Derrida, Politics, and the Little Way

So this is a permanent Stimmung: I am a prophet without a prophecy, a prophet without being a prophet.
—Jacques Derrida[1]

Christianity has embraced the apophatic, and perhaps even deconstructive, since its inception.[2] But the place of the apophatic in Christianity is rather difficult to discern as it introduces something of a free radical. Does the apophatic relativize all discourse about God or just check some of it? Does the Word of God prescribe a certain manner of speaking and of silence? How does this deferral to mystery correlate with philosophy? For the past century there has been a growing awareness of how philosophy, whether in its idealist and/or political forms (insofar as these can be separated), has appropriated and mimicked Christian discourse. The philosophy of Jacques Derrida operates uniquely in this regard for here is someone who works similarly to certain expressions of apophatic theology even as Derrida disavows being an apophatic theologian. But what does it mean for Derrida the philosopher to continually perform contradiction and confusion in texts? If Derrida attempts to speak beyond being and “logocentrism,” what exactly is he attempting to reveal (or hide)? What should be said about a thinker who resolutely holds to meaning even as he seemingly performs the contrary?[3]

I hope to offer something of an introduction to the relationship between Derrida, mysticism, and politics. There are three reasons why I focus on this subject. First, Derrida is an apocalyptic thinker. By that I mean that Derrida posits that there is a type of crisis in the way that we understand reality and meaning and that this crisis calls for transformed ways of viewing of the world so as to remain open to hopeful transformation. Given the instability and injustice that has been so profoundly brought to attention through increased access to media, Derrida is a particularly compelling thinker in how he embraces flux in order to remain open to transcendence and transformation. Derrida is also unique among apocalyptic thinkers in how much he attends to Christian mysticism and the disruptive dimension of the mystical tradition. Second and politically, the loss of the transcendent and divine in an increasingly secularized Western context paradoxically makes mysticism a particularly powerful topic. Throughout contemporary political theology (and in some political theory), there is a very serious question about the possibility of politics without a transcendent dimension. The loss of the transcendent, even when compensated for by models of social contracts or sovereignty as exception or veils of ignorance, leaves politics to rest on the fragility of human will and does not seem to hold enough substantive weight to maintain a protection for the marginalized and vulnerable. If there is a crisis of transcendence, the mystic stands in the privileged place of access to the transcendent; thereby potentially occupying a position prophetic enough to create new political and/or eschatological frameworks. As Charles Péguy famously wrote, “Everything begins with mysticism and ends in politics.” Mining mystical frameworks can provide resources to escape the exhaustion of Christianity and the past while offering something new and seductive. And Derrida is relevant here because he explicitly plays with language of apocalyptic, mysticism, eschatology, and messianism.

There is, however, a third reason for paying attention to Derrida in the contemporary context that relies on the prior two. The separation between Church and State has had more than a little effect on the academic disciplines as well. Theology has been so cordoned off that even the vaguest offer of a rapprochement can be greedily grasped at. Many engagements between theology and other disciplines should be encouraged and celebrated but theology has its own responsibilities in making sure that its resources are not simply plundered and the living core left behind. Derrida is a thinker who is interested in engaging those resources and thus, while he gets much right, his subtle shifts are perilous precisely because he so nearly replicates Christian mysticism, but now shorn of its trappings of prayer and discipline. I am not arguing here that Derrida is some evil usurper of Christian truth (even given his writing style!) but I am saying that Derrida’s project of deconstruction appears to mimic forms of Christian apophatic mysticism that I think worthwhile to track in order to demonstrate its deviation from Christian mysticism. So much of Derrida’s thought can find a type of consonance with Christianity but, in only an eternal moment, it goes astray.

I am going to try to do three things with this argument. First, I want to defend Derrida a little bit and refute claims that deconstruction is wildly subjective, purely psychoanalytic, anti-philosophical and indifferent to justice.[4] Second, after identifying some of the resonances between deconstructionism and mystical theology, I will attempt to clarify the differences between what the two modes of discourse hope to reveal. Third, I will briefly hold up the political implications of deconstructionism, at least as Derrida interprets them.

