I began writing this last year in October when my dog best friend passed away. At the time, I was particularly inspired by love, death, and ethics. This post will address the themes of agency, animals, ethics, and love at the face of undecidable events. I will talk about truth and the meaning of life through the philosophers of Jacques Derrida, Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. With all this said, this post is half analytical and half self-reflective. It is written backwards with the “Foreword” at the very end.
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Agency, Ethics and the Undecidable Event
“That which is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil” —Friedrich Nietzsche
In The Gift of Death, Jacques Derrida engages with religion and the themes of responsibility, irresponsibility and how agency (freedom to choose) produces the human individual. In it, Derrida deconstructs Soren Kierkegaard’s legendary text called Fear and Trembling which analyzes the story, “Binding of Isaac”. The story speaks of Abraham who sacrifices his son for the absolute duty for God. This sacrificial gesture is what Kierkegaard famously refer as the teleological suspension of the ethical. For Kierkegaard, in order for anyone to be religious, one must sacrifice the ethical. In line with Kierkegaard’s interpretation, Derrida points out how each one of us are like Abraham who makes sacrificial choices everyday in our lives. He writes,
“The concepts of responsibility, of decision, or of duty, are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal, aporia. Paradox, scandal, and aporia are themselves nothing other than sacrifice, the revelation of conceptual thinking at its limit, at its death and finitude. As soon as I enter into a relation with the other, with the gaze, look, request, love, command, or call of the other, I know that I respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is, by sacrificing whatever obliges me to also respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all others.”
As soon as one encounters the love, command, and the call of the other, they can only respond by sacrificing ethics. In many ways, Derrida was influenced by Nietzsche, who points out how acts of love always takes place beyond good and evil. The things that we choose to do out of love may radically challenge and rewrite what society defines as good and evil (good and evil is a dualism). Love may allow us to exceed moral boundaries because it is not something that can be reduced to binary ethics, social standards or political ideologies. To act out of love requires the suspension of the ethical. In fact, this movement of love which may transgress beyond all dualisms, dichotomies and binary oppositions is found all over Derrida’s works from signifier/signified, nature/culture, good/evil, all the way to “deconstruction” and “destruction” (from Heidegger). It is one of the reasons why Derrida always ends up inventing words of his own. By doing so, he is transgressing dualisms and producing something new (this theme plays a crucial part in postcolonial context; it is why I tend to be critical of neoliberals and alike who thinks deconstruction is about “deconstructing binaries” and pitting oppositions “against” each other because that is not exactly how it works).
Under the light of existentialism, religion, and ethics, Derrida uses himself as an example and points out how he chooses to be a philosopher and scholar instead of helping others in need. He goes on further and asks, “How would you ever justify the fact that you sacrifice all the cats in the world to the cat that you feed at home every day for years, whereas other cats die of hunger at every instant?”. In a similar way, how can one choose to save one person over another who may suffer equally as much? How can I choose to love my dog over other dogs who needs love? How can we love only one person and not any other person? For Derrida, our lives are always riddled by these undecidable events which forces us to choose.
It is at this moment where one encounters the undecidable event and the relationship between responsibility and irresponsibility. I would argue that the act of choosing not only destroys ethics, it also summons it in a new way. Derrida reminds us how, while the ethical that is defined by society may deem our choices as unethical (such as choosing to feed one cat and leaving all others to die in hunger), following the ethical formula can also lead to the unethical. For, is not the entire ethical structure produced by society—such as its laws—also causes the death of million others from within? Derrida does not seem to suggest that we should live in accordance to some ultimate formula that is defined by the masses of society (i.e. social norms, institutions, political ideologies, etc.; of what Nietzsche refer as “slave morality”). Instead, he suggests that human beings must interpret (deconstruct) the undecidable events that happens in their lives and discover the contradictions of their actions and choices. It is through such acts where new meanings are produced which could possibly transgress dichotomies and oppositions and teaches us how one should live.
