Radical Atheism, Part 2: Arche-Violence

Originally discussed February 11 2012

Derrida and Levinas

Emmanuel Levinas was a French philosopher who emerged into prominence into the mid-20th century.  He developed an ethical philosophy that actually sought to make ethics into first philosophy – all thought and life proceeds from the face to face relation with the other.  The other person before us places an unavoidable ethical injunction upon our lives.  For Levinas, the world is a totality, a complete unit of competing interests wherein I constantly attempt to assimilate you and reduce you to an object.  On the other hand, the other is the presence of the Infinite in the world, the sign of the absolutely Other, that which stands as a constant rebuke to my finitude, my narcissistic solipsism.  For Levinas, the other person is the source and object of all ethical demands, and that demand is absolute.  He is the premier philosopher of the absolute ethical injunction towards other people.

Jacques Derrida wrote extensively on Levinas, and it has become popular to say that deconstruction has an ethical motivation.  According to this argument, “Derrida’s undermining of metaphysical presuppositions and totalizing systems emanates from an ethical concern to respect ‘the Other.'”  This is very similar to Levinas, who says “war presupposes peace, the antecedent and non-allergic presence of the Other.”  Here is the fault line between the two of them: Levinas seeks a non-violent relation to the other; but Hägglund argues that “for Derrida, there is a constitutive violence.  Violence marks the possibility of every relationship.”

In his book Spectres of Marx, Derrida uses the famous line from Hamlet “The time is out of joint.”  That line is often taken as a critique of society – founding principles have been perverted or gone astray, or there is a good future yet to come.  This disjointed time is bad; it is opposed to a society “that is harmoniously synchronized with itself, regardless of whether the synchrony is posited as a lost origin or a consummated future.”

From that perspective, as well as from most others, the demand for justice is a demand concerning how things ought to be.  The world is marked by violence, and peace should, in principle, put an end to violence. However,  Derrida “questions the very idea of an ideal state of being.” Ideal peace is neither possible nor desirable; the disjointure of time is inherent, and so violence and discrimination are not opposed to justice.  The work of discrimination is involved in the construction of every identity and cannot be eliminated.  “The disjointure of time is the condition for there for be any ethics and any politics, as well as any society and life to begin with.”  Today we will look at how the disjointure of time undercuts the idea of an absolutely peaceful relation to others and the idea of absolute responsibility.

The Trace

One of the key differences between them is their differing concepts of the trace.  For Levinas, the other person is the trace (or the presence) of the infinitely Other, which is good in itself.  This absolute Other is the positive infinity of God.  This Other is an absolute past because it “has already withdrawn from every relation and every dissimulation.”  Being an absolute past means it is absent in the world, but leaves a trace in the encounter with a human face:  “it is in the trace of the other that a face shines; what is presented there is absolving itself from my life and visits me as already absolute.”  So the absolute good, which is not tangled up in the messiness of the world and history, is somehow reflected in the face of the person before you.

Derrida is always attacking the idea of in-itself.  “The temporal is always disjoined between being no longer and being not yet.”   Without that division of every moment and of everything within time, there would only be unchanging, eternal presence.  This is the key as to why Derrida’s trace is different.  “First, in Derrida, the trace of a past that has never been present does not refer to an Absent One.”  Rather, it is a constitutive spacing that undermines any One.  Second, spacing shows there can be no instance – no instantiation of something – that “precedes its own dissimulation.”  Third, spacing means erasure is a necessary risk.  With these three points, Derrida shows that the trace cannot refer to a goodness that is exempt from history.  There is no absolute thing (be it god, the good or a positive) that is outside the world, or that exists before its splitting and resultant instability across time – put differently, there is nothing that is complete and unchangeable or that is exempt from the unpredictability of the future.  The upshot is that the other person cannot be the presence of the absolute good in the world.

Last but most importantly, the trace of Levinas’s other is not “dependent on mediation or subjected to the movement of signification. In other words, one’s relationship to another person is immediate – there is nothing that stands two people, at least speaking ideally.  The straightforward relation to the other is opposed to the deceitful powers of rhetoric.  Levinas has a distinction between the sincerity of the primordial saying (that which lies at the heart of our relations to others) and the alienation of the said (the actually existing relations),  That is an explicit reliance on the distinction between (idealized) speech and writing (everyday communication).  For Levinas, sincerity can only be found in “a spoken language, in the proximity of one-for-the-other, since there is nothing in a piece of writing (or more generally: in language as a system of signs) that can guarantee its sincerity.”  There is something in the face to face encounter that is prior to the symbolic order.  But for Derrida, “the privileging of (idealized) speech over writing derives from the premise that there was good before evil, peace before violence, and so on.”

Therefore Levinas’ ethics requires that there was first sincerity and peaceful hospitality which were then corrupted by insincerity and hostility.  This logic of opposition is what Derrida criticizes.  The pure comes before the impure, and so all “divergences from the positively valued term are explained away as symptoms of ‘alienation,’ and the desirable is conceived as the return to what supposedly has been lost or corrupted.”  The problem is that which makes it possible for something to be also makes it impossible for something to be in-itself.  “The integrity of any positive term is necessarily . . . compromised and threatened by its other.”