1. Un-Defining Deconstruction[5]


To begin, to ask about the “point” of Derrida’s deconstructionism in and of itself relies upon more traditional binaries of presence or absence, meaning or absurdity, God or atheism, that offer a purported metaphysical, epistemological, or linguistic stability that deconstruction seeks to destabilize. Deconstructionism does not want to look where everyone else has looked but instead attempts to show the gaps and unseen aspects of more traditional forms of philosophy in order to expose those philosophical traditions as predicated upon inherited, unstable grounds. It seeks to show the “inter-textuality” of all thinking; meaning that it seeks to show how everything is already enmeshed and brought about by a past that refuses the objectivity and isolation that would provide for an illusory clarity. To attempt to isolate one “thing” (or any “other”) is to make that “thing” an illusion because it is already part of something that came before and will continue after. Deconstruction is, therefore, both more thrilling in revealing this contingency and more infuriating in its resolute commitment to not following the track of others.[6]

In order to understand the trajectory of Derrida’s position, we must first attend to its roots. Derrida wrote his dissertation on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and he remained committed to phenomenology and rationalism.[7] Phenomenology seeks the premise of pure intuition that grasps the phenomena that appear to consciousness but, even in this basic premise of Husserl’s philosophy, Derrida suspects classical metaphysics. For the purposes of brevity, the main problem Derrida locates in Husserl’s phenomenology is its claim to analyze the perceptions of things in themselves without preconceptions and, based on this intuition, to determine the absolute structures of knowing.[8] For Derrida, there is an interpenetration here that already suggests a lack of clear distinction: how does one determine the structures of knowing apart from the phenomenon? Derrida argues that Husserl moves towards an articulation of some pure, ideal form of knowing that reintroduces classical metaphysical distinctions between something absolute and fundamental (the structure of knowing) and contingent and passing (the phenomenon).[9] The introduction of language and time into Derrida’s analysis of Husserl seals his break from the father of phenomenology. For Husserl, linguistic signs are both indications (“contingently and empirically associated with an external entity”) and expressions (“meaning is immediately present to the speaker”) that are ineluctably interwoven. But, for Husserl, expressions are unrelated to anything outside the self even as expressions remain signs; that is to say, representative of something else. Signs simultaneously bridge a gap between exterior and interior referents and elide the distinction that Husserl is trying to maintain between empirical experience and the perception thereof. In other words, the linguistic distinctions that prize expression (immediate meaning) over indication (contingent external entity) reinscribe the metaphysical binaries that Husserl sought to overcome—mind and externality remain divided.

The rub gets worse when Derrida points out that, even as ideal, expressions are still signs and, as such, must also be repeatable. In his attempt to get at a pure source of meaning, Husserl has simultaneously posited a unique ideal that grounds meaning and freedom in language even as he has conceded that this ideal is repeatable and, as such, is not primary but secondary because it is already repeated! Derrida’s close study of Husserl reveals an inconsistency between ideality and reality, between a self that is self-positing and the inevitability of language and time that requires repetition in order to determine the legitimacy of signs (i.e. their alignment with referents).

Instead, Derrida argues that the self must operate in and through language and, therefore, must somehow externalize in order to repeat, to re-present; it cannot be trapped in a purely self-referential language (what he calls auto-affection). But how is the self both distinct and already outside of itself? When the self speaks, it is both speaker and listener. When the self looks at a mirror, it is both viewer and seen. The danger here for Derrida, as it is so pervasively throughout his thought, is the concern of establishing some presence, some immediacy that could, even in its most fleeting of moments, reinscribe binaries and metaphysics—an absolute difference between interior and exterior, self and other, and not allow the tension to remain. A pure continuity of the self as rooted in Descartes’ cogito, for example, throughout time would be discounted because it cannot account for the self’s inevitable grounding in language. However, language as pure “otherness” would lock something original and different into a relation wherein they could be tracked, and therefore, an analogy would start to emerge.[10]

