If anyone cares, I have done some revising to the page at my website where I summarize some of my views, for the purpose of introducing myself to people online. It’s called “Cosmik Debris,” after the Frank Zappa song.
I shared the following remarks on Remembrance Day (November 11th) in 2015 to the student body of Conrad Grebel University College (University of Waterloo). I am deeply grateful to Trevor Bechtel for inviting me to share them, and to the students at Conrad Grebel for their warm response.
A lot of people are remembering today.
Remembering is something that we do in different ways, for different reasons.
Remembering can be difficult to do, for various reasons.
Remembering can be difficult NOT to do, for various reasons.
Remembering is sometimes comfort, sometimes intense pain, sometimes indifferent.
Remembering is sometimes trustworthy, but sometimes not so.
I’ve been reading Sigmund Freud a fair amount lately. He wrote about the memories that one has of early childhood, and why those memories have a character so different from our memories from about the age of about 7 to 10, and after. Those memories of early childhood, he believed, are often “covering memories.” They are memories of things that seem mundane and not very important, but they become associated with something important that a part of our mind does not want to remember. His German word is often translated as “screen memories.” They are memories that screen out the more important things that are repressed, while still serving as a kind of stand-in for them, like a projection of them, but very distorted.
It might be better for us to hear it as “covering memories,” since we now so often use screens to remember, rather than to cover. Or, if the screens bring us video or games, perhaps they do help us to repress too.
Anyway, Freud found that it is possible, at least sometimes, to get back to the repressed memories, to the important stuff. But it is hard, and often takes a long time, and isn’t guaranteed to turn out right.
Remembering Freud on this matter can help us to remember how complicated it might be to remember, or to not remember, or to get a hold on what it is to remember.
I have a complicated memory that I’d like to share with you today. Before I share it, you need to know a little bit about me. I have been a Mennonite all of my adult life, basically since late adolescence, but I did not grow up Mennonite. When it comes to the kind of remembering a lot of people are doing today in Canada (and a lot of people do in the United States every May), Mennonites are often in a rather uncomfortable place. Our tradition has generally held that military service is not compatible with being a disciple of Jesus. I do see myself as in that tradition, and most days I’m pretty sure that’s what I think too.
But my father was in the US Army Air Corps at the end of World War II. The only reason he did not go to Europe was because the war ended. I’ve always had both family members and friends who serve. My son-in-law, whom I love as a son, has been deployed twice, first in Iraq and then in Djibouti. In that situation, I have long struggled with how I should respond when we are called to remember those who serve in this way. I’m very aware that such service is offered at great risk. Consciously. Bravely. It’s made more difficult, I think, by the fact that I have never been in a position where I had to worry about the possibility of conscription, and I was never in a place where it seemed like an option to me, such that I had to struggle with it in the first person, so to speak. I worry about being a convinced conscientious objector when I don’t know the measure of my own courage and readiness for self-sacrifice.
But here is the memory I want to share: It’s from about fifteen years ago, or a little more, I think. At the time, I was in a singing group, a barbershop quartet, with three men all of whom were older than me, and two of whom had served in World War II, and were active in the American Legion. As part of that group, I was sometimes asked to sing in settings where we were honoring veterans, and especially those who died in action. I did so, though not without some strong Mennonite guilt.
One Memorial Day I sang with the quartet for a ceremony at a cemetery, which was attended by a fairly large number of people. After the ceremony, one of the members of our quartet, one of the veterans, asked if we could go with a small group to another smaller cemetery on the other side of the town we were in. We went. Just the four of us in the quartet, and the honor guard, the men who fired the salute. That’s who went. There was no one else. We sang, the guns fired, and we were silent. We were not there for anyone else. We were not there for ourselves. We were there for the dead. We were there because, for my veteran friends, it was the thing to do to remember.
I was struck that day by how important it was to my friends, not to put on a show for the living, but to remember the dead. To not forget. I remembered that day despite all of my hesitations, despite whatever misgivings I had about what military action had been applied where, to whom, for what reason. Not because of what the dead had done, but because it was important to remember. I think I will always remember that time, in that cemetery. It’s made me more likely than some of my Mennonite friends to thank those who have served for their courage and willingness to do so, and to remember those who came back in bags, or coffins, or not at all.
I also remember Anabaptist-Mennonite fallen, who have at times accepted suffering and death rather than serving such that they might have to kill.
But I do remember both.
Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn captures some of the tension I feel, though differing some in the experience behind it, in his song “Each One Lost.”
Each one’s loss is everyone’s loss, you see.
Each one lost is a vital part of you and me.
Cockburn knows that this is true, not because we agree politically, but because we are all in this (whatever “this” is) together.
I share this with you today, hoping that you can see that remembering is not agreeing. Remembering is not endorsing. Remembering is… Remembering.
And if remembering is hard, that often makes it more important that we do it.
I’ve added a page to my website for the series, “20 Looks at the Lamb,” that I’m working on over at Progarchy. Follow this link to check it out. It includes all of the posts in order, and I will update it as I complete the series. (I started it two and a half years ago, I guess, so who knows how soon it will be done?)
“You never stop wanting it to be simple, do you?” George is looking at me with those eyes that are both constrained and wild. There is accusation floating in front of them, making them waver as if from the heat of some desert. George is played by someone who looks a little like Sean Connery, but with rather bushy sideburns, and his accent is German rather than Scottish.
“I don’t want IT to be simple, because I know it’s not!” I need to be someone, so you can think of me as being played by Alan Tudyk today. “I just want to get the point through a heuristic strainer and into a blog post.”
Now it’s derision. “Blog posts!” Snort, eye roll. “I spend my entire career harping on how knowledge can only be in the finished system, and you want a blog post!”
“I think you know how well that point has played since you were writing.”
Deep sigh. “Indeed. I should be grateful that anyone pays any attention anymore.” Longish pause. “Okay, let’s try it.” I notice the slight grimace; he never likes it when he says something that sounds like Nietzsche.
The Object is on the table between us. Or so it seems. I reach out and point, bringing my index finger almost, but not quite into contact with it. I speak loudly, slowly, and deliberately. “THIS. HERE. NOW.”
George’s face has softened into an I’m-the-teacher sort of serenity. “Your utterance is supposed to be helpful because…?”
“Because it’s supposed to be certain no matter what else… happens. No matter what else IS. I can indicate The Object, I can MEAN it, whether it’s physical or mental. I can mean it even if it doesn’t exist, whatever that means. I can INDICATE it clearly, unambigously.”
George nods. “And when, exactly, is NOW?”
“It’s at the time when I point.”
“The time when you point is not present.”
“It was present at the time I did it.”
“A present presence that is recoverable how?”
My turn to nod, solemnly. “Only in relation to other presents; this one, for example.”
“And any of those other presents…?”
“Same deal. There’s no now without an enending cascade of thens.”
George nods again, and takes a deep breath. “Enough on that for your blog post.” We allow an electric silence.
After a while, he speaks again. “Where is HERE?”
Though I know where we’re going, my voice is slightly shaky. “It’s where I point.”
“And when you pointed, I was supposed to know what you were pointing to. That you were pointing to a whole thing and not one or some of its parts, that you were not pointing to its color, that you were not pointing to its surface as opposed to its depth, that I was supposed to follow the line of your finger away from your body and not toward it, yadda yadda yadda.” I’ve never heard George sound so hasty (in Treebeard’s sense).
“You’re really getting into the spirit of this blog post thing.”
His smile looks pained. “Spirit in English, there. Not Geist.”
“OK, so there is no HERE without an infinite array of THEREs, like the endless hallway created by facing mirrors.”
“Sure, that’ll do for your purposes.” Another silence descends and waits, as a child waits at the window for the next flash of lightning.
