There's a great comment stream at Long Sunday right now, following a post by Jodi Dean on Simon Critchley's new book, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. I'm finding it thoroughly enjoyable in part because it's turned into a discussion of Levinas's positioning vis a vis the ethical and the political (a topic I can't stay away from), but mostly because it's such a pristine example of one of my very favorite pastimes, shooting from the hip with definitive opinions about books that I haven't actually read. Jodi begins by admitting that she's only skimmed the book before skewering it in her post, and the discussion that follows is full of admissions of not having read it, but . . ., haven't read the book but have seen him lecture recently and . . ., and so on. You gotta love (and recognize and, in my case at least, identify with) it . . . .
Anyway, having put in my two bits on the Levinas issues in the comments there, I will join the fray of uninformed opiners over here. Jodi begins by noting that Critchley's argument begins with the question of political motivation ("The basic argument builds from Critchley's particular version of Levinasian ethics as a motivation for a political response to the present"), but then leaves that aside (she says she'll have more to say about it later, which I look forward to) in favor of a critique of Critchley's (substantive) anarchist political stance. I can't argue with Jodi's critique -- since I haven't read that far in Critchley's book yet -- but, having gotten as far as the introduction (really -- I even finished it!), I want to defend Critchley insofar as he begins with the question of political motivation. In particular, I agree with him that "modernity itself has had the effect of generating a motivational deficit in morality that undermines the possibility of ethical secularism," that "[w]hat is required . . . is a conception of ethics that begins by accepting the motivational deficit in the institutions of liberal democracy, but without embracing either [what Critchley calls] passive or active nihilism," and that "[w]hat is lacking at the present time of massive political disappointment is a motivating, empowering conception of ethics that can face and face down the drift of the present." Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the substantive political stance that he grows from this beginning, I applaud him for framing the fundamental problem in terms of motivation.
What does "motivation" mean in this context? Well, I don't know what Critchley means exactly, since, uh, I haven't actually read the book (he does say the fundamental question is "How does a self bind itself to whatever it determines as its good?" in the introduction, at least). But that won't stop me from speculating that he means something like the "ethical injunction" that Derrida posits in Adieu to Levinas which enjoins a political decision without, however, in any way determining the content of that political decision. "Political motivation" would thus be the quasi-transcendental, ethical condition not only of possibility but of necessity for the political decision. I would also read into this notion of "political motivation" Derrida's discussion of the ethical relation to alterity as the moment of disjunction that rends the present and demands, in every moment, (inevitably violent, from the perspective of ethics) political action as redemption of past violence (in Specters of Marx, the section about Heidegger's "Anaximander Fragment"). In that sense, the notion of "political motivation" that I have in mind (and who knows, maybe Critchley does, too!) is also the transcendental condition of possibility/necessity of temporality and history as well. I'm sorely tempted to continue speculating in this vein -- I have some ideas about where, why and how Critchley goes wrong, if he goes wrong, in the substantive political stance draws from all this -- but perhaps I'll read a few more pages first . . . .