Thursday, July 12, 2007

Gift of Death - Chapter 4

It may not be a good sign to be swamped in the middle of the summer but that's the way things have been the past few weeks. I would like to post some final thoughts about the concluding chapter of the Gift of Death but likely won't get to it for a few more days. In the meantime, I thought it might be worth while to open up a thread for the chapter and see what comments and ideas develop.


Blogger Robert C. said...

I guess I'm a bit speechless. Lots of interesting thoughts in this final chapter, but it brings many more questions to my mind than answers. I guess that's good philosophy, but it's a bit frustrating to my impatient little mind.

I really liked how he deconstructed Kierkegaard's religious in terms of Kant's ethical. Indeed, I don't think Kierkegaard gives us a basis for choosing faith over an ethical system. The decision to follow God's call or an ethical system (even if broadly construed in terms of a situational, hermeneutical type of ethics where each specific situation is decided upon to the best of one's ability to apply the law, or some such thing) seems a bit arbitrary--a genuine decision I guess. (Though I really like how Adam takes up this issue in Romans: God created us, so our response will be conditioned on this pre-given fact....)

I also really liked how Derrida took up the secrecy theme in Matthew. This has me thinking much more broadly in terms of God's mysteries, and revelation, and what's visible and not. (i.e. faith). I've heard Derrida is at his best when he takes up texts directly and this seems to be a good example. I'm still wondering a bit how relevant this all is to the Genesis text on Abraham. Genesis is so atheological that I'm a bit hesitant to think that Derrida's really thinking about Abraham; rather, he's taking up Kierkegaard who seems to be taking up a rather specific philosophical question through Abraham rather than reading any text about Abraham very faithfully. But maybe I just need to think about the connections more--the seeing themes in the Genesis chapters we read certainly seem to suggest important connections, but I can't seem to think through a good connection yet.

I also like how Derrida took up the "reward" theme in Matthew and used that as a springboard for thinking about economic exchange vs. pure, gracious giving. This is where I started to feel Derrida was raising questions without really addressing them like I'd hope (read: without holding my hand like I'd like...). I need to think much more about the connection here between what he's talked about in previous chapters. Also, I think there are deep connections with Nietzsche's thought that I'm missing. I can't say I understood a lot from the last few pages, surely I need to reread them more carefully (as well as many other parts of the book, and several times at that...) to understand what he's really saying. My sense is that the resentment and economic themes in Nietzsche's On the Geneaology of Morals are in play here, so maybe that's a good place for me to work on getting a background understanding of what Derrida's saying here?

Another reason this motivates me to study more Nietzsche and Hegel is that I think economic exchange, as well as law more generally (I think these are closely related), come about as a natural defense against oppressive tendencies we encounter in others in the form of the will-to-power or master-slave dialectics (I still Joe's thoughts on this on Sarah and Hagar would be very interesting to take up more carefully). In the end, I guess its this view of law and economic exchange that Derrida forces me to rethink. And, again, this seems to be an important point in Romans, that the point of the law is not to create a society of mediated exchange so that society can thrive. Rather, the law points to Christ, and is not fulfilled until Christ fulfills it. The law is not an end in itself, but only points to something greater. I think this might be a good way to think about exchange and interaction much more generally, not as an end in itself, but a means to a far greater end. We are told we will be rewarded in heaven for service to God and others. But when Christ says the Kingdom of God is at hand, then there’s a sense in which this folding of time also seems to fold the future heavenly, potential reward into a present actuality—that is, a folding that collapses the distinction between ends and means. We serve others and the heavenly reward is the joy that comes from serving others as we are changed in (because of or as a result of) that service. Thus the break between ends and means is collapsed as we lose ourselves in service to others. Or something like that.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...


I appreciate your thoughts. I’ve often felt that the final chapter fails to tie things together the way I would like and that it tends to proliferate questions and tangential questions rather than addressing the intersection of everything that’s come before. But, on the other hand, that’s Derrida!

A few passages that stood out for me.

“Two alarmingly different themes . . . . One of them keeps in reserve the possibility of reserving the quality of the wholly other, in other words the infinite other, for God alone, or in any case for a single other. The other attributes to or recognizes in this infinite alterity of the wholly other, every other, in other words, each, each one, for example each man and woman.” (83)

For us, this may be the most useful thing that Derrida says in The Gift of Death because it opens the door to thinking about what Abraham’s story has to do with our own lives. It’s unnecessary to resort to hypotheticals about divine voices commanding me to slay my own children. The issues at hand in the akedah are the stuff of everyday life: how do we respond faithfully to the Other without sacrificing all of the other Others? How do we choose who to help and where to stop? And, in choosing where to stop, what should be our relationship to the other Others - are we responsible for them nonetheless? Or is this just liberal hand-wringing?

Tout autre est tout autre signifies that every other is singular, that every one is a singularity, which also means that every one is each one, a proposition that seals the contract between universality and the exception of singularity.” (87)

Because of the way in which universality and singularity converge in this little Derridean formula, the formula may be about as close as one can get to pithily describing in everyday language an experience of a religious “event” that breaks with the status quo and initiates a series of universally applicable transformations of the status quo. In this sense, the formula nicely summarizes much of what we have previously said about typology as conjoining both what is singular and universal. It also returns us to K’s discussion of the absolute as something that is paradoxically singular and higher than the universal.

