Derrida's Gift to Eco/theo/logy: A Critical Tribute

By Manolopoulos, Mark | Cross Currents, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Derrida's Gift to Eco/theo/logy: A Critical Tribute


Manolopoulos, Mark, Cross Currents


Derrida is dead. While the philosopher considered death a gift (The Gift of Death, 1995), he found it hard to accept existentially. (1) I, for one, certainly relate to Derrida's refusal of death: try as I might, I find it difficult (perhaps impossible) to accept death as a gift--except, perhaps, by ecologically interpreting it as a way of making room for the coming of other-than-human and human others. Try as I might, I find it difficult to move beyond the Christian dogma of death as the fatal consequence of Edenic sin: this dubious notion is difficult to abandon because orthodoxy leaves a stain more stubborn than sin.

And so, upon Derrida's death, one could very appropriately consider the gift of mortality, but let us consider instead Derrida's gift of rethinking the gift per se, and how this refiguring has opened up a way of ecotheologically reconsidering the gift of creation. Upon Derrida's death, we leave for others the gift of his thanatos and consider instead his gift of thinking the gift anew, and how this renewed reconfiguration may be a gift to the Earth itself.

For those unfamiliar with the recent controversy over the gift, this is how it all began: in typically scandalous French-postmodern fashion, Derrida's Given Time (1992) brought to our attention the fact that the gift is a problem, a paradox, a contradiction. (2) Why is gifting--which is surely one of our most treasured and apparently straightforward practices--a problem or aporia? While the gift is ordinarily understood as that which is given gratuitously (without condition) and recognized as such, there is nevertheless always an exchange of some kind, ranging from responses like gratitude, thanksgiving, counter-gifting, indebtedness, and so on. (3) Exchange marks all three aspects of gifting: giver, gift, and recipient. To begin with, the giver receives something in return: be it another gift, gratitude, self-congratulation, or even hostility--for even displeasure or rejection gives back to the gift-giver their identity. (4) On the part of the recipient, the mere recognition of the gift is enough to bring it into circularity. It may lead to a countergift or a sense of obligation. The gift-thing itself likewise does not escape exchange economy. Whether it is a thing, an intention, a value, or a symbol, it is nevertheless identified as a gift and this recognition brings it into the circle of return. If the gift is not identified as such, then it would perhaps elude the circle, but then it would no longer be phenomenally recognized as such. Derrida muses: "There must be chance, encounter, the involuntary, even unconsciousness or disorder, and there must be intentional freedom, and these two conditions must--miraculously, graciously--agree with each other." (5) An aporia, indeed.

Giving credit where credit's due, I would propose that Derrida's originality lies not so much with a "discovery" of the gift's irreducible duality, but with his rigorous philosophical articulation of what, I suspect, many of us have known or intuited all along (and I return to this recognition in a moment): that the gift is not so pure or unconditional, or, perhaps more accurately, that it is both "pure" (conditional, reciprocal) and "impure" (conditional, circular). Expectation and exchange, on the one hand, coincide with autonomy and gratuity, on the other. As annoying as it may sound to minds bred on the logic of the either/or (Aristotle lives on), the gift evidently appears to be an irresolvable paradox or aporia constituted by two irreducibly contradictory or heterogeneous (sets of) elements.

Entangled in the Gift-Aporia

The gift's aporeticity (doublesidedness, heterogeneity) expresses itself as a discontinuity and entanglement both in our lived experience and on the level of theory. I think most of us (perhaps all of us) have at some time felt somewhat tense about the tension between the gift's discordant elements of excess and exchange. …

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