Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life, Part 1: The Autoimmunity of Time

Originally discussed January 28, 2012

In his book Rogues, Derrida discusses the 1992 Algerian election.  In order to prevent the rise of an anti-democratic party that enjoyed majority support, the election was scrapped by the military and a bloody civil war ensued.  Democracy was suspended in order to defend democracy.  This is the “autoimmunity” of democracy.  Democracy is autoimmune because it is threatened both by external forces and by internal forces of corruption.  Democracy may have to attack itself in order to defend itself.  The problem is that there is no way to decide if it is right or wrong for democracy to attack itself at any given moment.  Just like the possibility of erasure, this is not an evil state that needs to be overcome.  Democracy needs to be open to critique, and it needs to be open to the outcomes of unpredictable elections.

Autoimmunity is actually a condition for life in general.  Death is a part of the essence of life; it isn’t something that threatens life from the outside.  Life is threatened from the inside by death.

The main difficulty of thinking autoimmunity:  it violates the law of non-contradiction.  In Aristotle’s formulation, the law of non-contradiction is “The same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject.”  The time bit is key; different attributes are certainly possible at different times.  The main point is that things must be identical to themselves.  A must be A!

The job, then, is to undermine the law of non-contradiction.  Derrida focuses on the time element of Aristotle’s description.  The time element is key because the idea of the self-identical moment has, for much of philosophy, be the basis for thinking every other kind of identity.  The self-identical moment is what allows us to say A = A.

In the Physics,  Aristotle says there would be no time if there was a single now.  There must be at least two nows: an earlier and a later.  So, time is succession – but Aristotle wants identity as presence in itself.  The problem is that “A self-present, indivisible now would never even begin to give way to another now, since what is indivisible cannot be altered.”  An earlier moment cannot be destroyed by a following moment, because the earlier moment would have to be inaccessible to the following moment.  This problem stumps Aristotle.

If there is an indivisible now, i.e., identity as presence in itself, we would not be able to explain succession.  Succession requires that each moment is superseded by another, and “that this alteration is at work from the beginning.”  Every now must disappear of its own accord.  Every moment is divided.  The temptation is to subsume this divisible time under a non-temporal presence – something that is not divided – to secure identity and avoid an infinite regress.  But something exempt from time is impossible, unless, as we saw last week, it is something dead.

If there is nothing indivisible that provides a basis for identity,  how is identity possible?  Why does this table obviously persist as a table, if it is not identical to itself?  All the different moments of time require a synthesis (a way of putting them all together), and some kind of identity over time to be marked.   What provides this synthesis, this putting-together, is the trace.

The trace can also be described as spacing, which is shorthand for the becoming time of space and the becoming space of time.  Because every now disappears of its own accord, it must be inscribed as a trace in order to be at all.  It has to exist in space somehow; everything that is, this table etc, persists from moment to moment.  That is the becoming time of space.  But simultaneity – one thing existing at the same time as a another – needs to be able to move through time.  One moment in space needs to relate to the next moment in space – this is the becoming time of space.  Basically, the concept of spacing is that in order to have some kind of identity, something needs to exist in space and also pass through time.

Spacing is the basic condition for anything to exist at all.  To see why this is such an important idea, we have to see why it is a refutation of ethical ideals.  Ideals are the best things we can think of; imagine perfect generosity or perfect peace.  These are ideals or goals that we can supposedly try to reach, but maybe never can. Hägglund is going to argue that these things are impossible, and moreover, that this impossibility is a good thing.  All of our ideals – because they exist in space and time – can be affected by the future.  Everything, including the desire for perfect generosity, is contaminated by what it is not – perfect generosity is contaminated by economic concerns, i.e., profit, if only the profit of the joy of giving.

The strongest description of ethical ideals comes from Kant.  Kant knows that time is empirically real; but because he holds to non-contradiction, he thinks there must be an indivisible moment – call it eternity – in which things like God and immortality can exist.  So maybe we can’t prove  that God exists, but we certainly can’t disprove it; for Kant, there is nothing non-contradictory about eternity, so it is perfectly fine to believe in it.  In fact, it is necessary to believe in these things as regulatory ideals to guide morality.

