Beyond the Limits of Language

Apophasis and Transgression in Contemporary Theoretical Discourse

by Agata Wilczek (Author)
©2016 Monographs 195 Pages
Series: Literary and Cultural Theory, Volume 44


The book explores the way in which apophatic discourse of negative theology has illuminated contemporary critical theory. It demonstrates the significance of apophasis both in Jacques Derrida’s search for a «new language», responsive to singularity and alterity, and in the analyses of the experience of transgression, developed by Maurice Blanchot, George Bataille and Michel Foucault. Following Derrida’s understanding of negative theology as a transgressive concept that transcends the linguistic, historical and religious contexts from which it arises, the book proves that apophasis is not merely a discourse on language restricted to one theological tradition, but should be viewed as a mode of dialogue and openness, essential to all responsible thinking.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • Part One: (Un)saying God: Jacques Derrida’s Dream of “New Language”
  • Chapter One: Derrida’s (Negative) “Theological Turn”?
  • 1. “Theological Turn” or Political Comeback?
  • 2. Religious Readings of Deconstruction
  • 3. Deconstruction and Negative Theology
  • Excursus: Mode and Idiom
  • Chapter Two: Dialogue
  • 1. Two Voices, Two Visions, Two Powers: Together and/or Separately
  • 2. Responding to the Call: “After-writing” and Rethinking God
  • Chapter Three: Silence
  • 1. Silence as a “Modality of Speech”
  • 2. Speaking Of and Within Promise
  • 3. Keeping God’s Silence
  • Part Two: Language and Beyond: Apophatic Transgression
  • Chapter Four: The Linguistic Turn of Transgression
  • 1. The Step/Not Beyond
  • 2. Nothing Except Nuance: the Neuter
  • 3. Language as Non-Vision
  • 4. Writing as the “Essential Experience”
  • 5. Apophatic Theology and the Space of Literature
  • Chapter Five: Transgression and Transcendence
  • 1. Transgression and the Sacred
  • 2. Transgression as the Path to God
  • 3. Transcendence and the Sense of Transgression
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography

← 8 | 9 →


How would what still comes to us under the domestic, European, Greek, and Christian term of negative theology, of negative way, of apophatic discourse, be the chance of an incomparable translability in principle without limit? Not of a universal tongue, of an ecumenism or of some consensus, but of a tongue to come that can be shared more than ever?

Jacques Derrida, Sauf le nom

In his 1971 landmark essay, “Irony as a Principle of Structure,” Cleanth Brooks identifies irony as a crucial trope of his age, arguing that as “an acknowledgment of the pressures of context” it best reflects a host of historical circumstances:

[I]n the poetry of our time, this pressure reveals itself strikingly. A great deal of modern poetry does use irony as its special and perhaps its characteristic strategy. For this there are reasons, and compelling reasons. To cite only a few of these reasons: there is the breakdown of a common symbolism; there is the general scepticism as to universals; not at least important, there is the depletion and corruption of the very language itself, by advertising and by the mass-produced arts of radio, the moving picture and pulp fiction.1

While Brooks’s diagnosis of his historical era and the state of literature and culture in the second half of the twentieth century has reverberated in the subsequent decades, yet, at the same time the vision of irony being the final word of Western culture has not been so eagerly embraced. A decade later, while comparing our times with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s, William Gass observes – in a tone that could undeniably be called “ironic” – that though we live in less joyous times, nevertheless they are undoubtedly truer:

“The universal impulse to believe,” as Emerson both manifested and expressed it, was a positive in his time as is negative in ours, because beliefs are our pestilence, Scepticism, these days, is the only intelligence. The vow of a fool – never to be led astray or again made a fool of – is our commonest resolution, doubt, disbelief, detachment, irony, scorn, ← 9 | 10 → measure our disappointment, since mankind has proved even a poorer god than those who did not exist.2

