Monday, November 2, 2009

Gift Exchange

I've just finished the first section of a book called The Gift of Death, and want to put a few things down on keys before I forget what it's about. Since I've been dealing a bit with religion here, I figure this is as good a place as any.

Derrida hangs his first chapter on a reading of Jan Patočka's Heretical Essays on the History of Philosophy. Patocka is telling the story of the journey from the ancient demonic orgiastic, through Platonism, into Christianity. This is the history of responsibility, which is written as identical to freedom (that is, you cannot be responsible for your actions if you are not free, and you cannot be free to choose unless you are made responsible for your choice.) Platonic philosophy incorporates and subordinates the orgiastic by theorizing the "soul" (which we might read as a subject separate from the body, or desubjectified), which is introduced to responsibility by its relation to "the abstract Good," a similarly extra-objective essence. Christianity in turn reverses and represses (and therefore also retains) the Platonic model by introducing the mysterium tremendum, the terrifying mystery of God, whose gaze arrests us, but who is always outside our own vision. The gaze of God (strangely Derrida avoids the term "God") arrests us not from without, but internally, and replaces (incompletely and in excess) Plato's "Good" (it exceeds the Good both in its capacity to elude witness and in its ability to judge).

It is with the Good that we become immortal, or rather that we gain death as a gift. Patocka says "Platonic 'conversion' makes the gaze upon the Good itself possible. This gaze is immutable, eternal like the Good... It is, for the first time in history, an immortality of the individual, since it is interior, since it is inseparable from its own fulfillment. The Platonic doctrine of the immortality of the soul is the result of a confrontation between the orgiastic and responsibility." (114, 12 in Derrida) Immortality is granted through identification with the Good. Christianity retains immortality, but the direction of the Gaze is reversed: we, our souls, are the objects.

Too, Plato's constitution of the soul, and Christianity's borrowing of this constituted concept, amounts to a new relation to death, a vigilance over and anticipation of death, and as a result the soul, the subject, becomes a philosopher: "Philosophy isn't something that comes to the soul by accident, for it is nothing other than this vigil over death that watches out for death and watches over death, as if over the very life of the soul. The psyche of life, as breath of life, as pneuma, only appears out of this concerned anticipation of dying." (15) This comes as a result of the responsibility/freedom afforded the soul by its new relation to the Good, and later to the gaze of God.

Now for Patocka, the point of this exploration is to uncover the reason for the decline of European civilization. Tacitly taking a cue from postmodernists, Patocka points to WWII, where we lost so much (Patocka was born in 1907, so this means quite a bit more for him than it possibly could for me). The loss Patocka is interested in is the front, the zone of combat where two opposing sides meet and become one: "the loss of the frong [:]...the disappearance of this confrontation which allowed one to identify the enemy and even and especially to identify with the enemy. After the Second World War, as Patocka might say in the manner of Carl Schmitt, one loses the image or face of the enemy, one loses the war and perhaps, from then on, the very possibility of politics." (19)

This is disturbing indeed. On the one hand, I am sympathetic; we can read the above quotation as identifying a change in government technology, in the sense that changes in the manner of conducting war--conducting war without fronts--prevent the domestic population and members of the army from identifying with the enemy (though I suspect this is more a question of creating a mythic history of the front than about identifying a substantive change in our ability to relate to those for whose deaths we vote). On the other hand, this hypothesizes our mode of warfare as determining the moral quality of civilization, rather than supposing that our capacity for war--rather than the style in which we conduct it--indicates an inadequacy in our politics of morality.

Patocka's solution is equally disturbing: he suggests that the decline of European civilization can be stemmed not simply by a return to or resurgence of Christianity, but by a more complete thematization of it, which is to say by actually becoming Christian (which to date, he seems to say, we have not quite yet done). Derrida explores the implications of this call by examining the paradox of responsibility, since Patocka's claim is that Christianity, through the mysterium tremendum, is the ultimate avenue for responsibility. Now on the one hand, responsibility is necessarily a question of knowledge, "For if it is true that the concept of responsibility has, in the most reliable continuity of its history, always implied involvement n action, doing, a praxis, a decision that exceeds simple conscience or simple theoretical understanding, it is also true that the same concept requires a decision or responsible action to answer for itself consciously, that is, with knowledge of a thematics of what is done..." (25) However, because the link between theory and practice is irreducible, responsibility will always function outside of knowledge: "It will have to decide without it, independently from knowledge; that will be the condition of a practical idea of freedom. We should therefore conclude that not only is the thematization of the concept of responsibility always inadequate but that it is always so because it must be so." (26) I'm getting a little muddled down in the text, but we might summarize by saying that responsibility relies on knowledge to function, but must operate independently of knowledge (which is theoretical, not empirical--this is a Kantian distinction, and runs contrary to certain more conventional definitions of knowledge), or else our actions become pre-programmed, a mere result of circumstances and therefore neither free nor responsible in the sense meant by Patocka.

It is bed time, so I won't track down the last bit of this thread--though I expect it would do better to read the next chapter and see if Derrida himself elaborates it further. I will end with a tangentially related quotation that Patocka takes from Durkheim:

The aptitude of society for setting itself up as a god or for creating gods was never more apparent than during the first years of the French Revolution. At the time, in fact, under the influence of the general enthusiasm, things purely laical by nature were transformed by public opinion into sacred things: these were the Fatherland, Liberty, Reason. (22)

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