Responsibility and Justice

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about “responsibility” and how it relates to “justice” following an anti-Landian encounter at a party recently (discussed here). This is something I see as being related to U/ACC in my understanding of that burgeoning theory of Acceleration and I’m going to continue to try make sense of it for myself here.

Whilst “responsibility” may be counter-intuitive to a position of anti-praxis at first glance, my interest in it at the moment is helping me to articulate a fission between my thoughts on philosophies of community and a number of recent life experiences — namely, my stringent and repeatedly expressed belief in the potency of politics of “community” as espoused by the likes of Bataille and Blanchot which has recently been ungrounded (but also, paradoxically, vindicated) by the reality of communities of trauma and the affects of accelerated entropy that haunt them in their pressurised coming-together.

I won’t go into too much detail about those experiences as they have taken shape more recently but they are epitomised for me by this tweet:

 

 

This tweet, at the time it was posted, felt like a well-deserved dig at the paradoxical affects of leftist politics on the broader function (or, rather, potential) of communal care. It felt like a symptom of a contemporary Leftist sociality, mutated by filter bubbles and the option to “block” and “mute” online, with the potential to enact versions of those things on a whim IRL having messy, self-defeating consequences.

I found myself bitterly thinking: What use is a politics of “community” when communities inevitably fall apart? What good is any community built on principles of insufficiency? How can any sort of “community” be constituted when we are so eager to abandon each other?

I was quickly frustrated at myself when, taking a step back, I realised that these were precisely the questions raised by Maurice Blanchot in his book The Unavowable Community, which I had read repeatedly and diligently over the previous 12 months. I was unable to see how those issues could be constituted in a reality shaped by a grief so long in the tooth, my vision clouded by stress and paranoia.

Community, in this sense, is not an object or a fenced-in group. Jean-Luc Nancy has poetically referred to it as the between “us”. Perhaps, then, we can think of “community” as a responsibility, a duty, to an immaterial rupture.

The assumption has always been that this is an ethical position but, in truth, I’m not interested in ethics so much as I’m interested in what Paul Mann, in his book Masocriticism, calls “anethics”:

Not anethics against ethics, but in the expectation that ethics will not be able to contain its subject, because ethics is precisely an attempt to formalize the laws that exceed it.

Neither ethics nor anti-ethics: anethics.

Anethics in lieu of ethics, in its place and beside it, ancillary to it and its very ground.

When thinking about a “responsibility to nothing” (described previously), I kept coming back to Paul Mann’s words, as well as to Bataille’s Blue of Noon.

Together, they have brought me to the writings of Simone Weil, which I hadn’t previously read in much depth, always already loyal to Bataille when considering their imagined intellectual sparring.

However, I had begun to suspect through readings of secondary literature that, perhaps, she and Bataille were not so different, both striving for a third way and each representing a mirrored pincer of the other’s position; the eros to the other’s thanatos (and vice versa).

I picked up Simone Weil: An Anthology earlier this week and I was struck to find the first essay, “Human Personaility”, seems to articulate its own anethics in a similar mode to Mann’s.

Weil writes:

I see a passer-by in the street. He has long arms, blue eyes, and a mind whose thoughts I do not know, but perhaps they are commonplace.

It is neither his person, nor the human personality in him, which is sacred to me. It is he. The whole of him. The arms, the eyes, the thoughts, everything. Not without infinite scruple would I touch anything of this.

If it were the human personality in him that was sacred to me, I could easily put out his eyes. As a blind man he would be exactly as much a human personality as before. I should not have touched the person in him at all. I should have destroyed nothing but his eyes.

It is impossible to define what is meant by respect for human personality. It is not just that it cannot be defined in words. That can be said of many perfectly clear ideas. But this one cannot be conceived either; it cannot be defined nor isolated by the silent operation of the mind.

To set up as a standard of public morality a notion which can neither be defined nor conceived is to open the door to every kind of tyranny.

The notion of rights, which was launched into the world in 1789, has proved unable, because of its intrinsic inadequacy, to fulfil the role assigned to it.

