The question of a relationship between Derridean différance and the God of negative theology has haunted the philosopher’s project since he began to speak of the fabled non-master quasi-concept in the 1960s. Derrida himself has acknowledged the structural similarities between his own thought and apophatic discourse. In fact, he became increasingly interested in articulating the religio-political implications of his ideas as his career progressed. However, the prophet of binary “contamination” never failed to draw a definite distinction between negative theology—which, as the name implies, remains a theology (or an onto-theology), founded upon a metaphysics of presence (or hyper-presence/essence)—and his own atheological practice. And yet, in the 1980s and 1990s, Derrida took to couching his ideas in para-theological terms on a regular basis, a strategy necessitated perhaps by the project of “desertifying” the messianic (of all previous messianisms) and, ultimately, normativity itself (of all specific, historically and geographically-contingent elements—in the service of an ethics that would be radically open to the promise of the future and the coming of the wholly other). Many scholars, notably John D. Caputo and James K. A. Smith, have questioned the wisdom and/or the success of this move, but few have brought any pressure to bear upon the more crucially aporetic thought of singularity without hyperessentiality which drives Derridean ethico-political theory. This presents an interesting problem, because although Derrida’s replacement of univocal sovereignty (again, founded upon a metaphysics of presence—the most refined product of which is the gesture toward hyperessence) with an ipseity-in-process that leaves the decision to the Other is powerful, it simultaneously robs the Other of the singularity, the priority, and, indeed, the hyperessentiality that must characterize it, if it is to play the privileged role Derridean quasi-normativity assigns to it.
In an apocryphal-sounding, but (by all accounts) true, story, an auditor at one of Derrida’s early talks on the subject of différance rose and exclaimed: “It [différance] is the source of everything and one cannot know it: it is the God of negative theology.” In response to this charge, the speaker apparently shrugged: “It is and it is not” (Caputo, 2). Derrida had often exposed himself to (and even invited) this critique long before the advent of différance, as in this passage from “Edmond Jabès and the Question of the Book”:
God separated himself from himself in order to let us speak, in order to astonish and interrogate us. He did so not by speaking, but by keeping still, by letting silence interrupt his voice and his signs, by letting his tables be broken. In Exodus God repented and said so at least twice, before the first and before the new Tables, between original speech and writing and, within scripture, between the origin and the repetition. Writing is, thus, originally hermetic and secondary. Our writing, certainly, but already His, which starts with the stifling of his voice and the dissimulation of his face. This difference, this negativity in God is our freedom, the transcendence and the verb which can relocate the purity of their negative origin only in the possibility of the Question (67).
The “silence which interrupts” presence would become différance, a nothing which makes possible the thought of something(s)—of ontic reality as we perceive it; and the “freedom” Derrida speaks of would become the promise of the Other and of “the democracy to come”, which always takes the form of a radical question that unsettles all of those aforementioned perceptions, and always will.
However, Derrida has been uncharacteristically explicit in his efforts to distance deconstruction from the via negativa, since he began to address this subject directly, in the early 1990s—and the political stakes of the decision are very clear. Generally, he has pursued the argument in one of two ways, the latter of which is far more problematic than the former, and will occupy us for much of the remainder of this paper.
Firstly, Derrida identifies an historically verifiable (and—perhaps—theoretically inevitable) tendency toward “brotherhood(with all of the charged political connotations that term brings with it from Politics of Friendship)-in-secrecy” amongst apophatic initiates. In this formulation (taken from “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials”), the silence that is God becomes the vacuous organizing principle of a perverse hierarchy which privileges “those who understand” the correct relationship between human beings and the Absent Being—and those who owe fealty to those who “understood” before them:
In this hierarchy, where does the speaker stand, and where the one who listens and receives? Where does the one stand who speaks while receiving from the Cause which is also the Cause of this community? Where do Dionysius and Timothy stand, both they and all those who potentially read the text addressed by one of them to the other? Where do they stand in relationship to God, the Cause? God resides in a place, Dionysius says, but he is not this place. To gain access to this place is not yet to contemplate God. Even Moses must retreat. He receives this order from a place that is not a place, even if one of the names of God can sometimes designate place itself. Like all the initiated, he must purify himself, step aside from the impure, separate himself from the many, join the “elite of the priests” (91).
