Caputo (The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion), 181-5) notes that for Derrida “traditions trace out the circle of a debt,” and thus tradition does not constitute gift in the strict sense (which, on Derrida’s terms, elude debt). Still, “Derrida is not against traditions or having a debt to a tradition” adn he never claims that we can take up “a site of simply exteriority to the circle of tradition.” Derrida knows that gift in his strict sense is impossible – it is, in fact “the impossible.” So we incur debts, unavoidably, and the problem is with traditions that “lay down encircling horizons of possibility so forcefully as to wall us in and cut off the impossible,” traditions that guard against the possibility of a breakthrough, of novelty.
For Derrida, the right response to a tradition is always double: “To have a tradition is to practice, at one and the same time, the greatest fidelity and a filial lack of piety, to feel the paralysis of owing a debt and owing it to ourselves to forget the debt, for only then will the tradition really move ahead. Pure fidelity is death, but so is pure infidelity. The art of the heir is to maintain the greatest possible tension between fidelity and infidelity . . . between the circle and the gift, to be paralyzed by this aporia and then to make a move (when it is impossible).”
On this view, tradition is “traditio, giving, giving-over, trans-dare, the very process of giving or transmitting the gifts of the tradition.” In the trans-giving, the tradition is inevitably altered, and thus Derrida’s understanding of tradition runs contrary to the “traditional idea of tradition,” which will “flatten us into submission by its massive dead weight, by the boulders that are rolled down its hill with all the weight of the great blockbusters of the past, the great texts and practices of the fathers, which we are all supposed immediately and unquestioningly to shoulder like good children who know the debt they owe their venerable ancestors.” Derrida recognizes that traditions are “polyvocal” and that we must inevitably “learn to make our way, selectively and judiciously” among the various voices. Let’s call him “Derrida the Protestant.”
Reception of tradition is thus at the same time Enlightenment, not the Enlightenment that aims to “foresee and plan and program everything” to make sure that everything is “shut . . . down in advance.” Rather, it is a “new Enlightenment” that “cuts us a break, which breaks open a possibility, an impossibility, which deals us not death but a break, delivering the shock of something different, tearing up the circle of time.”
All this puts me in mind of Rosenstock-Huessy: We are always on the cross stretched between the demands of the past and the promise of the future. Derrida has the structure right, but I don’t think that Derrida has the resources to sustain this tension. We have to have access to something more contentful than the impossible pure gift to maintain this faithful infidelity. We need something like revelation.