Hägglund’s Radical Atheism: To Read Or Not To Read?


UPDATE II (1/12): For those who are possibly reading this trying to decide whether to read Hägglund’s book on Derrida (as is stated in the somewhat disingenuously existential title of this post) should regard this blog post and its subsequent comments as a certain singular perspective on the issue – this comment is, of course, always already arrogant and pretentious since it assumes that someone will be making a decision regarding a book based on this post. I have since finished reading the book, therefore it was ultimately “to be”; I found it seriously lacking at certain points and somewhat insightful at others. It is not purely derridalogical in that it does propose an interesting (even if almost entirely familiar) reading, it does not engage Derrida’s ideas very much, simply creatively restates them while mainly ignoring the large body of secondary literature on the issues discussed in the book. If you are interested in the issue of “time” and “temporality” in Derrida, I think that Joanna Hodge’s excellent study Derrida on Time would be a much better choice…

UPDATE I (12/27): Just started chapter 2 and already I am discovering things: the opening paragraph and a half from this chapter on Derrida and Husserl is a word for word the same as the opening two paragraphs of Hägglund’s essay on Nabokov mentioned below that I’ve read this afternoon. No, it’s not a self-citation, it’s the same text only in New Literary History Hägglund goes on to discuss Nabokov and in Radical Atheism the transition is to Derrida – can you do that? 

Just got Martin Hägglund’s book on Derrida – Radical Atheism:  Derrida and the Time of Life – several days ago and having finished the introduction and the first chapter on Derrida and Kant, I am having doubts about whether I should continue with the book. There are several reason I read as much as I did so far:

1) The book is written in a very accessible non-derridalogical style. I mean, of course, Hägglund slips into a semi-non-sensical derridalogical musings here and there, but generally he keeps his head above the water and one can easily discern his meanings (which, of course, is not always good when one writes about Derrida, as it makes Derrida sounds quite banal and commonsensical).   

2) Judging by the introduction, one might expect Hägglund to challenge some of the derridalogical giants and their pet theories, there are a lot of “so and so is wrong” or “the most famous misreading of this passage is that of so-and-so” – a lot of familiar names, so one hopes for some critical assessment where one usually expects general logrolling… However, he does it in a kind of dismissive way that is not something one usually finds among contemporary Derrida scholars, and it is good, even if, as I can see so far, most of Hägglund’s challenges are only to come in the future chapters, so I cannot yet judge their effectiveness. 

3) There’s a clear, if not very original, reading of the problem of time and temporality and some things about Derrida’s work are potentially thought-provoking, “potentially” mostly because at this point there are plenty of promises (“As I will show”), but not very many actual analyses… 

Why am I hesitating then? 

1) Most of the chapter on Derrida and Kant has very little interesting to say about either one: in fact, the chapter does not really deal with Kant, Hägglund only cites a couple of passages from the first Critique on time and space (apparently without being aware of the proper A/B citation format – a small thing, but annoying), and then proceed to basically present Derrida’s views – no real encounter between the thinkers, unless saying that Kant’s position is nothing like Derrida’s can be counted as one. 

2) General content of the introduction and the first chapter is frighteningly similar to the general content of Hägglund’s previous work on Nabokov that can be found in New Literary History (37:2, Spring 2006) – in fact, after reading an essay on Nabokov  (“Chronophilia: Nabokov and the Time of Desire”) with Brian Boyd’s (Nabokov scholar Hägglund criticizes in his essay) rather curtly response, I wonder if Boyd’s skepticism concerning Hägglund’s scholarship is just rhetorical devise or is actually factual? I mean if Derrida and Kant chapter is any indication, Hägglund knows just enough Kant to say a few general things about his view of time/space, as for Derrida’s discussion of time/space, many of the things in intro and first chapter are generalities that are not original to Derrida at all – like the Augustine inspired questions on the nature of time and such… Actually, maybe the book will pick up some pace in this particular area, because otherwise it would be a waste of time, that is, if Hägglund is going to repeat Derrida’s observations about time without paying attention to the battles Derrida is fighting (Hegel and Heidegger are suspiciously largely absent from the book, as far as I can tell, and it makes me rather nervous) and if Hägglund is going to simply summarize and retell Derrida as he does in the chapter on Kant without any considerable challenge to Derrida’s presentation (Hägglund’s beef seems to be primarily with Derrida scholars that he takes to be misreading Derrida, yes, most of them), then I think it’ll be once of those books that promises a lot and delivers very little. 

