracles “happen every day: nothing more ordinary, more extraordinary, than the miracle” (98). This is not to say that the theories of the miracle in “Faith and Knowledge” and (for instance) al-Ghazali are somehow similar (they are not) but to note that this Derrida can help break the deadlock that has choked scholarship on Islamic natural philosophy writ large. By destabilizing the categories of this tired account, Miracle and Machine can help us recast the story that has long been told, from Goldziher through Agamben, between effective causality and enchanted occasionalism, about the Ghazalian death-knell of Islamic philosophy.

3. Translation. If the theologico-political question separates Jew and Arab, producing a history of the divided enemy, the question of religion separates Marrano and Morisco, generating a history of translation. There is a certain Derrida who has become popular among those who connect the historical and religious role of Arabic in Islam to the social presumption of Arab superiority. These essentialist arguments proceed by noting Islamic arguments for the inimitability (i’jaz) of the Qur’an, the privileging of Arabic in Islamicate cultures, and an (ostensible) Arab disinterest in engaging others. What went wrong, these arguments continue (often by citing “Des Tours de Babel” leaving aside “Theology of Translation”), is the presumption of the Qur’an’s untranslatability. By this solution to contemporary Arab cultural chauvinism, Derrida thus keeps company with Bernard Lewis. Naas’s discussion of religions of the secret dispels this Derrida and develops different questions and different solutions. While Islam is for Derrida the religion “most attached” to the “untranslatable letter, and thus the most resistant to certain forms of mediatisation and translation,” there is a certain religion of the idiom in all religion (131). Naas helps us intersect this question of translation with that of the future: the democracy to come requires “at once respect for the idiom and the other and translation” (194). This is Derrida’s “other tolerance,” not keeping religion intact or indemnified but interrupting its religiosity “in the right way” (109). For as Jeffrey Sacks writes in a wonderful recent article on Darwish and Agamben: “To think untranslatability is not to think an opaque center or an occulted negativity[;] it is to recall an anterior and reiterated relation to loss that confounds the auto-belonging of idiom.”

4. Secularism. In Rogues, Derrida sets an explicitly political task to whomever considers themselves a “friend of democracy in the world”: to do “everything possible to join forces with all those who, and first of all in the Islamic world, fight not only for the secularization of the political (however ambiguous this secularization remains), for the emergence of a laic subjectivity, but also for an interpretation of the Koranic heritage that privileges, from the inside as it were, the democratic virtualities that are probably not any more apparent and readable at first glance, and readable under this name, than they were in the Old and New Testaments” (192-193). Earlier Derrida had explained that “only a certain poetics can inflect differently a dominant interpretation.” What would be involved, then, for friends of democracy in the world, but to do everything possible to join forces with those who fight for a different poetics? I’d been appalled when I first read this, if only because the call and the task are homologous with the battle cries of conservative and liberal pundits alike (as in Saba Mahmood’s article on the politics of Islamic reformation). The apocalyptic tones of Islam in secular time ring through the Greco-Christian, globalatin world – but is our response truly going to be to insist that the play of the Arabic corpus privilege “democratic virtualities” on the model of the Old and New Testaments? To make certain Islamic cultures properly coeval with the globalatin world? This formulation is repeated in Derrida’s short conversation with Mustapha Cherif that Naas reads in chapter 6. “We must ally ourselves to that in the Arab and Muslim world which is trying to advance the idea of a secularization of the political, the idea of a separation between the theocratic and the political – this both out of respect for the political and for democratization and out of respect for faith and religion” (193). Reading this is difficult because it seems so banal. As Naas expands the argument, a Derrida comes into view who performs the chiasmatic relation of autoimmunity with its terrible logic precisely where it is most vital (because this is a question of future life and form-of-life). I’ve tried to understand this Derrida in different ways, but most recently I wonder whether we might put his democracy to come in productive tension with Talal Asad’s recent articulation of a distinction between representative democracy and a democratic sensibility or ethos. The former is marked by its Christian (and Christian state) history, as both Derrida and Asad variously recognize. This is the site of the political concepts calling for radical secularization (193). But the latter is more elemental, stemming (Asad writes) more from an experience of precarity, vulnerability, decay. Perhaps this latter sense of democracy is nothing other than the domain of Derrida’s “universal rationality or elemental faith that is at the origin of every social bond” (187).

Naas explains the relation between translation and democracy: “Rather than inventing some new language, it reinscribes already given ‘historical’ names in the name of the promise they bear…. What Derrida calls the democracy to come will thus borrow from the philosophical and political heritage of democracy in the West and submit this heritage to critique, that is, question, suspend, or deconstruct what is already too Christian about it” (187). But this critique and suspension has no assurance and even its promise is interrupted into an aporia, for the critique of religion is the history of religion. This seems less like a determinate politics (though still an explicitly political task) than an unreserved exposure to risk. It heralds a freedom ‘from’ religion marked by the conditions of religion, a secularism calling for its own transformation and toward a new concept of sovereignty (188). This pattern repeats in chapter 9, where literature is described as the site a “singular testimony comes to cross the experience of democracy and the…’right to say everything’” (252). Naas follows Derrida insisting that the reaction to Rushdie is “a reaction to literature and to democracy” (190) – but once again this appears to align too neatly with the heroics of secular criticism today. Naas leaves open the question of how “Faith and Knowledge” might more productively reframe the promise and aporia of secular critique.

A final addition to these overlong comments. In the questions and answers transcribed at the end of “Above All, No Journalists!” Derrida begins to develop a difference between Judaism and Islam on the one hand as religions of the infinite secret, and Christianity on the other as a religion of the trace and virtualization. We might say he there begins to develop a theology of commentary. Naas does not develop this further, but his at once synchronic and diachronic reading practice in Miracle and Machine returns us to this question of text and supplement. We are no less in his debt if the “Faith and Knowledge” onto which his book opens is only a becoming visible or manifest of what was always already there.

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2 Responses to “Miracle and Machine/Islam”

  1. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    This is excellent and I want to thank you again for participating. I’m curious, given what you say about anthropology here and the overdetermination of Islamic philosophy by a certain feeling it has had its day (as if the constant returns in Christianity aren’t testimony to its own moribond intellectual issues), if you think that Continental philosophy can do much with Islam? This has its dangers, of course, but I sense a kind of reticence in Derrida’s approach to Islam (alongside of Naas’ commentary on that reticence) a continual “making other” of this tradition that is, after all, ours.

  2. biqbal Says:

    Other scholarship on Islam can certainly do a lot with continental philosophy (and increasingly is, mostly in anthropology but also otherwise), but i’m not sure how much continental philosophy can do with Islam. You know Corbin/Jambet and the possibilities there better than I do, and Derrida takes up Massignon in “Hostipitality”. Nancy has written prefaces introducing works by Abdelwahhab Meddeb and Mustapha Cherif – but generally he refers to Islam as a “tradition that stopped interpreting itself” (!). And then there are the Lacanians who psychoanalyze the maladies of Islam. But all of those moments are not really engagements – they occur while maintaining themselves immune or indemnified from the questions of Islam. This really isn’t just a question of translation, languages limiting access, etc., nor just a question of “inclusion” in some multiculturalist rendition of postcolonialism.

    He isn’t a philosopher proper, but I’ve been reading Norman O. Brown’s 1981 lectures published a couple years ago as _The Challenge of Islam_. I think he gives a wonderful example of how different kinds of encounters might work, in a wildly creative, humourous, and restless reading practice. He draws on Corbin too, actually – i think you’d like him. And Robert Meister had an essay last year (?) in Theory & Event that took up NOB’s approach into political theory. Anyway.


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