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. . . at any rate, unfortunately or fortunately, as you like it, I am not mystical and there is nothing mystical in my work. In fact my work is a deconstruction of values which found mysticism, i.e. of presence, revelation, of absence of a mark, of the unspeakable. If I say I am no mystic, particularly not a Jewish one as Habermas claims at one point, then I say that not to protect myself, but simply to state a fact. Not just that personally I am not mystical, but that I doubt whether anything I write has the least trace of mysticism.
Given the odd status of the "nonconcept" différance as delineated by a series of negative propositions, Derrida's statement that "I doubt whether anything I write has the least trace of mysticism" may appear disingenuous in light of the seemingly parallel strategies of the mysticism of negative theology. He may want to separate his work from negative theology but how does he do so and does he in fact succeed?
Derrida confronts the question of negative theology directly in an essay entitled "How to Avoid Speaking. Denials" (1992). Here he defends two different types of objections to his claim of dissociation from negative theology: 1) the objection that deconstruction simply reduces the procedures of negative theology to a rhetorical form and 2) the objection that deployment of the strategies of (what would appear to be) negative theology reduces all discourse, including Derrida's deconstructive maneuvers, to a theological discourse essentially the same as negative theology. The first objection identifies the possibility of reducing theological matters to mere rhetoric and the second the possibility that rhetorical strategies poorly reflect yet cannot escape a deeper theological truth and reality.
In the course of confronting these objections Derrida limits himself to discussion of the Greek/Christian tradition of Plato and neoplatonism. In doing so he focuses on a line of mysticism and negative theology that more easily conforms to accusations of essentialism and the metaphysics of presence than perhaps other lines originating in Asian traditions. But in the same volume other commentators take up Derrida's deconstructive approach and apply it to sophisticated versions of Hindu and Buddhist theologies. Since the first objection listed above is to some extent addressed implicitly in responses to the second objection and since the second objection relevant to Asian traditions is directly discussed by Derrida's commentators, the remainder of this article will discuss the second objection. In doing so, primary attention is given to Harold Coward's analysis of the commentary of the Hindu philosopher Sankara (founder of the doctrine of "Advaita" or the nondualism school of Vedanta).
Coward's essay in Derrida and Negative Theology entitled "A Hindu response to Derrida's View of Negative Theology" centers on two primary issues: 1) the question of a reality behind all negations (the question of hyper- or superessentiality) and 2) the question of whether language is essential to and inseparable from the process of spiritual realization or simply a tool and sometimes a block in the path toward such realization. In the course of investigating these questions Derrida's position in relation to nonduality also becomes a central question in response to which a significant answer emerges.
Coward begins his discussion by focusing on the Hindu philosopher Sankara's commentary/interpretation of the Hindu sacred texts and their descriptions of the nature of Brahman. Sankara identifies a "two-level understanding of Brahman" corresponding to two forms of Brahman: the formed and the formless. The formless Brahman aligns with the traditions of negative theology and Coward cites the following line from Brhadaranyaka Upanisad 2.3.6 as an example:
"Now therefore there is the teaching neti, neti [not this, not that] for there is nothing higher than this, that he is not this."
All positive description applies to the formed, saguna Brahman, with qualities pertaining to the "realm of the sun" and all the overt action and movement of life. Nirguna Brahman, however, refers to the formless Brahman, lacking all qualities and manifesting a truth beyond truth. Even so, formless Brahman need not be confused with nihilistic notions of nothingness. The ultimate purpose of the via negativa of neti, neti resides in removing blocks in the path toward attainment of the "pure consciousness" of Atman-Brahman, also called the Witness. Regarding this Witness awareness Coward notes that "the closest approximation to pure consciousness in our ordinary experience comes in deep sleep . . . a state of consciousness without any objects" (205).
According to Sankara the attainment of pure consciousness gains assistance from the linguistic negation strategy of neti, neti but ultimately arrives only by direct intuition. In short, the strategy of neti, neti involves not only a negation of objects of consciousness but ultimately also a negation of language. The pure consciousness of the Witness emerges free from all connections to language. Language and the world of signs and representations belong to the realm of the "formed" and all the objects of consciousness.
Derrida and Sankara
Turning to Derrida, Coward finds some similarities between Derrida and Sankara regarding the strategy of negation. For both the use of the negative does not result in a variety of "no-thing" or nothingness but rather serves the purpose of corralling, in a backhanded way, an identity, a mysterious kind of agency (Brahman for Sankara, différance for Derrida). But this agency or identity is not exactly an identity but functions in the more limited capacity of a hint or clue toward the nature of "the real." Beginning with a sentence summarizing a basic agreement between Derrida and Sankara, Coward then provides an account of the primary difference between them.
