[xmca] Forgiveness as Mediated Emotion

From: Kellogg (kellogg@snue.ac.kr)
Date: Sun Nov 12 2006 - 00:42:51 PST

Dear Mike:

I want to start a new thread on this, because I think I took the previous thread in the wrong direction when I changed the subject line to "Forgiveness as Recontextualization". I was struck by your remark that psychological processes could not be decontextualized, and I too hastily argued that recontextualization presupposes decontextualization.

It now occurs to me that this is not necessarily true. When a child says "I play ski" or when a Korean poet writes that "the moon follows Sun-hi like a balloon", we take a vehicle directly from one domain to another (from "transportation" to "play" or from "sky" to "fairground") without any transitional limbo that I can see.

Instead, I want to argue that forgiveness is one of many mediated emotions. Other examples would include romantic love, a sense of justice, acquired tastes, tragedy, humor, and what Koreans call "jeong", the mutuality that arises between friends, lovers, colleagues, and any people whose ties are transformed through experience so that they can no longer be simply described in terms of attraction or repulsion.

I believe they are mediated in a way that is not merely analogous but in fact identical to the way that more intellectual higher psychological processes are mediated. That is, they begin with a perceptually based process that we share with animals (just as eidetic memory, reactive attention, and perceptual judgments are shared with animals; even a dog can compare two piles of doggie treats and see which is larger.)

They are then transformed, first by interaction with other people, then by tools which allow us to interact with the environment and so master our own reactions, and finally by symbols, which permit self-regulation (and calling this step "decontextualization" is really beside the point).

Of course, when I say "first", "then" and "finally", I am being ridiculously abstract; in fact interaction with other people almost always presupposes symbols, and symbols in turn require tools. Yet I believe that this ridiculous level of abstraction contains at least an ontogenetic germ of truth; the child's first interactions with other people do not take place primarily through tools, and the child must necessarily master symbols through the use of tools.

So romantic love is built up on the basis of a sexual desire shared with animals, but it has to be built up with tools (houses, clothes and beds seem to play a key role here) and signs (romantic proposals have become a minor literary genre). A sense of justice takes place first and foremost by interacting directly on the playground with other children, and then through controlling one's environment, initially through teacher violence and later through rules (Piaget's marbles). Acquired tastes such as cooking and wine tasting clearly have a biochemical basis in eating and drinking, but equally clearly require mediation through socio-cultural artifacts to be worthy of the name "acquired" tastes. With "jeong", that mediation really can only take place through the Korean language (which is why "jeong" is not translatable).

I apologize if this all seems elementary to you; it isn't to me, and I'm afraid I need it written down before I tackle Derrida. About week ago, I got the essay "On Forgiveness", which Wolff-Michael Roth recommended and I read it this morning on the subway. Instead of "deconstructing" Derrida, which is a little like trying to dissect an amoeba, I want to stand well away from him, lay out some clear examples and establish a MATERIALIST alternative.

I think that one of the problems with Jaan Valsiner's extremely generous reply to my rather presumptuous and poorly expressed remarks on his article is that I didn't do this; I didn't make it very clear what the word "materialist" means to me, and why I do think that the distinction between "inter-personal" and "intra-personal" matters and that grammar and discourse are linked but nevertheless distinct systems.

(Essentially, I think that pragmatic "sense" is the concrete material reality of language, and semantic "meaning" is an ephemeral and ideal abstraction, absurdly over-valued by linguists and idealist philosphers like Derrida. As Widdowson says, it is not texts that communicate. People communicate with texts, but they do so in more or less the same way they communicate with grunts, gestures, and car horns. That is why communication without language is possible, but language without communication is not. Since that is true, communication and language, sense and meaning, are not somehow mutually constitutive; one is primary and determining and the other secondary and derivative.)

Derrida argues that forgiveness consists of two components which are both heterogenous (and to some extent interpenetrated) and irreducible to each other. So far so good; sounds rather more elegant than my coarse formulation "linked but distinct". For Derrida, those two components are the unconditional and the conditional.

Now, conditional forgiveness is more or less the sort that we all know about. First the Count wrongs the Countess. Then (and this is where I will bring in mediation) the situation changes in some way so that Countess has the power to punish the Count. At this point, the Count recognizes that he has done some wrong, and admits it. Further, the Count makes a promise (notice how much this has to do with what Searle would call performatives!) not to repeat the wrong. In the light of this, the Countess refrains from punishment and offers forgiveness. ("Piu docile sono, e dico di si....")

