As noted before, Caputo gets to Derrida’s use of the word “event” and its importance for understanding what Caputo means by truth.
“So before I go further, I want to comment on the word ‘event’ that Derrida uses. It is the most important concept in his work and one that I have found singularly useful in my own. An event (evenement) is something ‘coming’ (venir), something ‘to come’ (a-venir). As something futural (l’avenir), an event is something we cannot see coming that takes us by surprise, like a letter that arrives unexpectedly in the mail with news that changes your life for ever, for better or for worse. Events cut either way; they may be the source of great jubilation or great consternation. Derrida’s eye is fixed on keeping the future open lest the weight of the present close down and prevent the event of the future. His thinking springs from a hope that the future is always better, but since there is no guarantee of this, it simultaneously exposes itself to the threat that the future may be worse. So events are risky, and if we try too hard to minimize the risk, we will prevent the event.”
A key idea here is that the “event” is something completely out of our control. It is not something one grasps fully, or is understood initially, it is something that “happens” to us. It is not a system, a definition, an abstract concept, or theory. In hindsight, as we reflect, we may try and communicate the event in those terms and concepts, but it can never be reduced to those terms or concepts. Clearly, for the modernist, the analytic philosopher, this is very frustrating. Of course, it is frustrating because it refuses the language, form, and process he is use to “hearing” and reading when we speak of epistemology or what “is” or “can” be “true.” In the modernist’s mind, if we can’t define it, box it, contain it, or somehow build a fence around it, how can we know if it’s really speaking of something that is “true?” Of course, notice the inherent question-begging, as this mind-set clearly has an idea already in mind of how something can be “true” and that “how” is the very issue disputed. After all, Caputo has spent the whole first part of the book disabusing us of that very mindset. He is not going to now throw that away and write and speak has if we can reduce the “event” and conceptualize it in modernist terms and grounds. Caputo continues:
“Daily life is full of unexpected events, sometimes very subtle, like an aside by a teacher that changes the course of a student’s life. The teacher does not know this has happened and at the time neither does the student. That is the event.”
We’ve probably all experienced something like this. A comment, a word, an encounter, a book, a movie, a song, a concert, an art show, a short exchange with a stranger at a bar or church…these moments can be, and have been, life changing for many. There is a “truth” that happened to us. Another key idea here though is that it is not really the circumstances which are the event. Caputo continues:
“When I say, as I sometimes do, that an event is not what happens but what is going on in what happens, I am not trying to torment you. I am simply highlighting the fact that the event is what is simmering in the present, but is still to-come, which links us up with our guiding motif of the journey, or life as a trip whose destination is radically concealed, a venture or adventure in which we cannot see what is coming. The event is a promise/threat: the ‘promise’ that the present holds, which cannot be kept absolutely safe from a ‘threat’, since we do not know and cannot control what the future holds.”
Again, this can be pictured in how we think about justice. Justice doesn’t happen or come about simply because a country passes laws and then adjudicates and administers those laws (the Nazis did that). It is not in the mechanics or circumstances (administration/machinery) that justice occurs. Justice may be present, it may not be. And even when it is present, it is never perfectly present. It is always on its way, it is coming. The entire machinery of law, the courts, the theories, the history, use of force, and every other aspect is in place to try and capture this thing called justice. It is the thing we hope happens in the “event” and we hope is coming. And as we think about the “event” or what is going on in the event, here is what we must not do:
“The worst violence for Derrida would be to deprive a thing of its future, to close it down, to lock it inside a body of rigid rules, fixed limits and powerful dogmas—iron clad ‘truths’, where truth is allowed to assume a fixed and definitive form. So Derrida advises us to hang loose, to stay open.”
Or, we might say, we simply need to be humble. We need to admit we are finite, limited beings. Where we start is not where we usually end up. There are truths we couldn’t see at age 16—truths we can only see after living a while. What Derrida is suggesting is, of course, almost incomprehensible to the fundamentalist (secular or religious—same thing). The entire mindset is to close down, lock up, and enclose (entomb) their worldview inside a body of rigid rules (usually a series of dichotomies like faith v. reason and so on) and iron clad “truths”. This mindset is like living in a castle with a moat around it and the drawbridge pulled up. And if the drawbridge is permanently drawn, we are never open to the surprise visitor—we can never be visited.
