Presentation on Derrida’s The Gift of Death

Rembrandt engraving

In class this semester I volunteered to give a presentation summarizing some key points from Derrida’s The Gift of Death for a group that had not read the book. It was fun to engage in a careful reading of this text after looking at interpretations of Derrida’s work on religion by both Gil Anidjar and Michael Naas.



After beginning the first two chapters of The Gift of Death with a discussion of Jan Patočka and Heidegger, Derrida pivots to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. ‘Fear and trembling’ is, of course, a reference to St. Paul, and it comes from his letter to the Philippians, 2:12: “Wherefore my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Fear and trembling is thus the comportment of the the one who stands in the absence of the master. We do not know God, where God is, where God comes from, or where God awaits us. “God” signifies that which is wholly inaccessible to us, yet at the same time, that to which or before whom we are responsible. Derrida asserts that this request/demand for obedience on Paul’s part, in Paul’s absence, is a repetition a repetition of the absence of God. God’s secrets, deliberations, presence, reasons, intentions (if God has any) are never shared, and neither are God’s decisions. If they were, then God would no longer be that wholly other [tout auture] (58).  Read the rest of this entry »

radical alternatives to radical empiricism: an InterCcECT mini seminar with Joshua Kates

From systems theory to object oriented ontology, the post-human to the multitude, empiricism and its latent historicism underlie the most orthodox (and most contentious) questions and methods in the humanities today. In Historicity and Holism,  Joshua Kates plumbs the depths of this radical empiricism, proffering an experimental absolutism as its most resourceful alternative. InterCcECT is delighted to host a mini-seminar with Professor Kates, focusing on “Radical Empiricism Revisited,” an excerpt from that project.

Join us Friday 22 November, 3pm, at our frequent host The Newberry Library, room B-91.

Contact us to request the reading.
“Radical Empiricism Revisited” stages a major invention in contemporary theory, by grouping together work around Deleuze, Latour, Luhmann and others as a form of empiricism inflected by Kant, and contrasting this to a more innovative and experimental relation to the absolute found in Derrida and the early Foucault. My treatment is an outgrowth of possibilities opened up by my current project, Historicity and Holism (parts of which have appeared or about to appear in differences and diacritics), as well as those I explored in my previous two books on Derrida and phenomenology, history of science, and philosophy of language.

As always, write us to propose or announce events, check out our calendar for recommendations like Hegel’s Critique of Kant,  and connect with us on Facebook for frequent links and commentary.

past dialectics and future destructions: Malabou’s plasticity

Catherine Malabou has rapidly elasticized possible futures for Continental Philosophy by reorienting our understanding of Hegelian thought around the notion of plasticity, “a capacity to receive form and a capacity to produce form.”

In her recent short work Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing: Dialectic, Destruction, Deconstruction, Malabou considers writing as a scene of plasticity and model of political and ethical action. Join InterCcECT for a reading group on these crepuscular illuminations of Derrida, Hegel, Heidegger, Freud, Levi-Strauss, and Levinas.

Thursday 17 October
Department of English conference room
UIC, 2028 University Hall
601 S Morgan St, 60607 (Blue Line: UIC Halsted)

Text available to Chicagoans upon request.

Mark your calendars now for our upcoming miniseminar with Joshua Kates, “Radical Empiricism Revisited,” at which we’ll explore the Kantian inflections of empiricism in Deleuze, Latour, and Luhmann as they oppose Derrida and early Foucault. Friday 22 November, 3-5pm, location TBA; paper to be pre-circulated.

What’s happening in theory this fall?  Send us your event proposals and announcements (interccect at gmail), check out our calendar for recommended events, and connect with us on  Facebook for frequent links and commentary.

Posted in blog posts, Deleuze, Derrida, Hegel, Heidegger, Interccect, Malabou. Comments Off

Financialization with a human face: On the gift

A gift economy is sometimes put forward as some kind of alternative, or at least a humanizing supplement, to contemporary capitalism, particularly by Christian theologians. Yet anthropological research, going all the way back to Mauss’s classic study, confirms that a gift economy is a debt economy — though normally without precise quantification. Certainly everything is presented as “officially” voluntary, but we maintain the same fiction in our contemporary debt economy insofar as every contract is formally “freely entered into.” Gift economies can easily be deployed to ruin rivals who cannot return the favor, and even enslave them.

