In this short book, Critchley offers a pithy account of his ethics. The occassion for it is what he perceives to be the nihilism--both passive and active--that dominates today's world. His diagnosis is precise: today's liberal democracy is crippled by a "motivational deficit," "where citizens experience the governmental norms that rule contemporary society as externally binding but not internally compelling." It is this motivational deficit that gives religious fundamentalism its appeal. Thus Critchley's project is to offer an account of "ethical experience" that would overcome this motivational deficit--not necessarily to save liberal democracy but much more to save politics as such.
To Critchley's credit, he has identified a real problem, and he has offered a path toward a solution. However, I ultimately felt that his solution fell short. Let me outline my problems with Critchley's account of ethics.
For Critchley, ethical experience is a confrontation with a demand, issued by the other, which calls for our approval. That this demand comes from an external other is unclear, since Critchley suggests that it is our own conscience that issues this demand while simultaneously relying on Levinas's account of the other's face. In any case, the approval of this demand is what constitutes subjectivity, thus subjectivity is primarily ethical. For Critchley, the demand ultimately exceeds us, and infinitely so. Thus the demand calls for a sustained approval. In this way, the demand splits the subject--never allowing it to reach authentic self-identity. Two results are possible. First is tragic: we are crushed by the infinity of this demand. Second--and Critchley's position--is humor: we are able to laugh at our own finitude. In either case, this ethical experience supposedly provides the existential force needed to overcome the motivational deficit.
My problem is not so much with the idea of an infinite demand (this is a problem too) as it is with the idea such a demand can provide motivational force. How does Critchley ensure that the infinite demand of the other will not lead to nihilism? I know full well that I cannot equal the infinite demand placed upon me and so either a) I crush the other in an outburst of ressentment or b) I give up or worse do not try in the first place. How does humor provide any remedy? Couldn't humor act as ideological therapy? I give up trying to meet the other's demand (or even simply fake it), and then I laugh at myself thereby comforting myself? I am thinking here of Zizek's critique of laughter in Sublime Object of Ideology and Zupancic's critique of the funny in Odd One In.
It seems to me that there is an insurmountable gap between what Critchley calls ethical experience and what he calls politics of resistance. Isn't this why he ends his book with some words of encouragement? If confronting the infinite demand of the other is enough, then why not stage such a confrontation to end the book? Why instead give us a pep talk about how we are all alone?
What seems to be missing in Critchley's analysis is the role of desire. What Lacan (I am at odds with his interpretation of psychoanalysis also, especially his suggestion that the analyst plays the role of super ego--an idea that is ego-psychological in origin, not Lacanian or even Freudian) ultimately contributes is that moral law is involved in a dialectic with desire--thus, moral law is able to bind us to it by inciting desire, but the incitation of desire is precisely what moral law tells us we are guilty of. What politics needs is not an account of ethical experience but of desire. How does politics get us to desire? That is the question I think should be asked.
Critchley also overlooks the role of guilt. In his account, he suggests that there is another possibility for the Super Ego, that instead of acting punatively to the subject, it could act as a good father (whatever that is). But what he overlooks is how the Super Ego does not punish us for betraying the law. Rather, it punishes us for obeying the law. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud claims that the super ego operates by taking unused libidinal energy and turning it upon the ego--however, by obeying the law, we leave unexpended energy. Thus, by obeying the law, we provide the material that the super ego will use against the ego. How, then, does Critchley suggest that trying to approve of the other's demand will not crush us? Well, the super ego turns comedian. But again, I think this turns into nihilism. For, taking the same logic, the super ego's humor will be fed by unused libidinal energy, which will build up in our approving. But such energy will also be stockpiled by simply not trying to approve anymore. Thus the kind super ego will forgive us with humor when we no longer care about the other's demand. Again, motivational deficit.
I have heard that Zizek has taken up this book (I have not yet read Zizek's review). So, by that alone, I am sure this book will be widely read. Critchley is a formidable thinker himself. So again on that score it will be read. Ultimately, despite my criticisms, I recommend that other read this book, if for nothing else but to come to your own conclusions.