Jacques Derrida's The Gift of Death
(trans. David Wills, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995) 115 pp.

© Scott David Foutz


        The content of The Gift of Death was originally presented at Royaumont, December 1990, in a conference entitled "the Ethics of the Gift". Gift in recent deconstructionist parlance has come to signify the unsignifiable, a Name for the ineffable. The Gift transcends all conceptualization yet underlies our more basic nature. It eludes all categorization while at the same time provides a meta-context within which all human philosophy and religion (erroneous or otherwise) takes place. For the deconstructionist the Gift is that boundless parameter within which all deconstruction takes place and progresses.
        Contemporary deconstructionism's discussions have revolved around the Gift and it's implications toward political, philosophical, ethical and religious tradition. Derrida's more recently (English) translated publications point to this with titles such as On the Name (Stanford Univ. Press, 1995), Given Time (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992), and The Gift of Death (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1995). As mentioned above the last of these was originally presented in a conference entitled "the Ethics of the Gift", and thus presents Derrida's understanding of ethics deconstructed. The work consists of four chapters providing a progressive development of his argument.


        In the first chapter, Derrida relates responsibility (ethics/morality) to secrecy, the mystery of the sacred, the mysterium tremendum through an analysis of the Czech philosopher Jan Patocka's Heretical Essays on the Philosophy of History (Open Court Publ: Chicago; 1995). Patocka understands the development of the sense of the mysterious in terms of "orgiastic" religion which gave way to Platonism, which in turn gave way to Christianity. Patocka argues for the superiority of Christianity solely in terms of its understanding of the mysterium tremendum. Christianity's "superiority" is defined in terms of the universally accessible tremendum. From Patocka Derrida gleans the understanding of the mysterium tremendum as that which, when encountered, produces the terrible (tremendum) realization that what is required (of us) is our entire being. This sense of the mysterium rouses us to the responsibility of making a gift of our death, that is, of sacrificing one's self in the face of God.
        In chapter two Derrida examines Heidegger and Levinas' claim that giving one's life for the other is the purest demonstration of individuality, an act requiring complete autonomy and which no other can accomplish in one's stead. Heidegger's discussion of death is taken from Time and Being in which the topic is incorporated into the discussion of one's responsibility over one's own death in situations calling for self sacrifice. Here Derrida emphasizes Heidegger's point that one cannot give one's life for another in the sense of replacing the other's death, since one's sacrifice cannot exempt the other from his or her own eventual death. Giving one's life for another amounts to giving oneself to death for some reason deemed worthy. As he who sacrifices himself gains nothing for himself nor replaces the mortality of the other, Derrida writes, what is given "is not some thing, but goodness itself, a giving goodness, the act of giving or the donation of the gift. A goodness that must not only forget itself but whose source remains inaccessible to the donee." (41)
        Derrida's aim is to establish the priority of self sacrifice as grounded not upon utilitarian grounds but upon its status as radically individualistic gift. This makes the gift of death not only a priority in relation to the individual's response to the mysterium but now also to responsibility toward mortal others. In either case it requires the individual to face the dread on losing oneself completely without assurance of recompense.
        Chapter three consists of Derrida's demonstration that whereas responsibility and sacrifice ground in the mysterium tremendum, they likewise ultimately transcend traditional ethics and morality. Such responsibility causes one to tremble (tremendum) in that it alludes to an unpredictable future, representing that to which one is drawn yet which cannot be fulfilled without the loss of oneself. Here Derrida turns to Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling as an exposition of such dread in the face of the unknown.
        God as Wholly Other is that which can demand an absolute obedience which requires Abraham to transcend, even transgress his notion of what is moral or ethical. God's reasoning remains inaccessible such that Abraham also finds himself without reasonable explanation for his actions. Absolute responsibility now appears irresponsible, and the ethical becomes an obstacle, even temptation contradicting Abraham's duty. Derrida emphasizes the insoluble and paradoxical contradiction between responsibility in general (ethics) and absolute responsibility. Absolute responsibility transcends the general and thereby must by definition remain inconceivable, unthinkable. This also finds support in the recognition that absolute responsibility elevates the individual above the universal by demonstrating that one's sacrifice of self to absolute duty is indeed one's highest calling.
        Derrida here sees a justification for the deconstruction of ethics. For in the name of absolute duty one must transgress ethical duty, while at the same time belonging to and recognizing the latter. In that instant of contradiction and paradox one truly assumes absolute responsibility for one's own action. Derrida views Abraham's action as stemming from his response to the mysterium, that is, to God as wholly Other. This responsibility to the other immediately propels anyone into the risk of absolute sacrifice. Derrida understands this to imply that, "the concepts of responsibility, of decision, or of duty, are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal, and aporia. Paradox, scandal, and aporia are themselves nothing other than sacrifice, the revelation of conceptual thinking at its limit, at its death and finitude." (68)
        Here again, Derrida does little more than appropriate from existing philosophical works those points he wishes to emphasize. Through Kierkegaard Derrida is able to establish his discussion of the gift of death within familiar deconstructionist territory, namely, reference to a transcendent context within which deconstruction of existing paradigms is viewed as fruitful. Thus far Derrida has presented himself as little more than a facilitator of the conclusions of others.
        In the last chapter, however, Derrida will present radically new conclusions based upon the foundation he has established. The chapter is entitled Tout Autre Est Tout Autre and deals with Derrida's central conviction that, "God, as wholly other, is to be found everywhere there is something of the wholly other. And since each of us, everyone else, each other is infinitely other in its absolute singularity, inaccessible, solitary, transcendent, nonmanifest... then what can be said about Abraham's relation to God can be said about my reaction to every other (one) as every (bit) other [tout autre comme tout autre], in particular my relation to my neighbor or my loved ones who are as inaccessible to me, as secret and transcendent as Jahweh". (78)
        Whereas chapter two extends horizontally the notion of the gift of death as absolute individuality, Derrida now horizontally extends the notion of absolute responsibility. If, however, every other is to be treated as wholly other, such that every other demands absolute responsibility, the means for judging one duty general and another duty absolute are no longer accessible. All duty now becomes equally absolute and adhering absolutely to any one duty inevitably leads to my sacrificing another absolute duty, and this I do without any means of justifying my choice. And yet I choose. I choose to follow one and neglect another, to align myself with one and fight against another.
        One's choice is in fact most likely determined solely in terms of general convention, that set of behaviors which society deems conducive to its survival and propagation. But this brings us back to Abraham's fear and trembling through being confronted with an ultimate duty which transcended conventional morality. General and absolute responsibility must, according to Derrida's analysis, stand in opposition. The critique of general convention is furthered by the recognition that society itself inevitably chooses to help one and neglect another, to align with one and war with another, all the time itself unable to justify its choices to any other but itself. Had the ram failed to appear before Abraham, he may well have killed Isaac, an act which society would deem irreprehensible and condemn accordingly. And yet, Derrida points out,
        "the smooth functioning of such a society, the monotonous complacency of its discourses on morality, politics, and the law, and the exercise of its rights, are in no way impaired by the fact that, because of the structure of the laws of the market that society has instituted and controls, because of the mechanisms of external debt and other similar inequities, that same "society" puts to death or allows to die of hunger and disease tens of millions of children without any moral or legal tribunal ever being considered competent to judge such a sacrifice, the sacrifice of others to avoid being sacrificed oneself". (86)
        Such social order, Derrida asserts, is founded upon a bottomless chaos which will inevitably reveal itself as such to those who now depend so heavily upon it. As an alternative to such economies of markets and debt, Derrida points to a truth he finds embedded within the Abraham narrative. In the moment Abraham embraced the paradox and submitted to absolute duty (and thereby transcended and transgressed general duty) God returned his son Isaac and thus revealed that the paradox itself yields a type of economy of reward.
        Derrida turns to the Gospel of Matthew to uncover what such an economy might mean, and finds the key in the thrice repeated promise: "thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee". After delineating the invisible, spiritual nature of the reward in contradistinction to its being earthly, Derrida turns his attention to the meaning of this "seeing in secret". He understands this to mean, "the clarity of divine lucidity [that] penetrates everything yet keeps within itself the most secret of secrets". (108) But again Derrida imposes a redefinition of the source of this divine seer. He denies that the biblical passage must be understood as an actual proposition concerning a subject, God, with all the traditional trappings and attributions, all of which he recognizes as necessary if one is to follow traditional Judeo-Christianity, but nevertheless remain for him "idolatrous stereotyping and representation". (Ibid.) Instead, he proposes an understanding of God as "the name of the possibility I have of keeping a secret that is visible from the interior but not from the exterior". (Ibid.)
        He goes on to explain, "Once such a structure of conscience exists, of being-with-oneself, once I have within me... a witness that others cannot see and who is therefore at the same time other than me and more intimate with me than myself, once there is secrecy and secret witnessing within me, then what I call God exists, (there is) what I call God in me, (it happens that) I call myself God. God is in me, he is the absolute "me" or "self"... And he is made manifest... when there appears the desire and power to render absolutely invisible and to constitute within oneself a witness of that invisibility". (109)
Here Derrida replaces the traditional notion of God with the incorporeal, radically individualistic element of personal existence, and in so doing likewise transfers the origin of responsibility from an dreadful encounter with the transcendent mysterium to an indiscernible (secret) encounter with the invisible within oneself.