Here Derrida puts his finger on a pitfall of what Christopher Rickey (in his discussion of Heidegger) calls “Antinomian politics”. Historically, ecstatic devotees of this stripe have always chosen one of two positions vis-à-vis society—radical sectarian withdrawal or revolutionary activity which aims at bringing about the “Dictatorship of the Elect”. Needless to say, neither of these options—each of which, ultimately, is concerned with closure on this plane, albeit in the name of opening up a space for the proper contemplation of what lies beyond—is at all congenial to deconstruction, which categorically denies the possibility of this (or of any other) “secret”. (Ironically, Derrideans within the academy have often been characterized as precisely this kind of circle-of-adepts—and this cannot be incidental to an understanding of Derrida’s fervor on this point.)
However, the Derridean critique of Negative Theology does not stop at this (possibly) historically-contingent level. At the heart of his rejection of the apophatic way is the claim that is not nearly negative enough. The clearest iteration of this argument can perhaps be found in the “Post-scriptum” to Derrida and Negative Theology. Derrida begins by developing a kind of genealogy of the apophatic:
Negative theology uproots itself from there [the rationalist tradition] after the fact, in the torsion or conversion of a second movement of uprooting, as if a signature was not counter-signed, but rather contradicted in a codicil or in the remorse of a post-scriptum at the bottom of the contract. This contract rupture programs a whole series of analogous and recurrent movements, a whole outbidding of the nec plus ultra that calls to witness the epekeina tes ousias, and at times without presenting itself as negative theology (Plotinus, Heidegger, Levinas)(309).
Here, he takes pains to expand his critique to include not only Neo-Platonic mysticism, which he has associated with the “metaphysics of presence” since the beginning of his career, but also two of his major twentieth-century precursors, as if to say: “yes, perhaps they were closet apophatics, but if you pay attention, you will see that deconstruction parts ways from them on precisely the crux of this matter.” To wit:
But, on the other hand, and in that very way, nothing is more faithful than this hyperbole to the originary ontotheological injunction. The post-scriptum remains a countersignature, even if it denies this. In the most apophatic moment, even when one says: God is not, or is not either this or that, not this nor its contrary; or again, being is not, etc.; eve then it is still a matter of saying the entity such as it is, in its truth, even were it meta-metaphysical, meta-ontological. It is a matter of holding the promise of saying the truth at any price, of rendering oneself to the truth of the name, to the thing itself such as it must be named by the name, that is, beyond the name (309).
Elsewhere, Derrida identifies this manner of “holding to the promise” as dependent upon a doctrine of the hyperessentiality of God/Being/etc.—arguing that it is, basically, a trapdoor back into onto-theology.
John D. Caputo describes this move as a way of “saving apophatic theology from telling a bad story about itself, about how it speaks from the Heart of Truth, and how the rest of us had better get in line with it. Or else” (6). This interpretation of the resistance to theology as a kind of objection to “trickle-down ipse-nomics”, as if any concession to the language of presence will bolster the unreflective use of (or thought about) selfhood/sovereign power is undoubtedly a part of the rewritten the “story”, but there is far more to deconstruction’s atheology than that.
Interestingly, Derrida threatens, at times, to tell a “bad (quasi-metaphysical) story” of his own, particularly when he attempts to substitute Khora for the mystics’ hyperessential Being. Even Derrida cannot avoid speaking of first things (to refuse to speak about God/Being/Hyperessence does not dispel its power—quite the reverse!) and when he does, as he acknowledges he must (in “How to Avoid Speaking”, in Derrida and Negative Theology), the Indo-European languages are ranged resolutely on the side of the metaphysics of presence—although some of his neologisms, particularly “originary” and its cognate terms, are helpful in evening the playing field. However, when Derrida does undertake the task of articulating a quasi-coherent atheology, he turns not to différance or to any of the words he has coined, but to the Khora, familiar from Plato’s Timaeus:
Tout en interrogeant la tradition onto-théologico-politique qui croise la philosophie grecque avec les revelations abrahamiques, peut-être faudrait-il l’epreuve de ce qui résiste encore, de ce qui y aura toujours résisté, depuis l’interieur ou comme depuis une extériorité qui résiste au-dedans. Khôra, l’<<épreuve de khôra>> serait, du moins selon l’interprétation que j’ai cru pouvoir en tenter, le nom de lieu, un nom de lieu, et fort singulier, pour cet espacement qui, ne se laissant domineer par aucune instance théologique, ontologique, ou anthropologique, sans âge, sans historie et plus <<ancien>> que toutes les oppositions (par example sensible/intelligible), ne s’annonce meme pas comme <<au-dela de l’être>>, selon une voie negative (“Foi et savoir”, 31).
