Fulfilling the Traumatic Demand: Review of Critchley’s Ethics

Daniel Avatar

Simon Critchley’s text on ethics and politics, Infinitely Demanding addresses the drift of nihilism that has overcome our contemporary conception of the political. Nihilism in this case is how we experience our societies as externally compulsory, but not internally compelling. In many ways Critcley’s real asset is in bringing philosophy into a concrete relationship to the political and to resistance, in laying out a clear path for understanding the “moment of ethics” and the process of its occurrence. As a Levinasian-Badiouian with Lacanian leanings, Critchley sees ethics as that which splits the subject and throws the subject out of joint, and as such, ethics must be located “when the subject faces a demand that does not correspond to its autonomy” hence the infinite demand placed onto the subject.

At the core of ethical experience is demand but also an approval. This is Critchley’s basic claim, that all ethical experience implies an approval of a demand. This formula of infinite demand results in the self-binding itself to what it deems good in a demand and approval procedure, but importantly, the demand will always exceed the approval. There will always be a leftover in the ethical binding to the perceived good. Like Lacan, Critchley recognizes that this infinite demand places the subject in a position that it can never meet or master. The excess demand and pressure onto the subject is not new in philosophical ethics. For Plato, the ethics consisted of following “the good” beyond being, the moral law for Kant, the demand of the resurrected Christ for St. Paul and for Augustine, the suffering human other for Rousseau. At the basis of all ethical experience should lay a problem of infinite responsibility. This is Critchley’s fundamental claim. The basis of the ethical demand is the basis of how the subject then forms its own subjectivity.

The ethical demand is a traumatic demand, and Critchley’s emphasis on trauma is a part of his Levinasian roots. Since the very core of one’s own relation to their subjectivity is somehow outside and exposed to otherness, the ethical demand can never be met. To be responsible to the other in the Levinasian sense is then to be responsible before having done anything, “there is something at the heart of me that makes me the me that I am but it remains opaque to me.” Ethics, in the late Levinas is worked out as a theory of the subject, and Critchley defines the subject off of the approval of a traumatic demand that divides the subject which can never be met.

Critchley relates ethics to situations, but it would be a stretch to characterize him as an situationist. Utilizing Badiou’s “ethics of truth’s,” Critchley’s ethical system is durable, non-relativistic, and committed to the singular and determinate processes of truth (Pg. 43). By truth we refer to the real process of fidelity to an event that throws the subject out of joint. One is true to a demand in so far as one is faithful to its summons. Since all ethical subjectivity happens through affirmative thinking, or through truths that apply to singular situations, when one is able to determine the truth of the event, one is able to determine the good. This conception of determining the good is very distant from that of Immanuel Kant’s version of the good. To Kant, evil is derived from the good by privation of the good, yet Critchley worries that Kantianism turns humans into rights-based victims of an evil that is beyond their control. Thus the key difference betweent he Badiouan version of attaching oneself to the good and that of Kant falls on how humanity is considered. For Badiou, humanity enroots itself in the identification in thought of singular situations. That is, there are only ethics of processes where one confronts the ethics of the situation.

For Badiou’s event there are four conditions: mathematics, politics, love and art. They follow logics:

1. The subject approves of a demand and decides to be faithful to that decision.
2. If this is true then it is virtuously circular.
3. Why think of the event as truth? To Badiou truth means that the event speaks to all, that it is universalizable.
4. Critchley thinks that truth should be replaced by justification as the declaration of truth is rooted in normative claims.

Events contain universal status when they are addressed to all, which is why National Socialism is not an event because it was not addressed to all. One’s commitment to the situation motivates ethical action and the justification of that demand exceeds the situation and works to bring about its amelioration and transformation. Badious’ ethics goes a long way towards making up for the motivational deficit in autonomous orthodoxy ethics, and Critchley brings up the right question I think: could we consider Badiou’s ethics to be structurally Christian?

In a very similar vein to that of Badiou yet with distinct differences, Levinas’ ethics originate in the ethical demand presented by other other’s face, not necessarily in what throws one out of joint. responsibility precedes autonomy. The subject discovers itself as an object. In Levinas’ Thinking Infinity, the I from the first thinks more than it thinks, and the very idea of the infinite consists of thinking more than what is thought. Levinas substitutes the Other, where Descartes would have put God, giving his system of thought a “curvature of intersubjective space.” The main point being that the asymmetry between “I and Other” is from a third party point of view. This non-dialectical relation, the relation without relation makes it so that the Other is grasped in an infinite way, and hence external point of view.