3) Michael Naas’ blurb on the back suggests, as always, that this is the best book ever written… Well, not in so many words, but something like: “…Radical Atheism is a brilliant and most original work that is certain to be read, argued with, commented on, and frequently cited.” I know it’s a blurb, but does Naas have to like every book he reads?

4) I don’t really like the phrase “logic of deconstruction” that Hägglund uses when trying to present his thesis (as well as a use of the verb “deconstruct” as a transitive verb), it seems to me that anyone comfortable enough to write “the logic of deconstruction” might need another look at Derrida’s whole discussion of logocentric discourses. 

Have you read the book? Care to share your reaction?

23 thoughts on “Hägglund’s Radical Atheism: To Read Or Not To Read?

  1. In my humble opinion, it’s a pretty bad book – it doesn’t really get any better, so I think you’ve sampled enough of it to pronounce the judgment. I know this is probably not a proper way to approach the work, but when one continually writes that the majority of Derrida scholars of today got something wrong, that is, after decades of reading the works of Derrida – I know it’s an argument from authority and all – some of the most well-known writers are wrong and some PhD student who 2 years ago claimed to be an expert in Nabokov is right is just ridiculous, even if it is done to provoke (let’s hope) and not to be taken seriously. Did you see this video? I think it is self-explanatory for the most part..

  2. Thanks, Carl, it is sort of an argument from authority, and I do think we should stick to the arguments, not the person of Hagglund, although I don’t really know anything about him – thanks for the video link, it looks like he is talking specifically about the book, I’ll take a look when I get a chance.

    I think there is something to say for a brave style, even if it does not in the end produce any sort of coherent demonstration of why everyone else is wrong about the matter, and the author is right. I personally find such confrontational style to be sometimes very refreshing. On the other hand, I think when it comes to Derrida, it’s almost impossible to create any sort of unified “interpretation theory” or “logic of deconstruction” – I like books that try, but mostly under the auspices of thought-experiments, not in a kind of “this is how it really is” which is what Hagglund sounds like from what I’ve read so far…

  3. I’ll play the devil’s advocate, because I’m rather enjoying the book so far. I’m only as far as you are Mikhail, so maybe I’ll change my mind though. And I’m far from being any kind of Derrida expert, so perhaps I’m not biased by having read a lot of secondary work. But it’s a really clear work and the arguments are set out straightforwardly for the most part.

    I also think Hagglund’s focus on the temporality intrinsic to all beings, as opposed to the temporality of a signifiying structure, is great as a response to any linguistic reading of Derrida. And the insistence on reading Derrida’s work as descriptive rather than prescriptive is important to me too – e.g. the Other need not be some thing we need to be ethically open to at all times.

    From my limited knowledge of Derrida scholarship, those two things – ethics and language – are the key touchstones of nearly every reading. So to see someone rejecting that and showing that Derrida doesn’t have to be about some messianic form of ethics or about language is exciting for me – it actually has me interested in Derrida again.

    From what I can tell, you and Carl aren’t wildly impressed by the book because the rejections of other Derrideans tend to be unsupported by arguments. Which is a valid point, but I’m curious if you think Hagglund’s own reading is wildly off-base? From my (finite!) perspective, Hagglund is creating an entirely consistent reading of Derrida and, moreover, one that’s interesting to a whole new group of people. So I think it’s a great book for that, even if it’s not wildly original to people like yourselves who are well-versed in Derrida stuff.

    Anyways, that’s my two cents that I wanted to add because I think it’s a book a lot of typically non-Derrideans would be interested in reading!

  4. Nick, thanks for your two cents – it looks very likely that I will continue with the book despite some hesitation. I think Hagglund’s presentation of Derrida on time and temporality in the introduction and chapter on Kant is very coherent and straight-forward, and not off-base. I’d like to see what happens in the chapter on Husserl since Derrida certainly engages him more directly than Kant. I do think there’s plenty to say about Derrida-Kant link vis-a-vis time/space as forms of intuition and part of my hesitation was caused by my disappointment that nothing really happened in chapter one in that direction.

