Derrida’s passion for the impossible

Derrida was an atheist with Jewish roots who spoke about God in his own way. In Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida John Caputo makes a controversial encounter with Derrida’s relationship to religion, arguing that deconstruction is a passion for the transcendent. Moreover, Caputo claims that we have not understood deconstruction properly, that is, we have read it less and less well, if we fail to see it as an aspiration for the religious or prophetic. More specifically, deconstruction is interested in making room for the tout autre, the “wholly other”. In other words, it is a “passion for the impossible”, the excess or plenitude of existence, an act that surely sets in motion a transgressive vector: it is “a passion for trespassing the horizons of possibility”.

Deconstruction is primarily a strategy of calling forth, provoking or uncovering the unrepresentable. As such, it is impregnated with the impossible or the transcendent. It is prompted or haunted by the “spirit/specter of something unimaginable and unforeseeable” (p. xix). Caputo notes that religion is precisely a covenant with the impossible, unrepresentable or unforeseeable. It is a pack or promise made between the wholly other and its people. But for Derrida, deconstruction is religiousness without concrete, historical religion. That is, Derrida is beholden by the dogmatics of no particular faith. For him, it is more a certain experience of or tormented relationship with the impossible as such. Stated otherwise, Derrida prays and weeps to God but does not know to whom he is praying and weeping.

Although this all may seem rather uninteresting, it is significant that Caputo applies this profound specter of religion to all states of affairs; for instance, anthropology, justice and politics. The bent of deconstruction, its posture of expectancy, runs deep. It can never be satisfied because the impossible can never be present, it is always that which is coming. As such, we must open ourselves and our present to something new, that which is uncommon, strange, impossible. Or, as Caputo puts it, “Were the horizon of possibility to close over, it would erase the trace of justice, for justice is the trace of what is to come beyond the possible” (p. xxiv). In this case, Derrida’s religion or notion of transcendence is not otherworldly, even if it is “spiritual” or “out-of-this-world” in some respects. Moreover, rather than a list of dogmatic propositions or historical/narrative accounts of God’s dealings with humankind, what we are usually familiar with in religions, Derrida’s religion is prophetic, messianic and eschatological, an opening towards the future of what is to come.

The scandal that Caputo is proposing is to say that deconstruction is circumcision: a cutting into the Same to open up the possibility or the event of the Other, the tout autre. Anticipating the discussion to follow, Caputo is worth quoting at length here:

The circumcision of deconstruction cuts it off from the absolute, cuts off its word form the final word, from the totalizing truth or logos that engulfs the other. Deconstruction proceeds not by knowledge but by faith and by passion, by the passion of faith, impassioned by the unbelievable, by the secret that there is no secret. It is called forth by a promise, by an aboriginal being-promised over to language and the future, to wander destiner-rant, like Abraham, underway to who knows where. Deconstruction proceeds in the dark, like a blind man feeling his way with a stick, devoid of sight and savvy, of vision and verity,…where it is necessary to believe, where the passion of faith,…is all you have to go on (p. xxvi)

The messianic logic of Derrida can and has been applied to all aspects of existence. For instance, democracy is a democracy to come, a democracy otherwise than its current state, a democracy beyond its current limitations and deadlocks. This is not a democracy that can be totalized, classified or closed any more than we can define God. More profoundly still, as Bernauer acknowledges in Foucault’s Force of Flight, “Foucault says of human begins what Eckhart says of the divine being: whatever you say God is, that is what God is not; you cannot say what human begins are but only what they are not” (p. 56). The point is as follows: we cannot say a thing concerning humanity or the God or politics to come. We are blind to the future and no positive ideal holds. Indeed, the remark Bernauer makes of Foucault is the same one made by posthumanist studies: once we have defined humanity within strict boundaries of demarcation and mastery, we have already failed to grasp the human as such.

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