Religion, Law, and the Redoubling of Ideas
According to their nature, ideas, as purely abstract concepts, are radical intrusions into material existence. They are that which drive us to re-examine and potentially upend our lives on the basis of wholly immaterial considerations. Though there may be both conscious and unconscious gains made for a person’s existence through the implementation of particular ideas, it is the sheer force that ideas can unleash upon lived reality – a movement that defines the transition from something being only potential to its becoming actual – that defines their profound nature. An abstract, immaterial notion or mere concept of something decidedly “unreal” is capable of transforming our lives and the lives of our communities entirely. For Aristotle, the relationship between potentiality and actuality was one of the most significant ways to comprehend the foundations of metaphysics. How humanity has coped with the existence of its capacity for abstraction, however, especially through the creation and maintenance of religion, is something we have yet to fully comprehend.
Metaphysics developed in Greek thought as a joint consideration of abstract philosophical and religious doctrines about ideas themselves, their nature and existence. Contrasting reality with the image, the anthropologist E.B. Tylor – though not the first or last to suggest as much – relied upon this ancient formulation in suggesting that the idea of God was no more than an abstract concept invented by humans, like all other intangible ideas (80). His work was situated in the nineteenth century efforts of intellectuals to discern the core of religious existence and theorize what lies behind every religious impulse, offering a God’s eye view of the “religion of religion,” if you will. In order to develop his theory of animism as the motivating force for all of human life, Tylor posited that the overlap we often see in language between the ethereal “realities” of spirits, souls, ghosts, minds, phantoms, and shadows were little more than humanity’s attempt to decipher its own most unique characteristic: the capacity of abstraction that was seemingly enshrined at the heart of religious belief through its positing of the ultimate abstraction of a divine being.
Philosophically, a parallel trajectory would develop around the same time in Martin Heidegger’s eventual critique of the long history of metaphysics – what he would call onto-theology, or the subtle merger of ontological and theological propositions – where the abstract concept of Being that lay behind all actually existing beings was generally what humanity called God. The “Being of beings,” as he put it, was the mark of an ontological difference that is still frequently mistaken for a theological justification for God’s existence, though that practice, he surmised in the wake of Nietzsche’s writings, was at an end. Western theological traditions are still reeling from the impact of such suggestions.
Religion provides a framework for understanding those revolutionary ideas that can alter material reality, but which are more or less an expression of how humanity does not know how to handle its own capacity for abstract reflection, that is, for taking a critical distance from the immediacy of lived experience. Our ability to see meaning, causality, plans, and patterns by taking a step back from our everyday realities indicates our capacity for abstraction at the same time as it puts human beings in the position of the God or gods they so often imitate. In short, humankind is most often at a loss to explain why we are uniquely capable of thinking about thought, and so, as religions have done for centuries, we project that precise capacity onto the divine being as its own most fundamental trait. This perception is what had once allowed Aristotle to define God as “thought thinking about thought.” Religion, for its part, developed a series of practices, doctrines, and symbolic networks to cope with the existence of ideas: those entirely abstract entities that have no material existence in themselves but which alter the course of our world every day.
What is it about the self-reflexive act of thinking about thought that aligns it with divine being? Aristotle had determined in his Metaphysics how the unmoved mover taken to be a divinity was characterized as essentially ensconced within a thought that contemplates itself, the “thought of thought” or a “thinking on thinking” (noēsis noēseōs). To suggest a divine being grounded on thinking about thought is as much the nature of divine thought as it is a depiction of how God has an eternity to take thought itself as its object. The paradox would seem to be that thinking about thought is impossible, for to think about thought is itself a thought, causing the human being to never really be able to step back from the process of thinking thoughts in order to reflect on the process of thought itself. How would one be able to remove themselves entirely from reasoning in order to contemplate the processes of thinking? To consider thought, we must use thoughts, and so we remain mired in thinking and therefore limited in our approach to the subject — limited, of course, in a way that God would presumably not be. How exactly God could be said to step outside of, or beyond, reason is beyond our capacity to understand. We can only assume that the idea of God is what marks the possibility of performing what we can only consider to be impossible. What is impossible for humans is possible for God, as many philosophers and theologians alike continuously remind us.
