Posts Tagged ‘religion’

A Brief Tale of Sacrifice: The Unlikely Alliance of Jacques Derrida and Jordan B. Peterson

December 1, 2017

Jordan B. Peterson, a clinical psychologist who has risen to international fame in the previous year, regularly disparages Jacques Derrida in his talks and lectures. Peterson recently argued on the Joe Rogan podcast, for instance, that Derrida’s influence on the University system has been a “corrosive force,” the results of which are “absolutely pathological to the core.” Many of Derrida’s conclusions (e.g. lifedeath) are, for Peterson, “true, but…” because they always rest on the notion that categorization in society exists primarily to marginalize others, a notion Peterson finds “absurd” as a critique. The absurdity that Peterson attributes to Derrida momentarily disappears, however, when they discuss sacrifice and responsibility. Peterson, a champion polemic of post-modernism, at least within the scope of this discussion, sounds a lot like Derrida, the post-modernist who he claims to most condemn. Perhaps Peterson might take Derrida’s Gift of Death into account in the future, an act which might soften some of Peterson’s harsher blows against post-modernism.

Jordan B. Peterson’s arguments about Christian sacrifice in the story of Abraham most strongly coincides with Jacques Derrida’s recasting of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Derrida, through the writings of Jan Patočka and Martin Heidegger, argues that even Kierkegaard’s reading of the story of Abraham was insufficiently complete as an interpretation. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard epically interrogates the “faith” that many people claim to have, and yet “go further” in vain from their own mistaken presuppositions. Kierkegaard dismantles these presuppositions and painstakingly details the “anguish” that Abraham would have felt when he was commanded by God to sacrifice Isaac. Kierkegaard’s portrait of Abraham’s anguish underscores the multifaceted sacrifice that transpired when Abraham committed to the task that God has commanded of him. Abraham’s multifaceted sacrifice is threefold: (1) his son, (2) his ethics, (3) his future. The call is a call to accept the aporia of responsibility, as Derrida would have it, or the call to willingly adopt sacrifice in order to transcend suffering, as Peterson would have it. This aporetic (perhaps transcendent) responsibility cannot be refused but, simultaneously, will inevitably fail to manifest into being.

In the seventh installment of his wildly popular Biblical lecture series (“The Great Sacrifice”), Peterson argues at length that the sacrificial tale of Abraham and Isaac is an archetypal foundation for Western Culture. This archetypal foundation presents itself as a fundamental problem to contemporary life; that is, sacrifice is a religious notion. Sacrifice requires integration of pain and suffering. This religious notion has still not fully integrated itself into secular society. Reading from a draft of his forthcoming book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson concludes his characterization of Abraham’s sacrifice with a discussion of pain and suffering that echoes Derrida’s sentiments from Gift of Death:

“Pain and suffering define the world; of that, there can be no doubt. Sacrifice can hold pain and suffering in abeyance to a greater or lesser degree. And greater sacrifices can do that more effectively than lesser. Of that, too, there can be no doubt: everyone holds this knowledge in their soul. Thus, the person who wishes to alleviate suffering, who wishes to rectify the flaws in being, who wishes to bring about the best of all possible futures, who wants to create Heaven on Earth, will make the greatest of sacrifices: of self and child, of everything that is loved. To live a life aimed at the Good, he will forgo expediency. He will pursue the path of ultimate meaning. And he will, in that manner, bring salvation to ever-desperate world.”

Peterson’s evocation of salvation, in this conclusion, harkens Derrida’s notion of originary responsibility. For Derrida, responsibility is Biblical in origin: love thy enemy, love all children (not just one’s own). This responsibility produces an aporia, for Derrida. For, as finite beings with limited resources, one can only discharge one’s responsibility only incompletely. That is, one can never properly care for (love) all children, one’s enemies, etc. One’s mortality prevents oneself from properly caring for these others, as one can’t possibly discharge the eternal, infinite obligation present in human beings: responsibility through sacrifice.

