Wednesday Lunch Dean Forum: Sarah Hammerschlag’s “Broken Tablets”

Wednesday Lunch Dean Forum: Sarah Hammerschlag’s “Broken Tablets”


RICHARD ROSENGARTEN: So
these, as Taryn indicated, are quarterly
events, which attempt to emphasize two
things that we care a lot at the divinity school. One is the productivity
of our faculty, which nourishes the institution
in a variety of ways, in terms of teaching and the
like, and also collegiality among faculty. And so the point of the forum
is both to celebrate publication and also to invite
colleagues whose expertise, as I’m the
respondents today would both rehearse at
short length to you, is not directly related
to that of the book that they’re talking about. So the idea is that we can have
a conversation in which people who work in literary criticism
and philosophy of religion can talk to theologians
and Biblical scholars, to pick a random example. So the format is that
Professor Chavel and then Professor Hector will
each offer remarks about Sarah Hammerschlag’s
book, Broken Tablets, Levinas, Derrida, and the Literary
Afterlife of Religion. After they do that,
Professor Hammerschlag– pardon me– will have a chance
to respond to their comments, and then we’ll open up
the floor for discussion. So I just want to
say in advance, thanks to my colleagues
who are here today. It’s a delight to
see you all lined up in such orderly fashion there. And I’ll turn it over
to Professor Chavel who is going first. SIMEON CHAVEL: Thank you. I am asked to respond to Sarah
Hammerschlag’s Broken Tablets, Levinas, Derrida, and the
Literary Afterlife of Religion in 10 minutes. I’m Spinal Tap. I go to 11. Broken Tablets is
beyond my cannon. Levinas, Derrida, the
afterlife, beyond my cannon. The first four chapters,
dense and intense, weave citations into
a thicket of ideas. In the final chapter, the
weaver speaks in her own voice about the weave. The thicket becomes a manicured
hedge by Edward Scissorhands. I enjoyed yielding to
the treacherous sensation of understanding. The epilogue is positively
delicious in the secrets it serves up. Following this trend, I
begin a the end, the blurbs, the very last blurb. Martin Jay calls Broken
Tablets “trenchant, masterful, and four-dimensional.” Time, you see, plays
an organic role in this history of
ideas, which, really, is a history of people
and their ideas, specific individuals with
highly circumstantial ideas and their shifting
be entailments, which move between inchoate, explicit,
and qualified iterations, and not often in that
convenient order. Moreover, there idiom
shifts repeatedly. The troposphere
never [INAUDIBLE].. Each articulation
depends on timing, on the situation, the
prompt, and the audience. So to encompass an
idea, grasp it, squeeze, and feel which way it’s oozing
between your fingers this time as opposed to last,
hold off that sensation you have got hold of the whole. Time and Broken
Tablets does not just feature in the history of ideas,
but rides it with a hard hand, bending, warping, looping back. Neither linear nor
stable, it is profoundly relative and dynamic. Ideas, the work argues, are not. They always become
and ever were. Plus, they shift with the
stance of the observer. Broken Tablets itself
begins with ends, which it analyzes as
signs of signifieds, moments like eulogies,
words like irony, traces of the ever absent,
secrets not to have a future. Nothing ever just is
or becomes, but always is because it was or has
a was or insists it does insists it was. Dr. Seuss. [LAUGHTER] In its necessary implication
of its was, in its disclosure of its was, every
is is a betrayal, for everyone was at the
time thought itself an is. To [INAUDIBLE] was to
the becoming of an is, to make a prior is now into a
was undermines its integrity, belies its claim, claims to
reveal a secret that cannot, that has no revelation. In Broken Tablets,
religion is the was, insisted by literature,
necessary to literature, and necessarily
betrayed by literature. At issue, says Broken Tablets,
are collective identities, the politics of the
thing, which calls to mind Don [INAUDIBLE] 1985
history in which literature and literary figure
replace religion and the rabbi in the rise
of the state of Israel. Broken tablets, the
tablets of a covenant, pieces of covenantal
text laying in shards. The language, you know,
the script, you use, words ever on your tongue. You could put it back together. You won’t. You wouldn’t dare. The symbolism, the
significance forbids it. It’s not the words, it’s what,
on the tablet, they signify. If you’re an Israelite, you
heard those urgent words directly, irrefutably,
irrevocably, and unforgettably. You don’t even need
the written text. But the symbolism of the
written tablet and its pieces haunts you. You didn’t quite shatter it, but
you determined its shattering. Divine speech, even divine
speech, especially divine speech, divine speech
is to doomed to fail, written like spoken. But you use the pieces to
say something new, something your own. You insist on it. Hermeneutic ingenuity
lives by incongruity. Real closeness is so
doomed to betrayal, and real betrayal bespeaks and
affirms a prior causal abiding closeness. Every writing is a rewriting,
for better and for worse. This is ironic. Actually, says Broken
Tablets, this is irony. The betrayal of intimacy
and the intimacy of betrayal are the quintessence of
it, its very definition. Irony presupposes
sharedness, activates it, then turns it against
