SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Reviewed by: Joeri Schrijvers (North-West University Potchefstroom, South Africa)
I came to this book because of the back cover’s promise that “for Derrida, salutation, greeting and welcoming is resistant to the economy of salvation”. Having written a book myself on the topic of greetings and salutations—a book that contested precisely this claim—I could not not be intrigued. There is no doubt that the salut, and especially the ‘salut sans salvation’ plays a central role in Jacques Derrida’s later writings. In fact, it would be really hard to doubt whether, for Derrida, this little word ‘salut’ could ever be sufficiently resistant to the economy of the salvation: many of his writings in effect question whether it is, for us late moderns, possible at all to distance ourselves from Christianity or any other matter that speaks of salvation.
Yet Saghafi promises (the promise being a salvific remainder in itself) to give us just this. In seven chapters and a prologue, all in one way or another devoted to mourning the death of the other, which arguably is the book’s main concern, Saghafi explores what happens when the other greets us and what happens when this no longer occurs—on the occasion of the other’s death for instance. The author is quite clear that a personal event had interrupted his writing: “a heartrending, ravaging event in ‘my’ world led me, forced me, in my grief” (xxiii, also 137, n.19) to think about these themes of mourning and departure—the latter theme inspired, though, by Jean-Luc Nancy, one of the other protagonists of the book. It is true that the death of the other is no small matter, not for Derrida, and not for any one of us. Derrida, in brief, claimed that the other’s death is not a ‘part’ of the world that disappears but that with the death of the other—every other—no less than an entire world crumbles.
The book argues that “Derrida’s taking up of the notion of ‘the end of the world’ […] dictates an engagement with the thought of salut, for if the death of the other—a parting—signifies the end of the world, this departure then necessitates, stressing the perfomative, a salut-ation” (xxvii). How to address the other once she has left and gone to ‘the other side’ and how, if so, does she greet us ‘from wherever she is’ (referring to Derrida’s final note saluting his audience at the gravesite ‘smiling at us from wherever he might be’)?
The first chapter comments on Derrida’s reading of Paul Celan’s verse ‘the world is gone, I must carry you’. One is reminded here of Ludwig Binswanger’s account of the death of the lover: when my lover dies, our relationship depends on me, and on the few friends that are similarly left behind. It is we who will have to carry (out) our relationship. Our love, the love between my lover and me, is upon the occasion of her death, in my hands entirely. Derrida’s comments on our mortal condition make us aware that it is only through our dealings with the other that there is world in the first place. We carry the world, in a sense, through and for the other. If the other is gone, the world no longer makes sense and one might rightly say: it is the end of the world—the world is gone indeed. Throughout the book teases out some of Derrida’s more familiar themes in his last seminar The Beast and the Sovereign, reception of which is only now beginning. Saghafi carefully reads into this seminar’s interpretation of ‘carrying the other’ a “remarkable description of an experience” (12). It is with this experience that Saghafi’s book will close.
Chapter two introduces to the debate between Derrida and Nancy. Where Derrida states that the reason for religion is to provide a safe space for the living, a promise that they’ll be safe and intact, Nancy’s notion of what is intact differs. It is for Nancy only the dead body, which for him attains a certain completion, a state of ‘being finished’, that is intact. Nothing can happen to or arrive for the dead. Derrida’s account of religion mentions that the sanctity, which provides and promises that the living will be safe and intact, assumes itself a position of perfect integrity: the holy is what will remain untouched—it is ‘at a distance’ and is what will save us without itself feeling the need to be saved. Yet to know about this safe haven over there, about this instance that is set apart from all the rest, some mediation is needed. This is what Derrida calls the “law of tact” (25). In a language echoing the tradition, one would need to say that the divine must first have ‘touched’ us whilst so instructing us not to touch the divine, that is, not to grasp, comprehend it in its immediacy. Saghafi adds: “what is tact but ‘knowing how to touch without touching’” (25, quoting Le toucher, 82). The tactful advance of what is saintly needs to be reciprocated similarly, on the part of us humans, with tact. One is reminded of the beginning of The Animal that therefore I am, where Derrida notes that reticence and restraint are at the origin of the religious attitude: Bellérophon is admonished not to expose and make public the nudity of a women imposing herself, which he had, of course, had already seen. Bellérophon needs to ‘unsee’ what he has seen and ‘untouch’ what had touched him. The latter movement Derrida calls the drive for immunity: to leave untouched what has touched us.
