TODAY!: Of Miracles and Machines — Derrida and Religion

I should have thought to post this earlier, but if you in the NYC area today and looking for a good conversation, you should come by Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus for the following symposium on Derrida and Religion. The symposium is centered around a recently published book, Miracle and Machine by Michael Naas, who will be one of the speakers, along with Penelope Deutscher, Sarah Hammerschlag, and Martin Hägglund. There are, apparently, other things to do in New York City this afternoon, but this one will be hard to beat.


Of Miracles and Machines

A Symposium on Derrida and Religion

Thursday March 22, 4:15–7:00 pm

12th Floor Lounge, Lowenstein Building ● Fordham University Lincoln Center Campus 60th and Columbus, New York City

To mark the publication of Michael Naas’s Miracle and Machine: Jacques Derrida and the Two Sources of Religion, Science, and the Media (Fordham UP, 2012), this symposium brings together four leading scholars from across the disciplines to debate Derrida’s continued relevance for religious thinking.


Penelope Deutscher, Northwestern University ● Sarah Hammerschlag, Williams College

Martin Hägglund, Harvard University ● Michael Naas, DePaul University


Samir Haddad,

Sponsored by the Department of Philosophy, the Department of Theology, the Deans of the Arts and Sciences Council, and Fordham University Press.

This event is free and open to the public.

For More Information Miracle and Machine Jacques Derrida and the Two Sources of Religion, Science, and the Media Michael Naas

432 pages 978-0-8232-3998-6, paper, $30.00 $20.00 (Promo Code: Naas12)

To Order: ● 800-451-7556

Roots in the Air: Honesty, Poetry, and Abstraction

“Man is an upside-down tree, the roots of which are in the air.”

 – Shem Tov ibn Shem Tov

In context, Shem Tov—a Spanish Kabbalist quoted in Agamben’s The Kingdom and the Glory—is speaking about how humanity feeds off of spiritual nourishment, rather than the material world. The image, however, has stuck with me for another reason, and fed my thoughts over the last week or so with regard to the integral role of abstraction within our thought and language.

Personally, I’m recognizing how frequently I take recourse to abstraction in my writing and in my teaching when I’m unsure of the point that I’m trying to make, or trying to dance around some sensitive issue. It’s always easier to treat a topic from 10,000 feet above it, rather than mucking through the particulars. It is a symptom of my laziness, an attempt to avoid the hard work of research or careful thinking that would allow me to write or speak more exactly. As such, I’m trying to shorten my own leash on abstractions.

More generally, I’ve become aware of how much power there is in abstract language to mask and distract. Abstraction allows someone to speak when there is really nothing to say, or to speak in a way that obscures what is really taking place.  Not only is abstract speech very often the language of politics (especially campaign politics), it is frequently the language of religion, and most unfortunately, the language of prayer. Abstraction is empty talk, the raw material of ideology; but it is nonetheless effective for that. We have our roots in the air, and we feed on abstractions.

In contrast, concrete-ness is the blood of poetry; intimacy with poetry provides an education in avoiding abstraction. I’m sure that this statement will come back to bite me, but I can’t think of any straightforwardly ideological poetry.

Of course, politics, religion, and prayer are hardly dispensable or peripheral human activities, and I’ll be the last to try to put a stop to any of them. But without question, politics, religion, and prayer are the most honest, and do the most good, when they forego winged words and endlessly maleable concepts and speak instead with earthy imagery, verbs that move, and visible nouns.

Charles Taylor and John Locke on reason

“I have borrowed the term ‘self-responsibility’ from Husserl to describe something that Locke shares with Descartes and which touches on the essential opposition to authority of modern disengaged reason. What we are called upon to do by these writers, and by the tradition they establish, is to think it out ourselves. As with Descartes, knowledge for Locke isn’t genuine unless you develop it yourself:

‘For, I think, we may as rationally hope to see with other Mens Eyes, as to know by other Mens Understandings. So much as we ourselves consider and comprehend of Truth and Reason, so much we possess of real and true Knowledge. The floating of other Mens Opinions in our brains makes us not a jot more knowing, though they happen to be true. What in them was Science, is in us but Opinatrety, whilst we give up our assent to reverend Names, and do not, as they did, employ our own Reason to understand those Truths, which gave them reputation… In the Sciences, every one has so much, as he really knows and comprehends: What he believes only, and takes upon trust are but shreads.'[1]

Plato, of course, says something analogous…. But what is different with the moderns is that the requirement to work it out oneself is more radical and exclusive, and tis in virtue of their very notion of reason.

Plato enjoins us to stand out against custom and ‘opinion’ in order to arrive at the truth. But the truth at which we arrive is a vision of the order of things. It is not absolutely excluded in principle that our best way of getting there might be to be guided by some authority–not, indeed, the corrupt and erroneous one of popular opinion, but by someone with wisdom. Once we have science [according to Plato], of course, we can dispense with guidance, but it might help us to come to this independent condition.”

I think that our first instinct is to apply this “scientific” mode of reasoning to religious questions—and it tends to strip religions down to bare and vague transcendence—which is about all that any of us can “work out for ourselves.” I’m more and more confident that this mode of reasoning itself needs to be questioned, not least because it is a “tradition” all its own. Taylor is proving immensely helpful in that project.

[1] John Locke, An Essay concerning Human Understanding, ed. P.H. Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 1:4:23.

[2] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 167-68.

words for the week :: my distractions

The New York Times had an op-ed piece by philosopher Slavoj Zizek on religion in China.

Perhaps we find China’s reincarnation laws so outrageous not because they are alien to our sensibility, but because they spill the secret of what we have done for so long: respectfully tolerating what we don’t take quite seriously, and trying to contain its political consequences through the law.

Dan is carrying out a terrifying thought experiment about Christian terrorism on behalf of the marginalized. He suggests that if violence is even permissable (much less obligatory)–a typical “just war” claim–then Christians would be obligated to take up arms against governments and multi-national corporations on a wide-spread basis. I, for one, am thankful that Dan is still committed to nonviolence.