The Deconstructive Universal, Part 3

  • 2.3

Derrida’s method is to take already universalist positions and make them even more universalist. That claim might, I realize, sound perplexing and Cantorian—in Derrida, terms that already encompass everything, that are already without limit, routinely cede ground to other terms even larger than themselves—so one would do well to proceed carefully here, with the aid of an example. It is at this point that it becomes necessary to consider the religious dimensions of Derrida’s arguments. The many commentators who wish to identify a specifically Jewish Derrida have a number of places they can look. The figure of errant writing is one strong indicator: writing as the traveling, anti-nationalist, cosmopolitan term. In “Plato’s Pharmacy,” the translator, when describing such writing, can’t help but use the word “wandering” six or seven times, and if on Derrida’s behalf, you find yourself talking about “wandering text,” then you have simply slotted writing into the position of medieval folklore’s most famously Jewish figure. Nor is it hard to get from “dissemination” to “diaspora.” All writing is scattered and in exile, all writing is after-the-temple, all writing is Jewish. The matter gets more complicated, though, when the scholars turn their attention to Derrida’s debts to Levinas, which such Judaizing arguments almost always do. The Levinasian Derrida is the Jewish Derrida—we will need to consider the possibility, at least, that this is exactly wrong. Derrida does, indeed, seem to have borrowed a great deal from Levinas’s account of Talmudic reading. One almost wishes to say that deconstruction circa 1975 was a matter of Levinasian reading strategies put to Adornian ends. But then Derrida’s tack was to make about all writing arguments that Levinas makes only about Jewish scripture. His vocation was to universalize the Levinasian stance, which is to say that he was always in the Christian position. His are the pages in which formerly Jewish arguments cast off their Judaism.

Derrida’s fondness for a broadly Christian idiom is hard to miss for anyone not determined to read past it. He says that he prefers a political framework that goes back to the “Jewish-Christian-Muslim, but above all Christian, tradition.” Asked about the ancient sources of his philosophy, he responds by saying that he considers his “own thought, paradoxically, as neither Greek nor Jewish”—and to this one need merely respond that such thinking is less paradoxical than it is Pauline: In deconstruction, there is neither Jew nor Gentile.[i] It is that apostolic strain that rises to the surface in Derrida’s later thinking, after 1990, as his output re-organizes itself around four related ideas: 1) the indiscriminate love of one’s fellows; 2) the messiah; 3) the absolute gift, the other name for which is grace; and 4) antinomianism or moral life beyond the law. The first of these retains a citable Jewish precedent in the form of Levinas, while any of those others, in a polemical context, would count as Christian, each more so than the last, to the point where even the first gets pulled into the Nazarene orbit, and alterity reverts back to agape.

If it is nonetheless a mistake to categorize Derrida as a Christian thinker, then this is because he makes a point of disassociating his gospel of messianism and love-not-law from the specificities of Christian history and Christian institutions. He says, for instance, that deconstruction is a matter of “faith,” which at a religious studies conference would be enough to give his doctrine a Christian cast—and, indeed, a specifically Protestant one—but then immediately repudiates the particularizing force of that word. Deconstruction breeds faith, but faith of no definite kind—“pure faith which is neither Christian nor Jewish nor Islamic nor Buddhist etc.”[ii] Or consider the word “messianicity,” one of Derrida’s most revealing coinages and self-evacuating in much the manner of “pure faith”: from Jesus Christ to the general category of “messiah” (all saviors or anointed ones) to the “messianic” (or messiah-like) to “messianicity” (the condition of having some messiah-like features). Derrideans do not seek a messiah; they seek only messianicity. The disciple’s particular allegiance to Haile Selassie or Sabbatai Zevi gives way to what Derrida himself calls “the universal structure” of “the messianic in general”—an ambient orientation to the future or mood of unspecified expectancy that is “without content and without identifiable messiah.”[iii] What we’ll want to see now is that this purging of content is Derrida’s typical procedure—that deconstruction’s vaunted overcoming of binaries is mostly a search for redemptive abstractions of this kind, lifting the already aloft, refining already generalized concepts into even more recondite noumena, from which former distinctions have been irrigated. And yet this overcoming of Christianity—its de-particularizing reinvention as vacantly faithful messianicity—nonetheless preserves Christianity in two distinct ways. For even once purified, the terms retain the imprint of the religious history from which they have been abstracted. You can’t speak the words “pure faith” and not expect some people to hear sola fide. More: The universalizing operation is itself Christian, recalling as it does the Pauline church’s inaugural act, which was to devise a not-quite-Judaism for Jews and non-Jews alike. Deconstruction’s program is in this sense to perform the Christian operation upon itself, to re-universalize Christianity by evacuating it of all its particular claims, thereby making it available to Christians and non-Christians alike.

[i] Derrida, Negotiations, translated by Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), p. 374; “Deconstruction and the Other,” p. 158. See also the end of “The Force of Law,” p. 56, where Derrida says that his thinking is neither Jewish nor Greek, but “Judaeo-Greek.”

[ii] John Caputo and Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction in a Nutshell (New York: Fordham University Press), p. 22.

[iii] Nutshell, p. 22; Derrida, Specters of Marx, translated by Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 59, p. 28.

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