Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Gift of Death, chapter 1

In this first chapter, "Secrets of European Responsibility," Derrida, drawing on the work of Jan Patocka, sketches in a history of the modern self, which is to say, a history of responsibility, conscience, and consciousness. This genealogy takes three principal stages, with two transitions: primitive orgiastic religion is incorporated into Platonism, which is in turn repressed by the mysterium tremendum of Christianity.

Orgiastic religion is poorly defined in the chapter---perhaps Derrida is here relying heavily on Patocka, whom I have not read---and I've been unable to google up anything very useful. But to the extent that I understand the argument, the orgiastic rites from which Platonism emerge are enthusiastic---that is to say, initiates experience something like possession, an abandonment of self and volition to a communal experience of emotion and being. These orgiastic mysteries are then incorporated, but not subsumed or extinguished, by Platonism; Derrida draws on psychoanalytic meanings of "incorporation" that escape me, but, very broadly and in the signature deconstructive gesture, Platonism is shown to retain within itself secret traces of the orgiastic mystery it purports to surpass. Platonism introduces the responsible self at the threshold of the cave, that is to say, Platonic responsibility resides in one's vision of the Good. That gaze originates, crucially, from an internal and internalized seat of the self; it is a major objective of the chapter to show that this gathering in or "secreting" of the internal self and a kind of care or solicitude for death are mutually constitutive.

On to Christianity. Derrida argues that Christianity represses Platonism, again drawing on psychoanalytic meanings that I'm not equipped to evaluate, but again suggesting, very broadly, that Christianity retains secret traces---nay, broad swaths---of Platonism precisely as it denies those traces. The locus of Christian responsibility is the what Derrida calls the mysterium tremendum: the assymetrical relationship that opens the subject to the gaze of God but conceals God from the subject's own gaze. (It is this assymetrical nature of the gaze, I take it, that distinguishes Christianity from Platonism.)

Derrida goes on to make a further assertion about the modern---that is, Christian---self, namely, that the essential condition of Christian responsibility is heresy and dissent. The reasoning, if I've got it, goes as follows:
1. Responsibility can never know itself---that is, cannot acknowledge its historical origins, its historicity---but must claim for itself an autonomous, ahistorical transcendence
2. Because responsibility lacks self-knowledge, it can never act on the basis of comprehensive knowledge of the world
3. Thus responsibility must always be self-authorizing and self-authenticating and self-legitimizing, because it cannot legitimize its actions and choices on the basis of complete knowledge
4. That is to say, because it is self-authorizing rather than subject to a higher authority, responsibility is always already heretical.

I will leave it in the able hands of commenters to tease out the implications of this chapter for our project; I'm still in the digesting stage. Actually, still in the eating stage; by all means please correct my misapprehensions, of which I have no doubt there are many.


Blogger Jim F. said...

Rosalynde has done an excellent job of précising the chapter. She gets right to the heart of the questions Derrida deals with. If only I had more philosophy students who could do so well! Let me add a few notes, many of which may not be necessary, some of which will respond to the points Rosalynde has made, others that will merely mark where I've tried to understand better by explaining. My apologies in advance for how long this will be.

Orgiastic religion is poorly defined in this chapter because Derrida assumes that his audience, familiar with Nietzsche, Levinas, and perhaps also Patočka, will know what he is talking about—not a good assumption for those not part of his academic circle. An important part of Nietzsche's early thinking was his understanding that Greek religion was orgiastic. (He probably was relying on other scholars; I don't know.) That is where his term "dionysian" comes from. Nietzsche took dionysianism to be the early form of Greek religion, and he understood it as orgiastic ritual in which the participant lost identity and became one with Dionysus. Euripides's "Bacchae" is perhaps the prime example of this ritual.

Levinas has a similar term. Though he doesn't, to my knowledge, discuss Nietzsche's views on Greek religion, "the daemonic," he does differentiate between the sacred and the holy. The sacred is the desire for unity with God, with the whole, with society, etc. It is the desire to be one with something that transcends oneself, the desire to be obliterated as an individual. Thus, it is comparable to Nietzsche's orgiastic. The holy is the relation with the other (including desire), but it is a relation that does not, aim at unity, at the obliteration of self. Since responsibility requires response, it requires otherness. Thus, Patočka argues, the daemonic is irresponsible. This is similar to Levinas's view: the desire for unity is the desire for a kind of murder or perhaps sexual self-gratification is a better trope. It denies the existence of the other person and, so, cannot be ethical / responsible.

I think that we can understand the European failure to be a failure to remember that, as others, such as Rémi Brague have argued (La voie romaine; translation: Eccentric Culture), Europe is defined by its relation to its other(s). This is the notion that leads to Derrida's claim that Europe has forgetten its historicity, the way in which it has become what it is in relation to others.