itself, one way or the other. Every sharer is an Israelite,
every writer more so. Broken Tablets. The title of the
book brilliantly captures its content,
its method, its style, and its argument. How dare I respond to it,
to the challenge it poses? Dare I betray? Well, who doesn’t want
to affirm closeness? There is social capital to gain! Ironic exclamation point. Not to mention, growing
an incipient friendship. But will it ring true, a
good and proper betrayal? Conflict avoid and
forgo true gain, or risk all, affirm
closeness, and betray. Claim a was and
an is all at once. It is the latter I fear, but
it will be the latter, I fear . Arguably, well,
argued, actually, is that betrayal is
ethical and the risk, it’s the very ethics of the thing. Broken tablets. There’s another tablet
in Biblical idiom, the tablet that is the
hear, the seat of though. In the idiom’s trope,
one can inscribe it and dictate the terms of one’s
personality and commitments. This requires it be fleshy,
fresh, pliable, impressionable, not hard like stone, dry and
fixed, baked for 1,000 years. In the book of Proverbs, a
book collecting varieties of instructional speech, an
authority speaking to a son warns him not to not
hear, but to inscribe his parents’ teaching on
the unbreakable tablet that is his heart. As we say today, to internalize. Their is should be his is. Not was here. An is controlling what will be,
asserting itself timelessly, as every is does, but in this
special case, quintessentially. One jarring, unframed
speech in Proverbs lists the many
ways any new is is a betrayal, a denial
of parents that unravels the social fabric. Our modern notion of parental
love makes of this an irony, but of the Abraham
moderns still model, Yahweh says, I
revealed myself to him so he will impress my ways
upon his family and household. Rabbi Simlai of
Talmudic existence imagines every curled-up fetus
a pinkas, a chain of writing slats, folded up, one
upon the other, inscribed with the entire [INAUDIBLE]. Elsewhere in the
Bible, a mixed metaphor has the heart pruned
and cultivated, marked and enculturated,
branded and ready to receive, incised, and
circumscribed– circumcised. How ironic, I feel, that
Abraham, father of all fathers, protects his is, launching
it, quantumly into eternity and timelessness,
prevents it becoming a was by sacrificing the
next is the son promised him as part of his own is. The irony here
cuts the other way. The father betrays the son,
hands him over, serves him up, cuts him down. How iconically the
episode serves so many. How ironically it
betrays its retellers. Broken tablets, broken hearts,
broken figures, textual shards. The Bible is a container
of literary fragments, a jar full of shards,
each grasped as a whole and wholly representative,
a was, well, a was looking potential is,
really, activated fleetingly as a past is, just to be made a
once was for the sake of a now is. Literary snips and strips
eerily mistaken for religion. Narratives of characters,
causes and results, fields of reference constituted
by nouns and past tense verbs, refer together to nothing
but their own grammaticalized assertions, and grow
in assertiveness with every new reinforcing sign. A boat built under ones feet
while rowing in the sea, so [INAUDIBLE]. Or subatomic particles made
of the flimsiest and most fleeting matter,
empowered by proximity. Broken tablets, broken records. For Levinas, I get the
impression religion has many ises and wases. Once, literature. Twice, ritual as exercise, a
la Maimonides and Mendelssohn. Thrice, kiddush, holiness
as separation, othering and otherwise. I would say making
special and specially or making treasure
and treasuring, with all the entailments and
a clear admission of self. Derrida seems devoted
to returning to Levinas and betraying him,
time after time. Is that not religion? Is it literature after religion
or literature as religion? How different from
literature is religion? Movement and meeting
around the missing. What are both, but
human imagination simultaneously facilitated
and constrained by limitation and
the alleged brile? There is a difference. I might say it turns on
commitment and compulsion, a difference between
earnestness and play. In a line I love, Broken Tablets
distinguishes, [INAUDIBLE] between truth and taste. With a conceptualization
I really appreciate, Broken Tablets describes
literature’s project and problem as turning religion
from rule and regulation to resource. Well, fancy that. From my little
intellectual corner, I’ve opened no new vistas,
shed no uncanny light but backed myself into your
very argument, haven’t I? Epic fail. No triumphant betrayal here,
after all, just of myself and you, the audience. This much I can say
of Broken Tablets. It has magically
enfleshed my tablet and inscribed my heart anew. No exclamation point. With the earnestness of
the period, thank you. [APPLAUSE] KEVIN HECTOR: And now for
something completely different. [LAUGHING] I regularly tell people that
I have a much better job than I deserve. One reason why that’s so and
one reason why people usually agree with me is because
I get to work with people like Sarah Hammerschlag. Professor Hammerschlag
is already a star in her field,
fields, but she’s also a generous, highly valued, and,
frankly, brilliant colleague and teacher. I am honored to work
with her, accordingly, and honored to be part
of this conversation about her second
book, Broken Tablets. There is much to
