Simon Critchley on Nihilism, Ethics, and the Democratic Deficit

Here is a link to a video of Simon Critchley at the European Graduate School. His talk begins with Nietzsche on the problem of Nihilism and moves on towards his meta-ethical schema of the infinite demand.

Some take-away notes:

– In thinking with Nietzsche we have lost belief in the world. The final moment of nihilism is the understanding that the true world of being is an illusion and there is only “the reality of becoming”.

– the Christian will-to-truth has been inverted. What was true has been found to be false and meaninglessness sets in: “”why?” finds no answer.”

– Nietzsche is not a nihilist according to Critchley but develops his philosophy as a counter-movement to nihilism.

– Nietzsche’s eternal return is the ultimate a test of endurance. It is the most burdensome thought one can have and one’s ability to endure the eternal return is a measure of one’s strength.

– Critchley interprets the eternal return as an ethical thought, and Nietzsche as a “super-Kantian” who gives a moral law without any metaphysical guarantee. He acknowledges that there are other competing interpretations. “Nietzsche is like the Talmud”.

– the response to nihilism has taken on a split between active and passive forms.
Passive nihilism being a withdrawal from the world that has been lost: give it all up, it’s gone.
Active nihilism being the project of destroying the old world and creating a new one.

– this distinction is a mere model though, alternatives and mixtures between the two could be devised.

– Kant’s categorical imperative is an autonomous choice of a subject, an internal agreement with the Universal moral law.

– Levinas’s ethics is a heteronomous confrontation of the face of the other that is transformed in his later work into an movement that invades the subject and divides it. The dividual, schizo-subject is torn between itself but by an external other that demands its commitment.

– Critchley believes that ethics is by nature an infinite demand that splits a subject in two and internalizes the ethical responsibility to the other. This is a “Meta-Ethical” schema of
(approval demand).

– Critchley is holding out for the formation of an Hegemonic body-assemblage composed of ethical subjects centered around a name (LGBT, Migrant, Worker, etc.).

– he is vocally unconcerned about an internalized self-hatred. Nietzsche is very concerned with it, and takes great pains to diagnose the resentment of the slavish weakness of morality vs. ethics.

– **Critchley does not make a hard distinction between Ethics and Morality**

– his Meta-Ethics is the Logic of Debt.

This is especially interesting in his engagement with David Graeber in the end of his book Infinitely Demanding. Since then, the greatest force for social change in my view has been the occupy movement of which Graeber has played a big role in. The Strike Debt movement similarly has a wide reaching potential to completely transform the world-economy and rescue us from this prolonged Capitalist crisis. But here is a series of very weighty questions that arise form this debate:

Will a revolutionary movement today come from a hegemony of dividuals committed to an ethical principle and organized around a name? Or is the logic of indebtedness – individuals perpetually behind on their internalized responsibility to pay back their borrowed value – precisely what is to be challenged?

Would a post-nihilist ethic still necessarily involve this Meta-Ethical structure or would it be possible to reinterpret debt as the basis for social cooperation instead of a theological skeleton?

A one point in his The Faith of the Faithless, Critchley says “To be is to be in debt.” In a Heideggerian exegesis on the structure of belief. The subjective ethical demand is and remains based on an ontology still tinged with the image of thought that can be rooted in the (subject-object) distinction.

Later in the lecture, Critchley misinterprets Foucault’s work on the care of the self as an ethics that he subscribes to, rather than a genealogy of the subject as it was formed in the long history of Greek-Roman-Christian technologies. Couldn’t we imagine a revolutionary practice that does not take the form of a moral subject?

Perhaps one way to respond to nihilism would be to refuse the ethical demands that are placed on one and resolutely declare: “I am not in your debt anymore”. Perhaps Striking at Debt would be a viable post-nihilist praxis. One way or another, getting past nihilism is only the beginning.


Author: billrosethorn

(Geo)Philosopher. Building bridges between populism and geopolitics for fellow earthlings.

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