Both Derrida and Nancy here take Christic scenes from the gospels, particularly of Jesus’ supposed resurrection, as figurative of how we today could approach the question of death. Christ’s frequent insistence of touching the sick, for instance, illuminates the law of tact. Nancy has responded to Derrida’s stance in his Noli me tangere, insisting, for his part, on what remains (and needs to remain untouched) in these scenes. Well-known are the examples of the risen Christ ‘not to touch’ him—’for I will be with you for not much longer’. For Nancy, this departure of the Christ is a figure for the parting that we all experience, witness (and eventually undergo) in this span of eighty odd years granted to us. Christ so presents “the infinite continuation of death” (29 quoting Noli me tangere, 17) to us. For Nancy, what is untouched is what is intact and which will no longer touch. What remains with and for the living is the persistence of death and departure of everything which surrounds us. This is what Nancy’s secular notion of anastasis intends to convey: it is the attitude of the men and women who have seen death in life and are ‘still standing’. Derrida will however fiercely critique Nancy’s, well, stance, because this secular account of resurrection for Derrida cannot sufficiently distance this secular ‘salut sans salvation’ from its religious counterpart and will therefore continue to console and save. A deconstruction of Christianity as Nancy proposes is destined to repeat Christianity in its very gestures.
Chapter three focuses on Derrida’s deconstruction of death. Here Saghafi discusses Derrida’s Aporias where the latter questions the most common “figure” of death, namely as “the crossing of the line between existence and non-existence (45): one moment you’re here and the next moment you’re not. Noteworthy here is the parallel between death and the event: “both are unpredictable, radically other, lack a horizon, and come as an absolute surprise” (48). Death, for Derrida, is the great unknown: one cannot even say, with certainty, that through death one crosses a threshold between one place and the other or that one moves from one state to the other. Death, then, is not a threshold, not what crosses a threshold “but rather what affects the very experience of the threshold itself” (47, quoting Aporias, 34): death is no longer that instance that separates life from death, existence from non-existence but that skandalon that is ‘already here’ whilst ‘being over there’ and utterly other. Concretely this would mean that the living, somewhat like Nancy also argues, need to learn to live with death in the midst of their lives already. Like Heidegger, death for Derrida is not something that will happen later—’eventually’—but what happens ‘first and foremost’ to others; on the contrary, death is already here to the point of being the condition of a meaningful life. Life then is itself (a form of) dying constantly. It is, in short, a “living of death” (50, quoting H.C For Life, 89) while dying alive—a factum for a mortal being that is dying, ‘coming closer to death’ general opinion would say at every point in time. Saghafi states it nicely: “”the finitude of Dasein does not mean that it will die one day, but that is exists as dying” (85). Derrida’s difficult idea somewhat resembles the more popular opinion that it is only because of our mortality that life makes sense and that we undertake actions at all (an echo of which one, in turn, can found in John D. Caputo’s recent works).
Chapter four focuses on Nancy’s take on resurrection as ‘anastasis’. Nancy is quite clear that he seeks to retrieve the nonreligious meaning of resurrection, a sense utterly secular and mundane. In a text devoted to Maurice Blanchot—’Consolation, Desolation,’ part of Dis-enclosure—Nancy, Saghafi argues, responds to Derrida’s objection mentioned above. Nancy insists that no consolation is at issue here. At times one has the impression of a race between Derrida and Nancy to interpret death as the utmost foreign instance. For Nancy for instance the dead do not leave something behind as if something of them would remain in a certain place (64). One wonders whether Nancy is thinking of the place Derrida mentioned at his salutary note. On the contrary, Nancy argues, the dead do not depart to somewhere, we just “enter into the movement of leave-taking” (64, referring to Partir-le départ, 46): the dead one is the one who never stops leaving us (without a place to go to or to return from).