The problem of forgetting one's history, however, is a result of this structural abyss just mentioned: if we can give an account of our freedom, explaining its antecedents and causes, then we are not free. Nevertheless, we must recognize the historicity of our existence. Presumably, if we cannot give an account of our freedom, then our acts become merely random. Thus, "historicity must remain open as a problem that is never to be resolved" (5)

History is tied to responsibility because the latter requires that we make decisions which do not require the decision to be decided one way or the other. It requires faith because, involved with others in making those decisions, I go beyond knowledge and certainty. It requires the gift because the gift, particularly the gift of death (human mortality), puts me into relation with the transcendence of the other (5-6).

As Rosalynde notes, as Patočka tells the story through Derrida, the history of Europe, therefore, is the history of the movement from a responsibility that is orgiastic (as in Plato, who has "purified" the orgiastic religion and yet retained its central feature, unity with the transcendent, "incorporating" it) to a responsibility to the Other—but a responsibility to the other person that has incorporated the orgiastic, though "repressing" it.

The gift of death is the heart of Christianity. Christ has given us his death. The gift of death is also the point of the Abraham and Isaac story, and we find it as well in the story of the first philosopher, Socrates. What does that gift mean?

For Plato, philosophy means practice for death and the soul is "nothing other than this concern for dying as a relation to self and an assembling of self" (14; cf. the Phaedo), and the philosopher is a magician who can transform the unity that comes with death into the freedom that comes from looking death in the face (15).

However, the struggle to look death in the face results in the experience of the survivor, of "superexistence" (18). It hides from itself and others its own mortality and the orgiastic mystery, the claim of complete freedom. That hidden mystery continues to have influence even after Christianity rises to be the primary intellectual influence.

And what is the difference between the orgiastic mystery and the Christian? Whereas the orgiastic mystery (mysterion, what is hidden; Greek) is the return to unity and the disappearance of self, the Christian secret (secretum, fr. se-cernere, to separate oneself, etymologically); Latin. The secret is not a unity. It is a separation. (An important Greek word here is hairetikos, "being able to choose," which requires separation and difference and which becomes "factious," "causing divisions.")

The history that Patočka / Derrida tells us is one with three important motifs: (1) The orgiastic is never destroyed; "every revolution, whether atheistic or religious, bears witness to a return of the sacred in the form of an enthusiasm or fervor" (21). Derrida is here playing on the etymology of "enthusiasm": "god-filled." (2) Heidegger has scrupulously tried to separate his thought from Christianity, while Patočka has scrupulously tried to give back the ontological content that it deserves to the mysterium tremendum. (3) But Patočka doesn't do this in the name of a new orthodoxy. Instead, he denounces the persistence of Platonism in Christianity. But this denouncing means that responsibility has its origin in irresponsibility—in what cannot be brought to knowledge, in what cannot be thematized, in the gaze of the other person. This is the way that responsibility must be. Responsibility must have these origins because "my gaze, precisely as regards me, is no longer the measure of things" (27).

The result, however, is

"The exercise of responsibility seems to leave no choice but this one, however uncomfortable it may be, of paradox, heresy, and secrecy. More serious still, it must always run the risk of conversion and apostasy: there is no responsibility without a dissident and inventive rupture with respect to tradition, authority, orthodoxy, rule, or doctrine. (27)

Christianity is the means for thinking this paradox, heresy, and secrecy, but "What has not yet arrived at or happened to Christianity is Christianity" (28) because there remains still too much of Platonism and its Roman inheritance. The way to think Christianity without Platonism is through the gift (grace): "as goodness that is forgetful of itself and as love (in no way orgiastic) that denies itself" (quoted on 30). However, Derrida worries that it may be impossible to disentangle the Christian and the orgiastic: "sacrifice in order to give" (31) and "an economy of sacrifice" (30).

"The gift made to me by God as he holds me in his gaze and in his hand while remaining inaccessible to me, the terribly dissymetrical gift of the mysterium tremendum only allows me to respond and only rouses me to the responsibility it gives me by making a gift of death, given the secret of death, a new experience of death" (33; emphasis added).

Whatever politics follows from Patočka's understanding of things, it is one in which secrets must exist and remain possible. Without the possibility of secrecy, we move from democracy to totalitarianism.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...

Jim and Rosalynde,

I won't have time to comment today, but I found both of your comments extremely helpful. (And I've read this book 5-6 times and once in French! Though it has been 3-4 years since I read it last).


6:56 AM  
Blogger Jim F. said...

Another way to describe Patočka's understanding of the political: In orgiastic religion the divine is transcendent of this world. Unity is unity with what is outside of and before this world, which is why it comes only with death, which is why the philosopher learns to live for death. However, with Christianity (though I would say Judaism), the divine enters the world and history by entering into covenant with human beings. This suggests that Christianity is not death-seeking.

