Ethics (and a prologue?)

It’s not just (neo)liberalism that increasingly insists on the primacy of ethics. Anarchism also seems more and more to talk about an “ethical orientation,” to use a phrase from Simon Critchley’s recent book, Infinitely Demanding. But whereas (neo)liberalism sees an ethical turn as the solution to various conjunctural impasses — environmental ruin, economic insecurity, official corruption — and that is primarily apolitical (or depoliticizing), certain currents of anarchism desire an ethics that attaches to and even grounds political action. Such an ethics would cure, or at least palliate, the “political disappointment” and “motivational deficit” (Critchley) of the present. Critchley’s book embodies this structurally, as it first lays out how an ethics of responsibility and commitment is possible, and insists on the necessity of achieving one, before moving on to the political argument. As Critchely puts it, the book marks the passage “from an ethics of infinitely demanding commitment to a politics of resistance.” Todd May’s The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism moves in the opposite direction, giving an ethical anchor to his tracing of the points of confluence between anarchism and poststructuralism (particularly Deleuze, Foucault, and Lyotard). Jesse Cohn’s Anarchism and the Crisis of Representation criticizes certain antirepresentationalists (again, principally Deleuze and Foucault) in part for their “ethical relativism” and for creating intractable “ethical problems,” while maintaining that an anarchism that is ethically grounded can resolve such difficulties.

This isn’t to say that anarchism hasn’t historically tended to rely on a foundational ethics; I won’t deny Cohn’s statement that anarchism is “distinguished from reformist and Marxist varieties of socialism by its primary commitment to ethics.” But there seems to be an increased urgency lately to create and hew to such a commitment. Of course, these theorists have learned from the mistakes of contemporary experience: there are no Chomskyan appeals to realize our essentially good human nature, and ethics is no longer conceived of as law, that is, as a transcendent principal that is to be applied to every moment and act. Critchley, for example, borrows from Badiou a situational ethics that creates ways of measuring that are specific to each political situation. The work that ethics does for anarchism, then, is, in May’s words, “to assess whether an arrangement of forces, or a practice, once promoted, is indeed active or reactive.” Ethics is a tool for evaluation.

I mostly sympathize with the necessity of this function. My problem — one of my problems — with ethics talk is that it inevitably searches out a ground from which a politics must operate. Or perhaps, since current strains of ethics recognize, at least implicitly, the problems with foundations, it’s more relevant to speak of ethics as seeking a space from which to operate. Tellingly, this is a space that has already been cleared. Again Critchley is instructive here: His idea of an “interstitial distance within the state” is mostly an improvement on its obvious inspiration, Badiou’s “distance from the state,” but besides failing to ask how and why the state is absent — and thus eliding the problem of antagonism — Critchley also forgets, as Sexyshop puts it, that it “is not the physical space that contains the project but on the contrary it is the project that shapes the space.” In other words, space is neither neutral nor given, and it shouldn’t be considered a refuge from conflict or where life goes on as usual. Or to put it differently still, Critchley’s “politics of resistance” omits at least two other, equally important, movements: the politics of refusal and the politics of creation.

Of course this needs sharpening and expanding, but I think it might be the beginning of something. And not just a critical something but that at least outlines an alternative to ethics. To my mind, such an alternative would have to address at a minimum the following:

*What is the relation between the individual and the social, or between the individual and the state, as Warren Montag posited it? In other words, it would have to explore transindividuality, as Balibar (and others) have called it, or, maybe, assemblage, as Deleuzeans have called it. Part of the problem for me is that I lack even a vocabulary to talk about this stuff.

*Anything that deals with such relations would of course have to reckon with difference.

*How is change possible? How can novelty be produced?

*Similarly, where does decision come into play? I’ve talked about decision a little bit, in a Badiou context that I think is essentially vanguardist. But if one wants to replace the evaluative work ethics can do, some account of decision must be outlined. For now, I would think that Deleuze’s work on the virtual and actual and on the active and passive syntheses would be helpful.

Likely there’s lots more, but that’s a start.

