Monday 7 November 2011

Which cat is my neighbour?

Jacques Derrida had a cat. It had a name, although that appears to be lost in the mists of history/Google. If anyone knows the name of Jacques Derrida's cat, please get in touch. I would like to know.

Derrida talked about his cat as a way of talking about the difference between animals and human beings. But it also came up in a discussion he had with John Milbank about the perennial question: 'Who is my neighbour?' Derrida argues both that perfect justice is impossible and also that we ought to aim for it anyway. We are always falling short. Milbank suggests that the problem with this is that there's no way of choosing between the competing demands on us. "Nothing has more weight than anything else." Why should I feed this cat when there are thousands of starving cats all over the world with no one to feed them? For Milbank, traditional Christian theology gives us permission to treat some cats as more important than others. It's not just that it's ok to feed one cat and not the others; we're morally obliged to feed our cat above other cats. Those who are closer to us have a greater demand on us than those who are further away. The idea that I'm responsible for every cat assumes that I live in a society which has broken down, where if I don't look after the cat, no one will. And who wants an ethics based on social breakdown?

Derrida responds: it's not that nothing has more weight than anything else, it's that no one has more weight than anything else. Of course we feed our cat and not all the other cats. Of course we prefer our cat to the cat next door; of course I prefer my family to others. But our preferences should worry us. If everybody only looked after those who were closest to us, "it would be the ruin of ethics". I can't feed every cat, but I shouldn't have a good conscience about all the other cats who have no one to feed them.

Which cat is my neighbour? If I had to pick, I'd go with Derrida (though I'm also struggling with the question: What Would Žižek Think?). You?


Alastair said...

What happens to the subject in Derrida's approach to ethics? I wonder whether such an approach to perfect ethics demands the disappearance of the ethical subject (and ends up sacrificing ethics itself to a supposedly ethical indifference).

Christian ethics, as I understand it, never loses sight of the subject, even as it moves out from the subject in the process of neighbour-making. Perhaps this is because when the subject is denied, there is no longer any neighbour.

Marika said...

Derrida's ethics is very much one in which each subject has infinite responsibility for all other subjects. It's precisely because each subject is infinitely valuable that we can never satisfy the ethical demands on us just by taking care of the people closest to us. Does that answer your question?

Alastair said...

Not exactly. My concern is that the person who seeks to be ethical according to Derrida's ethics would end up negating themselves as a subject. Isn't our uniqueness and irreplaceability as persons inextricably bound up with the particularity of our close attachments? If the infinite value of each subject is a value located in large part in their relationship to particular other subjects, then any approach to ethics that necessarily abstracts the ethical person from this web of relationships devalues the infinitely valuable subject that it seeks to protect.

This is not to say that we can ever fully discharge the continuing duty that we have to love one another, and to relate to others outside of our immediate networks of relationships. However, our duty to practice an outward movement of neighbour-making is not the same as a duty to refuse to recognize different proximities of neighbours.

The particularly intense claims that those closest to us make upon us as ethical subjects is a tremendously humanizing thing, and protects us from the sort of God complex that might be wrapped up in Derrida's approach. Besides, I have seen a few too many cases where people elevating the pressing needs of individuals outside of their families to a level that led them to neglect their duties to those closest to them led to ugly and unpleasant consequences for all concerned to believe that this really is a healthy approach in either theory or practice.

catholicism in africa said...


I have been thinking about the religious stage of Kierkegaard’s stages in life ways; his night of faith ‘Abraham’ and the recent actions of terrorists like Osama bin laden who some radical Islamic group consider as a hero.

What exactly does Kierkegaard mean by saying that the religious has no recourse to the normal conventions that usually govern one's life: reason, rational inquiry, and objective analysis.

What exactly involve the paradoxical nature of the religious experience which cannot be discussed rationally and logically analyzed, but it is the most profound event in one's life and full of meaning.

Wouldn’t it be right to say that Osama bin laden and his radical Islamic views, which cannot be rationally and logically analyzed to be true just as killing Isaac wouldn’t have being true for Abraham; is the most profound event in his life?

i only ask this here because there was no contact page on your other blog. do pardon me. i just need your humble opinion.

Anticipating your reply.

Ben Goudie said...

Have you spoken about Derrida before? He gets a brief mention in the first line of 'Jokes with Slavoj' from November 2009, but I can't remember whether you've spoken about him in other contexts.

Marika said...

