File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0107, message 37

Date: Mon, 09 Jul 2001 20:23:50 -0500
Subject: Re: ethics wrote:
> Eric
> Just glanced at this - thinking -
> Could you expand on your understanding of Lyotard's ethical positions? I'd like to see a concise (mis)-reading of Lyotard's ethics... It seems to me that there is some interesting ground we could explore in there 

You ask me that, as if it were the easiest thing in the world.  And yet
at the moment I feel your request as a kind of obligation.  You say that
even if I misread Lyotard, I will have fulfilled my obligation to you. 

But if I misread him have I still fulfilled my obligation to Lyotard?

And how to discuss the question of obligation without turning into
something else?  Making it into a monster in ethical clothing that
parades as justice while it devours all the children of the village.

Nonetheless I will try.  Obeying in order to better disobey.  My focus
will be the chapter on Obligation in "The Differend" which I find easier
to discuss than "Levinas' Logic".  Be patient with me, however, as this
will require several posts to accomplish. I must collect my thoughts
even as I attempt to obey before I understand. 

I will send out the following posts - Overview, Levinas, Kant, Summary


The chapter on Obligation is one of seven chapters in "The Differend" if
we don't count the preface as a chapter.  Thus, it is a major division
of the book. It recapitulates similar themes contained in "Levinas'
Logic" and may briefly be described as a comparison between the
differing approaches of Levinas and Kant on the question of obligation. 
The chapter begins with the following statement: "The splitting of the
self would, at least, have the finality of destroying its
presumptuousness.  Of recalling that the law is transcendent to all

This refers back to Lyotard's basic strategy in "The Differend" which is
to eliminate the Idea of the subject by proposing instead a universe of
phrase regimes which link onto one another in various contingent ways.
One of the characteristics of phrases is that the mode of address
changes and this must be taken into account.  Thus, the phrase can be
enunciated by an addressor (first person - I), spoken to an addressee
(second person - you) or used as a referent/description (third person -
he, she, it).

The paradox underlying Obligation is that it is always second person,
but the you who is obligated must irrevocably transform this
prescription into a description to the extent that the obligation needs
to be justified to another.  This is the problem Levinas attempts to
avoid by positing that ethics precedes ontology, pitting the Torah (Law)
against Being and Heidegger.

Lyotard refers to the dilemma faced by the addressee as a kind of
blindness because in legitimizing the action that one feels obligated to
take, one is no longer situated as an addressee, but as an addressor. 
The stakes are no longer one of obeying, but those of convincing a third
partying of the reasons one has for obeying.  

The reason for this, Lyotard claims, following the modernist tradition
is that it is impossible to deduce a prescription from a description. 
We can attempt to legitimize this obligation, but even then, how do we
know the obligation truly comes from God and not a madman.  Lyotard
points out that Kierkegaard's paradox of faith can apply to the Nazis as
well as to Abraham. 

There is a kind of blindness therefore in "putting yourself in the place
of the other, in saying I in his or her place, in neutralizing his or
her transcendence."

This creates the scandal of obligation.  One realizes oneself as a kind
of "cloven consciousness". However, as Lyotard points out, even this
presumes a kind of subject and asks whether or not we might not do
better begin with the dispersion, without any nostalgia for the self,
even though we also need to safeguard against results or outcomes as a
kind of emergent self.

Next  time - the Levinas notice


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