Mini-Book Event on Michael Naas’ Miracle and Machine

Starting this week we will be hosting a mini-book event on Michael Naas’ recent book Miracle and Machine: Jacques Derrida and the Two Sources of Religion, Science, and the Media. I will simply be introducing the book and the interventions, from regulars Adam and Dan, and a guest post from Basit Iqbal, will skip over our normal summary style that we use for our longer events.

Naas’ book aims to be a kind of “readers’ guide”, though not in the introductory sense that many readers’ guides now take, and the text he has chosen to guide us through is seemingly an odd choice. Not Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, or Voice and Phenomenon, none of these assumedly more foundational works of deconstruction, but instead the short essay “The Two Sources of Faith and Knowledge” collected in the English volume Acts of Religion. For Naas there is no privileged starting point with Derrida, one simply has to give it a go, but the choice of “Faith and Knowledge” is predicated on its status as a kind of crystallization of a number of different themes and fields of inquiry that Derrida will concern himself with from the 90’s until his death in 2004.

Miracle and Machine is organized into three parts with a number of appendixes that close it out. The first part provides the background for the writing of “Faith and Knowledge” as well as some of the controversies and debates that arose around its writing. Famously the essay was written for a conference on the Island of Capri organized to deal with the question of religion. Derrida opens his own comments with the statement, “No Women or Muslims?” highlighting the monocultural and monosexual organization of the conference. Naas argues that this isn’t simply a throw away line, but touches on the very heart of Derrida’s reflections on religion and technology. And perhaps provides one of the distinctive aspects of Derrida’s reflections on these topics.

Part two contains the bulk of Naas’ reconstruction of Derrida’s argument, and it stretches from the question of religion (where Derrida is presented as both a thinker of the secular and a Jewgreek/Greekjew thinker) to science. The underlying thesis being that there is an originary faith at the ground of both. This aspect of Derrida opened up to all sorts of Christian appropriations of his deconstruction, while the notion that science might have something of the religious has always been offensive in our scientistic age and will no doubt continue to drive a wedge between the aspect of the current generations avant garde draw to philosophy (speculative realism) and the previous. In this way Naas nuances the debate between a Hägglund-style reading and a reading influenced by Caputo’s own use in Continental philosophy of religion (though I suspect both thinkers would find much to agree with in Naas’ book).

The third section is freer than the previous two. Here Naas deals at great lengths with the issues of sexual difference in Derrida’s work and the question of literature, a constant theme for Naas’ own work and of course that of Derrida’s. This time, however, the focus is on the pride of place that Derrida has given to Gide’s work, a kind of religious faith, held from childhood into adulthood. The theme of literature also unites all the disparate themes of the book as a reading of Don Delilo’s Underworld ties each section together. Thus in literature we find not only the originary faith of religion and science, but also undergirding culture itself as represented in the novel by baseball.

Closing out the book are a number of appendixes which provide detailed readings of Derrida’s engagement with the tradition, namely Kant, Hegel, Bergson, and Heidegger (of course). Each of these figures has a special place in Derrida’s Faith and Knowledge. And this allows Naas to focus on the extra-philosophical (meaning what lies outside the history of philosophy) in the bulk of the book.

Naas’ engagement with Derrida is more than simply a readers’ guide. I think it is a valuable tool for those who want to use it in that way, and certainly Naas is one of the most insightful and sober readers of Derrida, but for me the true value of the book is the way it lets us re-evaluate the legacy of deconstruction for important questions in the philosophy of religion, science, and technology. Readers of AUFS will undoubtedly be most interested in the how the problematic of religion functions and this book helps us establish if deconstruction will be of use after the postsecular and the postmodern.