And it is here that we arrive at arguably the most fundamental (and fundamentally difficult to define) element of Derrida’s philosophy: différance. Quite literally, différance is no-thing, no intelligibility, a constantly encountered impossibility that is the source of deconstruction and the re-presenting of the self that must be deconstructed over and over again.[11] We inevitably operate in and through language and history and, for Derrida, it is not that language is strictly conventional but neither is it pure or metaphysical—the iterability of language as it shifts between contexts reveals continuity alongside the destabilization inherent to language itself. A word can only mean something if it can be repeated in another context which means that the very use of the word relies on something that is not the word, on time and difference, that both makes the word possible and also makes it impossible. Writing, for Derrida, is more primary than speaking not in a literal sense but in the sense that language is radically embedded in inherited traditions, systems of meaning, and webs of relation that determine the nexus of meaning before the person speaks it. And not just before the person speaks it, but when the person speaks she is already so thoroughly enmeshed in this complexity of relations of meaning that instability, polysemy, and iterability are endless. The temporal dimension of reality creates destabilizing differences that are neither entirely distinct nor the same and can never find themselves apart from or before language. Language points to an origin outside of itself that drives the other-ing but that it can never get at or reveal. Meaning derives from the synthesis of continuity and difference inseparably bound with différance.[12] Derrida is not attempting to redefine (or un-define) each and every concept and word but to inscribe any and all concepts, language, things, whatever into this continuous/discontinuous play of différance.

To give some examples, let us take Derrida’s “adieu” to Levinas, his rejection of gift, and his understanding of the “mystical foundation of authority” (we could also substitute democracy and hospitality here as well because both get similarly deconstructed by Derrida). Levinas, in an essay entitled “Beyond Intentionality”, writes:

The transcendence of the movement towards God (à-Dieu) moves as if across a gap that no genus, not even an empty form, can ever span and both this transcendence and the relation to the absolute or the Infinite have an ethical significance, that is to say that their meaning is to be found in the proximity of the other man, he who is a stranger and who may be naked, destitute and undesirable; but also in his face, that undesirable face which summons me, which concerns me, which puts me into question—none of this should be taken as a “new proof of the existence of God” . . . All this describes only the circumstance in which the very meaning of the word “God” comes to mind . . . in which it signifies no ‘other’ world . . . and yet, in which, precisely, these negations do not slip back into negative theology.[13]

For Levinas, the “a-dieu”, the to or towards God, that plays off the French “goodbye”, is saying goodbye to God as the abstract, the mystical, the eschatological. It shifts the phenomenology to making the wholly Other not something distant but ethically immediate and obligating. We say “goodbye” to God to say hello to the world and its absolute obligation to the other in front of us. But then, Derrida famously writes his own “adieu” to Levinas in which he holds that even pure alterity would be incoherent in that the recognition of the wholly “Other” would still rely on some distinction wherein that other is still recognized as other.[14] It might even be an analogy whereby we recognize the other as other, but it still locks in a stability of relation that Derrida wants to subvert.

In his essay “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority,” Derrida argues that the foundation of law is inherently violent because it separates and enacts force without any guarantees; or, in other words, its only foundation can be itself because Derrida has already argued that all stable grounds of truth are logocentric, based on a purported stability that will not bear up to the scrutiny of différance. Derrida writes that political institutions are “neither legal nor illegal in their founding moment. They exceed the opposition between founded and unfounded, or between any foundationalism or antifoundationalism.”[15] What is most “mystical” for Derrida here is the proposal of a limit or condition that founded the political authority and basically hides the arbitrary construction of that authority; the narrative of the political founding is “mystical” because it gives a force to law that it could not justify on its own.

These challenges to rigidity and binaries are performed over and over even as, ironically, they are also setup in order to be subverted. The gift, the other, hospitality, even justice—all are what Derrida calls impossible possibilities. Impossible because they are so enmeshed in webs of meaning and movements of difference that they are ungraspable and unachievable; possible because they place such a demand on us and offer such explanatory power and meaning that we must pursue them. It is equally true that Derrida just posits their value without much backing even as he resolutely pursues their value and meaning across contexts.