Under the guise of irony, Gass seems to suggest that the costs of “our disappointment” we have so easily thrown off as if they were a nothing, in fact, represent a profound something, a denial of the “impulse to believe” – albeit in a negative way. As irony, together with doubt and detachment, are now envisaged as the only tools to deal with the world around us, it has become extremely difficult to find a discourse able to express that which used to matter so much to Emerson and his antecedents, and still do matter to some of us, even if we tend to deny it so vehemently. Therefore, as George Steiner firmly states, although “[t]he relaxed ironies and liberalities of this position are attractive,” we cannot disregard the possibility “that they inhibit not only a deeper, more vulnerable access to the matter of the generation of meaning and of form, but that they are, themselves, the reflection of a certain reduced condition of the poetic and of the act of creation on culture.”3 A similar observation is also made by Tobias Wolff, for whom “[i]rony” often proves itself as “a way of not talking about the unspeakable,” a way “to deflect or even to deny what is difficult, painful, dangerous – that is, consequential.”4 Interestingly, Wolff himself admits his own need of irony: “I can’t live without it,” thus expressing the prevailing mood of his time; yet at the same time he is cognizant of the dangers of letting oneself be seduced by irony: “I do think it has its temptations, and one of them of course is to make flippant what is not to be taken flippantly.”5

While the present work does not intend to question the view of irony as a dominating trope of recent times, yet, in the light of the above remarks, it shall propose to acknowledge apophaticism as a parallel trope or a linguistic strategy, a conjunct of irony, which has proven capable of counterbalancing the latter by offering a mode of discourse to talk about the obscure, the unfathomable, the unsayable – through the negative tropology, through the silences and failures of language, disconcerting gaps, interstices and fissures, through the denials, erasures, contradictions, insubstantial presences, and the unspoken supplements that violate the signifying fixities of any text. Hence, the main aim of this study is to ← 10 | 11 → provide an analysis of apophasis in contemporary theoretical discourse and to demonstrate parallels between its logic, or rather a/logic, and postmodern textual practices. The following discussion is grounded in the conviction that the situation of contemporary culture makes it peculiarly receptive to a great variety of apophatic discourses, the evidence of which can be found in an explosive proliferation of creative and critical endeavours drawing from and transforming traditional apophatic currents in remarkable new ways.

Following J. P. Williams’s remark from 2000 about a “budding renaissance of apophatic theology”6 and witnessing the abundance of studies on the logic and language of apophatic discourse,7 it might be suggested that we have arrived at a predominantly apophatic phase. The resurgence of this ancient tradition is not reduced solely to theology or religious studies but, as William Franke insists, has become “a major topic in all the disciplines of the humanities,”8 with diverse trajectories of apophatic discourse intersecting literature, philosophy and the arts. The reasons for this ongoing interest and appropriation of apophasis shall be traced in the peculiar state of our contemporary culture whose rational foundations for thought and discourse have fallen into crisis. ← 11 | 12 →

George Steiner rightly points out that we live in the times of “radical flinching,” which occurs in the face of the mysterious, the spiritual. It is a sense of discomfort, even “embarrassment we feel in bearing witness to the poetic, to the entrance into our lives of the mystery of otherness in art and music,” which “terrorizes even the confident.” As a result, we strongly feel the intellectual and societal duty to hide our embarrassment, to mask it with sophisticated forms of rationalizations, to “play it cool.”9 However, at the same time, we have started to become embarrassed not only with our past pieties but also with our modern Western culture, grounded in the unshakable belief in the possibility of the rational control of the world by autonomous human subjects, “masters and possessors of nature,”10 the sole creators of their own existence. Through this self-affirmation of self-producing humanity, through scientific and technological progress and the development of institutions that guarantee freedom and security, the nature has been stripped of its frightening, inexplicable, mysterious elements, and a society has reached a state when God as the ultimate Cause and Logos is no longer needed. The situation of humanity which had finally liberated itself from religious ties and become free to take control of history was most famously depicted by Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1882 parable of a madman who proclaims the “death of God” to the baffled onlookers gathered on the marketplace.11 Yet, this spreading banishment of transcendent dimension has not necessarily been interpreted euphorically, but more and more often – tragically or nostalgically. As Ilse N. Bunhof and Laurens ten Kate remark:

