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.

Continue reading “Deconstructing Derrida: Reflections on Michael Naas’s Miracle and Machine

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. Continue reading “On the undecidable Caputo-Hägglund debate”

Hägglund lecture at University of Chicago

Martin Hägglund’s giving a lecture at U of C next week. Reportedly, it’s centered on Eliot’s Four Quartets, but he’ll also be talking about Plato, Augustine, and the incarnation.

Dying For Time: T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets
A lecture by Martin Hägglund
Junior Fellow at Harvard Society of Fellows

Tuesday, 2/21, 4:30 p.m.
Stuart 102
Reception to follow

“To Have Done With Life” Conference Audio

Martin Hägglund has alerted me that audio files of the recent conference “To Have Done With Life: Vitalism and Anti-Vitalism in Contemporary Philosophy” in Zagreb have been posted. Along with Hägglund, participants included Catherine Malabou, Adrian Johnston, and Ray Brassier, and the entire thing has been thoroughly documented, including individual papers, question and answer sessions, and two roundtables.

Something I find questionable in Hägglund

Having worked my way through all of Hägglund’s Radical Atheism, I find that some of my early complaints about his polemical stance are only reflective of the opening sections and that perhaps his overstatement was actually necessary to make sure that he wasn’t misunderstood. Overall, having come to the end, it seems to me that he has produced a very convincing systematization of Derrida’s work, one that will be, as Michael Naas implies in his blurb, basically unavoidable for those writing on Derrida going forward.

One thing that is less convincing to me, however, is his claim that by definition we can’t desire fullness. Perhaps this is true with his technical definition of “desire,” but since he defines desire for fullness out of his definition, that’s pretty much “cheating.” There are vast intellectual traditions centered on the desire for fullness, for instance, negative theology. He also says that we can’t desire fullness because it would be tantamount to absolute death, but people do desire absolute death as well — isn’t that basically what the Buddhist nirvana is?

These desires are obviously based in the realities of our bodily existence, since that is where we always already find ourselves, but that doesn’t seem sufficient to claim that they aren’t desire. Nor does it seem convincing to claim that these desires are self-undermining or deluded — I’m pretty sure people desire self-undermining and deluded things all the time. It may be going too far to embrace the Lacanian position that desire is by definition the desire for a lost fullness, but again, it does seem that that kind of desire is at least sometimes operative.

Perhaps an overarching account of desire would have to include both a Derridean desire for survival and a Lacanian desire for fullness — though I’m not sure what that would look like and am really just “throwing it out there.”

Nothing exists

Perhaps unadvisedly, I would like to clarify a point on the Hägglund/OOO discussion. Tim Morton quotes a commenter who supposedly disagrees with me but seems to me to be saying almost literally the same thing as me:

The point isn’t that time is broken into little bits; it’s that no instant is ever really present. All presence is an effect of a trace structure.

Tim then proceeds to draw bizarre conclusions:

This is great news for God. Time doesn’t exist at all, since there are no present moments that really succeed one another. Or it exists so flimsily that entities can pretty much do without it. This is about as effective against God as a wet wash cloth! In fact—all of us are outside time as a naive succession of instants. It’s also disastrous for Hägglund’s ethics of “survival.” Nothing survives without present instants. We’re all screwed/eternal!

Here’s the thing, though — if the standard for existence is self-identity, then for Hägglund, nothing exists. Neither time nor other entities “exist” in the sense of being self-identical. Time internally displaces all other entities, but time itself is also non-identical. It’s non-identity all the way down. There are no self-identical instants of time, there are no self-identical “objects,” there is literally nothing that fits the standard of “existence as self-identity.”

Other entities thus don’t have any advantage over time, and certainly not the ability to manipulate it as they please. Why this ontology (because that’s what it is: an ontology, an explanation of the way things are) undercuts the notion of survival or what any of it has to do with the plausibility of atheism — well, I have no idea, honestly.

OOO: A negative theology of the object?

As I’ve been working through Hägglund, I can’t help but recall this summer’s epic controversy with the OOO crowd over Derrida’s supposed correlationism. It seems to me that Hägglund’s contention that everything is necessarily non-identical bears some resemblance to the core OOO claim that “the object withdraws.” And I also think that Hägglund’s polemic against a “negative theology” reading of Derrida, while perhaps overdone in some respects, does provide a useful scheme for thinking about the relationship between Hägglund’s deconstructive claim and the OOO claim.

Continue reading “OOO: A negative theology of the object?”

Initial thoughts on Hägglund’s Radical Atheism

I have finally started reading Hägglund’s Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life, and I’d like to share a few impressions of the first quarter of the book. First, I should say that as an attempt to systematize Derrida’s thought and demonstrate basic continuity throughout, it is very impressive and convincing so far. Reading backwards from Derrida’s use of the concept of autoimmunity, Hägglund argues that everything must be autoimmune and thus non-identical — meaning that the bedrock of most Western philosophy, the law of non-contradiction, must be false. With this in mind, he tries to lay out the basics of “deconstructive logic,” centering his readings around encounters between Derrida and other philosophers.

The problem, however, is that he poses this reading specifically as a refutation of the “negative theology”-style readings of Derrida that have (broadly speaking) followed in the wake of Caputo. I don’t find it problematic that he rejects such readings — in fact, I broadly agree with Hägglund’s reading more than Caputo’s so far. What bothers me is, first, that this focus seems disproportionate to the actual influence of such readings on the reception of Derrida. Second, and more importantly, it makes his argument as a whole distractingly combative, and indeed one-sided and repetitious.

What’s more, as a reading of Derrida, it does surprisingly little to illuminate Derrida’s texts (at least so far). In this regard, many of the “negative theology”-style readings, most notably Caputo’s, are much more convincing.

All of this may turn out to be wrong as I read on and gain a broader view, of course.