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Abstract: This essay takes issue with Critchley’s diagnosis of the motivation crisis at the core of our supposedly nihilist political present, and with its pejorative characterization of a vanguardist or Leninist Left. Against the reliance of Inﬁnitely Demanding on an anarchic metapolitics of responsibility, it proposes that we rethink the concept of solidarity and develop an intra-political ethics of egalitarianism, an ethics of unconditional rather than inﬁnite demands that is happy to embrace the accusation of “Prometheanism”. Keywords: ethics, nihilism, Prometheanism, solidarity, subjectivity
Ever since the reﬂux of revolutionary political thought in Europe, datable to the late 1970s and early 1980s, a contingent of radical thinkers has sought to turn philosophy into an enclave for reﬂection on political alternatives. Whether this has meant retiring to the attic to sharpen the knives,1 or, in a more melancholy mode, pondering the aporias of communism and community, the eﬀects on philosophical thought of the putative lack of “real politics” are hard to miss. For many, philosophy has turned into a shelter for a radicality that struggles to ﬁnd much breathing space in the public domain. Inﬁnitely Demanding is explicitly positioned within this minor genre of philosophical thinking about politics in seemingly anti-political times.2 In its montage of elements from a contemporary Continental canon, it is an instructive exemplar and recapitulation of the metapolitical forays of recent radical thinkers. Critchley makes much use of an increasingly ubiquitous mode of theory construction: having voiced a philosophical desideratum – in his case the formulation of an ethics that could motivate an otherwise enervated pre-political subject into radical, emancipatory action – he proceeds to extract certain philosophical modules from various tutelary ﬁgures, to then graft and suture them into a conceptual
1. “Philosophy does not have, and has never had at its own disposal the eﬀective ﬁgures of emancipation. That is the primordial task of what is concentrated in political doing-thinking. Instead philosophy is like the attic where, in diﬃcult times, one accumulates resources, lines up tools, and sharpens knives” (Alain Badiou, Inﬁnite Thought, J. Clemens & O. Feltham [eds] [London: Continuum, 2003], 163). 2. Simon Critchley, Inﬁnitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (New York/ London: Verso, 2007).
Critical Horizons: A Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory 10(2), August 2009, 241–56 © Acumen Publishing Ltd. 2009
[Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. The syntheses are so disjunctive that it would be churlish to dispute them philologically: Badiou’s ethic of ﬁdelity to an event. secular. Marx’s discussion of true democracy and the associated disappearance of the political state – a politico-philosophical proposal that is entirely incompatible with his reliance on Laclau’s post-Marxism. such dissonant voices may be harmonized. is amalgamated to a Levinasian plea for the transcendent heights of the absolutely Other. of the “motivational deﬁcit at the heart of liberal democratic life”. predicated on a notion of sameness. There is nothing “interstitial” or “dissensual” about this true democracy. to temporarily bracket the issue of whether. Joseph O’Malley [ed. does it bedevil those inclined to radical political action (supposedly against the status quo of such liberal democracies). itself founded on a radical critique of representation and a notion of species-being that Laclau (and Critchley) dismiss as “essentialist”. That is the fundamental diﬀerence of democracy” (Karl Marx. Sure. 4.4 Curiously for a book that is also a call for situated politics. Marx démocrate: Le manuscript de 1843 (Paris: PUF. and so on). its only horizon is the abolition of the state-form. which suggests that the problem is not solely that of proposing new subjectivities but of countering the insidious mechanisms and institutions of de-democratization that neutralize emancipatory political thought and action. Inﬁnitely Demanding is vague about the site and moment to and from which it speaks. It is peculiar that Critchley has chosen to highlight. and the latter’s condemnation of any “essentialisation” of democracy.].. the promise of Seattle and the carnivalesque subversions of the anti-globalization movement. and consider Critchley’s Zeitdiagnose of political lack. Ibid.242 ALBERTO TOSCANO proposal of his own. UK. or is it simply an ailment that aﬀects metro sexual post-Kantians. See also the essays in Etienne Balibar & Gérard Raulet (eds). and the dissolution of the latter’s abstract domination over human sociality. 7. 139. 2001). then. the ones who might impotently fulminate against the Christian Right. while in the other political forms man has only legal existence. 30). Germany. 1970]. In other words. 5. Laclau’s formulation of hegemony (a formalistic dilution and distortion of Gramsci’s rather Leninist conception) is crossed with Marx’s invocation of “true democracy”. Consider Marx’s unabashedly “humanist” and “essentialist” declaration: “Man does not exist because of the law but rather the law exists for the good of man. metro-sexual post-Kantians like us”. Inﬁnitely Demanding. Democracy is human existence. together with his proposals for a philosophically informed repoliticization. Spain. Critchley. 6. Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right”. over against a one-dimensional portrayal of Marxist “economism”.5 There is already some confusion: is the problem of motivation one that aﬀects the average citizen of “liberal democracies” (US. but the ultimate arenas of the “motivational deﬁcit” that preoccupies Critchley are the rather undeﬁned “liberal democracies”. It might make sense. well-dressed. 2009 . Critchley’s account of our supposed “motivation crisis” could have beneﬁted from attending to some of the recent literature on depoliticization as a technique of government in liberal polities. the Bush II security state. we get the obligatory references to Bin Laden. its subjects. whoever they may be?6 More likely it is all three: metro-sexual 3. are the “critical. we need to identify how contemporary liberal democ© Acumen Publishing Ltd.3 and so on. and to what end.
