Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

Julian: “Why aren’t you in bed?”

Vicky: “I was ordered to, but I was much too excited to sleep. So here I am.”

Julian: “Are you? I haven’t seen you.”

Vicky: “Thank you.”

Julian: “By the way, you haven’t seen me either.”

For all of its balletomanic intensity, and despite the justly-praised plenitude of its palette, Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes is primarily a cinematic soubresaut into the abyss of allegory. From its beguilingly bleak Technicolor title cards (each one a mocking invitation to the dance macabre, with the eponymous crimson seal of aesthetic purity set upon the enchanted but leafless woodscapes they’ve both beautified and blighted) to its harrowing alt-Karenina conclusion, the film rarely misses an opportunity to shine its spotlight upon what (and who) is missing from its mise-en-scène.

We begin with an empty stairwell (with a cultivated horde of youthful barbarians at the gates) and then cut to an empty theatre balcony (soon filled by that same bevy of boorish beauty-lovers). It’s opening night! (For a ballet entitled Heart of Fire) Definitely a time to “be here now”, as the yogis like to say. And the Great Palmer, supposed composer of the piece, is smilingly conspicuous by his presence. So, too, is Boronskaja, the bohemian balletomane’s delight. But this is a production of the “Ballet Lermontov”. And where is Lermontov? The camera takes its time, but it does eventually get around to showing us – and here we get our first glimpse of the film’s taste for dramatic indirection.


Yes, that’s Anton Walbrook’s hand, reaching out of the shadows to close upon an irritating summons to appear before the great worldly god Mammon, incarnated in the chummy person of that “great patron of the arts”, Lady Neston. To everyone’s astonishment, the ultra-aloof impresario, whose only god is the ballet, deigns to attend the party. There, he just barely dodges an ambush/dance audition by the hostess’ niece, and then succumbs to an even more mortifying fate when he brags of his escape to a fellow cocktail drinker, sneering “now it seems we are to be spared that horror”. His interlocutor (Moira Shearer), of course, proves to BE that horror, and tells him as much. Lermontov is singularly unperturbed by this mammoth gaffe, opting to press on with the conversation, asking the young lady (her name is Vicky Page) why she wants to dance. Here again, she surprises him, responding with a question of her own: “Why do you want to live?” And there we have them: “Dance” (or “Art”) and “Life”, presented as parallel (although not yet competing) forces, each with their own irresistible imperatives.

Speaking of parallels, the film has also been following the tribulations of one Julian Kraster, the actual composer of Heart of Fire (ol’ Professor Palmer definitely doesn’t teach ethics), who has his own disconcerting dealings with Lermontov after firing off a denunciatory letter concerning the latter’s unauthorized use of his stolen intellectual property. He soon finds himself engaged by the Company (as an orchestra coach), showing up for work the same morning that Vicky presents herself to ballet master Ljubov (played by the celebrated Leonide Massine) as a potential trainee. Now we begin to meet all of the major players (both on- and back-stage), and begin to get a sense of the daily life of the Ballet Lermontov. Powell and Pressburger tease us with the possibility of some sort of antipathy between Ljubov and ballerina Boronskaja (when the latter arrives nearly an hour late and the former explodes), but their seemingly bitter bickering is soon revealed to be merely a form of ritualized play, and the group (most of whom, I believe, actually were Ballet Russes personnel) comes into focus as a singularly convivial and mutually supportive family (complete with grandfatherly set designer Ratov, played by the always comforting Albert Basserman). Everyone’s so very nice, including the big star that Vicky will have to replace if she’s ever to get on with the business of her inevitable ascent. Everyone, that is, except for “Dad” Lermontov, who, in Walbrook’s carefully judged performance, is only ever as encouraging as he needs to be, and never because he actually cares about his people. (After Ljubov warns him that you “cannot alter human nature”, Lermontov remarks: “No. I think you can do better than that. I think you can ignore it.)

Matters come to an early head, and the symbolic conflict between Art and Life really takes hold, when Boronskaja interrupts a practice session to announce, in a very heartfelt scene, that she is engaged to be married. The whole Company mobs her with their congratulations. It’s an eruption of emotion that is every bit as moving as the dances we have seen – although Lermontov clearly doesn’t see it that way. And we don’t see Lermontov at all. Neither does Boronskaja.


“He has,” she concludes, “no heart… that man.”

It’s an astonishing moment. Astonishing and surprising. It’s not exactly the most original bit of scripting. In any other film it would seem ridiculous and over-the-top. But here, thanks to actress/dancer Ludmilla Tcherina’s perfectly calibrated tone of tragic realization, and to Powell’s remarkable staging of the discovery (using a golden pillar and a billowing curtain to indicate the absent man in question), it conveys the film’s allegorical drift brilliantly: Art has left the building.