So as a brief defense of Derrida, and as John D. Caputo tirelessly points out, deconstruction is not an attack against all philosophy or politics nor is it an attempt to reduce texts to pure subjectivity. Derrida is not the devil, a relativist, a nihilist, or a “street-corner anarchist.” Instead, the deconstructionism proffered by Derrida is remarkably responsible both to the text and the traditions in which texts are analyzed and passed on. Derrida has done significant work in France and abroad to encourage the founding and continuation of philosophy programs at the high school, undergraduate, and graduate levels. Derrida also has done substantial work in philosophy, original languages, and interdisciplinary research that does not destroy texts but seeks to go beyond standard interpretations in order to reveal new facets, new fissures, and, new instabilities.[16] Derrida clearly has a substantially different interpretation of truth and meaning but his deconstructions are not without tether from traditions of interpretation or more classical tools of analysis.

2. Faith and Religion


Given this defense, we can see that deconstructionism is really a call not to less philosophy but to more creative and sensitive readings of philosophy. Perhaps now we can also anticipate why Derrida’s philosophy finds such resonance with mystical theology and can actually be difficult to distinguish from it. Derrida’s attention to mystical theology increased over his life and drew him into debates with significant philosophers of religion. In particular, Derrida participated in a series of conversations at Villanova University published in 1999 that are very revealing. First, Derrida reiterates the objection to mystical theology made in his 1987 essay “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials” (he shows a substantial knowledge of Eckhart and Pseudo-Dionysius there) and reasserts that mystical theology, for all its deconstructive elements, still relies upon a form of metaphysics of hyper-essentiality where God is specified as the Christian God.[17] Derrida’s deconstruction disallows explicit disclosure or pure presence.[18] To speak or think at all already implies iterability which therefore suggests an unknown origin that determines me before I speak but also, to remain the origin, requires that it never fully disclose itself, even in revelation.[19] Mystical theology relies on the overflowing, excess reality of God to drive the inadequacy of concepts whereas, for Derrida, this dynamism is driven by the concept-less, ground-less, no-thing of différance.[20]

The clarification of this distinction between deconstructionism and mystical theology is absolute and the conversation would likely end there if Derrida himself did not evidence such ambivalence about différance. This is why the conversations at Villanova are so provocative. Derrida not only reveals his own struggle with belief, even agnosticism[21], but also invokes explicit language of faith and messianicity. Of the former, he writes, “You cannot address the other, speak to the other, without an act of faith, without testimony . . . This ‘trust me, I am speaking to you’ is of the order of faith, a faith that cannot be reduced to a theoretical statement, to a determinative judgment; it is the opening of the address to the other.”[22] Of the latter, Derrida argues that messianicity can be distinguished from messianism because it denies the particularity of Christian or Jewish faith. Derrida’s messianic structure and conception of faith is universally open and is rooted in the fundamental ambiguity and irreducibility of différance. While Christian faith plays off the particulars of revelation and their negation, Derrida seeks in différance the experience of the impossible that, as we have now seen, makes all experience possible.[23]

Derrida acknowledges his position between two hypotheses—either he has seen the God of the Book or he has seen something that pre-exists the culture of the West. Derrida is locked into, as I understand it, an agnosticism (whatever we make of the claim of being a “quasi-atheist”) wherein he cannot commit to God or nothingness because the very limitations of knowledge that he holds disallow the possibility of a secure foundation of knowing.[24] I do not think nor would I try to reduce Derrida to one facet or element but, given the insights from the interviews, the drive for survival and for peace animates a great deal of Derrida’s work and his commitment to the ambiguity of existence, the contingency of meaning, and the radical openness to becoming all suggest a profound mysticism of sorts.[25] The project of deconstructionism relies on a deep communion of language and shared networks of meaning that binds humanity together even as it destabilizes any grounds upon which violence or hatred could be predicated. In a telling disclosure during one roundtable discussion, Derrida reveals that he hopes deconstruction and différance can found a new politics, a new ground for peace.[26] In a very real sense, Derrida seems to offer his vision as better than forms of Christian or Jewish mysticism because he is not beholden to the restriction of those structures of meaning that have generated violence in the past. In holding deconstruction open to the future, he does not have to participate in a responsibility for the past even as the past is incorporated through inherited language.

