Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Decentered Self

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by Caleb Ratzlaff

Ethan Vanderleek, a fellow junior member at ICS, contributes to the upcoming edition of Perspective an excellent article titled, “Some Truths about Christian Prayer.” Quoting Merold Westphal, Ethan writes, “Prayer is the posture of a decentered self.” I confess to knowing very little about prayer, for this reason I’ll focus my discussion on the second half of this quote—the nature of a decentered self.

Allegory of Repentance,
Cornelis van Haarlem, 1616
To illustrate what one might mean by a “decentered self,” let’s follow Derrida by examining the nature of a confession: “I confess.” When an unrepentant criminal confesses, for example, identity changes, the “I” becomes a repentant “I.” But there is a problem here. Given these two separate identities, how are we to decide which one actually makes the confession? Is it the repentant or unrepentant “I?”

A closer look at the moment the unrepentant self repents reveals something very strange. An unrepentant criminal by definition does not confess. Who then authorizes or initiates the confession? If there has been no confession, then the repentant criminal does not exist, at least not as such, and therefore cannot initiate the confession. So the confessing “I” is neither the unrepentant criminal nor the repentant criminal. Derrida claims that a fabulous gap resides in this liminal moment of responsibility in which both identities are inexplicably present and absent. Whenever we assume responsibility, whenever we act, make a decision, or confess, we enter into this space, our past and future selves are simultaneously present and absent.

That which originally seemed very definitive—the “I,” the decision-making self—is in reality quite indefinite. Two possibilities emerge from this ambiguity.

First, it enables the “I” to relate to itself. At the event of confession the “I” splits in two. The split or gap within the “I” enables the self to begin an internal conversation. The “I” is able to engage itself. The self-engagement allows the criminal to take responsibility, claiming that she was responsible for the crime and the subsequent confession. Self-relation, therefore, makes it possible for the “I” to enter into the process of engaging and knowing itself.

The event’s completion—the occurrence of a confession—transforms the “I.” The new situation leads us to the second possibility created by the internal split. The new “I,” in our case the repentant criminal, does not know herself as such until she meets her new transformed self, so to speak. Such a meeting requires a subsequent split within the self, repeating the process described above. Engaging oneself occurs continuously as one is both reconciled and alienated from oneself. This process could be envisioned as a disconnected circle, each revolution bringing about a new circumstance. The continual fission within the “I” creates a historical narrative and—so long as we attempt to act responsibly—is a constitutive feature of life.

At the heart of every responsible “I” therefore is a decentered self—a decenteredness illustrated by the very attempt to act autonomously.

In Rogues, Derrida uses violent metaphors to describe the process of self-engagement—the “I” after all must be split in two and this incision not only happens once but continually. Following Derrida, Leonard Lawlor, in his book This Is Not Sufficient, calls the violence inherent to this process radical (as in founding) evil. Above we observed how a decentered self enables self-relation and life. So why would we want to describe the incision as evil? An adequate treatment of this question is obviously beyond the scope of this post. Perhaps we can suggest, however, that the violent component of this incision results from the exclusive nature of responsibility. When we take responsibility or name who we are, we end up excluding aspects of our identity. Although necessary, determinate names are always inadequate, and their exclusivity transgresses on the identity of an “I.”

Lawlor does not believe that the violence involved in engaging oneself is the worst violence. The worst violence takes place when radical violence fails to occur. In other words, the failure to act responsibly ushers in the worst violence.

The worst violence, or absolute violence, Lawlor writes, “is a relation that makes of more than one simply one, that makes, out of a division, an indivisible sovereignty” (23). Within the current discussion, the worst violence begins when the division within the “I” is understood as a mistake or a problem requiring a fix that unifies the two relating “I”s. Such a “fix” requires the destruction of all other actual and potential “I”s. Rather than making an incision that multiplies, the worst violence decapitates, slitting the wrists of all challengers. When we attempt to live as absolutely sovereign selves, we must kill anything or anyone that attempts to decenter us, including our self(ves). Such acts destroy historical narratives, self knowledge, responsibility, and sets the stage for the extinction of all life. This is the worst violence. Pray for the strength to live in a posture of prayer.

Caleb Ratzlaff is a junior member at the Institute of Christian Studies in Toronto. Besides procrastinating, Caleb is working on a thesis that follows some of Derrida's thoughts on the topic of responsibility.

First image used from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Allegory_of_Repentance_-_Detail.jpg, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons;