John D. Caputo

Emmet Cole interviews John D. Caputo

In formulating my confrontation with Heidegger in terms of Heidegger’s exclusion of the “jewgreek” I use the expression Derrida has borrowed from James Joyce....
Heidegger would have gotten very different results if his perspective were the history of power instead of the poetics of truth. Or indeed if he had chosen to heed other temples besides the ones at Paestum, or other poets than Hölderlin, if, for example, he had actually listened to Trakl instead of making him say what he must have meant! Or if he had listened to James Joyce, e. e. cummings, or Mallarmé.

 –Demythologising Heidegger,
John D. Caputo

We have all been warned against creating entries for encyclopaedias. So when a book suggests the possibility of a signpost like this one:

<Derrida, Joyce, Caputo>
<Joyce, Caputo, Derrida>
<Caputo, Derrida, Joyce>

The Modern Word’s natural response is to follow the labyrinthine way suggested by the sign, rather than create a scene by declaring this or that to be the case. This invariably becomes a search for both origins and destinations, the maker of the sign and the place it points to. 
The labyrinth has been kind this time – sometimes it is cruel and indicates only dead-ends and signs without substance. This time, the labyrinth directed us straight to the maker himself, John D. Caputo, author of the opening gambits (but not as such) above, distinguished philosopher, writer, and thinker.
After Derrida, Caputo makes use of the term “jewgreek,” a fictive phrase in which extremes are said to meet, but one within (and outside of) which much else of great consequence occurs.
You and I, for example.
From Joyce through Derrida to Caputo there runs a filament – jewgreek – which is intriguing to Joyceans and philosophers, not just because of its genealogy, but because of its destination. As to where that destination lies, it is surely not a single site or a particular place, but our very selves.


Emmet Cole: The first-name John appears on the spine of your books, yet I have found instances in let’s say, less formal environs (including your initial email reply to my request for an interview, for example) of a different first-name –  Jack. Is John the author and Jack the man? Which is your proper name? Which is the proper name?

John D. Caputo: You had no way to know this, of course, but that is a very deep question for me, touching upon my whole destiny (if I have one!). Everything is at stake in this question. My “proper name” is John. As you well know, one of the central theoretical problems in what Derrida calls “deconstruction” is the impossibility of the proper name; if it were possible, we would not be discussing this question of my name. But for me the name “John” resonates with nuns, with religious sisters. I think of being a small child in grade school, terrified of those black-and-white figures that hovered over me, like angels of terror, delegates of heaven and hell, of dark powers and vast cosmic forces. I’m sure they were unselfish and very good women, but some of them, I think, were teaching grade school because they loved God, not us. At any rate, they scared the daylight out of me – and they called me “John,” where everyone else, my family and my friends, called me “Jack.” So my world divided between John/Jack, the outside hostile “world”/the familial and familiar. All my life everything “official” and impersonal went under the name of “John.” When I began to publish, I used “John D.,” which was meant to build a wall as high as possible around that scared little boy back in grade school that I am (was/will always be).

What gives this question added depth for me has to do with Jacques Derrida. In 1989 Jacques Derrida published a journal, a kind of quasi-Jewish slightly atheistic Confessions that clearly alluded to St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which he revealed that his name is actually the American name “Jackie.” (Incidentally, St. Augustine’s homeland, ancient Numidia, is modern day Algeria, and Derrida lived as a child on the Rue St. Augustin.) “Jackie” is also a feminine name, the familiar form of Jacquelyn, in French (and English), which among many other things suggests a kind of miscegenation (cousin/cousine) of which he would approve. It was a popular custom among Algerian Jews in the 1930s to name their children after American movie stars, and “Jacques” was named after Jackie Coogan, a child star who had appeared with Charlie Chaplin. When Derrida first began to publish, he decided he could not use a name which seemed ridiculous, so he followed the phonic flow from Jackie to Jacques, although of course “Jack” is the nickname for John/Jean. So it turns out that we have the same name, and one of my most bitter-sweet moments was when, shortly before his death, Jacques signed his last letter to me “Jackie.” Jacques/Jack was torn by the same tensions; we suffer from the same anxieties! As my work makes extensive use of deconstruction, I wrote in one of my books, “I do not know where to draw the line in this game of Jacks.” I cannot remember sometimes whether he said something, or this was a way I put something he said, or I just said it “myself” (if there is one.) We could spend this entire interview on this question, because in one way or another everything is there.

