messianicity & other difficulties

One of the difficulties – self-incurred, perhaps – that I’ve been trying to work through for a while, never sure if or when I’ll have done so adequately, is that of making a quasi-transcendental motif operate outside the confines of its historical determination. It’s part and parcel of a quasi-transcendental structure that it retains a sort of conceptual location that is always historical, and thus limited within some set of not only temporal but also social, cultural, perhaps geographical, and indeed material boundaries as to its applicability. I might go so far as to say limited as to its very sensibility. On the other hand, any figure or operation that would qualify as quasi-transcendental also necessarily exceeds these boundaries in some way or other, extending its applicability (and sensibility) beyond its concrete conditions. This is what is attractive to me about quasi-transcendentality: the combination and tension between these trajectories, the historical/material and the universal (could one also say the local and the global? … but that would need to have to many provisions attached). But this is also what is so difficult to negotiate; at every moment, it seems, one runs the risk of being reduced to a kind of unproductive conceptual provincialism or to a different kind of unproductive formal idealism.

Take the structure of “messianicity” that Derrida makes extensive use of primarily in “Force of Law” and Specters of Marx. It’s tempting, when approaching issues regarding religion deconstructively, to latch on to this figure, since it’s drawn directly from “Abrahamic” religious traditions. Of course, it’s Derrida’s aim as soon as he adopts this motif to divest it as much as possible from its specific religious senses. Nevertheless, he also acknowledges that he can never do so completely. At any rate, it seems to me that there’s much one can learn from paying attention to the general structure of messianicity in the operations of religious traditions – both internally and in their interactions with one another. This would be, however, not because of but in fact despite (or maybe something in between those two) the religious conceptual heritage of the term “messianic”.

There seems, though, to be an unavoidable problem with following this line of thought: viz., not the unavoidable religiosity of the word “messianicity” but its unavoidable Westernness. I would hold that any attempt to address religious pluralism seriously has to address as a central feature of such pluralism a difference that is almost inarticulable between “Western” and “non-Western” (to use a horribly insufficient phrase) traditions. I say almost inarticulable, because practically any means one has within the philosophical field to articulate this difference already resides in the “Western” idiom, and thus effaces the difference at the same time as it articulates it. This point (or one similar to it) is made very clear by G. C. Spivak in a paper I find as hard-hitting as it is brief, “Not Virgin Enough to Say that [S]he Occupies the Place of the Other” (published in Outside in the Teaching Machine). The argument I have in mind is that the opposition between monotheism and polytheism is itself determined (shall we say overdetermined?) by “Western” problematics: theisms both Greek and Abrahamic, philosophical as well as theological concepts of the One upon which both the “mono” and the “poly” are constructed, etc. Thus, this way (and doubtless many others … probably all others) of speaking about differences is simply not sufficient to to the difference about which it wishes to speak. It constantly undermines its own object. Yet, to exchange Western terminology for some “non-Western” terminology is not sufficient either; it simply inverts the problem.

So, my provisional solution is to stick with motifs like “messianicity”, as far as it remains sensible to do so from the position that I occupy, but at the same time to turn away from it at (irregular) intervals in order to provide reminders of its limitations… never being sure if this is really adequate.


Posted on December 2, 2009, in deconstruction & pluralism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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