With Rousseau, we left behind the ontology and reified anthropology that had founded and closed off politics in the tradition before him; and we saw how this entailed responsibility for humankind as such. However, this responsibility was one towards a common good that was itself reified into the concept of the general will, which sets itself over and above particular wills. Thus, Rousseau’s central concept ends up closing off politics once again. The general will is a mode of thought that is available to all of us; it can never be destroyed, only muted. That aspect of immediacy was later criticized heavily by Nietzsche. Rousseau had politicized human nature by making it the outcome of contingent historical processses; Nietzsche is doing the same to morality itself. He shows that the responsible subject is not a given, but should be understood as a product of violence against one’s own life. Responsibility requires discipline: we have to be able to answer for ourselves across time in order to have the right to make promises. The self-disciplining that makes us into responsible subjects is for Nietzsche the result of ressentiment. It was out of ressentiment that the weak invented the idea of the free and moral subject (a being behind the doing), so that the strong could be cast as morally evil – and weakness as moral goodness. This is what Nietzsche calls the slave revolt of morality. The turning of instruments of repression against himself – this interiorization of man is what enables responsible subjectivity.
But Nietzsche does not stop there. Responsible subjectivity is in many ways hostile to life, but that does not mean that ethics is out of the equation entirely. With the figure of eternal recurrence, Nietzsche assumes an ethical perspective that has potentially transformative consequences without resorting to pre-established moral norms. In eternal recurrence, ethics functions as an instrument of affirmation rather than ressentiment. The responsibility that Rousseau situated on the level of ever-perfectible humankind as such is thus transferred to the individual understood as an ever-perfectible self-creating agent. This signals that we are even more responsible than before: not only in the sense of bringing forth a common good already available to all (Rousseau), but also in the sense of having to guide ourselves in terms of our own categorical imperative (Nietzsche).
Two criticisms need to be adressed at this point. First, as briefly discussed in the previous post, the move towards more responsibility in Nietzsche is accompanied and perhaps made possible by his exclusive focus on the individual. This seems to situate us precisely in ethical rather than political space, so that the notion of responsibility that we end up with is not politically meaningful. Second, even if we can in fact connect Nietzsche’s perspective to politics, is it not precisely irresponsible to ’emancipate oneself’ from the past entirely? Even if we grant that politics needs to separate itself from ontology, it seems that it is equally dangerous to reduce politics to an artistic exercise.
Both of these difficulties can be resolved by involving the work of Jacques Derrida. Often taken for a postmodern playful spirit who lacks philosophical substance and/or turns us away from addressing the real problems, he in fact offers an innovative account of responsibility that stretches back to the work of Carl Schmitt in virtue of the importance that is attached to decision. Madeleine Fagan (2016) shows us how Derrida can be understood as connecting politics and ethics in an innovative way. Let us begin to consider Derrida’s response to what we may call the grounding problem: should we leave everything behind when we apply eternal recurrence? Derrida provides a characteristacally double-edged answer. On the one hand, there is no responsibility without heterogeneity. In order to say that we bear responsibility for something, we cannot rely on an alibi, or in an ‘elsewhere’ that grounds our decision (Keenan 1997, 1): a determinable rule that we need only follow would reduce action and thus responsibility to “the application and deployment of a program” (Derrida 2005, 145). This element is very ‘Nietzschean’, one might say: for Nietzsche, there can be no necessary connection between the past and the action we are about to take if we are not to fall victim to the ressentiment of responsible subjectivity. We have understood Nietzsche as proposing an alternative responsibility that severs the connection between past and decision, which is also Derrida’s project: the decision needs to be heterogeneous in order to be a true action, and thus something one can be responsible for. But Derrida adds an important dimension by simultaneously insisting on, as he terms it, “knowledge and non-knowledge”: both are demanded by decision at the same time (Fagan 2016, 74).
We need to have knowledge, the best and most comprehensive available, in order to make a decision or take responsibility. But the moment and structure (…) of the responsible decision, are and must remain heterogeneous to knowledge. An absolute interruption must separate them (…). (Derrida 2005, 145)
In other words, we need to do as well as we can to structure the situation, without allowing the decision to be determined by said structure. In such a situation, and only in such a situation, where what is given or known is not absent but also not a determining force, responsibility becomes a central concept. Many would expect post-foundationalist ontology to represent a farewell to ethics and perhaps even a principled farewell based on the incompatibility of such an ontology and ethics in the classical sense. Derrida had already provided an answer to that question in the context of his reflection on the law and justice: there is no sense in which deconstruction (or critique in a more general sense) corresponds to “an abdication before the ethico-political-juridical question (…)”. To engage in deconstruction is rather to accept a “responsibility without limits”, precisely because the demands of justice, which is present in its absence, can never be fully satisfied and the horizon of justice continues to be simultaneously available to us and outside our reach (Derrida 1992, 19; 25).
Translating this into our vocabulary, we see that the very differential play between politics and the political that reveals the fissure of political difference implies a sense in which politics insofar as it is present, crystallized into institutional form, and available as a tool for improving society, does not satisfy the criterion of the political. But this non-satisfaction is only possible against the horizon of an ideal: the “value” of an “[impossible] universality that no politics can do without” (Butler 2002, 33). We are back at Laclau’s impossible necessity of total signification; ethics and ontology almost touch each other here. Ontology dictates that politics is only possible as a disruptive event; ethics shows us the importance of a perspective that emancipates politics from its ‘past’ and is led by its own logic rather than by foundations or mechanisms external to it. Yet, as Derrida also teaches us, what is really at stake in politics and ethics – the distinction between them has become rather blurred – is an irreducible “heterogeneity between (…) two linked orders”, namely the order of knowledge and that of action, where both the link between them and the element of decision inscribe themselves into action, and with equal force (Derrida 2005, 25-26). One order cannot ‘program’ the other, but the two orders are also not entirely separate.