THE SWEDISH PHILOSOPHER and literary scholar Martin Hägglund has swiftly established himself at the center of some of today’s most lively intellectual debates. Since the publication of his pioneering book Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life in 2008, Hägglund has played a pivotal role in the ongoing appraisal of deconstruction’s place in the humanities. Even before the death of its founder Jacques Derrida in 2004, deconstruction — broadly, the practice of overturning implicit “oppositions” in texts, or indeed in entire systems of thought — had been absorbed by a diverse array of academic disciplines. During the last decades of his life, Derrida’s ideas spread not only to literary and cultural studies, but as far afield as legal theory and even theology. There was even talk of a “religious turn” in deconstruction, and in Derrida’s work in particular.
Radical Atheism, a bold and iconoclastic book, argued that “all attempts to assimilate Derrida’s thinking to a religious framework” were hopelessly “wrongheaded.” Christian thinkers like John D. Caputo had drawn comparisons between Derrida’s discourse and the similarly slippery language of apophatic or “negative” theology, in which words can only circle around a God whose name remains ineffable. Hägglund, however, held that such religious readings ignored Derrida’s deep commitment to atheism. Far from gesturing at an ungraspable transcendence (the “unknown God” of apophaticism), Hägglund demonstrated that deconstruction was firmly focused on the finitude of human life. Not only that, but religion, in reaching toward such transcendence — in its “desire for immortality” — was itself simply a “dissimulation” of a deeper “desire for survival.” That is, religion may strive to surpass the transience of temporal life, but, in so doing, it discloses an inescapable investment in it. In the last analysis, religion is rooted in our primal drive to go on living.
Derrida’s fans and critics alike are fond of quoting his famous claim, put forward in his 1967 book Of Grammatology, that “there is nothing outside of the text” (“il n’y a pas de hors-texte”), and for many his name remains related to a somewhat outmoded “linguistic turn” in philosophy, much scorned by metaphysically-inclined thinkers like Alain Badiou and Quentin Meillassoux. In contrast, Radical Atheism redescribed Derrida as a thinker for whom “there can be nothing beyond mortality,” and who was less involved with “language for language’s sake” than with life as it is lived. The political theorist Ernesto Laclau remarked that Hägglund’s argument had approached “the zero degree of deconstruction,” a bottom line that could not be “assimilated” to theology or any other supervening discourse. Indeed, in Hägglund’s hands deconstruction isn’t reductively “discursive” at all. Instead, it’s aligned with the most essential level of human experience: that of living and dying, and of the desires to which they give rise.
Hence, Hägglund could be said to have brought deconstruction “back to life.” His latest book, Dying for Time, further develops his revitalized version of Derrida’s thought. This time around...read more