The History of Responsibility in Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death
What does it mean to be responsible? This is a question which comes comes undone in Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death, which demonstrates that the history of responsibility …. since being responsible to a particular other entails prioritizing that other over countless others, it follows that responsibility to the other is contingent on sacrifice.
In order to visualize the violence of sacrifice and responsibility to the other, The Gift of Death takes us to the scene of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son, Isaac, for the sake of God. It is a scene that has a central place in the discourse on responsibility and has been extensively discussed (to death). The Gift of Death grants the reader an opportunity to think through Abraham’s predicament. What emerges in the reading is not a solution to sacrificial violence but an awareness of how the problem pertains to oneself. While most of us pat ourselves on the back for performing our day-to-day responsibilities, The Gift of Death shows that we turn our backs on others in order to perform those responsibilities. But the text does not take a judgmental stance regarding mortal responsibility: what it does is alert us to the disquieting implications of what we deem exclusively ethical, such as responsibility.
Ironically, the text’s scrupulous manner of alerting the reader to the horrors of responsibility is a rude awakening of sorts. It has some genuinely shocking moments: for instance, Derrida contends that everyday acts of responsibility—such as feeding your cat as homeless cats die of hunger—are no less violent than Abraham’s willingness to slit Isaac’s throat for God. It is a claim that should give the reader pause. What are individuals responsible for and what are the repercussions for our actions?
No less riveting is the manner in which The Gift of Death talks about the history of responsibility. Derrida’s representation of the main events in the history of responsibility verges on personification, for events, such as Platonism and Christianity, are shown as dominating what preceded them, swallowing them whole and retaining them in some secret form within themselves.
While the terms used to describe this history are psychoanalytical—incorporation and repression—the events that are spoken of have to do with the origins of responsibility in religion. The story starts with what was deemed sacred in ancient times; namely, an other related to orgiastic or demonic mystery. This sacred other, believed to be an instigator of irresponsible acts, became a scapegoat for man.
In response to this irresponsible state of affairs, Platonism reared its head, putting the orgiastic mystery to work in the interests of a rational and accountable soul. Yet this Platonic accent on accountability and transparency rendered one’s relationship with the other political and limiting. Hence, Christianity came along to reveal the limits of reason and the dissymmetrical relation between the rational self and an eternally elusive other. What stands out in the rendition of this history is the use of words such as ‘tremor’ and ‘rupture’ to refer to the events of Platonism and Christianity, for they convey the disruptive aspect of history. Derrida breaks up the linearity of history with such evocative words, demonstrating that responsibility is an event that cannot fit smoothly into any discourse. Since responsibility has everything to do with the other, its history cannot be mastered by the self. In manifesting itself via events, responsibility confronts man with the other with a gap that cannot be bridged through discourse, language or a reliance on texts. The Gift of Death exposes the limits of what history can tell.