This is a very beautiful, seductive discourse but it has key deformations from what I would argue is authentically Christian discourse and the deformations are not just significant philosophically or spiritually but politically. Whereas limit for the Christian, as Chesterton argues, is the condition for a constructive creativity because it is a shared limit of embodied human existence, limit for Derrida indicates the illusion of a stability structurally powerful enough to ground transcendent systems of meaning. Differánce is deferring because it holds that texts always refer to past or future; it is the mysticism of refusal of the present and presence which would grant a stable access to beings or Being itself.[27] But for all the flirtation of Derrida with mystical, apophatic theology, here is where his mimicking of the Christian mimic is exposed as ersatz for the Christian mystic lives entirely for the possibility of the present, for the absolute immediacy of every single moment as the presence of God. It is a transcendence in radical immanence, not horizontal transcendence in a radically deferred immanence.[28] The Christian mystic deconstructs the sinful past and the flight into the future in order to unhand any idolatrous projections of an eschatology of the self, in order to grasp what is the only thing available to us right now and that we can be sure God is actually giving—the single instant of this moment. And I would argue that politically, the possibility of the now, of the present, is the only foundation for politics if it is not to avoid what Marx so rightly identified as ideology, as the flight from reality. After all, we are told to “not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil” (Mt 6:34). The singular silence of living into that moment of gratitude of the present, of accepting the irretrievability of the past and the unpredictability of the future, both a) accepts the limitations and conditions of the present moment and attempts to work through them concretely (and not just destabilize them) but b) recognizes the immediacy and trust of God’s presence as empowering and supporting Christian action without having to hold open some future to come.

Derrida’s deconstruction is epistemological, philosophical in the abstract sense of the word, that relies on intellectual labor to practice the “unhanding” that refuses imposing a limitation on the future. The Christian, on the other hand, encounters the dark night of God’s love where that living relation is only known through prayer, sacrament, and service. It is not an epistemological exercise but the reality of human powerlessness over sin and the impossibility of making the world in humanity’s image for the Christian cannot even make herself in her own image. The possibility of the present’s powerlessness can make the hearing of the other possible, can ground the possibility of the next moment’s action. The impossible does not make the possible possible, as Derrida argues, but the possible can make the impossible actual.

I recognize that I have reduced the complexity of Christian mysticism to a very simple point—the priority and fundamentality of presence and a type of unhanding of time to God’s determination. While this is assuredly a reduction of incredibly complex phenomena, the reduction is not without meaning especially within the context of 20th and 21st century political thought. The power of technological reason, the shift in measuring philosophy and theology to what it produces or does, risks enmeshing theology itself in a game it cannot win—it suggests that Christianity is only efficacious insofar as it has a measurable effect; challenging God to demonstrate his own legitimacy. In this regard, Derrida, the French Algerian, might meet his greatest challenge in another French person, the Carmelite Thérèse of Lisieux. The Little Flower’s elevation to Doctor of the Church testifies to the simplicity of her little way, wherein an asceticism of time demands the unhanding of discourses of power and living into the immediacy of the presence of God; which thereby facilitates the love that builds up the polis of the Church and creates a silencing of human desire wherein the other might have a unique locus to speak. I am not valorizing Thérèse for some passive obedience but for the self-stripping that allows the particularity of the other its actual place to be heard and the concrete practices of prayer and sacrament that allowed her to offer herself to God.

I think there is more to be said there but I have attempted to show, however inadequately, that for all the promise and complexity of Derrida’s deconstruction there is the denial of the present and presence, something fundamental to Christian mysticism. And, given the loss of the transcendent and the abandonment of metaphysics in favor of trace and inaccessible origin, there is still something like technology at work in Derrida; at least in the sense of a collecting and amplifying of power. Derrida really tends to reinforce binaries and tensions in order to subvert them so, in a certain sense, he participates in a rigidity of viewing the world even if it is to subvert it. I would hold this is not entirely unlike a technology that repeatedly reduces the world to law and process not to serve a teleological design but to supplant it for purely human aims.

