Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Jacques Derrida On Religion


These two videos are really just audio, but the lectures are interesting for anyone who enjoys postmodern philosophy. Jacques Derrida was nearly a rock star as far as philosophers are concerned, which is rare in our day. Zizek has achieved nearly as much fame in recent years, but his is more to do with his outrageous behavior and commentaries (which is part of his philosophy) than Derrida's, which was due more to his ideas, especially as concerns justice.

In order to make sense of Derrida's position on religion - or anything else - it helps to understand his use of the word deconstruction and what the method means as he uses it. This is from a Wikipedia entry on Deconstruction, and there is more from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Religion below the videos.

From Différance to Deconstruction

Derrida approaches all texts as constructed around elemental oppositions which all speech has to articulate if it intends to make any sense whatsoever. This is so because identity is viewed in non-essentialist terms as a construct, and because constructs only produce meaning through the interplay of differences inside a "system of distinct signs". This approach to text, in a broad sense,[1][2] emerges from semiology advanced by Ferdinand de Saussure.

Saussure is considered one of the fathers of structuralism when he explained that terms get their meaning in reciprocal determination with other terms inside language
In language there are only differences. Even more important: a difference generally implies positive terms between which the difference is set up; but in language there are only differences without positive terms. Whether we take the signified or the signifier, language has neither ideas nor sounds that existed before the linguistic system, but only conceptual and phonic differences that have issued from the system. The idea or phonic substance that a sign contains is of less importance than the other signs that surround it. [...] A linguistic system is a series of differences of sound combined with a series of differences of ideas; but the pairing of a certain number of acoustical signs with as many cuts made from the mass thought engenders a system of values.[3]
Saussure explicitly suggested that linguistics was only a branch of a more general semiology, of a science of signs in general, being human codes only one among others. Nevertheless, in the end, as Derrida pointed out, he made of linguistics "the regulatory model", and "for essential, and essentially metaphysical, reasons had to privilege speech, and everything that links the sign to phone".[4] Derrida will prefer to follow the more "fruitful paths (formalization)" of a general semiotics without falling in what he considered "a hierarchizing teleology" privileging linguistics, and speak of 'mark' rather than of language, not as something restricted to mankind, but as prelinguistic, as the pure possibility of language, working every where there is a relation to something else.

Derrida then sees these differences, as elemental oppositions (0-1), working in all "languages", all "systems of distinct signs", all "codes", where terms don't have an"absolute" meaning, but can only get it from reciprocal determination with the other terms (1-0). This structural difference is the first component that Derrida will take into account when articulating the meaning of différance, a mark he felt the need to create and will become a fundamental tool in his life long work: deconstruction.[5]:
1) Différance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other. This spacing is the simultaneously active and passive (the a of différance indicates this indecision as concerns activity and passivity, that which cannot be governed by or distributed between the terms of these opposition) production of the intervals without which the "full" terms would not signify, would not function.
But structural difference will not be considered without him already destabilizing from the start its static, synchronic, taxonomic, ahistoric motifs, remembering that all structure already refers to the generative movement in the play of differences[6]