admire about this book. For one thing,
Professor Hammerschlag knows her way around
French philosophy better than I know my
way around my house. [LAUGHING] That would be more
of a compliment if I was really good at
knowing where I put things. [LAUGHING] For another,
Professor Hammerschlag brings an abundance of fresh
insight to this material, helping us to see not only what
these figures argued, nor only why these arguments matter, but
what their larger implications are for the relationship
between religion, literature, and politics. This is, in sum, a major
work, the work of someone who not only commands a field
but has something important to contribute to it. I could spend all
of my allotted time, therefore, praising
this book, but I gather that’s not what
I’ve been asked to do. And in any case, I do have
some questions about one of its claims, and I would
be interested to hear what Professor Hammerschlag
has to say about them. These questions are a response
to Professor Hammerschlag’s claim that this book has, quote
“wider implications for us going forward,” end
quote, particularly with respect to politics. Each of my questions
thus concerns the book’s implications
for democracy, and in particular, Professor
Hammerschlag’s insistence against those who maintain
that the problem with irony is, quote, “its supposed
lack of orientation,” end quote, that irony
would, in fact, quote, “orient us toward
justice,” end quote. To understand why its critics
would suppose that irony lacks orientation, it is
important to say something before proceeding about
Professor Hammerschlag’s Derridean understanding
of irony itself. At the most basic
level, an irony may obtain only when there
is a conflict between what a subject says or
does on the one hand and what he or she
intends on the other. This is what Professor
Hammerschlag has in mind, I take it, when she asserts
that irony, quote, “belies its expressed
intention,” end quote. Derrida’s view of
irony goes well beyond this garden-level
understanding, however, for in light of his
claims about pantextuality, Derrida thinks that
irony, in the sense of a conflict between what is
said or done on the one hand and what one intends on the
other, obtains everywhere. This explains why he
thinks that, quote, “irony, in some sense, is always
already at work,” end quote. From this, Derrida draws
a decisive inference. Namely, that irony
cannot serve to, quote, “unmask the discrepancy between
the real and the ideal,” end quote, since it
must equally unmask, and so render undecidable,
these very ideals themselves. For Derrida, then, it’s irony,
and therefore undecidability, instability, and an
unknowability all the way down, which brings me back
to my basic question, would the proliferation
and perception of irony in this sense actually
orient us toward justice? There are at least three ways
in which Professor Hammerschlag contends that it would do so. We are told, first, that
irony is a powerful weapon against domination
and discrimination, precisely because such
destabilization would undermine the taken-for-granted rectitude
of the self-righteous, or in literary
idiom, of the Alazon. As Professor Hammerschlag
puts it, “if the target of irony is indeed the Alazon– that is, the one who he has
not only the answers, but also the right to decide who
is on the side of virtue and who is not– then the very fact of
irony’s destabilizing quality would make it a propaedeutic
of another sort, one that operates counter to a
will to domination, counter to a will of
discrimination,” end quote. Here, then, Derridean
irony is called upon to undermine the
self-assuredly self-righteous, and thus, to undermine the
domination and discrimination that they mean to impose. This is an attractive
conclusion if we think of its target as, say,
activists from Westboro Baptist Church. Just insofar as we think
it’s attractive, however, because, say, Westboro
Baptist’s hatefulness is wrong, Derridean irony would
undermine us, too, along with anyone else who would
make any such moral judgment, for as soon as we
do so, we, too, are in the position
of being Alazon. On Derrida’s view, recall,
irony and undecidability apply all the way
down and not only to positions that we
perceive to be unjust. And so, I wondered does
that really leave us better off, just this once? That is to say, does
it really promote justice if we can never say,
ironically, that, quote, “there are people who
are wrong,” end quote? Here, I’m quoting a
line from Levinas. It’s worth noting that it’s
cited with apparent disapproval in the text, so can we say,
ironically, under this rubric, there are people who are wrong? We can come at the same
point from a different angle. We’re elsewhere told that
once we see irony everywhere, when, quote, “all
hypotheses are permitted, groundless, and ad
infinitum end quote, that this will
orient us to justice. But I wonder if
that’s what we would think if we applied
this principle to, say, phony debates over
climate change or voter fraud. In these debates, experts
in climatology and political science cite
overwhelming evidence to establish the truth
of certain propositions and insist that
those who disagree with these
propositions are wrong. Against this, one surprisingly
is pressingly effective response has been simply
to interject competing explanations in order to
give people the impression that, well, the
issue is undecidable. In such cases, I
wonder, do we really think that the introduction of