“It it perhaps there that we find the secret of secrecy, namely, that it is not a matter of knowing and that it is there for no-one. A secret doesn’t belong, it can never be said to be at home or in its place.” (92)

This strikes me as a key point: is secrecy/mystery an accidental feature of our happening not to know the answers, or is secrecy/mystery an absolutely essential feature of what makes religious experience religious - so much so that to eliminate it would be to cancel religion per se? In other words, is the secret something that could be known, that we just happen not to know? Or is the secret something that is, by definition, unknowable? Derrida clearly believes that things like love, faith, sacrifice, etc. are internally constituted by a structurally inaccessible secret that is ineliminable. How we decide this question has immense implications for how we understand the gospel and what its revelations mean to accomplish.

“The sacrifice of economy, that without which there is no free responsibility or decision (a decision that always takes place beyond calculation), is indeed in this case the sacrifice of the oikonomia, namely of the law of the home (oikos), of the hearth, of what is one’s own or proper, of the private, of the love and affection of one’s kin.” (95)

This passage brings us right back to the very first verses we read together in Genesis: the story of Father Abraham begins with the necessity of sacrificing his ancestral home. The connection here in Greek between economy and the home is nicely traced.

“When we once defined dissemination as ‘that which doesn’t come back to the father’ we might as well have been describing the instant of Abraham’s renunciation.” (96)

Obviously dissemination has a more literal sense here as well. Distinerrance defines the possible of paternity?

“. . . the reversal and infinitization that confers on God, on the other or on the name of God, the responsibility for that which remains more secret than ever, the irreducible experience of belief, between credit and faith, the believing suspended between the credit of the creditor and the credence of the believer. How can one believe this history of credence or credit?” (115)

This leads back to the question of the secret: if the secret is necessary rather than accidental, then we will understand faith as the foundation of eternity rather than a ladder to be disposed of once we have climbed up it on the way to certainty and “knowledge.”

Sorry in general that these thoughts are so brief and scattered. Once we wrap up a discussion of this chapter, we’ll need to step back and discuss exactly how to proceed from here. But I’m looking forward to it.

2:04 PM  
Blogger Joe Spencer said...

I haven't the time tonight, but I would like soon to take up the question of Marion and this last chapter, espeicially in light of Baudelaire's "I would excuse the supression of the object." More, I hope, soon.

8:53 PM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Thanks for these thoughts, Adam. Derrida's thoughts seem dense enough that I'd be eager to read an extensive commentary on this book (if anyone's looking for a book idea!). I have the sense that I could write a chapter-length treatment on almost every paragraph Derrida writes, and that only after doing so would I really begin to start seeing the forest from the trees in his thought.

If anyone else knows as little French as me, perhaps the following will be helpful in understanding Adam's use of Derrida's neologism destinerrance (I'm quoting from here):

Destinerrance is a pun: the French word for "addressee" is destinaire, and so one noun for "addressing" would be destinairance, which is homonym for destinerrance. The latter term marks the possibility or risk in any addressing that, as Derrida writes on page 444, in THE POST CARD, "a letter can always not arrive at its destination"; errance means both "erring" and "wandering" and so the compound noun destinerrance literally translates as "destination erring", or "destiny wandering". See generally THE POST CARD, supra note 2, especially the first section, Envois. Trans.

I think this way of relating the essence of paternity to wandering is rich in possibility, esp. since wandering is such an important theme in the Book of Mormon. On the other hand, it seems the theme and title of the "On the Way Home" video (which I'm guessing most here have seen) is also scripturally motivated. Feast imagery is what first comes to mind, esp. in Christ's teachings. I guess this makes me a bit leery of buying hook line and sinker Derrida's notion of secrecy-as-eternal. I think Derrida is on to something here, esp. the way Adam is reading him, but I can't quite reconcile this in my mind to a strong notion of reconciliation, atonement, and/or eschatology/revelation which I'm hesitant to toss aside. That is, it seems there is at least some notion in which we pass through unveiledness, to cease seeing "through a glass, darkly" that really occurs in life. But I guess if piercing the veil is viewed as a perpetually recurrent event then we can have our cake here and eat it too. In this sense, these seems parallel to the notion of unity which preserves difference--truth, or a way of being true, that is both radically independent and radically submissive....

9:11 AM  
Blogger Adam S. Miller said...


I'm pretty strongly inclined to think that there is necessarily a minimal sense of secrecy/distance between people that can never be crossed; e.g., that there will always be some sense in which my wife will be a "mystery" to me. This, however, is good: it founds the very possibility of love. If God is love and love requires distance and alterity, would we be eternally committed to some ineradicable secrecy? If not, love in the eternities would likely need to be something very different from how we experience it here.


11:13 AM  
Blogger Robert C. said...

Yes, Adam, I like how you explained this in your SMPT paper/presentation. I'm just having a hard time applying this idea (which I really like) to thinking about the veil in the temple, which I tend to think about as a one-time event (I guess I "go through the veil" many times, but only once for myself, the other times are for others by proxy), though your points have me trying to think about this differently.

On the lds-herm blog we're discussing the notion of secrecy in texts which may or may not be helpful for others hear to read (I made an attempt at summarizing and applying Derrida's notion of hiddeness vs. invisibility here, though I'm doing it from memory since I don't have Gift of Death handy; I'd appreciate knowing if I'm in the ball park or way off the mark...).

4:37 PM  

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