Both Sankara and Derrida agree that the conceptual oppositions that make up language are the obstacles that get in the way of the experience of the real. Identifying oneself with either of the terms that make up those oppositions . . . is the trap of language that must be overcome. [But] for Sankara the only way out is to transcend language altogether, so that all the opposites, and indeed all conceptualizing, are canceled by the direct intuition (anubhava) of the real.
Sankara imagines a qualityless nirguna that completely transcends the plateau of experience consisting of the limitations and potential hindrances of difference that constitute the maya of this world. Here, even with the aid of language, the limitations of language and related obstructions are ultimately left behind in attaining the pure intuition of Brahman. For Derrida the "reality" behind all the negations takes the form of a rupture, a trace structure that emerges as always simultaneously both present and absent--a mark that erases itself as it marks. Différance always generates an identity split by difference, repeating a tension between presence and absence that extends all the way to the core of the real.
Both language and consciousness share the structure of the trace as the effect of différance. The two are always and everywhere woven together such that one never occurs without the other and both open upon and reflect the structure of the real. Language and ordinary consciousness cannot be essentially separated from the real.
Since the possibilities for nirguna and the necessities of différance diverge significantly concerning what each implies with regard to the nature of the real, the corresponding potential for what may be called spiritual realization also presents very different possibilities. Coward provides the following account of what can be anticipated as most analogous in a deconstructive approach to the heightened spiritual awakening associated with the Hindu tradition described by Sankara:
. . . différance is the inherent teleological force within us that leads to self-manifestation. And this self-manifestation is structured according to the diverse possibilities of the trace. The general characteristic of the manifested trace is that of temporal becoming. Within this becoming, the teleological is but one moment of the total movement of the trace. It is the direct experience of this dynamic process of becoming, not as a process of static reflection or metaphysical opposition, that would for Derrida be the functional parallel of spiritual realization. The sensitive deconstruction of the illusions of permanence, of stasis, or presence (which our ordinary experience and many of our philosophies have superimposed on the becoming of a language) is Derrida's prescription as the means for spiritual realization. We cannot name this realization "spiritual," for that is already to engage the vocabulary of metaphysical opposition. But to understand it as manifestation of the inherent différance of the trace is for Derrida the goal (215).
This reference to spiritual realization transitions into a discussion of themes relevant to the question of nonduality where Coward goes on to say that for Derrida "the dynamic tension in the becoming of language is itself the whole. . . . The language we are deconstructing is our own thinking and speaking--our own consciousness. We ourselves are the text we are deconstructing. This is why, for Derrida, there is nothing outside of texts. Deconstruction is the process of becoming self-aware, of self-realization" (216).
While it is true that deconstruction may be seen as an activity manifestly realizing the deconstruction of self and consciousness, it must also be kept in mind that this activity consists of an affirmation and active engagement of the deconstruction of the self by and through the other implicit in the divided structure that is différance and the trace. Even in the silence that may be imagined as before and beyond language, there remains a trace of division and the other. Coward captures the complex if not paradoxical quality of Derrida's understanding of other and différance when he states, "The ultimate silence, after all negation and purification has occurred, remains within the unity of language. And that unity contains within itself the seeds of difference which create the possibility for the multiplicity of language to burst forth" (221).
The tension of opposites that inheres at the core of différance belongs to a simultaneity of unity and division, a one that is also two. Here one side of any oppositional pair never reduces to the other and each never occurs without the other. This simultaneity of unity and division may be referred to as holistic synagonism in which "synagonism" indicates the feature of irreducibility yet mutual dependence (as in certain interpretations of, for example, the male/female opposition) and in which "holistic" indicates the feature of inseparability governing the interaction of opposites/differences.
When adding this information to the mix of recent postings on the topic of nonduality on Open Integral (under the heading "Integral Metatheory" and dated around March 20th and forward), many may want to throw up their hands in exasperation. How do such subtle theoretical discussions differ from the famous theological problem of determining how many angels fit on the head of a pin? How or why does it matter in deciding what nuances of nonduality or duality may lie at the core of "reality"? In wrapping up this brief placement of Derrida within certain mystical spiritual traditions, I offer the following defense of the value of plumbing these arcane metaphysical depths and also a reason to favor Derrida's position (and those that may resemble his).
Living requires forming some set of views about the world. These views necessarily rest on core consciously or unconsciously held metaphysical assumptions. According to Derrida, these core assumptions contain a decision about how to structure fundamental oppositions--oppositions such as good/evil, life/death, pain/pleasure, love/hate, male/female, self/other, etc. However, abstract, allegorical, and/or unconscious that decision may be, it nevertheless serves as a prime resource for the general structuring of oppositional tensions. This grounding then serves as a primary intuition and a ready template when encountering relationships and conflicts that arise in day-to-day living. And the way in which conflict is approached in day-to-day living figures crucially in determining the quality of individual and community life. As experts on conflict assessment and management have discovered, the approach to and structuring of conflict has much to do with the potential for moving it in productive (cooperative) or destructive (violent) directions.
Metaphysical positions that postulate a cosmic oneness or a fundamental unity at the heart of being accomplish a kind of violence toward the other. These positions, whether viewed as varieties of "transcendentalism" or "monism," include the possibility for attaining forms of pure transcendence. Here every manner of otherness ceases to be other through varieties of denial ranging from appropriation, as when discovered to be error or illusion (all is really one), or cleansing (sacrifice or redemption) as when found to be a contamination, an accident in essence that must be "repaired." In a unitary model the dynamic tension between self and other collapses and this collapse is viewed as a goal and a cause for celebration.
As a model for human conflict in the real world this metaphysical approach to opposition provides, on the one hand, momentum for varieties of colonialism (understood broadly) and, on the other hand, incentive for scapegoating. Here monism manifests itself as a polarizing monistic antagonism because it induces an identification of otherness as inessential intrusion and thereby worthy of appropriation or elimination in the endeavor to restore the whole to its pure and natural state. The transcendentalism implicit in monist metaphysical positions induces a focus on various programs of self perfection as improved self-awareness, higher consciousness, self-actualization, and ultimately self-transcendence into the ultimate oneness of pure consciousness or pure being.
By contrast the deconstructive approach advocated by Derrida moves the emphasis away from becoming a pure or highest self or consciousness toward becoming a better partner. For Derrida, the self/other relation, regarded as irreducible and inescapable, is already a divided or shared quest. Each side remains essential to the other--not as an ethical imperative but as an ontological condition. This view structures life ontologically as relation (tension) exposed to rupture and everpresent mystery or difference. In this approach to life, every state of being involves relation (to the other) and life thereby becomes relation: on the upside, as the art of love (cooperation) and, on the downside, as the art of negotiation.
The irreducible self/other tension precludes, as a strategy, the art of war as elimination of the other (with the implicit view of the other as worthy of elimination) because the "enemy" (as a version of the other) is already understood as ontologically essential. Where a state of war in fact exists, as in Iraq today, the fact of war may be understood as a "negotiation" in which the inevitable necessity for dialogue has been overwhelmed by the imposition of force--force motivated by overly charged emotions such as hatred, fear, anger, ambition, or the like. These motives and emotions, born of human responses to conflict and frustration, are exacerbated by monist cultural beliefs (evident in the prevailing local religions) that provide a polarized model of conflict and instill a dysfunctional drive for non-negotiable degrees of purification on political, social, and spiritual levels.
In conclusion, the implicit metaphysical decisions for the way in which oppositional tensions are structured can be understood to play a very important practical role in individual relationships as well as community formation because those decisions significantly structure and influence the conduct of real relationships and conflicts. Among these metaphysical decisions, those that contain a model for opposition that preserves the tension between opposites and regards each side as essential to a holistic economy (or holistic synagonism) emerge as the candidates for less violent and less destructive human relations and community. Although evoking the strategy of negative theology, this approach is neither dual nor nondual or both dual and nondual, but in a way that differs importantly from the qualities and implications of the tradition of negative theology.
Coward, Harold. (1990). Derrida and Indian Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Coward, Harold. (1992). A Hindu Response to Derrida's View of Negative Theology. In Derrida and Negative Theology. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Derrida, Jacques. (1974). Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Derrida, Jacques. (1982). Différance. In Margins of Philosophy. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Derrida, Jacques. (1992). How to Avoid Speaking: Denials. In Derrida and Negative Theology. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Gersh, Stephen. (2006). Neoplatonism After Derrida. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV.
Girardot, N. J. (1983). Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism: The Theme of Chaos (hun-tun). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Loy, David. (1992). The Deconstruction of Buddhism. In Derrida and Negative Theology. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Rötzer, Florian. (1995). Conversations with French Philosophers. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International. (For the original German text see Florian Rötzer, Französische Philosophen im Gespräch, Munich: Klaus Boer Verlag, 1986, pp. 67-87).
Copyright © Gregory Desilet 2005