I am reminded on this score of Giorgio Agamben’s suggestion that God is also the name of what remains within another impossibility: our inability to state, in language, the existence of language. We are stymied from actually pronouncing the “language of language,” as it were. What we do with words is as impressive as it is apparently infinite in nature; and yet, we are not able to step outside of language in order to proclaim the foundations of language. For Agamben, this situation mirrors that of the sovereign, who exists outside of the laws of the state. The sovereign is the only one capable of declaring the exception, and thereby establishing themselves as sovereign, because they are not subject to the same rules as everyone else who is governed by them. The sovereign, by definition, exists beyond the law while also existing as the one who guarantees that the law rests upon solid ground. It appears as if the capacity to be sovereign, and so to be dominant over another, or over many others, is to be transcendent of whatever everyday reality otherwise grounds typical human operations (e.g. the use of language, the act of thinking, being bound by laws, etc.). What God is able to do, and to confer upon the authority of God’s designated sovereign representative (e.g. monarchs, priests and men in general, among others), is to transcend any structure or inherently limited human capacity thereby justifying God’s power, authority, and sovereignty.
Thinking about thought is not just the basis of philosophical reflection, then. This curious act of “redoubling” — thinking about thought, speaking about what is spoken, being the rule beyond all rules — constitutes the definition of transcendence, but also of abstraction. To redouble something is to gain a meta- position, to step back and look critically upon whatever established system or identity or operation stands before one’s eyes, as with meta-physics. But it is also to abstract oneself from the embodied, concrete materiality of existence. It should be little surprise that the transcendence, and abstractness, of God is historically often grafted upon the male religious leader who removes themselves from the ordinary world — the definition of the sacred as a form of “setting apart” from the everyday — in order to invest himself not only with an aura of sacrality but with the dominance of sovereign power. Our world is thus haunted by sacred-sovereign presences, and in more domains than just the religious.
William James was particularly attuned to the radical nature of ideas when he suggested that religion deals with the unseen, and is as such an “idea” that we can imagine as an external phantom of sorts (55, 63). These unseen ideas can guide our entire lives as the most powerful force within them, something which James went on to note was fundamental to being religious, but also simply to being human (57-58). Ideas are what lead to utopian and messianic religious impulses, as well as those idealistic and revolutionary yearnings for the eventual perfection of human community. They linger behind every religious conversion, and they drastically alter our way of being in the world in terms that seem to be part of our nature. The desire for changing our lives entirely through our fidelity to abstract ideas seems to be the condition of our human existence, and it is one that bleeds from religion into every other facet of the human experience, from the political to the cultural, and from the social to the economic.
James’s linkage of the nature of ideas themselves to abstract metaphysical (religious) doctrines furthermore illustrates how ideas themselves are a helpful corrective force for the ultimate incompletions of human existence, a point that Sigmund Freud would elaborate on to no small degree in his own writings. Religion, for Freud, was not just an illusion to be discarded once and for all; its truth is bound up with the nature of all abstractions, and it is the product of the incompletions of human civilization itself. For him, the excessiveness that civilization brings to our “natural” state of existence always provides a sense of “mystery” to our lives, though such mystery is also just the inherent byproduct of having human civilization in the first place. Religious ideals arise from the achievements of civilization, as the feeling of helplessness that humanity confronts in its so-called natural state leads us to search for defenses against the brutality of existence (26, 30). Though any attempt to imagine a state of nature and any resulting social contract are ultimately fictions, it is helpful to understand that the nature of religious illusions, like political social contracts, for Freud, are not necessarily false, just as any abstraction is technically “false” though also very real in its ability to impact one’s life. Abstract ideas are what enable us to make changes to our world when the world we confront is frightening, anxiety-inducing, or dissatisfying (38, 39).
The major issue, when seen as part of the playing out of humanity’s interactions with living as a “civilized” collective, is that we fundamentally do not know what to do with the excessiveness of civilization itself, with the fact that there will always be something, like those ideas we generate, that is external to our natural life and that yet lies within one’s life. There are forces working within us — abstract concepts, ideas, and theories — that point toward something beyond us, and which prevent us from locating a permanent peace or stability within our nature.