We haven't read Derrida's reading of Kierkegaard's reading of Abraham and Isaac yet, but if we think in these terms, we could understand the A&I story to be one in which Abraham responds to the covenant with God by seeing it instantiated in his son: the covenant is a covenant of the community; in the world rather than after the world and, so, not death-seeking, i.e., not philosophical.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I have, ultimately, so many responses to this first chapter that I ought to write a collection of poems, or some such thing, instead of posting anything here. But let me drop just a thought or two (most of what this chapter causes me to rethink will come out in my post next week).

It seems increasingly important to me that we recognize the point of conjunction (if not the dividing line) between Derrida and Patocka. To what extent is Derrida "borrowing" (read: critiquing) Patocka's understanding of Christianity when he then takes up the question of the impossibility of the gift/grace (and to what extent is he simply using Patocka to bring Heidegger on board)? Is the critique of the gift (of death) only possible if Christianity retains (albeit in repression) a converted Platonism?

Of course, what seems most important in all of this to me (as I've been suggesting on the problema iii more post) is the injection of the political--and strictly speaking, the European political--themes into our discussion. When I have time (Monday?), I would like to develop an argument from Derrida's text that the political per se is a question of Platonism in this text, and that perhaps Patocka is trying to look beyond that. I'll have more to say on that soon. But a word of why this is so interesting to me, by way of anticipating next week's discussion: there is something curious about at least the Book of Mormon "doctrine" of the Gentiles... Should we be looking more closely at these kinds of questions of European politics in our own theological musings? LDS theology tends to be so... antiseptic?... unhistorical?... irresponsible?... American.

But more soon.

1:39 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

First, Jim and Rosalynde: Thank you very, very much for these invaluable aids to my reading. I'm still not quite through with this reading, but these comments have been extremely helpful--I read somewhere that this is supposed to be one of Derrida's easier, or at least more straightforward, pieces of writing, but it's been very tough chewing for me....

Next, a bit of a meta-aside: Several times here I've injected common ideas about Mormon doctrine into our discussion. Perhaps this has been unhelpful, or even self-defeating. However, in reading this chapter, I identified part of my motivation as being similar to Derrida's call to remember history. In talking about Mormon theology, or the possibility of theology, I think it is important that we somehow remember the historical and sociological context of Mormon theology/doctrine. I realize this doesn't really fit into the four "Key Questions" on the right, but I think this chapter of Derrida's make a good case for taking our own specific, historical context of Mormon theology quite seriously. Of course I don't really know how to do this, somehow just I think it's important we not simply forget the roles that, say, Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie played in shaping Mormon theology, or at least Mormons' views on theology.

Next, a tiny scriptural thought on responsibility: Jim's discussion (in his article) of the recurring "I am", coupled with Derrida's writing on responsibility, has me wondering about a growing sense of responsibility in Genesis 22. I'm still stuck thinking about the gap between "pure givenness" and hermeneutics (see the last couple comments on the previous post), so let me try to phrase my thought in those terms: God first gives Abraham a pure/specific command to go to Moriah. Then Isaac calls on Abraham in a way that requires Abraham to respond "hermeneutically" (surely there's not a one-and-only correct response...). Finally, after God sees Abraham responding both purely and hermeneutically, Abraham is released from the call to sacrifice Isaac and God "swears by himself" in renewing/restating Abraham's blessing. Why does God swear "by himself"? Perhaps because Abraham is now listening responsibly, and so the supplemented ritual of chapter 15 is now unnecessary.

Interestingly, in Genesis 24, Abraham himself becomes the source of a command to someone else (his servant, to find a wife for Isaac). Might we read into this Abraham receiving power/authority commensurate with his respons-ibility (answering to and answering for), binding power and responsibility together as we see elsewhere in discussions of Priesthood and responsibility (e.g. Jacob 1:19, "taking upon us the responsibility, answering the sins of the people upon our own heads")?

12:37 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

[Yikes, I just realized that "pure givenness" is definitely not the term I wanted to use in my comment above and comments in the previous thread. I guess this is a term Marion uses, and in a sense quite different from what I mean. I have in mind, rather, the situation of a decision I must make--an ethical dilemma, say--and I'm trying to think about the gap or distance between two different ways of deciding this decision: (1) having been told by "direct revelation" that I must do something (something that is specific and comprehensible to me), and the challenge is to muster the courage or faith to do so (perhaps by avoiding self-deceptive rationalizations that I have actually been told this...), and (2) "hermeneutically deciding" among many different alternatives by a process of weighing various factors and coming up with my best story of what I think I should do to, say, in striving for justice. Sorry for using "pure givenness" in such a confusing way....]

6:00 PM  

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