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Simon Critchley- Ethics, Politics, Subjectivity
Though my personal reservations towards Simon Critchley's philosophy are legion, I cannot deny the merits of this book, which, alongside his Ethics of Deconstruction, is the very finest account of Levinas and Derrida in the English language. I hope Critchley would not take it amiss if I were to say that this is by far the most lucid and perceptive `introduction' to deconstruction that one can purchase. It is very fashionable today to decry deconstruction for its obsolescence/political bankruptcy/complicity with late capital, but Critchley's tenacious insistence on its continued relevance supplies much food for thought.
Beyond this, it is a rousing text, eschewing style for conviction. Critchley is a veritable anomaly, a hard-minded deconstructionist who resists the temptation to engage, as so many of his less-disciplined colleagues do, in elaborate rhetorical enactments of differance. The sobriety of the text, in other words, is matched by Critchley's rigor and intellectual integrity. It is clear throughout that Critchley conceives of deconstruction as a committed ethico-political position, as well as being an interpretive strategy. In fact, one might say that such an ethical commitment requires, as its supplement, a specific mode of reading. This, Critchley feels, is the central aporia of deconstruction, the leap from a primordial ethical commitment to the 'madness' of political decision. Ethics is the primordial, ontological (pre-ontological?) condition of every ontical praxis. Deconstruction, in this sense, is the `Other's decision in me', a practice that is always-already forsworn to an ethical obligation. The absolute anteriority of the Other forms the crux of Critchley's thought, and one might say that this is the problematic that he struggles with in all of his texts.
There are two faces of this book, each of which is the reverse of the other:
1. It maps, in an astonishingly precise way, the applications of deconstructive thought to ethics (which is primordial, pre-ontological and pre-political) and politics (which is post-ethical in the sense that it necessarily follows and is faithful to the infinite ethical demand that summons and necessitates the political decision). In addition to this, the correlations between Levinasian ethics and psychoanalysis- correlations that Slavoj Zizek has repeatedly dismissed- are made clear. I must concede that I have always been slightly perplexed about Zizek's reading of Levinas. Not that I am, in any conceivable way, a Levinasian, but Zizek's assertions that Levinas `domesticates' and `dispossesses' the Neighbour of his/her monstrous, inhuman alterity could not be further from the mark. Critchley's exemplary essay on Levinas and Lacanian trauma is significant in this regard, and his keen paper on Nancy can be read (retroactively) as a rejoinder to Zizek, demonstrating the pre-ontological, non-schematizable character of the Levinasian Other.
However, it must be said that Critchley's reading of Lacan is marred by an uncharacteristic sloppiness- one wishes that he had read Lacan with the same care that he accords to Derrida. Critchley conceives of Lacan's doctrine as being a homogeneous, continuous whole- hence his liberal use of quotes from markedly distinct periods of Lacan's development- rather than a series of abrupt shifts, discontinuities and dislocations. This leads to various confusions concerning the Lacanian Real, as well as a tendency to treat positions that Lacan later abandoned as definitive statements (The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, for example).
2. In his exhaustive account of these applications, Critchley unwittingly reveals their limitations. In his unflinching fidelity to deconstruction, Critchley reproduces all of its deadlocks. In this way, the text contains its own critique (as Derrida would say, it deconstructs itself). Of course, these impasses only become visible when we situate him in the center of ongoing philosophical debates, reading him alongside the likes of Zizek, Badiou, Nancy, Laclau, Mouffe, Ranciere et cetera. We must remember, though, that while Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity is very much the keystone of Critchley's project, presenting the foundational/formal axioms of his thinking, it espouses a position that Critchley no longer advocates- subsequent texts have found him thinking through and struggling with various strands in contemporary thinking.
I recommend that you read Critchley's 'Infinitely Demanding', which finds him grappling with the inherent aporias of deconstructive method/supplementing it with a neo-Gramscian theory of hegemony that is distinct from Laclau and Mouffe's. Following this, watch Critchley's debate/encounter with Badiou at the Slought Foundation, 'Democracy and Disappointment', where he attempts to effect a rapprochement between his philosophy of finitude and Badiou's radical neo-Platonism. The results, I think, are very, very interesting, and I surmise that Critchley's next intervention will be marked/inflected by this encounter.