Critchley and Badiou

Critchley, in his opening remarks at U Penn last week, made a number of interesting comments regarding the state of politics today. I must admit to not being previously familiar with his work, but there were a few things definitely worth picking up on.

First, Critchley remarked that there is a deep strain of melancholy running through his position about politics today. He said this in the context of some remarks over the prevalence of “militant neoliberalism” which he sees as the dominant mode of politics (“justice with bullets”). This is not just something from the right, he said, referencing the American political scene of George Bush, but equally can be found on the left (“Obama wants to bomb northern Pakistan” and “Hillary would be happy to bomb a few countries”).

Now I think he shows his ignorance of US politics here. Who would believe that a President Hillary would have invaded Iraq following 9/11, or indeed that Bill Clinton would have done the same, indeed he did not over 8 years, even though he had more cause or opportunity than Bush junior. But I’m willing to cut him a little slack in pursuit of his larger point, which might be summarized as saying that the Democratic candidates are ultimately mainstream and not distinguishable from their GOP opponents. (This POV is common on progressive blogs to account for the low ratings of Congress.) This might be true about Hillary and Obama–to some extent, but I wouldn’t bet on Critchley voting for Giulini or Romney were he a US citizen–but there are other candidates worth supporting such as Kucinich and Chris Dodd.

In my view, if a Ron Paul can generate some mo on the right, there is no reason to be locking off the race on the left either. And I do not maintain such a negative view of the political possibilities today: what is the netroots but potentially the most radical realignment of political intervention for decades?

Second, and equally important, Critchley made sure to mention the need for bathos, satire and humor in politics; a kind of balloon-bursting a la Peter Sloterdijk’s critique of cynical reason. This leaves Critchley irreducibly melancholy and smiling! I wonder also if there’s something here of the Pere Ubu, Alfred Jarry. I approve! This was a motivating factor for this blog to be able to open some space for discussion of a topic usually taken too seriously, ie the work of MF.

Third, and toward some comments on ethics that I’m interested in, Critchley discusses some ideas from a recent book, Infinitely Demanding [I haven’t read this], in which he said that we are faced with a demand at the heart of ethics that we can never ultimately meet. This demand is part of us or taken into us and calls upon another part of us to respond. Critchley calls this division a “dividual,” an idea perhaps related to similar ideas of the divided self (though he does in these remarks make these relations; I am thinking of work on surveillance which posits a self and a data-shadow self, as well as a no doubt long tradition of internal division of the self in western though beginning with Descartes).

Critchley alludes to Foucault’s notion of ethics here as a care of the self but describes Foucault’s project as the “neo-stoic” effort of achieving mastery over oneself. For Critchley this is not possible because the ethical demand is infinite (which is why he says we need some good humor about all this!).

I wonder though if Foucault’s project was more about mastery or about the process of becoming which Critchley and Badiou might appreciate?

These ideas on ethics are stimulating and help to get us beyond the understanding of ethics as a norm to which we are to conform and which thus regulates us. But ethics is not pre-given but invented by ourselves on a continual process. This has some implications…. eg., that ethics might not be universal even within one culture (or rather that it’s part of the misapprehension about it that it is universalizing).

OK, now back to listening to their debate


One Response

  1. You’re right, this is all interesting, and probably the best place to get Critchley’s views straight is the other recent book of his “On Humour”. The main source for the divided self in Critchley is not Foucault or Descartes, but Freud (see the chapter “The Super-ego is your amigo”!!).

    Unfortunately, I can’t see Critchley following Foucault on inventing the self: he’s too taken up with responding to the world to do something as open-ended as that.

    I think my main problem with Critchley is that he doesn’t see the moral danger inherent in techniques of the self. Laughing at yourself is an excellent moral tool, but if you require people to laugh at themselves, you are demanding humility.

    Humility works, but as Critchley pointed out about modesty in this debate, if it is imposed, it becomes despotic.

    I see this ambiguity concerning techniques of the self elucidated extremely well in Foucault, particularly as regards the place of asceticism in his corpus. As well as being Critchley’s problem, it is a dilemma Butler also falls on in her work on critique as a technique of the self in “Giving an Account of Oneself”. But ultimately it is not solved in any of these writers.

    For my money, I’m still buying the Christian technique of repentance and forgiveness as the basis of all social critique. It embraces laughter and mourning; humility and confidence as continual disciplines of self and society.

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