To combine two inadequate notions, by talking about the rights of human personality, will not bring us any further.

What is it, exactly, that prevents me from putting that man’s eyes out if I am allowed to do so and if it takes my fancy?

Does this not articulate the chasm between “justice” and “responsibility”?

To reject justice is not to deny or pardon the unjust but to acknowledge that justice (as a kind of judicial and theological reckoning) is not and can never be enough. The standards of public morality are inherently reductive, as Weil makes clear, and the solution is certainly not more bureaucracy.

We see this everywhere as “justice” is forever defined by its lack, unable to assail the walls of the legislative judiciary it seeks to provoke into action. The repetitive and already familiar spectacles orchestrated by #Justice4Grenfell or the US Gun Control lobby exemplify this.

It is in this way that “justice”, as an invoked idea that haunts reality, is a spectre. (I’m reminded here of Richard Gilman-Opalsky’s book Spectres of Revolt which is very good on this).

That is not to say that actions of social justice groups are futile. The noise they make is necessary, functioning as a kind of echo location, revealing just how low the glass ceiling of justice hangs.

Melancholy is an understandable response, but U/ACC anti-praxis (as all good political theories must now do) offers ways to process that melancholy.

Berger:

[U/ACC] simply asks that the limits and the inevitable dissolution of things be acknowledged […] the political-territorial subordination and navigation of the forces in motion by a mass subject – the politics of striation. For this reason, perhaps it is best to view U/ACC not as anti-praxis, but as anti-collective means of intervention.

Here we can see a connection between U/ACC and Bataille/Blanchot but, in order to clarify it further, it might be worth framing this articulation of a theory of anti-collective means of intervention in another way.

Is it not the “collective” that is repeatedly the “subject” of intervention by an outside?

This is not to give up agency, or to accept futility — it is to acknowledge the larger, unimaginably unjust forces at play, be they “nature” or capital or “justice” itself, and to take good account of them. We could call it an active nihilism, in a Nietzschean sense, but it is more than this.


Here’s another tweet from @cyborg_nomade (so many of their tweets have featured on this blog lately but they so regularly clarify a lot of my thinking):

“Responsibility” here comes to answer Weil’s question: “What is it, exactly, that prevents me from putting that man’s eyes out if I am allowed to do so and if it takes my fancy?”

It is a responsibility to outsideness.

The answer Weil gives to this question, however, is predictably Christian and limited as a result. She speaks in abstract terms of “the good”:

The good is the only source of the sacred. There is nothing sacred except the good and what pertains to it.

This profound and childlike and unchanging expectation of good in the heart is not what is involved when we agitate for our rights. The motive which prompts a little boy to watch jealously to see if his brother has a slightly larger piece of cake arises from a much more superficial level of the soul. The word justice means two very different things according to whether it refers to the one or the other level. It is only the former one that matters.

Every time that there arises from the depths of a human heart the childish cry which Christ himself could not restrain, ‘Why am I being hurt?’, then there is certainly injustice. For if, as often happens, it is only the result of a misunderstanding, then the injustice consists in the inadequacy of the explanation.

Here we can interpret this superficial level of injustice as being in line with Bataille’s “principles of insufficiency”, the very ground of “communication”. However, Weil’s foundation begins within rather than without.

It is the expectation that no evil shall be done to us from birth to tomb, and an acknowledge that this is an expectation shared within us all, that is the foundation of her ethics, but she never seems to reach out beyond to the other. There is no real consideration for the vast abrupt between beings where “community” wanders. Only the acknowledgement of an unshareable inner experience. Whilst this is where Weil ends, it is rather where Bataille begins.

Weil’s essay continues at length, invoking such interest-piquing sentiments as “the impersonal is sacred” but her descriptions of inner experience and the impersonal here fail to reach the heights that Bataille’s writings do. I need to read more of her work, of course, but the insinuation seems to be, on this first reading, that she advocates the position of a kind of Nietzschean Christianity… Parts ring true to me but as I read I miss Bataille’s active attempts to disintegrate his lingering religiosity.