“For Derrida the real truth of a thing—of a person, a book, an institution, a tradition or an unfamiliar city—lies in the surprise it is capable of visiting upon us, which he conceptualizes as a philosopher in the language of the ‘to-come’. To say that something is true is to say that it has a future, and for us to be in the truth is to be exposed to that future. Truth for him—say the truth of ‘democracy’—lies in its to-come, its promise. Democracy is always promised and under threat, always becoming true, and we are always calling for it to come true. So we can never this is democracy, or this is true, but only that this gives promise of becoming true. Truth is an event which may visit us like a thief in the night…”
As we can see, he gives the example of democracy and uses it in the same way I’ve been speaking of justice. Truth surprises. Truth doesn’t simply confirm what we already thought or believed. In fact, our certainty and rock solid “convictions” can often be obstacles to truth happening and taking place. Truth unsettles. It often makes us feel awkward and unsure, because it unseats something we thought was true only to now be aware we were probably (or could be) wrong. Truth confronts us. There is a great example of this in the first Testament of the Bible, where we find a story about King David. As many might remember, King David has an affair with Bathsheba. He also has Bathsheba’s husband killed. David is afterwards visited by the prophet Nathan. Nathan tells David a story. He says there was a poor man and a rich man. The rich man had many sheep. The poor man had only one, and he and his family loved this one sheep. The rich man has visitors and he decided to take the poor man’s one sheep to kill and provide food for his guests. After telling the story, King David becomes very angry at this injustice. He demands to know who this rich man is so he can be punished. Nathan points his finger at David and responds, “You are the man.” David is undone, because he knows it is true. It hits him in the gut like a fist. It shatters his sense of his own goodness and fairness. It topples him and brings him low.
That is what truth does and that is when we know we’ve encountered truth, the thing happening within the event. Conversely, truth can also bring us great joy. We could be on the edge of despair only for something we never saw coming or anticipated breaking in and lifting our spirits. Whether bringing us up short or bringing us great peace or joy, the key is that it surprises us and turns our world upside down (for better or worse). A key question is, does the narrative I inhabit allow for this type of openness to the event? Because it is possible to miss the event or what is going on in the event. Imagine if David would have completely missed Nathan’s point. Imagine if he could not identify with the rich man in the story. A sign of fundamentalism is this blindness or refusal to see or be aware of the event or what is going on in the event. Therefore, we can only see those things that confirm what we already believe or assure us we were right and everyone else wrong. Caputo then says something very important regarding the term “deconstruction”.
“His [Derrida’s] famous word ‘deconstruction’ (which sounds like a demolition derby) means finding a way to keep the future of a thing open, not to demolish it. So do not weep if something you love is deconstructed. Be grateful. Deconstruction is a love of the future.”
I found this refreshing just because there are such negative understandings out there regarding deconstruction and what it does. The other interesting connection Caputo’s draws is between grace and the event or as he puts it:
“…how much difference is there, then, between an event of grace (religion) and the grace of an event (deconstruction)?”
Caputo then draws from the life experiences of both Augustine and Derrida (as noted in Augustine’s “Confessions” and Derrida’s “Circumfession”) to show how both seemed to be speaking often of the same sort of idea, even though the language and terms are different. They often seem to be trying to capture the same truth. It is in this sense that Derrida called himself “religious”.
“Among the many surprises that ‘Circumfession’ provides, none is more surprising than Derrida’s confession that he, a well-known secularist and atheist, is in truth a religious man, a confession causing his secular admirers some confusion and consternation (both of them marks of an event) while giving his religious critics little comfort (events do not give comfort).”
Caputo notes that Derrida’s “Circumfession” is also a prayer like Augustine’s but Derrida’s prayer is to an unknown god. For Derrida knowing what is “true” is very much related to not knowing but desiring to know. I know I desire this thing I do not know. In my unbelief, in my doubt, in my uncertainty, the only thing left for me is prayer.
“He [Derrida] prays in a night of unknowing for the coming of something, I know not what, praying for truth to come true. Prayer for Derrida is too precious a thing to surrender to theology for its exclusive use…Derrida is something of an Augustine without God, affirming a desire for God without God, or perhaps we should say, a desire for ‘God’ without God…the important thing to observe, and this goes to the heart of ‘repetition’, is that although Derrida rightly passes for an atheist, he does not dismiss the name of God, the name ‘God’, in which he thinks is concentrated a great deal of what we desire with a ‘desire beyond desire’. He thinks the name of God is the name not of a being in the sky, but of an event.”