Pomegranates and Falling Leaves: On Derrida (by Peter Kline)

The following is a guest post by Peter Kline. Peter is an Ph.D. candidate at Vanderbilt University in Theology and Philosophy. Peter is also a practicing artist, and his work can be found at: http://peterklineart.virb.com/. – See more at: http://percaritatem.com/posts/#sthash.CeIzxv0v.dpufDerrida Drawing by Peter Kline

A reflection on Jacques Derrida, whom I love.

Derrida’s point across all of his writing is actually pretty simple, even if its articulation and implications must—to understand this “must” is to understand Derrida—be irreducibly complex and difficult.

The point: temporality is deconstruction; language is deconstruction. To be in time and within language is always already to be undergoing deconstruction. Deconstruction is not anything anybody does. It is what happens, something that happens, the trembling of existence.

The irreducibly complex implication of this, traced and tracked down in so many corners and alleys and byways by Derrida, is that self-identity, or “ipseity,” is impossible. One cannot simple be what one is. Every “one,” insofar as it exists in time and within language, is always already doubled into (at least) two. In his essay “Faith and Knowledge,” Derrida uses the image of a pomegranate: to cut open any supposed self-identical “one”—which is simply what time and language do, they are nothing but this cutting—is to release an unstable spilling out or dissemination of non-identical doubles, of seeds, that spill out everywhere, making a mess, as anyone who has tried to open and enjoy a pomegranate knows well.

If you were to gather together all the interpretations of any single text, say, the Bible, or any concept, say, justice, it would look like the carnage of an opened pomegranate. If you were to gather together all the speech a patient pours out to his or her therapist in attempt after attempt at self-presence and self-knowing—again, the carnage of an opened pomegranate. (Which is why Derrida resists any comprehensive psychoanalytic theory. At best, a therapist is a fellow traveler and companion who helps us feel our way through the very dark night of existence).

The self-identity of the self, of sovereignty, of responsibility, of religion, of philosophy, of literature, of anything and everything, is impossible. Everything, every “one,” is full of the seeds of is own deconstruction. Even the self-identity of a text that would announce deconstruction as a theme or topic is impossible. This is why Derrida is always annoyingly saying something like: deconstruction is not a theme or a topic, neither this nor that, not anything at all. It is nothing, nothing but a silent operation that one could only haltingly trace.

Like leaves falling at midnight, dancing and playing and trembling in midair, unseen, unheard, traced in the light of day only by bare branches. Derrida’s texts are the tracings of bare branches, spindly and winding and awkwardly complex across an open sky, across the blank page.

If one were to speak (and the question must always announce itself and remain unanswered: can one?) of Derrida’s passion, one would speak of a passion for the impossible. This is not a passion that the impossible would become possible. It is a passion that the impossible, that self-identity, would remain impossible. Derrida’s texts pray that the gap between me and myself, or between myself and the other, or between every one and every other, would never be closed, that the pomegranate would never stop spilling out seeds, that the leaves would never stop falling at midnight and dancing as they do, that time and language and the longing they open, in which mourning and hope hold hands and walk together into a dark night, would never cease opening.

This is why Derrida’s texts do not announce an ethics. They always already are an ethics. I would call it an ethics of hesitation. Derrida does nothing but hesitate. He stutters and stammers before the impossibility of self-identity, and in so doing he attempts to make room for the other, for what cannot be given a name, an identity, or a present without an impossible future, the future of the impossible, which is arriving every instant beyond any anticipation or appropriation. It is a kind of prayer, a speaking in tongues.

Guest Post: Michael Brennen on Luigino Bruni’s Recent Book, The Wound and the Blessing

The following is a guest post by Michael Brennen, who recently translated Italian philosopher, Luigino Bruni’s new book, The Wound and the Blessing. Michael has had a long career in software and technology, eventually deciding to pursue a long-smoldering interest in philosophy.  In 2010 he graduated from the the University of Illinois, Springfield with a BA in philosophy, summa cum laude, and is presently working on an MA in philosophy of economics at UIS, focusing on the ethical dimensions of economics.  He has a particular interest in contemporary Italian economic thought developing reflections on a largely unknown mid-18th century school of political economy centered around Naples.