There are three specific examples of how this logic works: gifts, justice and immortality.  Today, we will just look at gifts and justice. First, the pure gift.  Contamination does not take place because the pure gift must “realize itself” in our imperfect world, but because the very concept demands contamination.  For a gift to be pure, it must remove itself from every form of economic exchange. One cannot give a gift without profiting, even if only from the desire to give.  And the receiver is always indebted.  But this is not the whole story; there is more to gifts than profit and debt.

The major reason why there is no closed economy of giving and receiving – i.e., why gifts are never free of profit and debt, and why they are not only a matter of these things – is the constitution of time.  Time divides everything in advance, and makes it impossible for anything to be closed in itself.  Time is what makes the economy of profit and debt possible, because the interval that splits every moment from itself also separates the gift from itself “and gives it over to calculation.”  But time also makes it impossible for there to be a closed economy, because the gift’s temporality “cannot be mastered by calculation.”  Time exposes every economy to irretrievable loss.  “Even if I return the same thing I received, it is already different, since it is no longer the same time.”  The gift does exceed the order of knowledge, but not because it is noumenal.  On one hand, it is a gift of time and is unpredictable.

On the other hand, it exceeds simple economy, not because it aspires to a pure generosity, but because its effects are unpredictable.  Non-calculable.  The positive value of the gift is haunted by the negative. Derrida says it opens an “undecidability that allows all the values to be inverted.”  A gift could be a poison or a counterfeit. It’s not that the gift must be secured against these things, but that it both cannot be and must not be secured against it, because this security would cancel out the gift.  A wholly secure gift, one that was wholly predictable, would need to be unchangeable – and therefore could never be given in the first place.  The impossibility of the pure gift is actually the possibility of the gift itself.  But this is not a negative limitation; the pure gift is not a regulative ideal that we may approach but never reach. Even the desire for a gift is contamination – it is the desire to contaminate the pure, and to be contaminated by the gift.

The same logic applies to justice.  This is often misread as a regulative ideal; justice as an infinite horizon that we always work towards but can never reach. The source of misreading is the distinction between law and justice – he says that law is deconstructible, and justice is not.

The key term is undecidability, which is the necessary opening to the coming of the future. Good stuff can always turn into bad stuff.  The word “undecidability” makes it sound as if no decisions can be made, as if justice were impossible to choose properly, but “There is no opposition between undecidability and the making of decisions.”  Rather, it’s because the future is undecidable – that is, unpredictable, that one has to make decisions. “If the future could be predicted, there would be nothing to decide on and no reason to act in the first place.”

Derrida calls the undecidable future the possibility of justice, or as “justice” beyond law.  Justice is contingency, making decisions case by case.   Laws attempt to deal with the unpredictable and the violent, but can always turn out to be harmful or inadequate.  Specific applications of the law cannot be given in the law itself; they require decisions in relation to events beyond the generality of the law.

There is no justice without such decisions.  Justice is a matter of temporal finitude, because it is because of temporal finitude that one must make decisions.  Derrida says that even if time, prudence and a mastery of conditions were hypothetically unlimited, there would be an irreducible moment of “urgency and precipitation, acting in the night of non-knowledge and non-rule.”  These finite decisions are what Derrida calls justice.  “If laws and rights cannot encompass everyone and everything, if they cannot be grounded in a totalizing instance, then it is inevitably necessary to negotiate what exceeds them.”

The relation between law and justice is not an opposition.  But law claims to work in the name of justice, and justice must be, as Derrida says, “established in the name of a law that must be put to work (constituted and applied) by force enforced.”   Law and justice go together.

The relation between law and justice is autoimmune.  Law helps us identity what is harmful for the political body; without law, there would be nothing to “determine or safeguard justice, since there would be no rules for evaluating a given decision.”  But “decisions of justice have to suspend or attack the law that protects them, since they are made in relation to events that may question the laws or transform the rules.”    Therefore,”the attack on the law may thus be a defense of justice, and the defense of the law may be an attack on justice.”  And one may confuse which is which; there are no assurances.

To see why these ideas are so radical, it is worth showing how saturated we are with Kantian Ideas.  It is easy to think that a state of absolute justice would be the best state, protected from all injustice.  It is easy to think that absolute justice is possible to think as an Idea,   but deconstructive reason says that it is neither thinkable nor desirable.  Injustice is inscribed into the heart of justice.  Everything is always already open to its other.  Life is open to death, good is open to evil.  An absolute something – absolute life immune from death, etc. – would be the same as its other.  Absolute death, absolute injustice, absolute violence.


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