Saturday, 7 December 2013

Milbank's rejection of unilateral gift

So: Milbank rejects ethics as unilateral gift and sacrifice, in favour of ethics as gift-exchange and openness to divine grace. He will make more explicit the grounds for this rejection by dealing with each of the four notions:

1. Unilateral gift. Such an idea, by making absolute one's inalienable self-possession of a will to sacrifice, preserves the Hellenic notion of the ethical as the overcoming of moral luck. This is true even if, or especially if, as for Derrida, this belonging or identity is secured only when one is dead. [Milbank also takes issue here with Marion, but I cannot make sense of what he says.] The point is that there is no true respect for the other here. The gesture which allows the other to persist outside of his communication with you is seen as more defnitive of the good than living communication. [This also is not clear, unless it takes off from the remark about Marion.] It is not surprising, says Milbank, that Levinas sees the other as only genuinely present in 'trace,' not in present image [why image?]. (122)

Milbank instead insists that if we truly value the other, we must value meeting him in his specificity, [and therefore in living interaction]. He admits / that such encounter might require, in certain circumstances, the sacrifice of oneself, even to death. We can even say that in a fallen world the path to the recovery of mutual giving will always pass through an element of apparently unredeemed sacrifice and apparently unilateral gift. [This is - good!] But the point is that this gesture is not in itself the good. It is not good at all outside the hope for a redemptive return of the self [= resurrection] - even though this is an eschatological hope "which never permits us to expect a return at any particular place or specific moment of time, or to elicit any specific mode of return." [Again, perfect.] (122-3)

To speak of such a return is not to fall from gift to contract: actual life is not a mode of self-possession that we then surrender in the sacrifice unto death. [The argument about the fall from gift to contract presupposes the understanding of life as self-possession. M rejects that presupposition] Rather, when we give, sometimes with sacrificial pain, we receive ourselves back as true abundant life. The resurrection preserves this logic at its limit: it is not an extrinsic super-added reward for the giving up of an (illusory) self-possessed life. It is the final surrender of an isolated life which issues in a better more abundant life. (123)

What distinguishes gift from contract is not the absolute freedom and non-binding character of the gift, but the surprisingness and unpredictability of gift and counter-gift, their character as asymmetrical reciprocity, and as non-identical repetition. Gift as absolute freedom and as non-binding is the Western counterpart to the reduction of exchange to contract. Mauss seems to have criticized this; according to Milbank, Derrida and Marion have not assimilated this critique. [More probably in Milbank's ... See n22 here.] Derrida of course regards the free unilateral gift as an impossibility: short of death, one always cancel's one's giving in receiving something back, be it only the consciousness that one is a giver. Thus only the dead person [who has sacrificed himself] can be a true giver. So also the only disinterested gift is to an absolutely anonymous other - the enemy, at the limit, as Marion says. And such a gift cannot possess any content beyond the gesture of giving, because, on this construal, there is nothing in an object that makes it in itself a gift. [It is the intention or else the gesture of giving that makes it gift.] Milbank instead argues that it is the content alone that determines whether a gift is appropriate, and therefore gift at all. (123)

So for Derrida, the gift is only ever a promise of a gift, perpetual postponement. And Marion's attempt will not work. A reduced gift which is no identifiable object, derives from no known source, and passes to no known / recipient can only be recognized in a way that makes no difference to actual ethical life. Such recognition involves only the idol of an abstract God. and where there is no intimation whatsoever of the source, gift is simply an impersonal intrusion. Its lack of content makes it arbitrary on our part to interpret it as gift. And where there is no knowledge of a recipient, and one assumes even that he is hostile, there cannot be a gift. A true gift must be appropriate to a donee; one must have already entered into an exchange with her. Gift-giving is a mode of social being. Ignoring this, both Derrida and Marion remain trapped in Cartesian subjectivity. At least Derrida, against Marion, deconstructs his Cartesian starting point when he insists that such a pure unilateral gift can never occur. "If there is a gift that can truly be, then this mut be the event of reciprocal, but asymmetrical and non-identically repeated exchange." (123-4)

2. Death as the necessary condition of the ethical. This celebrates something negative as the precondition of something positive in a way that is self-contradictory. [he says he has already shown how this is so.] A self-surrender without hope of self-return gives up on hope for ecstatic communication, for feasting and marriage, which is the only viable paradigm of the good. [again, already shown].