A PLEA FOR PROMETHEUS 243 post-Kantian citizens of liberal democracies who might be inclined to radical action. A number of immediate responses suggest themselves here. 9. after Kant. 7. Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy (London: Verso. “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism. that politics is not the outcome of an ethically informed situation of choice. Political Theory 34(6) (2006). but a kind of element in which one might be compelled to make one’s way and take sides – arguably a more common scenario. so that something needs to rouse the subject. Disappointment is allegedly the Grundstimmung of modern philosophy. First of all. and recall that among the various forms that limitation takes for Kant we also ﬁnd an estimation of the capacities of human cognition much more conﬁdent and all-encompassing than any that could be found in the Scholastic tradition or in Cartesianism (where the inﬁnite power of cognition is the purview of God. See Partha Chatterjee.7 The implicit premise of Inﬁnitely Demanding is that a theory of motivation is necessary because the null hypothesis is a state of (comfortable) apathy. Ibid. and only conditionally of man). even in many “liberal democracies” – is not really taken into account. it can just as easily be argued that the epistemic limits placed on sensibility and the understanding by the Copernican turn serve to exalt the powers of human reason rather than debasing it.9 we would do well to complicate the matter somewhat. 8. In politics. among others. Critchley. Peter Mair. 2009). The Politics of the Governed: Reﬂections on Popular Politics in Most of the World (New York: Columbia University Press. 2004). it stems from the realization that “we inhabit a violently unjust world”. Inﬁnitely Demanding. Neoconservatism and De-Democratization”. Take for instance the manner in which Kant turns the pathos of fear and insigniﬁcance that appears to mark the racies rely on banishing non-conforming motivations. which. Thus. 690–714. realizes that the Scholastic dream of “[a]bsolute knowledge or a direct ontology of things as they are is decisively beyond the ken of fallible. Whether such exceedingly insular subjects are of any signiﬁcance to the broader prospects of transformative political action is hardly evident. why “disappointment”? To begin with. Motivation is accompanied. where Critchley holds that the “Kantian revolution in philosophy is a lesson in limitation”.8 In its “religious” variant it translates into the problem of “meaninglessness” and into the divergent but complementary responses of active and passive nihilism. ﬁnite creatures like us”. 2009 . © Acumen Publishing Ltd. See. nor is it obvious that their anxieties over politics have anything to say about “politics in most of the world”. 1. both of a philosophical and of a political nature. The eventuality that one might simply and irrevocably live in a political environment. and Wendy Brown. by two other terms: disappointment and nihilism. in Critchley’s story.
Guyer (ed. Critique of the Power of Judgment. 2001). to be sure. The acceptance of ﬁniteness can be the prelude to the most craven. I think it does an injustice to Kant to reduce him to the kind of fake humilities that were all the rage in cold war attacks on totalitarian “ideocracies”. health and life) as trivial. Thus nature is here called sublime merely because it raises the imagination to the point of presenting those cases in which the mind can make palpable to itself the sublimity of its own vocation even over nature. 262]. as in some of his other writings. © Acumen Publishing Ltd. Critchley. but rather because it calls forth our power (which is not part of nature) to regard those things about which we are concerned (goods. self-serving behaviour. and hence to regard its power (to which we are. echoes: “We seem to have enormous diﬃculty in accepting our limitedness. it does not appear that the propensity of human mammals to die was discovered in Königsberg in the 1780s. and whether the death of humans is to be treated as having transcendental consequences (and if so which) is not a philosophically uncontroversial question.11 Especially in his opening remarks. P. its dependence on receptivity and incapacity to know what lies beyond experience (a thesis that is in any case problematized by any sustained reﬂection on scientiﬁc cognition) with an existential and moral disquisition on mortality. it is far from entailing a deﬂationary account of the powers of reason.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. just as trust in the inﬁnite powers of human reason can motivate self10. Immanuel Kant. Matthews (trans. In this respect. perhaps despite himself. Kant is very far from turning the limitations of human cognition into the occasion for miring us in our own mortality.244 ALBERTO TOSCANO aesthetic experience of the sublime into a sign of the awesome capacities of the human mind: [In] our aesthetic judgment nature is judged as sublime not insofar as it arouses fear. Guyer & E. 1. or Schwärmerei) plays a crucial role in Kant’s demarcation from an onto-theological rationalism. our ﬁniteness. To confuse an epistemic thesis about the constitutive limits of human cognition. Inﬁnitely Demanding. and this failure is cause of much tragedy”.10 Snatching the victory of thought from the jaws of its natural defeat. a move that owes more to Heidegger’s appropriation of Kant than to Kant himself. begs a few questions. Now. 2009 . and in his own brand of metapolitics.). Critchley seems intent on confusing ﬁnitude with mortality. subjected in regard to these things) as not the sort of dominion over ourselves and our authority to which we would have to bow if it came down to our highest principles and their aﬃrmation or abandonment. and then to turn these into supposedly political lessons. and which Critchley. P. 145 [Ak. While the critique and condemnation of a certain cognitive and moral hubris (fanaticism. 11.
