File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0107, message 24

Date: Sat, 07 Jul 2001 13:34:25 -0500
Subject: Re: ethics

Steve, Hugh, John and others,

Steve writes of ethics in terms of the subject/other continuum. Levinas,
as I read him, considers this subject as always already narcissistic. 
"The self-sufficiency of enjoying measures the egoism or the ipseity of
the Ego and the same. Enjoyment is a withdrawal into oneself, an

It is only when the face of the Other confronts us with its need, its
hunger and its destitution that an opening breaks though into this
closed circle of the subject.  When such an event occurs, it is no
longer the subject as I who enters into an asymmetrical relationship
with alterity, rather it is the you who is obligated, the second person
who is being addressed.  

Levinas refers to this as being held hostage by the Other. "I have
always been at issue: persecuted.  Ipseity, in its passivity with the
arches of identity, is hostage.  The word I means here I am, answering
for everything and everybody."

Thus, this being that is held hostage becomes the triangulation between
the subject and the Other.  There are now longer merely two, but three
who are present.  The subject becomes fissured, no longer capable of its
dialectical, Hegelian moves towards totality. Its needs for enjoyment
become transcended by a desire that can never be satisfied.  As Lyotard
puts it; "saying yes to the gift of the undecipherable message, to the
election that the request is, the (impossible) alliance with the other
who is nothing, signifies the assumption of the I's fracture."

Furthermore, as Lyotard also points out, any commentary upon this
obligation runs the risk of replacing prescription with description,
ethics with knowledge, converting the question of justice to the mere
question of logical truth. And since this issue of misinterpretation
lies at the very heart of alterity, it becomes the triumph of the Other
over the Same. 

To quote Lyotard again: "The irony of the commentator easily goes so far
as persecution: the less I understand you, he or she says to the
Levinnassian (or divine) text, the more I will obey you by this
fact....Satan would be God's best servant, if it is true at least that
he disobeys Him.  For 'the disobedient man obeys in some way.'"

So much for the privileging of ethics over the differend.  The pieties
of religiosity are met with the impious laughter of the pagan.

However, this notion of the hostage opens up a way that leads beyond the
subject/object dichotomy.  It points to the risk the subject always runs
of becoming an alien to its self, Unheimlichkeit, a stranger.

The Greek word for happiness is eudaimonia.  It literally means
possession by the daemon (as Socrates was) - God dwelling within us.

There is also something noticeably different about ethics in this
classical sense, as it is presented by Aristotle, Epicurus and Zeno. 
Such an ethics is more pragmatically concerned about the possibility of
happiness than it is by the demand for obligation.  It is more like a
map for the journey of life than a legal codebook of morality.

One of the major questions raised by scholars about Aristotle's
Nicomachean Ethics is concerned with this very concept of eudaimonia. 
As Thomas Nagel points out, does eudaimonia for Aristotle involve the
full range of human life action, in accordance with the broader
excellences of moral virtue and practical wisdom?  Or, does eudaimonia
involve realizing the divine part of our nature through contemplation? 
Aristotle is ambiguous on this topic and gives excellent grounds for
defending both interpretations.

It is only with Epicurus, who came of age the generation after Aristotle
that this tension becomes resolved.  The goal of ethics for Epicurus is
clearly to reach a state whereby the divine part of our nature is
realized.  Epicurus calls this condition ataraxia and defines this state
as one of continuous pleasure in which one is free both of bodily pain
and the anxiety of mind.  Here the gods act as simulacra, furnishing us
with the images of blessedness we must contemplate in order to realize
our own inherent godlike happiness.  

The end of our ethics here is consistent with the ideal Steve wrote of
as "the construction of the human and non-human subject, language,
cultural values that are perhaps worth respecting rather than using them
simply as a resource, cultural values that would take care of bodies as
nature, perhaps even spiritually but still understood as bodies. A state
of being that is not reducible to alienation and reductionism."

Furthermore, this notion of ethics as the realization of an inherent
state of pleasure beyond social construction and conditioning is not
egoic, at least in the sense that both Aristotle and Epicurus
understood.  These philosophers posit friendship as concurrent with the
good life and this ideal is not the impoverished notion of friendship we
are familiar with today, but one that for the Greeks was intimately tied
to the Polis and community.  In order to realize the state Epicurus
called ataraxia it was also necessary to create the political conditions
that would make this possible.  Epicurus found it necessary in the time
of Alexandrian Empire to withdraw with others to create the community he
called the garden.  Ultimately, ataraxia is a public, not a private

I want to connect this as well to Hugh's notion of the self as
storytelling.  What is needed today perhaps is an ethics of stories,
which act not so much as obligations but as invitations to conviviality.
Here the pagan gods act as necessary fictions because in the telling of
their stories, images of mad exuberant joy beyond the scope of reason
unfold, and we swoon to delight and become hostages to bliss, possessed
by the alien gods and goddesses. The categorical imperative is that I
ought to be enraptured, therefore I can and this maxim is one I must
practice as if it were universal for all.  The Critique of Practical
Ecstasy as the rational foundation for ethical and political practice
within the many worlds.

As Luce Irigaray puts it: "Where can one's eye alight if the divine is
no longer to be seen?  And if it does not continue to dwell in the flesh
of the other in order to illuminate it, to offer up to the look the
other's flesh as divine, as the locus of a divine to be shared?  For
this exchange, do not figurative writing and art represent necessary
articulations?  In particular to harmonize listening and seeing."


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