Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Eucharist and expenditure



A few weeks ago Ben Myers over on Faith and Theology posted a quote from a new book by William Cavanaugh, Being consumed: Economics and Christian desire. Cavanaugh comments on one of the tensions that should strike him and others who take the Eucharist in our society:

We live our lives at the intersection of two stories about the world: the Eucharist and the market. Both tell stories of hunger and consumption, of exchanges and gifts; the stories overlap and compete... (2008:89)
This reminded me of Derrida's essay "From restricted to general economy", in his Writing and difference, in which he critiques how systems of meaning are made to make sense. A system based on Hegel's philosophy of forward movement, for example, has to be made to make sense by silently repressing various "blind spots". Such a blind spot, Derrida suggests, is

the point at which destruction, suppression, death and sacrifice constitute so irreversible an expenditure, so radical a negativity - here we would have to say an expenditure and a negativity without reserve - that they can no longer be determined as negativity in a process or system. (1978:327)
In other words, they can no longer be determined as negativity in the Hegelian sense of a negative move that fits in with the overall positive thrust of history. The expenditure that Derrida speaks of is of a more "radical" kind; a kind that does not fit in, that plays itself out without reserve. This is the "blind spot" of a Hegelian system within which elements must be made to fit.

I wonder if the Eucharist might be seen as such an expenditure and negativity without reserve, no longer determined. Its symbolism draws on the received tradition that here was a God who chose to try to engage with human beings by dying. Of course, it is possible to interpret this in a Hegelian spirit and to see it as simply one move in a cosmic Christian narrative that will end in a new heaven and earth. But perhaps it is also possible to interpret some of the pull of the Eucharist as a drawing towards just the moment of death. The ritual offers the possibility of pausing at the destruction: an "irreversible expenditure" that does not make sense within our normal economies.

Derrida too goes on to mention the relation to alterity (e.g. God) as an example of something that can destabilise our restricted economy. God is an absent presence, an impossible presence. This is especially clear in the Eucharist, which claims to offer an impossible presence - body and blood in bread and wine - as an impossible gift - freely (Or not so freely? Hard to tell with the Eucharist).

In any case, all that to say that the quote from Cavanaugh made me think...

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