Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive thought, despite its often arch presentation (not to speak of the tiresome word-games it has inspired in lesser minds), contains the most profound anthropological intuitions of postmodernism. Generative Anthropology is most simply described as the result of grafting the Derridean notion of deferral or différance onto the stock of Girard’s “fundamental anthropology” to produce its conception of the human as the deferral of violence through representation.

I regret that I was never able to engage in a dialogue with Derrida. My contacts with him were few and limited. On the last occasion, when he went back on his promise to participate in a special deconstruction issue of Anthropoetics on learning that we were expecting a dialogue rather than an interview, I was surely amiss in not approaching him directly during his annual stay at UC Irvine. Paying court to Great Thinkers has never been my strong suit, even when I am ready to acknowledge their greatness. Thus the opportunity for dialogue was lost, if indeed it ever existed.


Having paid rather little attention to Derrida’s later writings, including his 1996 essay, “Foi et savoir” (Faith and Knowledge), I was struck by a personal text entitled “Moi, l’Algérien” that appeared in the November 9, 2006 issue of the Nouvel Observateur. Derrida concludes this little essay, which begins by describing his childhood as a Jewish boy in Algeria, with an informal discussion of faith that displays such sureness of anthropological intuition that it can very nearly be read as a contribution to GA:

I cannot address myself to another, whoever he is, whatever his religion, his language, his culture, without asking him to believe or accredit me (me faire crédit). Relating to another, addressing another, presupposes faith. One can never demonstrate, one can never prove that somebody is or is not lying–this is impossible to prove. One is always able to say: I told a falsehood but I said it sincerely, I was mistaken, but I did not lie. Consequently, when somebody speaks to us, he asks us to believe him. This faith is the condition of the social bond itself. There is no social bond without such a faith. Thus I believe that one can radicalize the secularization of politics (du politique) while maintaining this necessity of faith in the general sense that I have just defined and then, on the basis of this universal faith, this shared faith, this faith without which there is no social bond, one can and one must respect religious affiliations in the normal sense of the term. And I am persuaded that authentic believers, those who are authentically Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, who are not simply dogmatic, are readier than anyone else to understand another person’s religion and to achieve this faith whose universal structure I have just described. Consequently I believe that there is no contradiction between political secularization and the mystery of life, that is, the fact of living together in faith. The act of faith is not a miraculous thing, it is the very air we breathe. As soon as I begin to speak, even if I am lying, I am saying to you: “I tell you the truth, believe me, I promise to tell you the truth.” And this act of faith that is implicit in social relations, in the social bond itself, I am persuaded that authentic believers, those who are not what we call fundamentalist, integrist, dogmatic, ready to transform their belief into a weapon of war, are readier to understand both the other’s religion and this universal faith. Consequently, I believe that far from there being a contradiction, there is a connection between political secularization and what you call the relationship to the mystery of life.

Here Derrida situates in language itself the primary bond of mutual faith between human beings, a bond that is renewed each time someone speaks. (One wonders how he would have reconciled this model of language as the mediator of mutual presence with his more familiar early critique of linguistic self-presence or logocentrism.) Derrida raises the concern for the distinction between lying and truth only to dismiss it as superficial, for the primary affirmation “I am telling you the truth” implicit in every utterance is prior to the proposition, the declarative sentence that alone can be true or false. Significantly, he uses the term “promise” (“I promise to tell you the truth”), which as I observed in Chronicle 328 is the only one of Austin’s performatives that is accessible to every speaker of language independently of any religious or secular ritual context. (The typical performatives, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” “I dub you Sir Henry,” “The court is now in session,” are statements that “do things with words” only if uttered in their proper context by an authorized officiant.) Derrida is justified in extending the category of the promise to constative propositions. But the promise inherent in the constative is conceivable only on the basis of an originary promise more elementary than that of truth: the promise of mutual non-appetitive attention (which Girard calls in a slightly different context “non-instinctual attention”) to the common central object of desire. To extrapolate from Derrida’s text to the terminology of the originary hypothesis, my assurance of “telling the truth” does not refer in the first place to verifiable information about the world but to my emission of a sign in the place of an appropriative gesture. Verification of the “truth” of the ostensive sign is inherent in the signing act itself; to emit a linguistic or “symbolic” sign is ipso facto not to appropriate its referent, and the sign’s prolongation contains within it an implicit promise of continued non-appropriation. This extrapolation’s only infidelity to Derrida is in presupposing the necessity of a scenic hypothesis of origin, a necessity invisible from within the Western metaphysical or philosophical tradition. Yet in adopting in his later works a religious vocabulary that he did not shrink from applying to the real world of human relations, Derrida implicitly acknowledged a ground of the human more fundamental than metaphysics.