Lesser Violence

Everything is open to the coming of time that cannot be predicted – this is the undecidability of the future.  Undecidability does not mean we cannot make decisions; rather it is the necessity of decisions because it is impossible to calculate what will happen.  Any decision is more or less violent, but we still have to make decisions.  Every decision discriminates, and discrimination is constitutive.  “Without … segregating borders – there would be nothing at all.”  To create a community, one needs borders; but because of these excluding borders, every community is haunted by “a more or less palpable instability.  What cannot be included opens the risk as well as the chance that the prevalent order may be transformed or subverted.”

Moreover, all of us are always already caught in an economy of violence.  “No position can be autonomous or absolute; it is necessarily bound to other positions that it violates and by which it is violated.  The struggle for justice can therefore not be a struggle for peace, but only ‘lesser violence.'”  The idea of lesser violence is crucial for Derrida’s politics.  All decisions made in the name of justice are for what is judged to be the lesser violence — never a matter of choosing what is non-violent.  “To justify something is rather to contend that it is less violent than something else.”

This does not mean that these decisions for lesser violence actually are less violent.  Even the most violent acts are justified by the claim that they are the lesser violence; even genocide is justified this way.  The extinction of one group is “necessary” because of the danger it poses to another group.

“The desire for lesser violence is never innocent, since it is a desire for violence in one form or another, and there can be no guarantee that it is in the service of perpetrating the better.”  Lesser violence is not inherently good.  There is no objective way to define or measure violence, because “every definition and every measure of violence is itself violent, since it is based on decisions that are haunted by what they exclude.  The criteria for what counts as violence are therefore always open to challenge.”

Perhaps we must strive towards an ideal goal, an end that would “prevail beyond the possibility of violence.”  Even if every community excludes someone, we should try and include everyone anyways.  But this is not only impossible, it would actually be bad. “Completely present life,” in which the time would not be “out of joint. . . would be nothing but a complete death.”  If there is no possibility of violent change, nothing could ever happen.  The idea of absolute peace is the idea of absolute violence.

Infinite Responsibility

For Levinas, ethics is first philosophy, based on the face-to-face encounter.  There is an asymmetry in that encounter; “the subject is subordinated to the other through an ethical injunction to respect him as an absolute Other.”  This is “a metaphysical opposition between a positive principle – which ought to reign supreme – and a negative principle that unfortunately has taken hold of our existence.”  The first imperative is: “thou shalt not kill.”  For Levinas, this is based on the immediate revelation of the face and creates an unconditional ethical responsibility.  Violations of this principle, for Levinas, derive from the Same, which compromises the positive infinity of the absolutely Other, which we hold an absolute responsibility to respect.

The problem is that the “other cannot be respected as such – as given in itself – but only by being related to the perspective of another.”  If I could see the other through their own perspective, they would not be other; it cannot be an immediate face to face encounter.  Another problem with saying that the Other is a positive infinity is that would not be Other, but an absolute Same; “the idea of a positive infinity is precisely the idea of a totality that is not limited by a relation to something other than itself and thus abolishes alterity.”  For Derrida, “The infinitely Other would not be what it is, other, if it was a positive infinity, and if it did not maintain within itself the negativity of the indefinite. . . the other cannot be what it is, infinitely other, except in finitude and mortality. The other is inherently mortal – which is to say, a negative infinity.

Keep in mind the difference between positive and negative infinites; a negative infinity is an unending process of saying +1, +1, and time (and everything within time) is a negative infinity.  A positive infinity already exists absolutely, without regard for the time it takes to count, and more importantly, without regard for all the events, joys and miseries of history.  Levinas’ positive infinity is Good because it exists beyond all of that, but Derrida claims no such infinity could have any relation to anything that happens, which is to say, nothing could happen to it – it might as well be dead.

The mortality and negative infinity of the other is what raises the demand of responsibility in the first place.  If my friend and I could not hurt or kill each other, there would be no need to think about ethical problems.  “Even the most affectionate love or intimate friendship is therefore haunted by the sentence ‘I can kill you, you can kill me.'”

However, this negative infinity of the other is also what makes full responsibility impossible.  For Derrida, responsibility is indeed infinite, but only because it always takes place in relation to a negative infinity of others.  “The negative infinity of responsibility is both spatial (innumerable finite others that exceed my horizon) and temporal (innumerable times past and to come that exceed my horizon).”  There will always be people far away that I will fail to be responsible to.

Full responsibility is also impossible because “Even if it were possible to sacrifice yourself completely to another, to devote all your forces to the one who is encountered face-to-face, it would mean that you had disregarded or denied all the others who demanded your attention or needed your help.”  “Whenever I turn toward another, I turn away from yet another and thus exercise discrimination.  As Derrida points out, “I cannot respond to the call, the demand, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others.”  What makes it possible to take responsibility – our own morality and the morality of others – also makes it impossible to be fully responsible.  Responsibility is always more or less discriminating.

One last quote to drive home Derrida’s point: “The relation to a finite other is, accordingly, what makes ethics possible but at the same time what makes it impossible for any of its principles to have a guaranteed legitimacy, since one may always confront situations where they turn out to be inadequate.”  The claim is not that absolute ethical principles are too hard for us, but we should try anyways.  The claim is that everything that allows or requires us to be ethical in the first place, also makes it impossible to find an absolute ethics.


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