It’s longer this time before George continues. “And THIS?”
I’m afraid I might be stealing his thunder, but here goes. “It’s nothing but a NOT-THAT.”
George has been staring into space, and now makes deep eye contact. “Nothing but…”
“Are you Heidegger now?”
Snort. “Or is Heidegger me?”
“His way of thinking IS yours at this point, is it not? If there’s anything like a ‘bottom’ to what a THIS is, it’s how it turns up in my world. I can make it present-like-an-object by saying ‘THIS,’ but that presence never stops leaning on its being a THAT in relation to all of the other possible THISes.”
The pain is back in George’s smile. “Heidegger’s sense of what’s going on when you refer to ‘all of the other possible THISes’ is so freaking different from mine.” Deep sigh. “But yeah, that’s the gist.”
I can’t help smiling at this point. “Wow. We have a gist rather than Geist.”
His face softens. He never could wholly resist a pun. “And now you still need to say the last thing.”
I look at him blankly for a second, then I realize what he’s talking about. “That this is not silly subjectivism. We don’t just turn the pointing into ‘however it seems to me.’ I’m not a spectator apart from things; I am among the things, ambiguously a thing myself.”
George nods. “Very Merleau-Pontienne, but it’ll do as well.” He gestures at The Object. “It speaks to us in many voices, not one. But still it speaks. And we struggle, learning how to listen.”
A long, companionable silence.
“Thanks, George.” I stand to leave.
He stands to show me out. “You are very welcome. Come back anytime. You know that whenever you come back, HERE will be different. So will you and I.”
“That was the big point I had in mind today, I think. ‘I’ am not the same.”
“And yet it will still be you and me. We are the same. Same enough, so to speak.”
“I will come back. I always do.”
“We all do.”
I have been influenced significantly in my thinking and writing by philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004). Because that influence is quite visible, it is not unusual for people to ask me, if they wish to explore Derrida’s thought, where they should begin in reading his work. This post is an effort to provide an answer to this question.
Most people who know at least a little about Derrida know that his work is notoriously difficult to read. There are a number of reasons for this, and there has been heated controversy regarding all of those reasons. I will mostly ignore all such controversies here, and assume that anyone reading this sympathetically has decided (as I believe) that Derrida is worth taking seriously, and in fact will be an enduringly important figure in philosophy. The shortest version of my response to complaints about Derrida’s deliberately difficult way(s) of writing is this: There are other major figures in the history of philosophy whose work is just as difficult for various reasons. Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger come to mind first. If you’re not convinced that they are worth taking seriously, I can’t help you; feel free to go elsewhere.
I will also assume here that the reader has given at least some attention to some short, attempted summaries of Derrida’s thinking, online and/or in print (for example, the Wikipedia article). These can be helpful as long as you treat them as suspect, and watch for ways in which Derrida himself does not simply state, finalize, or “pin down” as much as the summaries do. His “play” in this regard is meant very seriously. (See my two posts on “Derrida’s Seriousness” at The Imaginative Conservative, here and here.)
I recommend first trying to get a sense of Derrida’s style of thinking more than the substance of what he is saying. It’s not that the substance is not important! But one is more likely to get something of the substance by giving privilege at first to how Derrida is writing. With that in mind, I suggest beginning with Derrida’s essay, “On Forgiveness,” in the book On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (Routledge). Once you’ve read the Forgiveness essay, you can try sampling other essay-length writings. Don’t be afraid to give up on one and try another if you’re just not connecting at all.
For accessible material, while you are dipping into his writing, also sample interviews with Derrida, of which many have been published. See the book, Points (Stanford U. Press), for example. Especially worthy of note, I believe, are two “interviews” (actually panel discussions) with Derrida. One of them, which helps to clarify how Derrida thinks about philosophy, is the centerpiece in John D. Caputo’s Deconstruction in a Nutshell (Fordham U. Press). (The rest of the book is a very helpful discussion by Caputo of how the panel discussion relates to the rest of Derrida’s work.) The other, entitled “Epoché and Faith,” is preserved in Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments (Routledge).
