Ethics of the Other? Badiou on Levinas

Alain Badiou on Emmanuel Levinas:

concerning the ‘ethics of the other’ and whether it has a future…from Alain Badiou’s Ethics:

Summary of Levinas: The greek origin of metaphysics has subordinated all thought to the logic of the Same, that of substance and identity. The metaphysics makes it impossible to encounter the Other in its alterity, incapable of recognizing the Other without violence, and therefore allows for no truly Ethical relations. So, Levinas argues, we must leave the Greek origin and return to the Jewish tradition. In the Jewish tradition, the ‘thou’ immediately disarms the ‘I’ of the reflexive subject. The encounter with the Other precedes, is beyond, a relation of similitude.

Badiou’s question is: how to decide that the encounter with the face, touch, of love with another is really with an Other, and not really a mimetic recognition? Mimetic recognition is when I see the other reflected as myself (narcissism, which is outlined preeminently in psychoanalysis). Badiou says that the encounter with the Other is just as likely to be merely mimetic recognition when view phenomenologically (which is how Levinas is grounding it). But the choice is not decided between the Other or the Same based in the phenomena.

So, Badiou claims, Levinas must undergird the encounter with the Other by an altogether Other, God. In this move, Levinas conflates the thoughts of philosophy to that of theology. And not even a theology as such, but really into an absolute Ethic. In this way, Levinas shows that all ethics freed of metaphysics must ultimately be pious discourse.

So, the first conclusion, is that all derivations of Levinas’ ethics, which go under the names of ‘ethics of the other’, ‘ethics of difference’, ‘recognition of the other’, ‘multiculturalism’, and also attempts to suppress the pious, religious discourse will inevitably regress into mere ideology supporting the reigning capitalist-liberalism.

Second conclusion… “the whole ethical predication based upon recognition of the other should be purely and simply abandoned” b/c of its religious affiliation. Instead, “the real question…is much more that of recognizing the Same” (25).

Argument: Badiou’s axiom, “There is no God. Which also means: the One is not. The multiple ‘without-one’—every multiple being in its turn nothing other than a multiple of multiples—is the law of being.” This ‘without-one’ of reality of overlapping and situated multiplicities admits of infinity in the ordinary fabric of life, rather than as a transcendent intrusion as for Levinas. According to Badiou’s axion (and here is his speaking of ontology via mathematical set theory), all this is is already infinite difference. This infinite overlapping of differences (from physics, to biology, to animals, up to cultural difference) is not a surprise, nor need for special comment, and especially not the creation of an ethical theory. Difference is all that there is, but is that what has to be.

So, “philosophically, if the other doesn’t matter it is indeed because the difficulty lies not on the side of the Same. The Same, in effect, is not what is (i.e. the infinity multiplicity of differences) but what come to be. I have already named that in regard to which only the advent of the Same occurs: it is a truth. Only a truth is, as such indifferent to differences…the truth is the same for all”(27).

The ‘ethics of the other’ then does not cast anything new on the field of humanity, but merely assert that differences should be respected, which easily deflates into the rhetorical tolerance of liberal democracies by which capitalists continue on in their exploitation with much protest but little action.

Differences are, but the Same is what will come. Unlike the Same that comes before and tames the Other in Levinas, it is the Other with is and the Same is worked toward, the Same which is also called equality. Ultimately for Badiou, the ‘ethics of the other’ degenerates into a way of keeping things unequal, while the truth that we must strive for is that we are all equal, we are all the Same in our humanity.

questions for further reflection:

So how should those who believe ‘God is’ respond?
Should we herald Levinas’ return of ethical discourse to the religious?
Can we agree with Badiou while still claiming ‘God is’?

Leave a Reply