Friday, December 19, 2014

The Pregnancy of Conversion

by Caleb Ratzlaff

Recently on Ground Motive, I discussed the decentred nature of identity, attributing the decenteredness to the fact that decision-making-selves are different from, yet dependant on determinate actions. In a similar spirit, this post focuses on the liminal moment of decision and the tension that provides its (non)foundation.

Since reading St. Augustine's Confessions in undergrad, I’ve struggled to understand conversion. What happens in the moment of repentance, for example? How is any decision made at all, for that matter?

Although most activities involve little decision making—my fingers flow quite unintentionally across the keyboard—decisions do at the very least seem to occur. We observe them most clearly when our routine is rudely interrupted, when for example, a slow moving elderly women impedes one’s commute. Moments of confrontation call us to account for our otherwise habitual actions, requiring a decision—do we stop to help carry her luggage or jump to the other side of the stairs?

Jacques Derrida argues that every decision must pass through a crucible of the undecidable. By this he means that although a responsible decision should be a well-considered one, action never waits for reflection. At the moment of confrontation, when the elderly woman queues ahead of us, the question “what should I do?” is already a response and an action taken. The immediacy of action leaves no time to reflect. One is responsible even before she wants to be. As a result, decisions always occur in a moment of ignorance, in non-decision. No amount of time or reflective resources would solve this dilemma—the problem is inherent in the phenomenon itself. As Derrida citing Kierkegaard writes, “The instant of decision is a madness.”1

Even if it is a madness, the ordeal of decision-making may liberate. In complete uncertainty, nothing imposes itself on the decision-maker, no rule, no specialist or sovereign judge; nothing in one’s context tells one how to respond.2 In the moment of non-decision, the agent is free to make up her own mind, to take responsibility for the decision that needs to be made. Without this initial ignorance, there could only be “the imperturbable application of rules, of rules known or knowable, the deployment of a program with full knowledge of the facts.”3 It is not a decision if a computer can do it.

Uncertainty does not mean responsibility dissolves. The liminal moment, the moment of the undecidable, creates a space in which one can make a decision for her self. Thus, in the blindness of the ordeal, Derrida claims, “I must then take what is called a decision and a responsibility, a responsible decision; I must give myself, I must invent for myself a rule of transaction of compromise, of negotiation that is not programmable by any knowledge, not by science or consciousness.”4 The ordeal allows the agent to exercise autonomy, in the moment of non-decision, the agent chooses for herself.

However, each and every decision is haunted by the ordeal. It ensures that the decision is irresponsible, that each effort is made in a state of not knowing for sure the best course of action. This inescapable uncertainty infects us with anxiety and hopelessness.

Anxiety can be tempered by realizing that a response—asking “what should I do?”—is always answerable to others who have come and are coming. One, in a mysterious way, is always in relationship with that which is different, unknown, and absent from the present. A decision that strives to respond responsibly to the unknown of each situation requires a questioning without limit, the type of reflection that the haunting of the undecidable demands. Behind the limitless questioning that begins with the initial thought, “what should I do?” is an implicit affirmation of relationship.

One feels the mysterious nature of a relationship with what is different most acutely during the the ordeal of the undecidable in the moment of decision. The fog of this ordeal seemed to thicken for me personally as my wife and I experienced the birth of our first child. While considering the moment of decision in this context, I was struck by the way it resembles a pregnant-self and the initiation into parenthood.

Much like a wedding engagement, an individual who decides to become a parent does so blindly, when she has very little understanding of the consequences. From the moment of conception, a woman might be considered a parent, but one would be hard pressed to claim that she knows what parenthood “really” means, if such a meaning exists. Uncertainty is evident right from the beginning, during the initial stages of pregnancy one has no idea of the most basic characteristics of the child, such as its sex or its physical well-being or what it will take to be a parent to this strange creature. The prospective parent finds herself in a position of not knowing, of uncertainty, as she anxiously waits at the threshold for what is in the process of coming. 

Although her waiting is accompanied by a level of blindness, the living creature within her womb constantly reminds her that change is coming, in fact it’s already here. She literally feels this new life within her yet has little understanding of who it is or how it will change her situation. Although the parent must respond, she is uncertain how to do so responsibly because of the unique and foreigner character of the child. In this sense, the blindness of the parent’s ordeal is related to her relationship with her child, it affirms the relation.  Overcoming uncertainty requires the destruction of difference between mother and child—a violent act that denies relationship. Uncertainty is an essential ingredient of the experience.

Indeed, pregnancy and conversion overlap insightfully. New life resides in the womb as a foreigner, an anonymous alien. Yet, at the same time, it is an intimate human being sharing its body with the mother. Similarly, as we approach the moment of decision, a change seems to emerge. Whether it is made or suffered is impossible to tell. Nonetheless, in the moment of decision something both foreign and familiar occurs. A decision is born, conceived in the ordeal of the undecidable. The ordeal is a pregnancy, a pregnancy of selfhood and decision.

Who will be the midwife? What will make space for new life? Where and what are the phantom voices that question us from the outside, the ones who intruded upon that young man sitting in his garden, pregnant with himself?

(1) Derrida, “Force of Law,” 255.
(2) Derrida, Negotiations, 298.
(3) Derrida, Negotiations, 298.
(4) Derrida, Negotiations, 372

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 flickr user nerovivo, accessible at  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0. Second image used from  Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 via Wikimedia.


  1. Very interesting,Caleb. You give us "decision" and "the undecidable," "conversion" and "parenthood." Is every decision a conversion? Then, why would one speak of certain decisions as conversions in contradistinction to all other decisions? So, perhaps you mean to suggest that all acts of conversion are decisions and as a result they are acts that involve mystery and hence the absence of control that we are always hopeful of or even long for (depending upon how "controlling" we are). Of course as decisions they share in the structure of decision-making that you abstract from Derrida. That is how a decision that goes under the name conversion like Augustine's taking up of sexual abstinence at long last can be like the decision to act so as to conceive and become a parent (with all the attendant mystery involved in such acts and outcomes). It seems to me though that you still have some work to do if you are to be able to understand an act of conversion. There may be a conversion involved in deciding to become a parent, but not necessarily so; becoming a parent may have been one's intention from "way back". So, how is the specific act of conversion structured in and to its specificity?--that question still lies to hand. Is there a structure specific to conversion that Derrida, Caputo or you can haul out of your shared phenomenological gift bag? Any thoughts?

  2. That’s a very helpful question Bob. You’re right; one needs to think carefully about the difference between decision and conversion - something I’m too casual with here.

    Let’s peer into our bag of phenomenological goodies. Although I know very little about Heidegger’s “call of conscience,” could we say that this concept is specific to the structure of conversion (in so far as we experience ourselves as answering to imperatives that come to us from beyond ourselves)?

    What are some of the features that distinguish the structure of conversion from a robust conception of decision?


  3. I think that something like your Heideggerian "call of conscience" is a start in the direction I am gesturing toward but I am thinking that conversion involves a turning away from a direction or trajectory constitutive to one degree or another of the "meaning of one's life" in response to a call one acknowledges or receives as imperative. Something in that mode would get at what I was driving at. Thus, the decision to become a parent could be itself a conversion, an act of metanoia, but only when contextualized in a certain way by the circumstances in which it was made: the meaning of one's life that it either fits into or in the case of conversion transforms by redirection. Anyway, hardly exhaustive but perhaps a baby step or so along the way.