But Derrida finds this type of forgiveness disgusting and degrading. And in many of the examples he offers it certainly is: the "forgiveness" offered by Desmond Tutu in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to the butchers of apartheid, the amnesty offered to Nazis by De Gaulle, Pompidou and Mitterand in exchange for their help in crushing communism, Bouteflika's "national reconciliation" in Algeria, and the "pardon" offered by Clinton to his corrupt cronies (but pardoxically NOT the "droit de grace" of the absolute monarch; Derrida cannot resist the wonderful aporia of a legally enshrined exception to the law).

Derrida's criticism is not, or not simply, that conditional forgiveness is self-interested and presumputous; his criticism is also that it is conditional; it requires mediation, such as words or gestures of repentence, promises, and finally the explicit performative, "I forgive you". Against this he argues (as Wolff-Michael said), that only the unforgiveable can be "truly" forgiven.

In other words, only when forgiveness is absolutely unconditional (when it does not require repentance, or promises of compensation, or guarantees against recidivism, or even explicit performance) that we can "truly" call it forgiveness. This is why he associates it with madness and disassociates it with Abrahamic forgiveness (Christian forgiveness, which is clearly transactional in nature).

It is very easy to see that these two types of "forgiveness" are not mutually constitutive for Derrida, or if they are, then it is only in an uninteresting abstract sense. Derrida is always on the side of madness, and against Globalatinsation of a Pauline contract of absolution in exchange for repentance and mended ways. Conditional forgiveness is not pure, he says "nor is its concept" (and in this he betrays his debt to Kant). I think Derrida is very often seen as being a kind of "on the one hand, and on the other" sort of person when it comes to political questions; he really isn't; he is always against rationalism in any form.

Like me, Derrida often has a foil for his arguments, and the problem I have with his writing is that I usually end up sympathizing with the foil rather than with Derrida (I disagree with Wolf-Michael; I find him much clearer and less precious in English than in French, but it is recognizeably the same Derrida). So I took away from both "Grammatologie" and "L'ecriture et la differance" a renewed respect for Rousseau.

This essay is certainly no exception. Here the foil is a writer called Jankelevich who argues that there are (at least) two preconditions which must be satisfied for forgiveness to take place.

First of all, it must be humanly possible for the one who is wronged to forgive, and this is why murder and particularly mass murder is inherently unforgiveable. No one can usurp the right of forgiveness that belongs to the dead; the possibility of forgiveness must necessarily die with them.

Secondly, it must ALSO be possible for the one who is wronged to PUNISH. That is, forgiveness must be a choice, and not the only option; it must require the exercise of free volition. Here Derrida makes a distinction which I do not accept between punishment and vengeance; when considered as alternatives to forgiveness, I do not see how the punishment differs from revenge.

There are a number of things that appeal strongly to me about this position, a position which Derrida finds so uncongenial. First of all, there is a very clear link to a lower emotional reaction, the "fight or flight" reactions that we share with animals. Revenge might be the enactment of fear and rage. But revenge must be mediated by other people, language, and abstract rules to become justice and it must be explicitly eschewed to become forgiveness.

Secondly, there is a very clear role for mediation; it is by tools and signs that the wronging person lays out the case for forgiveness to the person who has been wronged, and that forgiveness can only be enacted interpersonally by the parties concerned, through the use of signs and symbols.

Thirdly, and most importantly, there must be a revolutionary transformation of the power status of the wronged person; they must be elevated to a position of power over the person who wrongs in order for forgiveness to become possible.

And this is where I really can't forgive Derrida. Yes, I know he loves paradoxes and word play, and so do I. But some paradoxes reflect real problems and real dilemmas between real people, and others are merely callous word play.

I think that Ana was quite right to point out that Derrida's remarks on "We only ever speak one language/We only ever speak one language" were merely word play (and Derrida actually confirms this when he restates the paradox adding the word "idiom" to language). And I think he is doing the same thing when he says we only ever "forgive" the "unforgiveable", because I think the "forgive" part of "unforgiveable" really just means something like "overlook".

But there's a REAL paradox that involves a real problem between real people here that he is ignoring. It is this: in order to be wronged, you must have no power. But in order to forgive, you must have power. That is why forgiveness is rare, but that does not make it madness or purely ideal. On the contrary, it is precisely that which makes it, first and foremost, material and real.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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