 Soon, Lermontov spells this out for us (and for Vicky, who is standing nearby, literally and symbolically “waiting in the wings” when he issues his balletomanifesto) in his characteristically sneering manner: “A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never.” Vicky takes the bait, readily leaping into the Red Shoes that Lermontov has been cobbling for her, in his mind, ever since his discovery that she actually has the skills to back up her aspirations and her sexy talk about dancing because she must. Quickly, the impresario asks Kraster to write a new score for Hans Christian Andersen’s grisly fable about a young girl who finally attains the pinnacle of her desire (to dance at a ball in the eponymous footwear) and is eventually consumed by it (the shoes, it seems, like “Dance” itself, have a mind of their own, and, like Lermontov, no heart). Walbrook seems positively possessed as he recounts the events of the tale, gripping a slipper-clad sculpture en pointe as he tells Kraster: “time rushes by, life rushes by, but the red shoes dance on”.

In a fascinating bit of foreshadowing, Lermontov seems to forget what all of this insane terpsichore is building toward – and when Kraster jogs his memory, asking “what happens in the end?”, the impresario lets go of the foot and replies, offhandedly, “oh, in the end she dies.”

Indeed she (Vicky) does, although, in the “backstage” plot of this film, the protagonist dies while seemingly rushing toward what the allegorical structure asks us to accept as “Life” (leaping off the balcony where she first made contact with her off-stage lover Kraster – the place neither of them was supposed to be, in the dialogue quoted at the top of this post – and the train that enshrouds them in the earlier scene, insulating them, it would seem, from the demands of “Art”, so that “Life” can have its brief fling, is destined to become the instrument of her destruction), rather than expiring  under the unyielding lash of pure aestheticism.

In fact, the only real similarity between the tragedies involving the ballerina Vicky and the character she plays on stage is that, in both cases, red shoes are found at the scene of the crime. Red Shoes that cannot be filled for long. There’s a great deal of symbolic slippage going on here. Do the Red Shoes mean the same thing in P & P’s film that they mean in Andersen’s story? It seems not. They are connected, of course, but the shoes in the fable act unilaterally upon the girl, fanning the flames of her aesthetic desires and then literally subsisting upon them until that energy expends itself. Vicky’s shoes seem motivated by a very different agenda. They certainly don’t get much mileage out of her (Lermontov insists that she’s got a long way to go before she gets a toehold upon the peak he envisions for her). Can we then say that “Art” (and Lermontov) is only one of the shoes that weigh her down? Meanwhile, that other foot, so firmly planted in the banal world of “Life” with Julian, is just as murderously clad in crimson. It is, in fact, the Art/Life dichotomy itself that carries Vicky, and those shoes, in uncharacteristic lockstep toward the precipice.

There’s a lot to say about the patriarchal gender dynamics of the piece – about the culturally-prescribed factors that pushed Powell and Pressburger to dramatize the eternal artist’s dilemma through the subjective experience of a woman- but last night’s viewing caused me to consider a more purely theoretical reading of the film this time around  – i.e. it isn’t the hubristic pursuit of a career (or the resentful decision to “settle” for being a housewife) that kills Vicky, it’s the overweening logic of the film’s (and, certainly, patriarchy’s) organizing allegorical structure itself. And if that is the case, then perhaps the film isn’t suggesting, as many people have inferred, that its protagonist is predestined to die for her “Art”, but rather that she is murdered by the power that she (and, of course, society) invests in the only-superficially-dissimilar devils that she finds on either one of her shoulders (and imprisoning both of her talented feet), whispering and weaving (together) a web of mutually reinforcing lies about the incompatibility between experience and expression that works to limit the horizons of human agency.

Ultimately, what is missing from this film is anyone real for Vicky to interact with. Far from being the “creation” of Lermontov, Moira Shearer (who really is magnificent in the part – never straining to convince us of her aesthetic ambitions, because we can perceive them in her every movement)  is the only truly living being in the piece (at least, after Ludmilla Tcherina leaves the stage), surrounded and continuously mocked by the golden pillars and billowing curtains of an unyielding literary formula.

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With Peg O’ My Heart (1922), the director’s first film for Metro Pictures (soon to be engulfed by a Metro-Goldwyn Merger), we are introduced to a crucial element of King Vidor’s cinema–the underdog female. The film’s eponymous protagonist (played by Broadway star Laurette Taylor) is a clear forerunner of Rose Maurrant (Street Scene), Doris Emily Lea (Cynara), Manya Novak (The Wedding Night), Stella Dallas, Peal Chavez (Duel in the Sun), Rosa Moline (Beyond the Forest) and Ruby Gentry (to name only the characters who come immediately to my mind!) Of course, last time out, we met Colleen Moore as Gwen–a very interesting female character whose spiritual struggle ambushes center stage during the last third of The Sky Pilot; but Gwen is the daughter of a wealthy rancher–more in the tradition of Valette Bedford (So Red The Rose)… So, yeah, in my opinion, the long, fascinating march to Ruby Gentry (my personal favourite) begins here!