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12 thoughts on “Ethics (and a prologue?)

  1. Hi…

    This is an interesting discussion, probably partly because I haven’t read Critchley’s book. I think this is because I saw him at a conference a little while ago and found him a little… objectionable. Nonetheless, what intrigued me about your discussion here was that you didn’t ention Levinas. My impression (granted, from the conference, which was about Levinas) was that Critchley was very much informed by a Levinasian perspective. And my understanding is that it’s from Levinas that the word ‘ethics’ takes its turn away from the foundational and normative, not to mention the neoliberal, and *towards* difference, which you take as one of your primary concerns for the task to which this post function as a prologue. But also, in relation to the requirements of that task, Levinas’ concept of alterity and radical otherness has been used to demonstrate that if and where change is possible, it is only possible *through* difference, rather than difference being a limitation on whatever radical change we can imagine.

    This is not to say that Levinas is the cures for all your ills, not at all! There are massive problems with Levinas; people tend to particularly have issues with the relation between the ethical and the political – he positions ethics as what politics must be grounded upon, and ‘corrected’ in relation to, but tends to forget the effect that the political has on our capacity to be ethical – and in some sense this is an echo of your concern to enumerate the relation between the individual and the state. (Sorry if this is too shorthand. I’m happy to expand with the little I understand here). And of course, ethics is not principle-based, as you observe, but defined by the other.

    In relation to the decision… well, I like the suggestion of Deleuze here. Derrida, of course, discusses decision with a Levinasian edge, contrasting it to calculation. But I do like the possibilities of the virtual and the actual… partly because I think it helps to demonstrate the extent to which what we can imagine shapes our politics. And I guess I might play Levinas’ part here and suggest that we can only imagine otherwise if we are ethical…? :-)

  2. Thanks for the very helpful comment, WP. Critchley is indeed very much informed by Levinas. I, however, am not. Which is to say, I’m largely ignorant of his work. Like Badiou and Deleuze, I historically have been skeptical of talk of otherness; and of ethics too, both for the reasons you talk about in relation to politics and because it has always smacked of religion to me. And so I have mostly steered clear of writers that deal with otherness and/or ethics. Partly this is just because at heart I am a vulgar Marxist (if it’s not phrased as “the social,” I don’t want to hear about it!), partly it’s because I have had other priorities. But it appears I will have to reckon at least with Levinas, for at least two reasons: it seems a number of anarchists draw inspiration from his ethics and I want to know more about why, and what you say about his concept of difference sounds intriguing (and, I want to say provisionally, correct). And so thanks for that.

    And also for reminding me of Derrida on the decision. I’d forgotten, since I’m mostly concerned now with opposing Badiou’s notion of it and trying to figure out the consequences of Deleuze’s take on it, which as you say allows for imagining and, for me, can help explain creation.

    Thanks again for your comment. And apologies for any late-night incoherence.

  3. Hello again :-)

    I understand the concern about religiosity, at least to some degree. Levinas *does* talk about God, at least in some sense. But nonetheless, there *is*, I think, something about an ethics that is oriented not by principles but by the other – that is, an ethics whose demands depend entirely upon the one to whom that ethics is directed, if that makes sense. I find this appealing, even when I disagree with Levinas about what it is that does the ‘guaranteeing’ of otherness.

    Not knowing my Marx/ism (god I seem to be saying that a lot lately! Was there woodwork involved or have you red kids suddenly decided to consider stuff I’m into? ;-) Either way, it’s kinda fun, even if I seem to be reiterating my ignorance at every term) and so with very little understanding of ‘the social’ within such a theory, I want to say that in a number of approaches, Levinas’ work is positioned *within* what *I* would call ‘the social,’ at least in some sense. That is, there are a number of theorists who take a kind of Derridean spin on Levinas, positioning Levinas’ concept of alterity as … well, as that which must be disavowed in order to produce the symbolic, the ‘binaries’ of the world—it is the bit about other people which exceeds what I can know about them, and which *must* remain unknown because to know it is to reduce it. That’s kinda what I mean about some arguing that politics *does* inflect ethics. Bernasconi and Diprose are two that I know of who try to complicate this element of Levinas. There are others. My own position is a kind of more complicated version of social constructionism (which is increasingly, I’m thinking, a misnomer for my position, given its ughy baggage, but it’s all I got for now!) and I still think that Levinas has much to offer…

