Thursday, June 28, 2007

"Whom To Give To"

As an undergraduate, the first philosopher I read was Derrida and the first book I read was The Gift of Death. I picked it up because someone I admired and with whom I worked at the MTC (he was, in fact, a serious former student of Jim'€™s) told me that one of the most significant and transformative spiritual experiences of his life occurred in connection with his reading The Gift of Death. I've tried to make it a rule to never turn down such book recommendations. I don'€™t know for sure what passages he had especially in mind, but I have a hunch. And I'€™m pretty clear about which passages ended up producing a similar effect in me. In both cases, I think they are here in the third chapter.

A few comments and transcriptions.

1. "€œWe tremble in that strange repetition that ties an irrefutable past (a shock has been felt, a traumatism has already affected us) to a future that cannot be anticipated; anticipated but unpredictable; apprehended, but, and this is why there is a future, apprehended precisely as unapproachable. Even if one thinks one knows what is going to happen, the new instant of that happening remains untouched, still inaccessible, in fact unlivable." (54)

The trembling produced by the mysterium tremendum is the living bridge between the trauma of the past (irrefutable, irreducible, and unmasterable) and the secret that is the future. The future, here, being constituted by the fact that it is necessarily a secret that cannot be told, a secret that is structurally rather than accidentally a secret or mystery. What gives the future a future (what makes it other than a modulation of the present) is its secret. We never know what'€™s going to happen. The limit of the future, the limit that marks the future a€™s absolute rather than relative mystery, is death. The gift of death is the secret that death holds and the future that death's secret both gives and forecloses (gives, Derrida would say, by foreclosing).

Within a Derridean framework we might say that typology is this living, trembling bridge between the unfathomable past and the secret of the future. Except, for Derrida, the quivering connection between type and antitype and is possible only if the antitype remains a secret (if it were not a secret the future would itself collapse) and thus the meaning of the type, though irrefutably given, remains a mystery. Or we might say: in a Derridean typology, we receive an endless series of powerfully transformative types€“ but the antitype that would definitively reveal their meanings can never, by definition, be given.

2. "What is it that makes us tremble in the mysterium tremendum? It is the gift of infinite love, the dissymmetry that exists between the divine regard that sees me, and myself, who doesn't see what is looking at me." (56)

What does love have to do with death? Love is our trembling in the face of the secret/future that death gives. Love is a trembling in light of the dissymmetry between what I apprehend and the secret that the Other holds.

Love, Derrida would maintain, is only possible insofar as the antitype is never given and the meaning of the type is never definitively unveiled. Death makes love possible because death is what gives us an end, but it gives us end that we can only receive by no longer being around to receive it. It promises to tell us the secret by promising to keep the secret a secret. Love, founded on dissymmetry, is necessarily absurd: the books can never be balanced, the debits and credits can never be zeroed out, no universal equivalence can ever be accomplished. It is the dissymmetry of love that renders it immune to money (the universal equivalence machine) and, thus, unconditional.

3. "He [Abraham] says something that is not nothing and that is not false. He says something that is not a non-truth, something moreover that, although he doesn'€™t know it yet, will turn out to be true."€ (59)

This is, I think, a tantalizing formula for doing theology (and typological theology). When we do theology properly we manage to say things that are not nothing and that are not false. When we do theology properly we manage to say things we do not know the meaning of€“ but, nonetheless, will turn out to be true. We venture a wager in faith on the meaning of a type, but do so in the absence of its key, the antitype.

4. "If I obey in my duty towards God (which is my absolute duty) only in terms of duty, I am not fulfilling my relation to God. In order to fulfill my duty towards God, I must not act out of duty . . . . It is in this sense that absolute duty (towards God and in the singularity of faith) implies a sort of gift or sacrifice that functions beyond debt and duty, beyond duty as a form of debt. (63)

What does sacrifice have to do with the gift of death? What does sacrifice, as Abraham enacts it, have to do with the secret? Sacrifice is (as Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita) the only mode of action that escapes the bind of conditioned actions. It is the only mode of action capable of giving a gift. It is the only way to act that eludes the trap of debt. Sacrifice simultaneously preserves what it sacrifices and sacrifices for the sake of preserving what is sacrificed.

Say we sacrifice the antitype. Derrida'€™s point is that we can only preserve the antitype as a messianic antitype by sacrificing the possibility of its arrival. Or: the only way to love my wife is by constantly sacrificing my desire for the affects that she produces in me (the affects that I love). If I love her for those affects, if I love her out of duty to the debt that I owe her because of what she gives me, then I will have failed to love her and loved, instead, only what she gave. So that it is impossible to perform my duty to her (to love her) out of duty. In order to perform my duty to love her, I have to sacrifice that duty as a duty and love her without regard to what I owe her or receive from her. I can only love her by sacrificing my love for what gifts come from her.

