The Binding of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Levinas and Derrida
Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.
–Hannah Arendt (1)
Posthumous people are called to live the death of the self.
–Mark C. Taylor (2)
In his recent work, Slavoj Žižek has wielded a new conceptual tool in the interest of our better mutual disagreement. Termed the parallax gap, he defines it as: “the confrontation of two closely linked perspectives between which no neutral common ground is possible.” (3) Sporting this innovative model in the post-modern jungle of irreducible differences, Žižek succeeds in capturing a central difficultly present within many of the great debates of philosophic discourse: How philosophers manage to produce elaborate knots out of each others ideas without ever violating the sacred interior space of each others lonely perception.
To tangle without touching, the parallax gap invites intimate company to share without losing the dear gestures of the uncommon. If strangers are to be our friends, then let them come close and attempt a disjointed conversation on the nature of sacrifice. We are to be tied to not just any sacrifice, but one with significant historical weight clinging to it: the binding of Isaac.
Accompanying us is a quartet whose divergent tones are more clearly marked by the counter distinction of their indefinite differences. We will present a minimal interpretation of Kierkegaard at the time of his Fear and Trembling, who seems to temporarily settle for the sacrifice of the ethical. Then, moving on, we will engage Heidegger for whom sacrifice permits no true substitution within the context of his analysis of Being-towards-Death. Next, with Kierkegaard and Heidegger as our lead in, we move to Levinas, who strives to bind the religious to the ethical. Finally, we will attempt to settle in and unpack the many writings of Derrida (The Gift of Death, Acts of Religion, Aporias, Glas, etc…) the vagabond who embraces the aporetic character of sacrifice sacrificing the system (and/of) logic along with itself.
Four strategies (who will not and cannot be treated equally) who attempt to ascend to mount Moriah, to watch and to respond. Abraham and Isaac are aided to go on (in different directions) with them. For our purposes Derrida will lead—which is only fitting in that he arrived last—late enough apparently to play spectator to the others while he was still in the distance uncommitted. We have yet to find the means of waking them (Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Levinas) so as to hear their rejoinder to his assessment of their assessments. At the time of this writing, almost everything is bound to be posthumously living a new life after death.
Some would like to write off Genesis 22 as an unrepeatable event, a marginal and remote curiosity of an uninspiring past. Others choose to harness the meaning of this sacrificial narrative and draw it towards personal, religious and political ends. We must exercise a right to read inside and beyond the text. One such example emerges out of Midrashic literature which grants us a sense of accessing behind the scenes footage and director commentary adaptively filling in some ambiguities while generating others.
The search for meaning that Midrash entails invites us to acknowledge the principle wherein the events that befall earlier generations recorded in Biblical history have an enduring message and are practically instructive for latter generations. (4) Saddled with a universal teaching these narratives serve as a catalyst for the speculative, often marking the outer bounds of ethical and religious experience—their nodes of conjunction or points of divergence.
Derrida himself echoes this reading directive by maintaining that: “The narrative is genealogical but it is not simply an act of memory….It means thinking about what takes place today.” (5) Consequently, a lot is at stake in the reading of this narrative, after all, our reading will affect whom or what is or is not sacrificed. Thus for Derrida, this becomes an everyday occurrence, where, stripped of our initial shock of its extraordinary nature, we might also begin to see alternatively that: “At the same time, there is no longer any ethical generality that does not fall prey to the paradox of Abraham.” (6)
Sneaking up on sacrifice with tentative intent—one’s willingness to take risks—requires a person to make peace with the mere possibility of sacrifice. Risk taking can never be a sacrificial sure thing; it suffices as a mere flirtation with temptation. Answering the call, this call, to place myself in writing, in this writing—presumably emulating the Divine with this hazardous process—we are enjoined to install ourselves within and alongside each of the characters of this drama.
What would I think if I where Abraham? What would I feel if I were Isaac? What would I want if I were a drop in God’s imagination?
