Sunday, March 24, 2013

3. Simon Critchley - Infinitely Demanding

Written in 2007, Infinitely Demanding sets itself out towards establishing a subjective framework for ethical and political action. By discursively tracing ethical approaches from ancient, Kantian, post-Kantian, religious, psychoanalytic, and contemporary political philosophies, Critchley is able to craft a compelling argument for the radical polemic that subject-hood is essentially founded by our ethical position itself. In order to avoid any confusion in the following discussion about ethics and politics, let me 'cut to the chase' of the book, which at this point I hope proves rather inutile but will merely serve to quell the exclamations 'but what about politics!': "Politics is an ethical practice"(p92).

In order to do this, Critchley concisely and powerfully lays forth a series of axioms upon which we can begin to build the construction of an ethical and political subjectivity. From the very beginning, Critchley sets aside the topics of politics until the end of the book, embodying a Marxist approach to politics that the subject forms politics by being its body, as opposed to the Hegelian perspective that the political state creates the subject. It is perhaps this difference in perspective that runs throughout the entire book, although in subtle form, in the delicate engagement with the ideas of autonomy vs. heteronomy that in fact form the very metaphysical basis for ethical thought.

Taking strongly from Badiou's theory of fidelity to an event's truth-process, ethics, in Critchley's discourse, is constituted in the relation one has to its perceived good. This declaration does not in any way prescribe what can be perceived as good and what cannot be ("the Kantian moral law or the Sadean droit de jouir" p21), but does establish an operative framework to interpret ethics. The book progresses metaphysically, describing both in what form a subject-to-be perceives whatever good and what "binds" the subject to that good. Ethics is a relation between the subject and something which it perceives as a demand and to which it approves of as legitimate. Not forbidding the possibility of a Sartrean bad faith, this metaphysical approval of a demand and its prescription as good is what henceforth provides the motivation for the subject to act towards that good.

The question then arises, how are demands formed? Do demands necessarily precede the subject's approval? Critchley turns to Kant in his metaphysical articulation of the categorical imperative, not in order to grind the infamous philosophical question 'how is there something as opposed to nothing', in exploring how, in an ideal world, ethics would be. To crudely paraphrase, the ethical "call" would be understandable, it must be something that can be "willed freely", it must remain in consciousness at all times, and must be something that is "willed freely", or said differently, provides "sufficient motive for us to act". The key starting point for these declarations that are clearly inapplicable to our contemporary political situation is that ethical law is "something we can act from and not merely in accordance with" (p28)Not outright dismissing the principle of autonomy, but moreso its "orthodoxy", Critchley, in doubting its contemporary sufficiency and effectivity, rejects the tabula rasa, presuming a modern hegemonic condition where we come into a world within which demands are placed on us without our willing them.

Critchley claims, to put it bluntly, ethics is the relation one has to the other, not the relation to their self. He makes the case early on that the self is only formed through a reflective process through the bodies' action in the world, and therefore would be an illogical fallacy for the self to be the origin of ethical action. But that is not to say that self-reflection does not factor into ethical experience nor is it to say that ethics is utilitarianism or slavery, but merely attempts to point the impossibility of an autarchy. But in this still-Kantian model, the 'ethicality' of the self is essentially its degree of accordance with the reality that demands its approval. Calling upon the crucial Kantian insight of the opacity the noumena, by claiming that it is impossible to grasp the specificity of the demand (thing) itself, by declaring the subject as unequal to the demand, a furthermore by starting from the contingent relation between subjective approval and its subjectivizing call, Critchley opens a space of agency and possibility of resistance.

By taking a detour through Christian ethical models of Badiou & Logstrup, the Judaic ethics of Levinas, and psychoanalytic ethics of Lacan, Critchley goes to further detail the realist position of the subject in relation to Kant's noumena. By taking recourse in these theories of disjunction, the primary distinction arises between Critchley's ethics and the one being latently put forth by Object Oriented Ontology. This disjunctive impetus for ethical action resonates strongest in Levinas' theory of trauma and Lacan's severance of the ego. As I believe it is more widely applicable in Lacan's theory, the situating of a self into an opaque heteronomous situation causes the ego to be split into the super-ego and the id, which can be interpreted in this case as the reflective consciousness of one that is above and below the hegemonic demands that subject the self (ego).

The problem then becomes, how can the human bear the weight of this fundamentally unknowable demand without lapsing into total loss of self-control? Therapy, compassion, pity, the list goes on: by approving the demand that this situation asks for "reparation", the operative question quickly becomes 'in what way can, or to an even greater extreme, should, this ethical demand be engaged'? Essentially, what does "reparation" mean? This is not to ask 'how can the gash be closed', but 'how can the subject come into relation with its consequences'? Instead of ignoring the symptom, how can we, and what does it mean to, approve it? Taking further insight from Lacan's ethics of psychoanalysis, Critchley finds the answer in aesthetic sublimation. Said differently, how can we recognize and accept the demand without trying to grasp its essence, without it being "represented". "[W]e can achieve aesthetic reparation for ethical separation without either losing the radicality of ethical demand or transforming that demand into a form of oppression" (p74).

Critchley develops two different modes, that of the tragic-hero and of the humorist. Tragedy is the reflection of the conflict between autonomy and heteronomy; Antigone is used as a primary reference as one who died for their 'integrity'. This conflict is made even more tragic and heroic as it reveals the utter contingency of the system which oppresses, be it gender, ethnic, sexual, or whatever other form of identity. To metaphysically summarize, the witnessing of human finitude sublimates and "redeems us from that truth" (p74). This modality echoes Lacan's commandment to ne pas céder sur son désir (interestingly translated in this book as "do not give way on its desire" [my emphasis] (p66), further emphasizing heteronomy), yet relies on discourses of "authenticity" and fatalistic determination, ultimately falling back on the autonomous self as the ethical foundation and renunciating its agency towards not being oppressed. Humor, on the other hand, instead of resisting hegemony chooses to instead highlight its contingency and nihilistic inauthenticity. Critchley argues that this subjective modality is an effective maturation of the super-ego, transforming the super-ego as a hostile and critical force, complacent with and voicing the hegemonic demand, into a detached, semi-autonomous pacification of the super-ego.

At this point in the book, Critchley attempts to articulate this metaphysical ethics into a form of political praxis suitable for the early 21st century. In light of Marx's failed projection that capitalism will inevitably evolve into two distinct classes with one, the proletariat, being the revolutionary class, the ethico-political task starts with naming the subject.   In opposition to neoliberalism's tendency to homogenize or exclude singular identities, the political act par excellence is "the construction of chains of equivalence, of political alliances between often quite disparate groups, based on consent and local, situated forms of commonality"(p102). It is, according to Gramsci and Laclau, hegemonyCritchley finally concludes by articulating a theory of anarchism based on Levinas' rejection of arché (principle) as it is received and promoting Ranciére's theory of dissensus as the creation of an inter-stitial distance within the state.

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