Infinitely Demanding

June 8, 2011 § Leave a comment

So I read Simon Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance (a 2008 paperback of the first edition, on Verso). Here are some pretty inconsequential, undeveloped notes about it.

1. I think that one thing Critchley should be commended for is that he is master of the partial, of the provisional, of the situated. In this sense, in his method of argumentation, he practices what he preaches, because his philosophy is one of partiality and situatedness. (His most open example of his practising-what-he-preaches is the openly situated, polemical intervention of the last chapter. He says in a footnote that he “sought to erase neither the polemical character of this text nor the traces of its oral and occasional origin” (p. 163). I’ll leave the problems of his execution (perhaps intentional, and intentionally deconstructive) here – the fact that the speech was delivered a number of times, and either side of an event like the 7 July bombings in London, to which it refers – to one side.) So he never gives in to speaking wholly of a thinker by writing in that synecdoche that many philosophers do (you can never speak wholly of, or for a philosopher, as if their thought were a monolith, but people do). He is always keen to emphasise the fact that he is writing only around a thinker as the writer of a particular work or traceable concept – hence for example his emphasis on picking out the Levinas of Otherwise than Being rather than of Totality and Infinity (p. 62), his careful location of the Freud of a single late short essay (p.79), and, most prominently, his attempts to recover a certain (and I guess this is the key, and probably the way Derrida would phrase it (of which, more later)) Marx, as he eloquently and length tries to describe in the introduction (p.12), seeking in particular an early (i.e. freshly post-Hegel) Marx, and in this, and more generally, seeking, as he puts it in an excellent phrase, to find “what is living and what is dead in Marx’s work”. He is also unafraid, and very heroically so, to express reservation about elements of a philosopher’s thought, which he does so very eloquently with regards to Badiou (pp. 48-9), Levinas (pp. 67-8), and Lacan (pp. 76-8). I guess to some extent this could just be viewed as careful rhetorical positioning, always qualifying what he says, but it also seems to me, in a very simple way, to speak of a philosophy of great openness and transparency: he is not seeking to trick us, to mask things, to seem more wise or magical than he might be; he is not taking on the high-priest persona that some philosophers can be prone to. And I guess one benefit of this is that he also therefore avoids falling into a lot of traps that one can fall into as one beats a path to describing something clearly: there are too many well-worn formulae that are perhaps counter-productive to a project that seeks provisionality.

2. However, then again, I think in a way, he doesn’t go far enough. The book purports ultimately to propose a bona fide political project, one that can be enacted, and in this sense (and it does so openly at points), it is positioned as a kind of alternative (maybe anti-) Empire. But where I think Empire succeeds and Critchley fails is that Hardt and Negri’s argument allows them to take forthrightness as a virtue. Specifically, I see their welcomed traces of Deleuze and Guattari’s Capitalism and Schizophrenia in this, because Hardt and Negri stridently create a form of address, a rhetoric, and a lexicon; they write in the genealogy of a manifesto, a sense of writing something aggressive and new. Or to put it another way, they have a sense of being scriptural, of writing or communicating scripture: an attempt to convey their ideas and (crucially) to make people take them up, to convey their ideas as only and always already linked to people taking them up. Nothing else will do. If Critchley can be seen as proposing an alternative manifesto, to write in line with his less affirmative, and more provisional but nevertheless concrete-aimed politics and philosophy, I feel he needs to be somehow more poetic, to have more of a rhetorical uniqueness. He needs, simply, poetics, which he doesn’t have. He is, in his style, ultimately too considered, too conventional, too much the philosopher in his language, despite his commendable efforts to clear up and watch his language. He likes Beckett, so why not take something from Beckett (who manages somehow, in my opinion to be incredibly direct and precise in outlining sheer ambiguity and nothingness, gesturing towards it in language)?

3. And (to move away from mere stylistic concerns, which I’m sure are missing the point) I say this because I believe emphatically that one of the most powerful aspects of the political philosophy Critchley articulates in the book is precisely that there is something very powerful in gentleness and a belief in gentleness, a gentleness that can come from an awareness of our provisionality, our situatedness. His opposition to what he calls line of “autonomy orthodoxy” in Western philosophy – of the self-present, self-determining, self-coinciding, autonomous, autarkic, authentic – individual is central to his thought. His basic point is that we need to remove this conception of subjectivity as the zero-point for our politics. Instead, we need to proceed from an individual that is split, defined by lack, overwhelmed by an infinite demand that exceeds them. We should build our politics from there. Now this is all well and good, and as he seeks to show, in a way, not unconventional – it sits nicely in a lineage especially from Levinas and even Lacan and Freud. But what I would take from it is that what it allows for is a space where gentleness can be articulated. So much politics, certainly revolutionary politics seems to me to have at its banal base a preconception that people have to be confident. And I feel that confidence, and especially self-confidence, matches with the conception that Critchley opposes of the “autonomy orthodoxy”: that people have to self-confidently, self-presently go out and man the barricades, without doubt or embarrassment or worry, indeed much like capitalist entrepreneurs go out, like contestants on The Apprentice, to make money. I think that Critchley’s very careful tracing of a humourously split subject is wonderful as articulated against this, because it allows for people to go out and protest, or to forge new politics quietly, to go out gently, and without a certainty that they will succeed, but to do so anyway. Because perhaps this could be how real change comes, but you wouldn’t think that because our literature, our films, our art, our narratives, our philosophy only allow for an image of working towards change as either defiant and brash and confident and warrior-like, or as relentless and stoic and self-consciously doomed but as always containing within itself a vision of a teleology, a proposed end. To cut this away, to envision people proceeding gently, humourously, but with all the secret force that these things can generate, is, I think, brave and new.