    Now having said that, I think that for someone who’s not familiar with Derrida – and I would certainly not consider myself to be any sort of an expert, having read probably as much as anyone to recognize Hagglund’s citations and remember just enough of the context – Hagglund’s presentation might suggest that Derrida proposes to theorize “spacing of time” in a way that makes his conceptualizations appear original, when most of the stuff in chapter one is about the “problem of time” therefore what Hagglund ascribes to Derrida can be found in many other earlier sources which is what Derrida would always admit. Not sure if my point here is clear, but let’s put it this way: Derrida is for the most part a reader of others and majority of the stuff Hagglund cites and summarizes comes from Derrida’s engagements with others, but taken out of that context, Derrida comes across as an author of philosophical banalities.

    I do think however that the general outlines of the discussion are quite intriguing, my suspicion is that Hagglund thought most of these things through without any reference to Derrida – see his essay on Nabokov – and thus his book reads as though he is trying to fit what Derrida wrote to his ready-made theory of time, thus the last paragraph or so of the introduction sort of make his argument criticism-proof… There Hagglund is openly saying that he will propose an overarching interpretative theory and if anyone disagrees or finds passages in Derrida that contradict the proposed reading, the burden of proof is on those challenging Hagglund’s overall presentation – I find this a bit annoying, don’t you?

  5. Yeah, I can certainly see the annoyance with that aspect. It didn’t bother me too much though, I think because I’m not too concerned with whether or not Derrida contradicts this reading at certain points in his work. (Although I wouldn’t guess that you’d be overly concerned with that either… so maybe you’re just saying that you find the presumptuousness of that announcement annoying?)

    So, for me, regardless of whether Derrida or Derrideans would agree with Hagglund’s reading, I think Hagglund provides a lot of interesting arguments and very nicely synthesizes Derrida’s work into some sort of coherent and intriguing presentation. (Albeit a presentation that, as a result, has the problems you rightly note.)

    But really my point in commenting was simply to provide an alternative view to your hesitant reaction and Carl’s negative reaction to the book. I’ve been enjoying it quite a bit (for the reasons I wrote above), and I think a number of other people would too.

  6. Mikhail, Nick – I suppose my comment came across as a bit assholish, if you do continue with comments on the book, I’ll be glad to express my negativity in more productive ways. For example, once you’re further along in your reading of the book, it’d be good to hear what you think about Hagglung’s main juxtapositions: Derrida-Kant, Derrida-Husserl, Derrida-Levinas (and Derrida-Laclau, but it’s sort of supplemental). I think you’ll find out that your disappointment with Derrida-Kant “encounter” is not going to be going away very soon. On the positive side, the book is a quick read, partly because the points are pretty simple (Hagglund relies on “common sense” quite a bit, even if not admittedly so), partly because he does not engage much or any secondary literature on the issues (except to suggest that this or that author “misreads” Derrida)…

  7. Long time reader, first time commenter (sorry, it’s a lame line, I know) – since I have coincidentally just finished this “book” I have to add to the negative assessment of it – if you do get past the chapter on Husserl (very short and superficial, doesn’t really have to be there except to show that one knows of Husserl’s existence), and a rather infuriatingly stupid one on Levinas – I swear it does such horrible things to Levinas, you will cringe – you will get to the best part of the book, Hagglund’s “argument” with Caputo (and others) – if I may reproduce for you the main outline of that chapter:

    Caputo is misreading Derrida because he writes – “Random out of context citation from Caputo,” but Derrida on the other hand says the complete opposite: “Random out of context citation from Derrida” – you see, I am correct, Caputo is misguided. I don’t really understand how Caputo and others could be so mistaken, it is clear that according to the logic of deconstruction (strange expression indeed, I agree with Mikhail) the opposite of what they wrote is the case.