Sam Kimball, in the twelfth lecture of his 2017 graduate-level literary theory course, tangentially argued against the ontological notion of responsibility. In Kimball’s terms, each of our decisions is urgent, yet problematic. A decision is only a decision, in other words, if one has inadequate knowledge; one must be uncertain. If one isn’t certain, then one is following a protocol. To make a free decision, a responsible decision, one has to make a decision under certain circumstances of inadequate information; but that makes one’s decision irresponsible, by definition. To decide responsibly is, thus, according to Kimball, to decide irresponsibly. Derrida’s ethical aporia of responsibility is thus evoked in this consideration of irresponsibility (again, in Kimball’s terminology): my responsibility will occur within a Darwinian world that is governed by the logic of the infanticidal, without which the sacred would not appear to me. This apparition of the sacred harkens back to the “salvation” that Peterson describes in his conclusion on the Abrahamic tale of sacrifice. That which is sacred, the ideal future, is achieved through sacrifice, through responsibility.

After arguing against the ontological notion of responsibility, Kimball retraced his logic back through the chronology of Derrida’s Gift of Death. This chronology begins with the Akeda, a text which makes infanticidal logic explicit. This explication complicates the notion of responsibility further, according to Kimball, because Abraham sacrifices Isaac even if he doesn’t. Abraham sacrifices all other sons, furthermore, even if he doesn’t. These “even if” conditionals reveal Derrida’s logic of responsibility: to sacrifice all other possibilities (decisions) even if they aren’t sacrificed.

The (or any) instant of life (or care) is an eternity (infinitude) of sacrificed futures, in Kimball’s terminology. As an individual, one can only be a parent to some kids – it’s encoded in the structure of existence. Parenthood is thus a matter of responsibility and irresponsibility, logically necessitating another form of the gift of death: by taking care of one’s own children, one is sacrificing others’. If one truly understood one’s implication in the infinitude of sacrificed futures, according to Derrida, one would tremble before this mysterium tremendum demanded by the wholly other (God). Every responsibility is thus a coming to face with the resurrection, the gift of death that one can never repay but must try to. This gift of death takes the form of the “bargain with the future” that Peterson emphasizes in the Abrahamic story. To bargain with the future, to sacrifice the present, is an ultimate responsibility – a gift of death willingly sacrificed to one’s future self.

Peterson offers the evolutionary anecdote of mammoth hunting to illustrate the biological origin of sacrifice in human culture. In human culture, unlike in animal life (culture?), massive food resources like a mammoth are preserved and shared in order to bring about a more sustainable future. Animals don’t participate in this bargain with the future, as humans do; rather, wolves, for instance, will eat entire carcasses at a time. Humans, however, distribute the carcass amongst members of the group, thereby conferring notions of sharing, trust, and sacrifice. One who shares, or, in Derrida’s terminology, gifts, is responsible. Peterson continues with the detailed account of the pre-Abrahamic sacrifices:

“Eventually, the utility of ‘for later,’ starts to be appreciated. Some provisional notion of sacrifice begins to develop at the same time. If I leave some for now, I won’t have to be hungry later. That provisional notion then develops to the next level: if I leave some for later, I won’t have to go hungry, and neither will those I care for. And then to the next level: I can’t possibly eat all this mammoth, but I can’t store the rest for too long either. Maybe I should feed some to other people. Maybe they’ll remember, and feed me some of their mammoth when they have some and I have none. Then I’ll get some mammoth now, and some later. That’s a good deal.”

Hence, societies begin to organize and emerge out of the pleistocene, as Peterson would have it. This emergence, in Kimball’s terminology, does not guarantee an escape from the Darwinian economy of necessity. Rather, in the peace that follows the emergence, society invents culture. Culture, in this conception, is a collective noun for a series of manifestations that subvert the necessity to sacrifice (i.e. taboos, curses, prescriptions, anathemas, oaths, law, religion, customs, etiquette, and gift giving). This subversion is, like the gift of death, precarious. Eventually, this precarious contract will expire and the economic necessity for the group will undermine the peace from which the sacrifice has precluded itself (e.g. natural disaster, invasion, war, pestilence).

