File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2003/lyotard.0302, message 87

Subject: RE: Fear.
Date: Mon, 17 Feb 2003 20:23:22 -0600


Let me say first of all I thought Geof's position was rather eloquently
stated. I want to chime in, however, in favor of Steve's comment that
Levinas is reactionary. Perhaps, Geof is right about Levinas being hard
to put into politics terms because his ethics is concerned with a
mirco-level face-to-face basis regarding the other. I think it is still
possible to raise the issue that Levinas does not really break with the
moral tradition of the west, he simply finds new ways to defend it, and
therefore the core of his ethics remains conservative and even

Certainly, at the heart of this western tradition there lies the notion
of original sin - the self left to own device becomes evil. This self
must always be subjugated through the law in order to be saved. When
this is done, the worship of god and the respect for the neighbor are
seen as the primary ends of ethics. 

Jewish tradition obeys the Torah; Christianity discards the rules of
kosher and ritual purification, but still maintains the law of love. One
of the ways this break is characterized (usually by Christians) is that
the old law is based upon 'fear of the lord' where god is seen as a
being who is wrathful and quick to anger. Nonetheless, this fear is
useful insofar as it teaches humility, the repentance to sin in sack
cloth and ashes. Christianity usually claims this fear must be overcome
by love and posits a new, more intimate relationship with god - Jesus is
my friend.  This kind of tenderness seems to be related closely to the
kind of positive fear that Geof was invoking. Levinas is interesting
because he rewrites this tradition in a way that stands Christianity on
its head and tends to validate the Jewish tradition from facile and
empty criticisms.

The problem with all this, however, is that this disowned self under
both the Jewish and Christian traditions tends to be very negative. In
the Lacan-Badiou sense it gives up on desire. The western tradition
strongly advocates making the self at best, passive and at worst,

Feminists have usually critiqued this kind of ethics as follows. It
tends to idealize service and for women, roles such as being a mother,
teacher, nurse, nun, - the so-called caretaker and nurturing roles are
valorized. Certainly these are concerned with the ethics of the other,
but in a way that tends to limit the woman herself. If a woman chooses
to become something else, such as an artist, writer, athlete these roles
tend to be seen as somehow suspect and less than the ideal.  Such a
woman may be described by religious judgment as being selfish when she
was really being ethical.

Without going into the details, I think it is fairly obvious that
Levinas never really breaks with any of this basic orientation in his
ethics. He always tends to disavow the self (chez soi) versus the face
of the other.  In his system, alterity always trumps desire. 

In this sense, Badiou is more modern and more political in his approach.
Instead of the traditional self-other axis, his is an immortal-animal
axis which is guided by truth rather than god as the ultimate source of
its ethics.  This may be seen as contra-natural in the sense that
ontology-sets-difference-being are in some sense natural. It is not,
however, concerned with the care of self, but rather with the event of
truth. Who we ultimately become stems from this break; this encounter.

In this way, ethics are always political in their import.


-----Original Message-----
[] On Behalf Of Don Socha
Sent: Monday, February 17, 2003 3:23 PM
Subject: Re: Fear.

>I had thought of the Levinas angle but discarded it, for 
myself at 
>least, because of my rejection of his ethics.  Beyond the 
critique of 
>Levinas by Badiou, there is something deeply reactionary in 
>such as "...Ethics is, therefore, against nature because it 
forbids the 
>murderousness of my natural will to put my own existence 

I don't see what's necessarily reactionary about this 
position, Steve.  Surely you don't mean to suggest that 
Levinas is anything like a biological determinist. Though I 
don't want to overlook the always difficult context of his 
work, isn't he simply saying that while nature is 
indifferent, people need not be fatalistic?  

I've yet to read Badiou (plan to begin this week), but 
doesn't Levinas mean something quite distinct when he 
says "against nature"?  I do know he wasn't in favor of 
putting his own existence first... rather, his whole ouvre 
stands against precisely this.  

Or do you see ethics as something other than an artificial 
means by which better versions of ourselves might be 

Don Socha


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