Here Nancy meets, in a way, Derrida again. For if the dead friend in a sense never stops leaving us (however painful), it is up to us to keep the dead alive. This is possible from out of a peculiar sensibility Nancy argues: “as soon as I name the dead one […] I grant her another life” (71). Another example might be the phone calls people make to the voicemails of deceased loved ones. This address and salutation is something we would need to think about when pursuing this sensibility. Yet it is not the end of religion, as Saghafi at the beginning of his book seems to imply, it might instead be its very beginning—no thought of salvation would perhaps ever occur without these salutes. In any case, this is where Nancy’s stance toward death arrives: “relations do not die” (71, referring to Adoration 92). There remains something of our relations to the dead as long as we speak about or address our dead ones. Again we find these difficult thinkers approaching a thought that has passed into cultural knowledge. A strange consequence of this kind of resurrection is, of course, that such a resurrection no longer befalls the good and the saintly only but the wicked ones just as well (and perhaps even more): after all, people still speak about (and thus relate to) Adolf Hitler too—an insight I owe to William Desmond, who mentioned this to me already a long time ago.
Saghafi concludes the chapter with mentioning that Nancy, somewhat oddly and unexpectedly, mentions “an unheard-of place” (72 in Adoration, 92) in which one could somehow encounter the (dead) other. It is clear then that both Nancy and Derrida are partaking in a thought of “the beyond of death” (74), however secular they are or wanted to be. With this, Saghafi suggestively and also somewhat provocatively, asks: “Would it be a strange hypothesis to suggest that Nancy’s [is] a reading of Derrida’s seminar The Beast and the Sovereign, 2?” (74). There is, to my knowledge, no direct reference to this seminar in Nancy’s most recent works.
Chapter five discusses Martin Hägglund’s recent interpretation of Derrida in his book Radical Atheism. It is safe to say that Saghafi is not a fan of Hägglund, who refuses to see any ethical or religious turn in Derrida’s thinking, whereas Saghafi’s account of Derrida’s deconstruction of death rather sees in Derrida a secular account of the ‘beyond’ of death, a ‘dying alive’ that, even though it might be a phantasm is no less real. The desire for survival can therefore not be, as Hägglund has it, a mere desire to live on, as long as possible, until our deaths. Saghafi does not spare harsh words when it comes to Hägglund: his work is supposed to be “shorn of subtlety, elegance and complexity” (79 and esp. 154, n.4).
There is a lot to say about Derrida’s atheism, but the best lines come from Derrida himself. Saghafi quotes from Penser ce qui vient (80), a talk given at the Sorbonne in 1994 just after the publication of Spectres of Marx. Here Derrida beautifully says that he is an atheist “who remembers God and who loves to remember God”. The quote is sufficient already to question Hägglund’s indeed rather straightforward account of a rudimentary—Dawkins-like—radical atheism in Derrida. Derrida knew very well what damage a thought of the absolute can do; yet he knew, similarly, that there is, as Nancy has it in Adoration, a genuine need for the absolute and that it, here and there, has done some good too.
Saghafi agrees with Hägglund that there is an “infinite finitude” to be detected in Derrida, but he differs from Hägglund’s interpretation about how the phantasm of infinity from out of finitude is to be conceived. With Geoffrey Bennington’s classic Derridabase, Saghafi states that différance has given us to think “the inextricable complication of the finite and the infinite” (83-4) just as it complicates, as we have seen, the boundaries between life and death. This complication, for Derrida, has an odd consequence: if our mortal condition is such that we exist and are alive as dying then death is the end of this possibility of dying. When dead, my possibility to die (alive, continuously) has come to an end. By dying, I stop dying alive. This also means that, as long as we are not dead, we are in effect “essentially survivors” (91, quoting Politics of Friendship, 8) like one says after a hard day of work that we have survived another day.
