Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Some thoughts on Simon Critchley and non-violence

I was at conference recently where Simon Critchley was the keynote. He was funny and engaging, the opening line was "Slavoj Zizek has been telling lies about me." The presentation itself was uneven, and clearly still very much a work in progress. It was also mostly a polemic against Zizek, focusing on their differing views of violence. And, I want to make three points here on Critchley's view of violence both in the speech he gave, and also in Infinitely Demanding.

(1) For some, still unexplained reason, Critchley associates anarchism with non-violence. I don't know why, considering most historical anarchist leaders are not exactly pacifists. Someone got to ask him this question at the speech, and his response was less than satisfying (as a matter of fact, he gave no reason why anarchism was connected to non-violence, and leninism to violence). He argued that there was a difference between (and here I wish I had written down his original terms) individual anarchism and ethical anarchism based on community. And, Critchley is concerned with promoting ethical anarchism. I want to return to this point below.

(2) Critchley was also concerned to change his views on violence since he wrote Infinitely Demanding. He has decided that non-violence cannot be absolute, but rather it has to be a guideline. Non-violence, thou shalt not kill, is not universal just usual, but sometimes an exceptional circumstance demands violence. Critchley is aware that this word exceptional draws to mind Schmitt, but didn't spend any real time answering what the problem might be, here. It seems to me that this brings decisionism in through the back door, and that is probably the worst way to bring decisionism in. If any of you are familiar with William Rasch's book on Schmitt, Sovereignty and Discontents, I think he makes this argument very effectively there. Orders that pretend that the political no longer exists become harder to contest. And remember your Schmitt, it isn't that violent acts are necessary for the political, but that the possibility that violence is necessary is what guarantees the political. Those orders that refuse the violence inherent in the political are all the more violent in trying to defend peace. If non-violence is a guideline, then who decides when the exceptional case presents? Who decides when violence is necessary? If one argues that each individual has the power to decide, than each individual is sovereign. And we are right back to the individualist anarchism, and we have failed to think an ethical anarchism. The question of decisionism needs to be confronted directly.

(3) Critchley also said that the acts of violence must give us shame. Now, as I said above, this talk was in work as he gave it, so I don't know how much importance should given this word "shame," but let's take it seriously for a bit. I'm not sure, first of all, what use shame is in thinking through an ethical system. I feel that shame brings in through the back door idealism. Shame is only a grounding in a ethics, if that ethical system is an idealist one. If Nietzsche teaches us nothing else, one assumes he has taught us this. If the question of decisionism remains with us, so too does a question of idealism.

He might have answers to all of these points, but I would be interested in finding out. The projects of ethical anarchism and non-violence are projects I have a lot of sympathy for, but sometimes sympathy isn't enough.