Notes on Ethics and Alterity
1. From Music
Could we imagine that the ethical is a musical progression, and has the same sort of double articulation as a musical passage?
Modulated by a more primary force than itself, a difference at the heart of identity — already “conceptual” or contrapuntal, as well as non-conceptual and “atonal”? An expression of specific difference in terms of standard variations, modulations of “key,” shifts in tonality or “meter”; and also expressive immediately of pure difference in terms of grouped pulses, percussive and tonal intensities, that is to say, rhythmic and melodic qualities, whose innate expressivity precedes and makes possible the hierarchical modal arrangement of tones, the production of tonal and rhythmic ‘centers’ or ‘attractors.’
Pure musical transformation precedes and makes possible the linearized inscription of musical notes onto paper. Ethics sounds in silence, speaks through ruptures and cracks in walls; in transformation it is the voice of caution.
Hold back, do not exhaust yourself.
But also: Have faith, keep playing, light is all around you.
The “rules” of music are technical — abstract and mathematical — but also epistemological, cultural, perceptual — which is a science no less rigorous, yet anexact — a robust science of emotions and dynamisms.
A science of pure music.
I ask: In what sense is ethics any different?
2. Desire and Erasure
The ethical appears within language as a possibility, an anticipation of a form of “pure” expression; properly speaking it names the “light” and “enlightening” gesture of radical apology, which turns thought towards a constitutive difference or asymmetry within sociality itself. Shared reality is always-already oriented, but ambiguously so that it may be read in either direction simultaneously. The practice of ethics opens asymmetries, interpenetrates social multiplicities into one other, produces transcendence within immanence. In other words the ethical is a specific difference, turned inside-out (having crossed the void which was always “folded” within itself.) Ethics occurs beyond and before ontology, it is a soundless word, the “non-figure” of the relation to alterity which precedes delimitation, even as it opens the possibility of isolation, “lack”, all manner of thoroughly negative “unities.” And already ethics is the trace of a pragmatics of de(con)struction, cautiously unbinding these kinds of negative limits within society, even within our own relation to others. The ethical does not limit enjoyment but violence.
Ethics, not “morality,” is the figure of the “originary” unbinding of slavery to any One, the annihilation of the sense of ‘self’ as subject, and the slow, difficult, painful construction of a free, yet interconnected ‘self’ (in some sense “positively” interdependent.) Alterity is infinity: ethics owes its proper method to this formula, which is Emmanuel Levinas’ groundbreaking, difficult and uncanny insight. Following upon this “overturning” or “re-orientation” of metaphysics, we shall to attempt to discover how, as a political “translation” of this idea of infinity, ethics tends to degenerate into two “dominant” styles of expression or decisional modalities which, despite their inter-relation, produce a dis-unity at the heart or essence of ethics and that to which it is turned — towards sociality, towards immanent alterity. In a sense these are already “moralities” and not truly ethical movements.
The primary orientation produces (“liberating”) forms of sociality; the second distinguishes as primary the production of conditions under which there can be (“free”) expression. They are not actual procedures of revealing the essence of ethics, but they are natural orientations one can take “from” the ethical. The hermeneutical problem which arises is that this orientation away from the alterity which both presuppose is itself a paradox; because both movements are revolutionary they both escape from the radical non-unity of ethics proper — they turn away from alterity, and hence turn in upon themselves, their lived social and political conditions — and immediately apply their “natural” ethical orientation in order to transform social relations.
However, ethics is not a decision but precisely the pre-decisional orienting movement itself. Ethics turns towards alterity, towards the infinitely other. Hence, the two “unconscious” movements away from ethics are in some sense symmetrical paradoxes, and though possessing radically distinct orientations, both directions are conjoined in terms of their production of a politics of “absolute” origins, a politics which turns away from the other in the name of ethics. We shall attempt to undermine each of these readings’ absolute claim upon ethics. Their behavior in terms of a re-unification of ethics is to some degree “rational,” since we after all grant that it is quite dangerous that ethics is such a poorly-united essence — however, the effort to “unite” ethics is misguided, it is not an essence or a One. We have reason to fear over-clarity as much as obscurity.
What seems incontestable, however, is that in either “reading,” ethics takes either the form of the two (in the primary sense mentioned before) or of the multiple (in the secondary sense,) and so ethics in the form of unity is already a particular morality, not “ethical” per se but already entrenched within the relativity and exegesis of absolute Law. Furthermore, on either orientation, we see the ineradicable trace of an entire ontology. However, in order to clarify ontology, we have need an ethics not of the two, not even of infinite multiplicity, but of infinite alterity itself.
For ethics precedes ontology. Ethics is precisely freedom from the absolute unity of law, already the difficult approach towards what is otherwise-than-One, otherwise than presence, even otherwise than multiplicity. Ethics aims for the Good, which is the essence of alterity. In this sense, the “ethical” problem is properly speaking an ethics of ethics, and it is not about “rights” or “virtue” or “pleasure” — but rather precisely the relation to the Other, the twin problems of freedom and expression.
Though ethics is not unified, not hierarchichal, we can describe it in general as a science of enjoyment, an art of joy. This captures the primary sense, but not the force of what intend to say, which is this: ethics is joy itself.