The other main component of différance is deferring, that takes into account the fact that meaning is not only a question of synchrony with all the other terms inside a structure, but also of diachrony, with everything that was said and will be said, in History, difference as structure and deffering as genesis.[7]:
2) "the a of différance also recalls that spacing is temporization, the detour and postponement by means of which intuition, perception, consummation - in a word, the relationship to the present, the reference to a present reality, to a being - are always deferred. Deferred by virtue of the very principle of difference which holds that an element functions and signifies, takes on or conveys meaning, only by referring to another past or future element in an economy of traces. This economic aspect of différance, which brings into play a certain not conscious calculation in a field of forces, is inseparable from the more narrowly semiotic aspect of différance.
This confirms the subject as not present to itself and constituted on becoming space, in temporizing and also, as Saussure said, that "language [which consists only of differences] is not a function of the speaking subject."[8] Questioned this myth of the presence of meaning in itself ("objective") and/or for itself ("subjective") Derrida will start a long deconstruction of all texts where conceptual oppositions are put to work in the actual construction of meaning and values based on the subordination of the movement of "differance"[7]:
At the point at which the concept of differance, and the chain attached to it, intervenes, all the conceptual oppositions of metaphysics (signifier/signified; sensible/intelligible; writing/speech; passivity/activity; etc.)- to the extent that they ultimately refer to the presence of something present (for example, in the form of the identity of the subject who is present for all his operations, present beneath every accident or event, self-present in its "living speech," in its enunciations, in the present objects and acts of its language, etc.)- become non pertinent. They all amount, at one moment or another, to a subordination of the movement of differance in favor of the presence of a value or a meaning supposedly antecedent to differance, more original than it, exceeding and governing it in the last analysis. This is still the presence of what we called above the "transcendental signified."
But, as Derrida also points out, these relations with other terms don’t express only meaning but also values. The way elemental oppositions are put to work in all texts it's not only a theoretical operation but also a practical option. The first task of deconstruction, starting with philosophy and afterwards revealing it operating in literary texts, juridical texts, etc, would be to overturn these oppositions[9]:
On the one hand, we must traverse a phase of overturning. To do justice to this necessity is to recognize that in a classical philosophical opposition we are not dealing with the peaceful coexistence of a vis-a-vis, but rather with a violent hierarchy. One of the two terms governs the other (axiologically, logically, etc.), or has the upper hand.

To deconstruct the opposition, first of all, is to overturn the hierarchy at a given moment. To overlook this phase of overturning is to forget the conflictual and subordinating structure of opposition.
It’s not that the final task of deconstruction is to surpass all oppositions, because they are structurally necessary to produce sense. They simply cannot be suspended once and for all. But this doesn’t mean that they don’t need to be analyzed and criticized in all its manifestations, showing the way these oppositions, both logical and axiological, are at work in all discourse for it to be able to produce meaning and values.[10]

And it’s not enough to deconstruction to expose the way oppositions work and how meaning and values are produced in speech of all kinds and stop there in a nihilistic or cynic position regarding all meaning, "thereby preventing any means of intervening in the field effectively".[11]
To be effective, deconstruction needs to create new concepts, not to synthesize the terms in opposition, but to mark their difference and eternal interplay[12]:
That being said - and on the other hand - to remain in this phase is still to operate on the terrain of and from within the deconstructed system. By means of this double, and precisely stratified, dislodged and dislodging, writing, we must also mark the interval between inversion, which brings low what was high, and the irruptive emergence of a new concept that no longer be, and never could be, included in the previous regime. If this interval, this biface or biphase, can be inscribed only in a bifurcated writing then it can only be marked in what I would call a grouped textual field: in the last analysis it is impossible to point it out, for a unilinear text, or a punctual position, an operation signed by a single author, are all by definition incapable of practicing this interval.
This explains why Derrida always proposes new terms in his deconstruction, not as a free play but as a pure necessity of analysis, to better mark the intervals:
Henceforth, in order better to mark this interval it has been necessary to analyze, to set to work, within the text of the history of philosophy, as well as within the so-called literary text (for example, Mallarme), certain marks, shall we say (I mentioned certain ones just now, there are many others), that by analogy (I underline) I have called undecidables, that is, unities of simulacrum, "false" verbal properties (nominal or semantic) that can no longer be included within philosophical (binary) opposition: but which., however, inhabit philosophical oppositions, resisting and organizing it, without ever constituting a third term, without ever leaving room for a solution in the form of speculative dialectics
Some examples of these new terms created by Derrida clearly exemplify the deconstruction procedure[12]:
  • (the pharmkon is neither remedy nor poison, neither good nor evil, neither the inside nor the outside, neither speech nor writing; 
  • the supplement is neither a plus nor a minus, neither an outside nor the complement of an inside, neither accident nor essence, etc.; 
  • the hymen is neither confusion nor distinction, neither identity nor difference, neither consummation nor virginity, neither the veil nor unveiled, neither inside nor the outside, etc.; 
  • the gram is neither a signifier nor a signified, neither a sign nor a thing, neither presence nor an absence, neither a position nor a negation, etc.;
    spacing is neither space nor time; 
  • the incision is neither the incised integrity of a beginning, or of a simple cutting into, nor simple secondary.
Nevertheless, perhaps Derrida's most famous mark was, from the start, differance, created to deconstruct the opposition between speech and writing and open the way to the rest of his approach:
and this holds first of all for a new concept of writing, that simultaneously provokes the overturning of the hierarchy speech/writing, and the entire system attached to it, and releases the dissonance of a writing within speech, thereby disorganizing the entire inherited order and invading the entire field
OK, then, so here is the introduction to the videos.


