File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0111, message 34

Date: Thu, 8 Nov 2001 23:59:58 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Re: Ethics as a Figure of Nihilism


Thanks for clarifying what you see as the potential problems with even
poststructuralist "ethics." I'm interested that "ethics" is understood in
terms of "justification." This seems to be a common concern among those
who wish to critique poststructuralism, that it is a "relativism" or
"nihilism" which then "justifies anything" or at least the wrong things
(the capitalist status quo.) I just went a fairly unsatisfactory round on
the Research in Anarchism list with a guy who wanted to argue that
"postmodernism justifies terrorism" - presumably because it can't take a
stand against it. The start of a response there, and here, i think, as
well, is that, when it comes right down to it, nihilism justifies nothing
- though it may in some way alibi our inertia, our failure to tackle
questions relating to justice. 

I think most of us can see how abstract discourse of "rights" and
"justice" can simpy serve to derail more radical, materialist critique. I
doubt there are many things more counter-revolutionary than a clean
conscience - but haven't a range of poststructuralists had choice things
to say about so-called "clean" consciences? Even bad old Baudrillard, who
flirts - however tactically - with a kind of "nihilism," has been pretty
clear on that. Someone like Derrida is obsessed in a certain way with
questions of "justice," but not - very specifically not - in ways that
would let us imagine we were "justified" in much of anything. Justice
matters, even as its fullest manifestation eludes us. Ethics is the field
within which we make important choice on the basis of always too little
knowledge, wisdom, time, etc. In more lyotardian terms, the differend
haunts all attempts at conversation. And, not coincidentally, spoils that
supposed reciprocity of exchange. Even the gift carries its own poison, an
accursed share. There is a "religious character" to Bataille's thought as
well - one which we probably need to keep in mind when we look at the way
folks like Derrida inherit Levinas' work. 

I guess what's key for me is that if "ethics" is what supports the
perception of neo-liberal economics as the realm of necessity, then it is
not "ethics" that some of these other folks are talking about. If, on the
other hand, we follow Derrida (and some others) in recognizing the
"ethical" as a field of in some sense "impossible" choices which we must
nonetheless make - because they matter in real, specific ways - then we
might say that what's propping up neo-liberalism is really the evasion of

I taught an awful intro philosophy class - written by an analytic
philosopher - where the agenda was to discourage students from pursuing
any "high risk" ethical path, any that might challenge the status quo.
Interestingly, even the author acknowledged that there wasn't any way he
knew to adequately ground an ethics in the kind of "objective" and
"rational" stuff he kept harping on, but, it appears, a politically safe
evasion of politics is better, in his book, than a philosophical work
which might turn up disquieting possibilities. Naturally, "postmodernism"
was a big bugaboo for the course. All i could really do was to point out
to my students where philosophy was being abandoned for "security." It
seems to me that that's one of Badiou's concerns. 

I just don't see how the "justice" that folks like Lyotard and Derrida are
wrestling with gives much aid to neo-liberalism - except to the extent
that those figures and struggles are dealt with in unphilosophical ways -
when concerns about the consequences of this or that intellectual path
take precedence over the messy, philosophical business of pursuing
"truth," "knowledge," "wisdom." I wonder if we are turning Badiou to ends
which are other than philosophical when we pit his critique of
"ethics" - or the neo-liberal "ethics" he so rightly critiques - against
any and all potential "ethical" comers. 


Shawn P. Wilbur  |  |         


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