the “active nihilist” is the counterpart of Critchley’s wished-for secular and ﬁnitist radical ethical agent. the notion that “tragedy” is a product of the unlimited faith in an unfettered reason. however.A PLEA FOR PROMETHEUS 245 less ethical and political action. Coen (prod. repugnant and indeed annihilatory forms of politics are diﬃcult to reduce to the register of nihilism. Likewise. or even Bin Laden himself. suicide bombing. we will see that “meaninglessness” is not the motivating force behind their activism. the paragon of “active nihilism”. 2009 . Coen (dir. Precisely because of an entirely dehistoricized account of the emergence and development of contemporary forms of nihilistic politics. Durruti and the ever-present Bin Laden) is a symptom of ﬁnding “everything meaningless” once again shows the analytically barren results of treating political action as a symptom of philosophy. 1998. The Big Lebowski. I mean. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House. 14. If we turn to the actions and pronouncements of Lenin.14 The facile shift to the vagueness of the metaphysical register obliterates the speciﬁcity of political thought and action. territory) often lie behind destructive political violence. While the “passive nihilist” is imagined as a blasé or New Age variant of the aforementioned metro-sexual. 12. if we take what has become. the manner in which nihilism comes to be characterized is of some importance. at least it’s an ethos”. 13. and whose revolutionary humanism.12 The idea that political action by these disparate ﬁgures (to whom Critchley adds Blanqui. To the extent that “Continental philosophy” is to serve as a bulwark against nihilism and the ethical metapolitics advocated by Critchley as its traversal. Robert Pape.).) (London: Working Title Films). we will see that some very stable parameters of meaning (nationhood. or Durruti. although it might comfort the philosopher’s sense of self-importance (as though all catastrophes were catastrophes of philosophy). political or aesthetic penchants) and the “sweet naivety” of the Symbionese Liberation Army. whether in epistemic. is free of Nietzschean overtones – is lumped in with Lenin (one of the least nihilistic ﬁgures I can think of. say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism. E. © Acumen Publishing Ltd. since he is the one motivated by the hubristic destruction of a meaningless world. which cannot be so easily reduced to the epiphenomenon of metaphysical or existential malaise. the gallery of “active nihilists” – the bearers of what Critchley tellingly dubs “Promethean activism” – is incoherent and uninformed. 2005). and refusing it its own intrinsic rationale.. in many ways illegitimately. liberation. J. The political problems that inhere in Critchley’s diagnosis of nihilism are also considerable. Dude. 5. fares rather badly against the historical record. Ibid. Even the most extreme. for all its bleakness. Aside from relying on a partial reading of Kant. Thus Debord – whose anti-Leninism and antiMaoism is notorious. One is reminded of a quip from The Big Lebowski:13 “Nihilists! Fuck me.
Mao.. the idea that ethics shapes subjectivity as such – for instance. 10. The idea that “one should approach al-Qaeda with the words and actions of bin Laden resonating against those of Lenin. 9 © Acumen Publishing Ltd. and more philosophically engaging. 2009 .. cognitive. is that (liberal? secular? metro-sexual?) ethical subjects of political action need to ﬁnd something that will motivate them to the same extent that the contemporary bearers of violent political theologies (Jihadists and Christian fundamentalists) are motivated by their apocalyptic imaginaries. which exempts a strong account of ethical selfhood from the metaphysical scepticism 15. Ibid. Ibid. 17. A kind of metapolitical Bildungsroman is set up where the passive nihilist citizen of liberal democracies learns how to become active and overcome his nihilism at the same time. 8. this enquiry into the “structure of moral selfhood”18 is immensely more … essentialist. It is rather perplexing in this regard to note how the routine post-Marxist “deconstruction” of concepts such as Gattungswesen as unacceptably essentialist is combined with an account that. in the right-wing press. Ibid. The peculiar premise of Critchley’s reasoning here. reducing them instead to the empty philosopheme of “revolutionary vanguardism” (we could add Napoleon and Genghis Khan too …).17 Compared to the generic treatment of linguistic. Such a selective use of post-Kantian anti-essentialism.16 It is interesting to note how the anti-foundationalist. Critchley. Accordingly. why should we prejudicially consider all “essentialisms” and “determinisms” as a priori unacceptable? – but it does jar with Critchley’s deconstructive allegiances. 18. in trying to “describe and deepen” ethical experience. Inﬁnitely Demanding. anarchic and deconstructive position that dominates Critchley’s account accommodates a very metaphysically charged account of the structure and grammar of ethical experience. 16. as when Critchley writes: “A subject is the name for the way in which a self binds itself to some conception of the good and shapes its subjectivity in relation to that good”. 6–7. marked by his recycling of the much quoted Yeats line about the worst being full of passionate intensity.. This is not itself to be condemned – after all. Among these is the transcendental valence accorded to ethical experience itself. social and labouring capacities aﬀorded by Feuerbachian and Marxian notions of species-being. in the second. demands a raft of very strong philosophical assumptions. and does ﬁnd. of the book’s chapters.246 ALBERTO TOSCANO resulting in the kind of purely ideological comparison that one would expect to ﬁnd. the antidote to “a motivational deﬁcit in morality that undermines the possibility of an ethical secularism” will be “an ethics that empowers subjects to political action”. Baader-Meinhof and Durruti”15 is the ludicrous result of not attending to the speciﬁc articulations of radically diﬀerent politics. Blanqui.
