Language Remains
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Language Remains

Martin Hägglund's Radical Atheism is a rich book offering a powerful interpretation of Derrida's writings. Since I cannot hope to discuss so much of what it covers, I will restrict my focus to one issue, the status and place of value in Derrida's thinking. Hägglund holds a very clear position on this question, maintaining that Derrida's deconstructive work is value-neutral and so no ethical or political stance can be derived from it. In this paper I argue against this view, not in favor of being able to derive an ethics or a politics from deconstruction, but in support of the claim that evaluation takes place in all deconstructive analyses because of the necessity of their engagement with language.

I will begin by discussing the distinction drawn by Hägglund between two conceptual couples, "the chance and the threat" and "the best and the worst."1 Analyzing Derrida's appeal to unconditionality, Hägglund highlights "one of the most persistent claims in Derrida's writings, namely, that there must be exposition to an unpredictable future, there must be finitude and [End Page 127] vulnerability, there must be openness to whatever or whoever comes" (2008, 31), and he argues that this "must" is to be understood descriptively, not normatively. This follows from the nature of spacing, which names the structure of temporality constituted in the fundamental division of the present. Everything in time, Hägglund argues following Derrida, is conditioned by spacing, which means that everything finds itself in an essential relation to alterity. Thus, the exposure of all things to alterity is not something to be desired or feared, worked for or avoided—it is simply the way things are. Openness is a fact, not a norm. Further, Hägglund argues that it is only because of this fact that anything can happen at all, since all events are constituted by the coming of something other to an entity. Without alterity, things simply remain the same, and nothing happens.

Whereas spacing is the condition of everything in time, the focus of Radical Atheism is on life. Now, I'm not completely sure what the scope of life is for Hägglund; that is, I don't know if he thinks it is correct to say that all things in time are living, or that only a subcategory of them are. I suspect it is the former, since the fundamental thesis of the contamination of life by death would preclude any strict division between the living and the nonliving.2 But either way, what matters is that life is conditioned by spacing, and so living necessarily entails an openness to alterity. Thus life is mortal, for an openness to alterity is an openness to a future that is essentially unpredictable, and such a future must contain the possibility that life will come to an end.

It is here that Hägglund inscribes the chance and the threat. The openness to alterity that constitutes mortal life can be said to offer a chance for singularities: they are given the chance to survive, to live on. But at the very same time one can see that there is here a threat, namely the threat that singularities will not live on, but end, since this is always one of the possibilities that may come in an open future. The chance of survival and the threat of its end are thus necessary possibilities that arise in mortal life. Or, in Hägglund's words, "the chance is the threat since the chance is always a chance of mortal life that is intrinsically threatened by death" (2008, 33). For further precision, it is worth clarifying the meaning of the "is" in this claim. I would suggest that it should not be taken to refer to an identity in which the chance and the threat are asserted to be exactly the same thing. Rather, [End Page 128] they are two different possibilities—the chance of living on, and the threat of not living on—that necessarily arise together because of their source in spacing. An alternative expression of this could thus be "the chance carries the...