Of Grammatology is often referred to as Derrida’s “magnum opus,” or as his most “systematic” work. Don’t be fooled; approaching it in that light is misleading, and will probably be very disappointing. I don’t even recommend trying to read the whole thing, at least not early on (a number of other readers of Derrida told me this when I started). But there are parts of it that contain extremely important statements of how Derrida approaches reading texts. To begin getting a feel for this, I recommend reading the section entitled “The Exhorbitant. Question of Method” (p. 157 ff. Make sure you have the “corrected edition” of the English translation). It’s in that section that we find the famous sound byte, “there is no outside-text.” If some of the substance doesn’t make sense, just keep watching for Derrida’s way of thinking about how he is approaching the reading of texts, and how this relates to received, or more traditional ways of reading them. Sample the rest of the book if you find it helpful, but don’t rush.
The essay, “Différance,” is essential reading, though very tough. It mainly presupposes knowledge of Husserl’s phenomenology and of the “structuralist” linguistics of Saussure, but reading it slowly can pay off even if one is not intimately familiar with them. It is found in Margins of Philosophy (U. of Chicago Press), but has also been reprinted in a number of anthologies.
Another absolute must, at some point, is the first part (Section I) of the essay “Force of Law: The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority'” in Acts of Religion (Routledge). That is the key text relevant for my discussion of the “existence” of justice in the second of the TIC pieces linked above.
One of the longer texts by Derrida that I’ve found particularly rewarding is The Politics of Friendship (Verso).
Derrida’s famous engagement with American philosopher John Searle is enshrined in the book Limited Inc (Northwestern U. Press). It is considered by many to be a fairly accessible route into deeper Derridean territory.
I’ll leave it at that for “beginner’s” recommendations. I hope they are helpful.
Oh, one more thing: The documentary film, Derrida, is worth viewing (more than once, in fact). I think it subtly conveys Derrida the person, and his style of thought, as both being significantly different from what his reputation would lead us to expect.
Following is a link to an audio recording of a presentation that I did last year. It was part of a panel, “Human Sexuality and Theological Vocation in the Context of Personal, Institutional, and Ecclesial Practice,” Mennonite Scholars and Friends Forum (held in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion / Society of Biblical Literature annual meetings), San Diego, CA, November 22, 2014.
The title published beforehand was “Explicit Sex and Mennonite Scruples: On Normative and Descriptive Topographies of Sexuality.” I announced the alternate title at the beginning (“Fixations: An Event with Four Footnotes”). It ended up a bit different from what the original title envisioned, but the part after the colon still fully applies.
It is meant to be heard.
Audio of the presentation (mp3 format, 15.1 MB, 16 minutes).
A copy of the handout that was distributed to those present.
A friend wrote to me about cleaning out a closet, and finding things that he had written long ago. He said something about being mad, or “out of his mind” when he wrote them, and then said that they should be burned upon his death.
I, too, have things that I hope are burned upon my death. But I increasingly wonder at how this amounts to a hope that parts of my self are burned. (So “hope” needs its scare-quotes.) When I’m not “out of my mind,” as he put it, I ultimately don’t trust anyone to do that burning but God. And then I don’t really trust God, because God is always what I think as God and not really God. But I DO trust God to be God beyond all that. Mostly.
Now my friend’s missive has got me thinking about being “out of my mind,” and suspecting that’s where I am always, which is part of the problem, and also a large part of the wonder.
And now I have turned this into a blog post, which is rather like burning it, I suppose.
“WAKE UP, STUPID!!!”
What I feel is a hand slapping my face, and leaving a pain that is itself bright red, quite apart from the color one might see on the cheek.
But there’s dripping, and my shirt is wet. It’s water. Someone has thrown water in my face. Why did I think it was a slap?
