Para-Academia #5: A Crossing Without Borders: Death in the Thought of Jacques Derrida

caravaggio-the-sacrifice-of-isaacA class facilitated by Jonathan Basile
Date: Sunday, November 13
Time: 6 PM
Admission: free, but please donate $5 if you can!
Presented by The Hollow Earth Society and The Public School New York

What is death? How does our being mortal shape the possibilities of our cognition and our desire? How should we live in order to come to terms with the term of life, and how does our orientation towards a good death become an art of living?

How does the history of thinking about death shape our understanding of these possibilities, and how do the cultural and other differences surrounding the treatment of death play a part in constituting those very differences—the demarcations of ethnicities, nations, religions, genders, etc.—all the lines drawn on this side of the division between life and death? What does thinking about death in general reveal to us about death in our culture—about our medical industry, about our political furor over “death panels,” about a culture industry obsessed with the equation of youth and beauty, for example?

We will discuss these themes as they are developed in two of Derrida’s major works on death: The Gift of Death and Aporias. In all of our thinking about life in this world, about responsibility, authenticity, temporality, finitude, or mortality, for example, it seems that we always surreptitiously introduce some infinite beyond into the constitution of the here-below, a transcendence that may be utterly unknowable despite our complete reliance
on it.

It has gone by many names throughout history: the Form of the Good, God, the unnameable possibility of the name, the Unconditioned, the Inverted World, Being, Differance, or the secret; we will consider what it would mean to nickname it “Death.”

Reading Assignment:
The Gift of Death, Chapter 3 (p. 53-81)

Recommended Additional Reading:
The Gift of Death, Chapter 4

Jonathan Basile is a volunteer with the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, visiting hospice patients and their families. He currently studies at Brooklyn College, working towards an MFA in Creative Writing. This past summer he organized a series of discussions on death in Western philosophy through The Public School New York, focusing on the work of Plato, Hegel, Heidegger, Levinas, and Derrida.

Writing Assignment

Most every representation of death throughout Western thought has sought to offer a vision of death that could be incorporated into one’s sense of responsibility in this life, into one’s sense of being a free agent, accountable for one’s own decisions and their consequences up to death and beyond. Such representations present certain paradoxes for human beings laboring under them, not the least of which would be the attempt to bring death under our control as something we could actively will and take responsibility for, despite it’s seeming to always take us by surprise, unawares.

For example, the Christian representation of death as a final judgment and afterlife as an infinite reward or punishment for actions in this life attempts to make sense of the infinite responsibility the Christian adherent feels as a result of her original sin, and offers a death that is a complement to the life of sacrifice she should lead (storing up her treasures in heaven, knowing all the while that a Father who sees in secret will reward her).

Try to write your own representation of death or the afterlife. Keep in mind what sort of an idea of life or the individual human your particular representation is reinforcing.

(Bonus points to anyone who offers a vision of death or the afterlife that undoes the patriarchal bias of the Platonic and Judeo-Christian representations. This tendency is best exemplified by Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac—in order to prove his adherence to his absolute duty towards God, Abraham must renounce everything he holds dear in this world, to show that he is completely dedicated to its beyond. To make this infinite renunciation requires proving his willingness to kill his own son, without saying a word about it to his wife. It seems that the vision of individuality that one receives from this tradition of thinking about death is uniquely masculine or patriarchal.)


The Para-Academia Series
Ongoing workshops co-produced by the Public School New York and the Hollow Earth Society

A Shadow Genealogy of the Ivory Tower/Producing the Unwriteable


The para is the “alongside,” that which comments on the official or normative. While academics debate the finer points of Shakespeare and Kant, para-academics aggregate around shadow-commentators whose works do not so much categorize (striate) and enlighten (bring light into) difficult terrain, but produce that terrain, creating obscure spaces and nebulous discourses that are immune to traditional academic approaches.

Blogs, speculative medievalisms, Cyclonopedia, Charles Fort, teratology, Deleuzean-everything, print-on-demand—these and other tentacles of a polycephalic (many-headed) para-academia have entwined to produce an addendum and, finally, an ultimatum to established disciplines and practices.

The Public School New York and the Hollow Earth Society will explore these emerging ideas and modes of expression through a series of discussions and writing workshops, with audio available after each session.

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