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.

Caputo vs. Hägglund: Naas’s Diagonal Intervention

One cannot say that Naas “takes sides” in the ongoing debate between Caputo and Hägglund—he is characteristically generous to both, in the main text and in the footnotes, and his concerns in the book cut diagonally to theirs. He is not aiming to give us Derrida’s “position on religion” in the sense of whether Derrida favors it or not, but to unravel Derrida’s complex conception of the structure of religion and the structure simultaneously underlying and undermining religion (and science). The upshot, it seems to me, is that something like “religion” is more or less inescapable, so that it would not be a matter of being for or against. One finds neither the warm embrace of (a certain) religion that often comes through in Caputo’s reading, nor the desire to be “safe and sound” from religion that often seems to be motivating Hägglund’s reading.

What one finds instead is an intervention into the field of philosophy of religion and, perhaps, even of religion itself—an intervention that does not so much take sides as radically reconfigure the kinds of questions we tend to ask. It’s no longer fundamentalist religion vs. rational-scientific Enlightenment values, but the common roots both share in common. Along the way, other familiar binaries are troubled: free-will vs. determinism morphs into the “machine-like” element in even the most spontaneous response, for example. Surface-level phenomena become keys to something like the “essence” of religion, as American televangelism reveals that Christianity was, from the very beginning, “made for TV.”

In the end, Derrida’s re-reading of religion in “Faith and Knowledge” seems to me to be more useful for something like “religious studies” than for theology or even, perhaps, for philosophy of religion as such. For instance, reading Naas’s work reinforces my gut instinct that deconstruction can help us to get a handle on the phenomenon of global Christianity (even if I was unable to convince peer reviewers of that potential)—in general, it encourages the kind of fine-grained sifting of concrete particulars that is often missing in mainstream discussion of “religion” as such. Whether there is a place for a theoretically informed but not “social-scientific” study of religion in our actual academic institutions is another question, but Naas’s reading of Derrida shows its promise.

II. Derrida Arbitrarily Juxtaposed With Agamben and Meillassoux

I was reading Naas’s book while working on my review of Meillassoux’s The Number and the Siren, and I couldn’t help but notice the elaborate numeric code that Naas draws out of Derrida’s text, particularly at the end of chapter 8, “Pomegranate Seeds and Scattered Ashes.” Parallels with Agamben’s Sacrament of Language also jumped out at me, as Agamben’s tracing back of religion and politics to the experience of the oath resonated with Derrida’s “two sources” of religion and science in faith and the “safe and sound.” Hence my comparison here might be totally idiosyncratic, but hopefully it will lead to something.

What we see in both Meillassoux and Agamben is a sense that it may somehow be possible to escape the dynamic of “religion.” Meillassoux has little time to explore the roots of religion, instead preferring to elaborate his (somewhat bizarre) theory that Mallarmé had effectively written his poem in such a way as to inaugurate a religion of contingency that would outdo Christianity. Agamben, meanwhile, is focused almost exclusively on the roots of the problem—as is often the case, he gives the impression that all the important questions were decided in the classical era and we are just working out a particularly destructive iteration of the toxic dynamic that is Western civilization—but seems to think that having access to the originary moment of “anthropogenesis” opens up at least some kind of outside chance of “rebooting” our humanity in a way that will turn out to be less destructive.

I don’t see that in Derrida, at least not in Naas’s reading. There seems to be a sense that we are more or less “stuck” in the autoimmune structures that we have—that their inherent continual breakdowns only make them all the more unavoidable. The system is reformable, perhaps, but not replaceable. The illusion of the “safe and sound” is an unavoidable illusion, just like the illusion of autoaffection or the metaphysics of presence. I don’t get the sense from Naas’s reading—as one often gets from readers of Derrida’s “ethics”—that we could somehow directly extrapolate a substantially new positive ethic from Derrida’s description, for instance, a new religion or a new stance toward religion (something that Caputo and Hägglund could be said to offer, each in his own way). I for one find that refreshing.

It’s clear, though, that the younger generation of continental philosophers is very impatient with anything that doesn’t have a political program attached, preferably a radical one, and so I wonder if reading Naas’s book would just confirm their “worst suspicions.”

III. Deconstructing Derrida: “Right Up to the Last Interview…”

While Naas’s reading of Derrida’s oeuvre is resolutely “local,” focused on “Faith and Knowledge” and the writings and interviews immediately surrounding its composition, it does make broad claims about Derrida’s body of work as a whole. Frequently we learn that a given theme or motif is present in Derrida’s work from its earliest beginnings “right up to” the end—I haven’t counted, but surely there is more than one sentence claiming to find the same basic notion or conceptual move in Voice and Phenomenon and “Learning to Live Finally.” This is a common theme among that generation of Derrideans that includes his most important translators: Derrida’s unwavering consistency. For this group, for example, it is misleading to say that Derrida had an “ethical turn” later in his career—the ethical concerns were right there from day one.

I basically agree with this view, but this pattern of finding such consistency in Derrida—including in the hyperbolic mode of Naas’s tracing of themes even back to his childhood infatuation with Gide—raises questions in my mind. Is Derrida the one author who is somehow immune to the effects he so thoroughly documents in every previous philosopher in the Western canon? Has he somehow hit upon the appropriate way to contain the autoimmune pressures through his uniquely literary and self-referential style, through his cautiously hedged claims and his strategically indirect communication?

It’s possible that this is a superficial and easily-answered objection, but it is a question that nagged me as I read this very informative and engaging book. If anyone can answer me, surely it’s Michael Naas.

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

  1. I don’t know that Derrida has somehow succeeded, but i do think the strategy he develops is essential — namely, that of (as you note) understanding religion as here to stay, such that the best move is, as i’d like to put it, to mimetically cure ourselves of it, to repeat its disease in such a way that it ceases to be a disease. So in this specific way, the path will be superior to either side of the opposition between keeping / rejuvenating it and overcoming it.

  2. Thanks Adam, I just ordered this book and need to read it. Sounds like it will be very helpful for an article I’m writing for Derrida Today, called “Surviving Christianity.”

    I read Derrida as walking a tightrope between affirmation and critical suspicion regarding religion, and it’s very easy to tip him either way. I think Caputo knows what he’s doing, in playing up the affirmative aspects of Derrida’s philosophy, and wagering that it will be more important and effective than the alternative. That means that the critical side of Caputo’s work is sometimes both understated and underappreciated.

    I tend to agree generally with the claims of consistency, although there’s a definite shift in emphasis, and you can see some distinct images/concepts playing in later, like auto-immunity. Spivak in her Critique of Postcolonial Reason claims that in the 70s Derrida undergoes a shift from a more Heideggerian privileging of “guarding the question,” to a more Levinasian “support of the other,” and this may be what becomes more evident after 1989.

  3. “Is Derrida the one author who is somehow immune to the effects he so thoroughly documents in every previous philosopher in the Western canon? Has he somehow hit upon the appropriate way to contain the autoimmune pressures through his uniquely literary and self-referential style, through his cautiously hedged claims and his strategically indirect communication?”

    That reminded me of this:

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