I ask because the pairing of author and man resonates with the pairing of philosopher and ethical actor, which resonates with Greek and Jew. May I call you john jack in honor of this attractive proposition?

That would please me greatly. In fact, it would touch my soul. That would also be, in a certain way, Rousseau’s name, who also wrote a famous Confessions.  We could cover everything we have to say under this distinction.

John Jack, I never fail to recommend Demythologising Heidegger (or How to Recover From Reading Heidegger, as I call it) to those with an interest in the great German, especially those I suspect may be susceptible to falling under the sway of his bewitching prose. I may prescribe Demythologizing Heidegger as medicine, but what were your intentions in writing it?

I wrote it as a medicine for those who were susceptible to the sway of his bewitching prose. (Did you say that I did? Is your middle name “Jack”?) You are exactly right. In the de-Nazification hearings that followed WW2, Karl Jaspers, the much respected German philosopher and contemporary of Heidegger – Jasper’s wife was Jewish and barely escaped the camps – was asked about “what to do” with Heidegger, who was at the least a fellow traveler of the Nazis. Should he be relieved of his position, deprived of his pension, etc.? In answering this question Jaspers said that he thought that Heidegger’s relationship to his students was “unfree.” He meant Heidegger was a spell-binder, a word wizard, so that while Heidegger was constantly appealing to us to “think,” the effect he often produced was thoughtless acolytes who simply processed behind him, chanting words like Ereignis, physis, aletheia. One of Heidegger’s “discoveries” was that Being qua Being speaks only Greek and then, as a supplement and only when it is necessary, Being uses German, which is the spiritual kin of Greek. Heidegger confided to us, that his French friends – surprisingly, there was actually a groundswell of support and admiration for him among the French after the war, including Jean-Paul Sartre – confided to him that when they want to “think,” they have to switch to German! Presumably, when they want to make love, they stay with French. I think they also dine in French, although Heidegger does not go into these, presumably ontic matters. This so-called “spiritual kinship,” of course, is a function of the retardation of the German language. Because of the political disarray of Germany before von Bismarck, the language did not modernize as quickly or as thoroughly as other modern languages, and so did not complete the process of substituting word order for endings. That is why it is still highly inflected and, for that reason, is grammatically more like Greek and Latin. Now as Derrida said, all of this would be extremely funny were it not so dangerous. It is not only a ridiculous thing to say, but it is dangerous, a ruse in which a vicious nationalism and an enormous political stupidity and blindness makes its nest. This was in many ways a rehearsing of a myth that began with Winckelmann about Germania, the place where everything Great and Greek and Originary finds its modern home. Of course, that gives the German people its calling, its vocation, its mandate to lead the West by whatever means necessary out of the darkness, a darkness which Heidegger thought had settled in an especially deep way upon the United States and the Soviet Union, between which Heidegger thought – this was really as much political insight as Heidegger’s “thinking” (Denken) could muster – there was not a dime’s worth of difference. The Nazis could never figure out what their revolution had to do with Heraclitus, but they were glad to have a famous philosopher on their side and glad to hear that “the Greeks” were also on their side.

At a certain point, after many years of studying Heidegger quite faithfully – I even wrote to him, once – I just could not stand this stuff any longer and I decided to lay out my case. So I am kind of Heideggerian apostate and that is how the acolytes treat me. But do not misunderstand me. I do not want to lynch Heidegger, or dismiss him. I was myself in the beginning – this was my first “research program” as they call it in academicese – deeply interested in the convergence between what he called “thinking” (and the thinking that “called” him, as he said in a well known book called in English What is Called Thinking?) and the late medieval mystical tradition whose peak I myself would locate in Meister Eckhart, in whom the young Heidegger had a serious interest. Heidegger made many important breakthroughs about poetry, metaphysics and technology, and he opens the space within which continental philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century takes place. Those who want to simply jettison him go too far. But he has a dark side; he is a spell binder, with an unhealthy oracular voice, telling a too simple and highly elitist and Romanticized story, and he has a tendency to produce not thought but epigones who simply incant what he says, who divide the world up into those who are inside and those who are outside their little esoteric world, and who translate his books into no known language, certainly not English.

