Frère Jacques: a Chronicle about Derrida and GA

Thanks to the previous post, I don’t have to provide a link to Chronicle 339, “Originary Demography.” Now Chronicle 340 is available at Entitled “Frère Jacques,” it elaborates on the anthropological content of a recently published text by Jacques Derrida that touches on the question of minimal faith.

-eric gans

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One thought on “Frère Jacques: a Chronicle about Derrida and GA

  1. adam

    Clearly, if “Generative Anthropology is most simply described as the result of grafting the Derridean notion of deferral or différance onto the stock of Girard’s “fundamental anthropology” to produce its conception of the human as the deferral of violence through representation,” there must be something involved in the “grafting” that accounts for GA’s relative obscurity vs., at the far end, Derrida’s rock star level celebrity. We can identify the “difference” rather easily: Derridean deconstruction’s victimary demonization of the center as opposed to GA’s resolutely anti-victimary stance (with Girard somewhere in the middle, but still decidedly victimary). I would like to raise the question of whether this difference requires some qualification in the political common ground Gans finds here with Derrida. First, though, it has puzzled me for some time how we might make sense of this shared space between the ultra-, even quintessentially victimary space of deconstruction (and postmodernism more generally) and GA, and I would like to propose the following, perhaps preliminary solution: just as modern democracy, the modern individual and the modern marketplace had to enter the world via the victimary (the social contract is always aimed at organizing the “many” against the “few”; romanticism needed to pit the marginal individual against the overweening center, etc.), so the the originary configuration needed to first be represented in these terms, perhaps even in an extreme form (representation itself is victimary to the core for postmodernism); perhaps only in this way could the originary relation between representation and violence be thought. If this is true, then it follows that GA’s emergence as a “contending” mode of thought in the contemporary world must depend upon a reversal of the conditions under which it could first emerge. The victimary, in other words, has outlived its usefulness for the emergence of the market and democracy and it must now be transcended: we might take it a step futher and see our present crisis, what I would like to call the “Global Intifada,” the death cult linking Western leftist White Guilt and Jihadist terror, as a crisis of the victimary forms taken by the modern world, of which postmodernism would in this case be a continuation. The problem would be, to refer to Girard, with scapegoating: the scapegoating of tyrants and priests may have been needed for the construction of the modern world, even as a way of transcending earlier forms of scapegoating and sacrifice, but this scapegoating has long since become counter-productive–the scapegoating of President Bush testifies to the Left’s inability to make sense of itself or the world without a “dictator” to rebel against. (Even deconstruction’s hesitation regarding the transcendence of metaphysics could be read as an unwillingness to leave the paradigm of sacrifice towards which deconstruction is extremely ambivalent–on the one hand, the supersession of metaphysics would be another sacrifice; and on the other hand it would be the last one, and then what?) So, if we sometimes despair of the marginalization of GA, it seems to me that we can take, if not “hope,” at least some courage from the good company GA is in–its survival and expansion depend upon the production of genuinely new modes of freedom. So, to return to the question of Derrida’s “minimal faith,” let’s have Gans’ words in front of us:

    A point in Derrida’s discourse where his intuition is more difficult to decipher is his reference to la sécularisation du politique. I do not think that this is merely the usual reference to Western and particularly European disaffection from the ritual practices and thoughtways of traditional society, a process Marcel Gauchet calls le désenchantement du monde. We should conceive it rather in originary terms as the separation of the exchange of signs from the originary central referent of these signs. In this context what Derrida calls radicalization suggests the substitution of a “secular” or simply, anthropological theory of origin for the usual religious narratives. Not only do we make the decision to view the human exchange of signs without reference to a revealed originary narrative, but the theory of origin that we espouse affirms the invalidity of any such narrative in the public sphere.

    Yet in his final sentence Derrida emphasizes not merely the compatibility of this secular theory with faith in general but their intimate connection. Like non-dogmatic religious belief, the non-revelatory theory of origin implied by political secularization helps us to grasp the element of minimal faith common to all religions. Far from a diplomatic concession to religion, this rapprochement between secular and religious modes of thought suggests a position that only Derrida’s scenic skepticism distinguishes from that of the originary hypothesis: openness to the element of transcendental faith in the non-ritual world makes one aware of the anthropological basis of all faith and thereby allows the “non-dogmatic” believers in each religious revelation to grasp the faith that they have in common.

    What Derrida calls the “mystery of life” is the apparently inexplicable relationship between transcendence and immanence, between the real world and the world of signs, which religious narrative mediates, but which “political secularization” forces us to conceive in anthropological terms. It is ironic that Derrida’s commitment to the “radically secular” postmodern academic context, which dismisses the originary hypothesis as a myth of origin, dissuaded him from exploring what I have shown to be his own rapprochement with GA. Nonetheless, GA is fundamentally indebted to this most lucid and powerful of postmodern thinkers.

    Of course, I endorse this “rapprochement,” both rigorous and generous. The problem with this “political secularization,” though, is that it evades political choices and, first of all, the choice of a particular narrative: one accounting for the emergence of of the very political space in which an anthropological faith could be advanced in the first place. Such a space can only emerge through specific events, events that in their own way must qualify as originary. It emerged, first of all, as I suggested above, through the sacrifical martyrdom of those enlightened thinkers who first presented such a possibility publicly; and I would suggest that Derrida’s universalism here would maintain that Enlightenment faith as a shared ground, one Derrida was also, if I’m not mistaken, seeking between his own thought and that of Habermas. Such a faith can just as easily be aligned to postmodern Leftist versions of “international law” that would place US officials in the dock as with any American defense of democracy in the Muslim world–even more so, in fact. A genuinely minimal secular political faith would reside less in what are still general, declarative statements about faith, and more in alliances formed and covenants entered into in defense of even slightly more advanced forms of deferral, in refusing to forget the millions of Iraqis who have not colluded with the descriptions through which we would be rid of them (“civil war,” “unfit for democracy”) in the Iranians defying their jihadi government, in the American servicemen who go about their work both ignored and slandered, and so on. Obviously the point can’t be to contrast these practical efforts with theoretical conceptions of a political anthropology, which is just as important–my point would rather be that Derrida’s “political secularization” can’t give use such conceptions while GA can, because GA can get us focused on generative events, the scene behind the scene. A minimal faith today, in other words, would seek anthropological truth in refusing the stampede to confirm the onrushing minimetic crisis as inevitable, in looking for and accentuating signs that do so.

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