Democracy, Borrowing, Lending, and Sharing (part 1)

by Brian Bergen-Aurand

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If God had wanted it, he would have made you a single community, but he wanted, the Koran tells us [5:48], to test you through the gift of difference.
~Mustapha Chérif, Islam and the West

I believe that what distinguishes the idea of democracy from all other ideas of political regimes—monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, and so on—is that democracy is the only political system, a model without a model, that accepts its own historicity, that is, its own future, which accepts its self-criticism, which accepts perfectibility. … To exist in a democracy is to agree to challenge, to be challenged, to challenge the status quo, which is called democratic, in the name of democracy to come. … Democracy is always to come, it is a promise, and it is in the name of that promise that one can always criticize, question that which is proposed as de facto democracy.
~Jacques Derrida quoted in Islam and the West

In the midst of my summer reading, as I think about the state, sovereignty, censorship, penguin kinship, homosexual comic book characters, and the future of democracy and lending libraries, I turn toward three small books to remind myself of the fragility of political regimes. These three highly portable and often quite readable texts give us compressions of some of Jacques Derrida’s last thoughts on political economy. Any one of these brief encounters with the late philosopher’s ethico-political might provoke us to rethink how we govern and are governed; all three together are a rousing survey of why such instigation matters most right here, right now. Hic et nunc.

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Monoligualism of the Other; or, The Prosthesis of Origin (Stanford University Press, 1998) reminds us that we all speak only one language at a time and that we never own language—even our own—but share it with everyone else who speaks it. So, our own language, even our own national language, is always something we borrow and process through our bodies but never possess. The language we speak is always “on loan,” so to speak. And this borrowing comes about through a process of interactions with cultural institutions of inclusion and exclusion—such as religions, schools, citizenships, libraries, markets, families. In fact, the language we speak and the community that loans it to us exist only through these institutions of inclusion and exclusion, only through the censorship that makes languages, communities, states possible. Such censorship is often rooted in colonialism and empire’s desires for mastery and purity and marks how states are founded on the very act of censoring.

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In direct response to the spread of “globalization” and the events of 11 September 2001, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason (Stanford University Press, 2005) returns to questions of inclusion and exclusion through an investigation of the theological foundations of the sovereignty of the nation-state. The concept of the unity of nation-states, the belief in their indivisibility—whether of the monarch, the people, or the individual—and, thus, the idea that they cannot be divided or shared is built on the exclusion and censorship of whatever might divide or share them. Nation-states are nation-states because they exclude and censor foreign influence and because they outlaw other states and political formations that threaten their conception of sovereignty. Such barbarians need not even threaten state’s actual territorial or institutional borders. Nation-states, then, while they have the potential to open to democracy, run the risk of halting democracy by their very unity. There can be no unified democracy. If, as Derrida argues, democracy is always “democracy to come,” democracy open to the unforeseeable outsider, the unpredictable future, then democracy depends upon a divided nation-state—one that partitions, loans, and borrows its sovereignty.

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Islam and the West: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida by Mustapha Chérif (University of Chicago Press, 2008) is the text of a spring 2003 debate between Derrida and Chérif. Like Monolingualism and Rogues, Islam and the West addresses the complex relation between the theocratic roots of sovereignty and the ethico-politics of democracy to come. Here, though, the conversation takes place in light of critical relations between philosophy and Islam and Derrida and Chérif’s own relation to their roots as Algerians: one Jewish, the other Muslim. The book is dedicated “To all those who unconditionally welcome, listen to, and respect THE OTHER,” and investigates the difficulties of being modern—politically or religiously—without surrendering traditions—political or religious—by relinquishing sovereignty from its theocratic roots. Again, Derrida stresses that sovereignty must be shared, lent, borrowed. It must be divisible, no longer pure. This transformation or deformation of the law and of sovereignty—this separation and censoring of the political and the religious—is the condition of religious freedom and of unconditionally welcoming the other, the event, the future.

I appeal to the right to ask critical questions regarding not only the history of such and such a concept but also the history of the notion of criticism, the interrogative form of thought. Nothing should be sheltered from questioning, not even the classical figure of the universal and not even the traditional idea of criticism. It is clear that criticism, deconstruction, the work of thoughts can be said in the plural, a plurality of languages, cultures, and singularities.
~Jacques Derrida quoted in Islam and the West

Although the first volume is unavailable for loan from our local libraries, the latter two are properly shelved in the appropriate adult section and waiting to be borrowed.

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