James Joyce is mentioned a couple of times (sufficient to warrant this exchange, of course) in “Demythologizing Heidegger.” How did “James Joyce” – a proper and mighty name if ever there was one – find its way to the tip of your pen?

Through Derrida, and I pursued Derrida’s texts on Joyce in The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida even more than in Demythologizing Heidegger. Before Derrida, I had not made any special effort to get to know Joyce beyond what any literate Anglophone would know. Even under the prodding of Derrida I have not become competent in Joyce, which as you know was the first thing I said to you when you approached me about this interview.

You mention Joyce as a representative of a “jewgreek” perspective – an alternative voice that might have saved Heidegger from himself, specifically his totalizing tendencies. First, what does the term “jewgreek” represent? But also, what saving qualities does it hold?

This famous Joyceanism requires a little background. In 1964, Derrida wrote a now classic article on the relationship of the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to Edmund Husserl (the founder of “phenomenology”), whom Levinas deeply admired but criticized, and Heidegger, whom Levinas not only criticized but detested (he had lost most of his family in the Holocaust). In this article, one that helped make both Derrida and Levinas famous, Derrida who up to a point is defending Heidegger and Husserl, refers to them as these “two Greeks,” by which he meant philosophers, heirs to the style of thinking both founded by and still today largely derived from what was started by the Greeks, especially Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. That was said to differentiate them from Levinas, the Jew who was also a philosopher, the philosopher who was trying to expose philosophy itself to its “other,” to another voice, one that had its roots in the biblical tradition, where God is “wholly other,” and especially in the prophets, who call for justice. This is an ancient distinction, one that goes back to the discourse to the Greeks about the unknown God that Luke attributes to Paul, and to Tertullian’s famous question, “what does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Now a crucial part of the Heideggerian “myth of Being” is a myth of monogenesis, that the “West” is a Greek creation, which means that everything Jewish and Christian is a distortion of its originary essence, a “fallenness” from Greek primordiality. Levinas hated this, and rightly so. As Derrida says, Levinas was trying to interrupt this monologue or soliloquy of philosophy with itself, to push philosophy beyond itself, to widen philosophy’s circle, the result of which would be a new and very radical version of what Levinas called, in the language of Greek philosophy, “ethics.” The result would be not anti-philosophy but philosophy radicalized by biblical ethics, not a philosophy of “Being” (Heidegger) but of what is “otherwise than Being” (Levinas). What Levinas intended, and this was the “saving” element he was introducing, was to break up the hegemony of the paganism and aestheticism that is represented by Heidegger’s “Being” and to insist upon the central fact of ethics and human suffering. Remember the Holocaust.

Now when Derrida comes to the end of this brilliant article, and he wants to summarize what he is saying, to encapsulate it, to give us a way to remember this extremely careful and complicated analysis, he turns to James Joyce. Are we Greeks? (Beauty, truth.) Are we Jews? (Prophetic justice.) Are we one before the other? Can we even say “we”? We live in the difference between the two, Derrida answers, in the space that opens up between them, the space called (Western) “history.” Is this “between” to be understood as a Hegelian synthesis of Greek and Jew (something that Levinas would profoundly contest, for that synthesis would “assimilate” the Jew)? Or it another kind of relationship, less a synthesis than an odd “coupling.” Then Derrida says – this is the final line – “what is the meaning of the copula in this proposition from perhaps the most Hegelian of modern novelists: “Jewgreek is greekjew. Extremes meet.”

Now I leave it to you, or to what Derrida calls the academic Joyce industry, to explicate what that text means for Joyce...

In Ulysses Gramophone, Derrida writes of his fear of addressing Joyce experts, the Joyce industry. I do hope you don’t feel the same way, I can assure you that I am neither expert nor particularly industrious.