Our co-conspiring may yield, beyond the applications of sacrifice, personal descriptions of this phenomenon that contribute to its meaning. (7) One places oneself inside the story. We each take turns playing all the characters and then listen to the various retellings from the four philosophers under consideration. All their readings are possible, but with very different consequences.
Philosophers have the luxury of coaching ideas that may or may not make the play in everyday life. Thus transcription errors of representation inevitably wind up as benign tumors in the living tissue of our interpersonal existence and, though uncomfortable and occasionally unsightly, we manage to work around them. Statistically speaking, from time to time, one such mis-in-formed, oversized and therefore malignant byproduct of speculation (whether amateur or professional) intrudes and disrupts the naturally correcting currents of our interaction. Such ideas spell trouble for all who encounter them. Hostel to the organism that created them, fostered their development and now unwittingly plays host to their potentially destructive forces, the pathology of some ideas may endanger real world activities and the agents of force acting with them. Religion too has been a proactive source of ideas of this nature, including the modern religion of science. With lives in the balance, we might demand that all proceed with extreme caution.
If we consider the parallelism between a thinker coming under the spell of his or her own ideas and the ecstatic religious practitioner’s experience with its hypnotic potential—they are both reluctant to appeal to outside mediators with whom they might prove communicable. Instead, sealed in the solitary self, a person may drift in what an outside observer regards as uncertainty—though all the while being inwardly convinced of his or her own convictions.
Derrida opens his discussion of the gift, of death and of sacrifice in The Gift of Death with this specific kind of ethical anxiety. From the start Derrida acknowledges this well placed concern in different religious traditions formed by thinkers with similar philosophic ethical agendas—to rescue religion for ethics. To divorce ethical ambiguities from religious mystery becomes first philosophy for the philosophic worlds of Jan Patočka and Emmanuel Levinas who both exert considerable influence on Derrida. Picking up on this, Derrida immediately jumps to the point of greatest sensitivity:
In one of his Heretical Essays on the Philosophy of History Jan Patočka relates secrecy, or more precisely the mystery of the sacred, to responsibility. He opposes one to the other; or rather underscores their heterogeneity. Somewhat in the manner of Levinas he warns against an experience of the sacred as an enthusiasm or fervor for fusion, cautioning in particular against a form of demonic rapture that has as its effect, and often as its first intention, the removal of responsibility, the loss of the sense or consciousness of responsibility. (8)
For our purposes, we may regard the figure of Abraham as drawing fire for resembling “demonic rapture,” particularly if we subject his Divinely mandated directives to sacrifice his son to suspicion. The easy out in resolving the story is to simply place God beyond such a request and tag Abraham with a well earned label of insanity. Still, if the reading requirements forced us to assume the validity of the text complete with a reliable narrator, then we would have no recourse that to direct our attention to God.
How could God permit such practices? Isn’t God almighty bound by ethics, a covenantal code or as Levinas likes to formulate it—‘Loving the Torah more that God’ wherein the restrictions that comprise our responsibility also serve to economize the Divine will.
Is it our spontaneity called into question (Levinasian ethics) or God’s? Does Isaac represent the only one being bound? Requiring the ethical enforcement of Divine limits is built into the discourses on the volition of the Divine in many theological formulations. Take for instance G.K. Chesterton’s assertion that: “Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation. In that sense every act is an act of self-sacrifice.” (9)
Reading this in light of Genesis 22, we can entertain the notion that in some abstract manner God binds Himself in place of Isaac in the final refusal to allow Abraham to sacrifice his son. Patočka, in Derrida’s assessment, makes it unequivocally clear that “In the proper sense of the word, religion exists once the secret of the sacred, orgiastic, or demonic mystery has been, if not destroyed, at least integrated, and finally subjected to the sphere of responsibility.” (10) Moreover he contends that: “Responsibility and faith go together, however paradoxical that might seem to some, and both should, in the same moment, exceed mastery and knowledge. The gift of death would be this marriage of responsibility and faith.” (11)
With this, Derrida turns to his primary subject and title of his work: The Gift of Death, a work whose struggle lies in its attempt to discern a meaning proper, heretical, singular or multiple, of this phrase set loosely against the backdrop of the Kierkegaard and others.
