Derrida after the End of Writing

Political Theology and New Materialism

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Clayton Crockett
Perspectives in Continental Philosophy
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , November
     2017.
     200 pages.
     $28.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780823277841.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Clayton Crockett’s Derrida after the End of Writing: Political Theology and New Materialism offers a brief yet dense and variegated treatment of what we might call the malleability of Derrida’s thought in the age of the environmental humanities. Indeed, the more earthen and material sense of the malleable is apt here, rather than a more properly Derridean term such as iterability (sounding a more linguistic note), precisely because Crockett’s aim is to explore a new materialist future for Derrida. Those familiar with Crockett’s recent, speculative ventures in continental philosophy of religion and political theology will find many themes consonant with his previous work, notably his continuing interest in engaging the post-deconstructive work of philosopher Catherine Malabou and her neurobiologically inflected Hegelianism as resources through which to develop his own brand of non-reductive materialist theology as refracted through Derrida and the emerging panoply of new materialisms.

As the title suggests, Crockett’s project aims to explore the possibility of engaging Derrida beyond the linguistic frame (beyond textuality) in the context of contemporary philosophical and ecological thinking that explicitly engages the natural sciences. Not so much a singular and focused exploration as much as a mashup of scouting reports on different terrains, Crockett, as surveyor, presents us with an at times dizzying panorama of landscapes upon which Derrida’s thought might gain traction and prove generative. To this end, he argues “that we need to engage Derrida’s later philosophy … from a new materialist perspective that treats politics and religion as material and spiritual practices” (6).  

After a helpful overview of Derrida’s engagement with religion generally throughout his corpus (chap. 1) and a more in depth engagement with the question of deconstruction and Christianity in particular, wherein Crockett displays the complexity of Derrida’s nuanced engagement with the economy of concepts at play that are shared between Christianizing and secularizing discourses within the West (chap. 2), he turns to an engagement with contemporary work on Derrida. He deftly weaves his own interpretative approach into the existing scholarly fabric of staple expositors such as Michael Naas, Martin Hägglund, and John D. Caputo. A defender of Caputo’s more nuanced reading of Derrida on religion against the dictates of Hägglund’s purely atheistic approach to deconstruction, Crockett finds in Naas and Caputo fellow travelers who, as the chapters unfold, open the domain from which his new materialist engagement with Derrida unfolds. My own draw to this book, as a scholar interested in the intersection of the natural sciences and the philosophy of religion, was specifically to Crockett’s engagement with Malabou and the new materialisms: a loose collection of projects that put the natural sciences and ecological theory in conversation with continental philosophy and critical and political theory. 

As somewhat of a critic of what I would argue is Derrida’s (and Caputo’s, though surely he would deny this) ultimately deconstructed Kantian moral religion, where religion without religion is, at bottom, something akin to a kind of deregulative ideal—a promise for justice, the impossible, democracy—always inflected with a quasi-normative openness to the other (an ur-faith), it is refreshing to see Crockett defend something of a different Derridean possibility, one refracted through Malabou as well. It is this materialized possibility as operative within the neurobiologically engendered concept of plasticity that draws Crockett to her work as a frame by which to approach religion, which he understands as providing a “sense of orientation” (and disorientation) within the world (82). This orientational sense, and the disrupting of the humanistic (and linguistic) paradigm, is what the new materialisms offer in their own ways. Crockett’s book is a welcome goad to think more immanently and more “earthbound,” as Bruno Latour suggests in his 2013 Gifford Lectures, about religion as a creative and destructive force in and of world. In this vein, his work pairs well with other recent work on animal religion critical of the linguistic frame (e.g., Donovan Schaefer, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, Duke University Press, 2015). His brief, speculative explorations of Derrida, object oriented ontology, and Karen Barad’s feminist quantum theory are insightful and provocative, albeit at times strained to get beyond functioning as primers to future engagement, partly because the volume is so sprawling in thetopics it wrangles together.

In chapter 7 Crockett explores both Malabou’s and Caputo’s work within the deconstructive tradition, charting a path between them where he seeks the passion for the (im)possible (with Caputo) within the plastic domain of biological materialism (with Malabou). The key shift Crockett makes, with Malabou, is from writing to plasticity. This shift (a shift in conceptual frame) is a change consonant with the new materialisms insofar as it emphasizes the self-organizing, adaptive aspects of matter itself (the neurobiological, for Malabou) as a paradigm by which to overcome long-held constructed binaries between nature and culture, human and nonhuman, spirit and matter.

I think Crockett is right that Malabou is among the most exciting continental philosophers working today, not least because she has immersed herself in the neuroscience literature not to deride it, or declare it alien to "promise" (and only "program" as Derrida thought of the discipline), but rather to find in it a way to think beyond such binaries. Indeed, these terms capture the dialectical tension that imbues Derrida’s understanding of religion and the dualities of both miracle/freedom/promise and machine/determinism/program. 

Although one would be right to object that these terms do not function homogeneously across the discursive the terrains where Derrida, Malabou, and Crockett deploy them, they do, I would argue, function homologously in the way they are structurally arranged as contraries. And it is these contraries that generate both the derision from continental philosophers to certain approaches within the physical and life sciences and Malabou’s attempt to find in plasticity (and, more recently, epigenesis) that which can bring these erstwhile contraries together as relations of form to form—the brain’s plastic relations with itself. 

At the very least, Crockett’s latest has brought together many threads he began weaving in previous work and has added still new ones, expanding and molding the conversation in continental philosophy of religion and political theology in exciting directions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jonathan Russell is Adjunct Instructor of Philosophy and Religion at Chaffey College; Contributing Fellow at the University of Southern California Center for Religion and Culture; and a doctoral student in Religious Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Date of Review: 
May 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Clayton Crockett is Professor and Director of Religious Studies at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the author a number of books, including Deleuze Beyond Badiou: Ontology, Multiplicity and Event, Interstices of the Sublime: Theology and Psychoanalytic Theory (Fordham), and, with Ward Blanton, Jeffrey W. Robbins, and Noëlle Vahanian, An Insurrectionist Manifesto: Four New Gospels for a Radical Politics.

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