Impossible Passions: Derrida and Negative Theology

By Ware, Owen | Philosophy Today, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

Impossible Passions: Derrida and Negative Theology


Ware, Owen, Philosophy Today


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If I said decisively: "I have seen God," that which I see would change. Instead of the inconceivable unknown-wildly free before me, leaving me wild and free before it-there would be a dead object and the thing of the theologian.

-Bataille1

Discussions on the relation between deconstruction and negative theology settle, for the most part, on speculative questions: i.e., questions pertaining to the status of the apophatic God "beyond being" versus the status of différance/khord "below" or "without" being. One of the virtues of John Caputo's book The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida is that it draws attention to the unique desires and passions informing apophatic and deconstructive discourses. Following Caputo, I will explore the differences and strange affinities between the apophatic desire for God and the Derridean passion for the impossible ("impossible" as that which surpasses and challenges the possible, in contrast with "impossible" as logical contradiction). I will argue that Derrida's passion differs from apophatic eros most radically at the point in which, for Derrida, the wholly other undercuts any distinction between divine and non-divine others. In this way, Derrida's conception of the radical singularity and alterity of the other blends the ethical (our love of humans) and the religious (our love of God) as allegedly distinct modes of thought or practice. This blending constitutes, in a single gesture, Derrida's passion as impossible and Derrida's passion for the impossible.

Two Passions For The Impossible

Differance/Hyperessentiality

In "How to Avoid Speaking: Denials," originally published in 1987, Derrida makes clear why he feels uneasy about negative theology, especially the writings of Dionysius. He is uneasy about Dionysius's promise "of such a presence given to intuition or vision . . . the vision of a dark light. . . . leading to union with God."2 While Derrida admits that the "detours, locutions, and syntax"3 of deconstruction and negative theology intersect to the point of being indistinguishable, he is emphatic that deconstruction is not a precursor to mystical experience. Derrida's mode of deconstruction, rather, exposes the non-origin and non-closure of language, the constitutive play of différance with-in and in-between speech. Deconstructive discourse always operates on the edge of language and always risks the unintelligibility of silence, but the silence of deconstruction is not divine. The mute, terrifying form of silence deconstruction encounters is not that of a transcendent God, but of a singular monstrosity constantly disrupting discourse, of an elusive limit that places Derrida's texts "at the edge of the abyss, of madness and of silence."4

For Derrida, différance is a pure absence, a desert-like, empty space, much like Plato's description of khora as the empty receptacle of matter in Timaeus.5 In his essay "Khora," Derrida asks: "won't the discourse on khora have opened, between the sensible and the intelligible, belonging neither to one nor to the other, hence neither to the cosmos as sensible god nor to the intelligible god, an apparently empty space, even though it is no doubt not emptiness?"6 The notion of "something" that is not nothing, almost nothing, hovering between a thing and no-thing, is one of the most common motifs in Derrida's writing career. It is, as we have already suggested with the différance/khora couplet, the way in which Derrida describes the differing and deferring permutations of discourse.

The "neither/nor" logic Derrida employs to gesture towards différance places the language of deconstruction in close proximity to negative theology, which often describes God as neither being nor non-being. But Derrida argues that différance lacks nomination because it is thoroughly emptied of any fixed centre, not because it exceeds the finite structure of discourse. …

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