Thursday, November 16, 2006

Counterfeit Time

"The motif of the circle will obsess us through this cycle of lectures."


"Now the gift, if there is any, would no doubt be related to economy. One cannot treat the gift, this goes without saying, without treating this relation to economy, even to the money economy. But is not the gift, if there is any, also that which interrupts economy? That which, in suspending economic calculation, no longer gives rise to exchange? That which opens the circle so as to defy reciprocity or symmetry, the common measure, and so as to turn aside the return in view of the no-return? If there is gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giving (let us not already say to the subject, to the donor). It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation, of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure. If the figure of the circle is essential to economics the gift must remain aneconomic. Not that it remains foreign to the circle, but it must keep a relation of foreignness to the circle, a relation without relation of familiar foreignness. It is perhaps in this sense that the gift is the impossible.

"Not impossible but the impossible. The very figure of the impossible. It announces itself, gives itself to be thought as the impossible. It is proposed that we begin by this."--Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, tr. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1994), 7.

But one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of ever passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, in one way or another the collision must cause its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.
Johannes Climacus, Philosophical Fragments, ed. Soren Kierkegaard, tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985), 37.

We will, as Derrida says, as Johannes Climacus says, proceed slowly. We will not hurry to a conclusion, but consider all the points carefully. The figure of the circle obesses us in time. "One of the most powerful and ineluctable representations, at least in the history of metaphysics, is the representation of time as a circle. Time would always be a process or a movement in the form of a circle or ths sphere." (Derrida, p. 8) We don't want to hurry through that, either; we want to consider that carefully. This will take some time.

Christianity is saturated with time. It is a time-bound and time-obssessed religion, seemingly relying for the claims of its kerygma on the historical evidence of the existence of the Christ. Because Christianity claims that the circle of time was broken by the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. And that claim raises issues of paradox, and of time, and of the very nature of both time, and thought, and existence. So we always start with the impossible, with what Johannes Climacus labelled the "Absolute Paradox." But the paradox is not whether or not the idea can be conceived (that is another paradox altogether); the paradox is whether it can even be thought. And if we can think it, what are we thinking?

The figure of the circle obsesses Christianity when it thinks about time. The Messiah has come to redeem time, and will come to redeem time. The Messiah has come to proclaim the kingdom of heaven, and will come to proclaim the kingdom of heaven. For Christianity, history is the already happened and the not-just-yet, the passed, and passing, and to come. It is a circle which receives and repays and always offers another chance for reward and redemption. And it is broken and healed by the intrusion and arrival of the gift, a gift which truly cannot be thought, and which truly defies reciprocity and symmetry.

Perhaps the circle as time obsesses Christianity because it is the figure of eternity, of what has no beginning and no end. But the circle is also the figure of purposelessness and futility, of chasing one's tail, of moving endlessly forward at right angles to purpose. But the figure of the circle also makes time economic; a cycle of exchange that provides the energy to keep the cycle going. Into this exchance, Christianity says, enters the gift, the gift which cannot come back to the giving, cannot circulate, cannot be exchanged, cannot return to its point of departure. This is not a new paradox; but it is a little appreciated one:

"Come for water, all who are thirsty;
though you have no money, come, buy grain and eat;
come, buy wine and milk,
not for money, not for a price.
Why spend your money for what is not food,
your earnings on what fails to satisfy?
Listen to me and you will fare well,
you will enjoy the fat of the land."--Isaish 55:1-2, REB)

The Gospel writers turned to Isaiah to find context for their Messiah, to find authority for his authority. They found Isaiah 53: "Who would believe what we have heard? To whom has the power of the Lord been revealed? He grew up before the Lord like a young plant whose roots are in dry ground; he had no beauty, no majesty in our eyes." (Isaiah 53:1-2, REB) That paradox they could grasp; they could apply it to the death of their Messiah, the paradoxical and still unthinkable crucifixion of God. But they could not see the connection to Isaiah 55, even when the Messiah made it plain for them: "Think about how the lilies grow: they don't slave and they never spin. Yet let me tell you, even Solomon at the height of his glory was never decked out like one of these. If God dresses up the grass in the field, which is here today and tomorrow is tossed into an oven, it is surely more like God cares for you, you who don't take anything for granted!" (Luke 12:27-28, SV)

The figure of the circle is very hard to break. It encircles us, "beseige[s] us all the while that we are regularly attempting to exit." (Derrida, 8) But the presence of the Messiah, the coming and to come, is the gift no one gives, that does not come back to the giving, that does not circulate and so remains aneconomic. Not quite foreign to the circle, for that would violate the other paradox, it still remains foreign to the circle, retains "a relation of foreignness to the circle, a relation without relation of familiar foreignness. It is perhaps in this sense that the gift is the impossible."

Indeed, the Absolute Paradox is the impossible. "But is a paradox such as this conceivable? We shall not be in a hurry; whenever the contention is over a replay to a question and the contending is not like that on a race track, it is not speed that wins but correctness. The understanding certainly cannot think it, cannot hit upon it on its own, and if it is proclaimed, the understanding cannot understand it and merely detects that it will likely be its downfall." (Climacus, p. 47) Part of the paradox that makes it Absolute is not merely the incarnation (which is, indeed, a paradox), but that the incarnation occurs in time. Isn't time then ruptured, torn apart? Certainly, standing on the edge of Advent, the incarnation "announces itself, gives itself to be thought as the impossible." It is proposed, then. that we begin by this.

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