What’s more, Christians should be more aware than anyone of the tendency of gift to become debt — all we have to do is read literally one of the most famous and influential texts in the Christian tradition, Cur deus homo. One can perhaps read certain key texts in the Christian tradition as trying to escape the logic of the gift (as I do with Augustine’s De trinitate [PDF]), but the slippage is right there from the very beginning, as Derrida shows in The Gift of Death.

Since Derrida is often evoked in the moralizing appropriations of the gift, it seems fair to point out that Derrida’s goal in Given Time is to demonstrate the rigorous impossibility of the gift — how the gift, when pushed to the extreme, transforms into something else, something no longer recognizable. Think of his standards for the perfect gift: it must be completely gratuituous and completely unconscious, because knowledge of one’s own generosity would also count as a return on one’s investment. Using this concept of the ultra- or arche-gift, I’d venture to say that capitalism occurs between two great “gifts” — the “gift” of primitive accumulation, the pure expenditure of those who don’t even realize they’re giving anything away, and the “gift” of crisis, the pure expenditure of surplus value that one gives precisely to no one.

It is no coincidence that the gift becomes such an important theme precisely under neoliberalism: it holds out the prospect of financialization with a human face.

Scattered remarks on political theology

From one perspective, it is possible to isolate three types of “political theology.” The first is a liberal one, which seeks to reveal the unconscious theological inheritance in the hopes of purging it and reaching a true secularity. One might include Löwith and Derrida under this heading. The second is a reactionary one, which seeks to preserve whatever homologies are possible with the theological tradition in order to maintain some kind of horizon of meaning over against modernity, which is understood to be a nihilistic mechanism — obviously here one could place Carl Schmitt. Finally, there is the radical leftist approach, which mines the theological tradition for any possible site of radical transformation (and perhaps indulges in the pleasure of “provocatively” needling liberal fussiness about how we must handle the dangerous materials of religion). I would place Zizek in this category.

For all three perspectives, there is a “special relationship” between political theology and eschatology. The reactionary position is basically focused on the katechon, that enigmatic figure from 2 Thessalonians who holds the man of lawlessness at bay and heads off the apocalypse (here one could place Peterson alongside Schmitt). The leftist position is apocalyptic, openly courting the very dissolution that for the reactionary is the worst possible outcome. The liberal position is awkwardly situated in this respect, but I think that we can draw on Dan Barber’s On Diaspora and call liberal political theology basically supercessionistic — a kind of “messianism without messianism” where secularity is continually overcoming religion as such, albeit without any concrete hope of a final consummation.

When it comes to placing a figure like Taubes or Agamben, I think things become more difficult. Bruce Rosenstock has a great essay forthcoming in New German Critique on the Taubes-Schmitt relationship where he argues that while Taubes aligns more closely with the apocalyptic, he also sees the necessity of the reactionary impulse represented by Schmitt in order to keep the apocalyptic impulse from spiralling into sheer nihilism. His exegesis of the final pages of Occidental Eschatology is absolutely essential in this regard — he clarifies that for Taubes, finding humanity’s center in God requires a special kind of balance, because humanity’s orbit is always elliptical rather than spherical and so constantly threatens to go off course. I wonder if one could read Agamben similarly, particularly in light of his recently published lecture The Church and the Kingdom, which in many ways is so difficult to reconcile with his other writings insofar as it seems to call for a kind of “balance” between the messianic impulse and the structure of authority.

This talk of balance seems liberal from a certain perspective, but it is not a secular liberalism — indeed, the question of secularity is simply sidestepped altogether in the meeting of the two extremes. Or is it perhaps instead a question of creating a space for a tenuous secularity, keeping God at a respectable distance without becoming completely untethered from it? Is this elliptical balancing act perhaps the way we render the theological “inoperative” precisely by maintaining the constant reference to it — like the legendary rabbinical school that bases all of life on the divine law while pointedly telling God to shut up when he tries to intrude on the debate?

From this perspective, it appears that we could add a fourth position of Jewish political theology as a distinctive alternative to the liberal model. The question that then arises is whether this kind of political theology can really be practiced by a non-Jew, or whether it will always wind up spiralling into a one-sidedly katechontic or apocalyptic position.