In his book The Wound and the Blessing: Economics, Relationships, and Happiness, recently published in English by New City Press, Luigino Bruni, an Italian philosopher of economics at the Milano-Bicocca University in Milano, considers happiness in economics and how people relate in markets; I had the privilege of translating the book.  Drawing from Benedict XVI’s encyclical Deus Caritas est, in which Benedict explores the necessary and complementary nature of eros, philia, and agape in human relationships, Bruni presents a startling analysis of markets in terms of tripartite love and an unusual proposal for consideration.

Regarding the current globalizing economy, one can frequently find two positions.  On the one hand, there is the demand to involve the entire world in market relationships; on the other, there is the demand to do away with markets, as the market itself is seen as the source of societal and structural evils.  Bruni argues for balancing these competing demands.  He considers the market as a positive triumph of modernity; markets, as places in which people can meet and exchange as peers, can be a cornerstone of civilization.  In short, we need markets; without them we cannot live well, yet neither can we live well by reducing all social relationships to market relationships.  Bruni works within the eudaimonist tradition, and he balances these two positions against that backdrop.

For Aristotle, for whom civil, political and economic society was a whole, one cannot be happy without friends whom one values intrinsically.  One cannot live a fully human and happy life without friends, but the risk is that those same friends can be the source of one’s most painful relational wounds.  Aristotle’s response to limit this risk was that one’s friends should be few, and like oneself.

For Adam Smith and other 18th century philosophers working in political economy, markets were places where people could meet and exchange as peers rather than being dependent on the benevolence of one’s superiors in a hierarchical feudal society.  Smith, deeply influenced by Stoic thought, saw the common good emerging as an unintended consequence of self-interested action.  Markets mediate independent relationships in which buyers and sellers exchange in self-interested and impersonal, though cordial, encounters; one’s personal relationships should be pursued outside the market.

In contrast with Aristotelian thought, modern market relationships are thus instrumental: the other is useful as a means to one’s own ends.  Through this relational mediation, most market encounters happen such that the risk of relational injury is minimized.  With risk minimized in the larger market, it might seem that privately consuming and enjoying one’s increasing objective wealth should increase one’s happiness.

Paradoxically though, recent studies in the economics of happiness by Richard Easterlin and others show that, above a certain threshold, increases in income can result in unchanged or even diminished levels of subjective happiness.  In the market one must constantly compete against others for scarce work; with increased income comes additional responsibility and stress.  Due to hedonic adaptation, increasing consumption is required to maintain one’s sense of satisfaction with one’s standard of living.

For Bruni this “paradox of happiness” is one consequence of the loss of intrinsically valuable relationships in the market; as Bruni noted in an interview, markets designed to separate people do separate people.  To formulate his response to this paradox, Bruni considers the market analogues of eros, or erotic, romantic love, philia, or friendship love, and agape, or self-giving love.

Bruni proposes that we understand the contract as an analogue of eros, as the quintessential market instrument of self-interest.  Parties to a contract seek to maximize their gains and advantages and minimize their costs and risks; the contract establishes the relationship among the parties, and each party is concerned only with its interests.

For philia, Bruni proposes that associations and cooperatives—perhaps more diversely and fully developed in Europe than in North America—are market expressions of a relationality that considers self and other.  In such productive organizations, people live more fully in an awareness of interdependence and mutuality.

Bruni finds no market analogue of agape, or selflessness, in markets.  He notes that love, in economic terms, is even sometimes seen as a scarce resource that one should reserve for private relationships rather than dissipating it in the market.

His proposal to fill this dearth of agape in markets is gratuitousness, arguably the key term in the book; by that he means a willingness to exchange in free and open reciprocity—not altruism—that, though one may have an interest in the transaction, does not demand a return of equal value.  In economic terms, relationships themselves become goods with intrinsic value, apart from the goods exchanged.  Living in gratuitousness requires living in the awareness that another will eventually betray one’s trust, resulting in a relational or even material wound; finding the strength to transform those wounds into blessings can be at once a great challenge and a source of deep fulfillment.

