But can the fool(ish) text do Humanity any Good? Maimonides, Derrida, and Gasche (Part I)

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In his book Of Minimal Things: Studies on the Notion of Relation, Rodolphe Gasche notes, in one of his readings of Jacques Derrida, that a text, like a person, can have a manner.

A manner is a way of acting or bearing.  A manner can also be read as a style.

What is the meaning of Gasche’s description?

This description of the text as a manner has religious resonance.  The reader, in an exegetical manner, must figure out his or her bearing in relation to the text and its bearing.  How does the text appear to the reader and how, in turn, does the reader present him or herself to the text?  Can the text teach us about how to bear ourselves or is it devoid of any such prescriptions for action?

Gasche suggests that the relation to the text is not by way of knowledge so much as by a relation to its way of being (its manner).  Textual relation bears two questions: How do we relate to the text and how does it relate to us?  Does the text turn away from us, as God turns away from Moses in the moment of revelation?

I can’t help but hear Maimonides reading of Prophetic Revelation in Gasche’s claim. In Part I, Chapter 54 of The Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides discusses how, when Moses requests to see God’s essence, he sees, instead, God’s actions.  In other words, Moses , according to Maimonides, was only allowed to see God’s manner of being:

When Moses asked for knowledge of the attributes and asked for forgiveness for the nation, he was given a favorable answer with regard to their being forgiven.  Then he asked for the apprehension of His essence, may He be exalted.  This is what he means when he says, “Show me, I pray You, Your glory” (Ex. 33:18), whereupon he received a (favorable) answer with regard to what he had asked for first – namely, “Show me Your ways.”

Although Moses didn’t learn of God’s essence, he was shown God’s “ways” so that he could teach and practice them.  He was given what Gasche would call – in his essay on Derrida – a “reflection without penetration.” Nonetheless, he is given a manner that can make life better for himself and for the Jewish people.  To be sure, for Maimonides, the prophet is a political leader and a philosopher.  Most importantly, Moses, “the greatest of all prophets,” is the only prophet who is a lawgiver.  All three are related, in some way, to God’s ways or manners, which Moses practices.  Practice, it seems, trumps reflection into the essence of things.  The manner of God, God’s ways, bear themselves to Moses.  Not God’s essence.

Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, and the later Martin Heidegger, have taught us, with respect to language, that if it doesn’t have an essence that can be known (like God cannot be known), then all one can know of language is not what language is but what language does.  We can only know or describe how language does things.

Maimonides notes how Moses can perfect himself and be the best leader and prophet if, and only if, he imitates what God does – which can only be found by following God’s ways.  Maimonides sees Moses’ practical knowledge as being based on divine contemplation of God’s ways.  Such contemplation can foster love and fear and, most importantly, prompts imitation that promotes ethical and political well being.

The imitation of these manners or ways would do humanity good.  Maimonides tells us that such imitation will help man to perfect himself; moreover, without imitaiton, society cannot perfect itself.  Without a teacher of God’s ways, without a leader who pursues the ways of justice, society will degenerate.

Can we say the same for language?  Can or does language as such – language and its ways -do humanity any good?  Can language help?

Heidegger, near the end of his life, focused solely on “listening” to language.  And Benjamin wrote several essays and notes on language.   Derrida and Giorgio Agamben, amongst others, also call on us to pay close attention to language.

For them, its an imperative to pay close attention to the ways of language.  But do they do this because they believe that following the ways of language will do humanity any good?  Are they miming religion, so to speak, while emptying it of its content?  Instead of the manner and ways of God, do we study and practice, instead, the ways of language?  Are these, as Derrida might say, the way one would practice a “religion without religion?”

To answer these questions, let’s play a game.  I’ll imagine what would be implied if we read the relation of the reader to the text as we would read the relationship of Moses to God.  To know what to do, to act or imitate the ways of the text, we would have to know what a text is doing and how it is doing it:

What is the manner of the text?

Can we learn justice from the ways of language? Or do we just learn its ways?  Are we in the position to imitate its ways or is this a ridiculous question reserved only for religion and theology not language as such?

Reading Gasche, we should like to know if we are going to imitate the text so as to perfect ourselves and society; otherwise, Gasche’s language suggests that we reflect on a manner that is devoid of any ethical or political content.  Does the act of reflection suffice?  Does it help humanity?

If ethics is based on actions and not on knowledge, as Levinas points out in a reading he makes of Maimonides (in one of his essays on Judaism), for language to be ethical, it would have to be prescriptive in some way.   Otherwise, its “manner” would have no ethical content.

If we take Jacques Derrida seriously, we would have to say that a text has the manner of the schlemiel.  It does not know what it is doing.   And language likes to dream and get distracted.  A text can be absent-minded.  But can a text, like a schlemiel, fail?

How would it fail?  In what manner would the text, as schlemiel, fail?

Roldophe Gasche gives us a clue.  In his book, Of Minimal Things: Studies on the Notion of Relation, Gashe writes of Derrida’s notion of mimesis.  He reads mimesis through Derrida’s essay on Mallarme entitled “The Double Session.”  There, Gasche looks into the relationship between the text and reflection.  He argues that Derrida’s notion of textual mimesis shows has the manner of a mystical and absentminded kind of consciousness: a “reflection without penetration.”

Gasche’s notion of a “reflection without penetration” is really another name for what is commonly called “absent-mindedness.”

How, according to Gasche, does one, along with the text, become absent-minded?

Is the text, as Derrida might say, always-already absent minded?  And is our manner of reading, always already, absentminded? Through Gasche’s reading of Derrida, I would like to briefly touch on these questions.

To be continued, in tomorrow’s blog…..

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