This paradigm is fully articulated only by Christianity, but is anticipated by Plato in the Phaedo. Socrates rejects the idea of warriors dying out of fear for loss of honour: this virtue as coinage, an exchange which is exemplified in the market economy, which is a sacrificial economy. The philosopher, instead, begins with absolute confidence, with the vision of the Forms, with positivity, without fear. The philosopher is good as first merely knowing, as receiving the vision of the Forms, not as acting or sacrificing in the sense of giving up something. Only in a secondary moment, out of plenitude of vision, if there is need, does he offer himself entirely, as it happened to Socrates. Nothing is lost here; instead, there is passage from lesser to greater, from weak participations to the fuller reality. / The Christian martyrs similarly begin from plenitude of paradisal vision in their acceptance of suffering. (124-5)

3. The reduction of God, lest his reward damage the purity of the gift

4. The gift as unilateral can only be realized in a secular sphere. This notion tries to occlude from our view the role of the city or state intervening to maintain civic order. This role can be seen in the way 'sacrifice' transmuted from practice to metaphor. Two moments in this shift:

4.1 Greek sacrifice involved a 'giving up,' offering, or sacrifice of material passion in favour of its sublimation. This is seen in the way the same scents and spices were involved in both erotic play and in religious sacrifice. After Pythagoras, e.g. among the Neoplatonists, we have not so much the offering of passion as the transmutation of passion into a higher passion. Sacrifice here is initiatory passage rather than gift or offering. It is only perhaps with Paul that we get the language of 'sacrifice of passions' in the sense of internalization of sacrifice. Here there is no vertical deviation of horizontal scents and spices. Rather, Paul is talking about an offering of self to a personal God, implicitly trusting in the return of self in a more abundant way. (125)

4.2 The death of the hero for the city was considered by Greeks and Romans as equivalent to sacrifice. (125)

In both these instances, there is the subsumption of something real into a greater whole, be it the city or the cosmos. There is loss without return, though there is the possibility of posthumous glory [see Achilles]. (125)

Modern / secularity gets rid even of such shadowy intimations of after-life, and so perfects pagan logic. Nineteenth century positivism spoke of altruism or self-surrender for the future, for science, for the state. 'Postmodern' or else Levinasian thinkers speak of the good, the moral act, or self-giving sacrifice as perpetual postponement. (See this notion as involved in the death of the hero, or in dying for the city, or for future generations: since every generation is subject to the same imperative, the consummation is perpetually postponed. [But: isn't there some betterment that we all experience, precisely because someone was brave enough to sacrifice himself?]) (126)

Milbank finds a surprising counterpoint to the above in John Buchan's novel Midwinter, where the hero puts the salvation of a young girl whom he loves before his political cause. He sacrifices (an idolatrous and finally merely nominal) all to the singular, "and so affirmed the resurrection hope for the return of each and every one, beyond the aporia of sacrificial options." [Hence the title of Milbank's essay: "The Midwinter Sacrifice". Not Shakespearean, as I assumed, despite the fact that M does make use of Shakespeare.] (126)

Milbank's claim: "the idea of self-sacrifice unto death without return for the sake of 'the whole,' even if that be the rule of moral duty to an unspecified other, is not at all the true moral kernel of the Jewish and Christian legacy." (126) He acknowledges a tension even in the NT. Derrida, he says, chooses to favour tedts like not inviting to feasts those who can invite you back (Lk 6:32-5) as the Christian essence. But Milbank stresses John's gospel, where there is no mention of loving enemies, where love circulates among friends, where there are erotic gestures, where the disciples are described as the Father's gift to the Son, just as the Son is his gift to the disciples. [The stress on mutuality, exchange, even if asymmetrical.] (127)

Someone might argue that Christianity has combined both perspectives on giving [non-reciprocal, and exchangist]. Milbank says it might have, but the higher perspective is that of reciprocity, "even though the eschatological character of this goal requires a 'quasi-unilaterial' moment for the gift in our fallen present time." The gift from the divine is to be returned from below, as the return of humanity to the Father. The gift of the Holy Spirit results from and manifests the mutuality of Father and Son. The Son offers himself not for the earthly city, not as giving up something for a greater something else, but 'for his friends.' Even this giving / dying is not so that they might live their self-possessed lives while he has lost his - as if he were saving them from drowning. It is rather in defence of the truth he has taught, the absolute creative power of the Father, maintained and fully taught in his resurrected return. (127)

This return is commemorated in the eucharist: we offer bread and wine, and immediately receive them back as God's flesh and blood. In the eucharist we enter in advance into the eschatological banquet and nuptials, "into the realm where once again we can entirely trust our every act as good precisely because we know that it will not merely follow our intention but be transformed and given back to us in a different and surprising mode." (127)

In the eucharist we see the only possible paradigm for gift and therefore for ethics, "not as one-way sacrifice but as total surrender for rereception." (128) Within this paradigm we can realize that, to the degree we are involved in some sense at some time in feast and marriage, we already participate in the resurrection. Here we give up everything, not for the earthly city, not even primarily for others, but 'absurdly' to God, in order to confess our inherent nothingness and to receive life as created anew. "Here we hold on to nothing, here we possess nothing securely, in contrast with exclusively ethical models which are also sacrificial. here instead we render ourselves entirely prey to the mere good fortune that it might turn out that we have been ethical. But the name of this fortune is secretly grace, the gift or the Good...." (128)


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