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. 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.)

12 thoughts on “On the undecidable Caputo-Hägglund debate

  1. Yeah, I was late to the party, too. After reading Hagglund last semester as an amateur Derrida reader and Caputo-phile, I was a bit worried that down was up up was down etc. I really appreciated Hagglund’s almsot analytic treatment of Derrida as a kind of systematic thinker, but that seems to be the problem. There seems to be an irony in Hagglund as he stresses the absolute undecideability of the coming of the future that “unsettles any definitive assurance or meaning” and therein we are bereft of any guarantees that laws or religious systems attempt to impart to us (40) which is great, but then he seems to read Caputo like a religious fundamentalist, failing to notice when Caputo is speaking tongue-in-cheek and non-literally. Anytime Caputo mentions “God,” Hagglund seems to mistake Caputo’s language for an actual ontotheological entity so Hagglund sees Caputo totally undoing all his stress on undecidability by inserting God as kind of a stop gap that actually does guarantee goodness (120-124), but I don’t understand how any reading of Caputo could support this. So while I thought I was crazy for a second, it was nice to see Caputo more or less smirk at Hagglund missing all the jokes, kind of taking himself far too seriously to be in on any of the cues and humor Caputo invokes to make his points more poetically than analytically. Ultimately, Hagglund’s “Radical Atheism” implores us to internalize the dictum “God is death,” and the attitude that a particular version of the future is “the worst” (the one that involves any kind of God) while at the same time assuring us that for Derrida the furutre is to come and undecideable and the best we can hope for is survival. Hagglund’s descriptions may be fine, but again, ironically he also seems to lapse into a specific privileging of part of Derrida’s work in order to make some strange prescriptions.

  2. i think that both Bruno Latour and Paul Feyerabend give accounts of religion that, in related but different ways, remove it from its customary opposition with secularism. For Latour religion is one “régime of enunciation” or “mode of existence” among others, with its own “conditions of felicity”, aimed at transformation rather than information. Feyerabend is perhaps closer to Adam Kotsko’s wish “for religious traditions to represent a mass of raw materials … that have no more tendency to “poison everything” and no more guarantee of an unconditionally redemptive element than any other tradition”. Feyerabend extends Latour’s view of religious traditions as different in kind from secular traditions, by nevertheless insisting that as “raw materials” they can be of use in secular traditions such as the sciences or even to correct (or at least relativise positively) these traditions. For a discussion of this point in French, see:http://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/feyerabend-et-latour-la-portee-cognitive-de-la-religion/

  3. Yes, but I think that that is where Feyerabend goes further than Latour. Latour “protects” religion from the accusation of , for example, intrinsic violence. These sorts of accusations amount to criteria of the demarcation of religion from and its subordination to some other instance. Latour makes this impossible by claiming that religion is so different that it is “not even incommensurable” with referential régimes such as science:

    Click to access 86-FREEZE-RELIGION-GB.pdf

    Feyerabend recognises a possible qualitative difference between religion and straight referential traditions in that it includes a performative aspect, but not, he argues to the detriment of a referential cognitive aspect. So the difference in kind is that religious traditions are more complete than (most) secular traditions. He is willing to add that in fact, but unbeknownst to them and so in truncated form, secular traditions have this performative aspect too.
    So I think Feyerabend is classically deconstructive here, accepting initially a binary demarcation (science/religion) to go on to re-valorise the weaker term (in rationalist discussions this is often religion), to then efface the demarcation and leave a more complex and more ambiguous situation (complexity and ambiguity being terms that Feyerabend uses to describe his own “deconstructive” strategy – Feyerabend explicitly compares his arguments to deconstruction, though he declares that he prefers “Nestroy, who was a great, popular and funny deconstructeur, while Derrida, for all his good intentions, can’t even tell a good story”).

  4. I think you’re absolutely right that both a Hägglund-style reading of religion and a Caputo-style reading are present in Derrida, which is part of what Caputo wants to point out in his essay – i.e., that Hägglund’s approach is actually very good, but it only covers part of what Derrida was up to. It’s undeniable that there’s something fishy about insisting on one, very systematic interpretation of Derrida’s work, which is what Hägglund tends to do.

    But I don’t think it’s quite right to say that Caputo wants “to set up a completely blameless religion that would be free of the historical baggage of ‘religious violence.’” Caputo is eager to remind religious persons and institutions of the violence in which they have taken part and to which their commitments can easily lead. So while you could say that he wants to save religion from itself, this isn’t to help it jettison its historical baggage, but rather to become always more responsible for it.

    That said, I strongly share your desire to get past talking about the religious in tones either apologetic or disparaging, and to get past the often lazy and rarely constructive opposition between the religious and the secular. Religion is something interesting and important that people do, so let’s think about it that way.

  5. i would definitely agree that what seems to be most valuable about the debate is that it reasserts the ambivalence of the text. derrida’s, that is. it’s a debate that presents us with something like a “both/and”, rather than a rigid “either/or.” with that said, i don’t think that their reflections are useless exercises. i think that each reading gives us a clear sense of what sort of conceptual work a theology, or an atheology, does to (or with) the text.

    it’s been a while since i’ve read either of these. but i do remember being struck by the fact that hagglund’s atheology is really only a nullification of certain theologic. if, for example, you’re working with a divine concept that IS autoimmune/mortal/creaturely (at least on some level), his critique of theology (as a generic category) starts to fall apart. there might be plenty of theologians who would agree with his critique of theology, without agreeing that such a critique necessitates the total annihilation of any form of theologic.

    caputo seems to accept many (if not most) of the conditions that hagglund sets forth, but he wants to continue asking what sort of conceptual difference a theologic might make. whether or not you agree with the specific conceptual contribution caputo makes here… it seems to me that this is a useful way to engage a theologic: to ask whether there’s something about a concept of the divine that opens some possibility that might not otherwise exist. does it, in other words, allow us to imagine/enact something novel, or unique? does it open a door? or make a nest? does it, somehow, shift the conditions in which we presently live?

    i agree with you, in a sense, that it’s tiring to be an academic who works with religion in an academic climate where religion is always the problem, the bone of contention. religion is always the risky thing, the violent thing, the scary thing. so i understand the desire to want to, in some way, neutralize the raw materials of religious tradition. but it’s hard to escape the fact that so many of these conceptual relics (god, for instance) were designed precisely to make some sort of notable difference. they’re not neutral. they were designed to shift the fabric of reality, the conditions in which we exist. does the concept of god make a useful, or damaging, shift in the temporal conditions of this thing we call life? i think that’s what their debate is ultimately getting at. the debate itself, in sum, gives us something ambivalent. perhaps it’s best to leave it there? or is worth the effort, to shift the debate in one direction or another?

  6. Right, I wouldn’t want to advocate a “neutrality” of religious raw materials such that they would be indifferent — obviously if I’m putting them to use, I think they make a difference. I just want that use to be assessed in a way that doesn’t presuppose that all the important questions have been answered once we label the ideas “religious.”

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