Khora is, basically, différance in archaic dress, except that it remains more of a place than a space, and thus is more vulnerable than Derrida’s quasi-concept to the acquisition of an “isness”, and thus to reontotheologisation (although, since he claims that it precedes ontology, it would perhaps be more accurate to state that Khora was always already pregnant with hyperessence, and is, in fact, the place where the descent along the slippery slope into a metaphysics of presence begins).
The logic of introducing Khora into this discussion of negative theology and hyper-essence seems self-defeating. Is Derrida attempting to perform the “belatedness” of différance by demonstrating its ultimate untranslatability into pre-theological discourse? Is this yet another proof that, although we are compelled to speak of first things, we cannot (even Jacques Derrida cannot) do so without falling into error? That différance is absolutely dependent upon, and contaminated by, the metaphysics of presence, which must come first? This would seem to be the only logical assumption—and yet, Derrida does appear to be in earnest when he argues:
Là où ce fondement [d’autorité mystique] fonde en s’effondrant, là où il se dérobe sous le sol de ce qu’il fonde, à l’instant où, se perdant ainsi dans le desert, il perd jusqu’à la trace de lui-même et le mémoire d’un secret, la <<religion>> ne peut que commencer et recommencer: quasi automatiquement, mécaniquement, machinalement, spontanément. Spontanément, c’est-à-dire, comme le mot l’indique, à la fois comme l’originede ce qui coule de source, sponte sua, et avec l’automaticité du machinal. Pour le meilleur et pour le pire, sans aucune assurance ni horizon anthropo-théologique. Sans ce desert dans le desert, il n’y aura ni acte de foi, ni promesse, ni avernir, ni rapport à la singularité de l’autre. La chance de ce désert dans le desert. . . c’est qu’à déraciner la tradition qui la porte, à l’athéologiser, cette abstraction libère, sans denier la foi, une rationalité universelle et la démocratie politique qui en est indissociable (29).
How does Khora, or différance for that matter, help to bring about this “deracination”—this “desert in the desert”? Is it even possible to achieve this degree of purification/”desertification”—especially under the radically impure sun of deconstruction?
These questions become even more pertinent when they are applied to the Derridean distinction between the Messianic and the historical messianisms. In Specters of Marx, Derrida gestures toward a messianic structure “without content and without identifiable messiah”(28). The logic here is easy to follow—a messianic without messianism would preserve the promise of the future, without delivering the world up to the evil of a determined morality/message/telos/outcome; and yet—as many scholars have noted—it is a profoundly undeconstructive logic. James K.A. Smith takes Derrida at his universalizing word, in order to undermine both this particular project, and the entire deconstructive enterprise:
But what now of Derrida’s religion, or deconstruction’s religion without religion, this messianic, transcendent, structural religion? What about its history? Would it not also admit of genealogical analysis, even geographical analysis which would suggest some links to a certain time and place? . . . [and on the other hand] If, in order to avoid any implication of the messianic in the wars of the determinate messianisms, we evacuate the messianic structure of any content, then we must conclude, as Caputo rightly observed, that the messianic is not a quasi transcendental but a pure transcendental stricto sensu—a pure Greco-modern universal of the most classical species that remains immune to history and space (210).
