File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0111, message 33

Date: Thu, 08 Nov 2001 21:24:34 -0600
Subject: Re: Ethics as a Figure of Nihilism


I am sympathetic with the position both you and Diane have been arguing
for concerning this.  As I said before, I am not advocating Badiou's
point of view in its entirety. I am just trying to present his argument
in greater detail for the sake of ongoing discussion.

Yes, I agree with you that Badiou attacks something of a straw man in
his Ethics and his arguments are much too broad to deal adequately with
the likes of Levinas, Lyotard and Derrida.  (It should be noted that
Levinas is the only one of these three who is mentioned explicitly in
Badiou's Ethics and it is only the relgious character of his thought
which is really even discussed to any extent.)

However, having said all of this, I still think Badiou presents us with
a real problem in his chapter on "Ethics as a Figure of Nihilism."

As I understand him, Badiou is saying to the extent that neo-liberal
economics becomes identified as the realm of necessary, any form of
ethics will be co-opted into a secondary operation that serves merely to
legitimize the players - who wins and who loses; who lives and who dies.
(These real matters have been decided beforehand outside the realm of

Recently, there has been some discussion here about globalism - the
extent of which the Empire of which Hardt and Negri speak is operative
today versus the extent to which globalist rhetoric still serves to mask
US hegemony, as argued by Peter Gowan and others.

Regardless of your stance on this particular issue, I think what Peter
Gowan has to say in his book "The Global Gamble" has some bearing on
what Badiou says in his Ethics.

Discussing the Gulf War, Gowan argues that the US did not appeal to
state interests, but to general principles.  The dominant language of
public debate centered upon ethical notions such as rights, justice and

Gowan writes: "These were interpreted in an idiom that was in fact
metaphorical: the transfer of the discourse that serves the domestic
legal system within a liberal-democratic state to the realm of world
politics.  In the perception of millions, international affairs became a
depoliticized process of crime and judical punishment.  This single
displacement transformed not only the way people judged the political
background to the Gulf war, but above all how they perceived it: namely,
as a criminal act with juridical consequences.... 

The army of conscripts became the murder weapon, the lives of millions
of Iraqis the various limbs and resources of their leader.  Hence they
were fair game; or else they became collateral, in the sense of standing
alongside the criminal - bystanders in the police shoot-out."

The relevance of this kind of ethical framing in connection with the
current events in Afghanistan should be all too obvious. 

The question I want to raise is the following. Even if Levinas, Derrida
and Lyotard frame more elegant arguments about ethics, does it really
matter when ethics is used merely to justify systematic oppression and
terror, regardless of whether this emanates from the US, the G-7, the
G-20, the Taliban or Bin Laden?

Is there a place for any ethics today in a world that tells us the
underlying economic arrangements are necessary and must not be
questioned. Especially, when this ethics calls for actions only against
the Taliban and Bin Laden; but not against Israeli settlements; not
against Iraqi sanctions.

If raising the question of economics or the simple lack of consistency
in applying basic principles of justice falls into the category of the
political, then what significance does ethics really have today? 
Especially when the ethics of multiculturalism is co-opted into a
marketing strategy for global corporations? And ethical choice is
reduced to merely a form of consumer choice? a choice of life styles?

I am not asking this as a rhetorical question. This seems to me to be
the basic issue confonting the world today. I really don't know the
answer to my question and that is why I ask:

If there a form of ethics that can help us today? Do Derrida and Lyotard
have a value for us that goes beyond Kynicism?



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