Jacques Derrida on Religion
Jacques Derrida was one of the most well known twentieth century philosophers. He was also one of the most prolific. Distancing himself from the various philosophical movements and traditions that preceded him on the French intellectual scene (phenomenology, existentialism, and structuralism), he developed a strategy called "deconstruction" in the mid 1960s. Although not purely negative, deconstruction is primarily concerned with something tantamount to a critique of the Western philosophical tradition. Deconstruction is generally presented via an analysis of specific texts. It seeks to expose, and then to subvert, the various binary oppositions that undergird our dominant ways of thinking—presence/absence, speech/writing, and so forth. (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Part One:




Part Two:




From the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Derrida:

Deconstruction

As we said at the beginning, “deconstruction” is the most famous of Derrida's terms. He seems to have appropriated the term from Heidegger's use of “destruction” in Being and Time. But we can get a general sense of what Derrida means with deconstruction by recalling Descartes's First Meditation. There Descartes says that for a long time he has been making mistakes. The criticism of his former beliefs both mistaken and valid aims towards uncovering a “firm and permanent foundation.” The image of a foundation implies that the collection of his former beliefs resembles a building. In the First Meditation then, Descartes is in effect taking down this old building, “de-constructing” it. We have also seen how much Derrida is indebted to traditional transcendental philosophy which really starts here with Descartes' search for a “firm and permanent foundation.” But with Derrida, we know now, the foundation is not a unified self but a divisible limit between myself and myself as an other (auto-affection as hetero-affection: “origin-heterogeneous”).