    In this respect (that is, with a total lack of respect for the specificities of each position ;-)) I wind up kinda approaching the ‘divinity’ of Levinas’ terminology as an attempt to get at how and why otherness has such a claim on us, why it is that politics needs to be oriented towards it. And I head the Derridean route here, which is to say that what is marked as radically other is that which is precluded from systems of justice, and as such justice must be sufficiently flexible to respond ethically to that otherness. Or something like that. I think. ;-)

    I’ll see your apologies for late-night incoherence and raise you a head cold :-)

  4. I like the hesitation you express at the end here, because that’s mostly what I feel about a lot of this…. The value you find in Levinas is, well, valuable for me to hear, as it addresses/debunks some of my (preconceived) ideas. What you say about Levinas seems close to what Critchley says about him, and what also does appeal to me: namely, the other as a disprupter of the self (subject), one who’s unfulfillable demands and irreducible excess make a mockery of the self’s sovereignty…. By the way, where do you recommend as a good place to start with Levinas? Critchley prefers Otherwise than Being. Is he right?

    A problem that comes up for me, then, is how to explain where the other and the self are situated. Not sure I can express this very well, and I feel like I’m alternating between being simple and being thick, but I always think of the other as being an individual. If this is so, how then is sociality thought in a way that sees social life as more than environment, as mere background for individual interactions. Does that make sense? Spinoza addresses some of what I’m getting at by positing the state as an individual and the multitude as a form of collectivity that similarly can be thought of as an individual. Is Levinas capable of something like this, or am I completely wrong about him on other-as-individual? That’s something I need to investigate.

    I also want to think more about the Derrida part. For now, though, I must head out the door to a kids’ birthday party. So I’ll write more after I’ve had a bunch of cake. Mmmm.

  5. I think part of my uncertainty actually comes up because I’m trying to think my understanding into another context, and I don’t quite know whether it will gel; but I keep doing this with Marxist types. I should get over my hesitancy! :-)

    I suspect that Critchley *is* right about Otherwise than Being; that is, if you’re going to dive right in. If it helps, it *is* hard to read, but a Jewish friend of mine explained that it follows in the traditions of Jewish scholarship in which you simply do not read a book without a teacher on-hand. I suspect many readers of Levinas have wished, numerous times, for such a reader. I couldn’t swear to it, but you may be better to start with some secondary texts, just to get a bit of a sense of what he’s on about (although you do seem to have a reasonable idea!).

    I apologise if I’m assuming you don’t know stuff you actually do (!) but in respect to the idea of sociality… Levinas argues, basically, that ethics is, as you say, between self and other. It’s also an-archic, or pre-originary: not existing in time, as in a history, and also conditioning each moment. But justice is another matter: that is what occurs when the third intervenes in the relationship between self and other: suddenly, the other has responsibilities to another other, and I do too. This is where I have to begin to make judgements, decisions… choices as to, say, who deserves what more. This is justice, which is thus always unethical (coz ethics would give the other everything) to some degree, but must always adjust itself in relation to ethics. Kinda impossible, in some sense; and Derrida takes this impossibility very seriously. But this is also how Bernasconi and Diprose argue it: that politics *does* affect my ability to respond ethically to the other. In this respect, perhaps politics *is* a context within which individiual relations occur…

    Actually, I wonder if the issue doesn’t lie with the terminology you’re using (in understanding Levinas, not in general! :-)) That is, I don’t think that ‘individuality’ is something Levinas is particularly invested in. The other delimits me, and as such constitutes me as responsible, as responsable, as a subject able to respond… but ‘individuality’ seems to me to have a big mass of political weight behind it. But maybe I’m playing it too Foucauldian here. But I do distrust the reification of the individual, for lots of reasons that I won’t go into here. But perhaps this is something? I get the Spinozan notion, I think – bodies that can join up into bigger bodies, which of course Deleuze loves too… my only anxiety is that this seems like it might flatten out difference, depending on how the ‘bigger body’ was constituted. After all, that’s how Hobbes conceived of the body politic…