    I mean at times one wonders how this book ever got past editors as it has some of the most bizarre citation system you’ll see in a printed book – in some cases that are page number in parentheses without any reference to books, you know, for example, on page 120, after citing from Eckhart and Pseudo-Dionisius, we get Caputo (xxi) without any reference to exactly which Caputo we’re supposed to be reading here (I mean one can guess that it’s Tears and Prayers but still) – in other words, incredibly superficial book with a mass of ego and almost none of genuine thought, well maybe a little bit here and there, maybe enough for a good journal article. Sorry if this is harsh but I wrote better argued undergraduate papers – I’d be glad to be corrected here, if anyone cares to make an effort.

  8. Mark, thanks for your contribution – again, let’s try to stay classy here and be more about the actual arguments and not the small details, however, I do get really frustrated with books sometimes so I can see where you’re coming from – I think I might post something when I’m done reading it in the next couple of days, for now maybe others can express their views…

  9. Just out of curiosity – is it Hägglund’s style that makes Derrida sound “quite banal and commonsensical”, or is it something always-already there in the thought of Derrida?

  10. Krigstid, I think it’s a good question – it’s certainly the case that sometimes Derrida, taken out of his usually long-winded and engaged in conversation context, sounds very banal and commonsensical. Take Hagglund’s discussion of “spacing of time” – he basically drops all the sophisticated discussion in Differance and gives us the “results” vis-a-vis space/time as differing/deferring. In that case, Derrida’s text is far from banal, Hagglund makes it so. But in other case, Derrida does appear to be saying things that are quite banal and this time without Hagglund’s help – take, for example, Hagglund’s discussion of some passages from The Politics of Friendship or some references to “pure gift” – those things, freed from Derridian jargon, sounds quite boring… What do you think?

  11. I think Derrida is at his worst when he stops being a gadfly and starts being Serious and Ethical. His moral and political theories are very much underwhelming when compared to his other engagements with Plato et al. He tends (following in the footsteps of Chardin, Bergson, and Bachelard) to slip into a kind of fanciful, mystical system-building, which is generally the result of French intellectuals trying and failing to imitate Montaigne and Pascal.

  12. No, it’s not a self-citation, it’s the same text only in New Literary History Hägglund goes on to discuss Nabokov and in Radical Atheism the transition is to Derrida – can you do that?

    Not without the explicit permission of NLH, he can’t. What’s the acknowledgment look like?

  13. SEK, It mentions an essay he published in 2004 that is used in chapter 3 of the book with a thanks to Johns Hopkins for permission to use, but no mention of NLH. I mean I know Zizek does that a lot, but he at least uses it to make the same point, the strange thing about this “self-citation” and that it is an opening sequence to two completely different arguments, or the argument is basically the same but uses completely different fields/thinkers to channel it?

    Greg, I agree with part of your sentiment, Derrida does strike me as somewhat less elegant when it comes to “ethical” or “religious” discussions, but also I think later Derrida in general strikes me as having lost that playful wit and rhetorical quickness that one finds in the first books like Grammatology or Writing and Difference or Margins of Philosophy essays, or even things like Glas or Postcard

  14. Mark, I did see the relative strangeness of citation format, but page 120 citation you mention is from Tears and Prayers, there’s a line in the footnotes when the text is mentioned the first time that all subsequent citations will be from this or that text – it’s confusing because one has to remember that as in the pages you mention there are citations from Eckhart and Caputo and no book titles, but say for Caputo you can see note 9 on page 223 that explains it. I don’t think it a sign of bad editing, just annoying…

    As you can tell I made it almost to the middle of the book and further, I have to say I find the reading strangely irritating because all my hope that Hagglund would explain his utter disdain for every author who ever wrote anything about Derrida (well, that’s exaggeration, but it’s very close to the truth) remained unfulfilled. Plus I am now very much convinced that when it comes to Kant, Hagglund understands very little of what Kant is all about and I could argue my view point by point starting with his misunderstanding of Kant’s ideas of reason (and constant conflating of “idea” and “ideal”), and continuing to his complete misreading of Kant’s discussion of “radical evil” and more. Basically, the argument seems to be going against Kant and for Derrida, only Hagglund’s Kant is almost completely fictional and Derrida would be with Kant on most of the points Hagglund argues that they would hold opposite views. See, for example, 112-133 and then top of page 119 on autoimmunity and radical evil – Hagglund’s “reading” of Kant and his understanding of radical evil is so misinformed, it makes one wonder if he ever actually read Kant’s own explanation – therefore it is easy to read Derrida as opposing Kant and, as Hagglund argues, embracing radical evil and so on… I think the frustrating part here is that I would be willing to accept some slight misreading here and there for the sake of some interesting presentation of the problem, i.e. I could see stretching the meaning here and there in order to make a point, but an utter and complete misreading? The irony is, of course, that Hagglund claims that most of the authors he discusses “misread” and “misunderstand” Derrida right and left…