Derrida has provided many definitions of deconstruction. But three definitions are classical. The first is early, being found in the 1971 interview “Positions” and in the 1972 Preface to Dissemination: deconstruction consists in “two phases” (Positions, pp. 41-42, Dissemination, pp.4-6). At this stage of his career Derrida famously (or infamously) speaks of “metaphysics” as if the Western philosophical tradition was monolithic and homogeneous. At times he also speaks of “Platonism,” as Nietzsche did. Simply, deconstruction is a criticism of Platonism, which is defined by the belief that existence is structured in terms of oppositions (separate substances or forms) and that the oppositions are hierarchical, with one side of the opposition being more valuable than the other. The first phase of deconstruction attacks this belief by reversing the Platonistic hierarchies: the hierarchies between the invisible or intelligible and the visible or sensible; between essence and appearance; between the soul and body; between living memory and rote memory; between mnēmē and hypomnēsis; between voice and writing; between finally good and evil. In order to clarify deconstruction's “two phases,” let us restrict ourselves to one specific opposition, the opposition between appearance and essence. Nietzsche had also criticized this opposition but it is clearly central to phenomenological thinking as well. So, in Platonism, essence is more valuable than appearance. In deconstruction however, we reverse this, making appearance more valuable than essence. How? Here we could resort to empiricist arguments (in Hume for example) that show that all knowledge of what we call essence depends on the experience of what appears. But then, this argumentation would imply that essence and appearance are not related to one another as separate oppositional poles. The argumentation in other words would show us that essence can be reduced down to a variation of appearances (involving the roles of memory and anticipation). The reduction is a reduction to what we can call “immanence,” which carries the sense of “within” or “in.” So, we would say that what we used to call essence is found in appearance, essence is mixed into appearance. Now, we can back track a bit in the history of Western metaphysics. On the basis of the reversal of the essence-appearance hierarchy and on the basis of the reduction to immanence, we can see that something like a decision (a perhaps impossible decision) must have been made at the beginning of the metaphysical tradition, a decision that instituted the hierarchy of essence-appearance and separated essence from appearance. This decision is what really defines Platonism or “metaphysics.” After this retrospection, we can turn now to a second step in the reversal-reduction of Platonism, which is the second “phase” of deconstruction. The previously inferior term must be re-inscribed as the “origin” or “resource” of the opposition and hierarchy itself. How would this re-inscription or redefinition of appearance work? Here we would have to return to the idea that every appearance or every experience is temporal. In the experience of the present, there is always a small difference between the moment of now-ness and the past and the future. (It is perhaps possible that Hume had already discovered this small difference when, in the Treatise, he speaks of the idea of relation.) In any case, this infinitesimal difference is not only a difference that is non-dualistic, but also it is a difference that is, as Derrida would say, “undecidable.” Although the minuscule difference is virtually unnoticeable in everyday common experience, when we in fact notice it, we cannot decide if we are experiencing the past or the present, if we are experiencing the present or the future. Insofar as the difference is undecidable, it destabilizes the original decision that instituted the hierarchy. After the redefinition of the previously inferior term, Derrida usually changes the term's orthography, for example, writing “différence” with an “a” as “différance” in order to indicate the change in its status. Différance (which is found in appearances when we recognize their temporal nature) then refers to the undecidable resource into which “metaphysics” “cut” in order to makes its decision. In “Positions,” Derrida calls names like “différance” “old names” or “paleonyms,” and there he also provides a list of these “old terms”: “pharmakon”; “supplement”; “hymen”; “gram”; “spacing”; and “incision” (Positions, p. 43). These names are old because, like the word “appearance” or the word “difference,” they have been used for centuries in the history of Western philosophy to refer to the inferior position in hierarchies. But now, they are being used to refer to the resource that has never had a name in “metaphysics”; they are being used to refer to the resource that is indeed “older” than the metaphysical decision.

This first definition of deconstruction as two phases gives way to the refinement we find in the “Force of Law” (which dates from 1989-1990). This second definition is less metaphysical and more political. In “Force of Law,” Derrida says that deconstruction is practiced in two styles (Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, p. 21). These “two styles” do not correspond to the “two phases” in the earlier definition of deconstruction. On the one hand, there is the genealogical style of deconstruction, which recalls the history of a concept or theme. Earlier in his career, in Of Grammatology, Derrida had laid out, for example, the history of the concept of writing. But now what is at issue is the history of justice. On the other hand, there is the more formalistic or structural style of deconstruction, which examines a-historical paradoxes or aporias. In “Force of Law,” Derrida lays out three aporias, although they all seem to be variants of one, an aporia concerning the unstable relation between law (the French term is “droit,” which also means “right”) and justice.

