At the recent annual conference of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA), I presented a paper called “‘Committing Deconstruction: Credo and Critique.” It was a paper that arose from my own grappling with two persistent quandaries that have dogged me during my short career:
(1) Deconstruction has always been important to my critical practice, but I don’t consider myself a “deconstructionist” (a term rarely actually deployed by folks who “do” deconstruction). Is it even possible to be a “deconstructionist”—is deconstruction something that you could dedicate yourself to like Marxism or Feminism? Or does it resist that type of critical identification?
(2) I confess to having several personally meaningful philosophic and academic “commitments.” Would it even be possible for someone like myself to do deconstruction or does its very practice preclude the possibility of commitment?
In my paper, I decided to dig into these questions by thinking about what it might mean to “commit” deconstruction in the first place. I rather quickly threw out the possibility of committing to deconstruction (again, the awkwardness and rarity of terms like “deconstructionism” and “deconstructionist” suggest that it resists such appropriation). I was also critical of the possibility that one could commit deconstruction to something (like Feminism or Theism or Atheism) if for no other reason than that its influence is almost exclusively disruptive—it’s rarely a good bet to try and put it “in the service” of anything as it has a certain tendency of biting the hand that feeds it.
I finally suggest that the best way to think of “committing deconstruction” would be to think of it like “committing a crime.” In this interpretation, deconstruction is conceived—though not necessarily exclusively—as action, as “move,” as an event that exists in the moment and cannot truly be separated from it. It’s as difficult to know what it would mean to “commit oneself to crime” as it would be to “commit oneself to deconstruction.” To be a “criminal” requires a certain commission but it certainly requires no commitment per se, at least not one that would exist after the commission of the crime. And while a crime may certainly be put in the service of a larger project—financial, political, or otherwise—Crime, as concept, would seem to resist such instrumentalizing.
But this still doesn’t answer the second question:Can the commission of deconstruction exist alongside commitments, even if we grant that it cannot be directly related to those commitments? Or does the existence of commitments—political, aesthetic, methodological, religious, or otherwise—preclude the possibility of making a deconstructive gesture in “good faith”? Do they place something outside of deconstruction, outside of the question, outside of critique? Are these commitments not the very ground which deconstruction, if truly committed, would undo?
The remainder of the paper suggests that two of the most important “repeat offenders” of deconstruction (to continue the crime analogy)—Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man—both had their deconstructive praxis occur within a larger sphere of commitment. The argument gets too dense for a blog post at this point (though you’re welcome to check out the paper should you care for the long version), but the meat of the argument is that de Man’s pure materialism (which comes so clearly to the fore in “Shelley Disfigured”) is itself an a priori which de Man must posit—an appropriate gesture, perhaps, for a critic who so thoroughly explored linguistic positing and argued for its fundamental inescapability. Derrida’s thought, in contrast, does not have a prioris as such, but there is a strange quality of commitment that comes to the fore.
Ironically, Derrida’s commitments arise from a skepticism that is ultimately more radical than de Man’s. In fact, it is as Derrida’s texts begin to seem more and more mystical or even pseudo-theological—as the resemblance to the early work (more in accord with de Man) becomes lessened—that Derrida becomes more fully and truly a skeptic. It is ultimately through skepticism that the transcendent enters into Derrida’s deconstructive project—for skepticism, taken to its limits, must refuse the exclusion of any possibility. It can no longer exclude either the transcendent or the material. It can no longer even exclude the impossible as a possibility. And if we could describe Derrida’s commitment, it would be to something like the possibility of the impossible.
This strange commitment is perhaps most clear in “Force of Law: The Mystical Foundations of Authority,” in which Derrida (in)famously claimed that “Justice, if such a thing is possible, is not deconstructible.” At one level, Justice is necessarily “impossible” insofar as it can never be fully manifest; yet, Derrida also seeks to do justice to Justice. A good judge can never know for certain if he is ruling justly, but he must nonetheless rule. He must risk a transgression against Justice in the name of Justice:
Each case is other, each decision is different and requires an absolutely unique interpretation which no existing, coded rule can or ought to guarantee absolutely. At least, if the rule guarantees it in no uncertain terms, so that the judge is a calculating machine—which happens—we will not say that he is just, free, and responsible. But we also won’t say it if he doesn’t refer to any law, to any rule or if, because he doesn’t take any rule for granted beyond his own interpretation, he suspends his decision, stops short before the undecidable or if he improvises and leaves behind all rules, all principles. It follows from this paradox that there is never a moment that we can say in the present that a decision is just […] or that someone is a just man—even less, ‘I am just.’ Instead of ‘just,’ we could say legal or legitimate, in conformity with a state of law, with the rules and conventions that authorize calculation but whose founding origin only defers the problem of justice. For in the founding of law or in its institution, the same problem of justice will have been posed and violently resolved, that is to say buried, dissumulated, repressed.
Similarly, Derrida seeks to both preserve something like the transcendence of the transcendent (“if such a thing is possible,” as he would say, since even asserting the existence of the transcendent is an attempt to grasp it, to immanentize it) and to do justice to it by attempting to speak of it even if all such speech is also a betrayal. The double-bind comes out most clearly in a conversation between Derrida and theologian John Milbank at a Villanova conference. In the midst of a tête-a-tête about the relationship of the immanent and the transcendent, Derrida asks Milbank whether the Christian concept of Incarnation represents “transcendence or immanence.” Milbank replies that “it is both” but that it “is predicated on transcendence.” Derrida replies in turn: “Judaism would say that the Incarnation is a way of immanentizing transcendence. So I do not know. Each time I face this couplet of concepts I just resign myself. We have learned, especially from Kant and from Husserl, that there is transcendence in immanence, and so on. I do not want to choose between the two. Now […] you used the word ‘betrayal.’ […] You wanted to avoid betrayal or to get me to avoid betrayal and unfortunately I think we are, that I am, constantly betraying.”
If we take Milbank’s reading of Incarnation as a sort of “transcendentalizing of immanence,” as it were, and Judaism’s critique, as articulated by Derrida, that it “immanticizes transcendence,” we find in Derrida’s thinking of the moment of justice—of the crossing of transcendent Justice into the immanent decision—a bit of both visions of “incarnation.” The movement—the crossing—is necessary, it is ethically necessary, it is an attempt to do justice to Justice within the moment—in this way, it tries to lift the immanent to the transcendent. But it is also always an act of betrayal, it is always—to borrow the religious idiom—a pulling down of God to earth.
Derrida says in “Force of Law” that “Justice in itself, if such a thing exists, outside or beyond the law, is not deconstructible. No more than deconstruction itself, if such a thing exists. Deconstruction is justice.” Let us, for the sake of argument, adopt Derrida’s definition of deconstruction as something which, as Justice or like Justice, outpaces and undoes and overflows any attempt to capture it in a positive formulation. Further, let us assume with him his “guilty conscience,” embodied in a fidelity to that which lies beyond the immanent, beyond the finite (if such a thing is possible), a fidelity that is always already a betrayal of that which it aims to be faithful to. If we do this, then perhaps we could argue that we can commit ourselves to deconstruction. But if so, then this commitment must take the form of a certain betrayal of deconstruction.