Marion, Derrida, and the phenomenology of the gift

Derrida’s critique of Marion in “On the Gift” is that he reads Gegebenheit in Husserl synonymously with Gabe in Heidegger.  That is to say, Marion associates a phenomenological concept with something that supposedly exceeds phenomenological determination.  Derrida wants to keep given-ness and gift apart to some extent, or at least, to save the gift from phenomenological presence.  This renders the gift impossible and non-existent, but, Derrida defends, “I never [therefore] concluded that there is no gift.”[1] We experience the gift but not phenomenologically, or, we cannot account for it phenomenologically.  The impossible event is beyond knowledge—ultimately it is the Messianic.  “A gift is something you do without knowing what you do.”[2] In this way the gift is completely eschatological.  There is even the sense that we participate in it but without our knowledge.  In Marion’s understanding of the eschatology of the gift, “when some have given something to the poor people, in fact they have given it to Christ; but until they end of the world, they have not been able ever to imagine that this was given directly to Christ.”[3] For Marion, it seems that the gift initiates human forms of giving (appears phenomenologically) but remains as saturated phenomenon, and therefore unseen in its completeness or as such until the eschaton.  The difference between Derrida and Marion is less a phenomenological one than a Messianic one: “of a Messiah who has already pitched his tent among us in the flesh and a Messiah who is structurally to come.”[4]

Because of the initiatory power of the Christ event bestowed on those living between the first and second coming, it seems that there is more one can do (ethics) with Marion’s phenomenology of the gift than with Derrida’s impossibility, and yet they are both very close indeed on the question of impossibility.  Marion puts the question nicely: “how is it that we say something may seem impossible (that is, contradict the a priori conditions of experience) and nevertheless could happen as an event, which takes place within our experience?”[5] Marion calls this paradox the “counter-experience,” of which he gives “an historical event, a painting, the self-affection of the flesh, and the experience of the other,” as examples.[6] Experiences of the impossible therefore appear phenomenologically (as seen) but escape, or rather, exceed objective description.  It seems that Derrida would have to deny this kind of phenomenological appearance because of his distinction of the gift from the present.  But in what way, then, is his thought of the gift an ethical and political endeavour as it so clearly is in The Gift of Death?

Perhaps Genesis 22 can be read as Abraham’s experience of the impossible.[7] The theme of unknowing in God, the Gift and Postmodernism and The Gift of Death brings together the notions of impossibility and secrecy.  In the latter, Abraham’s secrecy, his silence concerning that which he does not know, is what makes the gift of death possible.  This occurs in two moments: the first im/possibility is the gift of death of Issac to God, and the second, is the gift of death of the ram in the place of Isaac—a gift of life; an experience of the impossible.[8] In the first moment the im/possibility names the transgression of the ethical order by Abraham as consequential of his responsibility before God.  In the second moment, im/possibility appears and interrupts the scene—appears as phenomenon in Marion’s sense that it is seen, but not as objectively describable phenomenon.  If Derrida concedes to such an account of the secret participation (that is, without knowledge) in the im/possibility of the gift, then his thought of the gift is clearly ethical and political as well and perhaps even more radically so than Marion’s.


[1] Jacques Derrida, “On the Gift” in John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon, eds, God, The Gift and Postmodernism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 59.

[2] Ibid, 60.

[3] Jean-Luc Marion, “On the Gift”, 62.

[4] Caputo and Scanlon, “Introduction” to God, The Gift and Postmodernism, 15.  Emphasis is the author’s own unless noted otherwise.

[5] Marion, “On the Gift, 74.

[6] Ibid, 75.

[7] It remains unclear to me as to whether Derrida’s impossibility refers only the Messiah who is to come (rather than “messianisms”) or whether one can experience the impossible.

[8] The shorthand “im/possibility” of “impossible possibility” is used by Peter C. Blum in Chris K. Huebner and Tripp York, eds., The Gift of Difference: Radical Orthodoxy, Radical Reformation (Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2010).

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3 comments on “Marion, Derrida, and the phenomenology of the gift

  1. Thanks for this post. I have not followed the larger conversation of ‘gift’ at all. What do you, broadly, understand some of the ethical and political implications of this conversation to be?

  2. Kampen says:

    Well, I’m not sure about Milbank (I go back and forth between whether I find his work useful or not) and Marion hasn’t interested me that much either. Derrida, however, has struck a chord. I don’t know if you are familiar with John Paul Lederach (Mennonite Theologian/peace practitioner who teaches at Notre Dame, IN) but in my term paper I read him alongside Derrida’s notion of silence in “The Gift of Death” and forgiveness vs. reconciliation (and the concept of delay) in order to develop a more radical account of hope. Christianity has its maxim “the Kingdom is already here but is not yet fully revealed” and it tends to focus on the already-ness, especially in ethical discussions (because the Christ event gives us the capacity for ethical action here and now – which is an important part of Milbank’s work) but this leaves us with a cheap hope. Derrida, in his essay “On Forgiveness” argues for a hyperbolic and transcendent concept of forgiveness lest we think of national reconciliation, amnesty, activism for human rights, as forgiveness. It’s important with this distinction not to read Derrida wrong. It is clear that Derrida does not count these political and public acts of reconciliation as crucial – he was himself quite involved with the Truth and Rec. Commission in South Africa. However, the pure, abstract, concept of forgiveness (or gift, or peace) is necessary so that we recognize the finality of reconciliatory events, whereas forgiveness is always deferred (for Derrida, who is a Jew, the Messianic is yet to come). How this relates to some of Lederach’s work is as follows: Lederach diagnosis the alienation of people at the grassroots level of deep-rooted conflicts from the dominant peacebuilding/conflict resolution approaches which are top-down government level. The people at the grassroots level seemed to express a sort of hopelessnes, but this is not at all what it was; rather, it was, what he calls, the gift of pessimism. Pessimism precisely towards things like peace accords, cease fires, no fly zones (think Libya and the UN dominating the conflict resolution/peace rhetoric and operations) as true and sustained peace. In this sense, Lederach and Derrida are very much in agreement. Both the former’s conception of pessimism towards peace accords for a more radical and deferred vision of an impossibly pure peace, and the latter’s conception of forgiveness give us a way of understanding the not-yet-ness of the Kingdom much more radically, and what hope (in a very Pauline sense) means for it and for our role in it. The not-yet-ness also has ethical, political, and social implications and is not simply some risidual void that trails off into the distance after the already-ness takes action. I should also add that in neither Lederach nor Derrida can the notions of pessimistic-peace and peace accords, and forgivenss-reconciliation be separated in any concrete way. It’s heuristic. Derrida even emphasizes the at once irreducibility and indissociability of reconciliation and forgiveness – he calls this the aporia. This is, of course, also the same way in which we don’t understand the already-but-not-yet-ness of the Kingdom of two distinct events we participate in regarding our time in between, but that they occur simultaneously. So, yeah, radical ethical hope in Derrida and Lederach.
    That was kind of long…but I hope helpful.

    Also, as the semester comes to a close I have also wondered whether the gift-debate (not so much what I’ve just outlined, but about the nature and form and content of the gift itself, etc.) is really a pseudo-debate at bottom.

  3. Sorry I`ve been a little too busy to respond substantively but that was very helpful. Certainly there are areas where the concept can and should gain traction but I agree that much of the conversation (as I caught wind of it) seemed to fall somewhere between being interesting on a theoretical level and engaging on a social or political level.

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