When this precarious contract expires, a new sacrifice will have to be made. Peterson might argue that, as sacrifice is a bargain with the future, the reemergence of the sacrifice is inevitable, and even good, if voluntarily undertaken by an individual:

“And maybe those I’m sharing with will come to trust me more generally. Maybe then we could trade forever. In such a manner, mammoth becomes future mammoth. And future mammoth becomes personal reputation: that’s the emergence of the social contract. To share does not mean to give away something you value and get nothing back. That’s only instead what every child who refuses to share is afraid that it means: to share means to properly initiate the process of trade. The child who can’t share, who can’t trade, can’t have any friends, because having friends is a form of trade.”

Sacrifice, in Peterson’s conception, builds cultural trust. Trust through sacrifice is concretized in the social contract, and initiates trade between individuals. This reciprocal trade is precisely what is at stake in Derrida’s Gift of Death. Derrida’s argument about gifts and giftgiving is that a gift is only a gift if it is received and not acknowledged as a gift. A gift, ontologically, cannot be reciprocated, otherwise the intended “gift,” now profaned, enters the market of economic exchange, of Darwinian necessity. This reentry into the market of economic exchange, though necessary, precludes the possibility of the object of intent ever being received as a gift. A gift is thus sacrificed in one’s perceived responsibility to say “thank you,” and pay the gift-giver back for their generosity.

Derrida intentionally refuses to define precisely what he means by the “gift of death,” but repeatedly he emphasizes the “mystery” that the gift reveals. This mystery can be thought of in terms of sacrifice, as well. For all life survives on the sacrificed (gift of) death of other living beings. All life predicates itself on the sacrifice of other life. This sacrifice becomes a gift truly given, a gift which retains its ontological status as gift. That is, one doesn’t give one’s death to others; rather, one gives one’s life for others. This reciprocal relationship culminates in the deconstructed notion of “lifedeath.”

Lifedeath arises as a seemingly self-contradictory term because, as we have seen, life is never purely life. Life is always sacrificial of life. According to this explication, life is infanticidal. Similarly, life produces more life. This production of life is a production of future(s) at the cost of other, lost futures. The (present) instant of time in which the sacrifice is willfully adopted, as Peterson would have it, bears the trace of eternity. This trace implicates an infinitude of lost future, futures lost as permanent loss of infinitudes. If this line of logic holds, then each moment (the present) then inheres infinite value, infinite amplitude of importance. Each moment is infinitely valuable because of the infinitely infinite sacrifices inherited (or gifted) from the past (i.e. lost futures). Each moment of life, then, is a moment intimately bound with death. This intimacy, for Derrida, collapses the illusory semiotic opposition between the logocentric binaries of life and (as independent from) death. Perhaps Peterson’s dogmatic adherence to this logocentrism is at fault in the disconnection between these two great thinkers. Or, perhaps, the psychological truths embedded within the substructure of these Biblical stories are uniquely sufficient to unite the most disparate thinkers. 


Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death. University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.

Peterson, Jordan B. “Bible Series XII: The Great Sacrifice: Abraham and Isaac.” YouTube, 19 August 2017,

Peterson, Jordan B. “Joe Rogan Experience #877 – Jordan Peterson.” YouTube. 28 November 2016,


Hatred & Love: The Cultural Politics of Emotion

February 25, 2015

I am generally not a fan of sociology, anthropology, psychology, and similar forms of “soft” science. I am certainly not against their existence–they can be useful–but I also see the problematic elements of such disciplines. That aside, I am reading Sara Ahmed’s book The Cultural Politics of Emotion. It is saturated with these sorts of analytics, drawing on the usual suspects: Marx, Freud, and the like. For those of you who have not read this book, I do recommend it. It’s clearly written and develops in a way that I, as a philosopher, don’t furrow my brow at too much.