I feel less fearful hearing you say that. Then let me tell you what this means for Derrida, which is also what I have in mind whenever I use it. It refers to the irreducible complexity of what we call too simply, as if there were one, “society,” “tradition,” “history.” It refers to the illusion of monogenesis; it is a name, an emblem, for pluralism, polymorphism, polygenesis, and for prophetic justice. (Back to Jacques’s name: we do not know what his proper name is or whether it is masculine or feminine.) It is a name for no proper name, no simple identity that is identical with itself, and hence a name for hospitality and welcoming the other. I say it is an emblem because, in itself, it too, like an name, is immensely limited, since it excludes, right off, and very fatefully today, the Arab, the Palestinian, the non-European, not to mention the African, the Asian. Let us say that “Jewgreek is greekjew” means what St. Paul says, when he says “there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, master nor slave.” It is a name for the non-exclusionary. Not the encyclopedic assimilation of differences into a higher unity but the simultaneous patchwork peaceful co-existence of differences, which is not a bad way to describe what is today called “postmodern.”

However, I couldn’t help noticing in the same work, that at one point Derrida asks “What right do we have to select or interrupt a quotation from Ulysses?” There’s a certain illegitimacy, Derrida observes, in such an appropriation. Placing aside proprietorial questions, questions of Joyce’s ownership of the text, how do you justify spinning Joyce’s thread into your own work? What kind of connection is established when a philosopher draws on fiction?

I should begin by saying that, in the particular case of Joyce that we are discussing – in another text I myself made use of Joyce’s “The Dead” – I am drawing less on fiction than on Derrida, who is drawing on fiction. Still, the question stands. I would say two things. First, the reinscription of a text from fiction in a philosophical text should derive from a reading that also observes the classical protocols, that has worked very hard at reconstituting the sense of the text, its original language, its context, etc. Only then will this reinscription be productive and not simply capricious. But reinscription is both necessary and inevitable; texts do not have a meaning so much as they a history. It will be done anyway, so let us do it well. Secondly, philosophy should turn to literature for instruction, not illustration. Philosophers often “use” literature as an “example,” to “illustrate” a point that has been independently established by philosophy. That is dabbling with literature. I think philosophy must submit to literature, be humbled by it, and allow itself to be taken by it to a place that left to its own resources it cannot go. That is also how I feel about biblical texts, and what Levinas was saying to the philosophers: here is a voice you have not heard before. Incline your head, hear it well.

The qualities you attribute to the jewgreek perspective, seem to me to have a lot in common with the values of experimental fiction, especially in virtue of the fact that experimental fiction does not privilege any archê-typal mode or manner of writing. Do you agree that the spirit of experimental writing has much in common with the term “jewgreek,” especially in as much as it consists of marks and erasures and is a call to the particular?

I answer this question only on the condition we both agree that I am completely incompetent to answer it, as I have not studied experimental fiction. But it is a tradition of long and venerable standing for philosophers to answer questions about which they have no competence. Sometimes they even get lucky and say things that are actually right. But what strikes me first about your question is that the answer must be yes if only because Derrida is himself an avant-garde and highly experimental writer. If you look at the simple typography of Glas, with a line down the middle dividing two different texts, one about Hegel, one about Jean Genet, and the little windows inside both columns with still other continuous texts; or the “love letter” format of Postcard; or the autobiographical text of “Circumfession” running at the bottom of the page of a book up above “about” “Derrida,” etc. All of those inventions constitute so many experiments aimed at establishing what he called the “end of the book,” the delimitation of the claim of the book to be a little, or even a big, encyclopedia, which tells the whole story with a beginning, a middle and an end, in a clean edition, with nothing spilling over the margins. These techniques are all so many ways to draw a zone of absolute respect around the singular, the unclassifiable, that which resists enclosure within one genre. That is also why Derrida has so deeply scandalized the professional philosophers, the philosophy industry, who rend their garments when they read his texts. I take that back. Most of them never read his texts – but they rend their garments anyway, based upon what they read about deconstruction in Time Magazine.

Experimental fiction descries inner (and outer) logic, and delights in self-consciously subverting its own logic. How do you think this relates to the jewgreek equation?

