Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Decentered Self

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, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons;


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hi Caleb, thank you for this post. I read it a few days ago and I've been thinking about it and wrestling with it.

    Derrida's argument about the repentant/unrepentant criminal reminds me of other similar arguments in his thought: The impossible gift in 'Given Time', a thought he shares in the Derrida documentary about love, his arguments about forgiveness. Derrida pulls to the impossible. He talks about identity impasse, and its ramifications.

    My questions are: What is meant by repentance? What constitutes a criminal? When we talk about an unrepentant criminal, is it Gandhi, Jesus, or Nelson Mandela? Or Charles Manson, Michael Rafferty, or Luka Magnotta?

    I wonder about the unresolved criminal as a metaphor for human identity. I wonder if such a figure is the accurate starting point.

    In your analysis, what is self-evident about the criminal that makes such a one a starting point in an exploration of identity?

    1. Thanks for the comment Jonathan, those are challenging questions.

      To clarify, the example of the criminal and the process of taking responsibility for an action was used primarily to illustrate the ambiguous nature of the subject. There seems to be a tension between the definitive nature of actions and the infinite nature of the subject (or an identity): an identity overflows the acts through which it is expressed. You wouldn’t want who you are to be conflated with any single action you make and yet your existence depends on these actions (some frame this as the tension between the universal and the particular). Derrida attempts to describe this tension with his concept of diff√©rence or urgency. I didn't intend for the example of an unresolved criminal as a metaphor for human identity, but simply as an example of how identity works.

      I think what is suggested by your questions is correct, mainly that the themes which the example of a criminal bring to the surface go beyond simply illustrating the nature of identity. Although I don't fully understand your questions, particularly the one concerning the meaning of repentance or what constitutes the criminal, they’re intriguing. Could you expand on them?

  3. Hi Caleb, thank you for your reply. I can clarify my questions. My question about repentance is directed at the article. In your argument, the idea of unrepentance and repentance is given short shrift, like repentance is an obvious concept in understanding the ambiguity of the criminal. My thinking was: Is repentance an admission married to remorse? How does repentance move from a private experience into the public one needed to be acknowledged as remorse? I gave six examples of unrepentant criminals. Three of them would be seen as strong for not repenting. So, how is repentance key in understanding identity? Is repentance a necessary component in determining identity? What kind of identity does not repent?

    Also, Luka Magnotta admits his crimes, but he does not take responsibility for them, or show remorse. Is he a confessor? The taking of responsibility also seems to me an ingredient in repentance. One reduces oneself to nothing and takes complete responsibility in a move. I'll have to think more about repentance and taking responsibility.

    What constitutes a criminal? I will argue that criminality is determined by the laws of a nation. Criminality is not universal in its identity. And there are criminals, like Nelson Mandela, who did not repent and defied their criminality. So, there is a limit to where the criminal metaphor can take us, I offer. Is your argument in the service of an idea of our total depravity? JW

    1. I agree, the article gives short shrift to the idea of repentance and criminality, perhaps it would benefit from a more detailed analysis.

      Since you bring up Mandela, Christ, and Gandhi, I wonder, do these three figures fail to repent? Perhaps it would be inaccurate to claim that they repent, but their actions seem to indicate that they desire to at least acknowledge criminality: Christ willingly takes up his cross, Mandela takes ownership of his actions by allowing himself to be imprisoned. These figures seem to defy the criminality of the law itself rather than the criminality of their actions which I think they have no problem acknowledging (Perhaps we’re in agreement. I’m not sure I fully understand the last paragraph of your comment).

      Luka doesn’t make the same gamble as Mandela, Christ or Gandhi, he chooses to flee the law. Why? Perhaps its because he’s aware of the unjust nature of his actions, he flees because he doesn’t want to repent. Those who remain (Mandela, Christ and Gandhi), however, feel that what they’ve done is just and are willing to face the consequences in protest of the law.