These subtleties aside, it is time to ask: from whence the phantasm of infinity in these mortal lives of ours? From what experience, say, a phenomenologist (which Derrida also was) might start? If we are here only ‘for a little while’, as Heidegger would have said, how does this while, this span between birth and death, this delay, this lapse and deferment of death—terms that are all linked to Derrida’s French sursis—dream up something of the infinite? For these questions, chapter 6 turns to Michael Naas’ magnificent Miracle and Machine (2012) and its elaborate discussion of survival and living on: “Derrida did not believe that we live on somewhere else or that we live again […] While we are not resurrected for another life […] ‘we’ do survive or live on for a time after death” (99, quoting Miracle and Machine, 270). What is this ‘for a time’ and in what sense goes it grant us a sort of delay from death? Saghafi here offers a reading of the second seminar on The Beast and the Sovereign: “Survivre does not refer to a state of life after demise […] but to a reprieve, an afterlife that is more than life or more life still” (100). General opinion would have: gone but not forgotten.
Derrida came to this idea, one might argue, through his idea of the originary trace and the traces we leave on, say, post-cards, in letters, home-movies and so on. There is something awkward about writing a few lines in a book, for instance, once one realizes that it is likely that these lines might survive my own very being and will be read by someone, likely a loved one, long after my demise. These traces of what I was, then, might even occur grief and pain on the other’s part (or joy if these few lines were funny). In that sense, these traces are ‘my’ survival and are already, in a sense, left there in this book, on this post-card, for the other. This ‘curvature of intersubjective’ space, to allude to Levinas, is present for Derrida in all friendly relations. One might even say that if I am not ready to mourn your loss, I am not really your friend either. This means that, from the very beginning, the possibility of loss is present in friendly and loving relations: the possibility that he or she parts and that one of us will have to mourn about this demise is always present. Yet the loss of the friend, as we have seen, is not the loss of the friendship altogether, except that he, she or me will have to carry the relationship forward. Friendship, Derrida says, “is promised to ‘testamentary revenance, the haunting return of […] more (no more) life’” (103, quoting Politics of Friendship, 3)—Derrida’s plus de vie means both no more life and more life. All this, of course, signifies that for Derrida “surviving begins before death and not merely after it. [Life] itself is originarily survival” (104). Since the infinite dying will always persist, we will always (at least for a while) be survivors of the other. In this way, Derrida takes the idea of a testamentary revenance to an ontological level.
Chapter six turns to Derrida’s treatment of the phantasm of living death, mostly through Derrida’s reading of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in, again, The Beast and the Sovereign 2. With the phantasm, Derrida (and Saghafi) are trying to understand “the phantasm of infinitization at the heart of finitude” (36, quoting Death Penalty 1, 259). Such a phantasm, in no way, can be separated from the real as the metaphysical tradition was wont to do. On the contrary, the phantasm (although dreamed up and imagined) is what exercises a power over us, what makes things happen (or not). It is this hold over us, of the idea of the infinite and of infinitization more general (which happens most often, these days, in the repetitive machine-like bad infinity of consumption culture) that Derrida sought to understand.
The phantasm of ‘living death’—the topic of the seventh chapter—is for Derrida most noteworthy in Robinson Crusoe’s constant fear of being buried alive by an earthquake or swallowed alive by wild beasts. Such a phantasm of ‘dying alive’ is, although imagined, no less than a lived experience. Derrida even argues that Robinson, because of his repeatedly imagined anxieties, has already lived through the experience of being buried alive. The phantasm is a performative: it provokes the event (Cf. 124). It is this experience (of the phantasm as phantasm) that Derrida tries to take seriously. Yet this, say, ontic and fictional phantasm in Defoe’s novel is a figure just as well for our ontological status as survivors who are, as long as we are living, dying.
This ‘shared sense’ of dying alive is, for Derrida, an affect and a sensibility: we sense that we are survivors now and will be survivors for a while later. It is with a finitude that reaches further than mere finitude that we are dealing here. A phenomenologist might compare this idea to the idea of breathing: with every breath I take, I am in effect closer to death. Yet every breath I take also entails that I am still alive and will live a bit more. In this sense, breathing too is an auto-immune pharmakon.
This leads us to a second somewhat odd consequence of Derrida’s thought of eternity, immortality or the afterlife. Robinson’s fear and phantasm are not the eternal life of the gods or of souls saved, but rather the fear of, come the moment, not being able to die. This ‘immortality’, if any, wavers between no longer able to live and not yet capable of death. This is also what separates Derrida’s idea of eternity from Nancy’s: where Nancy is influenced by a “Spinozist reading of eternity” (74) when arguing that eternal is what is independent of time, Derrida’s dealing with the phantasm shows a dying alive that still takes time. It is an eternity or a ‘beyond’ that arises from within time.