undecidability, instability, and unknowability by itself
orients us to justice? I have a hard time seeing
why that would be so. The orientation seems, to
me, ambivalent at best. That brings us to a second
claim that the effect of irony is oriented towards
justice, namely, that it undercuts a conception
of sovereignty that supposedly justifies the dominion
of some over others. Sovereignty here means
something along the lines of unconditioned,
self-determining, self-caused subjectivity, and
such sovereignty is that which
supposedly justifies, quote, “the concentration in
so few hands of so much power,” end quote, a pretty apparent
reason that one can see oneself as wholly self-grounded
and, thus, as a wholly independent actor
vis-a-vis others, only on the basis of
some such conception. Against this, one
might simply point out with Elizabeth Warren
all of the ways that such persons didn’t build
that, the manifold ways, that is, that they
depend upon others. But Derrida pursues a
more radical approach, wherein the alleged
unconditionedness, allegedly at the root of such sovereignty,
namely, the unconditionedness of reason, is called
fundamentally into question by means of irony. His strategy here
is thus to, quote, “behead the king that reigns
within our very conception of what we think
it means to think, where this involves mobilizing
the literary structures within reason itself,
binding its fictions and making them function
as such,” endquote. Derrida thus seems to think
that if he can undermine reason by exhibiting its fundamental
instability, undecidability, et cetera, then he’ll undermine
a particular conception of sovereignty, and that if
he undermines that conception, he will likewise undermine
the concentration of power that it supposedly justifies. Ironism might, thus,
appear to move us in the direction of justice,
but once again, I’m not sure. For one thing, I worry
that if we undercut reason, we might lose a
powerful justification not only of sovereignty, but
of the modern idea of rights, since the latter two are
built upon a foundation of unconditioned, inviolable,
dignity-conferring subjecthood. The latter idea has
arguably done more to promote justice than any
other in history– that’s a little much so I would be
especially reluctant to part with it. And I’m not sure the
payoff for doing so would be worth it, in any case,
frankly, since it’s not clear– I’m sorry– since,
frankly, it’s not clear just how much the
power of the powerful actually depends upon an
Enlightenment notion of reason. To put it bluntly,
I highly doubt that Steve Bannon
or the Koch brothers would lose one bit of power
or give up one bit of power if they were to admit
that reason, and therefore their sovereignty, is
finally ungrounded, whereas the powerless would
lose one of their most powerful weapons against
powerful if they were to admit that the idea of human
rights is similarly ungrounded. Here again, then, pan-ironism
seems ambivalent at best in its relation to justice. And I suspect, by the
way, that ambivalence here would function as a
kind of regressive tax, since taking the same thing
away from the powerful and the powerless would
hurt the latter far more than the former, or
so it seems to me. That brings us to a
third way that irony is supposed to promote justice,
namely, by calling universals into question and just so,
protecting the singularity of every capital O Other. Derridean ironism
is thus supposed to, quote, “respect the
absolute, absolutely irreduceable, untranslatable
idiom of the other,” end quote, and to do this by
exhibiting, quote, “the disruption between the
singular and the universal,” end quote. Such disruption calls attention
to a peculiar and pervasive irony, namely, the irony
of using words or concepts to represent a singular
other, for words and concepts traffic in that which
is repeatable, iterable, or universal, such that to
use them to speak of or think about a singular
other would thereby be to betray that other. This is why Derrida claims,
for instance, that, quote, “the effacement of
singularity is present as soon as there
are words, or again, that when other
announces itself as such, it presents itself in the
dissimulation of itself,” end quote. There’s a profound
irony here, accordingly, but this is supposed
to be good news, for as soon as we learn
to spot this irony, we become aware that the
otherness of the other always eludes our words,
our conceptual grasp. Derridean ironism is thus
supposed to protect otherness, and just so, to promote justice. This is an attractive claim,
but I wonder, yet again, whether it would indeed
orient us toward justice. To see why, consider a
scenario like the following. Suppose a wealthy white
presidential candidate characterizes all African
Americans in the following terms, you’re living
in poverty, he says. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs, and so on. Now, suppose that someone
stands up to him and says, not all African Americans
live in inner cities, as a matter of fact, nor
are all African Americans poor or jobless or poorly
educated, and so on. In this scenario, the
presidential candidate’s use of stereotypes obviously
occludes the particularities of the persons to whom
he is applying them. As such, it might
actually promote justice if his words were subjected
to Derridean ironism, that is, if we were reminded of the fact
that singular others always elude every conceptualization. The problem, though, is