In conclusion, I do not claim to have understood Derrida and I believe I am in good company in this regard. But insofar as I understand Derrida saying he is offering something that looks more promising, more open, more seductive than the asceticism of Christian mysticism, I have tried to show the lines of distinction and highlight another way . . .


[1] Jacques Derrida, “The Becoming Possible of the Impossible: An Interview with Jacques Derrida” in Passion for the Impossible: John D. Caputo in Focus, ed. Mark Dooley (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003): 27.

[2] For example, “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him.” John 1:18, NAB. “No one has ever seen God. Yet, if we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us.” 1 John 4:12, NAB.

[3] For example, Derrida argues, “The impossible for me is not a negative concept. That is why I would like, in order not simply to give up the idea of truth, to measure it or to proportion it to this problematic of the impossible.” “On the Gift: A Discussion between Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion” in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism, ed. John d. Caputo, Michael Scanlon (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999): 72-73.

[4] This has been done most notably in the American context by John D. Caputo. Derrida himself has acknowledged Caputo’s perspicacity in interpreting his work in bringing together the philosophical and the personal: “Another reason why I am so grateful for his writings is because when [Caputo] reads my texts, which is especially the case throughout Prayers and Tears, he is the first one, and so far the only one, to bring the most philosophical and theoretical of my writings together with those which are most autobiographical.” Jacques Derrida, “The Becoming Possible of the Impossible: An Interview with Jacques Derrida” in Passion for the Impossible: John D. Caputo in Focus, ed. Mark Dooley (Albany: SUNY Press, 2003): 22.

[5] I will turn to several interviews and roundtable discussions with Jacques Derrida for clarifications on this topic. While Derrida repeatedly asserts the inadequacy of the answers that he gives, these more impromptu discussions force him (in a sense) into clearer expressions of his positions on various subjects. As John D. Caputo notes, “For a while [Derrida] was wary about being photographed and giving personal interviews, but since he has given in, his interviews have proven to be immensely illuminating and have provided one of the most helpful entrees to his work, as any reader of Points…can testify.” Deconstruction in a Nutshell, ed. John D. Caputo (New York: Fordham University Press, 1997): 47.

[6] “In this sense it is absolutely right to see deconstruction as threatening, because it is inhuman, no longer in the control of a human subject.” Steven Shakespeare, Derrida and Theology (New York: T&T Clark International, 2009): 25.

[7] “[Levinas] says many times that he wants to find within phenomenology the injunction to go beyond phenomenology. There are many places where he says that we have to go phenomenologically beyond phenomenology. That is what I am trying to do, also, I remain and I want to remain a rationalist, a phenomenologist.” “On the Gift”, 75.

[8] The very precise developments of phenomenology are particularly crucial for understanding the relationship of Jean-Luc Marion and Derrida. Cf., Thomas A. Carlson, “Postmetaphysical Theology” in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[9] “In each case, Derrida is beginning to question our assurance that we can create a stable polarity or hierarchy between the terms, such that one is foundational and essential and the other merely contingent and passing.” Shakespeare, 36.

[10] “For Derrida’s essays on Levinas demonstrate that a pure transcendence that would be tout autre pure and simple is impossible and even incoherent (the wholly other would always have to be wholly other ‘than’ something, with which there would always be some analogy).” John D. Caputo, “What Do I Love When I Love My God? Deconstruction and Radical Orthodoxy” in Questioning God, ed. John D. Caputo, Mark Dooley, Michael J. Scanlon (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001): 293-294.

[11] “By différance, Derrida does not mean anything mysterious—technically speaking, ‘différance’ does not ‘mean’ anything at all, and if it does, ‘he’ (Derrida) does not ‘mean’ it, for the same reason that it does not answer to a ‘what’ or an ‘is.’…Rather than thinking language in the classical way, as a set of exterior signs of already constituted interior thoughts (another defining feature of ‘logocentrism’), Derrida…thinks of users of language invoking coded, that is, repeatable, marks or traces that build up or constitute from within certain unities meaning as ‘effects’ of the code.” Caputo, Deconstruction in a Nutshell, 100.

