Monday, June 20, 2005

a Girardian take(down) of Derrida's Gift of Death?

Not that I agree of course, but this is certainly interesting (as in symptomatic?):
While iconoclasm is a crucially important element of our Judeo-Christian heritage, in the case of Derrida it becomes simply another rhetorical posture in the hyper-mimetic atmosphere of post-modern theory.

While Derrida iconoclastically refuses any figuration of the sacred, he still insists on the incommensurability, the absolute difference of God. As a reaction against the fear that we have lost or forgotten the sacred (or Being), and thus the source for all significance, academics have brought back the sacred with a vengeance. But as a result of iconoclasm, the sacred now takes the abstract form of absolute difference or alterity, and any attempt to understand or even discuss rationally the incommensurable is abandoned. Derrida's incantatory language--the poetical cadences of his prose, the long and rapturous repetitions--reveals an aestheticism which is at heart rooted in a deep nostalgia for the sacred. His hostility towards modern technological civilization reflects the fear that the modern forgetting of the sacred will allow for unrestrained violence. The so-called primitive ambivalence of the sacred continues then, even in modern academia. On the one hand we resent any defined figuration of the sacred for presuming to colonize the space which is essentially spiritual and thus (for modernity) individual. But on the other hand, we still long for a sense of sacred difference, an absolute sacred immune to the corrosive power of resentment.

Derrida's interpretation of Christian mystery is on the one hand directed towards deconstructing responsibility, but also, on the other hand, towards the articulation of a new "more radical form of responsibility" (27). On what, then, will Derrida found this "more radical" form of responsibility? He proposes the "experience of singularity" in the individual's "apprehensive approach to death," a Heideggerian "being-towards-death" (43). What is missing in "being-towards-death," however, is the recognition that "The real power of death is sacrifice," the death of the other (Girard, TE 241). The sacrifice of the other, specifically Jesus, is precisely what Derrida's metaphysical framework tends to displace. Whereas the death of Jesus on the Cross has ineluctable ethical implications, the "being-towards-death" does not suggest any overt ethical dimension.

Ok, predictable enough so far maybe. The author may as well be talking about Kristeva here (or Heidegger, and maybe he is!), but the final kicker seems to be a pretty gross misreading:
Derrida's argument has the disturbing implication of simply leveling all ethical distinctions. Feeding his cat becomes equivalent to Abraham's attempted sacrifice of Isaac in the Old Testament (71). Derrida represents the "post-modern triumph of the victimary" (Gans, "Moral Contradiction") taken to its logical and absurd conclusion. The assertion that sacrifice is everywhere and always amounts, pragmatically, to a justification of the sacrificial. If there is nothing we can do to avoid the sacrificial, then obviously this is not a problem we need to worry ourselves about.

Acknowledging the role of the sacrificial in human culture does not have to mean simply accepting violence as inevitable, or denying the distinction between the sacrificial and the non-sacrificial. Considered as simply another act of sacrificial violence, there is nothing mysterious about the event of the Crucifixion. Such acts of scapegoating are all too common within human history. The miracle and mystery of Christianity can be found pre-eminently in the unconditional refusal of violence and the supremely human potential for love.

Well, from one supreme human to another, I would love to hear an explanation of why not! Isn't the question precisely one of how one goes about acknowledging the role of sacrifice (and not just acknowledging, but interpreting). I mean, to deny it tout court would probably be pretty silly and sorta deconstructionistic, or "simply another hyper-mimetic rhetorical posture..."

Seriously though, if anyone feels inclined to defend Girard here, that would be most welcome. Maybe without using the word "mimetic" as self-evident, for extra bonus points? (And no I haven't forgotten about the Levinas post below.)

Update: In comments below 'archive' draws attention to this slightly more worthy article, dealing with the themes of sacrifice, 'owness' of death, and the ontic/ontological distinction in Heidegger, from which excerpted a small bit:
In Aporias Derrida largely confined Levinas to the background of his discussion. In The Gift of Death, he gave Levinas a more prominent role, although in the context of the treatment of death in the second chapter Levinas is still largely subordinated to Heidegger. Derrida seemed to suggest there that Levinas's main criticism of Heidegger arose from a classic misunderstanding of what the latter was doing. Derrida even indicated that Heidegger foresaw - "exposing itself to it but exempting itself in advance" (DM 46; GD 42) - Levinas's objection. In numerous asides throughout his works Levinas seemed to juxtapose sacrifice to Heideggerian being-toward-death, as if the latter could not take account of the former. In The Gift of Death Derrida showed that this is not the case (DM 46; GD 42). According to Heidegger, my death is a possibility that I can assume in authenticity. Although Heidegger had difficulty providing the existentiell attestation that his existential analysis called for, it would seem that sacrificing oneself for another might be one of the ways in which this happens. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that in the 1930s Heidegger from time to time promoted such a conception in the context of National Socialism. Thinking perhaps less of these references than of the inclusion in The Origin of the Work of Art of sacrifice as one of the ways in which truth happens, Derrida suggested that Heidegger's thinking as much as that of Levinas has "paid constant attention to the fundamental and founding possibility of sacrifice" (DM 46; GD 42). However, that is not the end of the matter. Levinas elsewhere emphasized the lack of an ethics of sacrifice and it is not clear that Heidegger had a good answer to why one would sacrifice oneself for another or for a cause, otherwise than to assume one's own death, and how that is possible is not exactly clear.

One question that Levinas never raised explicitly in so dramatic a form, but which nevertheless can be said to be implied by his criticism of Heidegger, is the question of whether my death is my own. According to Heidegger, "By its very essence death is in every case mine, in so far as it 'is' at all" (SZ 240). By contrast, death is in Levinas's thought other and approaches as an Other, like a murderer or a thief in the night.

How might this article speak to the particular "disquiet" at the seemingly "exemplary" status granted to Judaism by Blanchot (and Levinas) cited at the opening and serving to orient and motivate, to some degree, Derrida's Politics of Friendship?

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