Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion.
Edited and with an Introduction by Gil Anidjar.
All right, Anand, are you excited? It’s finally time for a little bit of Derrida. Don’t worry, though, I’m going to try really hard to make this manageable. Which means I am definitely not going to go through every part of every essay in Acts of Religion. You want a freakin’ abyss, that would be an abyss. So the plan here instead will be to really go through Gil’s introduction to the book and then the first essay, Faith and Knowledge. After that, I think I will give very short synopses of the other essays, in part or entirely ripping off Gil’s introductory summaries that precede each of them. I see no sense in making it any harder than that, the texts are plenty difficult as it is.
Key Terms: Theologico-Political, Language, History, Politics, Christianity, Jew, Arab, Judaism, Islam, Difference, Abrahamic, Europe, Spectrality, Violence, Readability, Sacred, Knowledge, Abstraction, Globalatinization, Messianism, Law, Auto-Immune, Chora, Ethics, Memory
Introduction: “Once More, Once More”: Derrida, the Arab, the Jew by Gil Anidjar
Okay, so this starts out clear enough. Anidjar (yeah, I guess that’s what I have to call him for this purposes, right?) tells us that< “Jacques Derrida’s writing on religion has indeed consisted of a manifold and powerful effort to situate and raise again questions of tradition, faith, and sacredness and their relation to the premises of philosophy and political culture (Anidjar, 3).” But what do we mean by “religion” here? Well, of course that question takes no time to surface, because immediately Anidjar, by way of Derrida’s texts, takes aim at the whole enterprise of Religious Studies: “The modern discourse of comparative religion which rendered the incommensurable comparable, could hardly have emerged independently of Jewish, Christian and Muslim medieval disputations that stage the one/three faith(s) in different and complex ways (Anidjar, 4).” He elaborates in his fourteenth footnote a few pages later, that “as already pointed out, the scholarly tradition has not been entirely consistent in addressing he links and ruptures that operate between Islam and Judaism” and that, “moreover, this tradition has virtually ignored – has been unable to read – these links and ruptures as constitutive of what is still called ‘Christian Europe (Anidjar, 6).’” The question presented here, of what is readable will be of great importance throughout the essay. What is it about the study of religion, not just religion, but the comparative mode, that renders what is important unreadable?
The theme to which this essay attaches itself and uses to make Derrida’s text readable to an introduction, is that of the Abrahamic. This is “because to engage Derrida on religions is to follow ‘the religious beyond the concept, in the direction of a certain Abraham;’* it is to witness and experience – to read – the irreconcilable and, if not quite the explosion of the Abrahamic, then undoubtedly, and more precisely, the Abrahamic as explosive. And it is ‘an experience that leaves nothing intact (Anidjar, 4).” To be more and less clear, this is and is not the Abrahamic of the “new ways of talking about historically dominant monotheistic religions. There are many definitions of the Abrahamic passing through Anidjar’s essay, but the first one he really gives is on page seven when he begins a sentence this way: “The Abrahamic – that is to say, Derrida on religion” and concludes the paragraph by saying that, “The Abrahamic will also have been Derrida’s name (Anidjar, 7).” He continues, “The Abrahamic (‘la coupure [cut] abrahamique’ as Glas has it) dissociates and breaks the dividing movement around which ‘Europe’ – and religion – constitutes itself. the Abrahamic may very well be as unreadable as an explosion, yet the unreadable, as Derrida has shown, is often the trace that summons us time and again to the scene of something significant (Anidjar, 7).” Okay, so, still with me? The Abrahamic is Derrida’s way of leading us to the explosive force haunting the question of how ‘Europe’ came to be conceived of the way that it is; Derrida the Abrahamic is Derrida on Religion which is Derrida on the Jew, the Arab and Europe/ Christianity.
But, of course, the Abrahamic does more than that, “it does more than conjure a distant Biblical past to which ‘Judaism’ can be and has often been referred… The Abrahamic does more than harangue us toward a prophetic and messianic future that, more often than not, comforts because it presents, destroys, or steals no more than the images of the other (Anidjar, 9).” The Abrahamic “transports” us to a “reading field” which “is therefore that of an impossibility, a non-figure that, in its invisibility and unreadability, reproduces and exceeds the so-called ‘Jewish-Muslim symbiosis,’*[Jacques Derrida Donner la Mort (Paris: Galilée, 1999)] at once ancient and new – more ancient and newer than could, strictly speaking, ever appear or become manifest (Anidjar, 10).” This leads us to Derrida and Anidjar’s Jew and Arab:
Figured and failing to figure as the promise and the threat of an alliance – the cut of circumcision – of the Arab and the Jew, the Arab Jew (Muslim and Jew, Moor and Jew, Arab and Jew), the Abrahamic articulates the non-figure of the first as already the last, of the last and of the end, an explosive specter of uncertain and troubling existence (‘Judaism and Islam would thus be perhaps, serait peut-être alors, the last two monotheisms to revolt against everything …’).* The Arab Jew, whose silent hyphen will prove both more and less than that of ‘Judeo-Christianity,’ fails to fuse and violently opens the field of the Abrahamic that Derrida gives us to read.* This, then, is Derrida ‘on religion (Anidjar, 10).’”
