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. Much the same could be said of Hägglund’s privileging of “radical evil” as more primordial than the “good” that Caputo prefers to highlight — in Derrida’s text, both are more primordial. And this is where I think Hägglund has a point in his claim that Derrida’s ethical writings are more “descriptive” than “prescriptive” — whether to prioritize holding off radical evil or embracing the good, to act out of fear or love, etc., is undecidable. I think one could read Derrida’s ethical writings and legitimately come away thinking that chaos is always threatening to break loose and we need to try to keep it at bay (i.e., come away with a “conservative” reading). Similarly, one could come away with a sense that our institutions always corrupt whatever is best and we should try to be as open and free-form as possible to let the good come (i.e., come away with an “anarchist” reading).
On this scale, it seems clear that Derrida is on the “center-left.” He doesn’t want to get rid of our institutions because they are the condition of possibility of the good, but he wants to “perfect” them so that they enable an ever greater openness to the good. The fact that these are Derrida’s personal views does not necessarily mean that they are a “natural consequence” of deconstruction — that is how Derrida has decided on the undecidable, how he has chosen to take responsibility for his place in the world. If deconstruction automatically implied a certain ethical stance, then that ethical stance would no longer be undecidable or responsible and hence wouldn’t be properly ethical at all!
Any discussion of Hägglund’s work must address the question of “desire,” but in this immediate context, I think Nietzsche’s reflection on the desire of philosopers in Beyond Good and Evil is relevant. There he argues that underneath all the argumentation and conceptual work, there lies a motivating desire. Nietzsche being Nietzsche, he of course glosses it as a will to power, which is probably reductive — yet the notion of reading philosophers in terms of “what they want” seems to me to be sound. Caputo wants to use deconstruction to save religion from itself, he wants to have a “religion without religion” free from all the historical baggage of violence. Hägglund, by contrast, wants nothing to do with all that — he wants to use deconstruction to develop a robust theory of how things work in the here and now, with no gestures toward transcendence. Caputo’s approach undoubtedly is able to account for much more in Derrida’s work (given that he personally shares Derrida’s “center-left” disposition), but Hägglund is tracking a tendency that is really there and seems useful and interesting.
What I’d like to contribute to this debate is what I want: namely, for religion not to be the point of contention. I want religion to be a matter of indifference, for religious traditions to represent a mass of raw materials that are no more inherently questionable or suspicious, that have no more tendency to “poison everything” and no more guarantee of an unconditionally redemptive element than any other tradition. I want to be able to talk about religion without apologizing for so-called “religious violence,” because it seems to me that all of human history, in every one of its aspects, is violent — family, economy, nation, use of resources. That is to say, if I were to put Derrida’s text to use, I would try to put it to use in order to overcome the structure of religion and secularity that always threatens to choke discussion to death whenever religion comes up, particularly in America.
(And that stance is incidentally something I find in Agamben, which is partly why I am finding his work increasingly important for my own thought.)