It is at this point that we can begin to understand a resonance between the relationship of ideas to material reality, as the potential to the actual, with those deconstructive forces that lie within every seemingly fixed identity or institution.
Deconstructionism arose in the past half-century in order to champion a messianic force moving through history that potentially undoes every seemingly fixed representation through an ability to spot the autoimmune element within every representation that could potentially undo it. The philosopher Jacques Derrida grounded his career on the repurposing of the religious term “messianic” in order to demonstrate how it was not simply a religious concept, but a philosophical one above all else. For Derrida, justice was itself a messianic idea that revealed how every representation was incomplete and more justice was always forthcoming, though never to become fully materialized in our historical existence. To claim that true justice had been achieved once and for all was rather a sign that a totalitarian nightmare was setting in. There could never be a truly democratic society; only the never-ending urge to democratize democratic institutions and so to see more justice potentially enter our world.
Derrida had a phrase to describe the form of privilege that accrued when one took abstraction to its pinnacle: white mythology. In the modern period, white mythology conspired with reason in order to further abstract itself from any embodied conditions of material existence, and so to assert dominance through critical distance, much as God was once defined metaphysically by Aristotle. In Derrida’s phrasing of matters, “Metaphysics — the white mythology which reassembles and reflects the culture of the West: the white man takes his own mythology, Indo-European mythology, his own logos, that is, the mythos of his idiom, for the universal form of that he must still wish to call Reason” (213). Within such a framework, it becomes imperative that this pervasive and insidious mythological narrative efface its own existence, so that it might become that much more effective. “White mythology — metaphysics has erased within itself the fabulous scene that has produced it, the scene that nevertheless remains active and stirring, inscribed in white ink, an invisible design covered over in the palimpsest” (213). Trying to embody an abstracted spirit is the main task of a white mythology, an effort that cannot actually be made reality, but which becomes, through every effort to enact its ideals, an opportunity to impose a sovereign hegemony over others who are immersed within the materiality of lived existence.
Just as Derrida was to make the focal point of his deconstructions of so many representations throughout the history of philosophy, he described white mythology as what masked the impossibility of actually presenting one’s presence; instead, he argued, we only have representations of representations, never the actual presentation of presence that we long for, which white mythology promises, but is never able to fully deliver. The redoubling that takes place in every representation of representation becomes an unending chain of meaning that we create in order to cover over the fact that we will never have access to an “original” meaning, as if one were divinely gifted to humanity from on high. But the search for an original meaning is captured in the act of redoubling itself; producing a representation of representation grants us a meta- position from which to assume the dominant point of view. Instead of an original meaning given to us as if by divine revelation, all we have to work with, in reality, are copies of copies, an “endless deferral” of meaning that takes place through the act of redoubling itself.
The process of redoubling was illustrated, for Derrida, in the metaphorical roots of all concepts, where one could find that the “hidden history” of metaphors within each concept demonstrated the “resemblance between two signs” that lay at the base of all symbols and analogies. What he located in metaphor was the basis for metaphysical thought and the white mythology that metaphor justifies. There was a “metaphor of metaphor,” he found, that remained outside of every metaphorical reference, and which indicated only a metaphysical presupposition at the base of all metaphor (219-220). The act of redoubling such as we see in the “thinking of thought,” the “concept of the concept” or the “defining of definition,” is a reflection of how mimesis lies at the base of all metaphor (237). Citing Aristotle, Derrida claimed that such abstractions are a “metaphorical activation” that consists in “animating the inanimate, in transporting something into the “psychic” order, like ideas themselves being gifted to our human existence” (239). In this process, analogy holds a primary place among the types of metaphor, according to Aristotle, because it grounds the analogy of Being that is operative in the act of redoubling (242). That is, “If every metaphor is an elliptical comparison or analogy, in this case we are dealing with a metaphor par excellence, a metaphorical redoubling, an ellipsis of ellipsis” (243). Metaphor circles endlessly around itself, a “metaphorical redoubling” that cries out for a proper name to ground it: “the nonmetaphorical prime mover of metaphor, the father of all figures. Everything turns around it, everything turns toward it” (243).
