Notes on Ethics and Difference

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alterity / decision / difference / erasure / ethics / joy / metaphysics / morality / multiplicity / music / one / ontology / orientation / other / parasite / presence

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.

The Author

mostly noise and glare


  1. i’m a bit of a slow-thinker so let me ask you a couple of questions, hopefully they are a result of my lack of context rather than intended confusion on your part – so “compairing” music to ethics opens with a cool but somewhat unclear (for me) section:

    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”?

    why quotation marls around “conceptual” and “atonal”? why “conceptual OR contrapuntal? are you comparing conceptuality and counterpoint? what’s the analogy? so “a difference at the heart of identity” is conceptual – that’s sort of an obvious point, isn’t it? – or contrapuntal – so you’re saying conceptuality is a sort of counterpoint that combines multiple lines of thought? so second part: “as well as non-conceptual and ‘atonal’ – thus ‘a difference at the heart of identity’ is both conceptual and non-conceptual, but – and here’s my problem with your music analogy – contrapuntal and atonal or contrapuntal and “atonal”? counterpoint is somewhat of a science when it comes to harmony and tonality; ‘atonality’ on the other hand usually refers to a different area of music theory as far as i can tell – you can contrast ‘tonal’ and ‘atonal’ as a sort of ‘system’ and ‘rejection of that system/chaos/aleatory sound’ – anyway, i thought whatever you were trying to communicate in that sentence got completely lost for me…

    Pure musical transformation precedes and makes possible the linearized inscription of musical notes onto paper.

    again, not sure what this means – “linearized inscription of musical notes” – musical notation, especially since the times of polyphony/counterpoint is not linear at all, in fact, the majority of music as we know it is mutlidimensional if you take either a traditionally tonal or atonal kind. To imagine musical notation as an example of uni-directionality and linearity is, it seems to me, a rather strange move. And what is “pure musical transformation”? What is being transformed? Why “pure”?

    maybe i’m just reading too much into your observations and it is all easily resolved with a pair of clarifications…

  2. No, your questions are excellent. Keep in mind that section is a sort of preface to the serious theoretical point about the ‘non-unity’ of ethics — in other words, ethics is like music in that there are (roughly) two basic orientations towards ‘law’ or ‘structure.’ (Concept = specific difference = counterpoint or “harmony” — a sort of “prison” for our ears.) It seems like you have indeed picked up on the essential point (“playing” in terms or not in terms of a “system,”) but perhaps not the underlying analogy, or logic of “orientation” I’m (attempting to) evoke. Basically, my point here is that ethics is like music because behind both there is a force expending itself in relation to a mobilization or distribution of intensities: I am trying to think about what it means for a flow of energy or thought process to become oriented towards a structure, or towards what is otherwise-than-structure. In other words, the “deepest” point I’m trying to make regarding music in connection with ethics has a simple expression: music is essentially joy, a “pure” mode of expression. (Which is not to say that musical transformation cannot be blocked in by “limitative” structures… and also not to say that there can also be a real positivity in this limitation, even perhaps that unlimited creativity “naturally” produces limitation in order to become generative — but when these limits no longer function generatively, it’s time to begin to cautiously “disarticulate” them…)

    I hope this clarifies the difficulty somewhat; again, thank you for illuminating this obscurity! Also, I feel I should mention this is more like a “work in progress” and not a completely “tight” theoretical document (like “Beyond Desire” or the piece on holography and information.)


  3. i suppose i am missing a larger context – however, if i may ask some more questions vis-a-vis what i think is your idea of “music”:

    ethics is like music in that there are (roughly) two basic orientations towards ‘law’ or ’structure.’

    what are these two orientations? what do you mean by ‘structure’ here?

    music is essentially joy, a “pure” mode of expression

    can you say more about this part? i’m not sure i would agree with it on the face of its meaning – if ‘joy’ is an emotion of joy, pleasure, a simple ‘i like’ than music certainly does produce such effects, but only a certain kind of music and not music in general. again, why is ‘pure’ in quotation marks and what does “pure” mode of expression means here in relation to your discussion of music?

  4. Wonderful questions. OK — your second question is the more complicated one. A good answer to it should answer your first question as well.

    Exactly: music is not just ‘enjoyment,’ the English word doesn’t capture nearly the force we need to express. We’re talking not just about the movement of expression (ordinary feelings,) but the expression within expression (pure transport, Dionysian ecstasy,) the pure or “spiritual” movements which comprise the essence of music…

    The motion proper to music is poetry, a ‘falling’ or ‘rising towards’ another ontological dimension entirely, the opening of a truly new universe within the structured space of a melodic flow. And this brings us to the properly ontological question — your first, about structure — and the real question, as always for ontology, is whether we’re “rising up” towards the first principles, the essences or forms in themselves, or whether we’re “descending down” towards things, fluxes, presence and absence, complexity, difference…

    I think the real point is that there’s no radical division between these two movements: we don’t ever know if we’re close to “first” principles. There are no first principles — unless we consider “difference” itself to be a principle, which means we need an entirely new ontology. In fact “ontology” is already the wrong word, because it’s not about being, etc… So I don’t like “starting” within ontology, I like to work from the outside in — to extrude from within it things which echo or stutter or fluctuate, rare and curious essences, glimpses of alterity. All this is swarming within classical metaphysics.

    The critical challenge is to produce new concepts — and I wonder if by analogy, if there are two orientations in ethics, if there aren’t two completely different ways of learning and playing music, indeed, “two” musics, or even a specific difference written into the essence of music itself — loudest in silence, present at its most absent, etc. In some important sense, music is surreality itself, an infinite virtuality, a canvas for synaesthetes…

    Thank you again for your illuminating questions!


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