One might sense an idea of community in Derrida here: since I sense that something will survive (of) me, I sense the other as “the survivor of me” (126, quoting The Beast and the Sovereign 2, 131). Since, however, I am also the other of the other (as Derrida famously argued in his critique of Levinas in Violence and Metaphysics) I will necessarily also be a survivor of others. In every relation, then, there is survival and there will be survivors.
It is this “weave” (127) of life and death that the concluding pages of the book bring to bear. This weave is the ground without ground from which all ideas of infinity, all phantasms of infinitizations, spring: we believe that it will go on forever and act accordingly. And even though Derrida will not subscribe to any simple (bad) idea of infinity, such a groundless ground is nonetheless the base from which one can speak of “an excess of life that resists annihilation” (129, quoting Archive Fever, 60).
Does this thinking of survival offer anything to those who have lived through the experience of loss and death? Is there beyond the idea that I will survive my living body for a while anything that speaks ‘from beyond the grave’ as it were? The odd logic of community mentioned above, through which I live as if I will live eternally (or at least for an indefinite amount of time) also means that the logic of this (mortal) life surpasses the logic of thinking, rationality and consciousness. This, Derrida argues, entails that “this thinking of affect requires a certain ‘as if’, ‘as if something could still happen to the dead one’” (132, quoting The Beast and the Sovereign 2, 149). There seems to be developing a new sense of sensibility here which arises “if we allow ourselves to be affected [by a possibility of the impossible, [by] the impossible possibility that the dead one can be still affected or that we could still be affected by the dead one him- or herself” (ibid.). This, then, seems the final deconstruction that Derrida has left us with: “is being-affected excluded by death? Is there no affect without life?” (133). It seems that The Beast and the Sovereign permits us to doubt—and this is a lot. It means that although it might not be reasonable to believe in the afterlife, it is not altogether unreasonable to come up with the idea.
It is to Saghafi’s credit to makes us think about these issues. Yet one must also state that the book feels somewhat incomplete. At times, Saghafi gives us a cacophony of citations which leaves us guessing just a bit too much about the book’s overall argument. The two main themes of the book, namely mourning after ‘the end of the world’ and the question whether Derrida’s discourse can be dissociated from the discourse on religion are handled in a quite unbalanced way. In fact, after chapter two or so the latter theme disappears completely from the book’s focus (although there is a mention of it at p. 97). This bring us to two critiques.
Perhaps, first, the author realized that the two discourses, on salut and salvation, in Derrida cannot be dissociated? There is no way for Derrida that today, in contemporary culture, any discourse can be safely sheltered from the discourse of Christian religion (precisely because the idea of being saved and safely sheltered is the very idea of Christianity) and certainly not the discourse of greeting and address as being one of the very sources of religion for Derrida. This is at least what Derrida implies in Rogues where he speaks of two orders within the earthly Jerusalem: these orders, be they of the unconditional and conditional, of the salut with salvation as much as the salut sans salvation, are indeed ‘heterogeneous’ (which Saghafi notes) but also indissociable and inseparable (Rogues 114 and 172n. 12). The one time that Derrida actually mentions a “radically non-Christian deconstuction” (35, quoting Death Penalty 1, 245), one might also read: “can one think [such] a deconstruction?” “Nothing is less certain” (Death Penalty 1, 245).
Secondly, one cannot help to detect some romantic exaggeration in Derrida’s thinking of death as the end of the world, each time anew. Although it certainly is the case that every other death is absolutely other and a genuine loss for all the people around the deceased one, it also needs to be acknowledged that differences are to be noted between the deaths of a lover and a friend over and against the death of a long-lost friend, an acquaintance or, say, a former coworker. It rather seems the case that the sense and shape of the shared world with this particular other alleviates or strengthens rather our experience of his or her loss. One therefore also needs to ask whether Derrida is not, with the idea of every other death as a genuine ‘end of the world’ introducing some ‘sameness’ in the idea of death: is it true that all deaths, always and everywhere, would entail ‘the end of the world’ for us and for me?