Derrida on Dionysius: A Mystical Iconoclast or a Misread?
In recent years a number of postmodern thinkers have become interested in negative theology and Neoplatonism. For example, Jean-Luc Marion has found within negative theology an inexhaustible resource that harmonizes well with his own theological and phenomenological project. Jacques Derrida has also engaged negative theology; however, he seems to have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward it and particularly dislikes what he interprets in Dionysius’ thought as the retention of a “transcendental signified.” As Eric Perl explains,
“Deconstruction is fundamentally a theory of signification, which attacks the (supposedly) traditional notion that a signifier (word, text, or image) refers to a signified, the meaning which itself is prior to and independent of the signifier. Derrida calls this the “transcendental signified”: the meaning underlying the expression, the archetype underlying the image, that which is not sign but “pure signified.” On the traditional assumption, any system of meaning, be it a written text or the cosmos itself, has such a transcendental signified. In the case of a text, it is the author’s intent, what he means to express; in the case of the world, understood as a system of signs, it is God” (“Signifying Nothing,” p. 125).
Derrida takes the description above to be characteristic of Western metaphysics, and thus his own project attempts to show that no such transcendental signified can be found outside, beyond or prior to the text or world. In the end, all we have are signs. “We can never transcend signs to arrive at a pure signified which is not itself a sign” (Ibid., p. 126). Here is where Derrida’s attraction to negative theology and Neoplatonism comes in focus. As we have seen, in Dionysian thought, God is beyond being and thought. That which can be thought exists and that which is is not God but “only an image, sign, or expression.” Hence, for Derrida, the common bond between negative theology and deconstruction is their mutual agreement that everything in the realm of existence and hence thought is sign all the way down. No transcendental signified or ultimate meaning is accessible, but remains forever deferred. “But whereas for Neoplatonism this implies that the world is infinitely meaningful, the manifestation of God, for deconstructionism it implies that the world is meaningless” (Ibid., p. 126).
Though Derrida has no doubt contributed significantly to contemporary thought and his insights have and should continue to be appropriated, one wonders whether he has correctly interpreted Neoplatonism and negative theology particularly as manifest in Dionysius. For Dionysius, as is the case with Plotinus, God is both beyond being (transcendent) and excessively present (immanent). As Dionysius explains,
“God is […] known in all things and as distinct from all things. He is known through knowledge and unknowing. Of him there is conception, reason, understanding, touch, perception, opinion, imagination, name, and many other things. On the other hand he cannot be understood, words cannot contain him, and no name can lay hold of him. He is not one of the things that are and he cannot be known in any of them. He is all things in all things and he is no thing among things. He is known to all from all things and he is known to no one from anything (DN VII.3).
Here Dionysius highlights both creation (i.e., everything that exists) as theophany, where everything that is manifests God, and God’s radical transcendence in light of the fact that He is beyond the order of being, the created realm. Derrida seems to focus only on the “and” side of the Dionysian world, i.e., on God as wholly other—other in the sense of a transcendental signified, a being beyond Being who is still entangled in a signifier/signified dualism. Hence, the Derridean read of Dionysius is that of “a kind of ‘mystical iconoclast,’ who calls us to strip away all created symbols and images and attain a non-symbolic vision of and union with God as ‘pure signified’” (Ibid., p.) Dionysius, however, in no way suggests that we must finally do away with all symbols in order to encounter God. “This divine ray can enlighten us only by being upliftingly concealed in a variety of sacred veils which the Providence of the Father adapts to our nature as human beings” (CH I.2). Hence, we experience God not by peeling away or overcoming signs, but by embracing the signs as icons. In other words, God is present and manifest in the signs and “sacred veils” that both conceal and reveal Him. Derrida has done a superb job of describing the concealing aspects of Dionysius; however, it seems that he has not properly understood the iconic function of signs.