Not that we’re anywhere near those exalted heights in Peg O’ My Heart. One of the great things about going through an “auteur’s” entire oeuvre is watching as the director gains the confidence (and stature within the industry) to steer material in the direction of his/her presumed thematic bent… TANGENT ALERT: I say “presumed”,  of course, to distinguish my project from the old naive auteurism–which laboured under the delusion that critics could use films to learn the “truth” about an individual artist… I’m not watching these films in order to “get to know” King Vidor… “King Vidor”, for me, is an organizing principle–a regal rope that cordons off a huge chunk of Hollywood material (made during a crucial period in American cultural history) and gives me (and you, and every cineaste we know) an opportunity to hitch my interpretive wagon to the stars! (I’d say END OF TANGENT, but let’s face it–I’m pretty much ALL tangent)

Where were we? Oh…yes… the tale of a 28-year old director, a largish Hollywood studio that’s about to go nova, and a very well established stage property. When a major Broadway moneymaker comes West, complete with star, no one short of (in 1922) D.W. Griffith is going to stand much of a chance of getting their “auteur” on…  Still, Peg O’ My Heart does present us with a lot of Vidorian elements–it just doesn’t put them together in a way that hits home (and that’s a pretty major point–because using modernist techniques to maximize the emotional impact of 19th century melodrama tropes is the absolute heart of King Vidor’s cinema).

Right then–to the elements!

As I mentioned earlier, the most important one is “Peg” herself–real name Margaret O’Connell (“Peg” is her Irish rebel father’s term of affection)

There she is, with dear ol’ Da’ himself, going over a rabble-rousing speech… They do make an endearing pair, traveling over hill and dale, regaling their fellow citizens with tales of English oppression (“life was happy for those two wandering patriots”–an intertitle tells us). They give their speeches out of the back of a covered wagon–and they know just what to do when the authorities come a knockin’ (they order the flock to scatter; he plays a harmless drunk-; she plays with her dog Michael and looks coy):

They come by their radicalism through heart-wrenching personal experience, having watched Peg’s mother die of societal neglect (regular Irish folk, the film tells us, have no hope of paying for medical treatment–and this fact is exacerbated by the knowledge that Mrs. O’Connell’s English family COULD have sent the money to save her–if only they hadn’t written her off for marrying a Catholic). Their embattled idyll (a very Vidorian idea) comes to an abrupt close when one of those same English relatives repents on his deathbed, setting money aside for young Margaret’s education, IF she will go to England and learn some manners from her “better” relatives. Of course she refuses–but her father has not forgotten the painful sight of his beautiful wife dying in squalor (the carefree life of a “wandering patriot” is liable to be tripped up by the slightest viral infection)–and he orders her to accept the Chichester family’s offer.

So it’s off to England! (With canine companion Michael in tow.) Naturally, upon reaching her destination in the upper crust of the abyss, she is mistaken for a servant and sent to sulk in the scullery. There, we get a fine comedic sequence in which Peg endeavors to fit everything in the room into her hungry mutt’s mouth:

Laurette Taylor is fantastic here–demonstrating why Broadway loved her; and why Hollywood asked the director to let her loose. (Michael is great too–and, at several points, this pair looks ahead to the quintessential girl and her dog moment in American cinema: the “Over the Rainbow” scene–directed by King Vidor–in The Wizard of Oz.) Taylor is an extraordinary light comedian. The problem with the rest of the film is that it asks us to take Peg/Margaret’s ordeal seriously. It’s not that the actress lacks emotional range. It’s just that everything falls into place so schematically (and the camera generally adopts such a respectfully objective perspective upon the events), that a favourable outcome is never in doubt. That’s not a problem in the bravura set-up that Vidor gives us within the main hall of the mansion on a stormy night:

Nor do we notice the film’s deficiencies while it gambols through the apple orchard next door (owned by “farmer” Jerry–who, of course, turns out to be an English Lord with a heart of gold–to make up for the terrible Chichesters, who lord it over our Peg like a pack of wicked Cinderella cast members):

Every time the director gives us Peg (and Michael) shooting toward the camera out of a sublime natural background, we are back in prime Vidor territory. The problem is that these are undercut by the “stagier” (not a term I generally bother with, but in this case it actually insists upon itself) “plot point” moments:

The story of King Vidor’s oeuvre will be a gradual movement toward the complete eradication of scenes like the one above (do you care what’s happening in it? Of course you don’t)–a process that will disclose the startling fact that the 19th century melodrama of coincidence and external vicissitude can provide a magnificent vehicle for dramatizing the confused journey of the modern subject through the deceptively bright murk of  “participatory” democracy.

But all of that’s still to come! For now, I’ll content myself with pointing out a very characteristic Vidor gambit which livens up the intertitles at the eleventh hour. As I hinted earlier, good ol’ Lord Jerry eventually comes through and professes his undying love for Margaret (whom HE also takes to calling “Peg O’ My Heart”). This is how melodrama always deals with politics/class oppression (i.e. by resolving conflict through a fantasy relationship):

The interesting thing, however, is that Vidor tacks on one last axiom (uttered by the ol’ rebel himself–Jim O’Connell) which superheats the sentimentality of the above words :

Same surface meaning–but what a difference! These words could easily serve as the interpretive key to the director’s entire filmography. For King Vidor, love can, indeed, affect the world. However, very soon now, the gloves will be off, and the effects won’t always be so pretty. In fact, more often than not, they’ll be as twisted as life itself.

good night friends!


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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)

And again:

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.

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