Sunday, July 1, 2012

Derrida's Gift of Death


I've decided there's no good reason to separate my more academic reading out of the more recreational, and that this is a good spot to spark my summary of/response to scholarly texts -- it's an idiosyncratic and limited summary/response, but that's okay, right? After all, it's an idiosyncratic and limited blog!
I will spare you my marginalia, but here's my quick sketch of Derrida's The Gift of Death. If you've read it and would like to help me think further on the text, please comment below . . . 

Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. Trans.David Willis. Chicago & London: U of Chicago P, 1995. Religion and Potmodernism Series. Ed. Mark C. Taylor
Read this because I’m considering the relationship between the gift and the market economy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Given that there’s an episode titled The Gift, in which Buffy learns from the First Slayer that “death is [her] gift,” this seemed like it could be an important text to read.  That said, I’m not sure that I will integrate it into my work at this stage, although perhaps it will provide some kind of underpinning.
First, Derrida’s work is difficult for me because it is so grounded in Western philosophy, going back to Plato, through Old Testament and New Testament as well as to writings of early Church thinkers and to more recent European philosophers – Nietzsche, Heidegger, Hegel, and then responding particularly to an essay by Czech philosopher Jan Patoĉka. Because I know so little of these other works, I struggle with Derrida’s text and the meaning I construct is necessarily limited.
Nevertheless, I am fascinated by his following Patoĉka from the orgiastic sacred through Platonism and into Christianity – Derrida’s insistence that at each move or seeming replacement of one religion/paradigm with another, something secret has been suppressed but also incorporated. And I am also fascinated by his deconstruction of the story of Abraham sacrificing his son. The emphasis on the necessary secret here that separates Abraham from his community puts Abraham beyond ethics (generalized, concerning his relationship to Others, Communal Law)  in service of ethics (absolute, to the Other that is God).  The essay’s key terms at this point seem to me to be alterity, singularity, sacrifice, secret . . . and, of course, death and the gift.
It seems important that this relationship between death/sacrifice/gift and ethics/Other/singularity takes place in the context of European history as rooted in the three religions of monotheism. Despite (or because of?) sharing in this foundational moment of Abraham’s willing (yet painful) sacrifice of Isaac to Yahweh (who, of course [although there was no sense of “of course” when Abraham surrendered his son, that’s the point] provided a ram as substitute for Isaac, at the very instant the blade was raised/lowering) the three groups have killed one another throughout history in the name of the Faith(s) represented by this sacrifice. The Gift of Death, this sacrifice, then, takes on an ominous role and well deserves Derrida’s deconstruction, especially in the extended “current” moment of Middle East warfare (he writes in the wake of the First Gulf War; what he says is even more relevant 17 years later in our current climate).
What makes the work most exciting, if I understand it correctly, is the way Derrida uses deconstruction’s methodology to work at certain passages of Matthew’s gospels in the context of Abraham’s sacrifice.  Doing so, he works to an insistence on incommensurability of giving as the ethics of Christianity (that is, not that giving is incommensurable with Christianity, but that Christ insists true giving does not expect compensation), extending that to a kindness/justice/care for one’s enemy as much as for one’s neighbour. He parses words/translations to argue that these strictures/scriptures are not simply a reference to one’s personal enemy/neighbour but to one’s political, as well. Further, he suggests that the God who secretly sees our most interior secret (and he does some really interesting work around visuality, visibility, photology, etc.) might usefully be understood as our Other self or ourself as Other (again, if I understand him correctly) . . . . so that an interiorized God, the God we also exteriorized, is really nothing more than our conscience (but what could be more than that?!)

So that sums up my crude, but rather excited, understanding of the essay. Now to transcribe some of the jottings I made in (very light) pencil throughout and on the inside cover, so that I can erase same before returning the book to the library. This ends up being a huge frustration of book-borrowing for me – I would much prefer to have the physical book on my shelf, my marginalia intact. . . . 

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