- Derrida's Modernism
[Les] deceptions de ma vie . . . me faisaient criore que sa réalité devait résider ailleurs qu'en l'action.Proust III
In Radical Atheism, Hägglund's strategy is to foreground, underwrite, and systematically apply the arguments threading through Derrida's corpus that establish the ultratranscendental status of espacement: the necessary interval of time that is the condition for identity (self-relation through time) yet divides everything in advance between a becoming past (intrinsic delay) and a becoming related to a future (intrinsic deferral), making it impossible for anything to be closed in itself, fully self-present or self-identical. Though Hägglund often seems committed to the weaker thesis that the spacing of time implies an essential corruptibility as it "opens the possibility of [End Page 263] alteration at every juncture and makes nonassurance intrinsic to every relation" (2008, 115), his ambitions rest on the stronger thesis that realizing the conditions for identity inevitability entails incalculable, that is, aformulaic (self-)differentiation.
The great strength of Hägglund's strategy—its compelling consolidation and systematic application of the claim that identity must be actively established through forms of self-relation that are a priori thwarted by the inherence of an immemorial past and incalculable future (temporalization) in both the being or instant identified and the identifying agency—is also its greatest weakness. By making the spacing of time into an ultratranscendental thesis, Hägglund idealizes time as an implacable force of incalculable (self-)alteration, and this blinds him to the ways in which the ecstatic, disruptive force of time in Derrida's writings refract the emphatically modern experience of the world as praxis-resistant (reified yet in ruins) and thereby preserve an essential reference to narrative time, the time of agency. As espacement becomes an ultratranscendental thesis, the resistance to idealization it intends to underwrite is itself idealized: distorted and unmoored from a primary source of concern with ideality in the first place, namely, the hospitability of the world to livable form.
By pushing too hard on the espacement thesis, Hägglund's formulations of the thesis inexorably shade into rather paranoid-sounding and ethico-politically neutralizing claims such as the following: "The other can be anything whatsoever or anyone whosoever and one cannot know in advance how one should act in relation to him, her, or it. On the contrary, the relation to the other is inseparable from the coming of time, which means that it may alter its character at every moment. . . . What I welcome as a vital chance may turn out to be a lethal threat, since it can never be given in itself" (2008, 31); "Even the other who is welcomed as peaceful may turn out to be an instigator of war, since the other may always change" (104). Of course, Hägglund only means for these formulations to disabuse us of any assurances in the fields of ethical, political, cognitive, and other such relations and thus to motivate vigilant attention to the eminently singular and unendingly multiple contexts that we must negotiate. But, distressingly, this makes Habermas's notorious [End Page 264] quip about Derrida's purportedly apathetic and politically neutralizing project seem strangely on target.
My primary objections to Hägglund concern the decisiveness with which he opts for an ultratranscendental reading of Derrida. Hägglund unwittingly slides into paranoid-sounding formulations of the espacement thesis, while Derrida self-consciously cultivates them to (1) register the paranoia-inducing effects of a social order that solicits yet systematically refuses and undermines our contributions, and thereby (2) acknowledge the socio-political conditioning and stakes of deconstruction. For Derrida, the "relentless displacement that unsettles any definitive assurance or given meaning" within which desire must find its bearings is perhaps not motivated by "the coming of the future" but rather, perhaps, by capitalism's ongoing need to liquidate stable social forms and structures of expectation (Hägglund 2008, 40). While Hägglund is primarily concerned with establishing that desire is necessarily for the mortal, throughout Derrida's writings, desire is at least always also, and in some way fundamentally, for a livable world, for a world felicitous for...