Caputo, in fact, approaches the issue far more charitably:
Derrida has always maintained that the borders between our most important distinctions are porous, and that applies as well to a distinction between the messianic and the messianisms. Derrida’s desert-like and arid, ah-khoral, atheological messianic enjoys a great deal of the life of the historical messianisms, of their historical hope. Of their religious affirmation of something freeing that is to come. . . the whole idea of “abstracting” from the concrete messiahs is to intensify the urgency of the messianic. So rather than taking Derrida’s messianic as in any way overarching the three historical messianisms of the religions of the Book, or the three plus one, if you include Marx’s messianism, I would say that Derrida’s is a fifth. . . that is to say, one more messianism, but one with a deconstructive twist, one that deconstruction has bent to its own purposes so that the idea of a true messianic in general, or a true universal, is a mistake (141-142).
This is perhaps the best (read: smoothest, blandest, etc.) face that can be put upon the problem—and yet, it is manifestly not the one that Derrida himself would choose, for very important reasons. In the first place, by reducing deconstruction to a messianism (and particularly this messianism), Caputo renders it indistinguishable from a kind of liberal pluralism—which is the last thing deconstruction is or was intended to be. In the second place, Caputo completely ignores the performative aspect of the writing—which is to say that, much as when Derrida speaks of Khora, knowing that this will plunge him into, or at least force him to prey upon, a metaphysics of presence, so his discussion of the messianic is haunted, from the start, by the certainty that such a thing could not possibly be articulated. To speak of “the messianic” is necessarily to fail—and this is so, not because it is some perfect Idea that becomes debased through incorporation in words, but precisely because it can be (and only “exists” insofar as it can be)repatriated to language, for the slight cost of its raison d’etre—a price which, however, we are much better off paying than not, because it keeps the item on the exchange.
Derrida requisitions the impossible—the unthinkable—and receives something else again, cut to the specifications of thought. The most important difference between Derrida and the apophatic mystics is that, unlike the latter, the former categorically refuses to keep silent, even in the face of language’s manifest failure to deliver the goods (and the Good). That refusal (which is also an affirmation) is all that is needed to maintain a sense of “urgency” in Derridean religio-ethico-political thought. Without this determination to recognize the violence in every act of determination, Derrida would be forced to agree with James K.A. Smith, who argues that:
By recognizing the pharmacologicality of determinate religion, a way is opened for maintaining Derrida’s concern regarding the violence and exclusionary impulse of particular religious expressions and yet at the same time recognizing the role played by the determinate content of religion in Derrida’s discourse on justice. The means, then, of avoiding violence would not be a suspension of religious content or the production of a “religion without religion” but rather an ethical vigilance accompanied by a recognition of the integral role of determinate religions in the production and determination of justice. Would this not be the ethical vigilance modeled by a very determined Galilean, who was the prophet of a very particular justice and religion but also died at the hands of a very determined violence? The determination of religion, then, need not necessarily or structurally end in violence; rather, as we see in Derrida’s messianism, religion determines justice (211).
On the contrary, Derrida would argue, justice simply cannot be determined—and all necessities and determinate structures do end in violence (are the very definition of violence, in fact).
It is on precisely this point that deconstruction’s critique of the metaphysics of presence, of hyperessentiality, and of the concept of sovereignty they enable is most cogent. Hyperessence-Presence-Selfhood-Subjectivity-Mastery-Sovereignty: Derrida places these ideas en abîme in many places, but one example from Rogues should suffice:
It seems difficult to think such a desire for or naming of democratic space without the rotary motion of some quasi-circular return or rotation toward the self, toward the origin itself, toward and upon the self of origin, whenever it is a question, for example, of sovereign self-determination, of the autonomy of the self, of the ipse, namely, of the one-self that gives itself its own law, of autofinality, autotely, self-relation as being in view of the self, beginning by the self with the end of self in view—so many figures and movements that I will call from now on, to save time and speak quickly, to speak in round terms, ipseity in general. By ipseity I thus wish to suggest some “I can,” or at the very least the power that gives itself its own law, its force of law, its self-representation, the sovereign and reappropriating gathering of self in the simultaneity of an assemblage or assembly, being together or “living together,” as we say (10-11).
Here, ultimately, is the source of deconstruction’s quarrel with negative theology, which, by saving hyperessentiality from the flood of radical doubt, throws a self-preserver to this circular ipseity which it might have been supposed capable of putting in question. Not that Derrida is at all interested in “doing away with” selves, subjectivity, or even some form of sovereignty—but he advocates reexamining these things away from the blinding light of an all-encompassing (and hyper-authorizing) hyperessence.