Agency summons and destroys ethics, where the choice one makes could come to challenge dualisms such as good and evil. It is reminiscent to the famous thought experiment of the trolley question on whether one should choose to pull the train lever to save one person and kill five others. One can also discover this metaphor from philosophers today who often forgets how the word “philosophy” translates into “love of wisdom”. Perhaps the very beginning of philosophy—if there is a beginning and origin at all—begins through genuine acts of love. I think the idea that one should always choose and interpret our world and each other out of love (of wisdom) is something that must be revived today.
This reminds me of a series of difficult lectures from 1997 called, The Animal that Therefore I Am. In it, Derrida talks about the notion of “pure life” that is found in animals and alludes it to the themes of agency and sacrifice. He compares the enslavement and genocide of animals with Adolf Hitler who enslaved and murdered Jewish people by throwing them into the gas chambers (Derrida was Jewish and survived World War II). Derrida reveals how the world condemns Hitler’s monstrous actions, yet he points out that we are doing something similar to animals. He emphasizes that our society would even organize doctors and scientists to force breed animals only to enslave and slay them. Not only were these lectures incredibly influential and would go on to invent “Animal studies“, the encounter of such lectures likely turned a lot of people into vegans. Hence, just like the encounter of any undecidable events, the lecture invites its readers to make a choice which may come to challenge the ethical norms established by society (i.e. the cultural norms of eating meat).
But Derrida’s interpretation of Kierkegaard is not only an attempt at addressing how choice relates to our responsibility and irresponsibility. One of the things that Derrida hopes to reveal is how the recognition of responsibility infinitely exceeds our capacities of being human. Such limited capacity, which represents our finite experience of the world, is always overwhelmed by unlimited responsibilities that ruptures out of our lived relationship with the world and our own death. In other words, the fact that we are mortal beings who lives for a limited time in the universe forces us to make decisions. One cannot make a choice without sacrificing something else. Death is a gift given to every human being which allows life to have meaning. It is because one will eventually die which makes our decisions meaningful—such as our choice of friends, significant other, career paths, etc.
The paradox and transgressions beyond finitude/infinitude and responsibility/irresponsibility is introduced at the heart of choice as one interprets the undecidable event. The beginning of the ethical discourse is at once suspended and summoned by the event of the undecidable where one must make a choice as they exist in their own finitude (I wrote about finitude here). Should one choose to eat or not eat meat? Should one choose one cat over another? To choose one lover over another? What constitutes the individual which could possibly change and challenge other values is this act of choosing as each person runs into these undecidable events. Hence, it is not surprising that one can learn a lot about someone from the things that they do in their lives, or from the way they speak, their behaviors, actions, and the choices they make. It is these decisions and their differential relationships with what one chooses and leave aside which defines who someone is. One can perhaps think of Derrida’s most famous concept of differance which suggests how meanings are established by what it is not and how meaning is always differed via the future becoming of time. Here, one can see how Derrida is reapplying this thought into the act of choosing which is determined by what is not chosen (a rather strange paradox).
No doubt, our choices in life would not only invite us to the topic of introspection and self-reflection, it also invites us into the themes of autobiography, confessions, and forgiveness (all of these themes were examined extensively by Derrida). Perhaps this may also explain why scholars debate whether Derrida’s philosophy is based on the thoughts of Levinas, Heidegger, Husserl, Nietzsche, Rousseau, or Freud. One can read Derrida through the discourse of these thinker’s works which would make him appear to be a Heideggarian, Freudian, Nietzschean, etc. The reader must always choose as they read Derrida. It is the subtle shift in meaning, context, and intentionality through time which produces this polymorphous effect—a phenomenon that also occurs in our lives when we interpret undecidable events (this is the famous past/future dialectic which I have explained in many places such as here). This theme of choosing is most prominently found in Plato’s Pharmacy, where Derrida discovers how the ancient Greek word “pharmakon” could translate as remedy and poison. The choice of the former or latter would significantly alter the meaning of the text. The translator must make a choice through the encounter of the undecidable event.