Derrida’s text twice insists on the opposition between dogmatic and authentic religious belief; the latter grants an understanding of both “the other’s” religion and the universal faith inherent in our common possession of language. The true as opposed to the dogmatic believer is able to understand other faiths than his own because (although this is not explicitly stated) he is able to recognize the anthropological basis of all faiths in this minimal anthropological faith. Whatever else we believe, the “air we breathe” as human beings is that of faith in the viability of human communication mediated by representations. The matter of lying is indeed secondary because the main thing is that we understand each other, with regard both to the content of my discourse and to its form, which in this case is constative. Even if I am lying, both I and my interlocutor are aware of the rules of the language game and communicate to each other this awareness. My potential manipulation of the system through lies–a danger the late Roy Rappaport thought it the primary function of religion to avert–is only a secondary matter, a sin against the system that reaffirms its order, since were lying to become the norm, language would cease to embody the minimal faith lacking which its users would no longer be part of a human community.

Derrida’s true believer commemorates a particular revelation as definitive but is at the same time aware that his dispute with those who hold to other revelations is less fundamental than the shared universal faith whose origin each of the revelations claims to explain. The practitioners of the different faiths can argue about the quality of their respective revelations but they cannot dispute the common element in all of them: providing a foundation for the human use of language, not simply as a cognitive function, but as the fundamental mode of communication shared faith in which is equivalent to being human.


A point in Derrida’s discourse where his intuition is more difficult to decipher is his reference to la sécularisation du politique. I do not think that this is merely the usual reference to Western and particularly European disaffection from the ritual practices and thoughtways of traditional society, a process Marcel Gauchet calls le désenchantement du monde. We should conceive it rather in originary terms as the separation of the exchange of signs from the originary central referent of these signs. In this context what Derrida calls radicalization suggests the substitution of a “secular” or simply, anthropologicaltheory of origin for the usual religious narratives. Not only do we make the decision to view the human exchange of signs without reference to a revealed originary narrative, but the theory of origin that we espouse affirms the invalidity of any such narrative in the public sphere.

Yet in his final sentence Derrida emphasizes not merely the compatibility of this secular theory with faith in general but their intimate connection. Like non-dogmatic religious belief, the non-revelatory theory of origin implied by political secularization helps us to grasp the element of minimal faith common to all religions. Far from a diplomatic concession to religion, thisrapprochement between secular and religious modes of thought suggests a position that only Derrida’s scenic skepticism distinguishes from that of the originary hypothesis: openness to the element of transcendental faith in the non-ritual world makes one aware of the anthropological basis of all faith and thereby allows the “non-dogmatic” believers in each religious revelation to grasp the faith that they have in common.

What Derrida calls the “mystery of life” is the apparently inexplicable relationship between transcendence and immanence, between the real world and the world of signs, which religious narrative mediates, but which “political secularization” forces us to conceive in anthropological terms. It is ironic that Derrida’s commitment to the “radically secular” postmodern academic context, which dismisses the originary hypothesis as a myth of origin, dissuaded him from exploring what I have shown to be his own rapprochement with GA. Nonetheless, GA is fundamentally indebted to this most lucid and powerful of postmodern thinkers.