that if we follow Derrida, the exact same thing must
be said of the words used to oppose those stereotypes,
since the very act of speaking not only betrays the
singularities of which one would speak, but because
singularity is here construed in absolute
terms, there is, finally, no decidable difference
between betraying that singularity by
invoking bigoted stereotypes and doing so by speaking out
against such stereotypes. In the pan-ironists night,
accordingly, all cats are grey, since it equally undermines
those whose words promote justice and those
whose words hinder it. Again, then, irony
is here supposed to play a key role in orienting
politics toward justice, but I have a hard time seeing
how it would do so, especially absent the substantive
conception of justice, of the sort forbidden under
the reign of pan-ironism. I strongly suspect, then,
that I’m missing something. I say this without irony,
utterly without irony. I honestly suspect that
I’m missing something. I’m playing away, not at home. And I would be grateful
if Professor Hammerschlag would help me see what that is. And it would be
especially helpful if she could do so in
connection with some of the examples of the sort
that I’ve been talking about, because I’m a bit
of a Missourian when it comes to
understanding things. I look forward to
our conversation, accordingly, but
in the meantime, let me reiterate my genuine
appreciation for this book, as well as my sincere
admiration for its author. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] So, first, I want to thank
Kevin Hector and Simeon Chavel for taking the time,
especially at this particularly busy time of year and also
Dean Rosengarten for presiding. These are the kind of events,
these Dean’s Forums, that highlight some of the
things that I love most about this place, the
particular breed of collegiality that it is its epoch, not mere
politeness or even fellowship, but a commitment to
engage the ideas of others with seriousness, and, really,
a dedication that I think is among the highest
of scholarly virtues. I see this here and I saw
this, also in the guest lectures that so many faculty
gave in my intro class, so I’m sincerely
grateful for them. I want to say thank
you, particularly– I want to say thank
you to both of you, really, for the contents of
what you put forward tonight, and I want to try to
frame the nature of what I see as your critiques. I’m particularly
grateful for Kevin because this is the– these
are these questions that need to be discussed,
and so I appreciate the fact that you [INAUDIBLE]. But Simeon, let me just say
that I heard in your remarks the particular contention that
the division between religion and literature in some sense
is too strong in the book, that in fact, if one thinks
about the way in which Biblical texts operate, they already
include so many of the features that one might associate
with literature, and I don’t– absolutely– I absolutely do not
disagree with that, and yet, the one
thing I’d want to say has to do with the
nature of authority that I think is intrinsic
to the religious community and what it means to read
within the religious community, and how the same dynamics
of literary texts versus religious text
function differently depending on the nature
of that authority. And so for me, what’s
interesting about Derrida and is particularly
in his late work is the way in
which one can begin to see that with
all texts, there’s a kind of promise for
the revelation of truth that one will have in
and through the reading. There’s a promise
that is deferred about that definitive truth. And any of the students in
my literary criticism class can speech to the way in which
we saw the circulate when we look at 20th
literary criticism, but that, within
religious communities, the power dynamic of
authority and the nature of religious truth
functions in such a way that under girds authority, and that
literature can actually reveal the similarities between
the way texts operate, within religious communities
and within literary reading practices. And the conjunction
between the two can actually expose
that parallel, and that one can see that the
promise, too, is parallel. But that the difference
between that promise, when one knows at the end
of the novel, damn it, I’m just not going to find out. I’m just not going
to get the answer. I’m going to post
it and I’m going to insist on the authority
of my interpretation, but I’m not going to know. And the way in which
that promise gets deferred in religious
contexts, and I say that as a blanket
statement, which of course can be challenged. But I do think within religious
reading practices, the sense in which that promise becomes
a way to wield adhesion to doctrine, adhesion
to community, and then it creates
the insider outsider dynamic, in which to be
the one who is in the know, is one of the ways
in which one protects the impossibility of the
revelation of the final answer. So that’s the nature
of the distinction that I want to draw. Kevin, thanks for putting
so clearly the issue that I think in our particular
moment, I have to address. And obviously, I have
thought enormously about this since the appearance
of Trump on the scene, and I think that there are a
couple things worth saying. So I’ve been thinking
about this election and thinking about writing a
piece on this that’s longer. And the thing that
first came to mind was the obituary that