    I hope the cake was good. Sorry for rambling on…

  6. The cake was yummy. Well, pretty crappy store-bought cake actually, but it had blue frosting. Blue made it yummy.

    And I like your “rambling.” And no need for apologies. It’s all informative. Thanks for the clarifying bit about the individual. I did indeed intend, to use a shorthand you suggest, to “politicize” the other by saying “individual” — that is, to push at what self/other are, at least in my understanding of them. I tend to assume the other is a singular other — this comes, I think, from the limited amount of Lacan and psychoanalysis I’ve read in which the focus is on, e.g., the family, ie, the other as parent — but I’d like to keep open the possibility that the other can be conceived of as a multiplicity. Or I should say, the concept of the other won’t do much work for me if it can’t include multiplicities.

    Thanks also for laying out the self-other-justice relationship. That’s helpful. I need to think about that some more. It seems to me that this notion of justice plays a similar role to what the event plays in other philosophies, but it would seem to, unlike Badiou’s event at least, not require the presence and witness of a conscious subject, and also perhaps acts as a way to recognize difference without thinking of difference negatively. If that makes sense. And the bit about decision is something I need to think about more to.

    Thanks for your thoughts, WP. This is relatively new territory for me, so sorry if I’m not always able to understand and articulate.

    Take care.

  7. Hey Eric,

    You know I have been avoiding Levinas myself, but this can only go on for so long. After reading Critchley’s book, I’m realizing I will need to go over some of that material which is generally indigestible. On Critchley’s relationship to Badiou, there is a discussion between the available at the Slought foundations website that was fairly interesting.
    Of course, I always find Deleuze a bit usefull as well, which is why I thought to pass on this link since I just came across it: http://deleuze.tausendplateaus.de/?page_id=2

    Haven’t yet read any of the papers, but I trust a few of the authors. As Deleuze would say, the Other is a concept, which is itself a multiplicity, composed of other concepts, which are themselves multiplicities. He at least says something to this effect in the intro to *What is Philosophy?* – which is close enough to Badiou’s position to make one think a bit (there are only multiplicities of multiplicities of multiplicities…).

  8. Hey Keith–I have listened to that Slought Foundation thing. It was pretty interesting. It inspired me go back to Critchley’s book, which I raced through the first time, and read it more carefully. I have some problems with it, but I definitely take him seriously and appreciate some of what he’s getting at. What did you think of it?

    Thanks a lot for that Deleuze journal link. I also trust most of those authors (well, except for Patton, probably), and I was especially pleased to see that Braidotti, who I like quite a lot and who is underappreciated I think, is writing about ethics. Looking forward to reading that. At the same time, it seems like they leaned a little heavily on the Experts. Couldn’t they find one writer who’s not a Recognized Authority?

    Re. Badiou and Deleuze, I think that I probably do exaggerate their differences, or at least highlight them more than is necessary. But that’s for self-clarification as much as anything.

  9. Re the Deleuze website, I’m sure they will have to rely on a few people who are not recognized authorities if they want to stay afloat.
    I did enjoy Critchley’s book, but…It was not enough. A quick read, as it were. Though it has prompted me to read Gramsci, as he keeps coming up and I’m not very familiar with his work. And to some extent, I do, like Critchley, believe that philosophy begins in disappointment (which I think was also Deleuze’s position at one point).

  10. Yes, Keith, I agree, it’s not enough. But I appreciate the attempt to think something approaching political anarchism in a fuller way. On the other hand, it was a bit on the systematic side.

  11. Critchley is giving a paper – “Military Neo-Liberalism, Neo-Leninism and Neo-Anarchism” – at the LSE tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it, maybe a post if it’s inspiring.

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