TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Impossible Decisions

On Tuesdays at the TELOSscope blog, we reach back into the archives and highlight an article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Jennifer Wang looks at Dominic Moran’s “Decisions, Decisions: Derrida on Kierkegaard and Abraham,” from Telos 123 (Spring 2002).

In “Decisions, Decisions: Derrida on Kierkegaard and Abraham,” Dominic Moran attempts to use deconstructive critique on Derrida’s notion of decision as it is relevant to ethics, justice, and political responsibility. In particular, Moran’s is a critique of how practicable the sort of decision advanced by Derrida is, if at all. In the end, he concludes that it is not: a deconstructive ethics cannot even be considered paradoxical but rather is strictly contradictory in its relation of theory to practice. Moran sets Derrida’s engagement with politics in the aftermath of the de Man scandal and the ensuing criticism that deconstruction’s political possibilities tend toward nihilism and radical relativism. He is generous, however, in granting that Derrida is not entirely reactionary, for engagement with the political is the final stage in deconstruction’s development.

The situation is complicated at the outset. Moran’s gloss on Derrida’s definition of decision: to make one—to decide—is impossible. On the one hand, a decision made as a result of calculation or according to an established program is not a decision at all, as it has been pre-programmed to follow quite apart from human agency. Thus, on the other hand, one must turn to face forward toward the incalculable, the impossible to predetermine. This is not an endorsement of reckless decision making for, quoting Derrida, “the instant of decision must remain heterogeneous to all knowledge as such, to all theoretical or reportive determination, even if it may or must be preceded by all science and conscience.” Impossibility, then, is the necessary condition for decision making because the only real decision is the impossible one made by suspension of knowledge.

Many of Moran’s preliminary criticisms come to the fore in his reading of Derrida’s reading of the Abraham story, in which he finds contradictions of the decision’s basic premises against programmatism. One is of the mere fact that Derrida has premeditated his decision to use Abraham as an example. Another, that this decision is made in view of an undefined teleological good rather than evil. (Then again, for all his premeditating, how is one to distinguish, simply based on the outcome of his decision, whether or not Derrida is responsible—whether he is a knight of faith or an aesthetic knight?) The final straw comes when Derrida treats Abraham’s decision as paradigmatic, possibly to the detriment of the act’s singularity. On the flip side, though Moran grants Derrida’s qualification that “tout autre est tout autre,” he asks whether anything can be learned from a decision that is radically incommensurable with one’s own. This would undermine the exemplarity of Abraham’s example. Yet, Moran also says that to insist that something be learned from another’s decision is to imply an ethical horizon and a body of knowledge to which one adds, and to ever more finely delineate a program of desirable action. Its specter would be in sight of every future decision. Moran concludes that neither the advocacy of the paradigm’s universality or singularity accords with the responsible decision, and that Derrida is caught in interminable contradictions.

Beyond the contradictory conditions of Derrida’s decision, Moran finds a more ominous problem in the impossible to meet demands of responsibility. Kierkegaard has God to guarantee the responsibility of Abraham’s otherwise unethical act. The more demanding version of decision precludes God from being the ultimate guarantor of responsibility on account of His Law. Moran illustrates this onerous responsibility:

Such a rethinking of ethics in the absence of all transcendent guarantees is hardly new. What is more disconcerting is the different double gesture, at once radical and hyper-conservative, through which Derrida makes the transition, with one and the same stroke removing the very basis for Judeo-Christian ethics and forcing that ethics to its “impossible” (de)limit(ation). In doing so, he all but reverses the words of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor—without God, nothing is permitted, since every considered action assumes an ultimately groundless and unjustifiable telos. As a result, most of his work on ethics shares a number of features: those who promote ethics are subject deconstruction; this deconstruction gives rise to paradoxical formulae which make deconstruction appear more ethical than the criticized program; deconstruction is then linked to those same, often utopian ideals (democracy, justice, internationalism, fraternity) that the program under consideration had formulated too clumsily or narrowly.

Given that every considered act assumes a telos and is thus irresponsible (which is also why Moran believes Derrida does not give specific recommendations), what is deconstruction’s value for ethics? Here Moran’s cry of contradiction crescendoes. That the ethical for Derrida still tends toward goodness, though one purportedly heterogeneous to the conventional, possibly points to his tacit support of a Judeo-Christianity taken to its God-less limit. Derrida therefore assumes ethical principles that the deconstruction of ethics would not allow him to assume. There is here a tension with the specific, for which Moran reads Derrida as commanding that we abandon all knowledge. Moran asks whether there is not philosophical discomfort in the implication that for deconstruction, “what makes ethics in general possible also makes all particular ethical recommendations impossible.” He criticizes Derrida’s paralysis when it comes to practicable ethics because of his prioritization of the imminent decision, ever delayed by unlimited calculation. Anticipating a Derridian response that “rule and event, code and operation are no longer independently determinable,” Moran privileges the decision actually made and asks whether the general proof that, for example, totalitarianism is impossible is “equivalent to taking an ethical anti-totalitarian stance.” Thus, Moran says that the formulation of these general rules of ethics is not itself an ethical act because the general rule does not allow one to “justify a single decision taken in its name.” The demand, then, for deconstruction to generate for ethics, justice, and politics a practice for decision in some way other than by general principles still stands, even if Moran has dismissed Derrida’s version.

Read the full version of Dominic Moran’s “Decisions, Decisions: Derrida on Kierkegaard and Abraham” at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at the low rate of $5/article.

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