Alastair, I take your point, but I think Derrida is particularly concerned about the bad things that happen when we take our responsibility to those close to us as the limit of our ethical responsibility. One of this big themes is hospitality, and he talks about this in relation to the refugee, and what happens when we priorities our responsibility to our fellow citizens over our responsibility to refugees. Sure, there are bad things which happen when we neglect our responsibility to those close to us, but I don't think it's that contentious to think that the worst stuff in the contemporary world happens to those who are far away from us in the West and yet deeply and grievously affected by the choices we make here.

Ben, I haven't written about Derrida much before, although I've spent most of the past few months reading him or books about him, so I'm sure he'll crop up again!

Catholicism in Africa, I'm no Kierkegaard expert, but I think you're right that his idea of the religious makes it more difficult to condemn apparently unethical acts on the part of others. But the thing about Abraham's sacrifice is that it's not just totally removed from the ethical world, it's also purposeless and apolitical. There's no more goal or justification for it than just the claim that it was what God commanded. That's clearly not the case for Al Qaida's acts of terrorism, which occur within an ethical and political framework, even if it's one that seems pretty problematic.

Stu said...

My computer disallowed me from commenting earlier, so here's a second go:

I think that the Derrida/Cat/Milbank discussion is interesting because the disagreement is not so much about philosophical details, but about these enormous assumptions that are unspoken. So, it seems to me that Derrida's whole position is shaped by the assumption that good conscience is bad and bad conscience is (or must, therefore be) good. If you have a sense that the universe/God gives you an ordered set of priorities, you will feel more or less ok about your giving, and this will lead to complicity with violence, injustice, etc - he thinks that the posture that makes ethics possible is vigilence. Whereas Milbank thinks that hope is what makes goodness, generosity and the risk that these entail, possible.

I guess it's more complicated than that, but that's how it plays to me.

Maladjusted said...

Hey Marika,

It's been a while. I hope you're well in all things.

Just on Zizek: you probably remember him talking (on several occasions as he tends to) about how we often find it easier to feel sympathy for people as long as we can see them as (distant) victims. His point doesn't so much contradict the Derrida/Levinas thesis about the intimidating 'infinity' of possible ethical demands as remind us of how, in addition to this, we often find it much harder to sympathise with people who are doing something other than suffering -- people who are seen to threaten us not because their suffering carries an ethical demand that cannot be attended to without failing to listen to other (similar) demands, but because the 'enjoyment' of these others (in a sense that means at once their 'strange' pleasures and their ineliminable way of 'just-being-there') both can be interpreted as something that will threaten or otherwise spoil our own enjoyment. (Classic Zizek example than often follows about how racists and other kinds of bigots are always fascinated by the 'enjoyment' of the other -- their "perverse" sexual practices, strange smelling food, ways of 'getting something that we want for nothing...' et cetera and that positioning the Other as a victim, as merely the abstract source of an ethical demand can weirdly be a way of gentrifying the other, making her tolerable, making her something that you can lock back in the attic with a monthly Amnesty donation...)

Interestingly, I think that you could potentially subsume his point (that we sometimes take comfort in the visions of the metaphorically if not literally distant victim to ignore our neighbour in all her proximity) could potentially be subsumed into Derrida's point. For example, if I attend to the perceived ethical imperative to help a group of people who I see as suffering victims (say the survivors of an earthquake), I ignore (at least for the moment) all kinds of poor, alienated people who live in my city and who, when voicing their frustrations with the police, their lack of prospects or hopes are portrayed by the right-wing tabloids as sub-criminals. Derrida's point would be transcendental "all ethics must face the challenge of the impossible", whereas Zizek's adds a psychoanalytic twist: some 'impossible' demands are more possible than others...

P.S. I'm sure you have a million things to read at the moment, but I'd really recommend "The Neighbour", which Zizek co-writes with Eric Santner. Santner is someone I'd think who would intersest you, half Lacanian, half a disciple of Giorgio Agamben. You also have to love someone who can write a book with a title like the 'Psychotheology of Everyday Life."

Marika said...

Stu, I wonder whether it's more that Milbank and Derrida are distinguished by their attitudes to knowledge and certainty: Derrida thinks we can never be sure that we're doing the right thing, and he thinks that we can never be sure that we've arrived at The Right Way To Live; Milbank thinks we can work out which people/situations we're responsible for and which we're not. But your vigilance/hope distinction is interesting, not least because it strikes me that if you were looking for a Christian ethics, you can find hope AND vigilance pretty clearly in the New Testament.