We could, if we took enough precautions, let this formula, “jewgreek,” be a stand-in or emblem for all these effects, the point of which would be to produce a new reading.  Such deconstructive “subversion” is what Derrida is always talking about, and it is what his books do. In a certain sense, when the young Derrida read James Joyce, he must have felt what Harold Bloom called the anxiety of influence; he must have wondered what there was left for him to do. Of course, there was always a certain ambiguity of Joyce for Derrida, both a glory and a weakness. Joyce’s greatest work was the unfolding, the embodiment, the enactment of deconstruction, that is, the exhibition of the labyrinthine weavings of language, the uncontainable dissemination of the play of differences. But the ambiguity of Joyce for him, his criticism of Joyce, was that he saw this huge and rhizomatic sprawl of differences as a Hegelian gesture, an attempt to encompass everything, to write an encyclopedia.

One key element of your project in “Demythologizing Heidegger” is justice. Can you explain what you mean by the term justice and why you think it is undeconstructible? How does justice avoid becoming another archê if it is always already inviolable?

This is something that religious thinkers have always understood but it took Levinas to instruct the philosophers about it. In the classical – let us say “Greek” – concept of justice, justice is blind. A just law is a universal principle that applies equally to all, that contains no proper names (proper names again!). When politicians write laws that in reality only apply to one person, although their proper name is never used, we call that corruption or political influence. But on the concept of justice that I advocate, justice has to do with only proper names, by which I mean that justice had to do with the singularity of each one of us, precisely in our singularity. The Book of Justice would be then the Book of Proper Names, or what Levinas calls the “Judgment of God,” for it has to do with what befits each one, even the least among us, in the singularity of their heart and mind. It would be like a map that is so perfect that it is the same size as the region of which it is the map. That perfect map, of course, would be a perfectly useless map, and impossible. That is why we distinguish justice, which is the impossible of which we dream, from the “law,” which tries to be as just as possible while remaining in its blinded schematic condition. Now I say this is a more biblical model than a Greek one, more “Jew” than “Greek,” because it has to do with the one lost sheep, not the ninety-nine safe in the fold; the lost coin; with the secret in our hearts that is known only to God; with counting every hair on our head, counting every tear. These are biblical models of justice, not to be found in Plato or Aristotle or John Rawls, who also favors blindness (the veil of ignorance).

Now, on this accounting – and I think you are right to push me on this – every law that we write will be deconstructible, that is, an imperfect instantiation of justice (someone always gets ground under by a law), but justice in itself, if it exists, is not deconstructible. But the point is that it does not exist, at least not as such; it is the undeconstructible of which we dream, a productive fantasy. It is a dream but it is not an arche. It does not provide determinate instruction like an arche. It is not a program to follow, a pattern to repeat, a model we can see, something that can be applied or approximated or approached asymptotically, but what Derrida at a certain point did not hesitate to call a “messianic” expectation of something unforeseeable.

You are, of course, well-known as a theologian...

...let us say a philosophical theologian, or a philosopher of religion. I was trained in philosophy and spent my whole life in the philosophy department at Villanova University. I confess that I have recently gotten religion, that is, I have moved to the Religion Department at Syracuse University, where I have been given the opportunity to spend the last phase of my teaching career peddling my wares among people who actually know a thing or two about religion. It is like a philosopher of science who moves to a physics department. When I speak about religion there I feel like a fellow in one of those old cowboy movies who raises his hat on a stick to see if someone is going to shoot at it...

Apologies. Although you are unknown as a theologian, your words cause me to wonder whether the concept of jewgreek, as you employ it, is a component part of a postmodern Christology? That is, part of an attempt to discover a post-secular model of Christ. How does the term “jewgreek” relate to the Christian concept of Jesus as Word made flesh?

Once again, given enough precautions, we could say that this is indeed just what it is. I have a new book entitled The Weakness of God that will be out sometime in 2005. This will be my most theological statement, philosophical-theological, that is, and here I speak of something I call a “sacred anarchy” – I take special note and heartily approve of your use of “Joyous Anarchy.” There is tradition of “Christian Anarchy,” in Jacques Ellul, for example. By this expression I mean that the divine favor rests on the one who is out-of-power and authority (arche), the left out and left over; on weakness, not power; on the last, not the first; on the lost, not the safe. That I think is the philosophical lesson to be learned from meditating the life of Jesus, and what it means for God for take the form of flesh. If Jesus spoke Greek instead of Aramaic, if he had an urban and Greek instead of an Aramaic, rural and biblical imagination, if he uttered propositions instead of telling parables, if he used the Greek word “ethics,” then my prediction is that such an ethics would be an “anarchical” one, where the real meaning and force of the “teaching,” Torah, or the “law,” the alpha and the omega of the Torah, to speak a little Jewgreek, would be that the mark of God lies on the face of least among us, the an-archical. I wax a little heretical in this book by extending this anarchy to God’s own being, which I want to maintain is marked by weakness not strength, which is emblematized in the Crucifixion. There is something like this in Moltmann, but there I think it is still consistent with the orthodox teaching of omnipotence, whereas I am not so sure that I am orthodox.