Sacrifice, then, is the kind of action capable of keeping a secret: it can perform a duty without duty knowing that it has been performed. It can keep duty a secret from itself.

5. "Kierkegaard rejects the common distinction between love and hate; he finds it egotistical and without interest. He reinterprets it as a paradox." (65)

The paradoxical sacrifice that love enacts has to reject the common distinction between love and hate because, commonly, both love and hate are modulations of self-interest. In order to love Isaac, Abraham must sacrifice him. Abraham must hate him, sever any connection he has to or interest in what Isaac gives to him. Only by hating him can Abraham become free in a way that will allow him to love Isaac without the intervention of debt and the interest of self-interest. Love is neither love nor hate but some impossible third things beside them both. Faith is neither faith nor doubt but some impossible third thing beside them both.

6. "I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others . . . . I betray my fidelity or my obligations to other citizens, to those who don'€™t speak my language and to whom I neither speak nor respond, to each of those who listen or read, and to whom I neither respond nor address myself in the proper manner, that is, in a singular manner (this for the so-called public space to which I sacrifice my so-called private space), thus also to those I love in private, my own, my family, my sons, each of whom is the only son I sacrifice to the other, every one being sacrificed to every one else in this land of Moriah that is our habitat every second of every day."€ (68, 69)

If this were the only passage worth reading in Derrida's corpus, it may still be worth the effort to read his work in its entirety.

In my estimation, life in the Spirit begins here: with the revelation of a responsibility that is not bound by any consideration of self-interested guilt and accountability at the judgment bar of God (or man). This is the revelation of a responsibility to others that exceeds anything that God (or man) would either reward or punish us for fulfilling or not fulfilling. The revelation of an absolute responsibility that can only be taken seriously by sacrificing both an attempt to be universally responsible (the tragic hero) and an attempt to limit our responsibility parochially (the aesthete). An absolute responsibility that we can only enact by sacrificing the other others to another other, both preserving and resigning what we sacrifice.

What is beautiful about this passage is it's€™ non-intellectual, non-mystical, non-religious mundanity. This land of Moriah is our habitat every second of every day. This has do with the cat that I choose to feed and all the cats that I don'€™t. It has to do with the time that I spent at work rather than with my family and the time that I spent with my son rather than with my other son. It has to do with the gift of time that death gives by assigning an end to time: there are only so many minutes in a day and I must do something with them but I cannot do everything. This is the Abrahamic bind and it is, according to Derrida, the bind that gives birth to an experience of faith, decision, mystery and the absolute.  In other words, this is the bind that gives birth to religion. I have to decide what to do without knowing what to do because the very condition of possibility for a meaningful decision is not knowing which way to decide.

7. "€œOur faith is not assured, because faith can never be, it must never be a certainty. We share with Abraham what cannot be shared, a secret we know nothing about, neither him nor us. To share a secret is not to know or to reveal the secret, it is to share we know not what: nothing can be determined. What is a secret that is a secret about nothing and a sharing that doesn'€™t share anything?" (80)

- Adam


Blogger Joe Spencer said...

Thank you for these several thoughts, Adam. I'll comment tonight on just one point you raise.

Adam writes: "When we do theology properly we manage to say things that are not nothing and that are not false. When we do theology properly we manage to say things we do not know the meaning of but, nonetheless, will turn out to be true."

I respond:

This, I think, gets at the question of what theology at its best looks like (and, as Adam's other comments make clear, it nicely works itself into the questions of typology we've been raising all along). It is something like this that I find in Hegel: from the very moment of real encounter with God, one passes beyond good and evil, beyond wrong and right, precisely because one is given entirely to the dialectical play of working out the meaning of that God and that encounter with God. But that originary encounter is immemorial, something I personally can't remember (and my patriarchal blessing, in speaking of the pre-mortal existence, may well begin to explain that immemoriality), so that I've been always and constantly working out what I do not yet know, always speaking not nothing.

I'd like to think more about this thi/anking.

8:48 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Adam, this is a great summary/discussion of the best parts of this chapter, thanks.