was in the New York Times after Derrida died, in which
he was called a charlatan. And in some sense, the
challenge that you’re posing is to suggest that
poststructuralism actually is this– creates a shifting ground
in which nobody can be anything but a charlatan. Or that it takes away from
us the certainty, supposedly, of facts and of the
certain idea of the subject within the liberal
tradition, right? And I guess what
I was struck by, in thinking through this
idea of a charlatan is the fundamental difference
between the way in which Derrida wields uncertainty and
uncertainty is being wielded by a particular version
of the right right now. And that difference has to
do with power and authority, and it has to do with scrutiny. So let’s take the very idea of
the promise and plagiarism, OK? So one of Derrida’s concepts
is that every speech act involves a promise. I will be faithful to you. And every speech act,
also, at the same time, involves a plagiarism
that, because, insofar as I begin representing
myself to you, the distance between my
intention and I say always appears. That this concomitant, what
he called a double bind, between that promise
and that plagiarism, is fundamental to
every speech act. Now, one could say that that
creates a shifting ground, but what it creates, more than
anything, is a kind of scrutiny that one has to put into motion
with every single speech act, and that scrutiny is actually
a political ethic of humility. So the true justice
actually appears very rarely in this book. There’s an emphasis in
your response on justice. I am interested in the
political consequences of thinking about the
relationship between religion and literature. Much of that has to
do with the nature of political subjectivity,
more than anything, and the kind of
political subject who is aware of the
kind of scrutiny that should be a part
of every speech act, and that that kind of
humility and scrutiny is the thing that is most
lacking on the right. And then if, in
fact, you might say that one of the
faults of the left is that they still insist
on that kind of scrutiny. And when we talk about
something like climate change, it’s a very interesting example. The thing about a certain
form of the scientific method is that it can involve
this kind of scrutiny, in which every argument
that you put forward, every finding you
have is provisional. And there’s something
about the very quality of a political actor
as provisional, which I think is at
the heart of what I see as a political virtue,
let’s say, in the project that I’m posing. There are ways in
which scientists can be blind to the fact that
their findings are provisional. They can be blind to the fact
their method is sometimes ungrounded in the scrutiny
that needs to be undertaken in order to make that method the
strongest that it possibly can. And when that happens,
science develops its own kind of arrogance. And that, at this
particular moment, may not be the arrogance
that most concerned about, but it is an arrogance that
we should be concerned about, and it’s something that of
course, we are concerned about, as scholars of religion. The reason that I love being
in the field of religion is that I think
that people who work within the context
of tradition tend to be more aware of the kinds
of rubrics that under gird their statements. They’re self-aware about them. And I think that scientists
aren’t always this self-aware, and I think that when we
converse with scientists, we take– many of us take pride in
the kind of self-awareness that’s involved in being
a scholar of religion. So I don’t think that that
answers all of your concerns. I think that the question
of how we use the term fact, I don’t think
Derrida actually ever undermines the very possibility
of there being facts. And I certainly don’t think that
Derrida ever undermines reason. And let me be clear about
this and I’ll stop after this, but I think it’s
important to say that to rethink the nature of
an autonomous subject in no way means a departure from
reason, but it means that one recognizes that– and I think
Kant, a certain reading of Kant recognizes this, too, that
there is a certain fiction that is necessary to the
claim of autonomy, and that there are ways in
which sometimes we embolden the idea of freedom the nature
of autonomy in such a sense that we aren’t aware of
the fictions that enable us to make those kind of claims. And then, I think
that an awareness of those kinds of fictions is
extremely publicly productive. Why? Because it involves
the possibility of a kind of dialogue
in which perspective is always the honored,
in which the necessity of having to argue
for your point, rather than assuming that
your point, because you speak from a position of being
a scientific expert are taken on fact and are taken
as having a kind of weight that they might
not otherwise have. But that kind of ethic
within political discourse is incredibly useful. And I don’t think the left
would be wise to discourage it, at this point. And I certainly don’t think
the self-righteousness of claiming that one
has fact on one’s side is actually doing much for
us, in this political moment. In fact, what I
think is probably more for us is the
recognition that what we have is multiple
perspectives of people with very different life
experience, all of whom are oriented towards the
same goal and the same aim. And at this point, that’s the
power that we have to yield– to wield. Thank you. [APPLAUSE] RICHARD ROSENGARTEN: Great,