Vattimo’s politicization is explicitly formulated in terms of the geopolitical context of a resurgent American imperialism (“crypto-Schmittianism” for Critchley. political action. Vattimo. Gianni Vattimo. the “Americanized West” for Vattimo). In his recent “liberal communist” tract. … The Gattungswesen of which the revolutionary proletariat was the bearer for Marx becomes for us the essence in the banal sense of quintessence. Vattimo. despite acknowledging. But the diﬀerences are also of interest. accounts for how he has come to marry his ﬁdelity to a “nihilistic hermeneutics” with a commitment to the renaissance of communist politics – which. And. Gianni Vattimo. Ecce Comu. and particularly his dalliance with anarchism. Parenthetically. notwithstanding his adherence to “weak thought”. is not beyond kind words for Castroist Cuba or the USSR. the economy and so on. it might be interesting here to compare Critchley’s turn to ethico-political prescription. today. 80–81. inspired by a profound diﬃdence in institutions. of Marx’s account of polarization. in statehood. as Marx predicted – consume natural resources with no heed for the fact that they will soon be exhausted. a global proletarianization that revives in its own way the concept of species-being: Today’s proletarians are in fact those whose extreme poverty consists in the fact that they must now move to defend the very basic conditions of life on the planet. a certain fundamentalism of truth. Ecce Comu (Roma: Fazi. because “we don’t 19. … The communism that we speak of with reference to this … “minimalist” proletariat … is above all the negation of the existing order of property. is unpersuasive. subtitled “How you re-become what you were”. like Critchley. the disappearance of the industrial working class as the privileged subject of political change is far more sanguine about the empirical truth. 2009 . there is an attempt (unconvincing in both cases.A PLEA FOR PROMETHEUS 247 that elsewhere in the book strikes down accounts of knowledge. which is to say regulative – a hermeneutic counterpoint to Badiou’s recent calls to revive the idea of communism – it nevertheless does not relent from the canonical negative deﬁnition of communism in The German Ideology as the “real movement that abolishes the present state of things”. as Critchley does. 2007). © Acumen Publishing Ltd. It is worth noting that.19 Although Vattimo’s anarcho-communism remains “ideal”. as in Inﬁnitely Demanding. in my view) to link the baleful geopolitical conjuncture with an “undeconstructed” reason. As Vattimo notes. having rallied to the old-school Party of the Italian Communists. the last kernel of the human. with the trajectory of another deconstructive and anti-foundationalist thinker who has attempted an analogous move. while the “capitalists” – always smaller in number.
relies throughout on a scenario – that of the isolated. It is this horizon of destruction. Critchley’s plea for “distance” weds a supposedly disenchanted realism (the capitalist state is here to stay) with a fundamentally liberal belief in the resistance against government. 84. “Ethics” is thus the level at which a choice (perhaps a passive or even unconscious one. as Critchley puts it. even if in some parts of the world still in a ‘soft’ sense – can avoid the risks linked to the present situation. Inﬁnitely Demanding. Ibid. which accords to ethics the task of dealing with the individual’s travails as he or she decides whether to enter into collective action (politics). one that becomes a subject by entering into the ethical dialectic of demand and approval. whether another world is possible or not. has very little descriptive value. Now. despite all of the Levinasian criticisms of the “autonomy orthodoxy” stretching from Kant to Heidegger via Marx (the supposed communistic culmination of this ethical tradition). 12–13. we must above all put in motion the processes of the destruction of this order”. we might ask whether the crucial dividing line is not instead the one between. 21. Here the ideological coordinates of the book’s sujet de l’énoncé and sujet de l’énonciation – the post- 20. those ethics that begin with a de-socialized self placed in simulated scenarios of decision and. despite his “weak” allegiances. of the kind sympathetically investigated by Foucault in his late 1970s Collège de France lectures. it is certainly necessary.. both as an agent of transformation (this is how he envisages some of the political processes currently at work in Venezuela. on the one hand. does not ﬂinch from considering the classic problem of the state. Bolivia and Ecuador) and as that which must “wither”. in the world empire that it dominates. even if we were to accept Critchley’s thesis that “at the heart of a radical politics there has to be … a meta-political ethical moment that provides the motivational force or propulsion into political action”21 – a position that in turn depends on stipulating a separation between politics and ethics that is not at all obvious – we might ask why such an ethical moment must be treated in terms of a self. taking the form “I have been chosen”) is made to bind oneself. But. Here Critchley seems to adopt the social ontology of liberal individualism. By contrast. Critchley. which it is diﬃcult to dismiss as mere “active nihilism”. Critchley’s dramatization of ethical selfhood.248 ALBERTO TOSCANO see how the current regime – in the USA. as galvanizing as it may be for some. on the other. that also explains why Vattimo. choosing and/or chosen self – which. to a collective good. 2009 . © Acumen Publishing Ltd. which is broadly articulated into a moment of inﬁnite demand/approval and a therapeutic and sublimatory moment of humorous self-deprecation. those that are sensitive to the always already socialized character of intersubjective action – even when it is the action of breaking with the bonds of community and conformity. or be “smashed”.20 In other words.