I support much of Critchley’s treatment of Lacan from the Ethics of Psychoanalysis. Firstly, his conception of das Ding as the “thingly secrecy” as a replacement for the real in the Ethics of Psychoanalysis is interesting. What he is saying here is that das Ding, or the thing is the excluded interior, where the subject discovers what is most interior to their own subjectivity as exterior and foreign. The “thingly secrecy” is what always feels separate about the other person, but it is that separateness that serves as the replacement for the dimension of the real. The neighbor stands in the place of the real.

Where I disagree with Critchley is in his notion that the Lacanian categorical imperative equals “do not cease to approve of the demand for unconscious desire in the activity of its interpretation.” It is true that the moral goal of psychoanalysis is to put the subject in relation to its desire but it is a stretch to think that Lacan would ever set a categorical imperative. One of the main differences between Kant and Lacan lies in the heteronomus and autonomous basis of subjectivity – the unconscious is given to the subject in Lacan. The ethical question in light of Lacan is in how the subject transmutes the passion of their unconscious.

If the overarching goal of psychoanalysis is happiness – but there is no way to generate happiness from the virtues or the sovereign good or the community, then happiness becomes a political matter. In other words, happiness can no longer be granted from the position of the master. Since happiness is no longer able to be connected to general goodness – or what the Greeks referred to as “eudomania.” Critchley uses sublimation as a way to work out his vision of humor on the political stage, as sublimation is “passion transformed” – or to Freud, sublimation is satisfaction of a drive in so far as that drive is deflected from the aim of its original goal in finding a new object. For example, the sexual drive can be redirected towards God in religious practice. And closely related to sublimation is the role of tragedy in psychoanalysis. All psychoanalysis is thinking through of tragedy – only thinking through of tragedy might save us, a lesson personified by Antigone. Antigone embodies the excess of the ethical over the aesthetic. Antigone takes the human being to the limit of a desire that cannot be fully represented. Both Oedipus and Antigone achieve is an embrace of their finitude to reach authenticity. To Judith Butler, Antigone represents the fragility of gender identity, and kinship structures. For Heidegger, Antigone was able to represents “being toward death” through denying Creon’s utilitarian unauthentic social order. Critchley’s point considering the pessimistic nature of psychoanalysis’ obsession with tragedy is that might there be better forms of sublimation other than tragedy – such as humor?

Critchley continues on to outline the role of humor in maintaining a relation to the state in the creation of the interstital space and distance from hegemony.

Neo-Anarchism – Critchley’s Politics

I am sympathetic to Simon Critchley’s Levinasian-inspired form of anarcho political resistance to the state, and with his desire to keep an “interstitial” space for humorous political resistance alive. I too believe, like Critchley, that i…t is important to resurrect the situationalist ethics of Guy Debord, and to universalize the evental situation, or what Levinas declares as the ethical “truth” of the situation. Critchley’s genius is in being able to recognize that one’s commitment to the situation motivates ethical action whose justification will always exceed the situation, and this excess will always work to bring about the injustice and amelioration/transformation of the injustice of the situation.

It is vital to resurrect a position of responsibility to the other before autonomy, a goal that Badiou, Levinas and many other non-Anglo and non-Kantian philosophers have posited as essential. The reason for this is that the core of my very subjectivity is constituted on a traumatic demand, on an inherent otherness, hence why he brings in Lacan to support his Levinasian position. I agree that the demand induced on the subject when faced with the ethical situation, which results in a split subjectivity is a demand that can never be met.

It is in this split subjectivity of the subject that Critchley misuses the term sublimation according to my psychoanalyst friends who tell me that sublimation is always something that has social value, meaning you can sell it. Take the film American Beauty, the daughter’s boyfriend was ‘trash,’ his father saw him as trash, and he’d film trash, blowing in the wind, and that’s sublimation, raising the object to the status or dignity of das ding. Critchley seems to think that sublimation can be humor, but it seems to me that making humor into the object of one’s desire is missing the point about how sublimation really operates.

One response

  1. Giving An Account of Oneself: Part 1 « Spirit is a Bone

    […] By combining a reading of Hegel and psychoanalysis (Lacan and object relations theorist Bollas) – Butler seeks to develop an ethical Can a new sense of ethics emerge from the failure of recognition, i.e. one can only gain recognition in a process wherein reciprocal recognition throws the singularity of the subject out of joint. While not referring to the de-centered encounter as a traumatic blow, it is starkly similar to Levinas’ traumatic face of the other ethics that Critchley picks up in his work on ethics, Infinitely Demanding (see my review here). […]

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