thanks, all three of you. And we have 10 or 12
minutes for questions, so the floor is open. Or comments. Please, go ahead. AUDIENCE: I enjoyed
the conversation. Thank you. And it was helpful to be
in your course last quarter and talked over some of these
things, so I’m curious is it– why– what is– what
particularly is effective or unique about– so you talked about the
distance between the speech act and the intention. Yes, and then you brought it
up, I think, regarding Derrida. And how that can lead to a
political ethic of humility. So what– could one come to
that ethic in another way? And is that– what would
make the Derridean way of getting there? What one would choose over
another way of getting to that? Does that make sense? SARAH HAMMERSCHLAG: Sure. Yeah, I certainly don’t want to
diminish any other act of that, as a political virtue. But philosophically, I take very
seriously Derridean critiques of the liberal tradition. And because of that, I want to
speak to the kind of virtues of those critiques. If you discount those
critiques, which, interestingly, I found that Professor
Hector didn’t actually discount the critiques,
he discounted what happens when
one begins to speak from a position
in which you take those critiques for granted. But if you take the– if
you read the arguments and you take the
critiques seriously, then the question’s are there
political– because anyone can argue that Derrida was himself,
fundamentally [INAUDIBLE] right? So part of the– one of the
claims I had in the book was that this interest
later in his life, towards what he calls
his democracy to come, is profoundly political
and that literature is this place in
which you actually should exercise the kind
of political virtues that he was peddling. Does that answer your question? AUDIENCE: Thank you. I think my question, on
some level, is short. It’s can you continue
where you left off? Because I think that this point
you raised at the end of what’s helping the left is not sort
of self-righteous conviction, that we have the
facts, but actually what will be more
beneficial and powerful is to see, actually, the common
goals that different factions have, and to actually
start working towards that. But I wonder if we could then
easily slip into a sense where, what are the goals
and how do we know those are the proper goals? And then, there can still
be disagreement about what the proper path would be. Does that put us back
into the same trap, or are we shifting from that– SARAH HAMMERSCHLAG:
What’s the trap? AUDIENCE: The trap is this
sort of ironic relativism that can emerge. So if, for example, the
agenda of Bernie Sanders seems to have elements that a
lot of people could get behind, and then that would be in
tension with the sort of Trump agenda. We’re then still
going into a place where we have two different
views, two different visions, and then how to negotiate
that without irony. SARAH HAMMERSCHLAG: So maybe the
connection that I need to make is between irony and scrutiny,
in the sense that– so the fear seems to be that irony gives us
the night in which all cows are black. And the argument that
I’m making is actually that the practices
that we recognize here are those that
involve the insistence on a kind of scrutiny. So let me separate
the two arguments, because the argument that I’m
making about irony in the book has to do with the way in which
irony can be used in two ways. It can be used to
create communities. It can be used to reveal the
impossibility of one’s claims being assumed to be
understood in certain ways. That was the benefits of
that kind of practice. So on the one hand,
I see a kind of irony that gets used to
create insider outsider divides where we all assume
that we know what really is entailed, as a
kind of potentially destructive political
irony, and this is the irony that I associate certain moments
with the way in which Levinas worked within his communities,
that if you get it– and this is what I’m talking
about when I’m talking about demonstrated reading in
the religious community versus reading in the
literary community. If you get it, then
you’re on the inside. If you don’t get it, then
you’re on the outside, and that also has
a nexus of desire which creates an emphasis of
wanting to be on the inside. On the other hand, I
think that undermining the stakes of that kind of
language, which in some sense, is one of the things that I
think that we need to recognize and undermine in the way that
Trump uses a doublespeak, that the doublespeak he
uses is very much to create certain kinds of alignment. It’s a doublespeak that,
if you’re on his side, it doesn’t mean you
believe him– in fact, the question of belief is
actually not really relevant. The question is that
is it only a matter of whether you position
yourself on the inside or whether you position
yourself on the outside. And then you’re
aligning with him because he’s a figure
of power, rather than because he’s telling the truth. And so, actually,
to think about, critically, and this
is one of the things that I think is
interesting about the way poststructuralism can allow us
to talk and think about irony. To think about the
way in which irony can be wielded as
a political tool unearths the ways in which
discourse disguises power. It covers up power. And then, what I see as the sort
of political function of irony is a kind of critical
tool against those moments of inclusion and exclusion,