Derrida calls the first aporia, “the epoche of the rule” (Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, pp. 22-23). Our most common axiom in ethical or political thought is that to be just or unjust and to exercise justice, one must be free and responsible for one's actions and decisions. Here Derrida in effect is asking: what is freedom. On the one hand, freedom consists in following a rule; but in the case of justice, we would say that a judgment that simply followed the law was only right, not just. For a decision to be just, not only must a judge follow a rule but also he or she must “re-institute” it, in a new judgment. Thus a decision aiming at justice (a free decision) is both regulated and unregulated. The law must be conserved and also destroyed or suspended, suspension being the meaning of the word “epoche.” Each case is other, each decision is different and requires an absolutely unique interpretation which no existing coded rule can or ought to guarantee. If a judge programmatically follows a code, he or she is a “calculating machine.” Strict calculation or arbitrariness, one or the other is unjust, but they are both involved; thus, in the present, we cannot say that a judgment, a decision is just, purely just. For Derrida, the “re-institution” of the law in a unique decision is a kind of violence since it does not conform perfectly to the instituted codes; the law is always, according to Derrida, founded in violence. The violent re-institution of the law means that justice is impossible. Derrida calls the second aporia “the ghost of the undecidable (Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, pp. 24-26). A decision begins with the initiative to read, to interpret, and even to calculate. But to make such a decision, one must first of all experience what Derrida calls “undecidability.” One must experience that the case, being unique and singular, does not fit the established codes and therefore a decision about it seems to be impossible. The undecidable, for Derrida, is not mere oscillation between two significations. It is the experience of what, though foreign to the calculable and the rule, is still obligated. We are obligated – this is a kind of duty—to give oneself up to the impossible decision, while taking account of rules and law. As Derrida says, “A decision that did not go through the ordeal of the undecidable would not be a free decision, it would only be the programmable application or unfolding of a calculable process” (Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, p. 24). And once the ordeal is past (“if this ever happens,” as Derrida says), then the decision has again followed or given itself a rule and is no longer presently just. Justice therefore is always to come in the future, it is never present. There is apparently no moment during which a decision could be called presently and fully just. Either it has not a followed a rule, hence it is unjust; or it has followed a rule, which has no foundation, which makes it again unjust; or if it did follow a rule, it was calculated and again unjust since it did not respect the singularity of the case. This relentless injustice is why the ordeal of the undecidable is never past. It keeps coming back like a “phantom,” which “deconstructs from the inside every assurance of presence, and thus every criteriology that would assure us of the justice of the decision” (Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, pp. 24-25). Even though justice is impossible and therefore always to come in or from the future, justice is not, for Derrida, a Kantian ideal, which brings us to the third aporia. The third is called “the urgency that obstructs the horizon of knowledge” (Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, pp. 26-28). Derrida stresses the Greek etymology of the word “horizon”: “As its Greek name suggests, a horizon is both the opening and limit that defines an infinite progress or a period of waiting.” Justice, however, even though it is un-presentable, does not wait. A just decision is always required immediately. It cannot furnish itself with unlimited knowledge. The moment of decision itself remains a finite moment of urgency and precipitation. The instant of decision is then the moment of madness, acting in the night of non-knowledge and non-rule. Once again we have a moment of irruptive violence. This urgency is why justice has no horizon of expectation (either regulative or messianic). Justice remains an event yet to come. Perhaps one must always say “can-be” (the French word for “perhaps” is “peut-être,” which literally means “can be”) for justice. This ability for justice aims however towards what is impossible.

Even later in Derrida's career he will formalize, beyond these aporias, the nature of deconstruction. The third definition of deconstruction can be found in an essay from 2000 called “Et Cetera.” Here Derrida in fact presents the principle that defines deconstruction:
Each time that I say ‘deconstruction and X (regardless of the concept or the theme),’ this is the prelude to a very singular division that turns this X into, or rather makes appear in this X, an impossibility that becomes its proper and sole possibility, with the result that between the X as possible and the ‘same’ X as impossible, there is nothing but a relation of homonymy, a relation for which we have to provide an account…. For example, here referring myself to demonstrations I have already attempted …, gift, hospitality, death itself (and therefore so many other things) can be possible only as impossible, as the im-possible, that is, unconditionally (Deconstructions: a User's Guide, p. 300, my emphasis).
Even though the word “deconstruction” has been bandied about, we can see now the kind of thinking in which deconstruction engages. It is a kind of thinking that never finds itself at the end. Justice – this is undeniable – is impossible (perhaps justice is the “impossible”) and therefore it is necessary to make justice possible in countless ways.
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