Warning, this is another one of my rather rambly comments, trying to connect some rather diverse thoughts with my thoughts from the reading:

I can't help dwelling on quote #6, about love toward an other requiring a sacrifice of other others. Abraham nearly sacrifices Isaac because of his love toward God. The problem I keep coming back to (I think we've discussed this point several times before...) is that if Abraham happened to be listening to the wrong god, then perhaps he would've actually killed Isaac. So which other do I give myself to? I think this is the key question that theology must answer. And this is the question I tremble over the most, though I'm not sure this is quite the question Genesis 22 addresses or raises (i.e. modernity poses this question to us and we look for answers in the scriptural text, like Derrida and K., but we don't really let the text speak to us in its own voice, like Jim's article seems more intent on doing...). This is why I keep coming back to a revelation vs. hermeneutics distinction: I can fail to respond to God in two ways, by either not recognizing God or by failing to understand God. Though there indeed seems a sense in which these two modes of failure can be collapsed, they still feel importantly different.

This is where I think studying Heidegger and Marion more would be very helpful to me, in thinking about how my experiences are given to me. Perhaps Levinas's saying-said distinction is a helpful way to think about this, but I worry this doesn't get at a very important role that the Spirit plays. Although Nephi was pondering his father's words when he received one vision, he wasn't pondering any text when he came across Laban--the call to slay Laban was a (more) purely given call, not mediated by any written text (though surely traces of written text were present...). But Nephi was at least given a (non-totalized) reason (viz. better that one man must perish...). Abraham, on the other hand, was given no reason, nothing to sink his hermeneutical/theological teeth into, only a horrifying, and horrifyingly unmistakable call. Whatever theologizing this call required of Abraham seems to be of a radically different order/ilk than the typical philosophical theologizing I tend to think of. Different also than a "going forth and doing good works" way of enacting theology....

I haven't started the "every other (one) is every (bit) other" chapter yet, so maybe that'll help me think through those issues, but my suspicion is that that chapter will only deepen my questions about this. How do I know when/if God is the one asking me to do something unthinkable, or the devil? If I don't have some sort of reason or justification to think it's one rather than the other, then who can blame me for reverting back to (systematic, totalizing) thinking in responding to an unthinkable call? I think this is precisely why we are so prone to live inauthentically, to go on auto-pilot and just go through each day letting circumstances dictate our mode, chained to a cause-and-effect way of living based on genuine decisions that I painfully made a long time ago, because trying to think through this unthinkable call is so infuriating and so frequently futile. And yet I've experienced a moment-to-moment-conversion way of living that breaks through all of this, that seems to make it possible to experience daily frustrations without getting frustrated. But the difference between this spiritual type of living vs. a more usual/typical, worldly type of living does not seem to be a different way of thinking so much as simply a different way of living--though sometimes it seems I can trigger this type of turn/conversion in my way of living by thinking. Perhaps this is somewhat related to quote #3 above, about saying something that is not a non-truth that will turn out to be true: in my moment of frustration, perhaps my mind recalls reading a scripture that morning about peace and feeling such peace while I was reading about it, and although I am not feeling that kind of peace at the moment (at some point during the day I fall back into the world...), my recollection of the peace and desire/hope that such a peace can return to me is a kind of speaking that I do not (experientially) know to be true in that moment, but it is something that I believe is possible to be true for me again, and through such remembering and hoping, I move a step closer toward the realization of that 'truth'. (Of course I'm stealing from Joe's Alma 36 paper here, sorry for butchering it Joe....)

So, again, I'm lead to thinking not so much about thinking hermeneutically, but living hermeneutically, i.e. by revelation, by the Spirit, or something that my conditioned way of thinking about hermeneutics, theology, philosophy etc. doesn't usually allow me to think. I think Derrida raises these problems in interesting even brilliant ways, but I don't really see Derrida suggesting any kind of answer. Derrida helps us see what decision, responsibility, etc. are, but he doesn't offer any suggestions as to how to decide. Is that because he's a philosopher and not a sage, a mystic, or apostle? Or is it there in Derrida and I'm just missing it?

(By the way, if you've read any part of The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that's parallel to much my thinking here, how to work through life like the Zen mechanic works on his bike, not getting frustrated when a screw doesn't turn the way I think it should, etc.)

2:43 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...


Not to be too (playfully) ironic - because I take your questions very seriously and share them, not just at a theoretical level but at a practical level - but the problem of the undecidable is precisely the problem of how to decide. In response to a question about "how" to decide I imagine Derrida would simply say something like:

If you knew how to decide the question then no decision would be necessary. Decision are only required by the things that we don't know how to decide. What makes a decision a decision is that it is a necessary response to an aporia.

Every "real" decision will require us to make it without knowing the right answer. In the end, every such decision will fail to be rationally justifiable and/or intelligible. To come back to his cat: Derrida "decides" to feed this one cat that comes to his door, but there is no rational justification for his choice to feed this cat rather than any of a thousand others.