Critchley’s account remains overdetermined by a fundamentally artiﬁcial and contemplative account of ethical action. 1987). Gilbert Simondon. Neither a matter of autonomous self-possession nor of dispossession by the transcendence of an other (or the Other). with its fundamentally liberal-libertarian tenets (ethics is “the continual questioning from below of any attempt to impose order from above”) can really motivate or drive a collective politics of radical transformation. Emmanuel Levinas. for instance. wish to discount all political activity that involves an element 22. Allocutions Séance Académique/25 jaren Belgische Spaarbankenvereniging: 1961–1986. 1995). 28–33. … What Nietzsche describes as the fact of wanting “to climb on one’s own shoulders” is the act of every man who experiences solitude in order to discover transindividuality. or prescription for. Do we. in 25 années groupement Belge des Banques d’Epargne: 1961–1986. It is precisely because of its capacity to cut across the problematic of autonomy and heteronomy that Etienne Balibar has employed the notion of transindividuality to illuminate Marx’s idea of human essence as an ensemble of social relations. 2009 . Is the idea of a preliminary ethical act of demand-approval. Critchley’s quest for ethical motivation appears to elide the role of less pure (we might say less crypto-theological) goads to political action. politics? Again showing its bias for the tribulations of the aﬄuent citizen of liberal democracies. “Socialité et argent”. ethical and political activity are invariably transindividual.22 Despite the attempt to bring heteronomy to bear on the formation of ethical selfhood. See The Philosophy of Marx (London & New York: Verso. 280. Toespraken Academische Zitting. This deontological individualism. L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information (Grenoble: Jérôme Millon. © Acumen Publishing Ltd. or the one between Zarathustra and the tightrope walker who crashes to the ground before him and is abandoned by the crowd. 2005). by assuming the atomized choice of an ethical situation and eliding the fact that any ethical action.A PLEA FOR PROMETHEUS 249 Kantian liberal secular metro-sexual – impinge on a supposedly transcendental account. in the sense given to this term in Gilbert Simondon’s account of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: The transindividual relation is the one between Zarathustra and his disciples. leading to political action and association. really a plausible description of. 13–19 (Brussels: Belgische Spaarbankenvereniging/Groupement Belge des Banques d’Epargne. 23. is inherent to Levinas’s own account. “Splitting” the self through the heteronomy of an inﬁnite demand does not obviate the fact that we remain within the drama of an isolated self. whether individual or collective. which relies on the individualizing powers of money and the state as ontic preconditions for a heteronomous relationship with the “other”.23 What we should ask ourselves is whether such an individualized metapolitics. it should be noted. is already enmeshed in a series of pre-existing ﬁdelities and demands (which it might have to reaﬃrm or from which it might be obliged to wrench itself ).
companions and allies. the pedagogical convictions of striking teachers. none of these perfectly political activities are either usefully described or deepened by formulating them in terms of an inﬁnite demand. In this respect. 131. not just from the biblical concern with the “neighbour”. which is not that of metapolitical ethics – which Critchley seems to present as logically. the grammar of ethical experience leaves us none the wiser about arguably the only real question for ethical politics. Sartre’s Les mains sales. In other words. they are not devoid of “ethical” questions. Inﬁnitely Demanding. Critchley. they are not. namely in terms of the protocols of universalization that allow them not to turn interest into “idiocy”.250 ALBERTO TOSCANO of – often very material – interest? Critchley is certainly right to remind us that “politics is now and many”24 but attention to these many politics would ﬁnd it diﬃcult to purify them of the interests that they bear: whether it is the desire for land and livelihood of dispossessed peasants. Moreover. acquires its necessity and plausibility. or women’s struggles for equal wages. at the level of metapolitics but of intra-politics. it is only if we accept the pertinence of the starting-point of ethical experience – the self faced with inﬁnite demands – that Critchley’s functional and therapeutic account of humour. Ethics of this sort is in medias res: it does not presume that the individual has a univocal or transparent reason for his 24. the way Critchley pits the combination of the transcendent excess of Levinasian inﬁnite demand with the sublimating (or is it desublimating?) function of humour against tragedy. which always risks throwing us back into the simulated passion plays of lonely philanthropic individuals faced with ethical dilemmas. What’s more. or Jean-Pierre Melville’s superb L’armée des ombres – is never separable. temporally and transcendentally anterior to politics – but of intra-political ethics. the decisions and evaluations demanded of individuals and groups already in the midst of political action. I would submit in this respect that an ethical interrogation of politics is better oﬀ enquiring into the concept of solidarity – understood as the articulation of interest and universality – than into the concept of responsibility. conﬂict and injustice. even the individual’s ethical turmoil within the ﬁeld of politics – as dramatized in works like Brecht’s Die Massnahme. self-mastery and the “autonomy orthodoxy” does not confront but simply evades the irresolvable diﬃculties of combining humanist ethics with collective action in a social context of violence. especially not from an other. If lessons are to be drawn from the anarchist tradition. Certainly. of the organizational ethics that allow for the development of transformative solidarities and prevent the reemergence of mechanisms of domination. as the sublimating salve for a subject inadequate to exorbitant demands. but from one’s ethical and political solidarities towards comrades. the possessive focus on one’s own beneﬁts and identities (“British jobs for British workers”. and the like). I would argue. 2009 . © Acumen Publishing Ltd.