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Analogical Expansion and Differential Space: Thoughts on Michael Naas’ Miracle and Machine

One cannot affirm difference without affirming the differential undecidability (Derrida), or crack (Deleuze), or nonidentity (Adorno), of / between affirmation and its failure. This is a thought that has possessed me for awhile now, and has sent me in a number of directions. What I took to be a kind of protectionism, in Derrida, against the productive character of alterity pushed me in a more Deleuzian direction. Such, it seemed, was what the affirmation of difference demanded, and yet to make difference into an affirmation seemed, simultaneously, to subsume difference under a new identity. Thus it was important for me to articulate that the same affirmation was nonidentical with senselessness and melancholy. This, it became clear, was a question of political ontology—namely, one of the relation between political potentiality and ontological difference. But what, many have asked, about political theology? An insidious question, perhaps, as this allows us to skirt the notion of “religion.” And so religion appeared as the vanishing mediator of differential ontology and political creativity. Read the rest of this entry »

Deconstructing Derrida: Reflections on Michael Naas’s Miracle and Machine

Michael Naas’s Miracle and Machine is a book worthy of Derrida, combining rigor and playfulness, near-obsessive scholarliness with bold experimentation. It is a literary reading of the most literary of the philosophers, and is itself a beautifully written book, exhibiting Naas’s resolutely “American” style—and connecting it to the American context via the unexpected comparison with Don DeLillo’s Underworld. One hopes that it marks a new direction in Derrida studies, with its focus on working through one text (“Faith and Knowledge”) and learning from that text how to read Derrida.

In this post, I’d like to limit myself to some observations on the way the book intervenes indirectly in three fields: the debate over Derrida’s relationship to religion, contemporary continental philosophy of religion, and the reading of Derrida as such. These remarks are not meant to be authoritative or exhaustive, but to open up some avenues of conversation.

Read the rest of this entry »

On Derrida’s critique of Agamben

I have not closely studied Derrida’s critique of Agamben from The Beast and the Sovereign, yet given how frequently it’s been deployed by Agamben skeptics, I feel comfortable giving a brief, blog-style response to it: that bios and zoē cannot be neatly distinguished does not undermine Agamben’s project, but is indeed the entire point.

Agamben reads the Western tradition as a series of increasingly destructive failed attempts to separate them out in some kind of stable and sustainable way. The reason these attempts fail is that the neat distinction is impossible — indeed, even in the encounter between the sovereign (the very embodiment of bios as political life) and the homo sacer (the emblem of zoē as bare life), which should surely count as the starkest possible contrast between these two concepts of life, an uncanny overlapping occurs wherein both are included through their very exclusion.

Agamben is thus not trying to get rid of bios in favor of a pure zoē — i.e., to abolish politics and allow us all to return to our raw animality or unblemished nature — but to get at another politics, another form of life that would not be governed by this founding opposition of the contingent historical reality that is Western politics.

There is doubtless a lot to be said in critique of Agamben’s project, but Derrida’s critique misses its target as far as I can tell.

On the undecidable Caputo-Hägglund debate

I am vastly late to the party, but I have finally gotten around to reading Caputo’s response to Hägglund’s Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. A blog post is probably not the place to adjudicate detailed scholarly questions, but it does seem to me that Caputo has made a convincing case that Hägglund’s reading of Derrida leaves a good deal out. I have said before that we should view Hägglund’s book as a systematization of Derrida rather than a “reading,” and Caputo makes clear that it is a systematization with the goal of making Derrida newly useable to the kind of person who goes in for contemporary materialisms of various forms, which includes having a serious allergy to anything “religious.” That is to say, if I can be forgiven for putting it in a crass and over-simplifying way, Hägglund seems to be concerned with getting all that gross religion off of Derrida’s text.

What I’d like to suggest here is that Caputo’s argument is a kind of mirror image of Hägglund’s. Where Hägglund wants to use Derrida to get us completely free of religion, Caputo seems to want to use it to set up a completely blameless religion that would be free of the historical baggage of “religious violence.” This particularly comes out in the end of Caputo’s long piece, where he argues that deconstruction does not have access to a field in which the existence of a God beyond our experience could be “disproven” — hence, again, “religion” remains “safe and sound” (as Hägglund will recall in his response to Caputo). Thus, either we’re kept “safe and sound” from religion or religion is kept “safe and sound” from our tendency to screw everything up.

I would maintain that both readings of religion are actually present in Derrida’s sprawling oeuvre. Read the rest of this entry »


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