Martin Hagglund’s book called, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom (2019) heavily borrows from Derrida’s interpretation of Kierkegaard (Hagglund is a famous Derridean scholar). For example, Hagglund points out how, if one had infinite time in their lives, they would not need to choose because they would manage to achieve everything they desire one after another. But because we are finite beings who exists within a limited time in the world, one must always make a choice. This choice, as Derrida and Kierkegaard might say, is where one suspends the ethical; but it may also reintroduce ethics and redefine values which produces the individual. Hagglund takes on an atheist position and favors the finitude of being over anything that seeks for eternal life. The human subject always exists in finitude due to the inevitable fact that one can only experience the world from their own perspective (and how they will die one day). We can never take the position of another person because we are caught within the vehicle of our consciousness and body (this idea which has a very long history is being contested by several other disciplines right now—something that I won’t speak about here).
In addition, Hagglund also argues that those who are religious admits to the finitude of life without recognizing it. There is heaven because we want life to be eternal. Yet, we know that life in the real world is not forever. Perhaps this is where Hagglund’s argument falls short against a psychoanalytic reading where religion exists as the symptom of neuroticism and the negation of the reality principle. People would like to think that life continues in heaven, even when life ends upon their death (perhaps this is why he emphasizes on the notion of secular faith). Hagglund’s thinking leans towards the infamous Nietzschean proclamation that “God is dead”. It is because God is dead where the finitude of life is recognized (i.e. there is no afterlife; no heaven). It is this finitude—this gift of death—where choices are made and produces the meanings in our lives—something which also summons the discourse of ethics, and philosophy. Someone is born and are thrown into this world. They live, choose, produce meanings, and dies. The gift of death is the gift of life. It is this mortal experience which produces the meaning of life. A meaning and truth that one should always cherish and respect, even if it may change in the contingent future.
Many people often associate Derrida with nihilism and how there is no truth in our world. I would argue that this is not true. Once again, the argument came from how Derrida’s concept of differance which suggests that meaning is always differed. But what Derrida is actually implying is that there are never any meanings that are identical and stable within its own contextual construction within any given modes of time (temporal experience destabilizes meaning). Simply put, meanings always change—like how your perceptions of someone changes after you meet them; or how your younger self is not identical to your current and future becoming self. However, this does not mean that your past self did not exist. Neither does it mean that the past does not exist. If the past did not exist, history will cease to exist, and no knowledge, language, and meaning would be possible in the first place. While Derrida rejects our ability to know the absolute truth, it does not mean that we must negate our values, ethics, and moral standards. It also does not mean that truth as recognized through our finitude does not exist (it is fair to say that truth changes over time—like how people once thought that the Earth was flat).
Derrida’s project on deconstruction grants agency to the individual so they can choose as they play among the meaning of words / and as they encounter undecidable events in their life (Derrida equates this to the “Nietzschean yes“). And it is by making these decisions which could possibly transgress binary oppositions (I speak of it as possibility because one might not always interpret something out of love, for example). Through their existence in space and time (past/future), each individual makes choices, form new meanings, values, cultures, and allow for new possibilities to arise.
Between Life and Death: the Exigency of Self-Reflection
If life and death begins and ends with nothing, then meaning and truths would come into existence through the movement from one end to the other. But what is this movement, this condition which makes meaning that is found in the undecidable event possible? Meaning is important in our finite lives, but its movement which produces meaning is only possible because we exist in finitude through space and time. For is it not inevitable that one must travel and endure the becoming space of time and the becoming time of space? Are we not travelers from the past to the future who makes choices and interpret events that occurs somewhere between our present/past life and our future deaths? And that one chooses even if they choose not to choose? Living consists of the movement of time toward death. And it is between such time where meaning is produced through the choices that we make in our lives (this is also one of Derrida’s most famous argument in Speech and Phenomena and other essays: that our animating intentionalities from self-reflections via temporal consciousness is always divided by the movement of time in an infinite series of repetitions that are never identical to each other).
Thus, people who has come to know me would not be surprised that I am deeply introspective. I can do very little without having time to myself. But this silent gesture did not come from the teachings of Derrida. It came long before my encounter of his writings. By chance or fate, I encountered his works 8 years ago and have come to my own understanding of what he is saying according to my own singularity and interpretation. The meanings that I discover in his writing yields to a lot of contemplation and interpretation—something that has been wholly represented in this blog. In many ways, understanding how I read Derrida (and others) is actually a direct reflection of who I am as a person because it reflects all the choices that I made as I read him.