Ahmed’s second chapter in this book is devoted to “The Organisation of Hate.” She draws a distinction between the way love and hate manifest in ourselves, and how, “Because we love, we hate, and this hate is what brings us together.” (43). I’m willing to grant the connection of causation between love and hate and I’m surprised that I agree with this assertion. When we refer to hatred it is almost definitely in the context of negativity. Yet, when I see a forest ripped down for another shopping center, I do feel genuine hatred. It’s not necessarily a hatred directed at anyone, but, rather, a hatred based out of love for something that has been threatened or lost. But Ahmed’s model seems to resist hatred. I wonder if she would grant that hatred can be a good thing (at times) or if it is always destructive? There isn’t much more development on this point in her chapter, as she moves on to the “Affective Economies” of emotion.

Yet, Ahmed expands in the section of “Hated Bodies,” how, “Hate is an intense emotion; it involves a feeling of ‘againstness’ that is always, in the phenomenological sense, intentional. Hate is always hatred of something or somebody, although that something or somebody does not necessarily pre-exist the emotion.” (49). This seems to contradict my example of the surge of hatred I feel at the sight of deforestation. Hatred, when based out of love, seems almost helpful. It is because of hatred that I write this post. It is because of hatred that I actively try to prevent such measures of senseless destruction to our native forests. Of course I could always aim my hatred onto the object of a person, construction company, or governmental department. This just seems unhelpful in the larger scheme of things, only because I know that very few people involved in such “development projects” as this don’t have a vendetta against nature. Most of these (usually male) workers are in need of money, contracts, employment in general. How can I hate those who have the same goal as me? It is not the people I fixate as my objects of hatred; it is the act itself to which I direct my emotion.

As I distinguish between people and acts as objects of hatred, so do I embolden this gap in the case of religion. Bluntly put, I genuinely hate religion. But–and this is an important caveat–I do not hate religious people. My qualms with Sam Harris aside, he takes good measure to distinguish between criticizing “religious ideas” rather than “religious people.” It is not helpful to demonize people in general, but, rather, the acts they perform. I don’t think anyone gets out of bed thinking, “I’m evil.” That sounds absurd.

We’d be wise to be conscious about the interplay between the objects of hatred we choose. This is true especially in politics. Every morning when I’m on the treadmill, I casually watch the competing headlines of CNN and FOX. Lately, ISIS has been in the headlines almost every single day. If ISIS is quiet, President Obama is under scrutiny. I find this to be curious in both cases. Regarding ISIS, I can understand how easily the transition between hatred of acts and hatred of people emerges. This line is blurred so cleanly that it’s practically effaced. The American people are being fed objects to project their hatred onto; this is dangerously irresponsible on behalf of news media. And President Obama is always referred to as the object for political action. In other words, it is “the Obama Administration” or, worse, “Obama” who we refer to as our government. In reality, as most people (I think) understand, there is an entire system of government of hundreds, rather, thousands of people in power. If Obama had the power we say he has, this country would certainly look different and we wouldn’t be paying hundreds of representatives. Returning to Ahmed’s discussion of hatred and love, this object-hatred is fallacious at best. We don’t want the news media to select our objects of hatred. We want to be the source of our own emotions (which Ahmed’s critique of emotion would reject), and it is prudent to be careful about the objects we allow ourselves to feel emotion towards.

So in thinking about the relationship between love and hatred, I think it’s not an unfair claim to find both emotions useful–contingent upon each other, in fact. Hatred can be a powerful fuel, one which is rather more renewable than fossil fuels. We just have to be careful how we use the fuel in question. Is it ever okay to love or hate people? I’d be surprised if anyone (at this point) didn’t think to themselves, “Of course it’s okay!” Well, I don’t know. I think we can love selectively. I think love is something to be channeled. When used recklessly, I think love can be dangerous, in fact. I’ve seen emotion, under the guise of “love,” tear people apart. Love is valuable. Love is near the pinnacle of important emotions a human can cultivate. (Curiosity, I’d argue is at the top.) But, like everything, too much is too much. Love is a virtue, but it can just as easily turn into a vice. And as we think of hatred as a vice, by extension, it certainly can be turned into a virtue. Perhaps Ahmed will disagree with me on this point but I see no reason to abandon something so useful.