Since metaphor searches for its metaphysical foundation in the proper name (i.e. the original meaning) that it will never actually find, there is only the spinning of more metaphors, creating a situation of the “metaphorization of metaphor, its bottomless overdeterminability” (243). The dominance of humanity, its white mythology, is fabricated upon this structure of a proper name that grounds the infinite act of redoubling: a man dominates over a woman, for example, through the tautological definition of “a man is a man,” who acts “like a man” without the meaning of man ever being able to be defined by anything external to it. The plurality that is underneath the “man” must be silenced so that the man can master himself just as he masters the woman, or nature, or as the white man dominates over the black man. “Each time that polysemia is irreducible, when no unity of meaning is even promised to it, one is outside language. And consequently, outside humanity. What is proper to man is doubtless the capacity to make metaphors, but in order to mean some thing, and only one. In this sense, the philosopher, who ever has but one thing to say, is the man of man. Whoever does not subject equivocalness to this law is already a bit less than a man: a sophist, who in sum says nothing, nothing that can be reduced to a meaning. At the limit of this “meaning-nothing,” one is hardly an animal, but rather a plant, a reed, and not a thinking one,” according to Aristotle (248). It is easy to see how racisms form themselves through such dehumanizing processes based on the abstract redoubling that would see many compete to become the “man of man.”
Trying to signify metaphor itself we encounter “a metaphor of metaphor; an expropriation, a being-outside-one’s-own-residence, but still in a dwelling, outside its own residence but still in a residence in which one comes back to oneself, recognizes oneself, reassembles oneself or resembles oneself, outside oneself in oneself” (253). The encounter with the “metaphor of metaphor” is a de-centering displacement that is nonetheless constitutive of the human being’s excessiveness. It is the philosophical foundation for ideas themselves, which Derrida will describe as “Parousia, the self-presence of the idea in its own light. The metaphorical trajectory from the Platonic eidos to the Hegelian Idea” (253). It is an oscillation between idealization and reappropriation, but also what presents philosophical insight as “a theory of metaphor” that is also “a metaphor of theory” (254).
The concept of interiority itself, which gives rise to both metaphysics and the “man of metaphysics” who lies at the heart of the “white mythology” Derrida seeks to deconstruct, is developed through recourse to the metaphor of metaphor. In this particular case, he focuses on the metaphor of the sun, and so too of the heliotrope in relation to the sun, that demonstrates the act of redoubling as a “return to itself — this interiorization — of the sun has marked not only Platonic, Aristotelian, Cartesian, and other kinds of discourse, not only the science of logic as the circle of circles, but also, and by the same token, the man of metaphysics. The sensory sun, which rises in the East, becomes interiorized, in the evening of its journey, in the eye and the heart of the Westerner. He summarizes, assumes, and achieves the essence of man, ‘illuminated by the true light’” (268). What is spawned in this “return to itself” that constitutes the founding gesture of metaphysics and humanity at the same moment is simultaneously a positing of sovereignty, of mastery, in its abstraction from the material conditions of lived existence: “[…] the concept of the concept cannot not retain the gesture of mastery, taking-and-maintaining-in-the-present, comprehending and grasping the thing as an object” (224).
What we witness in Derrida’s work is the unleashing of a “multiplicity of multiplicity” that cannot be domesticated, and which seeks to counter those acts of reduplication that seek only a meta-physical basis from which to proclaim their power (245). This is why, more often, Derrida’s own acts of deconstruction are a negative redoubling, positing something more like a “religion without religion” rather than striving to illuminate a “religion of religion” as a meta- position. His coining of the term différance was rather an attempt to embrace multiplicity and plurivocality rather than establish a sovereign perspective through the redoubling that motivates white mythologies throughout the world.
It is an adherence to the endless deferral of différance that Geoffrey Bennington maintains when he critiques those seeking to put an end to the “politics of politics,” which he sees as an opening to the multiplicity of political forms, through a “decision to end all decisions.” To dream of ending political multiplicity is to harness a metaphysical desire “through and through,” one that fantasizes about “a politics unaffected by the politics of politics” (4, 241). Bennington’s reading of différance is, for him, a counter-Hegelian proposition that cannot be re-inscribed into a conceptual or absolute form through the usual redoubling routes that search only to dominate over various historical-conceptual realities. Generally speaking, what Bennington defends is the philosophical imperative to “think about thought” as a non-metaphysical activity, and so not as in league with the establishment of a sovereign gesture or Being (238). Just as there is no “redemption beyond politics,” there is no metaphysical solution to philosophical problems.