The Arab Jew, the Abrahamic, is Derrida on religion. Thus, “Unsurprisingly, to read (for) the Abrahamic, as this anthology proposes, will mean to listen to the recurrence of sounds and lexemes that have escaped attention, have otherwise failed to gather or to coagulate – into words. They have therefore retained the spectrality and explosiveness of a non-history, the spectrality and explosiveness of the Abrahamic (Anidjar, 11).
After affirming the connection between the Abrahamic and Derrida as the connection between the personal and the political and the political and the theological (Anidjar, 20), Anidjar tells us of his introduction that it what it “traces is the way of marking a path of entry into the question of the Abrahamic, focusing on moments where the three so-called Abrahamic religions or markers thereof are cross-implicated (by now, it should be clear that they hardly cohabit peacefully) in and around Derrida’s texts (Anidjar, 22).”
Yet, and this will remain important, Anidjar reads Derrida to have not said all of what he might have said about religion. He says that in the remainder of the essay he will follow the “unreadability of the Abrahamic, of ‘religion’ in Derrida as the interplay of an autobiographeme (the utterance of the impossible: no longer, not only ‘I am dead’ but ‘I am a Muselman,’ ‘I am an Arab Jew’) and an impossible theological and political entity (Anidjar, 20).” This “autobiographeme” must be traced because, “the Abrahamic, in Derrida, is a silent, forgotten hyphen that constitutes the secret holdings of links between the personal and the political, between the political and the theological, whose porous boundaries are constantly violated. It inserts itself enigmatically and persistently in an unwritten and unreadable history (Anidjar, 20)” but “it remains possible that Derrida did not say what he would have wanted to say (‘I am saying nothing, then, that can be said or sayable (Derrida, Circonfession, 42)’). Anidjar then posits that “if recalling is not yet speaking (‘what I would have wanted to say’) neither is (not) speaking, avoiding (Anidjar, 26).” Which leads us to what Anidjar (and perhaps Derrida) is really saying about what Derrida is not saying (I know, sorry). A page earlier having written, “Shatila (that is, Judaism, Christianity, Islam (Anidjar, 27))” Anidjar asks about the Abrahamic, “What of it if its name is also ‘Islamism’? and what of it if this is also Derrida’s name, the name Shatila, the name of a place that like Moriah, then and today, is a brutal and explosive encounter between the three Abrahamic religions? What if this is indeed the name of the Abrahamic (Anidjar, 28-29)?” Shatila here, I can only imagine must be read as a reference to the massacre in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut in 1982. If you’ve seen “Waltz with Bashir,” the documentary footage at the end is of this event. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabra_and_Shatila_massacre). This is Anidjar’s proposition, then, that Shatila is the Abrahamic, is not some easily hyphenated lexeme like “Judeo-Christianity, but is a massacre in which Jews enabled the massacre of Arabs by Christians.”
Anidjar tells us that:
Earlier in ‘Comment ne pas parler’ Derrida elaborates on his decision not to speak: ‘I thus decided not to speak of negativity or of apophatic movements in, for example, the Jewish or Islamic traditions. To leave this immense place empty, and above all that which can connect such a name of God with the name of the Place, ce qui peut y lier tel nom de Dieu au nom du Lieu, to remain thus on the threshold – was this not the most consistent possible apophasis? Concerning that about which one cannot speak, isn’t it best to remain silent.? I let you answer this question. It is always entrusted to the other,’ (53) The answer to the question, the decision, is the other’s. The threshold, where Derrida may remain by speaking and not speaking, names a place, but it does not have one proper name (least of all Arab Jew’) this nameless threshold would be where Derrida stays, where he would have wanted to remain, when he stood and delivered the lecture entitled ‘Comment ne pas parler’ in Jerusalem… (Anidjar, 30).