of which we think we’re talking about truth,
but in fact, we’re not, because in fact, the only way
in which you can say you get it is not to get it,
it’s to align yourself on one side versus the other. AUDIENCE: What is the
relation between irony meant as you’re
describing right now and what you are mentioning as– we know what is the
commonhood that we share, the idea of commonhood,
that we can have and that the opposing
part does not have? Can you work with
irony like that, or is irony excluded
by that kind of– SARAH HAMMERSCHLAG: Yeah, I was
at the Women’s March on Sunday and there was so much irony in
the political signs that I saw, and it was wonderful. And it was wonderful
for some of the reasons that I sometimes am
critical of, in the sense that if certain of the
slogans you laugh at, and the experience of laughing
is the experience of being understood. Right? And that experience,
itself, creates a kind of political cohesion. But I also would say that
one of the things I find kind of energizing, in the kind
of grassroots expression that I see being mobilized is
the way in which they’re not built on a kind of
foundationalist understanding of identity. They’re actually built
on the performance of certain kind of identities,
and those performances are powerful because
they’re being criticized. And so they’re in play in a kind
of game of power and retorts, right? And the kind of
foundational claims, I am queer because
I was born that way, or I am queer because
I was, you know, exposed to certain things. Those are the debates
that are being mobilized, and the idea’s that in
expressing oneself as queer, one is mobilizing
the conversation and empowering that movement. And then the irony in its
multifaceted dimensions becomes a part of the power
of that freedom of speech. I see that as
incredibly liberating. AUDIENCE: So there’s
a notion that the political– the movement of
political correctness embraced by the left has, in a
sense, made impossible that move towards more
towards ironic discourse, because there’s always
danger of insult and of offending
in being ironic. So– yeah. SARAH HAMMERSCHLAG:
That was the most– that’s the sign–
this pussy grabs back. That is not a politically
correct statement. No, it’s not. But it’s actually to say that– I mean, the hats. My stepmother wanted
to meet up at the march and my daughter had one. She said, I don’t know
how to feel about– [LAUGHING] And I was– it’s my seven
year old, wearing a pussy hat. And to me, the sense in which
this army of women, older women, thin women, fat women,
dark women, light women, women, all wearing these
hats, and what that actually does to the
politically correct [INAUDIBLE].. Because it actually
changes it, right? It changes it because
the attacks re-mobilized all these terms in
a way in which they had a political [INAUDIBLE]. Now, I know I’m sounding
way– and every time I talk about this, I get too salty
for it, which is fundamentally problematic [INAUDIBLE]. But I do find it exciting
to see different form of the political
iteration of irony. AUDIENCE: So one of
the things that I heard in Professor
Hector’s response was a discussion of what your
claims about politics would mean in what I think of
as an institutional political context, and the
difficulty of bringing in some of these
political claims to an actual
institutional framework and distributing them that way. And I’m wondering if
you could follow up on that a little more. What is– since I take it in
Derrida and in your argument about Derrida, the
argument of politics to be a politics
that extends well beyond institutional
frameworks and criticizes institutional frameworks as
themselves causing problems of a political nature. What is the relationship between
applicability of this politics and the mechanisms for
political application that exists in our institutions? Is there an institutional
side to this politics that could be mobilized ever, truly? Or is it always something that
has to be beyond or outside of the institution? SARAH HAMMERSCHLAG: So, I
don’t– of those people who read Derrida politically, I
fall somewhere in the middle, because there are those who see
it as having a kind of radical leftist politics and there
are those who see him as being a kind of quietness. And so what falls somewhere in
the middle is to take seriously but to say that the idea
of democracy to come is in fact a kind of endorsement
of the liberal tradition. It’s an endorsement of the
liberal tradition in practice, and it’s to say that within
the liberal tradition are mobilized what he sees
as antimonies, values that are actually
fundamentally at odds with each other,
like individuality and equality, which are
always going to be mobilized against one another, and that
the capacity of mobilizing those values against
one another is actually the potential of the
liberal tradition, and that the liberal tradition
is fast and mobilizes those antimonies, rather
than trying to hide them. So do I think that
there are– does it mean restructuring institution? No, it means
thinking differently about the kind of
political agency that’s at work in
our institutions and do we have the
potential for using different forms of participation
in those institutions? That’s where I stand. RICHARD ROSENGARTEN: So I
think we’re out of time, but before you move,
I wanted to ask you to join me in thanking the
panel, and especially Sarah. [APPLAUSE]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *