Interfaith Dialogue, 1240

Putting a book on trial?  That’s exactly what happened in the 13th-century trial in which King Louis IX of France decided to hold a trial prosecuting the Talmud, a central book for rabbinic Judaism.  Many documents from that trial have been translated and are available in a new book, The Trial of the Talmud: Paris, 1240.

The book lost that trial.  However, the trial still holds relevant lessons for cultural contact and interfaith dialogue today.  One of the main lessons is that interfaith dialogue puts too much emphasis on…dialogue.  Peaceful religious coexistence is not always the result of dialogue or conversation.  Instead of aiming at mutual understanding, where both parties have a proper knowledge of one another, it could be helpful to let different parties differ.  Instead of hermeneutics , deconstruction (I’m siding with Derrida in the Gadamer-Derrida exchange).

Instead of religious coexistence facilitated with dialogue, I’m more interested in religious coexistence facilitated sans dialogue, indeed, sans voir, sans avoir, sans savoir.   This resonates with some of Michael Schulson’s comments on the new translation of the documents from the 1240 trial.

[I]ntellectual examination can actually interfere with the daily realities of religious coexistence. Above all, religious groups need to be respected, and to see that someone is making an active effort to coexist with them. Listening is important, for sure. But some of the details of religious traditions don’t make for easy hearing. To repurpose an old saying about marriage: in interfaith relationships, it’s wise to be a little deaf.

Coexistence, not through dialogue and vision, but through a touch of deafness and blindness.

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Place in Whitehead, Deleuze, Derrida

Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida each discuss place by engaging, among other things, the discourse on chora (“place”) in Plato’s Timaeus, where chora is described as a “third thing” that is neither sensible (matter) nor intelligible (form), but a generative relational matrix that organizes and disturbs form/matter interactions.  The recoveries of chora at work in these thinkers draw on their related concepts of creativity (Whitehead), difference-in-itself (Deleuze), and différance (Derrida).  As a locus of creative differences, chora supports their respective efforts to transform or overcome Platonism and its form/matter hierarchy, thereby making room for understandings of place as exceeding the limits of dualistic hierarchies.

This fall, I’ll be presenting papers on this topic on a couple different  occasions, including the 5th annual meeting of the Pacific Association for the Continental Tradition (PACT) in San Francisco and the 17th annual meeting of the International Association for Environmental Philosophy (IAEP, pronounced like “yep”) in Eugene, Oregon.  I’ll discuss the specific ways in which Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida each interprets chora and how those interpretations are indicative of complementary yet antagonistic possibilities for understanding and responding to actual places.  Instead of taking sides, I claim that those possibilities are at their most relevant and compelling when they are brought into a complex contrast with one another.

For Whitehead and Deleuze, chora is described in terms of a positive becoming, whereas Derrida writes about chora as an excluded or marginalized alterity.  Those different accounts reflect different conceptions of transcendence and immanence.  While Derrida maintains a Levinasian tendency to privilege the transcendence of alterity, Deleuze is committed to immanence, notwithstanding their respective attempts to deconstruct transcendental signifieds and liberate events from transcendence/immanence binaries.  Whitehead resolves the opposition by conceiving of a mutually implicative relationship between transcendence and immanence (in theological terms, panentheism).

Although each of these thinkers intends to affirm an ethical commitment to place, that does not necessarily translate into a commitment to some actual place(s).  For instance, Derrida affirms the ethically compelling alterity of place, including human and nonhuman others associated with place, and he does so with much attention to language and ontology but relatively little engagement in natural sciences, thus compromising his ability to account for some specificities of actual places.  That contrasts with the evolutionary and cosmological repetitions of chora given by the more scientifically inclined Whitehead and Deleuze, for whom the task of understanding and responding to places requires an integration of speculative metaphysics with empirical inquiry.  A crucial contrast between Whitehead and Deleuze is that the latter tends to undermine the specificity of actual places by explaining actual entities in terms of an underlying field of virtual multiplicities.  More pluralistically, Whitehead’s ontological principle affirms that actual entities are irreducibly real, such that a place is a field of becoming not in the sense of an underlying virtual field but in the sense of a dynamic network of actual entities in mutually constitutive relations.

This is not to say that Whitehead’s recovery of chora is better than Derrida’s or Deleuze’s.  Whitehead is more attentive to the specificities of actual places.  However, his “God” and “eternal objects” might unnecessarily complicate empirical inquiries, in contrast to Deleuze’s immanent experiments with chora, which are more affirmative of the non-teleological and self-organizing capacities of places.  Among these three thinkers, Derrida is perhaps most well-suited for discerning ways in which different (undecidable) determinations of place involve exclusions and negations, which constitute and disturb the boundaries of language, reason, gender, and species.  In sum, I hope to convey some ways in which Whitehead, Deleuze, and Derrida contribute to knowledge of and ethical responses to actual places, with the unique benefits and limitations of those contributions becoming apparent amid the creative differences between them.

Deconstruction and Buddhism: The Mohel and Manjusri

Although I’m not a specialist in Buddhist studies, Buddhist discourses and practices are definitely included among my general research interests.  One of the things I’ve been following for years now is the developing relationship between Buddhism and deconstruction (specifically Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction).  The groundbreaking work to forge that relationship came in 1984 with the publication of Derrida on the Mend, by Robert Magliola.  For Magliola, the Buddhism-deconstruction encounter is staged through a comparative analysis that shows a lot of affinities between Derrida and Nagarjuna (a “founder” of the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism, the path of the middle way).  Subsequently, Magliola’s work has been a key reference point for further discussion.

Along with Magliola’s text, another important resource is Harold Coward’s Derrida and Indian Philosophy (1990), which situates Magliola’s Derrida-Nagarjuna comparison within the broader context of Indian philosophies.  Coward focuses too much on speech (a typical problem for deconstructionists), but there are some good chapters connecting Derrida not only with Nagarjuna but also with nondual Vedanta of Shankara and the evolutionary spirituality of Aurobindo.

It is interesting to note that Magliola and Coward published their works before Derrida’s ethico-religious turn (before the messianic without a messianism, before the apocalypse sans apocalypse, before his allusive piece on religion for a conference on the island of Capri, before the regular reiteration of tout autre est tout autre).  The writings from the last decade of Derrida’s life are much closer to Judaism than Buddhism, making him look more like a “young Jewish saint” (Cixous) than Nagarjuna, or in other terms, more like a mohel than Manjusri.  This doesn’t mean that there is nothing left to say about Buddhism and deconstruction.  Quite the opposite.  Derrida’s religiously oriented writings provide even more points of Buddhodeconstructive contact.  Along those lines, one of my ‘forthcoming’ books is titled The Mohel and Manjusri.

Much has been written in this century on Buddhism and deconstruction.  Some of it still stays with language and semiotics, as in Youxuan Wang, Buddhism and Deconstruction: A Comparative Semiotics (2001).  Other works focus more on ethics and religion, like the essays in Deconstruction and the Ethical in Asian Thought, edited by Youru Wang (2007).  That anthology includes discussions of Derridean and Levinasian ethics in relation to ethics in Buddhism and other Asian religious traditions.

Another notable anthology that highlights ethico-religious dimensions of the Buddhism-deconstruction encounter is Buddhisms and Deconstructions, edited by Jin Y. Park (2006).  That book includes an afterword by Magliola, reflecting on how the dialogue between Buddhism and deconstruction has developed in the decades since his groundbreaking work on the topic.  Park has subsequently become the most prolific and influential writer on this topic, with the wide reception of Buddhisms and Deconstructions along with her articulation of a Buddhist postmodern ethics in Buddhism and Postmodernity (2008).  As the latter title indicates, Park is extending the discussion beyond Buddhist connections to Derrida/deconstruction to the wider field of Buddhist connections to postmodern philosophy.  This extension is further evident in her work with Gereon Kopf editing the anthology, Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism (2009).

In close proximity to this whole discussion of Buddhism and deconstruction is the Kyoto School of Japanese philosophy, which brought continental philosophy into contact with Buddhism starting in the early twentieth century with Kitaro Nishida.  My own thinking has been deeply influenced by the Kyoto philosopher Keiji Nishitani, who studied under Heidegger for a short time before completing his PhD at Kyoto University (his dissertation is on Bergson and Schelling).  I’m far from catching up on recent research regarding the Kyoto school, but I’m looking forward to checking out the anthology Japanese and Continental Philosophy: Conservations with the Kyoto School (2011), edited by Bret Davis, Brian Schroeder, and Jason Wirth.  Quot libros quam breve tempus!

For 2012: Hegel and a New World to Come

Close to what, for some, is a date inscribed with an apocalyptic script, I’m reminded of Derrida’s comment that we will never be done reading and rereading Hegel.

“Besides, it is not difficult to see that ours is a birth-time and a period of transition to a new era. Spirit has broken with the world it has hitherto inhabited and imagined, and is of a mind to submerge it in the past, and in the labour of its own transformation. Spirit is indeed never at rest but always engaged in moving forward. But just as the first breath drawn by a child after its long, quiet nourishment breaks the gradualness of merely quantitative growth—there is a qualitative leap, and the child is born—so likewise the Spirit in its formation matures slowly and quietly into its new shape, dissolving bit by bit the structure of its previous world, whose tottering state is only hinted at by isolated symptoms. The frivolity and boredom which unsettle the established order, the vague foreboding of something unknown, these are the heralds of approaching change. The gradual crumbling that left unaltered the face of the whole is cut short by a sunburst which, in one flash, illuminates the features of the new world.”

—“Preface” to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit

An Ethical Person

I’ve just started a summer semester, and I’m teaching environmental ethics.  What continues to strike me is how difficult it is to get people to recognize that they need to study ethics.  In terms of the Socratic axiom, it’s difficult to get people to realize that their ethical life needs examining.  So many people think that they already act ethically and that their current understanding of ethical relatedness is sufficient. 

If we think or feel that we’re already ethical enough, not only are we difficult students to teach, we are profoundly irresponsible.  I would simply say that the difference between an ethical and unethical person is that the ethical person knows that it’s impossible to be ethical.  This reminds me of Avital Ronell’s comments on ethics in the film Examined Life.

This is something that Derrida has taught.  If you feel that you’ve acquitted yourself honorably, then you’re not so ethical.  If you have a good conscience, then you’re kind of worthless.  […] The responsible being is one who thinks they’ve never been responsible enough, they’ve never taken care enough of the Other. 

This is “ethics under erasure,” as the new book on Derrida puts it.  The responsible person is responsible without responsibility, cultivating ethics without ethics (or ethics “against ethics,” as Jack Caputo might say).