Thus, he says, “these are the questions raised once again, once more, by the Abrahamic, and though they do not, could not, substitute for a reading of the undreadable, they may attend to the reading field to which Derrida exposes (and explodes) us ‘with,’ one could say, the Abrahamic (Anidjar, 33).” And, “with the Abrahamic, we are confronted, on the one hand, with a Derrida preoccupied with ethical concerns and with what one could call an ‘ethics of memory.’ On the other hand, there is here a Derrida who has painfully inscribed incineration, suffering and who exhorts us to an exp(l)osure, to a reading field that is a mine field (Anidjar, 36).” Ethics, memory, and the ethics of memory. The Abrahamic Derrida (Derrida on Religion) is also about that. Ultimately, Anidjar refers to the Abrahamic as a condition, which might be the most useful way to think of it. He writes, “As a condition, the Abrahamic cannot quite be said to structure, certainly not in any exclusive way, the distinct operations that are at work between all of these terms, and yet, ‘could I explain anything without it, ever [Derrida, Monolingualism of the Other, 71]?’” I’m pretty sure you can imagine what Gil thinks about how that question gets answered.
Okay, so we’re all set on the Abrahamic, then? Basically, I think the point here is that Derrida on religion is Derrida on histories of violent construction and encounter as embodied in memory and language. Something like that. Now I’ll go through an actual example of Derrida writing about religion so we can see how this all really looks in action.
“Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone”
“Faith and Knowledge” is the first essay in Acts of Religion. In his introductory page preceding it, Anidjar tells the reader that, “’Faith and Knowledge’ can be read as Derrida’s own introduction to the question of religion in his work” and that it “recasts Derrida’s earlier texts, refiguring the politics of religion, technology (the text is also one of Derrida’s most extensive discussions of technology in its contemporaneity), and our understanding of ‘life (Anidjar, 41).’” The essay itself is broken up into fifty-two numbered sections of varying lengths, the first twenty-six of which are entirely italicized.
The first part of the essay, I admit, was really confusing, I think because it’s about, like, real philosophy, and I still don’t really know any of that stuff. Derrida tells that “eventually, we would therefore like to link the question of religion to that of the evil of abstraction. To radical abstraction (Derrida, (2), 43).).” We will link them
In order to think religion today abstractly, we will take these powers of abstraction as our point of departure, in order to risk, eventually, the following hypothesis: with respect to all of these forces of abstraction and of dissociation (deracination, delocalization, disincarnation, formalization, universalizing schematization, objectification, telecommunication etc.), ‘religion’ is at the same time involved in reacting to antagonistic technoscience (‘capitalist’ and fiduciary) and belief, credit, trustworthiness, the act of faith will always have made common cause, bound to one another by the band of opposition. Whence the aporia – a certain absence of way, path, issue, salvation – and the two sources (Derrida, (2), 43).
In other words, the question of ‘religion’ is that of an aporia produced by two sources, one of abstraction and dislocation and the other, of reacting to the antagonism of capitalism. Derrida further says that,
Now if, today, the ‘question of religion’ actually appears in a new and different light, if there is an unprecedented resurgence, both global and planetary, of this ageless think, then what is at stake is language, certainly – and more precisely the idiom, literality, writing, that forms the element of all revelation and of all belief, an element that ultimately is irreducible and untranslatable – but an idiom that above all is inseparable from the social nexus, from the political, familial, ethnic, communitarian nexus, from the nation and from the people: from autochony, blood and soil, and from the ever more problematic relation to citizenship and to the state. In these times, language and nation from the historical body of all religious passion (Derrida, (4), 44).
Language and nation are what are of interest and what are at stake. Thus, we must
never treat as an accident the force of the name in what happens, occurs or is said in the name of religion, here in the name of Islam. For, directly or not, the theologico-political, like all the concepts plastered over these questions, beginning with that of democracy or of secularization, even of the right to literature, is not merely European, but Graeco-Christian, Graeco-Roman (Derrida, (7), 46).
Thus, he asks,
Are we ready to measure without flinching the implications and consequences of the Kantian thesis? The latter seems strong, simple and dizzying: the Christian religion would be the only truly ‘moral’ religion; a mission would thus be reserved exclusively for it and for it alone: that of liberating a ‘reflecting faith.’ It necessarily follows therefore that pure morality and Christianity are indissociable in their essence and in their concept. … This thesis doubtless tells us something about the history of the world – nothing less (Derrida, (15), 50).
And thus we get to globalatinization, since,
From one religion to the other, the ‘fundamentalisms’ and the ‘integrisms’ hyperbolize today this outbidding. They exacerbate it at a moment when – we shall return to this later – globalatinzization (this strange alliance of Christianity, as the experience of the death of God, and tele-technoscientific capitalism) is at the same time hegemonic and finite, ultra-powerful and in the process of exhausting itself. simply, those who are involved in this outbidding can pursue it from all angles, adopting all ‘positions,’ either simultaneously or successively, to the uttermost limit (Derrida, (15), 51-52).