For Derrida, the key to this reappraisal of selfhood and sovereignty is a kind of transcendental forgetting which parallels (indeed, is part and parcel of) the project of the “desertification” of theology (under the star of Khora), and of the godhead (a project which, as the terminology makes clear, Heidegger never even undertook):
Khora n’est rien (rien d’étant ou de present), mais non le Rien qui dans l’angoisse du Dasein ouvrairait encore à la question de l’être. Ce nom grec dit dans notre mémoire ce qui n’est pas réappropriable, fût-ce par notre memoire, meme par nôtre mémoire <<grecque>>; il dit cet immemorial d’un desert dans le desert pour lequel il n’est ni seuil ni deuil. La question reste ouverte, et par là meme, de savoir si on peut penser ce desert, et le laisser s’annoncer <<avant>> le desert que nous connaissons (celui des revelations et des retraits, des vies et des morts de Dieu, de toutes les figures de la kénose ou de la transcendence, de la religio ou des religions historiques) (“Foi”, 31-32).
In other places, Derrida recommends adopting a posture of epoche vis-à-vis the onto-theological tradition into which all westerners are born, but his use here of the (certainly related) mnemonic trope seems a great deal more apt. Hyperessentiality may lie inescapably at the heart of every European language, but we can, at least, forget that this has anything to do with the selves and the sovereignties that we forge.
Easier to forget than to suspend judgment? Why? The answer to this question, in my view, has everything to do with deconstruction’s characteristic concerns for justice and openness to (indeed, responsibility toward) the Other. Under the conditions of thought imposed by French, English, German, and the other European languages (and, perhaps, of all human languages), it is far easier to imagine oneself forgetting the role of hyperessence in consolidating the self, than successfully doubting the possibility of hyperessentiality itself. Derrida himself shows the way to this conclusion through his comments in “Sauf Le Nom”:
The Other is God in no matter whom, more precisely no matter what singularity, as soon as any other is wholly other [tout autre est tout autre] (74)
Each thing, each being, you, me, the other, each X, each name, and each name of God can become the example of other substitutable X’s (76).
In a very real sense, Derridean “originary normativity” does indeed carry on the work of the negative theologians—in a far more thoroughgoing manner—by outdoing the apophatics in thinking the infinitization of the absent (but still singular—although infinitely multiplied—and still hyperessential)deity. The Other—which makes Derridean justice possible, which must be welcomed (but which can never actually manifest itself), and which leaves its trace everywhere, in every single (past, present and future; human and non-human; “living and non-living”) other—is both nothing and nothing less than that which Derrida calls “hyperessence”. If this is not exactly an atheology, it could be called a version of theology purified (to use Derrida’s own language, from his discussion of the messianic) of onto-theology (or, perhaps, ipsetheology). In this respect, it can be argued that deconstruction, as practiced by Jacques Derrida, is a kind of aleathealogy, which asks us to think hyperessentiality in the second person, while forgetting the history of doing so in the first.
Works Cited and Consulted
Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.
Caputo, John D. The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1997.
Cavell, Stanley. Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Coward, Harold and Toby Foshay, eds. Derrida and Negative Theology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.
Critchley, Simon. Ethics–Politics—Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida , Levinas, Contemporary French Thought. New York: Verso, 1999.
Derrida, Jacques. “Foi et Savoir: Les Deux Sources de la ‘religion’ aux limites de la simple raison.” In La Religion, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, 9-86. Paris: Editions du Seuill, 1996.
——-. Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
——-. Politics of Friendship. Trans. George Collins. New York: Verso, 1997.
——-. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2005.
——-. “Sauf le nom.” Trans. John P. Leavy. In On the Name. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995.
——-. Specters of Marx. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge, 1994.
——-. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
De Vries, Hent. Religion and Violence: Philosophical Perspectives from Kant to Derrida. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2002.
Rickey, Christopher. Revolutionary Saints: Heidegger, National Socialism, and Antinomian Politics. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 2002.
Smith, James K A. “Determined Violence: Derrida’s Structural Religion.” The Journal of Religion, 78, 2 (Apr 1998): 197-212.