4. And from here, of course, I have to come onto what is the major spectral presence of the book, one that is only once called by name, in a footnote, and then only as an essay that is a response to Critchley himself (p. 158): Derrida. Elsewhere in his work, Critchley acknowledges his debt to Derrida, but perhaps he doesn’t here. In one way, he avoids doing so in a way that someone he cites quite a lot as the book goes on, Judith Butler, also does, which is by instead focussing on Levinas as in many ways a proxy for Derrida, or at least as a way of getting a lot of the philosophical manoeuvres and faints but without the trappings (especially perhaps the textual performance, the carefulness, the almost poeticism, which is precisely what I think Critchley is missing) of Derrida. But anyway, Derrida is still ever-spectrally-present here, but perhaps most surprisingly not so much in the early, more philosophically-oriented bits, but instead in the political bits towards the end. Mainly, Critchley’s key idea of the need to create an “interstitial distance, an internal distance that has to be opened from the inside”, the “creation of interstitial distance within the state territory” (p.113), and later on, anarchy qua something that should “remain the negation of totality and not the affirmation of a new totality” (p.122) (although on a tangent, when he talks on the same page of anarchy not seeking “to set itself up as the new hegemonic principle of political organization” and two pages on of anarchic political resistance not seeking “to mimic and mirror the archic violent sovereignty it opposes”, I do feel him also flying close to Deleuze and Guatarri’s analyses of flows of de- and re-territorialization), to me seems to be a quite clear call for the cultivation of a Derridean deconstructive point within the state, the point where the state (as constituted by its subjects) necessarily undoes itself. Critchley says, perhaps more concretely than Derrida would, that we need to work on this point, to prise it open, but such an articulation is still a deconstructive turn nonetheless. There are fainter echoes too, for example the reference in this context to sans-papiers in France (p. 114) hints at Derrida’s work on this very subject (see e.g. in Papier Machine). And his very persuasive co-opting of Judith Butler’s work on our relation to the Other vis-à-vis mourning (p. 120) is also very much something articulated within the Derridean enclave (I guess doubly so because Butler knowingly does the same). There is also another moment around this particular run of examples that gestures towards something slightly different in Derrida’s later thought when Critchley talks of his idea of true democracy as “not being incarnated in the state, but rather enacted – practically, locally, situationally – at a distance from the state. I am trying to think of democracy as a movement of disincarnation that works concretely beneath the state’s abstraction” (p.117). This in a way is merely articulating the other things mentioned above in a different way, but where it differs crucially is in its resemblance to something you see for example in Derrida’s writings on hospitality, in the (asymmetric, non-touching but nevertheless connected) superimposition of the laws on the law of hospitality. There is something going on here about the relation between the concrete and the abstract, an attempt in both thinkers to avoid any banal preconceptions, any easy set of sequential or even dialectical understanding of the relations of the two.

5. One nearly final thing, just about unrelated: I am not convinced by Critchley’s use early on of “the little –known Danish theologian Knud Ejler Logstrup” (p. 10). The idea Critchley takes from Logstrup is an idea of the “asymmetrical claim” of the other and their demand, a demand “not just radical”, but “unfulfillable and one-sided”: “I am not the equal of the demand that is made upon me and the ethical relation is not a relation of equals” (p. 53). Critchley himself acknowledges that Logstrup’s ideas have some (family?) resemblance to Levinas’s, but it seems to me (and Logstrup is pretty much buried once he used up, while the other figures Critchley uses as building-blocks for his theory – Badiou, Levinas, Lacan, Marx – come back repeatedly), that Logstrup is basically here to offer a certain corner of a Levinasian ethics but without Levinas. It is essentially a clever chess-defence, or, to use a different set of metaphors, a very careful piece of positioning, an act of triangulation in the Clintonian/Blairite sense. Critchley admits that he can’t take on Levinas’s ethics fully because it is “structurally Judaic” (p. 50) in that it is premised on a Jewish idea of pastness, of the always already, and in this, it has no use for politics, which is always of the present. So in this sense, he takes Logstrup for his clearly Christian framework (i.e. what he also sees in Badiou as its doctrine of faith, or pledging oneself in passionate identification and fidelity to Christ’s passion in the present (p. 50)) and then takes from what is held within this what he needs from Levinas. It is then basically a stepping stone for him as he then goes on to articulate a very Levinisian project afterwards, but having found a way of discarding the bits of Levinas that he can’t work with to articulate his project. This is what he uses Logstrup for, nothing else. It is a tiny bit disingenuous, and betrays the spirit of real critical engagement with the other philosophers he uses in this work. It is too instrumental.

6. Other, unchecked, impressionistic things: Nietzsche as a crutch? (Often translates things into Nietzschean terms, uses Nietzschean categories to describe things.) More of a debt to Badiou than he would like to acknowledge?

I haven’t read the (maybe a bit internet-hyped?) ‘Critchley-Žižek debate’ properly yet in light of having read Infinitely Demanding, but I will, and probably come back to it here. I don’t know if this book is even an especially relevant thing to write about, considering that it came out quite a while ago, and that Critchley has of course been constantly moving on as a thinker, both in the light of current events (see his (I hope still) ongoing dialogue with Alfredo Jaar over at Mute), and more generally with the passage of time, as thinkers (or anyone else) will tend to do.

But I read it, because I’d always intended to get around to reading it, and it was good.

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