Mal, thanks. It's funny, isn't it, that for all his discussion of the neighbour, Zizek never really (as far as I'm aware) addresses the question of the neighbour in terms of the question of who I am supposed to love, which is the core of the question 'Who is my neighbour?' I often feel, reading him, like he loses sight of other people insofar as they're more than just reflections of my own fragmented identity. There's certainly very little sense of what it means to belong to a community, and when, in The Monstrosity of Christ, Zizek sets out his ethical vision, it's just him, on his own, delivering vigilante justice to doctors complicit in the torture of other people.

Maladjusted said...

Dear Marika,

Thanks for the reply.

I think you're right to say that Zizek doesn't answer the question 'who am I supposed to love?', but I'm not sure it's true to say that he 'loses sight of other people insofar as they're not just fragments of my reflected identity.

In fact, I think that, up to a point, a large part of his work is dedicated to saying both "stop doing that!" (relating to others only as projections) and to pointing out just how difficult this is for us. Explaining: one of the goals of Lacanian psychoanalysis is, after all, among other things to break free of and stop listening to the 'chatterbox' of the ego (to break free of the realm of the imaginary) not in a Buddhist sense exactly, but in the sense of a tendency to miscrecognise ourselves in a series of emotionally-invested/positively 'cathected' images which, when contemplated, seem to provide us with wholeness and security. ('I'm a good hard-working person, not a bum, deep not superficial, tough not weak...or whatever...')

Lacan holds (or sort of holds) that because our being cannot be found in these images (it belongs to the order of language and society, and to something harder to grasp that is 'left over' from language and thus inacessible) we defend our 'imaginary' conceptions with aggression usually towards others on to whom we project (to make him sound a bit too much like Klein for a moment the 'bad', 'rejected' images of ourselves.) in fact, one of the major points in Lacan's earliest work is that human beings don't murder each other out of their animal nature, but out of the specifically human 'imaginary': we kill because the other is perceived to threaten/wound/disrupt the narcissistic image of ourselves which we would like other people to affirm or reflect.

Anyway, not to get distracted, I'm saying this because what the early Lacan talked of us as realising/accepting our alienation in the Symbolic involves if not exactly renouncing, but realising the role of those self-images through which we normally relate to others. (This is why the Lacanian psychoanalyst doesn't listen to the patient, nods, counts the money , refuses to affirm the patient's story, or to act like she has the truth of her desire). Zizek then, I thinks makes analysis a moment in a Pauline task. Explaining, Badiou once described Z.'s work as a kind of attempt at a general psychoanalysis, and I think that Zizek sees his work sometimes as about reminding us of the 'enjoyment' (jouissance) we get out of all sorts of things that we would otherwise (unconvincingly) say 'we should stop that, shouldn't we?' while continuing to do the worse. But, one of the points of such analysis is, I think, to help us take a first step towards thinking about what agape would be like, understood as the relations that would hold in an egalitarian society. For agape to be agape, Z. would insist it would have to be universal, it would have to avoid any basis in an assumed 'shared substance' (i.e. loving those who only share my interests, race, tastes, religion et cetera). But, then to be truly universal, it would have to be both beyond 'proximity' AND, at the same time, how beyond our tendency to occasionally value the distant, abstract victim above those whose threatening 'alien' presence can be taken to disturb our enjoyment. How to do this? I'm not sure, he says, but I think he would appeal to both Badiou, in saying that it would involve -work- -- constantly coming up with new strategies in the name of universalistic axioms and to Hegel in that it would need mediating institutions, narratives, cultural forms....Not sure if this helps, but I hope some of it might..



Marika said...

Yes, that's helpful, thank you! I guess my quibbles would be, firstly, that Zizek spends so long talking about how to recognise that the way we see others is really more about the way we projects aspects of ourselves onto them that he doesn't really talk about how we would relate to them in a way that wasn't fundamentally narcissistic; and secondly, that he does seem to suggest that the ethical is closely related to passionate attachment, elavating a contingent thing/person into 'the dignity of the thing' such that that attachment is the source of our ability/willingness to overturn the rest of the world.

Anonymous said...

I am commentating very late on this thread, so i will add only a quote: “Holding this soft, small living creature in my lap this way, though, and seeing how it slept with complete trust in me, I felt a warm rush in my chest. I put my hand on the cat's chest and felt his heart beating. The pulse was faint and fast, but his heart, like mine, was ticking off the time allotted to his small body with all the restless earnestness of my own.”
Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, which i would pair with Derrida's essay on poetry and learning by heart, 'che cos'e la poesia' (in Points… (about which Timothy Clarke in English at Durham has written very wonderfully). What could it mean for a heart to beat with 'restless earnestness', how could one pin down that value without stopping it? How other is this furry other? and you?