along with many commentators. Ibid. it is not reducible to an act of approval or naming. following a key tenet of Badiou’s thinking. our mortality) is often a powerful counter-argument to political commitment (just think of your family. whether we are dealing with anarchist or communist politics. prepare emancipation and minimize domination. or truth-procedure? What is unique about 25. © Acumen Publishing Ltd.. 2000). which I would argue could be another name for the discipline of solidarity. to be understood as the complex articulation of “individuality” and collective action under the sign of equality. the recognition of our “ﬁnitude” (or rather. skirts over. as Critchley writes. 44. wary of psychology. where a self commits itself with ﬁdelity to a concrete situation.A PLEA FOR PROMETHEUS 251 or her political engagement (a particular demand that he or she approves. To use Critchley’s terminology. 48. Ethics. Consider Badiou’s deﬁnition of “the ethic of a truth” as “the principle that enables the continuation of a truth-process – or. 26.25 Rather. what link is to be stipulated between the “some-one” or “human animal” and a given process of militant transformation. 2009 . P. a conversion experience of some sort) but. 27. Alain Badiou. Perhaps the most challenging dimension of Badiou’s proposal is the idea that ethics is not directly concerned with a preexisting self or individual subject. Critchley. “a process of the formation of ethical subjectivity. and so on). So Badiou’s ethics is not exactly. glory. but only comes to the fore with the emergence of a (collective) subject into which individuals enter (never in an all-consuming manner: an aspect of Badiou’s Ethics involves maintaining the individual/subject gap).) (London: Verso. to be more precise and complex. this will involve considerable degrees of self-mastery. Inﬁnitely Demanding. phenomenology and transcendental philosophy steers clear of talk of “selves”) enters into composition with a subject. Hallward (trans. Such discipline has both individual and collective dimensions. a self does not simply bind itself to a good: it binds or incorporates itself into a subject that builds such a good. sex. but involves the laborious process of political subjectivization. what have you) works at the organizational level to increase eﬀectiveness. This is the complex theme of “ethical consistency”. which is to say of discipline – after all. that which lends consistency to the presence of some-one in the composition of the subject induced by the process of this truth”. think of what you could lose. which Critchley acknowledges – “subject and event are equiprimordial concepts with a common and mutually dependent genesis”27 – the subject emerges with the event and is diﬀerent in kind from the individual or self. Doubtless. Here it is worth reﬂecting on a dimension of Badiou’s Ethics that Critchley. a singular occurrence that places a demand on the self ”. 49. ethics deﬁnes the manner in which an individual (Badiou. regardless of what the original motivations may be (many of which are surely less than pure and not so ethical – narcissism.26 If.
Like Critchley. Badiou. having been convoked [requis] and seized by a truth28. of the subject that is constructed in order to transform a given state of aﬀairs in light of an exceptional dysfunction of its laws or principles of representation. of its construction and universalization: or.30 What gives Badiou’s account its force is that instead of starting from a spiritualized subject. of a political collective). but rather between a particular multiple (the “human animal”) and what will become of this multiple in an unprecedented and “illegal” process. in Badiou’s terms of combining the principle of interest with the subjective principle. 2009 . Hallward (ed. in Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy. a matter of consequences. of the multiple decisions that make up a truthprocess and not of the decision to bind oneself to it. © Acumen Publishing Ltd. Peter Hallward. P. and subject. but this is not a split between a self and a demand. This is the materialist dimension of what is otherwise a forbiddingly formalizing vision of ethics. Although this could. which is also to say from interest. Again. 45–6 30. on the one hand. The consistency that lies at the heart of ethics is concerned then with how to articulate one’s own selfpersevering particularity in the excessive formation of a subject of truth (say. from Spinozian self-perseverance. This immanent split and articulation between self. To the consistency of the subject that he is in part become. concerning itself instead with the system of consequences.). on the other. does not revolve around the question of responsibility. by this truth that ‘passes’ through that known multiple that he is”29). 17. as in Critchley. but of capacity.252 ALBERTO TOSCANO Badiou’s position – which is also why it has been faulted for giving short shrift to the question of subjective empowerment28 – is that it cuts oﬀ the metapolitical ethics that focuses on the pre-existing subjectivity of the one approving a demand. be depicted in terms of the “some-one” approving the “demand” of the subject (to enter into it). The some-one’s “ﬁdelity to the ﬁdelity” is thus a matter of employing his or her interests and (“natural”) perseverance for the sake of the continuation of a truth. and the organization. Badiou thinks ethics through a ﬁgure of splitting (“‘some-one’ is imperceptibly riven. Ibid. 46. this becoming-subject”. Ethics. with some distortion. 1–20 (London: Continuum. or punctured. 2004). Badiou’s ethics is here ﬁrst and foremost an “intra-political” (or intra-procedural) one. it is worth noting the emphasis that Badiou puts on the “retooling” of the known capacities of the “some-one” for the sake of the unknown becoming of the subject that he or she has entered into: The “technique” of consistency is singular in each case. “Introduction: Consequences of Abstraction”. As Badiou writes: “the ‘some-one’ was not in a position to know that he was capable of this co-belonging to a situation and to the hazardous course of a truth. depending on the “animal” traits of the some-one. 29. animal or individual. it begins from animality..
