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Jacques Derrida (1930-2004)
Read by: Jacques Derrida
"Peut-on nommer son propre sang ? et décrire la première blessure, ce moment où, paraissant au jour, le sang se refuse encore à la vue ? A supposer qu'on se rappelle sa circoncision, pourquoi cet acte de mémoire serait-il une confession ? L'aveu de quoi au juste ? Et de qui ? A qui ?" J. D.
In “Circumfession” Jacques Derrida seems to be coping with that thing that happens when we start writing or talking about ourselves, which is to start to explain ourselves as well. With surprising rapidity, relating something about oneself becomes something like self-justification, as if my actions could also have been mistakes. Explaining oneself, then, gets pulled closer and closer to confession: suddenly everything that I relate looks like it is something I am guilty of committing and for which I need forgiveness—especially if I then try to justify my right to a story that isn’t taken as justification, as Paul de Man captured well in the last chapter ("Excuses") of Allegories of Reading. In short, another way one can confess (besides walking into the confessional) is by guiltily relating a story about oneself; a story, that is, which makes one look and feel guilty.
But I don’t think Derrida is as interested with what all this does to the mental coherence of that self that is then related. The more crucial question for Derrida throughout “Circumfession” is what this guilty story does to others. For when we end up explaining ourselves, we also have the tendency to try and get ourselves off the hook by turning the people in our lives into determining causes of our faults. In our explanation, they aren’t themselves, but words, gestures, actions that will add to our self-justification—more like fictional characters. Another way to put this is in the terms used earlier in our seminar: this story that seeks its forgiveness because it feels guilty, confession, cannot produce testimony with respect to others. While I can produce testimony about a historical event that was caused by another—about something that was caused by her words, gestures, or actions—my confession will stop short of testifying to something about her herself, in her singularity. It will have to remain confession, a story of guilt about oneself, with respect to each of these others.
This is only a problem for Derrida, though, insofar as he is unable to be sure that his confession will not, despite everything, still actually testify for another. At least this is what I think he claims when he says the following after remembering something about his mother (who is hanging on to life in a hospital, and at any moment as he writes may already be dead):
I stop for a moment… over the admission I owe the reader, in truth that I owe my mother herself for the reader will have understood that I am writing for my mother, perhaps even for a dead woman and so many ancient or recent analogies will come to the reader’s mind even if no, they don’t hold, those analogies, none of them… (p. 25, #4).
The problem here is not just that a justificatory writing makes him distort his mother to make her fit his story. The problem is not just that, at the moment she appears in what he says, she can appear like almost any other mother we can read about (e.g. Augustine’s Monica) except herself. The problem is also that she herself could, despite this, actually remain just this “distortion.” Effectively under the pretense of distorting another for his own benefit, then, Derrida might still be saying something accurate. But this testimony then would appear for all the wrong reasons—which would make it just as irresponsible to the other as any distortion. This is what he claims when he says he writes for his mother: in one movement, he is speaking in the place of his mother, instead of her, as well as risking actually addressing her herself by speaking in the place of her. He condenses this into the following axiom: one always confesses the other.
To put this axiom a different way, the problem is how the fate of someone else can still depend on what it is impossible for one’s confession to produce, insofar as it is mine, insofar as I (or an I) have (or has) control over it: this impossibility being the chance that it produces testimony. And by saying this is a problem, I don’t mean that it is lamentable. It is, throughout “Circumfession,” precisely that which Derrida believes he must engage. To engage his confession here, in this problematic sphere beyond its being merely his confession, in a place not unlike that where he has to deal with a circumcision he himself had no control over or even knowledge of—to engage his confession in this sphere beyond his own guilty story is what he sees as the task and responsibility of confession. -- Mike Johnduff, /mikejohnduff.blogspot.com/
1. Part 1
2. Side 2
This extended interview with Jacques Derrida was conducted by John D. Caputo, Kevin Hart, and Yvonne Sherwood as the plenary session of the 2002 joint annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). The interview gives Derrida the opportunity to speak on a range of subjects from his secret life of prayer, to the Judeo-Christian heritage of deconstruction, to sacrifice, belief, faith, secularization, atheism, finitude, and beyond. But what pervades throughout is a certain feeling of anxiety, reserve, and humility, which to those already familiar with Derrida's work, should be of no surprise. However-given the audience at the annual meeting of the AAR/SBL, many of whom had long heard of Derrida but had never read him or seen him in person, given the reality of how Derrida's reception in the field of religious studies had come full circle from the original reading and employing of Derrida as the post-Enlightenment successor to the hermeneutics of suspicion to the more recent sentiment that positions Derrida as a quasi-Enlightenment pietist driven by an affirmative religious passion, and given the fact that it was only a short time afterward that Derrida would be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which meant that this would be one of his last major public appearances before his death in 2004-it is interesting to note Derrida's continued hesitation combined, as always, with a sense of urgency. Indeed, it was evident that Derrida knew his time was short. For instance, when discussing a midrash on Abraham and Abraham's relation with his two sons, Isaac and Ismael, and more broadly, the religio-political crisis in the Middle East, he states, "If I had time, I would go in that direction, in the direction of politics" (36). Not only was his time short, but Derrida also returns to a constant theme that runs throughout his work-namely, the limitation of language, the desire, even the need, to say the unsayable, but a persistent falling short, an indetermination, a state of undecidability that renders the line between belief/atheism and faith/skepticism indistinguishable. As Derrida said, "That's why being a believer, even a mystic believer, and being an atheist is not necessarily a different state of affairs" (37-38).
-- Jeffrey W. Robbins
[pages numbers from a transcript to the interview in Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments. Edited by Yvonne Sherwood and Kevin Hart. Routledge, 2005.]