[12] Caputo writes, “Deconstruction is rather the thought, if it is a thought, of an absolute heterogeneity that unsettles all assurances of the same within which we comfortably ensconce ourselves. That is the desire by which it is moved, which moves and impassions it, which sets it in motion, toward which it extends itself.” The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997): 5.

[13] Emmanuel Levinas, “Beyond Intentionality” in Philosophy in France Today, ed. Alan Montefiore (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1983): 113-114.

[14] Jacques Derrida, Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault, Michael Naas (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).

[15] Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority” in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, eds. Drucilla Cornell, Michel Rosenfeld & David Carlson (New York, NY: Routledge, 1992): 242.

[16] “The light that shines in the new Enlightenment constantly illuminates a scene that is more complicated than we first thought. For it is from the same sense of ‘responsibility’ that Derrida is engaged in the battle for philosophy, to extend the right to teach and study the great dead white masters of philosophy as far as possible, to follow with painstaking detail the elaborate and well-formed system of distinctions and oppositions that mark the work of Plato, Kant, or Husserl and yet also to undertake the most vigilant deconstruction of these oppositions, to learn to read the masters ‘otherwise’ (autrement), to hear within them the stirring of other possibilities, the in-coming of other events.” Deconstruction in a Nutshell, 57. One possible brief definition, albeit an inadequate one, of deconstructionism is as follows: “For Derrida, close readings of any text reveal its complete lack of stable, fixed structure.” Louis Nelstrop with Kevin Magill and Bradley B. Onishi, Christian Mysticism: An Introduction to Contemporary Theoretical Approaches (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009): 228.

[17] “Our desire for that which exceeds language is a secret that cannot be expressed linguistically. Thus, the paradox shared by negative theology and deconstruction: they share the desire to speak of that which exceeds language, but have only language in which to formulate the desire. By trying to name that which exceeds language, negative theology particularizes the impossible within a specific religious-cultural tradition. Deconstruction, on the other hand, seeks a universal apophaticism. It longs to ‘leap out of the circle’ but it knows it is impossible to achieve this through language…It is a primordial desire for the impossible that cannot be spoken of, and thus is a secreted signed by an undecipherable Other.” Ibid., 232-233.

[18] “Derrida’s passion differs from apophatic eros most radically at the point in which, for Derrida, the wholly other undercuts any distinction between divine and non-divine others. In this way, Derrida’s conception of the radical singularity and alterity of the other blends the ethical (our love of humans) and the religious (our love of God) as allegedly distinct modes of thought or practice. This blending constitutes, in a single gesture, Derrida’s passion as impossible and Derrida’s passion for the impossible.” Owen Ware, “Impossible Passions: Derrida and Negative Theology”, Philosophy Today 49:2 (Summer 2005): 171.

[19] “If I therefore speak of the promise, I will not be able to keep any metalinguistic distance in regard to it. Discourse on the promise is a promise in advance: within the promise. I will thus not speak of this or that promise, but of that which, as necessary as it is impossible, inscribes us with its trace in language—before language.” “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials”, 84.

[20] Marion argues, “In negative theology the difficulty is not that we lack intuitions of God (we are overwhelmed by them), but that we lack concepts fitting God. What we share in common, Derrida and myself, is that the concepts have to be criticized even in theology, as they are deconstructed in deconstruction. But it is for opposite reasons.” “On the Gift”, 69.

[21] “What I really do not know, and I confess I do not know, is whether what I am analyzing or trying to think is prior to my own culture, our own culture, that is, to the Judeo-Christian, Greek heritage of the gift. If I am interested in the khora…I do not know if this structure is really prior to what comes under the name of revealed religion or even of philosophy, or whether it is through philosophy or the reveal religions, the religions of the book, or any other experience of revelation, that retrospectively we can think what I try to think. I must confess, I cannot make the choice between these two hypotheses.” Ibid., 73.

[22] Jacques Derrida, “The Villanova Roundtable: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida” in Deconstruction in a Nutshell, 21-22.

[23] “What I am interested in—and I often repeat that the deconstruction I try to practice is impossible, is the impossible—is precisely this experience of the impossible. This is not simply an impossible experience. The experience of the impossible.” “On the Gift”, 72.