At the risk of comparing my wife to a cat (and I'm not a big fan of cats) the same is true of romantic love: love is a decision that is unjustifiable. Why this woman rather than another? There is ultimately no rational justification for the choice of a spouse, only a certain undecidable je ne sais qua. That's ultimately a good thing, though. If my decision to marry this woman rather than another were reducible to identifiable conditions (her hair, her wit, her earning-power), then I don't really love her. Or, better, I don't love her unconditionally.

I suppose that we can say that what is at stake here is the possibility of an unconditional love, of a choice that is unconditioned by identifiable and manipulable external factors. The very quality of the decision as a meaningful decision is determined by the fact that it exceeds every determinative condition.

A parallel may be something like our popular conception of a "veil" over our premortal lives. We can't be allowed to simply know the right answer because then our choice of the right answer would be meaningless. There is a sense in which choosing the right only matters if I don't know for sure what the right is (or, choosing my wife is only meaningful as a choice if I commit myself to her without knowing "for sure" that she is then "right one").

This suggests that perhaps the category of "right/wrong" is an incorrect category to apply to decisions made in the face of the undecidable. Perhaps what matters (and this is just a partial suggestion that I'm not myself necessarily advocating) is the nature of my fidelity to the decision that I've made beyond conditions, or whether or not my decision is actually unconditional in the face of the aporia's unconditionality. To ask whether or not I married the "right" person seems to miss the point. We have to ask: what is the nature of my fidelity to the choice that I did make?

12:47 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Adam, thanks for your very clear thoughts in response to my very muddled thoughts.

At first I thought I already understood what you are saying. But you've forced me to rethink everything which has been very helpful.

First, I think Abraham does not face a real decision regarding Isaac. He can't, because God's call has conditioned Abraham's actions. Because of this call, Abraham must decide to obey God or not. That is the real decision he must face.

The question, then, is whether there is any "basis" for this decision to obey God. I have a hard time accepting Derrida's position on this, largely because of Alma 32 (which I don't claim to understand, but I think vv. 32ff about the growth of the seed confirming the goodness of the seed suggests an important departure from Derrida, no?

I'm just reading Derrida's discussion about Kantian ethics (p. 93--like I said, I'm behind...), which I think sort of gets at some of these issues in an interesting way, so I'll delay saying anything more till I've had time to read and think about Derrida's discussion of sacrifice in Kant more carefully (is Derrida saying I simply choose whether to follow a moral law or others who are wholly other? that neither Kant nor Kierkegaard is right in any metaphysical ethical or relgious sense; rather, I must simply choose between them and then be faithful to that decision, or faithful to the decision process?)

7:18 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...


I was re-reading some of Marion's Being Given this morning and thought of you as I read the following passage on the nature of "the call."

"What is more, surprise, therefore the loss of consciousness, forbids the interloque from grasping and knowning his summons as a determined and denominated object. To find myself summoned would lack all rigor if surprise did not deprive me, at least for awhile and sometimes definitively, of knowing, in the instant of the summons, by what and by whom the call is exercised. Reciprocally, if I knew in advance that is Being or the Other or God or life that was summoning me, then I would escape the full status of the gifted since I would be free of all surprise. Knowing in advance (or at least immediately) with what or with whom I am dealing when dealing with the word heard, I would know (what) or I would respond (who) according to the surplus of constitution or the equality of dialogue, but without the interlocuted passivity of surprise. In short, I would again become an 'I' who delivers itself from the status of a 'me.' Anonymity therefore belongs strictly to the conditions of the possibility of the call because it defines its unconditioned poverty." (299)


7:59 AM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Thanks Adam, this is a great passage. Of course I agree that the call and the caller can't be totally known. But I don't think they are totally unknown either. So it fear that is irrational and unjustified, or faith? Both, I would think, but somehow what rings more true with my experience is that fear is more unjustified than faith. Perhaps this is simply because I'm trying to be faithful to a decision I've previously made to believe in God, and so based on that logic, faith is justified and fear is not...?

I think if I can ever manage to read and make sense of Marion, it will help me think through much of this. Partly toward that end, I've been studying Heidegger a bit more, Mark Wrathall's article on truth, essence and unconcealment in particular (from the the Cambridge Companion I think...). What I like about that article is how it discusses disposedness, which I would tranlate here to God's call (the Word), and how that affects the essence of an entity. In this sense, I think the call conditions us in an important way (though not completely of course). It is this conditioned part of all this that I want to understand better, then I think I'll be more ready to understand the unconditioned aspect of all this (though I realize perhaps I'm trying to make sense of mutually exclusive ideas here...).

7:18 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Or mutually "inclusive" ideas as Derrida would say!

7:49 AM  

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