catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 24 :: 2013.12.27 — 2014.01.09


“The Word became flesh,” and why Derrida can’t do a thing about it

The pattern of life for a graduate student, I’ve learned, involves going in feeling like you’re there because you know everything, and coming out wondering how you’ll ever be able to live authentically now that you understand how little you know. Actually, “authenticity” is one of those things that we question pretty frequently in English departments; personhood is largely seen as a mimetic construct, a colony of ideas all engaged in a microcosmic Darwinian war for procreation. Thoughts are parasites, and we are just walking bags for the things.

This is probably why we’re all about “rhetoric.” Arguments aren’t about proof, they’re about persuasion, all the way down to the ways we gather evidence and build our mechanisms. In a lot of ways, we are our arguments.

Jacques Derrida pursued this line of thinking and said that everything is comprised of differences. Language operates on a mechanism of deferral — a house is not-a-mansion, or not-a-hut; a bush is not-a-tree, and so on. As such, nothing truly has its being outside of these systems of difference, and he viewed the human condition as the attempt to reduce these differences. Indeed, he saw all of Western history and philosophy — “metaphysics” — as one long attempt at reducing what he called trace: the undecideable free play of these differences on which every word is based.

In a lot of ways, he’s right. There are few things which don’t seem to fall under his indictment. However, there’s this sense in which the idea of “life as difference” is missing something; I would call it the paradox of potentiality. For Derrida says that “metaphysics” are any attempt to reduce difference. This is one of the reasons why he privileges writing over speech, because writing maintains a distance between communicants that speech tries to overcome. But the fact is that, once a word is uttered, it demands a response. It demands to be understood, to be dialogued over. In Derrida’s economy, the purest form of play becomes silence: the potential for utterance, for meaning. Instantiating play in an utterance reduces its potentials and opportunities. Meanwhile, Mikhail Bakhtin says that the only way for those differences to ever be observed, the only way for words to engage their potentials, is to utter them, to make them concrete, to work at making them understood. Discourse is give-and-take, and the only way to understand the distance between two concepts is in that very attempt to reduce them, to bring them into proximity. This is the essence of dialogue: to, in the face of undecideability and incomprehension, to yet risk an utterance.

Which makes the Incarnation, to me, more sublime a thing than it’s ever been before. Remember the rhetoric of the Johannine scriptures: Christ as λόγος: “In the beginning, the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning, and without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:1). Christ is the embodied rhetoric of God. Christ is the instantiated polemic of the Divine on a redemptive mission. Jesus is God’s dialogue with us, the risks of his utterance, given flesh: “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side” (John 20:27).

“His first coming was to fulfill his plan of love, to teach us by gentle persuasion,” says Cyril of Jerusalem. This is what we call Jesus’ ministry, his life on earth, a ministry of “gentle persuasion,” but this is reductive — Christ is the mission and the persuasion itself, and the gentleness is not in the words alone but in the touch and the presence and the tone.

Derrida, as a hedonist, knew this in some way: given his thoughts on language, he knew that the only truly immanent form of communication was immediate, bodily presence. While he’s a philosophical hero of mine, I do love to imagine him balking over this one, over a God who doesn’t capitulate to his reduction of “metaphysics.” The Embodied Word, the walking, laughing Gentle Persuasion, that breathing, heart-beating human whom Calvin called God’s “baby talk” to us: what else could so totally reduce trace? What could so reduce the infinite difference between God and Creation as the immediate proximity, the bodily immanence, of the very words that would keep us apart? How else can we respond, when the Almighty risks speaking thus?

Derrida said that, by his philosophy, “the name of God…is the name of indifference itself.” Thanks be to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for his indifference: for he insisted on being no different from us.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus