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Martin Hägglund's Speculative Materialism
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Martin Hägglund's Speculative Materialism

There is a familiar view of deconstruction according to which the latter is supposed to be concerned, first and foremost, with structures of language. Such a view is not confined to the nearly obsolete ideas that Jacques Derrida's work displays little more than an appetite for strategically deploying playful signifiers against undesirable binary oppositions, or that it engages in (pious, ironic, or nihilistic) abstention from reality; beyond these discredited oversimplifications lies a deeper conviction that deconstruction represents some variety or other of linguistic idealism, revealed by the privilege it confers to the order of words over the order of things. According to this view, deconstruction's essential endeavor is modeled on the impossibility of linguistic, hence conceptual, access to the world or to reality-in-itself: the absence of any hors-texte implies the irreducibly linguistic circumscription of anything that can be for us.1 And this endeavor, we are told, culminates in the reverent surrender to the unspeakable, the nonconceptual, the untranslatable, the ineffable, the absolutely other, or the impossible, to which [End Page 87] language or thought aspires but can never reach. Thus, despite its critical dismantling of metaphysics qua onto-theology, the characteristic attitude of deconstruction turns out to be a kind of silent fideism, a faithful and paradoxical affirmation of impossible transcendence.

It is one of the signal virtues of Martin Hägglund's forceful elaboration of Derrida's philosophy in Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life to have effectively dealt the coup de grâce to any understanding of deconstructive logic that remains under the sway of this idealist interpretation. The latter—however strongly or weakly formulated—conforms structurally to the negative theological dualism between the finite creature and the nonpredicable beyond of the creator, and in so doing "adheres to the most traditional metaphysical logic by positing an instance that is exempt from temporal finitude"(Hägglund 2008, 4). This idealist option is predicated on a division between the accessible and the inaccessible for us—a division that it would ultimately be desirable to overcome, to secure finally the atemporal values of truth, objectivity, and sense within the human sphere of knowledge. Hägglund tirelessly refutes this logic in Radical Atheism, insisting repeatedly on Derrida's fundamental argument that the allegedly desirable overcoming of finitude, which would be the necessary condition of access to an instance of being or truth immune from the corrupting force of time, in fact describes nothing other than death. The division between the accessible and the inaccessible, as long as it adheres to the notion that the unrepresentable beyond of finite access provides the explicit or implicit norm against which the latter is understood, is on Hägglund's account precisely the target of Derrida's philosophy.

Hägglund's argument focuses largely on those of Derrida's readers who locate themselves within an ostensibly deconstructive framework and who, at the same time, attempt to demonstrate the latter's essentially religious or ethical orientation on the basis of its (supposedly inherent) normative structures of transcendence. One of the paradigmatic ways in which this is accomplished is to link Derrida's thought with that of Emmanuel Levinas, a move that Hägglund decisively rejects. A brief overview of this rejection will suffice to demonstrate precisely what is at stake in Hägglund's account of deconstructive logic. Levinas deploys a "religious understanding [End Page 88] of the other" (Hägglund 2008, 92) that "presupposes that ethical encounter exhibits a fundamental asymmetry, where the other is an absolute Other who reveals the transcendence of the Good" (89). By eliminating this "asymmetrical" relation between finite being and the positive infinity of the Other that transcends it, Derrida also eliminates the dualism according to which finitude designates a mere region of being. Thus, even if Derrida employs a Levinasian terminology regarding relation to the "infinitely other" (which accounts, at least to some degree, for the confusion about Derrida's relation to Levinas), this is because within a deconstructive logic, infinite otherness can only "[designate] the negative infinity of finitude. Finitude entails that the other is infinitely other, not because the...