I open my eyes, and it’s one of my sixth grade teachers. He has a mustache that almost covers his mouth, and when he speaks (if he’s not yelling), it sometimes comes out a bit mushy. He has bushy eyebrows too. Am I remembering that part right? Probably not. Who knows? Let’s say his name is Cole.
He’s holding a wooden pointer in one hand. For a second, it’s the pointer that he had hit me in the face with. Then I see the small pitcher in his other hand (his left), the size pitcher I’ve seen used for baptism by pouring in Mennonite churches, only this one is stainless steel rather than ceramic. Now it’s the water again. The water came from that.
“Are you gonna frickin’ wake up now?” Not yelling, so a bit mushy.
“I’m awake.” I thought my voice would be croaky, but it’s clear and pretty strong. “How long have I been asleep?”
“Hell if I know. I was just told to wake you up. I thought I was done with you years ago, and now I have to wake you the hell up.” He’s smiling now, but it looks like he’s in pain. I remember that this is how he smiled when he was my teacher.
“Why any of this make-believy bullshit?” The smile is gone, but not the pain. “You’re supposed to pick up on this stupid blog thing again, because you’re supposed to be thinking. And you don’t get as far with your thinking if you aren’t writing. That, along with how to wipe my own ass, is all that I know.”
I don’t remember Cole as being vulgar. But somehow it fits. It fits with sixth grade, which I remember the way one might remember an acid trip. (Not that I’ve ever actually been on one of those myself.)
“Writing. On the blog. Not just to myself.”
“Yup. Don’t ask me why. I really don’t know anything more. I gotta go listen to my Beatles records now, so you’d better be all the way awake.”
“Why would you HAVE to go listen to Beatles records?”
The pained smile again. “That’s a device to reinforce my identity for you, since you’re not clear on my appearance.” Right. He played Beatles records in class for us, and discussed their meaning, including the drug references.
I don’t have any response to offer, so I just nod. Cole turns and walks away.
As he leaves, he simply walks out of the light that we’ve been in the whole time. It’s like a large spotlight glow on an otherwise dark stage. But the spotlight isn’t coming from anywhere in particular. I look around and think about where I might be. Sixth grade. That’s why it was Cole. But the important thing is that it was right before middle school. Before the middle.
“Before the middle” is the associative payoff here. I’m supposed to do something with that.
As soon as I realize that, there is a loud click somewhere above, and the spotlight goes dark.
No particular thought reaches to the heart of our thought, nor is any thought conceivable without another possible thought that witnesses it. And this is not an imperfection from which we could imagine consciousness freed. If there really is to be consciousness, if something is to appear to someone, then an enclave [alt. tr.: a retreat of non-being], or a Self, must be carved out behind all of our particular thoughts. I do not have to reduce myself to a series of “consciousnesses,” and each of these consciousnesses, along with the historical sedimentations and the sensible implications with which it is filled, must be presented to a perpetual absence.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, tr. Landes (Routledge, 2012), 421.
“The possibility of another person’s being self-evident is owed to the fact that I am not transparent for myself, and that my subjectivity draws its body in its wake.” (Maurice Merleau-Ponty)
A restaurant breakfast with musical background
That opening guitar for “Band on the Run”
Is a time-machine suddenly jerking me back
To Midwestern nineteen seventy four
I think of how impossibly serious I was
Back then, how bent on knowing precisely what
And whom to love, what and whom to hate
Everything rode on the knowing, though I clearly
Knew not the scope or depth of “everything”
Nor do I know many deeper things now
But I do know that “everything” seems too much
And it’s THESE things in all their particularity
That ride on what I know and do this moment
Songs are often time machines for me
But the time they lead back to, so indirectly
Is the remembering time, not remembered time
And when I write it again right after this stanza
It will look the same, but will not be the same
This, I believe, is the appropriate image of human intercourse — appropriate because it recognizes the qualities, the diversities, and the proper relationships of human utterances. As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.