“Globalatinization,” one of Derrida’s many enduring neologisms, of which he “asks”: Is this not the madness, the absolute anachrony of our time, the disjunction of all self-contemporaneity, the veiled and cloudy day of every day (Derrida, (15) 52).” The next section, sixteen, tells us that,
When translated into the element of religion, moral ideas pervert the purity of their transcendence. They can do this in two times, two ways, and the resulting square could today frame, providing that the appropriate transpositions are respected, a programme of analysis of the forms of evil perpetrated at the four corners of the world ‘in the name of religions (Derrida, (16) 52).’
With this “framework” in place, Derrida then asks,
How then to think – within the limits of reason alone – a religion which, without again becoming ‘natural religion,’ would today be effectively universal? And which, for that matter, would no longer be restricted to a paradigm that was Christian or even Abrahamic? What would be the project of such a ‘book’? For with Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, there is a World involved that is also an Old-New Book or Testament. Does this project retain a meaning or a chance? A geopolitical chance or meaning? Or does the idea itself remain, in its origin and in its end, Christian? And would this necessarily be a limit, a limit like any other? A Christian – but also a Jew or a Muslim – would be someone who would harbour doubts about this limit, about the existence of this limit or about its reducibility to any other limit, to the current figure of limitation (Derrida, (17) 53).
Shortly thereafter he reframes the inquiry in terms of that titular element “faith,” and asks it this way,
In its most abstract form, then, the aporia within which we are struggling would perhaps be the following: is revealability (Offenbarkeit) more originary than revelation (Offenbarung), and hence independent of all religion? Independent in the structures of its experience and in the analytics relating to them? Is this not the place in which ‘reflecting faith’ at least originates, if not this faith itself? or rather, inversely, would the event of revelation have consisted in revealing revealability itself, and the origin of light, the originary light, the very invisibility of visibility (Derrida, (19), 54-55).
Which leads us to a desert, or an “abstraction of the desert” which,
can thereby open the way to everything from which it withdraws. Whence the ambiguity or the duplicity of the religious trait or retreat, of its abstraction or of its subtraction. This deserted re-treat thus makes way for the repetition of that which will have given way precisely for that in whose name one would protest against it, against that which only resembles the void and the indeterminancy of mere abstraction (Derrida, (20) 55).
That for which this “religious retreat” makes way for “messianicity without messianism,” by which Derrida means “the opening to the future or to the coming of the other as the advent of justice, but without horizon or expectation and without prophetic prefiguration Derrida, (21), 56). I take this to resemble something like the openness to “astonishment” de Certau advocated in Heterologies, since Derrida says further of it that,
The messianic exposes itself to absolute surprise and, even if it always takes the phenomenal form of peace or of justice, it ought, exposing itself so abstractly, be prepared (waiting without awaiting itself) for the best as for the worst, the one never coming without opening the possibility of the other. At issue there is a ‘general structure of experience.’ This messianic dimension does not depend upon any messianism, it follows no determinate revelation, it belongs properly to no Abrahamic religion (even if I am obliged here, ‘among ourselves,’ for essential reasons of language and of place, of culture, of a provisional rhetoric and a historical strategy of which I will speak later, to continue giving it names marked by the Abrahamic religions.) (Derrida, (21), 56)
Imagining such a “general structure of experience” requires us to use the language of ‘religion’ but it does not, itself, depend on such an institution. It is an idea of experience structured around expectation with an “invincible desire for justice” linked to it (Derrida, 22), 56). Derrida tells us that he distinguishes this idea of justice from “right,” and that it
alone allows the hope, beyond all ‘messianisms,’ of a universalizable culture of singularities, a culture in which the abstract possibility of the impossible translation could nevertheless be announced. This justice inscribes itself in advance in the promise, in the act of faith or in the appeal to faith that inhabits every act of language and every address to the other. The universalizable culture of this faith, and not of another or before all others, alone permits a ‘rational’ and universal discourse on the subject of ‘religion (Derrida, (22), 56).’
Faith as expectation of and for the other, that is, “this messianicity, stripped of everything, as it should, this faith without dogma which makes its way through the risks of absolute night, cannot be contained in any traditional opposition, for example that between reason and mysticism (Derrida, (22), 57).” This messianicity that exceeds and precedes “any traditional opposition,
is announced whenever, reflecting without flinching, a purely rational analysis brings the following paradox to light: that the foundation of law – law of the law, institution of the institution, origin of the constitution – is a ‘performative’ event that cannot belong to the set that it founds, inaugurates or justifies. Such an event is unjustifiable within the logic of what it will have opened. It is the decision of the other in the undecidable (Derrida, (22) 57).
To me, this reads like a way into Derrida’s engagement with Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt and Emmanuel Levinas in the essay contained later in this volume, Force of Law,’ a famously difficult and important text on law, justice, sovereignty and violence. In fact, the subtitle of that essay is The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority,’ a line he uses here when he says that we can,
… Henceforth reason out to recognize there what Montaigne and Pascal call an undeniable ‘mystical foundation of authority.’ The mystical thus understood allies belief or credit, the fiduciary or the trustworthy, the secret (which here signifies ‘mystical’) to foundation, to knowledge, we will later say also, to science as ‘doing,’ as theory, practice and theoretical practice – which is to say, to a faith, to performativity and to technoscientific or tele-technological performance. Wherever this foundation founds in foundering, wherever it steals away under the ground of what it founds, at the very instant when, losing itself thus in the desert, it loses the very trace of itself and the memory of a secret, ‘religion’ can only begin and begin again: quasi-automatically, mechanically, machine-like, spontaneously. Spontaneously, which is to say, as the word indicates, both as the origin of what flows from the source, sponte sua, and with the automaticity of the machine (Derrida, (22), 57).
To try to put this all together, what is being said is that “messianicity without messianism” would structure an experience of waiting for the other constitutive of a kind of justice that exposes the paradox at the foundation of law, “the decision of the other in the undecidable.” In this “structure of experience” we can then recognize “the mystical foundation of authority” which links faith and knowledge through the linking together of belief and credit (faith) with the practical and scientific (knowledge). Each time that it is forgotten that the mystical (faith) founds authority (knowledge) a space is opened for ‘religion’ to begin.
The space that opens, in which and out of which ‘religion’ begins, that space is “the open interior of a corpus, of a system, of language or a culture” in which “chora would situate the abstract spacing, place itself, the place of absolute exteriority, but also the place of bifurcation between two approaches to the desert (Derrida, (23), 57). Out of that space ‘religion’ might be produced, but so too, might chora, a different kind of space or place, a place of and for the other. A spacing, “which, not allowing itself to be dominated by any theological, ontological or anthropological instance, without age, without history and more ‘ancient’ than all oppositions (for example that of sensible/intelligible), does not even announce itself as ‘beyond being’ in accordance with a path of negation, a via negativa (Derrida, (24), 58).” The chora is not related to ‘religion.’ In fact,
It will never have entered religion and will never permit itself to be sacralized, sanctified, humanize, theologized, cultivated, historicized. Radically heterogeneous to the safe and sound, to the holy and the sacred, it never admits any indemnification. This cannot even be formulated in the present, for chora never presents itself as such. It is neither Being, nor the Good, nor God, nor Man, nor History. It will always resist them, will have always been (and no future anterior, even, will have been able to reappropriate, inflect or reflect a chora without faith or law) the very place of an infinite resistance, of an infinitely impassible persistence
: an utterly faceless other (Derrida, (24), 58-59).
The chora would be the place made, the spacing for, an other that could never be captured by language or visibility, about whom no decision could be made. The idea of which leads Derrida to ask, “Respect for this singular indecision or for this hyperbolic outbidding between two originaries, the order of the ‘revealed’ and the order of the ‘revealable,’ is this not at one the chance of every responsible decision and of another ‘reflecting faith,’ of a new ‘tolerance? (Derrida, (25), 59” Derrida then asks the reader to try to think of “tolerance” as it might be if it had never been Christian. He says,
Let us suppose it agreed upon, among ourselves, that all of us here are for ‘tolerance,’ even if we have not been assigned the mission of promoting it, practicing it or founding it. We would be here to try to think what ‘tolerance’ could henceforth be.” He thus explains that he has “immediately” placed the word in quotation marks to “announce” through it “through the density of its history, a possibility that would not be solely Christian (Derrida, (26), 59).” According to Derrida, “lesson of tolerance was first of all an exemplary lesson that the Christian deemed himself alone capable of giving to the world, even if he often had to learn it himself.” So, he leaves this part of the essay by proposing that “Another ‘tolerance’ would be in accord with the experience of the ‘desert in the desert’; it would respect the distance of an infinite alterity as singularity. And this respect would still be religio, religio as scruple or reticence, distance, dissociation, disjunction, coming from the threshold of all religion in the link of repetition to itself, the threshold of every social or communitarian link (Derrida, (26), 60).” As so often with Derrida, we “arrive” at a place suspension, expectation, distance, différance. And there we leave the “Italics” half of the essay and enter the “Post-Scriptum.”