Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Why Must I? A Freudian Response to the Question of Ethical-Political Responsibility

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Why Must I? A Freudian Response to the Question of Ethical-Political Responsibility

Article excerpt

When Immanuel Kant first made the argument that moral values can be determined rationally on the basis of the pure use of (practical) reason, he clearly linked ethics to the same conception of reason on which modern epistemology depends. Not surprisingly, therefore, the contemporary insight that there is no universal subject whose "truth" can be determined absolutely has radically undermined the grounds of ethical-political responsibility and the possibility of legitimate, normative critique. In other words, the argument that representations of almost any kind of "truth" are contingent (historically, culturally, racially, in respect of gender or class, etc.)--and, hence, are to some extent implicated in ideology, opinion, and injustice--has left many scholars worried that the moral values founded upon them are only relative. This, in turn, seems recently to have led to the conclusion that, in order to combat relativism (or nihilism), it is necessary to reconsider pre-modern sources of ethical legitimacy such as religion; such sources are increasingly being offered as "post-secular" understandings of morality.

Yet in contrast to both the worry and its purported solution, Derrida himself always insisted on the "surplus of responsibility" that deconstruction entails, and he always remained at least ambivalent (if arguably less so in his later years) about the philosophical integrity of such religious justifications as Levinasian ethics, for example, for deconstruction's supposed imperative. In particular, Derrida's reading of Levinas, most notably in "Violence and Metaphysics," contests the hasty embrace of Levinasian ethics by those who would turn to Derrida for a new way to think about responsibility and justice. For while there is no doubt that Derrida desired and wrote profoundly about ethics, responsibility, and justice ("Force of Law"), it is not clear--if we read his own relation to Levinas with care (see Hagglund)--that he ultimately answered the challenge he so admirably posed.

That challenge is this: if, on the one hand, the question of ethical-political responsibility is not simply said to end in deconstruction, and if, on the other hand, it is not plausibly answered either with recourse to the philosophical discourse of modernity, or by an appeal to the religious discourses of either pre- or post-modernity, then how is deconstruction's "surplus of responsibility" to be understood? In this essay, I turn to Freud to answer the question that Derrida's work provokes: what is deconstruction's ethical-political force? My argument is that the responsibility at issue in deconstruction is still a responsibility to reason, albeit a paradoxical one, and that such an imperative--and, hence, the possibility of moral and political legitimacy more broadly--is best explained through a Freudian understanding of psychic integrity.

This is a reading of Freud apres la lettre, however; it follows Derrida in at least three respects. First, I draw on the Freudian analysis to answer the question Derridean deconstruction poses with respect to responsibility. I propose that the legitimacy of ethico-political critique hinges neither on a transcendental subject that grounds itself, as per Kant, nor on a radically humbled subject that is constituted in the originary religious relation described by Levinas. Rather, moral and political legitimacy issues from a decentred subject, one that takes the form of unified ego (an Ich, or an I), but that never fully constitutes itself, and is never fully constituted, as such. Responsibility--the ability and the impulse to respond by giving a moral account--is thus essentially tied to a psychic imperative to maintain an impossible form, to continue to battle against a threat of incoherence that menaces constantly. Seen from this point of view, the so-called "responsibility" that impels a deconstructive, political critique emerges as an outcome of commitments that are strictly psychic, rather than moral, in character. …

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