Whatever use it might have for those already persuaded by it but then discomﬁted by the prospect of turning into “traumatised neurotics”. 20-21. Ibid. 81. Ibid. self-aware. Critchley. aesthetic. acting like a “comforting parent”36 is simply the description of the moral phenomenology of 31. for Badiou these are “the motivating forces of perseverance” – but they are made to serve a subject that “has nothing to do with ‘interests’ of the animal. it is diﬃcult to imagine who could be spurred into action by such a defanged. it is true that Critchley tries to temper the Levinasian schema with Lacanian correctives and a practice of artistic and comedic sublimation.34 In eﬀect. But the results are unpersuasive. Inﬁnitely Demanding. What Badiou proposes is an intrinsically riven “subject” which is incompatible with the Levinasian vision of heteronomy on which much of Critchley’s account depends. 32. but only a kind of subjective salve.. a self that is constituted in a relation to its good”. 114. material.A PLEA FOR PROMETHEUS 253 process... which has eternity for its destiny”. The (biological. which is indiﬀerent to its perpetuation. and these others their melancholy. 2009 . 34. ﬁghting force”. this other his tall stature and cool composure. much less through what channels it could “allow [the] hegemonic glue to set into [a] compact.. this particular “some-one” will contribute his anguish and agitation. secularized Levinasianism. Ibid. and so on) interests of the “some-one” who enters into a process of subjectivation are not eliminated – indeed. this other his voracious taste for domination.. The subject is in eﬀect riven not by the constitutive experience of a transcendent other but by the contingent occurrence of entering into the production of a sameness (a generic truth) that exceeds the particular resources of the “human animal” but which. 36. 48. A Levinasian ethic tamed and rendered “liveable” is not a motivating political force. Ibid. Ibid. at the same time.33 Badiou’s refusal of a metapolitical ethics for the sake of an intra-procedural (or intra-political) ethics of consistency and consequences can also be interestingly contrasted to Critchley’s proposal in another sense. 83. unconscious. Now. can only be constructed with their aid. which underlies Critchley’s claim that “what we think of as a self is fundamentally an ethical subject. © Acumen Publishing Ltd. the combination of inﬁnite. 49.32 This position also has the further advantage of not making the exorbitant and hyper-essentialist claim that ethics is formative of selfhood and subjectivity as such. 33. and therefore unfulﬁllable demand with the “anti-depressant”35 of self-deprecating humour. or timidity …31 This “technical” deﬁnition of ethics contributes to Badiou’s proposal of “disinterested interest” as the basis for ethical consistency. 35.
as ﬁnite entities. or worse Heidegger’s Nazism. and think instead of absolute or unconditional demands? What if we consider politics. its own aphorism against all heavenly and earthly gods who do not acknowledge human self-consciousness as the highest divinity. in the “Foreword” to his dissertation The Diﬀerence Between the Epicurean and Democritean Systems of Nature. change the world?). although perhaps at the cost of our well-being or safety. The Promethean act is ﬁrst and foremost the emblem of the revolt against the inﬁnite “super-power” of authority. Peter Hallward. It is well known that he was a tutelary ﬁgure for Karl Marx. 2009 . me. since it is inﬁnite) through the operations of humour (what. 38. The superegoic injunction “You must. I hate the pack of gods” [Aeschylus. and the ethics in (and not before) politics as concerned with such demands. wrote: The confession of Prometheus: “In simple words. it is worth reﬂecting for a moment on what the facile dismissal of “Promethean activism” conceals. all forms of “Promethean activism” or “heroic authenticity”. Quoted in John Bellamy Foster. 769–89. Perhaps then. South Atlantic Quarterly 104(4) (2005). Prometheus deserves another chance. Critique of Intelligent Design (New York: Monthly Review. It will have none other beside.38 Although our deﬂationary philosophical consensus might regard this deiﬁcation of man as a disastrous form of hyper-humanism. Prometheanism is precisely the refusal of the articulation between divine (or political) authority and human mortality. we can always be excused from fulﬁlling. Prometheus Bound]. is its [philosophy’s] own confession. which. because you can!”. who. 91. with what Peter Hallward has discussed as “prescriptions”?37 In dismissing and associating with “active nihilism”.254 ALBERTO TOSCANO the aforementioned post-Kantian metro-sexual. And Prometheus’s sin is indeed that of answering an absolute (although not inﬁn37. also has this ethical truth-content. managing to maintain a good conscience (I have heard the inﬁnite demand) in the guise of a bad conscience (I could not really heed the demand. 2008). Brett Clark & Richard York. But what if we stopped thinking in terms of inﬁnite demands. © Acumen Publishing Ltd. Critchley tries to conjure away a far more potent and anxiety-inducing ethical quandary than the one posed by inﬁnite demands to which we can never be adequate: what if we are summoned to act in terms of a situation to which our capacities are adequate? What if the demand can be fulﬁlled? What if talk of inﬁnite demands shields us from the innumerable situations in which we are perfectly equipped to act in a decisive and transformative manner? Real ethical anxiety is not the anxiety of inadequacy – although it may ultimately be comforting to think ourselves too limited for the tasks before us – but the anxiety of having the capacities to change our situation. “The Politics of Prescription”.
