Posted by: HAT | April 25, 2009

An Ethics of Dissensus (!!)

To the Unknown Voice, Kandinsky

To the Unknown Voice, Kandinsky

I spent Zoe’s swim practice on Friday reading the Afterword of Ewa Płonowska Ziarek, An Ethics of Dissensus: Postmodernity, Feminism, and the Politics of Radical Democracy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001).

(I started with the “afterword” because I thought I could get through that in an hour, rather than chapter 5, which discusses Irigaray’s “labor of the negative,” and its role in developing a viable ethics for a postmodern radical democratic politics, although chapter 5 is still on the agenda. I’ve already tried working my way through the first couple of chapters, but it was about a year ago, and I can’t say I understand it all the way. Just enough to be sure this is an important book and full of good ideas.)

Ziarek’s project is to work out an ethical theory that takes into account the difficulties with the “politics of difference without ethical stakes” — if I understand this, and in my own less sophisticated terms, the kind of allegedly value-free accommodationist “diversity” politics that would tolerate just about anything for the sake of respecting difference — and “the search for the normative criteria of justice transcending the antagonisms of race, class, sexuality, and gender” (217) — again, my own interpretation, something that would lead in an ideological direction, and would (as it has in the past) privilege some one term under the guise of universality. So, she works at “bringing together discourses that rarely engage each other — poststructuralism, feminism, psychoanalysis, race throy, and the politics of radicao democracy . . .”(217) to draw out their mutual relevance.

She “foregrounds” antagonism, and thus “the formative role of power in the constitution of identities, discourses, and bodies.” (218) Taking antagonism seriously keeps theory from premature “transcendence” with appeal to consensus or “higher moral principles,” and makes us work at rethinking freedom, obligation, and the relationship of ethics and politics. In particular, she is concerned (drawing on Levinas and Lyotard) about “social conflicts that cannot be resolved because the wrong is not signifiable in the discourse in which the articulation and regulation of conflict takes place.” (218) That politics of the “differend” constitutes a radical limit to justice as viewed from any approach that aims at consensus or normative regulation.

Then, she draws on Foucault, Butler, and the whole postmodern discourse about the constitution of bodies to “stress the formative role of power not only in the constuction of political identities but also in the materialization of bodies.”(218) My interpretation: antagonism, the way it plays out in political practice and in contested ethical discourse, produces or materializes sexed, racialized, classed, etc. bodies. “The body” isn’t abstract, and isn’t simply natural & given; we encounter it as produced, discursively “materialized”, always already meaningful, and meaningful in a way that embodies the antagonistic power relations that produce and materialize it/them. “This reformulation of antagonism foregrounds both the unconscious mechanisms of sexual and racial fantasies consolidating power relations and the traumatic impact of racial terror and sexual violence.”(218)

This is great stuff, which I wouldn’t have seen half as clearly before reading Kelly Brown Douglas’ Sexuality and the Black Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), but which, since I did read that just recently, provides a ready example of just the set of complicated racialized/sexualized fantasies and terrors and cultural accommodations and injuries and ongoing consequences Ziarek is talking about.

The consequence of this jointly ethical and political project is that “this ethics is primarily transformative: it aims to change the unjust power relations and to assume an infinite responsibility for violence and the oppression of others.”(219) She terms this “the ethos of becoming” and “the ethos of obligation” simultaneously, identifies it as a shift “from moral law to the event” which “locates responsibility in the always asymmetrical, embodied relation to the Other,” and “redefines freedom as an engagement in the experimental praxis aiming to surpass historically sedimented identities and to create new modes of life.”(219) So — freedom becomes the taking on of the task of the angel of history, in a sense, in the context of a community (?) of antagonistic others subjectivized in racialized, sexualized, classed, and various other ways, with an aim of “the creation of new configurations of power relations”(219) — obviously, characterized by more attention to the silenced, excluded, disempowered — which “stresses the radical futural dimension of democratic politics”(219) — the dimension of utopian expectation, note — and “opens up an unpredictable relation to the future, which exceeds calculations, anticipation, and aspirations of the political agents.”(219)

Then, she goes on for another couple of pages working out the specific connection of the unconscious, fantasy, terror, its sedimentation in identities and political antagonisms and its role in the cementing of ideology and unjust relations of power . . . but now I have to get ready to go to a swim meet, so will have to get to making notes on that a little later.

Suffice it to say I have underlines, little asterisks in the margins, and key words up in the corner of p. 219, since Ziarek’s articulation of this politics or ethos of becoming/obligation seems to me the horizon of the utopian discourse being approached by Adorno, Irigaray, and Agamben. Ziarek is my new hero!!

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