Simon Critchley offers a bleak diagnostic of the secular age. In Charles Taylor’s parlance, the secular age is the moment civilization comes to the realization that the fullness of meaning elicited by religious belief, the fullness of meaning arising from the exploration of our inner depths, or the encounter with fullness in nature, becomes a projection reachable through complementary narratives, and the celebration of differences.
Critchley thinks the modern subject is deeply dissapointed by the failures of religion and liberal democracy, he thinks philosophy begins with disappointment, as one would expect when confronted with wanton violence, and the moral bankruptcy of the law. The ethical subject, he or she as a being defined by a plurality of narratives and contexts, is located by Critchley at the interstice of religion and politics. The point of the matter is that an ethics which references abstractions that, even Kant conceded, are incomprehensible, is out of touch with the heteronomous spirit of today.
It seems something curious is happening in regard to ethics. We have arrived at the realization, perhaps too late, that the political is incomprehensible as ethics is insofar as the ethical subject, the conscious subject, is not wired to the ethical fact, the thing-in-itself about practical reason that warrants action; in other words, why some do act when faced with injustice, and others, albeit faced by it, do not. This is the question driving the whole history of ethics after Kant’s recipe of the categorical imperative, namely, how are we to explain what makes reason ethical, what is, in meta-ethical parlance, the thing that elicits practical reason into the realm of moral action. Critchley disagrees this is the end of the story of ethics, because politics just are, and so ethics remain. And we may adopt passive or active nihilism on the face of dissapointment, but Critchley suggests:
“On my view, ethics is the experience of an infinite demand at the heart of my subjectivity, a demand that undoes me and requires me to do more, not in the name of some sovereign authority, but in the namelessness of a powerless exposure, a vulnerability, a responsive responsibility, a humorous self-division. Politics is no the naked operation of power or an ethics-free agonism, it is an ethical practice that is driven by a response to situated injustices and wrongs” (Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding, London: Verso, 2007), 132.
In true ironic fashion, Critchley’s ethics is a “self-division” of the self, insfoar as the projected imago of the self (in lacanian parlance, his idealization at the level of the symbolic-real), is dislocated the moment a concrete case of injustice happens on the face of things. The self is divided: by the ethical facticity of practical reason -the demand felt in our gut to act when faced by something bad-, and its escape from so doing -the disconnect between intentionality and ethics. This is the irony: we are ethical subjects who are not ethical at all. We feel guilty when we reject the opportunity to act (as our projected self demands), we act as we are in tune with our ethic selves, yet (in most cases) we fail to be so.
Reading a paper by Pablo Lazo in regard to his reading of J.M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg (a depiction of Coetzee’s interpretation of Dostoevsky, and his downfall as a writer who does not answer to the demands of concrete cases of injustice), he suggested a term that I think applies to Critchley’s case, terrestrial ethics. An ethics grounded on specific cases challenging our political and ethical imaginary, cases that house suggestions to act, which, in parallel, drive our reaction on the face of otherness; an imposition on the self by the self to resist a state-of-things.
I’d rather let Critchley put it neatly:
“Politics require subjective invention, imagination and endurance, not to mention tenacity and cunnig. No ontology or eschatological philosophy of history is going to do it for us. Working at an interstitial distance from the state, a distance that I have tried to describe as democratic, we need to construct political subjectivities that are not arbitrary or relativistic, but which are articulations of an ethical demand whose scope is universal and whose evidence is faced in a concrete situation” (Ibid, 132).