Bennington’s critical-deconstructive gestures share with so many other non-metaphysical acts of redoubling that have surfaced in recent memory, such as Étienne Balibar’s desire to locate truth by “secularizing secularity,” Pierre Bourdieu’s charge that we must continuously “objectify objectivity” or Bruno Latour’s call to ceaselessly “relativize relativity.”1See Étienne Balibar, Secularism and Cosmopolitanism: Critical Hypotheses on Religion and Politics, trans. G.M. Goshgarian (New York, Columbia University Press, 2018), Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990) and Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern,trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993). In the words of Latour, ‘Relativist relativism restores the compatibility that was assumed to have been lost. To be sure, relativist relativism has to abandon what constituted the common argument of the universalists as well as the earliest cultural relativists – that is, the word ‘absolute’. Instead of stopping midway, it continues to the end and rediscovers, in the form of work and montage, practice and controversy, conquest and domination, the process of establishing relations. A little relativism distances us from the universal; a lot brings us back, but it is a universal in networks that has no more mysterious properties’. Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, p. 113. Each of these projects attempts to avoid the metaphysical acts of redoubling in order to achieve a meta- position by humbly portraying their motivations as an unending act of approximation that can never be achieved once and for all, much as with Derrida’s efforts to democratize democracy. It was the task of the messianic, as a spirit, specter, or ghost haunting every existing identity, to motivate such change through the revelation of new ideas previously unnoticed.
Though Derrida was himself often critical of Freud and his methods, there is a certain overlap in their primary focal points that cannot be disregarded. The emphasis on locating the repressed element within any given narrative, record, or psyche, insofar as it is that precise irreducible remainder that might present an otherness that transgresses any normative identity, is a trait both thinkers shared. Like the power of an idea to lead to a conversionary experience, as James had put it in a religious-experiential context, an internal otherness threatens to present a transgressive experience that is at the same time a moment of liberation and a hope for the revelation of repressed elements. This is what Edward Said, remarking on Freud’s work in general, called his antinomian tendency, or a quest for justice to be brought about through the transgression of a normative identity (53). Antinomianism functions as a death drive, in Freudian parlance, as it sees to the destruction, or deconstruction, of a normative order or law but only insofar as this destructive impulse comes from within, and so sees to the eventual recreation of a normative dimension. As Derrida would clarify repeatedly in his own writings, the only chance for justice to enter our world is by recognizing that justice will never be fully achieved or historically embodied, only more closely approximated through the recognition of those transgressive, messianic elements ceaselessly at work within every given system, institution or normative order. This is why antinomianism, in religious, cultural, or political terms, is a recurring issue that not only never goes away; it actually speaks directly to the nature and existence of law itself.
The history of religion testifies to the recurring problem of antinomianism again and again. When Francis of Assisi sought to live outside of all forms of economic exchange, demonstrating a non-possessiveness that is the equivalent of antinomianism in economic terms, for example, he appeared to the Pope as if he were expecting the Church itself to fade away, though his motives were only to expose the true core of Jesus’s own antinomic tendencies in relation to the Judaic laws of his own time. When Martin Luther likewise sought to oppose the hierarchical impositions of Catholic doctrine, he was mistaken by even his own followers for being antinomian, a charge he worked hard to refute in order to preserve any semblance of an ecclesial structure. What both wanted was a more direct access to the “law of laws” and the “king of kings,” and which only appeared to be graspable by taking actions that also appeared to be direct transgressions of the normative order of their day. These antinomian tendencies, as they are by definition, are actually attempts to more perfectly embody the spirit of the law, which is to say the “law of the law” itself. Whether the “law of law” becomes an attempt to assert a purer form of sovereignty, however, or whether it accepts a humbler, unending approximation of the law’s ideal is difficult to predetermine. Even for Luther, who was protesting injustice in the hopes of creating more just ecclesial and communal structures, the temptation to eventually invite the hand of the executioner into the heart of community through an embrace of the “two kingdoms” theory was more than just a temptation.
The only thing that can be said to guarantee justice is to remove ourselves from the immediacy of a normative order or law and to exercise that uniquely critical capacity of humanity for self-reflexive thought that we saw a moment ago was what historically defined the role of the divine being, or the act of redoubling that was both the “Being of beings” and the “thought of thought.” To attain both goodness and justice, we must establish ourselves in a position beyond the immediacy of law, transgressing its practical limits in order to encompass the entire domain of law “from above,” as it were. The legal axiom aequum et bonum est lex legum, or“what is just and good is the law of laws,” indicates just this deconstructive principle as well as the principle that necessity itself is the law of laws. God, said to exist by necessity or not at all according to the definition of God’s sovereignty (and so as God’s omnipotence), overlaps with both justice and goodness just to the extent that God is also said to be removed or abstracted from everyday lived realities such as law, religion, and civilization.
A law that rules over other laws – the law of law itself, then – is most assuredly a metaphysical proposition, though it is also, for that very same reason, the only possibility for a just law beyond any metaphysical baggage that has accrued underneath the concept. At the heart of all contested claims for sovereign power lies a dispute over how to interpret such possibilities. To be sovereign, as a law code presents itself in conjunction with its sovereign nation and its territorial jurisdiction, means to be autonomous, just as God was once said to be wholly autonomous and dependent on nothing else before it, appearing therefore ex nihilo and prior to all other created matter.
It is this lingering political theology that dictates why certain nations still struggle with any political body that appears to be sovereign over other sovereignties, such as the United Nations or the International Criminal Court. There are those who oppose the institution of such meta-political bodies because their very existence, and so their attempt to govern those who seek to govern themselves, calls into question the legitimacy of the sovereign claims that appear to undergird a given national context. There are also those too who welcome such meta-bodies in that they humble already existing sovereign forms, though there is no guarantee that such meta-institutions will not take on a somewhat sacred aura that is itself illegitimate in some sense.
Can anything break up the metaphysical hold that the critical act of redoubling has upon human existence, or is it just an inherent side effect of our propensity for critical self-reflection? Will we always be searching for a “law of laws” or “religion of religions” so that we might demonstrate yet another level of sovereign power in our world? Or will we find a way to more humbly approach our desires for an original meaning as a foundational element, realizing that such a thing will never be discovered, but that, in our endless acts of interpretation, we create meaning for ourselves suited to the contexts in which we find ourselves? Or perhaps we must find solutions not by eradicating the processes of redoubling that characterize humanity’s unique capacity on this planet, but by comprehending how the act of redoubling itself is a political-theological gesture in need of further understanding, because it speaks to the heart of all institutions and identities – though we rarely take the time to fathom how it functions as a gesture for legitimating power.
Counter to the white mythology that Derrida illuminates as the act of redoubling that gives rise to the “Other of the other” analogous to the Being of being who is allegedly divine, we might focus, as do scholars working focusing on the margins of society today, on the “other of the Other,” the one who is marginalized by the dominant metaphysical presumptions and presuppositions that underlie hegemonic political order. As the Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr describes the decolonizing process, the resistance to western, so-called universal forms can only be achieved by displacing the priority of the Other and by focusing instead on the multiple others who carry their own histories, knowledges, truths, and practices separate from the homogenizing tendencies of creating an Other to rule over humanity (75). In Sarr’s account, sovereignty (symbolically formulated as the Other) is not eradicated; it is rather restored to the “others of the Other” through political models that are not dependent on long, mainly western monarchical histories that place the sovereign figure in an analogous relationship to the Other. There is only a continuous displacement of sovereignty into the multiple others who configure democratic processes in the hopes of more just political representation. ♦
Colby Dickinson is Associate Professor of Theology at Loyola University, Chicago. He is the author of Agamben and Theology (2011), Words Fail: Theology, Poetry, and the Challenge of Representation (2016), Theology and Contemporary Continental Philosophy: The Centrality of a Negative Dialectics (2019) and, most recently, The Fetish of Theology: The Challenge of the Fetish-Object to Modernity (2020).
Dickinson, Colby. “Religion, Law, and the Redoubling of Ideas.” Canopy Forum, July 23, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/07/23/religion-law-and-the-redoubling-of-ideas/