Beasts of Democracy

A series of conversations about secularism, radical atheism, and the limits of democracy


Organizing Institutions



Apostolos Lampropoulos, Jean-Michel Rabaté


Department of English, University of Pennsylvania

Opens to public



6:30 PM


4017 Walnut St
Philadelphia, PA 19104


25% Formal - 75% Informal

Slought is pleased to announce "Beasts of Democracy," a series of conversations about secularism, radical atheism, and the limits of democracy. The series begins with "Radical Atheism: Derrida's Notion of Desire," a seminar by and conversation with Martin Hägglund on Thursday, November 1, 2007 from 6:30-8:30pm, moderated by Jean-Michel Rabaté.

Hägglund's presentation is based on his forthcoming book Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life. Refuting the notion that there was an ethical or religious "turn" in Jacques Derrida's thinking, Hägglund demonstrates that a radical atheism informs his writing from the beginning to the end. Atheism has traditionally limited itself to denying the existence of God and immortal life, without questioning the desire for God and immortal life. Thus, in traditional atheism mortal being is still conceived as a lack of being that we desire to transcend. In contrast, by developing the logic of radical atheism, Hägglund argues that the so-called desire for immortality dissimulates a desire for survival that precedes it and contradicts it from within.

The notion of survival that Hägglund articulates is quite incompatible with immortality, since it defines life as essentially mortal and as inherently divided by time. Mortal life is the possibility for both the desirable and the undesirable, since it opens the chance of life and the threat of death in the same stroke. Conversely, the immortality that religions posit as the most desirable ("the best") is for Derrida the most undesirable ("the worst"), since immortality would put an end to the time of mortal life. Derrida himself has not provided a systematic account of his notion of desire and it has remained unexplored by his commentators, but Hägglund shows that it is altogether crucial for his thinking. In his lecture, Hägglund addresses the proliferation of apparently religious terms in Derrida's later work—e.g. faith, messianicity, and God—which have given rise to numerous theological accounts of deconstruction. In contrast to these theological accounts, Hägglund argues that Derrida relies on the desire for mortal life to read even the most religious ideas against themselves.

The next event in the series is "Can Democracy Not Be Secular?", a philosophical dialogue about the limits of democracy, the legacy of revolution, and the possibility of "left governmentality" on Tuesday, April 1st, 2014 at 7pm. The event will feature Stathis Gourgouris in dialogue with Apostolos Lampropoulos.

Democracy is often assumed to be an exclusively Western phenomenon, and dependent on a specific history of secularization and modernity. In addition, disastrous attempts to "export democracy" in order to justify imperialist interests have exacerbated this narrow view. This event will engage a series of questions, including: how can markers of social difference (class, gender, race, ethnicity, culture, religion, etc.) inform political decision making? Should democracy involve exceptions for specific societies, specific histories, specific geographies, and specific traditions? Can a society break down its own internal traditions of exclusion and authority? How can it equally share decisions while accounting for its past, determining its present, and envisioning its future?

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Stathis Gourgouris is Professor of Classics, English and Comparative Literature and Director of the Institute for Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He writes and teaches on a variety of subjects, ultimately entwined around questions of the poetics and politics of modernity. His last book is entitled Lessons in Secular Criticism (Fordham, 2013). He is also the author of Dream Nation: Enlightenment, Colonization, and the Institution of Modern Greece (Stanford, 1996) and Does Literature Think? Literature as Theory for an Antimythical Era (Stanford, 2003), and editor of the volume Freud and Fundamentalism: The Psychical Politics of Knowledge (Fordham, 2010).

Martin Hägglund is completing his Ph.D in Comparative Literature at Cornell University. He is the author of Chronophobia: Essays on Time and Finitude, which was published in Swedish in 2002. He has also edited and written the preface to the Swedish translation of Derrida's Spectres de Marx. In English, he has published essays in New Literary History (Spring 2006) and Diacritics (Spring 2004). His first book in English, entitled Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life, is forthcoming in the Meridian-series from Stanford University Press.