"[T]he openness to the other cannot be an ethical principle since it is not a matter of choice. Openness to the other answers to the openness to the unpredictable coming of time and is thus the condition for whatever there is. . . . Furthermore, nothing can guarantee that it is better to be more open than to be less open to the other (or vice versa). . . . The decision concerning how one should relate to the other can therefore not be dictated by an ethical injunction, but must be reinvented from time to time. Far from providing an ethical ground, the deconstructive thinking of alterity thus politicizes even the most elementary relation to the other." In this explosive little book on Derrida, Martin Hagglund rejects the appropriation over the last twenty years of deconstruction as an ethical, political, or religious project. He denies that there is an "ethical turn" in Derrida's thought (usually located around the publication of Specters of Marx), arguing Derrida's work is informed by a single logic from start to end. Similar to how Graham Harman interprets Heidegger in Tool-Being, Hagglund extracts and explicates what he claims is the core idea of Derrida's work, writing without the piousness, esoterism, or obliqueness that has critically imprisoned his subject. Despite the religious terminology adopted in Derrida's later books (most notably the notion of messianicity), Hagglund claims Derrida's work is informed by a "radical atheism," a finite thinking that rejects the desire for an infinite fullness, immortality, or eternity. In radical atheism, the temporal, finite individual rejects the desire for God's infinity or immortality because their existence would negate the very possibility of the atheist's own finite being (in other words, God is death).
In a rather controversial move, Hagglund attributes a rather simple and straightforward ontology to Derrida, an ontology best summed up as "time is différance." Since the "temporal can never be in itself but is always divided between being no longer and being not yet," alterity is always already inscribed in the "present." To be is therefore to be temporally finite, to "survive" by remaining after a past and by opening up to a future that has yet to be. Différance is a "negative infinity of finitude," a "process of displacement without end."
Hagglund attacks the ethical/religious/political readers of Derrida for wanting to "ascribe a normative dimension to Derrida's argument. The ultratranscendental description of why we must be open to the other is conflated with an ethical prescription that we ought to be open to the other." Due to différance everything always already is open to the other and an undecidable future. Ontology therefore makes (this specific kind of) ethics redundant. In fact, to desire (as those who search for an ethics in deconstruction do) an impossible Kantian regulative Idea, a non-violent relation to the Other, a messianism that brings about the eternal, or a perfected democracy is to desire an end to différance and finitude (which according to radical atheism, is to desire death).
Hagglund's refutation of the idea of an ethical turn in deconstruction is definitive and his association of Derrida's thought with radical atheism is compelling. Other aspects of the book, however, remain more problematic, if not incoherent. Nathan Brown points out in his forthcoming review of the book in Radical Philosophy that Hagglund slips between différance as an ultratranscendental condition for every being and différance as an ultratranscendental condition for living beings, so that the notion of temporal survival tends to be reduced to that of mortality and the spacing of time often is conceptualized through attributes that would only apply to living beings. Hagglund's inability to distinguish those differences is symptomatic of the repetitiveness of the book's argument. It could be said that this monotony reveals the narrowness of Derrida's thinking, a narrowness that was hidden by his style and close reading of other authors, but which has been revealed through Hagglund's schematization. But it seems equally likely to be the product of Hagglund's non-deconstructive account of deconstruction, his description of différance that ignores the effect of différance on itself. Hagglund is surely aware of what he is doing since in the book he describes a similar dilemma regarding Derrida's attempt in Circumfession to exceed Geoffrey Bennington's "formalization of the logical matrix of deconstruction" in Derridabase. There is no need here to go back over the well-trodden aporias of the deconstruction of deconstruction or the easy objections that différance (or its synonyms, arche-writing, arche-trace, spacing) cannot be a concept (or serve as the basis for an ontology), but it would have been helpful to see deconstruction "negotiated" more throughout the book, at least so this radically atheist version of the philosophy, which has such rigid constraints on what can be desired and thought, can perform the survival of Derrida's thought.