3. Joy and Difference
What? Have we really mistaken pleasure for enjoyment — and even made ethics itself confused? How quickly we forget — how quickly we repress? — the radical anarchy of joy, the infinite chaos of enjoyment. For so long “reason” and even “love” stood in opposition to this primary orientation to the other; instead of finding in the social relation the primary relation itself, instead of turning to respond to the other, dogmatic thought slavishly and repetitively calls for the “real” first question, which must be question of the place of principles and our theoretical “orientation” to the form of Law, in short, how to create and use rules in society… This is a very old question, indeed the first purely “ontological” question: are we on our way to or from first principles?
We perceive that the question of orientation already here appears in a derived form: an entire metaphysics precedes this ontological consideration, the very structure of this question describes not one but two equivocal (ethical) modalities or “regimes.” Hence, the mystical authoritarianism of ethics, its “final” injunction, its self-proclaimed “completion,” will here be in question.
For the divergent impulses which unfold in the essence of the ethical itself are, in an important sense, a unity through pure difference — that is, both smooth and discontinuous, always conjoined and always conflicting — because there are at least two “readings” or “directions” of an ethical statement.
Ethics is complete and incomplete: along these lines it is possible to formulate the structure the primary question of the ethical as the decision upon alterity. It is not the ontological question of what is excluded, what remains “outside,” but rather a metaphysical question about alterity.
This decision may or may not be explicitly stated; or it may be stated only to be erased or forgotten; it may be stated as a premise or consequence or as a procedure for moving from one to the other. The structural location of the decision-upon-alterity within the conceptual model determines the broad orientation of the ethical system with regard to alterity; however two systems may appear to be nearly identical, except for this decision there is no similarity between them.
For there is a distance or difference in the heart of ethics itself, an isolation or radical atheism at the “non-center” of ethics. Because of the openness, the fragility, the vulnerability of this “non-position,” for any ethical statement, there exist two “obvious” yet inverse directions (that is to say, at least two senses) in which it may be “read” — produced or enacted — and hence two operative and divergent impulses, attempting to create joy.
Ethics is thus doubly-written, falsified as a “unity” or “essence,” in fact an absent relation to a relation — in other words, a one-way passage, a space of transformation — in some sense, the social relation as such. The ethical is a relation without relation, a relation with infinity. Now, here is one way to state as a “orientative” question this divergence at the heart or essence of the ethical. Does the ethical simply conjoin images to movements as a decisional procedure — in a bifurcation of series, or unlimited multiplication of essences?
Or, on the contrary, is the ethical creative and passive at once, a creation through holding back, a passivity which is genesis, perhaps even force itself — a differential element of willing which pulses with the entire cosmos — the “flowers” of evil? The malice which invents (even impossible) problems is a supremely ethical agency — producing unforeseen revolutions in thought and action — ascending to and overturning the law, or descending beneath and undermining it.
Ethics before being, an absence which holds itself back — in order to reach a point of pure difference where new possibilities unfold — in some way, time does not flow except from the other. Thought begins the journey of metaphysics when it turns toward the absolutely other, and it has reached the impossible “center” of ethics when it responds.
4. The Void and the Other
The void, the lack, the “problem” — this is the core of our mystery itself. Voids are never ‘lonely’ — they find a way to parasite everything, to suture to being, to fracture systems of solid objects and fill in the cracks. As a singular essence, they connote the impure paradox of relative contradiction (an absence issuing from presence,) that is, as already “being” themselves an expressive positivity-in-emptiness sounding in the noisy boundaries “between” solid forms.
A parasite: a noisy collective, issuing in waves and swarms, hijackers, diverging flows of energy — the atom of a relation, and as ‘multiplicity’ effectively a univocal difference-in-itself. “Lack” is parasitic, already disorientation: the vacuum idealized, producing a universal language of absolute heterogeneity, a cosmic “style” without unification, an idea without boundaries: emptiness as “such.” No doubt already religion. What we “have” is essentially a formless form: the approach to the other is made through an infinite nothingness, an absence at the heart of identity, the pure void of absolute transformation.
Hence traversing the gap between myself and the other, “reorientation” is a transcendence of presence, that is, already a response to the “full” presence of the Other. Approached in ecstasy, the pure enjoyment of youth, the world and the other open up in univocity. Yet an important danger exists here on this thin line — the art of disarticulation is caution — but through following transversal lines which break with imaginary forms, we find the noisy world: impossibly, here we discover life itself — enjoyment, hope, laughter, light, warmth. In the heart of emptiness we build a home, we welcome the Other in — the parasitic logic underlying expression itself.
Language is a parasite of being. But “parasite” should be understood neutrally as well — the form of enjoyment is irrelevant — it is our excess of noise, that is to say our indigence and lack of enjoyment, which mirrors the mysterious lack within the other, and is already the uncanny principle by which ethics subverts alterity into infinity. Desire is always alterity, a repetition which unbinds identity, a pure multiplicity without concept. As first philosophy, ethics restructures or rather reorients thought — away from the Same and towards Presence, towards the infinite, towards the Other.