January 19, 2010

Radical Responsibility

The Postmodern mindset does not preclude an ethical orientation - far from it, as a matter of fact.

Avital Ronell:

Precisely where there's the pretense or claim for ultimate meaning and transparency - precisely where transcendental guarantors are stamping everything as meaningful, when no one needs to do the anxious guesswork of how to behave or what to do - that's when you are not called upon to be strenuously responsible, because the grammar of being, or the axiom of taking care of the Other, is spelled out for you. According to several registers of traditional ethics, things are pre-scripted, they're prescribed. You know everything that you are supposed to do; it's all more or less mapped out for you. What becomes difficult and terrifying, and what requires infinite translation of a situation or of the distress of the world, is when you don't have those sure markers. You don't have the guarantee of ultimate meaning or the final reward or the last judgement and must enter into unsolvable calculations, searing doubts. Anyone who's sure of themselves, of their morals and intentions, is not truly ethical, is not struggling heroically with the mandate of genuine responsibility. It is impossible ever to be fully responsible enough - you've never given or offered or done enough for those suffering, for the poor, for the hungry. That's a law shared by Dostoyevsky, Levinas, and Derrida: one never meets one's responsible quota, which is set at an infinite bar (hence the invention of the figure of Christ, our infinite creator).

You know, Plato created hell (thank you, Plato!) because he thought the citizens weren't up to the level of philosophical rigor. Why don't we invent hell, he offered, and give them a sense of this infantile punishment resort, or last resort, and let's add heaven - although he didn't occupy himself with heaven too much. It was hell that was supposed to strike fear into the citizens of the polis. And we still have that kind of habit of reverting to very simplistic and fantastical models that are supposed to keep people doing the right thing, keep their blinders on and fear factors in gear. But when those are lifted and you remember that it was a myth, a fiction, meant to scare people into behaving themselves and there's no clear prescribed remedial directive that you are supposed to follow, and there's no parental guidance on any level of being, then you are on your own. That's more work than having this kind of prefab superego-transmission system telling you "That's bad. That's good."

Regardless the efficacy of these thoughts, this is a clear picture of radical responsibility.

It should also be pointed out that, in spite of Ronell's anti-religious bias, religious thought itself does not preclude radical responsibility . . . though, in practice, that often seems to be the case. It's sort of a Philosophy 101 "so/necessarily so" problem: religious thought can take the form of a deep, never-ending personal quest for values, but more often seems to be a search for rules to live by, rules which relieve one of the responsibility for realizing one's own actions.

from Examined Life, edited by Astra Taylor

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