[24] “Each time you replace one legal system by another one, one law by another one, or you improve the law, that is a kind of deconstruction, a critique and deconstruction. So, the law as such can be deconstructed and has to be deconstructed… Justice is what gives us the impulse, the drive, or the movement to improve the law, that is, to deconstruct the law. Without a call for justice we would not have any interest in deconstructing the law. That is why I said that the condition of possibility of deconstruction is a call for justice. Justice is not reducible to the law, to a given system of legal structures. That means that justice is always unequal to itself. It is non-coincident with itself.” Jacques Derrida, “The Villanova Roundtable”, 16-17.

[25] “In addition, since certain health problems have become, as we were saying, so urgent, the question of survival [la survie] or of reprieve [le sursis], a question that has always haunted me, literally every instant of my life, in concrete and unrelenting fashion, has come to have a different resonance today. I have always been interested in this theme of survival, the meaning of which is not to be added on to living and dying. It is originary: life is living on, life is survival [la vie est survie]. To survive in the usual sense of the term means to continue to live, but also to live after death…All the concepts that have helped me in my work, and notably that of the trace or of the spectral, were related to this ‘surviving’ as a structural and rigorously originary dimension.” Jacques Derrida, Learning to Live Finally: Jacques Derrida; An Interview with Jean Birnbaum, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Nass (Hoboken, NJ: Melville House Publishing, 2007): 26.

[26] “I use the problematic of deconstruction and negative theology as a threshold to the definition of a new politics. I am not saying this against Europe, against Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I am trying to find a place where a new discourse and a new politics could be possible. This place is the place of resistance—perhaps resistance is not the best word—but this non-something within something, this non-revelation within revelation, this non-history within history, this non-desire within desire, this impossibility. I would like to translate the experience of this impossibility into what we could call ethics or politics. Perhaps, and this is my hypothesis, if not a hope, what I am saying here can be retranslated after the fact into Jewish discourse or Christian discourse or Muslim discourse, if they can integrate the terrible things I am suggesting now. Just to underline, it is not a war machine that I am locating here but another type, another place for questions, in fact, the question of the place.” “On the Gift”, 76-77. “For Derrida, we are always waiting for the perfection of our concepts – for justice, for democracy, for ethics. We have never arrived, but the hope of the appearance of the Other that makes language and thought possible spurs us on to ever improved, refined, and transformed political, ethical and religious forms of human life. In this way, deconstruction’s desire for the impossible is a messianic prayer or a dream of the impossible.” Nelstrop, et. al., 229.

[27] "The a of différance also recalls that spacing is temporization, the detour and postponement by means of which intuition, perception, consummation - in a word, the relationship to the present, the reference to a present reality, to a being - are always deferred. Deferred by virtue of the very principle of difference which holds that an element functions and signifies, takes on or conveys meaning, only by referring to another past or future element in an economy of traces. This economic aspect of différance, which brings into play a certain not conscious calculation in a field of forces, is inseparable from the more narrowly semiotic aspect of différance.” Jacques Derrida, Positions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981): 28.

[28] Derrida is sometimes made to be a thinker of the “present” but not “presence” in this regard: “If the political event is a thing of the future (that is to say that as an event it is both already irremediably of the past and yet to arrive from the future) then there can be no politics of presence. That is not to say that there is no politics in the present. The point of, say, democratie à venir would be that this is not a projection of a perfect future democracy but an insistence on democracy in the here and now which is made possible by the perfectibility of democracy as the promise of its future. Derrida’s politics is a politics of the future, one that is not given or pre-programmed according to any knowable model or theory. Rather, it is a performative and transformative critique which opens itself to the unpredictable and unknowable intervention of the future as the arrival of the other.” Martin McQuillan, “Introduction: The Day after Tomorrow…or, The Deconstruction of the Future” in The Politics of Deconstruction: Jacques Derrida and the Other of Philosophy (Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press, 2007): 4.

Featured Image:  Saint Thérèse of Lisieux dressed as Joan of Arc, c. 1890; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Michael Altenburger

Michael Altenburger is a University of Notre Dame Ph.D. in Systematic Theology.

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