Bruni closes with a reflection on the role of charisms in transforming market institutions toward more human, humanizing, and fulfilling relationships.  It is here perhaps that his deeply felt passion is most evident; economists do not normally talk about spiritual charisms in markets.  This discussion is far more than theory for Bruni; he has long been closely involved with the Economy of Communion (EoC,) in which for-profit businesses devote part of their earnings directly to aiding the poorest of the poor.  His experiences seeing people’s lives changed through mutual market relationships infuses his writings with a vigor not typical of economic texts.

Finally, it may also be of interest that Bruni and his co-author Stefano Zamagni were a significant influence behind Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate; further insight can be found on The Tablet, an EoC publication.

Michael Brennen


A Call for Guest Posts: Violence and Christian Holy Writ

The relation between violence and the Christian religion or the role of violence in Christianity is of course not a new problem. However, like other difficult, controversial, and incredibly important issues, it is often left unaddressed or given scant attention in Christian circles including Christian seminaries.  Thankfully, at least some modern and

Marc Chagall (Russian-born French painter, 1887-1985), “Abraham Slaying Isaac”
Marc Chagall (Russian-born French painter, 1887-1985), “Abraham Slaying Isaac”

postmodern theologians, philosophers, and other Christian thinkers—Frederick Douglass, Jung Mo Sung, James Cone, J. Kameron Carter, William T. Cavanaugh have engaged the subject of violence and its relation to and manifestations within the Christian tradition.  Because I personally find this issue difficult, important, and extremely relevant to our current (post)modern context, I have decided to host a series of guest posts on the topic.  My interest in this series, however, is somewhat narrowly focused in a biblical hermeneutical direction.  That is, in dialogue with other Christians via this guest post format, I want to have a conversation about what Scripture itself says, promotes, prohibits, permits or seems to say, promote, prohibit, permit about violence, majoring on those difficult passages dealing with genocide, slavery, and the like—all with a view to developing a Christian hermeneutical trajectory that would enable us to intelligently and compassionately engage contemporary issues.

I have listed below specific topics for engagement and hope to receive two to three submissions per topic presenting different and perhaps even opposing perspectives. I welcome Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant contributors, liberal as well as conservative. (Recently, a number of thoughtful non-Christians and atheists have written excellent works dealing with violence.  As a philosopher, I find these works incredibly valuable; however, for this series, I am looking for contributions exclusively from Christians, as I want the series to serve as a resource of sorts for Christians interested in this subject area and who also find it a challenge to their faith. If you would like to participate, please leave a comment with your name, institutional affiliation (if you have one), and a brief description of your proposal.  If you are selected to write a guest post, I will contact you via email and give you the details regarding the length, due date for the post, etc.  Generally speaking, the posts should be between 500–1500 words, with a strict maximum limit of 1500 words.

Specific Topics

  • How should a Christian community interpret the mass killings (genocide) commanded by God in the Old Testament (e.g. Joshua 6, 10, etc.)?  Should we read these allegorically, literally, or what?
  • How should a Christian community interpret passages in the Old Testament (e.g. Exodus and Leviticus) that at least appear to permit slavery?
  • How does a Christian community make sense out of seemingly opposed views on slavery (e.g. Philemon, and I Cor 7:23 verses 1 Peter) in the New Testament?
  • Does a Christian community’s theology of atonement make a difference as to  how it interprets the violent acts recorded in Scripture?  If so, how?
  • Given the relevance of Girard, a Girardian reading related to any of the above topics and which interacts with some particular Scripture passage is quite welcome.
    • If it is the case that Christianity breaks the cycle of sacrificial violence (at least in theory, historical praxis may be another story), how so?
    • From a more Catholic perspective, how ought we think of the Eucharistic “sacrifice” in dialogue with Girard’s insights?
    • What would Girard say to those holding a view of eternal (physical or psychological) punishment and torture of the “damned”?  If you are a creative type, a fictive dialogue between Dante and Girard would be ideal!

Gadamer on Hermeneutical Experience

For those interested, my post, “Gadamer on Hermeneutical Experience,” is “live” on the church and postmodern culture blog.  Below is an excerpt to pique your curiosity.