[…] Western modernity and its philosophical reflection contain both latent and open signs of embarrassment at this self-made world of self-production. The affirmation of the Western subject and his or her rational project seems to be interrupted regularly by tendencies and voices that express skepticism and that point to an ‘outside’ the subject and to the limit of rationality. At this limit the question again arises whether humanity is sufficient unto itself and whether in its claim to be able to live without God and in its desire to exclude every dimension that transcends its existence humanity is wandering into a dead end. ← 12 | 13 → 12

Instead of triumphant shouts elevating humanity and human reason, echoes of deep embarrassment and discomfort can be heard in various corners of Western culture. For the “death of God” does not only symbolically mark a turning point in the history of human development, a new stage of human emancipation from divinely power, but it also initiates an experience that still haunts modernity and postmodernity: the experience of loss, emptiness and nothingness. This experience was already prophesied by Nietzsche, who wondered whether with the sacrifice of God we have not in fact sacrificed ourselves “for nothingness”: “Did one not have to sacrifice God himself and, out of cruelty against oneself, worship stone, stupidity, gravity, fate, nothingness? To sacrifice God for nothingness – this paradoxical mystery of the ultimate act of cruelty was reserved for the generation which is even now arising.”13 The perplexing question put to us by Nietzsche’s madman is whether we are able to live in this empty space without “outside” and survive the last cruelty we have imposed on ourselves by sacrificing ourselves-as-God for nothingness; or whether the traces of transcendence still remain and continue to work in our Western culture.

This is the “paradoxical mystery” of which Nietzsche speaks, a double sacrifice present in his words “God is dead,” which cannot be treated as a statement of truth or a stable proposition, but as an evocation referring us to an ambivalent experience. As Nietzsche himself suggests, the meaning of “the death of God” unfolds in at least two directions. Within the first perspective, God has to be sacrificed to enable humanity to liberate itself – from God – through reason. This self-emancipatory deed results in the development of secularization, whereby the old God is replaced by human reason. However, by subjugating the whole world and instrumentalizing all Being in a movement toward appropriation, human reason becomes a new “god,” and, paradoxically, a new, “secular” religion is established – a religion without exterior, without transcendence. However, the second possible interpretation of Nietzsche’s ambiguous dictum draws a vision of humanity, which, having liberated itself from the new god, that is reason, sacrifices itself and, as a result, is left in a meaningless space, deprived of any goal, after the death of both the old God and humanity-as-God.14 Hence, “the death of God” shall be read not merely as a symbol of historical and cultural analysis ← 13 | 14 → of a stage of human development, a one-time occurrence that has given rise to modernity, but an event which recurs incessantly, not so much to guide as to constantly disrupt our culture. As Nietzsche points out, modern humanity is forced to constantly pay for its decision to live without God: “who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not greatness of this deed too great for us?”15 The idea of “compensation,” proposed by the author of The Gay Science and endorsed by many philosophers following him, is to surpass our humanity and in this transhumanizing movement to reach the stage of Übermensch. After “the old god is dead,” it might seem that an “unending horizon” has been opened for the “free spirits.” As Nietzsche writes: “We have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us –indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us.”16 This infinite horizon, however, is empty, uninhabitable, resembling a sea, of which Nietzsche speaks: “the sea, our sea, lies open.”17 Still, this very emptiness and meaninglessness create an opportunity for a new experience of transcendence which no longer exists in a relationship to the God who is the Highest Being, but to the God who is dead; but his “death” is not the simple negation of his existence, for it is in his very absence that God proves that he is God.

While interpreting Nietzsche’s parable, Maurice Blanchot draws our attention to the madman’s complaint: “I have come too soon,” insisting that there will never be the right time for him to come and announce the death of God as an actual and complete event since the world will never be ready to understand his laments.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (June)
Apophatic discourse Negative theology Deconstruction Dialogue
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 195 pp.

Biographical notes

Agata Wilczek (Author)

Agata Wilczek is a research and teaching assistant at the Institute of English Cultures and Literatures at the University of Silesia (Poland). Her research interests focus on contemporary philosophy, postsecularism and Christian mysticism.


Title: Beyond the Limits of Language
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
198 pages