Death might even be assigned a value beyond corporeal death. Leaving the world amounts to leaving the familiar, leaving all that we know; it constitutes a phenomenology of absence which, far beyond mere negation, asserts a positive value—if shedding the control that knowledge brings truly allows the growth of some new sense of ‘self’ out of body, beyond the world. With death as the death of knowledge, we will latter see how this removes the proof of the story ending with one’s biological demise, a critique of the existential analysis of death in Heidegger wherein the totality of the human being is measured at this finally moment. This is an opening for faith in an extended play. Death is perhaps informative even in its refusal of knowledge in and from this very refusal of knowledge.
While death bankrupts the conventional exchange of ideas, it nonetheless grants a quiet kick back that inscribes it within the relations of economy provided that non-knowledge be regarded as a modality of knowledge itself. In other words, the expression ‘I am certain of my uncertainty’ is a tradable epistemological value. One might wonder if faith is a form on non-conventional knowledge. Joining responsibility and faith requires a ‘knowledge’ of faith—a knowing of the unknowable which can only come as a result of a ‘gift’ even if it hides an economic exchange.
Being responsible in the grip of unknown forces characterizes a common condition of the everyday. Excusing responsibility in the face of radical loss–like the loss of all mastery–fails to recognize the ultimate root of responsibility. One has no recourse for attributing every personal moral failing to a lack of knowing or intending. While these are mitigating factors, the unvarnished truth comes down to a singularity we might call ‘the responsible individual burdened with infinite responsibly,’ for which all the external conditions of the world will not suffice to lift away all of the weight. Levinas, as a great innovator of these types of extreme formulations of responsibility, challenges us to admit that “we are thus responsible beyond our intentions.” (12) Moreover, Levinas writes:
It is impossible for the regard that directs the act to avoid the nonintended action that comes with it. We have one finger caught in the machine and things turn against us. That is to say, our consciousness and our mastery of reality through consciousness do not exhaust our relation with reality, to which we are always present through all the density of our being. (13)
Thus, Levinas and Patočka will have us concede that, either the ethical be elevated to the height of the religious—wherein G-d acts as the ageless insurance and foundation platform of validity for the ethical, or else, the religious is reduced to the ethical leaving no room for overflow or surplus religiosity that cannot be justified in terms of ethical behavior. Confronting death, reflecting upon it, may in the end bestow upon us this awareness. From here, we may question whether nor not highly unique circumstances might breakup the religious qua ethical bond, unveiling what is not necessarily antithetical to the ethics (although this a primary danger) but rather, a kind of new hyper-ethical or ‘suspended ethical’ religious category.
(1) Men in Dark Times p.105 from her essay on Isak Dinesen. I would like to thank Shaina Trapedo for pointing this source out to me.
(2) Erring: A Postmodern A/theology. P.141.
(3) The Parallax View. P.5.
(4) “Everything that befell the fathers [the experiences of the Patriarchs] is a sign unto their children” Midrash Tanchuma 9.
(5) The Gift of Death. P.35.
(6) Ibid. p. 78.
(7) One of the gems of kabbalistic teaching draws a comparison between the 13 principles by which the Torah is interpreted and the 13 attributes of compassion assigned to the Divine. In this assessment, Hermeneutics are driven by compassion. More than merely having mercy on the text and excusing its apparent imperfections, this affirmative exegetical imperative breeds new forms of intertextuality. It assists in one’s ability to internalize the drama with the empathy of self-for-text and the responsibility for text-to-text integrative readings. See Zohar III 228a.
(8) The Gift of Death. P.1
(9) Orthodoxy. P.45 Quotes in Žižek The Parallax Gap p.91.
(10) The Gift of Death. P.2
(11) Ibid. p. 10.
(12) “Is Ontology Fundamental?” in Emmanuel Levinas: Basic Philosophical Writings. P. 4.
(13) Ibid. p.4.