Above all else, I choose, write, self-reflect and meditate out of the love for the world and life itself. Yet, none of this is possible without the recognition of my own finitude that is measured against my future destination (death) and the rupture of infinite responsibilities of the world. Here in this life, I make decisions and choices—just as any person would (only that most people do not think about it at an intellectual level). When it comes down to it, Derrida encourages us to self-reflect and deconstruct why we do the things that we do in our lives and why we make certain choices over others. He wants us to understand ourselves and our own human condition; to think hard about our relationship with the world and other people. It is through self-reflection where we not only produce the meanings of life, but recognize our finitude.
Furthermore, since no single choice, writing, or systems of thought can be produced without repression (into unconscious) or forfeiting something else—like choosing one cat over another, one might realize that we always make contradictory choices. And that most importantly, self-reflection may allow us to understand how meaning and perspectives changes over time. What one might refer as their identity, culture, or the meaning of life changes through the infinite rupture of future time and space (hence I find identity politics naïve—sometimes to the point of absurdity). This however, does not mean that there are no truths or identities. But rather, what appears to be stable in meaning (as something that is true) at the present moment could always be challenged by future contingencies. The immanence of events, intentions, and contexts always remains open due to the necessary conditions of existing in the world within space and time.
Foreword (From the Future)
An event occurred. I encountered Bullet, a Bernese Mountain and German Shepherd mix. We brought him home when he was 3 months old. My dad chose Bullet because he was the one who went to greet and hugged him by leaning his head on him. My sister gave him the name “Bullet” because he was a fast runner. During our time together, I would sometimes look into his eyes and wonder what he was thinking about. I would analyze his movements and behaviors and try to study him as if I had a huge crush on him (which I did, openly). Bullet witnessed my transformation from a young teenage boy to a 30 year old. He was very disciplined, focused, curious, and smart. He even taught himself how to open doors with his paws, where he would always open my room door in the middle of the night to sleep with me.
Bullet started to trip down the stairs. This was when he began fighting degenerative myelopathy. At the time, Bullet was still very strong. He continued his daily routines and loved his food. About two years later, he couldn’t get up from laid down position without help. He would lay at the same spot everyday without moving. Sometimes, he would get nose bleeds by sneezing several times in a row and smash his nose against the floor as his head jerked forward. While it was very difficult to watch, he never gave up and continued to try and go outside for his walks, but couldn’t even make it past the first block. Soon, Bullet could barely walk further than the driveway. He refuses to eat and move anywhere. His breathing got louder and louder. His legs began losing muscle mass. He was also becoming blind and had accidents in the house. He lost 20 pounds in his final two weeks. By then, I knew his time has come. I was the first person who suggested to euthanize him.
Bullet, the dog who travelled faster than light. One cannot say the name “Bullet” without travelling and thinking the infinite within their own finite experiences of the world. That the remembrance of Bullet will always take us beyond good and evil. And that the word “Bullet” is worthy of its name, that it is always first and foremost a name—as someone who pierces the flesh and the movement of the heart. Bullet: the dog who ran faster than the speed of light, exceeding the dualism of space and time! So fast that his life accelerates at lightning pace. Yes, he is a time traveler from the past of the future. He arrives before and after me. If love is the madness of the impossible, then he is the impossible.
In many ways, the most difficult choice was to offer him the absolute gift: the gift of death. I sometimes wonder, did my choice take place beyond good and evil? Or was it unethical to euthanize him? Should I had gave him the agency to choose whether he wants to keep fighting to live or rest? If so, how will I know his answer? Did he answer me by not eating? Or did he stop eating because he was unhappy? I looked him in the eye, wishing he would respond to me. But I can only see him through my tears, and not a single word needs to be said.
How wisely Nature did decree,
With the same eyes to weep and see!
That having viewed the object vain,
We might be ready to complain
Open them, mine eyes, your double sluice,
And practice so your noblest use;
For others too can see, or sleep,
But only human eyes can weep,
Thus let your streams o’erflow your springs,
Till eyes and tears be the same things:
And each the other’s difference bears;
These weeping eyes, those seeing tears.
—Tears that see . . . . Do you believe?
—I don’t know, one has to believe . . . .