Ulysses ends with a fleshy affirmation of Molly’s particular existence, a “Yes” that is committed to the indeterminateness and chaos of the flesh. This reminds me that in every moment, we are, according to the meaning of the phrase under discussion, first and foremost, Jews. Yet the phrase “jewgreek,” qua philosophical signifier, is Greek. Is there any need or way to escape universalizing Greekness, open to philosophers, novelists, and friends?

There is no way to stop speaking Greek if we use this in the widest sense of the gift of the inherited philosophical framework handed down to us by the Greeks, and it would be ungrateful of us to try. But there are many ways to interrupt this voice, to disturb its hegemony, to loosen its grip, to expose it to its other. That is what deconstruction does all the time, and that is what is emblematized by this word “Jewgreek,” upon which we have been meditating. The aim is not to destroy “the” Greek or “the” philosophical but to widen its circle, to disturb any attempt to close the circle, keep it open to the surprise, to what it does not and cannot see coming, which is what makes life interesting. That being said, we are all Jews, we are all Greeks, not to mention all the other things we are, not to mention that we cannot quite say “we.” We can say oui, but not we. Not we, we, but oui, oui.  Yes, I said, yes. Molly’s absolutely magnificent hymn, her Mollyian if not quite Marian Magnificat, yes, I said yes, let it be, let it happen, let it come, that is what deconstruction is: yes, to the coming of the other (“coming” having in English a happy polyvalence that is missing in French).  Derrida says again and again, yes, that deconstruction is affirmation, yes, welcoming the other, yes, and that yes is yes only if it is repeated, oui, oui. When at a wedding, the bride and groom say yes, “I do,” well, we don’t know if they do. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. We’ll find out, and it will take a lifetime of repetition to find out.

I reminded that we are first and always Jews again, for I wish I could shake your hand to thank you for this interview. However, my email software doesn’t yet extend me such luxuries.

Do not be nostalgic. There is no pure origin. The Heideggerians complain about technology and want to replace technology with the “hand,” with the things that are handmade, which they say are primordial and originary, and they look down upon the world-poor animals who they say have no hands, poor things (so let’s eat them!). (I do not even mention his notorious remark about Hitler’s hands.) But an amusing anecdote: as I mentioned above, when I was a young man I wrote to Heidegger and, mirabile dictu, I actually got a response – but, will you believe, it was typewritten!! I should have seen then that the whole thing had to be demythologized! Now, do not misunderstand me, I am not against hands, but I say yes to technology, and I think you do, too, and yes to email, which has allowed us to extend a hand to each other and made this exchange possible. This is the whole problem of the pharmakon in “Plato’s Pharmacy,” which I was recently rereading, but we cannot take this up here.

Please accept this lonely termination instead.

I am not alone, and I will say a little prayer that you are not either, but I thank you very much for your questions, which were probing and provocative and, as we Americans say, quite a handful.



Additional Information

Prof. Caputo joined Syracuse University in Fall, 2004 after retiring from Villanova University where he taught from 1968 to 2004. He is currently working on the notion of the “weakness of God.” Caputo conducts a series of biennial conferences on related themes in the philosophy of religion, the first of which (April, 2005) will be entitled “St. Paul Among the Philosophers.”

Recently, two books have appeared about his work: A Passion for the Impossible: John D. Caputo in Focus, ed. Mark Dooley (SUNY Press, 2002), and Religion With/Out Religion: The Prayers and Tears of John D. Caputo, ed. Ed. James Olthius (Routledge, 2002).

Demythologizing Heidegger was published in 1993 by Indiana University Press.

Emmet Cole
16 May 2005

Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one.