In his important late book ‘The Gift of Death’, Derrida meditates on the story of Abraham and Isaac. His theme is responsibility: the meaning of responsibility, as it is understood by the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Derrida starts with a discussion of Jan Patocka; then he moves into the orbit of Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard, or his avatar Johannes de Silentio, believes that Abraham’s sacrifice is both monstrous and admirable. Ethically, within our earthly world, Abraham’s willingness to murder his son is monstrous. It is a crime that cannot be forgiven, an absolute step beyond the morality that guides human conduct. Yet Abraham is also commendable. The ethical sphere, Silentio argues, is suspended or subsumed by the word of God. And so Abraham is right to (be prepared to) murder his son: he is right to obey God’s command, even though our ethical sense revolts against this crime. Silentio’s purpose, in Fear and Trembling, is to praise Abraham’s faith without diminishing his actions’ horror.
Derrida reads Kierkegaard through Levinas; he sees the ethical and religious spheres in terms of alterity. But – no surprises here – Derrida is suspicious of the opposition between the religious and the ethical. For Kierkegaard – and for Levinas following him – Abraham’s relation to God is fundamentally different from his relation to Isaac. God as the absolutely, infinitely other can be differentiated from the human others of the ethical sphere. “Even in its critique of Kierkegaard concerning ethics and generality Levinas’s thinking stays within the game – the play of difference and analogy – between the face of God and the face of my neighbour” (pgs. 83-84). For Derrida, this game is unsustainable. Kierkegaard and Levinas are unable to adequately distinguish between the otherness of another human and the otherness of God; they are thus unable to distinguish between the religious and the ethical.
Derrida’s critique comes to be focussed in a single phrase: tout autre est tout autre. Every other is wholly other. God as infinitely other is no different, in his infinite alterity, from my neighbour. And therefore the suspension of the ethical by the religious is already in operation within the ethical: it is the very essence of the ethical. When I make any ethical choice I make a sacrifice like Abraham’s: I turn away from other obligations and suffering. The concept of responsibility would have no content without this sacrifice – which is always also a rejection of responsibility. “As a result, the concepts of responsibility, of decision, or of duty, are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal and aporia.” (p.68) Still more memorably:
“As soon as I enter into a relation with the other, with the gaze, look, request, love, command, or call of the other, I know that I can respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is, by sacrificing whatever obliges me to also respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all the others. I offer a gift of death, I betray, I don’t need to raise my knife over my son on Mount Moriah for that. Day and night, at every instant, on all the Mount Moriahs of this world, I am doing that, raising my knife over what I love and must love, over all those to whom I owe absolute fidelity, incommensurably.” (p. 68)
It seems to me that we are here at the heart of the controversies surrounding Derrida’s work. Is this moral relativism? I can see why many people believe so. In his book ‘Renewing Philosophy’, Hilary Putnam concludes his discussion of Derrida by writing that, while he admires many of Derrida’s own political judgements, “the philosophical irresponsibility of one decade can become the real-world political tragedy of a few decades later. And deconstruction without reconstruction is irresponsibility.” While Putnam doesn’t discuss ‘The Gift of Death’ (which was published in French in 1992, the same year as Putnam’s book), Derrida’s claim that the concept of responsibility is inherently aporetic seems as good reason as any to accuse deconstruction of irresponsibility. On the other hand, if the concept of responsibility really is aporetic, then to ignore this is to ignore responsibility itself: to misunderstand or evade it – perhaps in the name of ‘good conscience’.
I dug out ‘The Gift of Death’ this week, and I’ll end, for now, with a long passage I read on the way to work yesterday.
“The concept of responsibility, like that of decision, would thus be found to lack coherence or consequence, even lacking identity with respect to itself, paralyzed by what can be called an aporia or an antimony. That has never stopped it from ‘functioning,’ as one says. On the contrary, it operates so much better, to the extent that it serves to obscure the abyss or fill in its absence of foundation, stabilizing a chaotic process of change in what are called conventions… What is thus found at work in everyday discourse, in the exercise of justice, and first and foremost in the axiomatics of private, public, or international law, in the conduct of internal politics, diplomacy, and war, is a lexicon concerning responsibility that can be said to hover vaguely about a concept that is nowhere to be found, even if we can’t go so far as to say that it doesn’t correspond to any concept at all. It amounts to a disavowal whose resources, as one knows, are inexhaustible. One simply keeps on denying the aporia and antimony, tirelessly, and one treats as nihilist, relativist, even poststructuralist, and worse still deconstructionist, all those who remain concerned in the face of such a display of good conscience.
The sacrifice of Isaac is an abomination in the eyes of all, and it should continue to be seen for what it is – atrocious, criminal, unforgivable; Kierkegaard insists on that. The ethical point of view must remain valid: Abraham is a murderer. However, is it not true that the spectacle of this murder, which seems intolerable in the denseness and rhythm of its theatricality, is at the same time the most common event in the world? Is it not inscribed in the structure of our existence to the extent of no longer constituting an event? It will be said that it would be most improbable for the sacrifice of Isaac to be repeated in our day; and it certainly seems that way. We can hardly imagine a father taking his son to be sacrificed on the top of the hill at Montmartre… Things are such that this man would surely be condemned by any civilized society. On the other hand, the smooth functioning of such a society, the monotonous complacency of its discourses on morality, politics, and the law, and the exercise of its rights (whether public, private, national or international), are in no way impaired by the fact that, because of the mechanisms of external debt and other similar inequities, that same ‘society’ puts to death or (but failing to help someone in distress accounts for only a minor difference) allows to die of hunger and disease tens of millions of children (those neighbors or fellow humans that ethics or the discourse of the rights of man refer to) without any moral or legal tribunal ever being considered competent to judge such a sacrifice, the sacrifice of others to avoid being sacrificed oneself. Not only is it true that such a society participates in this incalculable sacrifice, it actually organises it. The smooth functioning of its moral discourse and good conscience presupposes the permanent operation of this sacrifice. And such a sacrifice is not even invisible, for from time to time television shows us, while keeping them at a distance, a series of intolerable images, and a few voices are raised to bring it all to our attention. But those images and voices are completely powerless to induce the slightest effective change in the situation, to assign the least responsibility, to furnish anything more than a convenient alibi… We are not even talking about wars, the less recent or most recent ones, in which cases one can wait an eternity for morality or international law (whether violated with impunity or invoked hypocritically) to determine with any degree of certainty who is responsible or guilty for the hundreds of thousands of victims who are sacrificed for what or whom one knows not…” (The Gift of Death, pgs. 84-86.)