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  • Maintaining the Other
  • Kelly Pender
Review of: Simon Critchley, Ethics, Politics, Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas, and Contemporary French Thought. London: Verso, 1999.

In his latest collection of essays, Ethics, Politics, Subjectivity, Simon Critchley extends and modifies the discussion of deconstruction and ethics that he put forward in his earlier book, The Ethics of Deconstruction. Like that earlier work, Ethics, Politics, Subjectivity examines the nature—or rather, the possibility—of ethics and politics after (or during) deconstruction in relation primarily to the work of Jacques Derrida and Emmanuel Levinas. In contrast to his position in the earlier book, however, Critchley’s reading or assessment of Levinasian ethics in Ethics, Politics, Subjectivity is, as he puts it, “a critical reconstruction” (ix). Specifically, he extends, deepens, and modifies his arguments about the “persuasive force” of Levinasian ethics in regard to deconstruction. One way of reading Ethics, Politics, Subjectivity (a way that Critchley seems to encourage in the preface) is to see the culmination of this consideration of the subject in his affirmation of the political possibilities of deconstruction (chapter 12).

However, because Critchley investigates subjectivity outside the issues of deconstruction and politics, it would be unfortunate to read his essays strictly in terms of such a culmination. For instance, his discussions of subjectivity, ethics, sublimation, and art in “The Original Traumatism: Levinas and Psychoanalysis” (chapter 8) and in “Das Ding: Lacan and Levinas” (chapter 9) provide a reconstruction (or an additional reading) of Levinasian ethics outside of the question of politics. In addition, and more importantly in regard to the aims of this review, Critchley’s careful treatment of subjectivity distinguishes Ethics, Politics, Subjectivity from a number of “postmodern” treatises on the subject. It is, I think, this carefulness (which is enacted as much as it is expressed) that makes the strongest case for the political possibilities of deconstruction.

When I say “postmodern” treatises on the subject, I am referring to the work in a number of fields (e.g., literary theory, rhetoric and composition, and cultural studies) that takes for granted the dissolution of the humanist subject, declares its epiphenomenal status, and then celebrates postmodernism’s victory over the Enlightenment, or homo rhetoricus’s victory over homo seriosus, often taking for granted the ascendancy of ethics over politics. Often these arguments contend that politics are based on the assumption that humans are free to deliberate on issues, to express opinions, and take collective action. However, since the means of reaching consensus are always already predetermined by hegemonic, capitalistic forces, the political endeavor—as traditionally understood, for example, in terms of various ideologies of the Enlightenment—is a doomed endeavor. It is on this basis that some scholars attempt to distinguish the ethical from the political, and in doing so advocate new modes of subjectivity or post-subjectivity—for instance, following Deleuze and Guattari, the schizophrenic or rhizomatic modes; following Baudrillard, the seductive mode; and following Gorgias, the sophistic mode. In fact, it is the question of subjectivity that seems to drive these arguments; that is, the exigency for their discussion of ethics and politics is the dissolution of the humanist subject. While I do not want to imply that such arguments are simplistic or unwarranted (since Quintilian’s “good man speaking well” is indeed alive and thriving), I do want to suggest that this exigency potentially leads to totalizing conceptions of the subject, or, conversely, of the dissolution of the subject, as well as problematic conceptions of the relationship between ethics and politics.

It is precisely this exigency that Critchley problematizes in his third chapter, “Post-Deconstructive Subjectivity.” By turning Heidegger’s critique of Husserl (and Descartes) back onto Heidegger, Critchley explores the possibility of a conception of the subject outside of metaphysics. Specifically, he argues that the very grounds that distinguish Dasein from a contemplative subject (the openness to the call to Being) can be read metaphysically, which is to say that they can be read as modes of authentic selfhood. “It is Dasein,” he claims, “who calls itself in the phenomenon of conscience, . . . and the voice of the friend that calls Dasein to its most authentic ability to be . . . is a voice that Dasein carries within it” (58). Based...

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