        Given the radical and fanciful conclusion presented by Derrida, we must ask what value he might see in this proposal. Several advantages become clear without great analysis. First, this provides an account of the human conscience as the self-evident authority in personal decision. Although Derrida has minimized the definition of the mysterium to entail only a "power and desire" of the individual, this is consonant with his worldview in which reference to transcendent deity is unacceptable and rationality operates within a hopelessly finite framework. For Derrida, the conscience cannot accurately allude to anything outside the individual. Of course, coherently locating the origin of conscience is to be distinguished from adequately accounting for it's authority. The reductions sustained by the traditional understanding of the mysterium and Derrida's insistence on the conscience deriving from secret intimacies with the invisibility of one's own otherness leaves little basis from which one might argue for its binding relevance to behavior. At best, it seems, the conscience so defined might give rise to a mystical encounter with oneself.
        A second advantage alluded to already is Derrida's primary conviction that traditional understanding of God must be deconstructed. Through the proposal outlined in Gift of Death Derrida sets forth a deconstructionist's ethical theory which deconstructs simultaneously conventional ethics and conceptualizations of the conscience, the Person of God, and the mysterium tremendum. This deconstructionist project is for Derrida a multi-staged endeavor which, I am sure, he does not view as completed in The Gift of Death. Instead, this work sets the stage for future embellishment and refinement through its interaction with both disciple and critic.
        This work's primary relevance is found in its status as mile marker indicating Derrida and deconstructionism's frontal encroachment upon religious discussion. This is a relatively new trend and was the primary topic of discussion at a recent postmodernism conference at Villanova University. The ramifications of Derrida's Gift of Death have influenced certain segments of catholic theology and are currently engaged in discussions of divine revelation (both as phenomenology and tradition). As has historically been the case with Derrida's controversial and creative theories, Gift of Death proves fertile soil for the development of ingenious deconstructionist strategies. Derrida does indeed provide much food for thought, most evidently in his use of others' arguments as a springboard for his latest conclusions. Deconstructionism is by definition a continuous process which aims to slowly encompass and transform an ever greater spectrum of concepts central to the traditionally onto-theological worldview.