There is also an echo of Emmanuel Levinas here — that most religious of ethicists who I still retain a great admiration for. His Judaism shines through without being given as a ground for itself in the way Weil wields her Christianity. The grounding of his ethics (as first philosophy) is articulated clearly as a “responsibility to outsideness”.

In the face of the other man I am inescapably responsible and consequently the unique and chosen one. By this freedom, humanity in me (moi) – that is, humanity as me – signifies, in spite of its ontological contingence of finitude and mortality, the anteriority and uniqueness of the non-interchangeable. […] Fear for the Other, fear for the other man’s death, is my fear, but is in no way an individual’s taking flight. [1]

Here, and in Weil’s exposition, I feel an echo of Crowley as emphasised by @cyborg_nomade in a string of comments related to my LD50 post:

 

 

 

The totality of the law of Thelema here seems to echo Weil’s insistence on the whole of man. This “whole” exceeds the transcendent boundary that legislation bureaucratically patrols. It is a self as seen outside the confinements of the law of the state. It positions itself in its whole as the whole of its law.


To come back to @cyborg_nomade’s January tweet, what does this “responsibility to outsideness” as anethics bring to these modulations on justice?

 

U/ACC certainly has a ring of Bataille’s The Accursed Share to it, and there is no clearer example of a revealing of just how vastly more unjust nature is than we can imagine.

Bataille’s theory of general economy, as found in The Accursed Share, is an attempt to formulate an economic system that does not limit itself to monetary exchanges. He seeks to build a model of a system of expenditure “from which a human sacrifice, the construction of a church or the gift of a jewel were no less interesting than the sale of wheat”; a system of the expenditure of forces and energies that is beyond the restricted purview of financial wealth.

For Bataille, economy is central to all — no discipline can escape it. Everything in the universe conforms to its general function of “excess energy, translated into the effervescence of life.” For Bataille, a general economy is less an avoidance of humanity and its politics but a making-space for its outside. In this way, Bataille’s theories and writings constitute, for me at least, an increasingly important reference point for political praxes and anti-praxes in our present moment.

In our new theoretical age of climate change, post-capitalism and endless theorising about the Anthropocene, perhaps Bataille’s theory could use a reorientation; a further expansion. Capital is certainly still central to all, but perhaps theories of ecology are better for applying Bataille’s provocations to our present moment and its various interscalar problems, allowing for an extension out into the cybernetic?

I have had a post brewing for months that started as a joke following a misreading — how many theories start their lives this way? — but now I think it might be worth taking it more seriously than I’d first intended.

Coming soon: “The Accursed Shore: An Essay on General Ecology”



Many thanks to Vince Garton for pointing out a bunch of ironically Marxist extensions of this position on Justice, this one in particular from The Communist Manifesto:

There are, besides, eternal truths, such as Freedom, Justice, etc., that are common to all states of society. But Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion, and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience.” What does this accusation reduce itself to? The history of all past society has consisted in the development of class antagonisms, antagonisms that assumed different forms at different epochs. […] The Communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involved the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.

Further bolstering Jehu’s position that most of Land can already be found in Marx.




[1] Emmanuel Levinas, “Ethics as First Philosophy” in The Levinas Reader, ed. Sean Hand (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 84-85.

I’d like to add that one of my favourite parts of this essay is Levinas’ extension of the Heideggerian Dasein and its relationship to death. This follows the quotation featured in the main body text above but will probably only serve to over-complicate the points I’m trying to make:

All affectivity therefore has repercussions for my being-for-death. There is a double intentionality in the by and the for and so there is a turning back on oneself and a return to anguish for oneself, for one’s finitude: in the fear inspired by the wolf, an anguish for my death. Fear for the other man’s death does not turn back into anguish for my death. It extends beyond the ontology of the Heideggerian Dasein and the bonne conscience of being in the sight of that being itself. There is ethical awareness and vigilance in this emotional unease. Certainly, Heidegger’s being-for-death marks, for the being, the end of his being-in-the-sight-of-that-being as well as the scandal provoked by that ending, but in that ending no scruple of being is awakened.

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