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Derrida

"Messianicity is not messianism ... even though this distinction remains fragile and enigmatic." (Jacques Derrida)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Derrida and Religion at Harvard

Over the weekend I attended, rather sporadically, some of the proceedings of the Derrida and Religion conference at Harvard. It gathered some of the leading scholars in the field, including John Caputo, Richard Kearney, Joseph Cohen, and keynote speaker Hent de Vries. My notes are all too sketchy and probably do a grave disservice to the subtle thought of each panelist, but I present them anyway, for what they're worth.

Tall, dapper, with a casual mop of white hair and an engaging smile, De Vries opened the conference on Friday night, prefacing his talk with a long-winded and rather otiose set of Derridean qualifications that have grown quite stale by now. One sees the point, but haven't we moved past the need for such extensive and ponderous throat-clearing? Must we be compelled to prove our Derridean bona fides each and every time we engage in deconstruction? On the whole I found his talk disappointing. It was less a talk than a formal full-dressed essay, replete with complicated syntactical moves and multi-clausal sentences that made it difficult to follow. Maybe European trained scholars simply don't acknowledge the difference between the informal structure of the talk and a lecture as such.

Nevertheless, de Vries’ talk held some rewards, focusing on the para-religious categories of thought that have risen in the wake of post-structuralism. He concerned himself chiefly with Derrida’s Limited, Inc. and how the iterability of God’s name not only produces writing itself but also, in Derrida’s potent phrase, a “graphematic drift” that undoes the name which produced it and makes God another signifier among signifiers. Turning then to Rogues, he dwelt on how secularization remains ambiguously marked by the theological. The Name of God must undecide itself in order to escape falling into idolatry. Otherwise, it can never become messianic.

Saturday morning began with Joseph Cohen’s talk on Derrida and Abraham. Like de Vries, Cohen’s style was dense, full of baroque flourishes that announced an overdetermined style . About the only thing I gleaned from it was this tidbit: “the messianism of the event restores the negation that permitted or produced it.” Which sounds very Hegelian (I think).

Sarah Hammerschlag got up then and showed us how it’s done. A striking-looking woman with dramatic hair and a powerful style of delivery, she gave a model talk: well-paced and organized, clearly signposted, but sacrificing nothing in terms of thematic complexity. Her talk was titled “The Poetics of the Broken Tablet” and took up Derrida’s engagement with Jabes and Celan, the rabbi and the poet.

She began by making a swipe at Zizek, Badiou and Ranciere, all of whom have attacked the “postmodern fetish of the Other” esp. as “Jew” in an effort to refute Derridean conceptions of the ethical and reduce deconstruction to a Jewish science. From there, she moved on to a discussion of the structures of election in Celan and Jabes and of Derrida’s notion of the shibboleth. Messianic speech overcomes, she asserted, the structure of homogeneity, while repetition undermines election. The key feature of Derrida’s conception of the messianic (and of Levinas’s as well) is hospitality: the openness to the Other and the stranger. Such hospitality strongly marks the work of Celan and Jabes too, though I wish she had addressed how the hospitable can also take the form of a posture toward experience itself, an exposing of language by the poem to a non-enclosing structure of the non-identical.

One thing I took away from this talk was the thought of the broken tablets as the inaugural moment of the messianic: the promise that cannot be delivered, but exists as though suspended, and as the ghost or spectral figure informing the second set of lesser tablets. This echoes a theme announced by Luria: that the beginning is also the traumatic and that the breaking of the promise of the covenant also keeps the promise, but existing as that which is always yet to come.

The last talk I attended was by the dashing Richard Kearney, whom I’ve briefly met through Fanny Howe. Richard has warm, vivid presence. His book, The God Who May Be, is something of a classic, I think. It was, at any rate, along with Caputo's Prayers and Tears of Derrida, an important gateway for me into the fraught nexus where Derridean thought becomes entangled with post-metaphysical theology.

Kearney spoke on messianic atheism, setting off the topic by citing Levinas, in Totality and Infinity, where he spoke of atheism as a “salutary distancing from the totalizing of being.” He recalled as a well an anecdote about Levinas whispering an aside to Derrida at a dissertation defense about how we are obliged, when speaking of God, to only whisper his name.

Kearney’s talk was full of such good humor, weaving in personal stories about Derrida and Ricouer with the formal elements of his talk in an easy and welcoming manner, while trying, as he said, to avoid the appearance of “self-regard.” I’m not sure he succeeded entirely at that since such a gambit can’t help but buttress the authority of any claims one makes. Nevertheless, it was entertaining and insightful. Once, when Ricoeur congratulated Derrida on the appearance of Monolingualism of the Other he confided that he himself “could never write a philosophy about my penis.”

Kearney’s main thrust throughout was to make some key distinctions in how Derrida used the terms messianism and messianicity. The former is theistic and the latter atheistic; the former generates prayers, the latter tears. But though prayer is always an address to some one, it is not possible without the atheistic space of the khora. Immediately there is prayer, however, the khora is left behind. Nonetheless, khora, he stressed, is not another name for God; it is a-theistic. Both prior to and outside of God. To save the divine name, he said, citing Derrida in "Sauf le Nom," we must refuse to determine the name’s content. Yet I didn’t note how he squared this with the address which prayer makes (is it to "no one" then, as Celan has it?) and what is lost or gained by its linguistic determinations and “graphematic drift.”

What I missed, later that day, was a potential showdown between Caputo and the wunderkind Martin Hagglund, who vigorously disputes both Caputo and Kevin Hart’s attempts to claim Derrida for the para-religious moment. While I think such a counter-claim is needful since it stands to pry deconstruction away from a burgeoning piety, I’m not sure Hagglund succeeds in doing so. What he does do, though, very persuasively, is to offer a powerful reading of Derrida’s conceptions of messianicity vis-à-vis messianism. More to the point, he re-opens the question in a productive way that invites rather than refutes more debate, and that is all, finally, one can hope to do.

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