According to Gadamer, experience, including hermeneutic experience, is a process which is essentially negative. By “negative,” he means that our expectations of what something is or means are regularly disappointed and disconfirmed. But if we begin with an expectation, a hope, then hope is always prior to experience and is its condition. As we move through our disappointments and struggle to understand—in light of our shattered expectations or dislodged assumptions and biases—the person or subject at hand, new expectations/hopes arise. Thus, hope both precedes and follows disappointment and disconfirmation. Experience, as Gadamer understands it, is characterized by alternating cycles of hope and disappointment… click here to read more.

Williams on Dostoevsky’s Faith and Ivan’s Inquisitor

The church and postmodern culture blog recently posted my brief essay, “Rowan Williams on Dostoevsky’s Faith and Ivan’s Inquisitor.”  If you are interested in Dostoevsky and did not have time to read my recent multi-part series on Dostoevsky, then this short post will perhaps spark your interest.

I highly recommend Williams’ book, Language, Faith, and Fiction:  The Making of the Christian Imagination. Even if you happen to disagree with Williams on various political, social or theological issues, his book on Dostoevsky is well worth your time.  Personally, I found the book spiritually edifying and existentially challenging.  Williams’ explanation of the diabolical, the sacramental nature of reality, the social importance of the role of icons (understood both specifically and broadly), and the need for humans to recognize and embrace a spirit of solidarity–what the Russians call, “соборность” (“sobornost”)–rather than a spirit of individualism, are among the many outstanding features of the book.

The following product description and editorial review appears on the back book cover and was copied from Amazon.com.

Product Description
Rowan Williams explores the intricacies of speech, fiction, metaphor, and iconography in the works of one of literature’s most complex, and most complexly misunderstood, authors. Williams’ investigation focuses on the four major novels of Dostoevsky’s maturity (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Devils, and The Brothers Karamozov). He argues that understanding Dostoevsky’s style and goals as a writer of fiction is inseparable from understanding his religious commitments. Any reader who enters the rich and insightful world of Williams’ Dostoevsky will emerge a more thoughtful and appreciative reader for it.

Reading Dostoevsky is like looking from a high peak at several mountain ranges, some brightly lit, others dark with mist, going back farther than the eye can see. In this breathtaking book, Rowan Williams takes us on a journey through literary art, the nature of fiction, psychological depths, historical and cultural setting and allusion, and beyond all else a world of faith and doubt, of philosophy and theology not dry on the page but moist with tears of compassion. We return to Dostoevsky with new insight and wide-ranging understanding and to real life with fresh perspectives on what it means to be human, to be under threat from the demonic, and above all to sense the dark and urgent presence of the living God. –N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham

Rowan Williams here reveals the originality and daring that have made him such a controversial (and inspiring) leader of his church. The readings demonstrate an impressive grasp of current scholarly criticism of Dostoevsky. But this is not just another book about Dostoevsky. The literary interpretations are guided by an intense humanism that shares at points surprising parallels with radical leftist critiques. As author of a previous book of Sergej Bulgakov, Williams is at home in Russian philosophy, particularly the Orthodox emphasis on kenosis, the voluntary emptying out of Christ’s divine attributes during his time on earth. This aspect of Russian thought was important for Bakhtin, who serves as a kind of dialogic third partner in Williams conversation with his reader. This is a work of learning and passion, a heteroglot blend of literary, ethical, and subtle theological argument that is full of surprising local triumphs of interpretation — and that most un-academic virtue, wisdom. –Michael Holquist, Professor Emeritus of Comparative and Slavic Literature, Yale University

Rowan Williams, in this study of Dostoevsky’s characters, brings to attention the theological anthropology implicit in and generative of the narratives’ dynamics. In his hands, theology becomes not a kind of explanation or completion but both a release, an opening of the narratives to the as yet unsaid, and a clarification of the continuities between the characters and the Orthodox Christianity of the setting. Crucial to this reading of Dostoevsky is an understanding of personal identity not as a possession but as a consequence of an ongoing relational process and an interweaving of freedom with a responsibility for others. As we no longer read Dostoevsky the way we did before reading Mikhail Bakhtin, so also, having read Williams, we no longer will read either Dostoevsky or Bakhtin as we once did. –Wesley A. Kort, Professor of Religion, Duke University