    Part of me wants to go thought the book and register my objections line by line, but part of me now thinks that the book is written from a perspective of someone who is trying to appeal to a non-philosophical audience and therefore some of my objections could be explained simply by showing that Hagglund is simplifying things in order to make his argument. I mean I don’t want to automatically assume that just because I think Hagglund gives us rather caricature-like versions of Kant, Husserl and Levinas it means that he does not know them well, but it sure does sound like it – how else can one explain sentences like these on page 38: “The object of an Idea cannot be experienced as such because it is beyond time” and “Kantian Idea refers to a thing in itself beyond the restrictions of space and time” – this is an utter non-sense when it comes to Kant, as ideas deal with concepts of understanding giving them certain unifying structures, ideas have no role in any reference to things-in-themselves, and they or their “objects” are not “beyond time” if time is understood as a pure form of intuition etc etc… (I do like the fearless jumping into the discussion of something one does not completely understand, I could never do that in my work, call me overly cautious and meticulous).

    Seriously, I think chapter 4 constitutes a complete essay that has nothing to do with the previous 3 chapters and the last one. The book gets nothing from Hagglund’s “comparison” of Kant and Derrida; there’s almost no transition to chapter 2 and Husserl, chapter 3 on Derrida and Levinas does not do any justice to this complex and well-researched connection, and I don’t know much about Laclau to judge the final chapter.

    If I didn’t get this book for free, I would seriously consider asking for my money back – thanks everyone for your thoughts, unless someone is interested in detailed objections, I think I’m going to finish the book tonight and never look at it again…

  15. Not to end this thread on a negative note, but I think Hagglund’s reading of Derrida is based on his strangely misguided interpretation of “spacing” that he reads as “becoming-space of time AND becoming-time of space” and therefore it becomes “spacing of time” in his book, while Derrida explicitly maintains that it is “becoming-space of time OR becoming-time of space” meaning, of course, that there are issues with the idea of unified space and time, spacetime in the service of the metaphysics of presence, if you will… All of these authors you mention and Hagglund’s misreading of them is rather insignificant in comparison with this fundamental error. Those interested in Kant might take a look at P.F.Strawson’s discussion of space/time and individuation in his 1959 book Individuals. The fact that Hagglund completely ignores not just secondary lit but any significant discussion of these issues in other authors (those he’s not dissing) is rather amusing… Cheers

  16. It being JHU makes all the difference. Here’s their reprint permission policy:

    I wrote an article for one of the Johns Hopkins journals a few years ago. Do I need JHUP’s permission to print this article in my upcoming book?

    No. You have our permission to publish the article in any book that is solely your own work. Please see your publishing agreement. If you are editing a book that contains your article but has others’ work, too, please consult our permissions department.

    Personally, I don’t like this policy, as it’s so easily abused, but it’s only self-plagiarism in name.

  17. My surprise was not so much the matter of quoting oneself, but the fact that the text is used for various set of ideas – it’s like it is an opening paragraph he wrote and liked very much, so after having written an essay on Nabokov, he used it again as an opening of the essay/chapter on Derrida – which is fine if the opening was sort of a general introduction, but it has a number of specific ideas – I mean, whatever works, just sort of weird that the texts are identical, even students who recycle their old papers are expected to change it up a bit. Technically our university plagiarism policy includes a clause about the work being not a reworked paper done for another class or project…

  18. shock and awe headings.

    and, so it seems, the new centennial review is dedicating its spring 2009 issue to hagglund’s book.

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