Grene & R. Alberto Toscano is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths. 61–106 (Chicago. He has recently translated Alain Badiou’s Logics of Worlds. where is the help in that. In the words of Kratos (Might).39 “Promethean activism” – where Prometheus stands as the ﬁgure of humanity’s alienated capacities – is the refusal to accept the articulation between sovereignty and our “dreamlike feebleness”. 39. the discovery of bronze. 1. iron. the herald of some kind of disastrous hubris. He is the author of The Theatre of Production (2006). nor are they inﬁnite and unfulﬁllable. a dreamlike feebleness by which the race of man is held in bondage. tell me. D. when concerted and composed into the action of a collective subject. To the extent that domination is still based on the exploitation of our mortality – and especially of the cares and fears that so often prevent political mobilisation – the ﬁgure of Prometheus is not. Aeschylus. The Chorus also castigates him: Kindness that cannot be requited. Prometheus is the bearer of the open question of how we. egalitarian and emancipatory sense. as so many critiques of Marxism have argued. University of London and an editor of Historical Materialism. which open Aeschylus’s play: “he must pay the Gods the penalty – that he may learn to endure and like the sovereignty of Zeus and quit his man-loving disposition”. So the plans of men shall never pass the ordered law of Zeus. silver and gold. in Greek Tragedies. this takes the form of the invention of healing drugs.A PLEA FOR PROMETHEUS 255 ite) demand for human emancipation. © Acumen Publishing Ltd. vol. and of a forthcoming book entitled Fanaticism. a blind prisoner. 1991). my friend? What succour in creatures of a day? You did not see the feebleness that draws its breath in gasps. “Prometheus Bound”. although certainly limited in kind. it is the will to draw the consequences from the unconditional demand of emancipation (in Aeschylus’s variant of the myth. 85. can manage not be subject to the violent prerogatives of sovereignty. The demands and prescriptions that a “Promethean” politics carries are not those of nihilistic destruction. the interpretation of natural signs. creatures that draw their breath in gasps. to act in a principled. are often more than sufﬁcient. and so on). Lattimore (eds). IL: University of Chicago Press. 2009 . they are speciﬁc but unconditional demands made on our capacities that.
P. J.). Chicago. London: Continuum. Guyer & E. 2001. P. Hallward (ed. The Philosophy of Marx. Roma: Fazi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2007. IL: University of Chicago Press. Political Theory 34(6): 690–714. 1. Grenoble: Jérôme Millon. W. Badiou. In 25 Années groupement Belge des Banques d’Epargne: 1961–1986. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Guyer (ed. Clark & R. Neoconservatism and De-Democratization”. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Inﬁnitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment. London & New York: Verso. Inﬁnite Thought. © Acumen Publishing Ltd. London & New York: Verso. 2009 . Toespraken Academische Zitting. J. P. B. 1987. 2004. Brown. Matthews (trans. 1–20. E. Brussels: Belgische Spaarbankenvereniging/Groupement Belge des Banques d’Epargne. Turner (trans. In Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy. Badiou. P. Chatterjee. Ecce Comu. Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. 1970. G. 2003. Vattimo. Ethics. (eds). P. Marx. A. London: Continuum. Allocutions Séance Académique/25 jaren Belgische Spaarbankenvereniging: 1961–1986. P. Critique of Intelligent Design.256 ALBERTO TOSCANO References Aeschylus 1991. S. 2004. B. Critchley.). In Greek Tragedies. I.). Raulet (eds) 2001. “Prometheus Bound”. vol. New York: Random House. Hallward. D. L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information.). 2005. O’Malley (ed. 1995. Hallward (trans. Pape. E. 2006. P. Grene & R. Clemens & O. London & New York: Verso. P. New York: Monthly Review. 2005. & G. “Introduction: Consequences of Abstraction”. Lattimore. C. 2000. Politics of Resistance. New York: Columbia University Press. 61–106. Mair. Feltham (eds). A. J.). Balibar. R. G. Simondon. 13–19. Marx démocrate: Le manuscript de 1843. K.). Critique of the Power of Judgment. The Politics of the Governed: Reﬂections on Popular Politics in Most of the World.. Kant. Levinas. London & New York: Verso. Paris: PUF. York 2008. 2007. Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy. “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism. 2009. Hallward. Balibar. “Socialité et argent”. Foster. South Atlantic Quarterly 104(4): 769–89. 2005. “The Politics of Prescription”. E.
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